In search of a sunset, I found serenity, too

City sunset
View from the city.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I drove away from the city to get a country view of a Shenandoah sunset. I came away with so much more than picturesque photos.

I had taken several sunset shots near our daughter’s home in the Virginia valley that is the result of ancient geologic folding. I wanted a different backdrop. I decided to head for a friend’s childhood home.

After I had dropped off my oldest grandson at baseball practice, I drove a few miles south and west of the city that is rapidly sprawling far beyond it’s historic downtown. My friend, Ava, had moved to Ohio last year. She said she remembered people stopping to take pictures of the views opposite her home.

Veiw west
On Ava’s family farm.
Ava had given me perfect directions to her old place. I found it well before sundown, which gave me time to check out the area, and take a few photos first.

Ava was right. The panorama alone was stunning. This high spot on a gently rolling ridge opened up nicely to the west. The sun glowed above the Alleghenies miles away.

I sent her a text with a photo of the evening’s western landscape. Ava’s reply caught me by surprise.

Despite all the years she had lived there, Ava didn’t have a sunset photo from that perspective. Her family’s religion forbade owning a camera. I didn’t know that, however.

In her words, Ava said it was a precious vista that hemmed the western range of her formative years. It was the scene she saw as she walked to the school bus, gather the mail and drove the buggy to church. The foothills, valleys, and mountains served as a geographic security blanket for her.

Ava profusely thanked me for the photos that brought back so many poignant memories. Capturing and sharing that setting generated a heartwarming story that dearly warmed me far more than the fiery sunset.

Tractors whizzed in and out the long lane of the family farm. Wagonload after wagonload of chicken manure got spread on the sloping fields while the sun blazed away behind the distant foothills and aged mountains.

My senses were conflicted. What I saw thrilled me. What I smelled I just endured until dark.

Dancing sunset
Dancing rays.
As I was about to leave, a young man on one of the tractors stopped on his return trip to the barn. A young boy and younger girl flanked the ruddy driver. The farmer wanted to know if I was taking the photos for my own use.

I nodded in the affirmative. He seemed startled when I asked him if this was the old Shank place. He confirmed what I already knew.

We chatted some more, and I told him that I knew Ava. Likely cautious of a stranger, he just smiled broadly and nodded in return without saying that Ava was his aunt. She told me that later. Ava was as thrilled that I had met one of her kin as she was with the photos I had sent.

I had gone in search of a friend’s homestead and a different view of the sunset. I succeeded on both counts. But that’s not what made the evening extraordinary.

Every sunset is different of course. By making these unexpected, long distant connections between an aunt and her nephew, this sundown dazzled me with more than shimmering red and orange rays.

This serendipitous interaction brought me a personal, soothing satisfaction. It was a moving encounter no camera could ever capture.

Allegheny sunset, Shenandoah sunset
Ava’s evening view.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Connecting the dots in unexpected ways

By Bruce Stambaugh

Life has a way of connecting dots in unexpected ways.

Nearly three weeks ago, our two-year-old granddaughter became ill. Her mother, our daughter, took her to the doctor on back-to-back days.

Maren by Bruce StambaughUnsure of the problem, the doctor thought it best if Maren were hospitalized for observation and tests. It was to be an overnight stay. When her fever didn’t subside, and the tests proved inconclusive, another night in the hospital was needed. Of course, we stayed in close contact with our daughter, albeit long distance via emails, text messages and occasional phone calls.

When Nana heard the news that Maren was to spend a second night in the hospital, her helper mode ratcheted into high gear. Nana hastily threw together her traveling items and headed to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where our daughter and her family reside.

I stayed behind. I had long-scheduled doctor appointments, meetings that convened only monthly, and other community commitments. Besides, I believe that too many adults in the same household at the same time can be, well, sometimes touchy, especially with youngsters.

The situation with Maren grew worse. She was transferred to a noted children’s hospital for further examination. Nana took care of our two grandsons while our daughter and her husband watched over sweet Maren.

Of course I was anxious to join them. We had previously planned on leaving for a weeklong visit with the grandkids anyhow. Maren’s illness just bumped up the trip’s urgency. But I didn’t necessarily want to have two vehicles 350 miles from home if we could help it.

Arriving home by Bruce Stambaugh
It was nice to have Maren arrive home, even though she was tired and peaked.
Being the workhorse that she is, Nana kept busy with household chores in Virginia. When the recycling piled up, she decided to take it to the recycling center. One other person was there, a middle-aged man who noticed Nana’s Ohio license plates.

The man said that he used to live in Ohio, Kidron to be exact, 12 miles from our house. The assertive person that she is, Nana asked this nice person if he happened to know of anyone coming down to Harrisonburg from Ohio on Sunday afternoon.

To her astonishment, and mine once she told me the story, the man replied that indeed he and his wife were visiting in Kidron, Ohio that very weekend and would be returning on Sunday afternoon, the exact time I had wanted to leave. He said he would be glad to have me ride along if I could find a way to Kidron.

As it turned out, my ride and I discovered we had mutual friends who lived near Kidron and who just happen to attend church with us. Our friends shuttled me to the rendezvous with this charitable couple. Like clockwork, we met up and transferred all my belongings I needed for the extended stay in Virginia from my friends’ car to my new friends’ car.

Given all the mental stress I was under, I was relieved to have someone else do the driving down the winding path to the

Feeling better by Bruce Stambaugh
Maren was glad to be home, playing and active as her strength would allow.
Shenandoah Valley. He proved an excellent driver, and delivered me right to my daughter’s door. It couldn’t have worked out better. The next day, Maren returned home, having been diagnosed with a perforated appendix, a difficult and unusual illness for a toddler.

Thanks to a common household errand and the interchange of two gregarious strangers, I got to welcome Maren and my daughter home. I am exceedingly glad those two divergent dots got connected.

This column appears weekly in the Holmes Bargain Hunter.

Staying connected is really important

By Bruce Stambaugh

It didn’t take long for our year and a half old granddaughter to warm up to me when my wife and I visited with her and her family recently in Virginia. Since we live in Ohio, we don’t get to interact with them as much as we would like.

Once Maren felt comfortable in my presence, she was fascinated with my bald head. When I bent down to her toddler level, the beautiful little girl boldly reached out and patted my baldness.

Now and then, after patting and rubbing my head, she would move her hand down, and jab her dimpled index finger into my beard. That little gesture generated an ornery laugh from the precocious Maren.

Granddaughter by Bruce Stambaugh
Poppy and Maren

It was as if she were saying, “If Poppy can grow hair on his face, why can’t he grow it on top of his head?” I’d like to know the answer to that question, too.

Maren was connecting with me inquisitively, creatively. Her affectionate patting and prodding warmed my heart. I truly felt connected.

Near the end of our extended stay in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, I attended a two-day conference entitled “Conversations on Attachment.” It was about how we humans interconnect with one another, and why it’s so important, even for bald guys.

The words of the various articulate speakers evoked mental examples of meaningful interactions with others. I felt blessed.

Here were renowned psychologists, doctors, therapists, professors and theologians providing well-researched and published theories and studies confirming what I already believed. Humans are social beings designed to be interdependent. We are intended to live in community and in close relationships. One speaker described the collective process of positively relating with others as “a shared humanity.”

Before my wife and I left for our Virginia visit, our son and his wife graciously hosted us for dinner. Knowing how well they cook, I was more than glad to accept their kind invitation in honor of our 40th anniversary.

In addition to the magnificent food, we were pleasantly surprised with the inclusion of the best man at our wedding and his wife. The couple has been lifetime best friends with us. It was an engaging evening of delightful conversation and cuisine.

Texas BBQ smoker by Bruce Stambaugh
Son-in-law, Daryl Bert, and his Texas barbecue smoker

Before leaving Virginia, our daughter and son-in-law repeated the surprise performance at our last supper there. Using his best transplanted Texan barbecue skills, we dined on smoked pork ribs and incredible grilled burgers.

Again, we didn’t feast alone. Our daughter clandestinely invited four couples we had known over the years and with whom we had oft interacted. Now they all lived near her. She also invited our niece, a fellow Virginian. Just like before, we had no idea they were coming.

They each brought their own delicious dishes to complement the meaty main course. When the scrumptious meal wound down, our daughter had the guests disclose how they knew us. As the sharing evolved, something truly amazing unfolded. Though some around the table had never met, as they listened they realized they knew some of the same people mentioned in the various stories.

Their connecting with one another generated joyous revelation. The combination of the great food, inspiring conversation and spontaneous connectivity made it a truly fulfilling gathering. We had held our own attachment conference.

The great food, lively conversing and personal discoveries around the table equated with patting me on the head and poking my beard. I couldn’t get more attached than that.

Traveling the Constitution Route, then and now

Montpelier by Bruce Stambaugh
Montpelier, home of James and Dolly Madison.
By Bruce Stambaugh

White, pink and yellow floral displays, both wild and domesticated, brightened the cold, steely overcast morning, invigorating our drive along Virginia’s historic Constitution Route.

Pastels predominated in the form of flashy forsythia bushes and clusters of buttery daffodils, showy pink magnolia petals, peach, cherry and redbud blossoms. Serviceberry bushes and flowering ornamentals showed their whites against winter’s dormant and dull remnants.

Familial signs at the gates of long lanes announced the names of many old money mansions of the sprawling plantations that now operate as horse and cattle farms all along the serpentine trail, officially known as Virginia Route 20. Mint Meadow, Gaston Hall, Hershey Hill, and Somerset were only a few of the rolling farms’ monikers.

Blooms at UVA by Bruce Stambaugh
Ornamental trees were in full bloom in Virginia.

Miles of fences, some white as the tree blossoms that kept them company, others stained soot black, still others meshed wire, lined the curvy route between Montpelier, James Madison’s home, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s architectural wonder.

Most of the meandering highway on the 40-minute drive closely followed the very route that these two founding fathers and United States presidents had traveled by horseback or carriage more than two centuries earlier.

At one of the lazy s-curves, with a greening meadow on the east side and a dense deciduous woodlot on the other, a Bald Eagle flew across in front of us. Its talons clutched a trailing tangle of leafy vines, likely the softer lining for its bulky stick nest.

Though we were traveling at a much faster pace in a much faster world, I couldn’t help but sense the history that had happened along this path and at the dignified homes we passed. Only now farmhands groomed the horses and fed the cattle instead of slaves.

Madison statue by Bruce Stambaugh
A lifesize statue of James and Dolly Madison accentuates the beautiful backyard at their historic homestead, Montpelier in Virginia.

At Montpelier, a spreading magnolia in full-bloom served as the backdrop for a life-sized bronze statue of James and Dolly Madison. Though slight in stature, both were giants in establishing the democratic and social courses for our fledgling republic.

The ingenious Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, and the meticulous Madison, the father of the Constitution, regularly rode the Constitution Route to each other’s homes to both socialize and pontificate.

To walk in their footsteps and see first hand their magnificent homes, slave quarters included, and to learn more about their magnificent minds and accomplishments was beyond inspirational. It was humbling and moving.

Exploring there was a refreshing retreat from the current turbulent and often selfish political times in which we find ourselves. Silently I wondered what these two great men would say about today’s state of affairs. At each location, the informative visitor centers helped answer that pondering.

Montpelier slave quarters by Bruce Stambaugh
Excavating the living and working areas of Madison's slaves at Montpelier is underway.

Jefferson and Madison, both learned visionaries who lived at opposite ends of the Constitution Route, were united in determining the direction the Constitution should take, that all people are created equal and endowed with specific freedoms.

Virginians will quickly point out that both men played prominent rolls in developing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Their joint influence is revealed in the law: “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” That concept was the first point Madison made in the Bill of Rights.

The two homesteads were fascinating to tour. The dedicated commitment of Jefferson and Madison to form, frame and cement certain rights, including the choice of religion sans government endorsement or coercion, made the Constitution the jewel in the crown neither president ever wanted to wear.

Monticello by Bruce Stambaugh
Thomas Jefferson's masterpiece, Monticello.

Things don’t always go as planned

Monticello by Bruce Stambaugh
Pastel blooms accented Monticello's architectural beauty.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m a planner. So is my wife.

When we arrange a trip, like we did for our 40th anniversary that we recently celebrated, we share completing the travel details. We also recognize that not everything can be foreseen.

We have come to expect the unexpected, especially in our travels. The motel room doesn’t look half as good in person as it did on the website. Highway construction forces us to take an alternate route. A storm cancels our scheduled flight.

Those examples of inconveniences can be amended. Add in the human factor, however, and unanticipated events can throw a real curveball into the most detailed itinerary.

Robert Burns immortalized this phenomenon in his poem, “To a Mouse,” when he wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” That’s what happened on our anniversary trip.

Our 11-day Virginia vacation seemed simple enough. The first couple of days we would watch our grandchildren while our daughter was away and her husband had several business meetings. We would then escape a few days for our anniversary, and finish up the trip back at our daughter’s place.

We devised all sorts of ideas to occupy the trio of grandchildren, ages six, four and one and a half. Before we left Ohio, we knew the oldest one was ill. By the time we arrived, the youngest had a double ear infection.

Obviously our activity scheme had to be altered. Baby-sitting now included health care. I did squeeze in some individual playtime with the middle child. But even that was limited due to the raw, dank weather. The south had had a harsh winter, too, and although spring had officially arrived, winter still held its heavy hand on the Virginia landscape.
Virginia snow by Bruce Stambaugh
On our anniversary morning, we awoke to four inches of fluffy white snow and the third grandchild also sick. Things weren’t going the way we had hoped.

With reservations made in the historic Charlottesville area, we reluctantly headed out, but only after the temperature warmed enough to slowly melt the snow. Knowing our son-in-law would be home to help a couple of days lessened any grandparent guilt for leaving.

We enjoyed our time away, visiting just some of the several significant places in the history of our country. The weather cleared for our visits to the architecturally amazing University of Virginia campus, picturesque Montpelier, Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, Monticello, and James Monroe’s estate.

Montpelier by Bruce Stambaugh
James and Dolly Madison's Montpelier.

Then it was off to quaint, revitalized Staunton for a night before returning to our daughter’s place further up the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. At Staunton, our plans were again derailed. The flu bug caught up to my wife, and when we awoke the next morning snow was again flying. On top of that, I wasn’t feeling the best myself.

Fortunately, the snow didn’t reach the forecasted amount. Unfortunately, our daughter let us know that she was on the way to the doctor with the four-year-old.

By the time we arrived back at our daughter’s, the kids were playing and glad to see us. Our granddaughter kept calling my name, Poppy. Poppy just wished he had felt well enough to answer her call.

Instead, after a bowl of chicken noodle soup, it was off to bed. Like much of our time away, that’s not what I had wanted or planned, an all too personal example of what poet Burns had penned.

See how they grow, the grandchildren that is

The boys and Slider by Bruce Stambaugh
Slider pounced on Evan and Davis at a Cleveland Indians game in August.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Every time I see my three grandchildren, I marvel at how much they have grown. I used to think that a lot when they lived in Texas, and we only saw them three or four times a year.

Each time we visited, whether the venue was here or there, our Texan born grandchildren showed obvious changes. One would expect that given the infrequent gatherings.

Massanutten Mountain by Bruce Stambaugh
Massanutten Mountain dominates the Shenandoah Valley at Harrisonburg, VA.

But now that they live in Virginia’s lovely Shenandoah Valley, I seem to find myself saying that to them and about them each time we see them. And compared to Texas, that’s been a lot more frequent.

Since they moved from Pflugerville to Harrisonburg in mid-June, we have been together with Evan, Davis and Maren several times already. They have been in Ohio twice, and we have driven the 350 miles southeast four times.

The visits included a couple of celebrations since two of those trips marked birthdays. In July, we finally got to party with Davis on his fourth birthday. The Texas heat always discouraged us from mid-July visits, other than when he was born of course. We wouldn’t have missed that no matter how hot it got.

On our most recent trip, we celebrated Maren’s first birthday with a host of family and friends. It was quite the party. They may be living in Virginia, but their Texas roots run deep. Maren’s daddy couldn’t forget the good things about Texas. He bought a smoker and we had ourselves some swell tasting Texas brisket with homemade barbecue sauce.

Texas Blue Bonnets by Bruce Stambaugh
A field of Texas Blue Bonnets in full bloom.

Joining in on Evan’s special day was never a problem. Flying to Texas in mid-April, when the gorgeous blue bonnets were often in full bloom, was always a pleasure.

Evan by Bruce Stambaugh
Grandson Evan on the move in a soccer game.

Now all of that has changed. Evan is enjoying first grade and is growing like a weed. He is athletic, inquisitive, assertive, and definitely knows he is the oldest of the three. In other words, he is a typical six-year old.

Davis by Bruce Stambaugh
Grandson Davis was all concentration in his soccer match.

Davis enjoys his pre-school three days a week. On our last visit, his bouncy, blonde curls had been trimmed back to manageable standards. That didn’t seem to deter getting the attention of the girls at his soccer match.

A true lefty, no lines can confine his creativity. That included drawing with red permanent marker on the new tan bedroom rug. He can be a bit moody like his Nana. Nevertheless, it is a joy to be the brunt of his silly jokes. Playing along is all a part of being a grandparent.

My favorite moment with the boys came when they spent time with us here in early August. Nana and I took them to an Indians game, where Slider, the Tribe’s fuzzy mascot, jumped the boys, much to their delight.

Maren by Bruce Stambaugh
Granddaughter Maren was all dressed for the Eagles' game in her skinny jeans and jersey.

Maren is the happiest baby I have even seen, unless of course she wants her mommy and her mommy is unavailable. Modeling might be in her future. She already poses for the camera.

By definition, Maren is really a toddler now that she has passed her first birthday. Close to walking, Maren stands by herself and never tires of pushing around the toy cart Nana bought her.

With those sparkling baby blue eyes, that constant smile and gregarious demeanor, Maren is already a knock out. At the rate she is growing up, I may be called into Virginia guard duty sooner than I think.

Maren and cupcake by Bruce Stambaugh
Since it was her first birthday, Maren wasn't too sure what to do with her first cupcake.
Maren figured it out by Bruce Stambaugh
In the end, Maren figured out what partying was all about.

Signs of fall are everywhere

Fall in West Virginia by Bruce Stambaugh
Fall had arrived along US 33 in the mountains of West Virginia.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Even before we left to visit our daughter’s family in Virginia’s lovely Shenandoah Valley, signs of fall were abundant.

Fall in Ohio's Amish country by Bruce Stambaugh
A lone horse sought shade beneath a changing sugar maple tree near Benton in Ohio's Amish country

A casual drive around the Holmes County countryside provided enough evidence to
convince even an inattentive jury. Autumn had no choice but to plead guilty as charged.

Fall’s natural arrival was indisputable. Leaves had begun their annual transformation from green to some color of the rainbow. Others, due to the late summer dryness, simply fell off the trees altogether.

The regular purr of leaf blowers had replaced the regular whine of lawnmowers, further proof that summer had succumbed to fall. Occasional columns of white smoke signaled smoldering leaf piles.

Fall weather arrived just before we left for our Virginia visit. A strong cold front pushed the warm, muggy air out, and replaced it with cloudy, rainy, cooler days and nights. The annual fall fogs had already begun making morning commutes temporarily treacherous.

Dogwood tree in the fall by Bruce Stambaugh
The subtle greens and purples of the dogwood leaves highlighted the tree's bright red berries.

In my own yard, silky green to purplish dogwood leaves accentuated the trees’ bold, bright red berries. The backyard birds weren’t too pleased with me for disturbing their feasting.

My neighbor was just beginning an early harvest of his field corn, and we had yet to have a frost. Elsewhere, other farmers still resorted to the old-fashioned and nostalgic way of picking corn. They filled their fields with row upon row of shocks, mimicking an encampment of teepees.

Picking corn in Amish country by Bruce Stambaugh
Horse-drawn corn pickers began an early harvest of the field corn.

A month ago already football had replaced baseball as the primary pastime, whether viewed from the bleachers or the couch. Back outside, squirrels scurried across the road. Some of them didn’t make it, casualty to road kill or a hunter’s sharp aim.

Long before the leaves began to change colors, autumn was being ushered in with human flare. Front porches once home to pots of impatiens, petunias and begonias were now decorated with all sizes of orange pumpkins, gold, white and crimson chrysanthemums and multi-colored and curiously shaped gourds.

Fall display of pumpkins by Bruce Stambaugh
A typical fall display found in Ohio's Amish country.

For those desiring more man-made symbols, giant ghouls and inflated spiders hanging on webs big enough to catch a bus popped up almost overnight. The business industry had also begun their annual capitalization of fall with seasonal displays and multi-media commercials.

Inventory at roadside produce stands had changed accordingly. Bound bundles of cornstalks and the aforementioned flowers and squash replaced zucchini and tomatoes.

One place banked on a narrow market share. The good folks only offered the scarce bittersweet. By the number of cars in their tiny lot, they seemed to have found their niche.

Fall festivals, often historically annual events, began to celebrate nearly every conceivable aspect of autumn. A town picked a theme, say pumpkins, apple butter, antiques, wooly worms, quilting, or just good old-fashioned fun, and the festival was on.

These endeavors were not unique to Amish country either. Large banners across the main drags of many a town on our drive from Ohio to Virginia announced their particular local event.

Fall even showed its face on menus with fresh pumpkin pie, locally grown apples sliced and dipped in yummy caramel, and of course the seasonal snack mix of candy corn and salted peanuts.

Fall sunset with geese by Bruce Stambaugh
A flock of Canada Geese cut across a fall sunset in Ohio's Amish country.

Given all these obvious signs of fall, there can be no doubt. From gardens to town squares, fall is in full force everywhere we look.