Tag Archive | vacation

A Vacation Filled with Kind Strangers

Last week Mim and I returned home from our third vacation of the year. We’re making up for the past 16 years of almost no vacations while we were doing assisted living in our home. This vacation had lessons for us to learn just as our earlier two vacations this year had.

  1. Our July vacation reminded us us that God is always watching out for us, even in the middle of a remote hay field in South Dakota, far from any cell towers, when we needed to call someone for help.

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  2. Our September vacation taught us that it’s time to pay attention to our bucket lists and begin to do some of the items on the list, like going to a conference to hear one of our favorite writers.

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  3. Our October vacation showed us that there are a lot of kind people in the world, and we need to notice them as well as to be kind to the strangers that cross our path.

Our plans for our October vacation were to take three days to drive to Cape Cod, one of our favorite vacation spots from our past; to spend four days on the Cape; and then to take another three days to drive home. We planned to pace our travel to spend one night in the Finger Lakes Region of New York so that we could have dinner and a nice long visit with Dorothy, an old friend from our Chicago years. We paced our drive home so that we could spend one night near Cleveland and have dinner and conversation with Claudia, a friend from my freshman year in college whom I hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. (We reconnected about ten years ago on Facebook.) 

Our purpose for this vacation was to simply relax and have a good time. That we certainly accomplished! We hit the fall colors at their peak. The scenery across Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts was beautiful. Most of our days were sunny and in the 60s – perfect  weather for a fall vacation.

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But the real theme for this vacation – the kindness of strangers – became apparent the first evening of the trip. We checked into our hotel in Maumee, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, about 4:30. We settled into our room and went for a walk to get some exercise. We asked the hotel clerk where we could get good, thick, juicy bar burgers for dinner. She recommended the restaurant at the Holiday Inn across the street. We walked there, and enjoyed very juicy cheeseburgers, fries, and a bottle of wine.  As we were finishing up, our waitress came over to say that our bill (about $50) had been paid for us by a man sitting at the bar. When we protested to her that there must be some mistake because we don’t know anyone around here, the man came over to our booth to explain. 

He was a veteran who said he shouldn’t be alive. But he is, so he’s determined to do nice things for others whenever he can. He said he just wanted us to pay the tip. I said we would gladly do that, but then he changed his mind, pulled out a wad of bills, peeled off two twenties, handed them to the waitress and asked if that was enough. There were tears in her eyes. Then the man sat down in our booth and motioned his two brothers to come over. He’s from New Hampshire and was meeting his brothers from Minnesota. This hotel was a good midway point for them to meet. Their father had passed away this year, and his brothers were bringing him some of their father’s antiques. 

It turns out the three brothers had grown up in Deer Creek, a very small town in central Minnesota, near where a very good friend of ours had grown up. We enjoyed visiting with the three of them until their dinners were ready. The one who paid for our dinner said that he likes to do something “to make someone’s day” every day that he can. We assured him that he had made our day, and that we would pass on the kindness to someone else.

What a start to our vacation! The real theme for this vacation had been defined: looking for strangers who were going out of their way to be kind to strangers, and watching for opportunities for us to be kind to the strangers who crossed our path.

The next day we drove to the Finger Lakes Region of New York and had a wonderful evening visiting with our friend Dorothy. She was a nurse who had served in the military in Viet Nam in the 1970s, and then settled in Chicago for several years before returning to her roots in New York. We met her through Nurses Christian Fellowship when we all lived in Chicago. 

On Dorothy’s recommendation, we started the next morning at the National Women’s Rights Historical Park in Seneca Falls, only about 20 miles from where we had stayed. This is where we experienced our second “random act of kindness” by a stranger.

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We had just finished exploring the first building of the park and were ready to leave when a bus tour of about 25 women (and a few men) started streaming through the door, which blocked our exit. One of the women on the tour introduced herself to us and invited us to join their tour for a special presentation by one of the Park Service Rangers about the history of the women’s movement. The speaker was excellent, and we learned a lot of history, enough to convince us we need to add a longer visit to this park to our bucket list.

The next stop on our trip was Sturbridge, Massachusetts. We had planned to spend most of the next day exploring Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum we had visited about 35 years ago, but we discovered after checking into our hotel that off-season hours had just gone into effect, and the museum would be closed that day. So we had to come up with Plan B.fullsizeoutput_2b82

We decided to drive to Plainfield, Connecticut, the small town where I had been a high school English teacher from 1970 – 1972, my first job out of college. We drove around Plainfield looking for the high school, and eventually found it, but the building I remembered wasn’t there. In its place was a  much larger school. As we were walking around the school taking pictures, a school bus driver came over to us and asked if we would like her to take a picture of us in front of one of the most beautiful trees. (Obviously, she was our next kind stranger!)

The second “kind stranger” to approach us that day was a security guard who came out of the school to be sure we were not there to shoot anyone or cause other mayhem. After I assured him that I was a former teacher of the school from almost 50 years ago, he explained why nothing looked familiar – that the site of the old school was now a field for track events, and that the new school had been built on the land behind it.

We hadn’t even made it to the Cape yet, and already four strangers had impressed us by their kindness. 

The pattern of running into kind strangers continued throughout the vacation – from the staff at the timeshare who went out of their way to be helpful, to the other guests at the timeshare who generously shared travel tips.

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Our timeshare was right on the ocean. We went for short morning and evening walks on the beach, but we spent the majority of our time exploring Cape Cod National Seashore.

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Then every evening we returned to our timeshare to watch the sunset over the ocean.

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On Cape Cod there’s so much to see…fLhxL7P+QliXyU283wi4Kw
And watch…iCn4lBMlRu2JyWZBRcnPtA

And hear…fullsizeoutput_2b85

And taste…fullsizeoutput_2af9

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we knew just where to go to experience all these things at their best.

The theme of the trip continued throughout our drive home. On the ninth evening of the trip we had dinner in a Lebanese restaurant near Cleveland with my college friend Claudia and her husband Ron, whom I had never met before and was therefore a stranger to us. We had a wonderful time visiting and learning more about how we each had spent the last fifty years. And the stranger, Ron, paid for the dinner. Not quite the same situation as the first dinner paid for us by a kind stranger, but definitely a continuation of the theme of this vacation.

fullsizeoutput_2b45The last night of the trip we stayed in Chesterton, Indiana near the Indiana Dunes National Park. The owner of the hotel was the final kind stranger of our trip. After being sure he gave us the best room possible to meet our needs, he gave us detailed directions about what roads to take to get to the Park Welcome Center and where to go once we got there.

Thanks to him we were able to get a good overview of the Park in the very short length of time we had to explore it.

The first night of this vacation set the tone for the whole trip – the kindness of strangers.

As I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness the last couple weeks, I remembered a book I read a few years ago, The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless across America by Mike McIntyre. The book was written by a journalist who hitch-hiked across America without a penny in his pocket. He wanted to see whether or not he would find kindness in strangers who might help him on his journey. The book consists of forty short chapters. Each one tells the story of an encounter with a stranger who showed him kindness in some way. It was a fascinating book.

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I wrote a blog post about this book and a couple other books on the theme of kindness in December 2016. Here’s the link.

The best thing that veteran in Maumee, Ohio did for us the first night of our vacation wasn’t paying for our dinner. It was reminding us to be kind to one another, especially to strangers.

But the best part of this vacation was coming home again, as always. Floey was so glad to see us that she crossed her paws and listened to us tell her all about our adventures. She couldn’t take her eyes off us.

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Vacation Needed!

fullsizeoutput_200d“Hey, Mom, we need to talk. These last few weeks have been very different. You and Mim went away on vacation and you didn’t take me along. Instead you sent me away to stay with a couple different friends. Why did you do that? I don’t understand. Why did you go on vacation?” Floey looked up at me with a very puzzled expression on her face.

“I guess it’s time for a long talk about vacations. But first, tell me about your time staying with your friends. You had a good time with your friends, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. Denise is one of my favorite people. And her husband Steve, and their grandkids are fun people to spend time with. They fed me really well and they let me chase rabbits in their yard. I had a great time living with them for a few days, although I missed you and Mim. And then after a few days they took me over to Peggy’s place. I really like Peggy and her two dogs Buddy and Quincy. And Peggy’s sister Bridie was there too. I had a really good time playing with all four of them for several days. But it would have been better if you had come with me, and we all could have had a good time together. Why did you go away? That’s what I don’t understand.”

“Floey, you have lived with us for almost five years, and you have never had the opportunity to learn about vacations. We used to take a one- or two-week-long vacation every year. But when we started doing assisted living in our home, about 20 years ago, we had to stop taking vacations. That was too bad, but necessary.”

“But why do you have to go away on vacation?” Floey asked.

“Vacations are important to our mental and spiritual health as well as to our physical health. Vacations allow us to escape completely from our daily routines. We learn to approach activities and challenges from a totally different perspective. On the third day of our vacation, on Saturday, we faced a significant challenge.”

“Oh, no. Tell me about it, Mom. Were you OK?” Floey looked quite concerned.

“Well, Floey, do you know why we took a road trip to North and South Dakota for this vacation?”

“I think you were going to a wedding out there, right?”

Mim baby pic adj“You’re right. Mim spent the first six years of her life in the Dakotas. Her dad was a Lutheran pastor and served four small country churches on the far northwestern edge of South Dakota. On Christmas and Easter he went to all four churches to lead worship services, a circuit of over a hundred miles on dirt roads. On normal Sundays, he alternated churches, leading worship at two churches each Sunday. Mim’s family has maintained close friendships with some of these church families over the decades since they left in 1953. Several months ago Mim received an invitation to the wedding of the grandson of one of their closest friends, the Howe family. We decided to plan our first vacation “in retirement” around this wedding. The wedding venue was to be the Howe Hereford Ranch, which spans the North and South Dakota border on the western edge of the two states. We took two days to drive the 950 miles out there, and stayed at the Tip Top Motel in Hettinger, ND, the town closest to the ranch, about 30 miles away by mostly gravel roads.”

“That was a long drive for just a wedding, Mom.”

“But it was a really special wedding, Floey. Mim got to see family friends she hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. When we still lived in Chicago, Mim and I took some summer vacation road trips to Hettinger, bringing Mim’s mom along with us, so she could visit with her many friends. But we haven’t been back to the Dakotas since Mim’s mom had her stroke in 1993.”

“Well, I guess the wedding was a good chance to see a lot of those old family friends. But tell me more about your vacation, and more specifically your challenges,” Floey urged.

fullsizeoutput_29d3“On Saturday morning we drove from the Tip Top Motel to the ranch to be sure we remembered how to find it. We got there about 11:30 and found the ranch buzzing with activity. Dozens of family and friends were hard at work getting everything ready for the 5:00 wedding – putting centerpieces on the tables in the barn for the reception, setting planks on top of bales of hay in the closest pasture for seating a couple hundred guests for the wedding ceremony, preparing salads in the ranch house kitchen, ironing the groomsmen’s vests in the living room, etc. We found Avis, the groom’s aunt in the kitchen, and we asked her for directions to Golden Valley Church – the country church where Mim had been baptized almost 72 years ago. We had packed a picnic lunch for ourselves before we left the motel in Hettinger. Our plan was to try to find the Golden Valley Church and have a picnic there. We had most of the day for exploring, with the wedding not being until 5:00.

fullsizeoutput_29d1“Avis gave us directions and warned us to be careful. They had received a lot of rain earlier in the week. She thought we could get through, but she wasn’t sure. We drove several miles over gravel roads when we saw the little white church on top of a hill. We turned off onto the dirt road. About a mile up that road we saw some muddy ruts ahead of us, but it looked like another car had driven around the dip in the road and continued up the road. We decided to try the same thing. Bad decision! We were promptly stuck in the mud, and we couldn’t drive out. We were good and stuck!”

“Oh no, Mom. What did you do?” Floey looked worried.

“Mim was driving and she felt awful. The only people we knew we could call for help were the groom’s family, people who were already as busy as they could be with wedding preparations. I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket to see if I had Avis’ phone number. I read it to Mim, who used her trusty old flip phone to call. Charlene, the groom’s mother, answered the landline phone in the ranch house. She said not to worry. She’d find someone to come tow us out. Meanwhile, Avis heard about our predicament and called Barb at a neighboring ranch, closer to Golden Valley Church. Avis called us back to tell us that Barb and her son, Brandon, were on their way to tow us out.”

“Wow. They sure seem friendly out there. Then what happened?” Floey wanted to hear the rest of the story.

“We decided to eat our picnic lunch in the car while we waited for out rescuers. As soon as we finished eating, a pick-up truck pulled up behind us. Barb and Brandon hopped out of the truck and I got out of the car.”

“What about Mim?” Floey asked.

Version 2“She stayed behind the wheel. She was wearing sandals and was afraid she’d get stuck in the muddy ruts just outside her car door. Then Brandon got a rope and a hook from his truck and hooked the back of our car to the front of his truck. Mim put the car in reverse and Brandon pulled the Prius backwards out of the mud. When on the hard and dry dirt road, Mim stepped out of the car, and the four of us stood and talked for about 15 minutes. Then Brandon directed Mim how to turn the car around safely on the dirt road (between a corn field and a hay field), and stayed till we were headed in the right direction to get back to the ranch. Then Barb and Brandon left. They also had to get home to get ready for the wedding.”

“They really were helpful strangers, Mom.”

fullsizeoutput_29d9“Yes, they were. We ended up sitting with Barb and Avis at the reception, and really enjoyed getting to know Barb better. But that’s getting ahead in the story. Mim still wanted to see Golden Valley Church, so we walked almost a mile up the hill to the church. It wasn’t locked, so we could go inside to fully explore the sanctuary, the basement kitchen, and the cemetery out back. Mim recognized several of the names on the gravestones. The church no longer has an active congregation, but the building is on the National Historic Registry. Former members of the congregation, including Avis and Barb, try to keep the building in quite good shape, and it’s still occasionally used for weddings and family gatherings.”

“After all that, did you get back in time for the wedding?”

“After exploring the church, we walked back to the car, and then drove as fast as we dared on dirt and gravel roads to get back to the motel in Hettinger to get cleaned up and dressed for the wedding. We arrived back at the ranch by 5:05, almost in time for the 5:00 wedding. Fortunately, the wedding started closer to 5:30 than 5:00.”

“Were you ever lucky the wedding started a little late!”

fullsizeoutput_29d7“Yes, we were, Floey. Mim actually drove the 55 mph speed limit on those gravel roads to the ranch – something I was sure she’d never do! It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day for the wedding. The ushers handed us each a bottle of water as they ushered us to the hay bale seating. It was a big, beautiful wedding with six bridesmaids and six groomsmen, plus a flower girl and a ring bearer. After the ceremony, we strolled leisurely back to the barn for the reception. As we talked with other guests, we quickly learned that our reputation had preceded us. We were the two women from Wisconsin who had gotten stuck in the mud up by Golden Valley Church earlier in the afternoon. What everyone was talking about was that we actually got cell service out in the fields. That was unheard of for that area. It had never occurred to us that our cell phones might not work out in the middle of nowhere. Everyone we talked with agreed that God was watching out for us. Somehow God must have kept some angels very busy boosting the signals to and from the cell towers.”

fullsizeoutput_29d8“Really? Do you believe that, Mom?” asked Floey.

“Sure. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense, Floey. That’s what I meant when I said vacations enable us to think about different things, and to see things from different perspectives. Without all the daily distractions and constant interruptions that we try to block out at home so that we can keep focused on our usual routines, on vacation we don’t have to protect our routines. We can more easily see and think about how God is taking care of us, both through the actions of strangers and possibly even through some occasional divine intervention. That’s why vacations are important.”

“I think I see,” Floey responded.

“We have more examples of God watching out for us on this vacation – like when we were approached by a wild buffalo as we picnicked in Teddy Roosevelt National Park – but I think you get the idea…”

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The Joy of Being a Piece of the Puzzle

iStock_000017949838XSmallI’m drafting this blog post on Thursday morning. I plan to post it on Tuesday, my usual day for posting to WhisperingWindsBlog.com. I’m writing this post so early because I plan to spend a few days at our Christmas Mountain timeshare, and I want to spend my time reading, walking, and putting together a picture puzzle, not writing. I want to simply relax.

For that past 14 years that Mim and I have been doing assisted living in our home, most of our vacations have been taken separately, so that one of us is almost always at home to be able to care for our residents. We’ve learned that the most enjoyable way for us to take separate vacations is to go to a nearby timeshare, splitting the week between us. This time, I’ll go to Christmas Mountain Sunday afternoon. Mim will meet me for lunch on Wednesday and then I’ll go home, and she’ll stay at Christmas Mountain till Saturday morning.

Putting together a picture puzzle is something that relaxes me, and I often do one at Christmas Mountain. As a child, putting together a puzzle was an activity I often did with my grandma. She always had a card table set up in her living room with a puzzle in progress. We spent many hours together enjoying each other’s company as we worked on this shared task.

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Grandma and me in her living room, playing with her cat. I don’t have a picture of us working on a puzzle.

As I was thinking about which picture puzzle to take with me to Christmas Mountain this time, my mind wandered to an email I received a couple weeks ago from Tracy, a friend from church. Although she didn’t use these exact words, she marveled at how we are all pieces of a big puzzle that God is putting together. We may not know exactly how we fit into the big picture, but God does. Let me provide the background of our email correspondence.

For the past several years, our church (Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, WI) has published a booklet of Lent Devotionals – 47 one-page reflections, each written by a member of Messiah. Catherine Puisto, Coordinator of Children’s and Family Ministry, has led this annual project, and has done an amazing job with it. Middle schoolers, teenagers, and adults all contribute their writings. Mim and I look forward to getting the booklet each year, and we usually pick up a few extra copies to share with some of our friends.

IMG_0929The devotional for Maundy Thursday, March 24, was written by Tracy Frank. The verse she was assigned to reflect on was Mark 14:34. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’”

I’ve read the story many times about Jesus going into the garden to pray just before his arrest and crucifixion, and how he asked his disciples to stay awake with him during this agonizing time of trial, and how they fell asleep. But, I’d never thought about the event quite the way Tracy wrote about it. Here’s part of her reflection:

Who is grieving? Are we awake?

In the story of the life of our Savior, Jesus agonizes over His coming death with deep grief and sorrow. He calls on his friends to stay with him and keep awake for he knows what is coming. The disciples, not understanding the depth of his sorrow, fall asleep and cannot be trusted to be there for him. Can you and I be trusted to keep awake for Jesus?

Everyone around us has a story and many people have stories of deep, deep grief. I can’t imagine the grief held by a woman whose 12 year old son was shot dead by police while playing with a toy gun in a park, or the grief of parents running with their children from their home country because of war, or the grief of a mother whose newborn child has a disease with a diagnosis of only months of life. We live among this kind of pain yet sometimes we don’t respond to the calls of God to live fully awake. …

As Christians we are to trust that God can transfigure grief into joy and we are called to offer grace and compassion to those in pain. …

Maundy Thursday, the day I read this reflection, was a day I was scheduled to play the piano for the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail. During the time of testimony when we go around the circle and share what’s on our mind loosely related to the Scripture we have just read, I shared Tracy’s reflection – that God has asked each of us to be on the watch for others who are grieving or struggling through difficult circumstances so that we can support them in their time of need.

One of the inmates seemed to be particularly teary that day, and everyone seemed very attuned to her, as well as to what I was saying. I later found out from the chaplain that the teary woman had just found out the day before that her brother had been killed, and she was in the depths of grieving that loss. The women sitting in our worship circle could easily identify with being asked by Jesus to sit together in support of this woman who was grieving.

The next day I emailed Tracy to tell her how her reflection had been used. She responded with, “Thank you for sharing Marian. Could have never guessed when I wrote it that it would be shared in this way. Thankful that God used the thoughts from my heart to connect to women at the Dane County Jail through your words and sharing. Humbled!”

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Pieces of God’s puzzle. That’s what came into my mind as I thought about picture puzzles today. We may not have a clue about how we fit into someone else’s life story, but God knows just how we all fit into the big picture.

Yes. I agree with Tracy. It’s very humbling. And sometimes a source of great joy. I’m glad to be a piece of the same puzzle as Tracy, and Catherine, and Chaplain Julia, and Mim, and my grandma, and you, and everyone else who has touched my life…

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