My 5K Phase to Walking Days

February, 2011

Another 5K this chilly February morning….the Polar Bear Run!  Twenty-five degrees is COLD anywhere, but not too often does it dip this low in Georgia. “What’ll we wear to run in below-freezing weather?” my sister Karen and I whine. This is our fourth race. We’re feeling more confident being members of the "runner world." We know the routine of checking in, warming up, pacing ourselves. We really just want the motivation, the camaraderie of other folks in our over-50 age group. We layer up and wear hats, scarves and gloves. However, our toasty Nanook of the North style clashes with everyone else’s body-hugging, fashionable-looking warm clothes. A few minutes into the race, our pace slows as we unzip, untie and take off our jackets. I stuff my gloves and Kleenex into pockets and sleeves, looking disheveled but able to move much faster now!

After doing years of Zumba, yoga, morning runs and nature hikes together, we realized one day in 2009 we could easily do a 3.1 mile race….no problem. We saw a poster for a “Trail Run” at the local high school and excitedly sent in our $25 registration. The form asked for the usual information...including our ages, but we had no clue what our time/level/capability was. But we had to put something in the red-starred box; if we could sometimes run a 12-minute mile, should we put in 36 minutes? Did we want to seem fast and be in the front of the pack? Hell no. We rounded it to 40 minutes, hoping we’d be placed in the middle at least. But Karen and I really had no idea what we wanted, or what we were getting into. No big deal we told each other….this will be fun! We can do this!

As we parked in back of the school, we noticed the crowd gathering in a weed-high field. Yikes! We nonchalantly wound our way to the registration desk, careful not to trip over ruts and gnarled chunks of dead grass.  Still acting cool, we held the shoe clip in one hand and our paper number in the other trying to figure out where and how to fasten them. As we pretended to stretch and compare numbers, two good-looking guys offered to lean down and “do our shoes.” My sister said “oh, that’s okay, we can do it” while I sputtered, “Oh, thank you so much. This is our first time”as Karen shot me daggers. Not only did they attach it, they explained how Chip Timers recorded our time. Next, they asked if we’d grabbed safety pins from the registration desk. Ahhhhh, no. “You mean there’s an electronic device on our shoes but we still use four safety pins to attach the race number?” I asked, sounding indignant. I ran back and grabbed some, getting a little nervous as the clock moved closer to the 8:00 start time. Meanwhile, my sister enjoyed the company of both young men who were using their "help the old first-timer" manners, I’m sure.

December, 2009; our first 5K...sorta!
The warning horn sounded for runners to line up and we complied; taking each other’s picture to show our official race numbers. A friendly spectator took our photo together, commenting on how hard it was to run in woodsy terrain. Wait, what did that mean?  And there we were….laughing and kidding around….just as the GO horn blew and the camera snapped us!  It was only a matter of seconds, but as we turned around and realized what was happening it was surreal. Could we be any more obvious? We took off feeling foolish, very un-cool and totally discombobulated. We couldn’t believe we were expected to run on a rough, rocky, tangled trunk-rooted trail.  These trails are to be hiked carefully we told other would-be runners…that’s why they make hiking boots. No one paid any attention as they hurried past us.  Little did we know that a Trail Run meant a high level performance race for serious, experienced, win-the-medal-athletes. It was all in the fine print we discovered later. Everyone was swiftly passing us with their feet barely brushing the ground while we fretted about twisting an ankle. It was close to an hour and we knew we were way behind.  Luckily we saw an escape route off to the side where family members were cheering. We hurried past them and headed straight to the car. Our heads may have hung in defeat and disappointment, but we burst into giggles as soon as we left the lot. It was the funniest thing ever. The picture says it all….and every time we tell the story we probably embellish it a bit.  It was out first attempt, but not our last. We were hooked!

January, 2010

A month later, we did the early morning New Year’s Day Race through constant drizzle; but this time it was held on paved, blocked-off streets. We were better prepared and motivated to get it done in 40-45 minutes. As usual, Karen finished ahead of me; I sometimes had to walk a few minutes. But we achieved our goal; less than an hour. Chilled and drenched, I looked pretty unhappy just strolling across the finish line. But I must have run most of it, my time was 46 minutes.

April, 2010
By spring we were motivated again and registered for a church-sponsored 5K. However, April in Georgia can be quite hot. And the route was NOT a blocked-off street; but a nearby residential neighborhood called Rolling Hills….or it should have been called that.
Hot and hilly is not easy; I accepted the shuttle ride up a half-mile high hill. Because of my age…..which I’m sure the computer printout highlights in yellow…..race officials seemed to know whom to keep an eye on. But there were younger, out-of-breath people also on that shuttle. I told myself it was wise; I wanted to live another day to dance in Zumba class! Getting out and running downhill was a breeze and I clocked in at 47.31 minutes.....thanks to cheating.

With a mix of sister rivalry and encouragement, we continued our outdoor and gym activities the rest of the year. Thirteen years younger, Karen says she wants to keep in shape like me as she grows along. In turn, she gets me to try new things. Kayaking, climbing Stone Mountain, swimming laps, weight training are things I might have missed if it wasn’t for her. Although we walked, ran and rode our bikes frequently, we didn’t think about another race until the following February.
We noted our times; but after awhile they weren’t that important. We liked bettering ourselves and the high we got from accomplishing something difficult.

 Shortly after the Polar Bear Race, we discussed Atlanta’s famous Peachtree Road Race! We looked up 10 kilometers and knew we could do 6.2 miles if we put our minds to it. There's a random drawing for this race and wouldn’t you know we were accepted. OMG…this was big time! Scary big-city-crowd big time!  An eight-week training course was offered in our area, so every Saturday in May and June we ran/walked 6 miles with team leaders ahead and behind us. In June it can be 80 degrees first thing in the morning; that was the point….how to stay hydrated and pace ourselves in heat. We learned from speakers and videos and doctors as well as on different practice routes. Clocking it in my car one day, I couldn’t believe it….no one walks six miles to the mall, the new high school or the Greenway! One Saturday I just couldn't do it; worn out, I wanted to bail. I called my husband after four miles or so and asked him to come get me. He said no. I was probably in tears at that point, but forever grateful afterward that he said no. I soldiered on and made it back to the starting point!

My first and only 10K, July 2011
The Peachtree is held on the 4th of July. NO ONE goes downtown that day unless you’re in it…..or there to cheer someone on! Jim and my kids, my sister’s kids…..they all said “No thanks. Have fun, hope you survive!” There’s a steep climb along this race route referred to as Heartbreak Hill due to heart attacks over the years. Survival jokes aside, we’d practiced on hills and felt confident we could handle it. Karen finished before me again, but finishing within two hours was my goal and I did it in 1.54! I felt pretty proud as I realized there were still folks behind me with at least a mile to go before they’d sleep!

"That’s it," we said. "We have done the Peachtree!" After 28 years in Georgia, we’d done the Peachtree. We didn’t need to spend another dime on a race when we could just walk around the parks and trails in our northern suburban community. With a family history of heart disease, we’d improved our strength and endurance as well as pleased our cardiologist!

My sister, now the manager at a senior center and close with city leaders, coaxed me into doing one more 5K…the Mayor’s Race in the winter of 2013. Layered up and wearing the blue ‘lucky’ scarf my niece had made me, we arrived in the dark and drank free cups of coffee as we waited for a 7:00 start time. After the Peachtree, we’d lost the urge to RUN a whole damn race….jogging had become our gait of choice.  Karen took off eagerly, and I waved her on ahead; deciding to just walk and breathe this time. I missed my loud, motivating music and wished I’d brought my ear buds along.  This route was a tree-lined boulevard, down one side and up the other to the finish line. At about the 2.8 mile marker, I stopped, held onto a tree and did a few knee lifts to ease my tightening legs. A police cruiser stopped and the driver asked if I was okay. I assured him I was and jogged onward. But my left leg kept cramping and I worried about stumbling. As the officer drove by again, he stopped and waved me over. Oh God…so cute, so young, so sweet. “How about I give you a lift to the 3 mile marker, just before you turn the corner for that final push?” he winked.  And so…..cheater that I am, I said okay.

January, 2013
I got out of the police car and took off, one of the last to cross the line to applause and cheers. As soon as it was over, the mayor congratulated the participants and began announcing winners. Karen and I were talking and laughing in the back of the crowd as I told her about my new favorite policeman friend. She’d already greeted the mayor, so feeling tired and hungry, we decided to leave. “Joan Stommen!” said the voice over the loudspeaker. “Winner of The Over-65 Age Group; please come forward.” Karen was in stitches as I kept muttering “but I was last; I had a ride.” I received my first-ever medal and shook the mayor’s hand; all the while trying not to giggle. Turned age 69...I was the ONLY one in my age group! True story; and I now have a medal that says First Place.

Winter Blast, February, 2015 
After moving back to Michigan last summer, I  unpacked everything and hung the medal on a hook alongside my scarves and belts. It spoke to me one day last winter and suddenly I wanted to do it again.  I registered my two granddaughters, daughter-in-law and me for the Portage Winter Blast 5K. The three of them, excited about snow and cold after living on the beach in southern California for ten years, showed up to participate in this sport with Grandma. Teen girls and working moms like to sleep in on weekends, so I was touched. Maybe they came to support me and maybe I wanted to prove I could not only finish a three-mile jog/walk, but we could all have fun in cold weather.

 The 2017 Winter Blast is coming soon, but  wouldn’t you know, I’ll be out of town.  I think walking 3.1 miles in Florida sand with my girlfriends will be just about perfect!

Understanding Both Sides

 In an effort to better understand how our President-elect has such passionate supporters, I attended a meeting of local communication and community leaders a few weeks ago. I needed to grasp why voters felt he is the best to lead our country. Despite the numerous posts on social media condemning his win and the rallying of folks still upset about Clinton's loss; talking face-to-face with both sides and hearing concrete reasons helped me move away from uncertainty and move toward hope and reason for our country.

The elections are over
The circus goes on.
Trump’s in the White House
What once was is gone.

Goodness; where are you?
Can’t you hear, don’t you see?
Kindness, acceptance getting along
Is how it should be!

Suspend for a moment who won;
We should have known!
Party change every eight years,
Means deep division; unity has flown.

Identity and emotion were in play,
Policies and public service not so much.
Dislocation, economy and society
Mean folks need more than going-Dutch.

Mr. Trump resonated with just one toss;
A gigantic rock through America’s window!
Getting away with it was the new vibe…
Political incorrectness was the way to go!

Cultural differences suddenly showed
The bully monster reared its head.
Passionate supporters said he’s our man…
Now feeling discomfort and conflicted instead.

This is where I’m at now; understanding
Dear colleagues and friends.
Our opposite views doesn’t mean
Family and friendship are at end!

Policies and promises were the sideshow,
Emotion ruled the stage.
Society differences so far apart…
From nice; not-so-nice; to put‘em in a cage!

Respect for our President-elect is
Twirling and whirling one day to another.
As America reels, reaches, reacts...
Let’s keep Goodness above all other.

Moving forward means coming together
The masses now say. I needed to grasp,
Understand and not fear.  
Unity happens when hands we can clasp.

Adult Children and the Holidays...10 Tips to Ease the Stress of Sharing

Many of you have probably started shopping for gifts, made travel reservations or are busy unpacking decorations for the coming winter holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hannukah will soon be here. Have you thought about the actual day of celebration? If your adult children are married or living with significant others; whether you have grandchildren near or far….there are bound to be some question marks about where, when and with whom. After years of familiar routine, change rears its head when our kids grow up. For the past twenty years, my holidays were unpredictable and seemingly different every year. As needs arose and life interfered, I found some solutions that worked for us. Hopefully, you’ll find some soothing memory making ideas here.
  1. Remind yourself that it comes under the heading of letting go.
We raise them, send them off to college, help with wedding preparations and applaud their home and job choices. Welcoming another family member is how the empty nest begins to fill again. Our son was the first to marry and we loved the bonus of another daughter; but they married and settled in Michigan; several states away from us in Georgia. I think there was only time for a sigh of relief before it hit me…things would be different now.

 2. Respect that the newlyweds may want to host a big holiday themselves.
They married in late September and had an autumn honeymoon. The next thing we knew, they wanted to host Thanksgiving. My husband and daughter and I drove north, caught up in the excitement of the newlyweds hosting their first holiday. Having Thanksgiving dinner prepared by someone else and spending time with the other parents was a treat. But being invited back for Christmas was much harder. I didn’t like it and may have whined to my son, “please come to us, we always cut down a tree, decorate it, go to Christmas Eve Mass, get up at the crack of dawn tooogetherrrrr.” Her parents were not able to go, so my son’s pleading that their first Christmas was a really big deal touched my heart. Imagine my delight discovering he followed our same traditions; leaving milk and cookies for Santa, opening a gift on Christmas Eve, making us wait in the hallway Christmas morning until he turned on the lights and exclaimed, “SANTA WAS HERE!”

3. When it's your turn to host a family gathering, invite the son or daughter-in-law's parents.
After our daughter married and bought a home nearby, my husband and I mostly hosted holiday dinners. Our son-in-law's parents lived out of state, so when they were in town we included them as well. I never realized in those early years that the other parents would become lifelong friends.

4. Accept when you’re invited to their homes. Plans and places can change, but you’ll all be together and the kids will be all right.  Sharing a Thanksgiving with my daughter-in-law’s blended family; another with my son-in-law’s extended family….so many that a big hall was rented….were two of the best times we ever had. Your children will beam as they watch the connection of their families grow. Thirteen years ago on a lovely, snowy evening, the young couple invited their moms out for drinks after a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. As the four of us relaxed, his mom and I blurted out at the same time, “when are we getting a grandchild?” We’d held our tongues for three years so we felt entitled. I loved us being on the same page; this favorite friend I now call my “grandmother-in-law.”
5. Discuss your preferences as soon as possible before the holiday

Whether it’s religious purposes, enough space to hold everyone, who really wants to cook, travel or medical considerations; early planning will make it easier for everyone. Letters and conversations throughout the year will make the ’planners’ more comfortable in expressing their wishes. Getting to know the other family members not only makes holiday preparations easier but builds a camaraderie that can only strengthen your kids’ bond in all aspects of marriage. Here my son wanted Thanksgiving dinner in his new furniture, a makeshift table and since the dishware and napkins were still packed, paper towels worked! One of our best family gatherings ever! 

6. If you find you’ll be on your own some Thanksgiving, Christmas or other event…take off!  Don’t stay home and fume or fret; take a road trip, make reservations for holiday dinner at a nice restaurant, head to the Bahamas. There will be years when all your kids go to their in-laws or have plans with pals. My husband and I traveled to San Antonio, Texas one Christmas Day, ate dinner at a Howard Johnson and toured the Alamo. The rest of the week we took day trips and enjoyed the Riverwalk events at night. It tickled us knowing we could have a blast and never missed Christmas with the kids at all!

 7. When the grandkids finally come along! Always respect the new mother’s wishes first….especially the first year. Use common sense and again, discuss it well ahead of time. My son and daughter-in-law moved south to be near us when their first daughter was born. I felt great peace and contentment to do the holidays “my way” again; envisioning my daughter and the new little family all under our roof. But the new mom wanted Thanksgiving; hosting us and her parents from out of town. We hadn’t seen them since the wedding four years earlier and we had lots to catch up on about this new baby girl. Since we got to see our first grandchild frequently, we didn’t mind her other grandparents taking over the feeding, holding and rocking for a few days.

8. Stagger the holidays by years if all parties are acceptable. As time goes by, let your kids decide what works for them. They not only have in-laws to celebrate with but will want to host themselves some years. Some families only want Thanksgiving or Easter; others like to switch off. Open communication and flexibility is the key. Believe me….the day will come when going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house becomes the best for everyone!

9. If everyone lives close enough, stagger the times for opening holiday presents. The whole magical scene will still be there later that afternoon, the next morning or even the next week. Eighteen years ago when our first grandchild came along, I insisted Santa would come down our chimney too…and fill stockings for everyone! Needless to say, he came down every year after and I had four more stockings embroidered with each grandchild’s name. I don’t recommend this; not only can it be costly, but potentially awkward too. It was a bit sticky for my daughter initially. She and her husband wanted their own Christmas morning ritual with their children and liked having Christmas Dinner at the other grandparents’ house. We agreed to wait until the following morning to open the gifts around our tree. Seeing the delight on little faces as they ran in the door made it all worthwhile. One year we spent Christmas morning with our California family; flew home that evening and had Christmas again the next morning with our Georgia family.

10. If you’re a long distant grandparent unable to join the celebration, you can still be present. Just make sure you follow the parent’s suggestions first, then your grandchild’s request and lastly your own surprises. If you’ll miss a Thanksgiving or Easter Dinner, send things that can be included such as a candle or special prayer, inexpensive decorations, stickers or a new shirt or dress for the occasion. When I lived on the other side of the country; I’d wrap and send gifts to go under the girls' tree; then after Christmas, I’d send anything Santa had left under mine, including the filled stockings! Needless to say, we spoiled the kids and kept UPS and FedEx in business.
Now that I’m a widow and the grandchildren are getting older, it amuses me that my son and daughter now want to ‘share’ mom! The first Christmas on my own, I went to my son’s, the next year to my daughter’s. Now he’s moved nearby and would like me to join in their holiday festivities. But I don’t see my daughter’s family as often, so it’d be worth a plane ticket to their house or….I may decide to spend my holidays doing something completely different. After years of appreciating their parents’ flexibility, I’m confident they’ll both be fine with whatever I decide.

Visiting My English Roots

Mom and Tracy in a 'Brummie' cab.

 Armed with a torn map, notebooks, old addresses and cameras, my sixty-something mother, preteen daughter and I climbed into a cab outside the Albany Hotel in Birmingham, England and asked to be taken to Crocketts Road in the Handsworth neighborhood. We had flown across the pond with the Friendship Force; the first week staying with a host family outside of London, the second week on our own exploring our roots.

Sarah Rogers Bickley
Samuel Bickley
My dad’s side of the family was not what you’d call close-knit according to family bibles and tales told by uncles and aunts. Samuel Bickley, my great, great grandfather, was a machinist in a hosiery factory in Leicester when he met Sarah Rogers, his workmate’s daughter. After a short courtship, they married in 1870 and found work as pearl button finishers in Birmingham. They lived for many years at the back of 71 Garbett Street. The family grew to include six children; Harry, an opera singer, Lucy, whose husband owned the midland’s Aston Football Team, Edith,  Sarah, Alice and Samuel Thomas, my great grandfather.

My ancestor's corner store where they lived above.
June, 1984
In their later years, Sarah and Samuel became shopkeepers and lived above the store at 114 Crocketts Road…thus the reason for our visit in June, 1984. There was still a general store on that corner; the original building enlarged and renovated. We met the proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Hunt who were quite gracious in helping with our quest for information. Mrs. Hunt went a few doors down the street to get a neighbor, 82-year-old Mrs. Biddlestone, who remembered the Bickleys. She recalled her trips to the store to “buy sweets when she was a child.” 

Mom wandering the cemetery at St. Mary's
Church in Handsworth, Birmingham, England.

Our taxi driver waited patiently as we snapped photos and talked to local residents. Next we asked him to take us to St. Mary’s Church where we could search the cemetery headstones. We took photos of beautifully engraved markers; finding names related to us. Of course we tipped the driver well as he’d spent an afternoon with us, but mom also insisted on exchanging mailing addresses and giving him a big hug!

 The next day we were at it again; in another taxi driven by John Bartley. This time we rode to Victoria Street where my great, great aunts Lucy and Edith had lived across the street from each other. These street addresses had all been recorded in handwritten lists and passed down through the generations. While mom and I took photos of the old homes, the cabbie chatted with the folks walking by. He too was caught up in our mission and eager to help; sure enough an elderly man and his wife remembered our ancestors and invited us into their home! Ada and Jack Popplewell recalled that Edith and her husband owned a dairy and delivered milk along Victoria and the surrounding streets. Mom and the Popplewells kept in touch over the years and at the time I updated this family history in 1998, their granddaughter Ida was still alive and living in North Wales.

Nellie Lavinia and her three boys.
Samuel Thomas left home as a young boy, wandered the streets, worked as a brass finisher, and was a regular at the local pubs. Known as a ladies’ man, his marriage to Nellie Lavinia Warner produced three sons, but the couple soon drifted apart. He apprenticed as a fitter for the motor car industry and made two trips to Canada to pave the way for future employment. Nellie was an alcoholic and unable to care for her young boys, so they were raised by their grandparents, Samuel and Sarah.
 Samuel Thomas and his sons immigrated to America on the HMS Mauritania in July, 1914, leaving Nellie behind. She’d been institutionalized and died of pulmonary congestion the following year. Samuel found work in Detroit….most likely with the automakers and because it was similar to Birmingham’s working class society. He left the boys with three different foster families…a real father of the year!

My grandfather on the left, served in
the Canadian Army during WWI.

My grandfather, Samuel Horace, was the oldest and by age sixteen, he also took to the streets. He eventually joined the Canadian Army where he served during WWI and later met my grandmother Fanny Mae, one of twelve children and as he called her, the “prettiest of four daughters” living in Orillia, Ontario.
After they married and settled on Glastonbury Street in Detroit, Grandma and Grandpa looked for and found his younger brothers, Oliver and Harry. My dad recalled long talks with both his uncles about their different backgrounds growing up. Annual summer visits to  Uncle Harry and Aunt Sadie’s farm in St. Clair Shores continued all through my childhood.

The word farm triggers the smell of cut grass and manure, the thrill of feeling cow’s milk squirted on us, the excitement of climbing high into the barn loft and jumping into piles of hay…over and over again. The highlight of each visit was a tractor ride for us kids….and the huge farm table filled with both family and farmhands eating the huge dinner meal together.

 We were close with Uncle Harry’s three boys. Uncle Oliver had several wives and a daughter we met a few times…..but he never seemed to bond with his brothers or their families. How grateful we are that my grandfather searched for his siblings; otherwise I wouldn’t have a favorite Bickley cousin and west coast buddy today!

Family history passed down through the ages is priceless. I remember discussing the Friendship Force opportunity with my parents. Since my dad was not able to get off work, he urged my mom to go for him. So much was planned for us; touring Windsor Castle, seeing the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and living with a lovely family for a week. But walking the same streets as my ancestors and hearing stories from the past were the highlights of our trip to England. That and the letters of gratitude from the taxi drivers for the friendship pins and hugs mom bestowed on them.

Headline of Letter to the Editor I wrote
to the Birmingham Mail; printed
October 12, 1984

Igniting My Writing

With barely a spark left in me to write regular blog posts these past few months, I have been weaving words and sharing my voice. I've joined two local organizations that inspire my writing and engage my mind with continual learning.

The Reminiscence Writing Class has reawakened my interest in family history and genealogy. We were encouraged initially to write about childhood homes, fears, friends and the person or event that had the greatest influence on our young selves. Each week we stand at a podium, adjust the mic and read our stories aloud. This has been an awesome experience....this sharing aloud and opening ourselves to comments and questions. The facilitator then collects our papers; returning them the following week with encouraging suggestions and editing reminders.
The class consists of both men and women who are published authors, poets, humorists and a few reluctant writers like myself who've either had writer's block or were just too busy with life. I shared some old blog posts in the beginning, feeling safe and thinking it would help the others get to know me. I'm happy to report I am now attempting new themes. I compiled a piece called "How We Met" from old photos and tales gleaned from previous generations.

This class enjoys a good laugh, so I'm learning that a funny turn-of-phrase now and then can make a difference to my audience. We are free to write about whatever we want, and I'm in awe of those who paint pictures in my mind of a camping trip, naughty kid brothers or the funny side of being hospitalized with a serious illness....all through the wonder of  well-worded writing filled with humor.
I've gone from tales of my great-great-grandparents to sharing an old travel journal from an out-west road trip my husband and I took years ago. Not only was it funny describing the events and dialogue between us, but also full of facts I'd included for my fourth grade social studies classes. I'm growing more confident in sharing with a 'live' audience, and plan to share with my online friends as well

I'd been following InterCom's stories and meetings on local news coverage and journalistic integrity over the past year. Recognizing names from the past and intrigued by younger voices sharing new ways to feed information to the public; I was ready to attend a monthly speaker event about "Design as Communication." This is my granddaughter's field of study-Art and New Media-and she uses this phrase a lot. I met marketing folks, college recruiters, radio and TV people, magazine and news writers. Mainly a networking group for local talent, it focuses on our regional industry, educational institutions, tourism and local media. Now a member, I look forward to more gatherings with experts from the above fields. Journalism and local news is very close to my heart; it was my husband's profession. Attending a blogging conference earlier this year also helps keep my writing current and compatible with online publications. Each word we write has been written before, but the way we weave them together becomes our own creation. InterCom will hopefully take this further as I learn more about combining text and design to solve problems, inform the public and navigate both the challenge and charm of social media.
 I like learning new things and engaging with younger generations who help me navigate new techniques. Reminiscing about the good old days is the perfect balance to hold close my past and fan the flames for future writing.

How We Met; the Importance of Family History

Captain Alfred Stone left his ship on a cold autumn afternoon and hurried to a nearby Inn. As he quenched his thirst, his eyes never left the attractive scullery maid who sat in the corner peeling potatoes. Deciding she was the one, he walked over, sat on a potato sack and declared that he wouldn’t move until Susannah Coppick agreed to marry him.  It didn’t take her long according to her daughter; with his bright blue eyes and handsome beard, she immediately said yes! Living a mariner’s life back in mid 1800’s England, Alfred fathered ten children with his wife, Susannah Stone. The first six, seemingly just a year apart, were most likely a result of Alfred’s annual return home from the sea!

I’ve heard this tale of my great-great-grandparents since I was a child; gleaned from journal-like notes written by their oldest daughter, Louise. She and her family eventually moved to Sacketts Harbor, New York where her four youngest siblings were born. As a young woman, it seemed Louise always needed new shoes. She flirted with the shoemaker’s son James, also a shoemaker, until he finally got the hint. Soon after, Louise and James Carswell married and eventually became my great-grandparents. My grandfather loved telling stories about his parents and I remember Louise from old photos. I was about 7 or 8 when she died, but I don’t recall if she always wore great shoes! They had two children: my Aunt Gladys and my grandfather James…the 8th James in successive generations of the Carswell family, who originally came from Scotland.

James and Florence on the right, 1918
My grandma and grandpa met on a blind date at a masquerade party in 1918. Florence Radcliff and her girlfriend dressed as traditional Irish lasses. James played it safe, dressing in a tuxedo. Grandma was born in Ontario and had two older sisters, Marion and Dallas. Six weeks before she was born, her father Thomas was killed in a farm accident. Her uncle, a horse trainer and farmer who worked on the farm was like a father to Grandma and her sisters.  Eventually the family moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan to find jobs and schooling, leaving the farm to Uncle Jack. 

Florence and James Carswell were married in 1921.  My mom, Donalda Louise, was the first born, followed a year later by a brother, the 9th James. Her secbrother came along ten years later. I have my grandmother to thank for teaching me to sew, hang clothes, play piano and write in my journal using proper cursive.  My mom and Betty Bickley were friends all through school. During their junior year, Betty dared Donna to ask her brother Billy to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. He said yes, and that night changed her life, mom would tell me, my sister and two brothers.  The guy who’d been pretty much in the background was now her boyfriend. After graduation, she worked in sales at Mrs. Brown’s Dress Shop in downtown Detroit and my dad joined the Army Air Force to become a pilot.

June, 1943 Wedding picture
Gordon (nicknamed Billy) and Donna (shortened from Donalda) Bickley married in June, 1943. Stationed in San Antonio, Texas, my dad wrote letters to Mom every day. He proposed in one of these letters, which I now have framed. Written on United States Army Air Force stationary, he tells how much he loved her and wanted to share his life with her. He then signed ‘Love Bill’ and added a PS…’This is a proposal’….just in case she didn’t get it! 

When he learned he'd be shipped out soon, he wired Mom via Western Union and said “Let’s get married now!”  She took the train to Texas with her friend Jean, bought a flirty little dress and got married in the local Presbyterian church. After six weeks together, he was sent overseas and Mom took the train home, went back to work and soon realized she’d be waiting for both Billy and me!

My grandfather, mother and great-grandmother
 Louise Stone Carswell holding me.

Naming me must have been a family fun night! My paternal grandmother’s name was Fanny. She and Florence, my Mom’s mom, suggested combining their names into Fanny Flo! Luckily, Mom loved the name Joan Louise; keeping her middle name and her grandmother’s name going. Louise became my daughter and granddaughter's middle names as well. 

During my sophomore year of college, my dad lost his job and I had to stay out a semester. My grandfather paid the tuition for me to return in the spring but with the stipulation that I join campus activities and not be “tied to homework and boys.” I began working on the school newspaper. I did interviews and covered both school and community events.  But the editor, Jim Stommen, changed everything I wrote. No one had ever edited my colorful way with words nor told me my feelings and opinions didn’t count and I didn’t like him one bit! "Facts, just the facts," he’d say and correct my punctuation. A year later I gathered a group of friends to celebrate my 21st birthday and he declined, saying he’d take a raincheck. Sure enough he called me a week later and asked me out on a date. I knew that night, as we talked over gin and tonics, that I’d marry him someday….Scrooge had become my Prince Charming.

Jim and Joan met working on
our college newspaper.
James and Joan Stommen married in August, 1966. We continued to work on newspapers together the rest of our lives, me finally showing respect for his expertise and he finally accepting my mushy, gushy style. My degree in education coupled with his lifelong mentoring led me to become a writing coach. Our two kids were treated to constant cross-country moves and Dad’s desk-pounding ways, whether in a newsroom or at the dining room table. Both eventually decided to attend college back home in Michigan.
 Our son met his future wife while dating one of her girlfriends. Our daughter found her guy online fifteen years ago. Although online dating is no big deal today, her story being passed down in the years to come just won’t have the same ring to it as my great-great-grandparents’ did on the shores of merry old England.

Portable Magic

"Books are a uniquely portable magic" says author Stephen King. My teen granddaughters have read most of Mr. King's books and this middle-school-bound boy will soon be too.

An academic achiever and gifted athlete, my oldest grandson is an easy-going kid who happily takes a book along wherever he goes. Visiting my family last month, they took Grandma to the local Mexican restaurant. Look at that smile...just a quick one before he got back to his latest Rick Riordan novel. At 11, he loves electronics too...but parental time limits or discipline can interfere. Oh how I remember being sent to my room as a kid...often in a huff or tears...but pretty soon I'd be lost in a book.                                                                          

I take Grandma credit of course; spending hours reading to my grand kids even as babies. I love his focus here, hanging on my every word! I still give books as new baby gifts, read stories to the classrooms I work in and take turns reading a page with the twins as they practice expression and the rhythm of their voice. I recently joined a writing class that has us sharing our pieces orally....podium and mic included! Reading aloud is good for the soul. 

'Mystery Reader' when he was in First Grade
Love the Share Chair

One of his favorite places is the library; especially now that school's out for the summer. He devoured this heavy, two handed coffee-table sized book; Percy Jackson's Greek Gods by Rick Riordan, in 24 hours.
I scoped out my local library and got my card so we'll be ready to browse when he comes to visit next month! Barns and Noble is another favorite place; they all choose this over Target or a Dollar Store when given a choice. Even without a purchase, they're excited to see new releases they can look forward to and displays of trending authors or genres to watch for.
The twins are fine with the 'kid's section' and the older girls can handle adult and young adult material....but this is the hardest age....almost 12. Ready for challenging and engaging stories; but not mature content. Luckily he enjoys history...especially those in photo-journo style.

Big brother using his time wisely at his brother and sister's games, and at their First Communion earlier this year. "Reading gives us someplace to go, when we have to stay where we are," says Mason Cooley.

I am so proud of the young man this kid is becoming. My wish for him is to always believe in his smart, sincere, kind and funny self; and that his sense of fairness and rightness will guide him along the educational pathways of school and life. Remember that books are a lighthouse in the dark, a window into ourselves, a doorway to the world and a cozy blanket for comfort. Love you, DB!

And Fifth Grade is a wrap!

Inspired With Write Words

Session Days, Dancing Nights
 Women writing words; this was the group of bloggers I joined in Las Vegas a few years ago...the first writing conference for me.  Friends I've made through Facebook and blog posts greeted me in real life with hugs, laughter and excited chatter including "come sit here" and "you look exactly as I thought you would!" I could feel the instant camaraderie as we danced the night away at a sponsored Disco Party.
We enjoyed two days of sessions filled with self discovery, tech advice, branding and publishing expertise. In reflecting over my notes and my time spent one-on-one with many new friends, I kept noticing key words, words that empowered me to become a better writer. I call these motivating terms Write Words.

                                     The words that inspire and motivate me include:

We influence our readers with every word we write. We should be using the power of our words to influence the market place, the social conscious and the younger generations. As someone who is aging actively and positively; I need to view my writing as a message, whether it be the medical, educational, lifestyle or entertainment fields. Society is beginning to realize it's time to drop the "old folks" image and focus on the youthfulness of boomers and beyonders. Authors of any medium should shine a positive light on the strengths, wisdom and power of growing along. 

 "Great pain can lead to a greater purpose," an author explained as she shared how the loss of her mother led to writing her first book. I too found healing in loss; found my ability to go it alone without my editor husband in the next room. To me the word unearth means always digging deeper, going the extra mile. By continuing to participate in writing communities, attending workshops and  conferences and branching into difference genres, I've discovered an inner strength that's reflected in my writing. 

Several panelists spoke about the importance of evergreen pieces...those that are usable again and again or can easily be repurposed. I totally had this wrong; believing it was lazy or pushy...sort of like saying "you didn't read it a year ago so I'll try again!" Now I see the benefits of reusing my Mother's Day tributes or my Dad's war story every Veteran's Day. Whether a timely piece or one for the ages; our archives of essays and stories are still empowering and meaningful.

The idea of branding our websites or author pages can be as simple as using a constant theme. Consistently presenting a familiar graphic or photo will draw readers in, remind them this is a credible source and an interesting read. My blog Gramcracker Crumbs started as a grandma with tons of grandchildren pictures and tales to share! I now bring my teaching and reporting background into posts; write about fitness, aging, travel and becoming a widow. It's become a 'lifestyle' blog and I'm free to write about anything. But I keep it consistent via relative content and images...with five grandkids growing along, the possibilities are endless.

Signed copy from author and new friend
 Doreen McGettigan.
Another word used be ourselves, to shine a light on our uniqueness. I found this word on several note pages; underlined, circled and with arrows! This is a BIG one for me. Worry that someone else just wrote about the same issue. Unsure if my work is polished enough or 'Elements of Style' worthy. I heard the words "no competition" and "everyone has a story" mentioned throughout the weekend. How many times did I ask students to write on command; to write about the story starter on the board! I loved reading the uniqueness of each one; their voice, their word choices, their various perspectives and experiences. Each word you write has been written before, but weaving them together your way becomes a new creation, a statement bursting from within.

Out of Routine; Into The Moment

Off to Australia for almost a month; I was out of my comfort zone clothes, couch, town and routines. As I hugged my son goodbye at the drop-off curb, I felt a switch turn on inside; the switch that triggers anticipation, observation, excitement and awe.
People watching comes naturally; I notice how they're dressed, how much luggage they have, how young parents handle their little ones PLUS strollers, car seats and diaper bags. I wondered why men in suits carrying briefcases appear to be important; if  women about my age were going to visit their grandchildren or heading across the globe like me? 

Central Coast Ferry on our way
to Woy Woy. 
Their headmistress gave me permission
to snap a photo as they boarded.
I was going to see my brother and his family  and had plans with a dear friend.  Otherwise, I had nearly a month to take each day as it flowed. A spontaneous ferry ride for lunch, a local bus filling up with school children as I rode it home from the mall, a morning walk to the village, an evening with my brother's neighbors. I loved how these things just came about and I was ready.

An unexpected fall as that bus came to a stop kept me in the moment too! I stood up as we neared my corner, clutching my packages and holding onto the pole. But then I instinctively reached for a little girl's arm and down I went! Thanks to my training on 'how to fall,' I landed on my bottom, holding my bags and arms to my chest and then quickly standing up. I was fine....and grateful those kids didn't tell as they scrambled off and into mom and dad's arms!

Inscribed stones line the footpaths
of Old Sydney
Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I made a point to visit the places my husband and I enjoyed on our visit 14 years earlier. I also made a point to visit new and different things not mentioned in the brochures. Balmoral Beach is small, remote and covered in sparkling white sand. It's out of the way and not at all a big draw like Manly or Bondi Beaches. I loved the solitude; loved that I was there alone. I made time to read more history about Old Sydney...the original spot created for and built by convicts shipped over from England. It's all sandstone....this ancient part of the city.

Sandstone walls, steps, narrow walkways and terraced gardens. The weathered sandstone breakwater along the harbor changes color with the rising and setting sun. Barangaroo Reserve, reclaimed land of the indigenous people, is the newest addition to the busy harbor area. Centuries old sandstone formations line the water's edge; many smooth enough to sit a spell in the shade.

The Opera House has several theaters and venues inside. It's iconic full sail image is recognizable the world over. I took photos years ago; took the tour and learned about it's history. This time I walked around to the front....the view cruise ships see as they round the curve into Sydney Harbor. I climbed the layers of stairs, checked out the underground level and strolled through the 200 year old Botanical Gardens next door. 

Didgeridoo wind instruments
I was so tuned in, so aware of street activity and music. The sound of boat horns, train tracks rumbling, babies crying, performers singing or playing instruments and the various languages being spoken around me. The smoothly run Overseas Passenger Terminal was captivating with it's constant buzz of worker bees. 
As I strolled the cafe and boutique promenade, I captured this funny store sign; French Connection United Kingdom is the label. A sale sign in the window pulled me in to browse. I rarely buy white tops, but found one in thick cotton for $20 AUS. Without my glasses on, the sparkly design on the front seemed pretty subtle. Bought it! Tried it on back at the hotel and ooops... a nice fancy F on the front! 

Cruise ships come and go every day. Sometimes three or more sit in dock while commuter ferries and tourist-filled boats zig zag around them. I met my high school girlfriend as she and her husband disembarked from the Millennium on my last day in Oz. Another unexpected pleasure walking and talking in the warm rain. And finding my picky-eater self enjoying a chicken pot pie at Pie Face, a favorite Sydney lunch spot. I'm glad I stayed around the terminal dock to watch their ship get underway that evening. Amazing how something this huge maneuvers out, around and away so easily. As it grew smaller, fireworks filled the sky! 

What a cool way to end my stay in Australia. The plan was simple; let's meet early at the pier.
It was the best of times, letting the day unfold spontaneously. 

 Going home brings a sense of anticipation too. I had a flight and procedures to follow which put me back in travel routine. I looked forward to seeing my younger brother waiting at the other end of my journey. It felt good knowing I'd soon be back in school pickup line, my granddaughters' asking "please, Grandma, can we go to Dairy Queen!" I've been home several weeks now; back to day-to-day chores, work and favorite TV shows. 
The best part about getting away on an adventure is still with me though.... 

The Savoring
 I'm writing stories for my blog, creating another Gramcracker picture book, 
still talking about it.

The Reflection
 I feel a sense of peace from spending days and nights with my family
 on the other side of the world. 
I feel accomplished by journeying solo, figuring things out for myself and discovering that I'm much more capable than I thought! 

The Dimmer Switch
 That switch that turned on the moment I stepped out of my son's car has not really turned off. It's dimmed for now; awaiting time and opportunity for next time!

Ten Travel Tips I've Learned Along the Way

  I. PACK small; pack light     

 I managed with a carry-on size roller bag and a canvas briefcase. My backpack and duffel bag were tucked inside; ready for weekend getaways or day tripping.

 2. EXCHANGE CURRENCY at a trusted bank
Airport and city kiosks will charge a fee. The big name banks give the best exchange rate with no fee. I had $300 American to exchange,and was able to get cash off my Visa card since my ATM cards didn't work anywhere. All I needed was my passport and credit card and about 5 minutes of the teller's time. Australian currency is different colors; making it easier to select the bill or coins you need.

3. FAMILIARIZE yourself with language and cultural differences before you depart

Countries that drive on the left also ride bikes and walk on the left. That means stay to the left when you're on footpaths, in airports and queues. Pedestrian crossings say Look Right.
Morning coffee is pretty much universal. Hotel and motel rooms provided an electric pot for boiling water; freeze-dried coffee and tea and containers of milk. Most rooms had a set of wine glasses...acknowledging that wine is best enjoyed with proper glassware!
       English speaking countries use different terminology and expressions; don't be shy about asking for clarity; you'll soon find yourself using them too.

4. COMMUNICATION know how you'll keep in touch...both in country and back home.

Despite requesting international service before I departed, I was hit with a couple $100 fees right off the bat! I next tried switching SIM cards; but my carrier had mine locked! Instead of making calls back home to straighten out; I just used email, Facebook and Instagram messaging to communicate with my US and AU worries! I did make an overseas call from the hotel once; cheaper than using my cell. Bottom your provider, talk to a live person, read the small print!

5. ASK for help with a smile and a thank you. Graciousness is recognized worldwide

Traveling solo, I asked strangers to take my picture; usually I was able to return the favor by taking theirs. I contacted the hotel ahead of time; explaining my purpose and asking for off the beaten path, non-touristy places and activities. I had to ask servers for ice a couple times for swollen feet; how grateful I was when one delivered in a ziplock bag, another wrapped in bar towels.Vigilant about photographing children, I first asked permission of their teachers. It was granted with 'no worries'...the refreshing attitude of Aussies that I so love. These field trip kiddos were at the Harbor Bridge Museum.

6. BE FLEXIBLE, be patient...many countries/people operate at a slower pace than Americans

7. EMBRACE the unexpected and spontaneous; wonder and wander about!

On the way from the airport to my downtown hotel, I realized I was too late for Easter Mass. I asked my cab driver if we could at least drive by St. Mary's Cathedral. He kindly stopped so I could take quick photos and step inside.
I did not want anymore long walks; but saying yes to this bridge walk brought happy tears as I realized this is where my husband walked so he could watch me climb the bridge in 2002. Spontaneity begets serendipity...often the greatest gift of travel.

 8. LONG FLIGHTS are's a mindset. Accept and'll be fine.

I knew I'd be facing a long flight and prepared by wearing loose, comfy clothes, and packing necessities in a carry-on bag; change of clothes and shoes, medications, snacks and trial-sized everything.
I had no control with layovers, delays and big day of departure became an unusual situation. I adapted by making new friends and writing my first travel post about living in airports!
Flight attendants mentioned wearing compression hose; something I'll consider in the future.

9. ENJOY AND TRY unfamiliar food choices and presentations.

This was a big deal for me...a fussy, picky eater all my life. It started with asking for my morning coffee. Long Black? White Expresso? As soon as I explained I preferred coffee with milk or cream; the server appeared to understand. She brought  me a Vienna...strong coffee topped with whipped real cream whipped! It comes with a spoon and looks like a sundae...I was hooked! I stuck to familiar foods at first; beef burgers, fish and chips. But as the weeks went on, I needed variety. I tried lamb chops, duck, pot pies, and skinny red salmon slices...seemingly my salad. They were all delicious! Never ate lamb chops, duck or chicken pot pies in my life, and grilled salmon chunks with spinach are pretty much my staple at home. I noticed kangaroo burgers on menu listings, but no way!

 10. REACH OUT to a concierge or public relations personnel before you go.

I was going as a travel writer this time; but in New York City, I was a nervous grandma taking a teenager to the Big Apple. I talked with the head concierge at least once a week for months. By the time we arrived at our hotel, I was greeted at the front desk with hugs and hand holding to ease my stay and worries. I call ahead to ask for low floors near the stairs and what kind of meals are offered on site. I learn so much more from a live person aiming to please than I do from chain websites.

Wally in New York probably pictured a little ol' granny and was prepared to make me comfortable. Todd in Sydney found me in the lobby pub to see whom he'd been emailing with for weeks. Both of these gentlemen suggested places that were perfect for me!
       Local knowledge trumps guide books in my opinion.
                                  Happy Travels!