Alaska or Bust


Dad always wanted to take a trip to Alaska.  Mom did not.    They spent annual vacations at the Jersey shore, made a cross-country trip to California, took a cruise with friends, but frankly, if there was not warm weather and a beach, Mom was not going.

When Mom passed away last year, Dad started lobbying my sisters and I to either check out our ancestral roots in Germany, take a cruise to Alaska or embark on a little drive over the Alps.   Dad was getting older – and slower.  If there was ever going to be a “big” vacation, now was the time.  

Lisa and I started planning.   Dad said “just tell me when to be ready to go to the airport”.   Lisa said “I do not want to go to Alaska and I do not want to take a cruise”.   None of us knew a word of German and driving over a huge mountain range seemed a little ambitious.  So, the cruise planning commenced!

We packed:
Raincoats, and sweatshirts and bathing suits and about 15 pairs of shoes. We had camera equipment, binoculars, kindles, chargers, smart phones and 1 dumb phone. We also packed portable oxygen, Dad’s magic sleep machine, a duffel bag full of medication and a secret stash of cigarettes for Dad and alcohol for us.

Exhausted and cranky we arrived on the ship. Dad and his equipment were ensconced safely next door to us. We discovered if we stood on tip-toe and leaned over the balcony rail we could spy on Dad who seemed determined to get us kicked off the boat by sneaking cigarettes in his room. But, my sister and I travel well together and once we got the lay of the land (and a cocktail) looked at each other and said: “This is going to be a great trip!”. We had a cozy little room with a balcony, Dad seemed excited and happy and we all knew where the cookie stash was. Cookies available 24 hours a day!

whale tale
We saw whales and porpoises swimming in our wake and showing off at sunset right next to our balcony. We saw gorgeous sunsets and glaciers up close. We took a little bus tour in Ketchikan and saw eagles and salmon and the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

The most memorable experience of our Alaskan adventure was our ride in this:

our ride

You got it – our very own private ride from the ship to Juneau, Alaska in a teeny tiny medical airplane! I got to sit in the co-pilot seat once I promised to not push any buttons. Now, I am not going to bore you with the excruciating details of the next couple of weeks we spent in Alaska trying to get Dad well enough to get back home to New Jersey – you will have to wait for the Lifetime movie for that. But, for every bad experience there is almost always good, and if you approach life experiences with an open mind and heart and a sense of humor,  life is a heck of a lot easier.  

Looking back, what could have been our most horrible vacation experience also includes our most memorable moments.   The kindness and generosity of the doctors and staff at Bartlett Regional Hospital was amazing – from making sure Dad was well cared for with dignity and respect, to making sure Lisa and I were fed, housed and had transportation.  The doctor and ICU nurse lent us their personal car while we were there!   “After all”, they said, “its not like you can go anywhere.”  We just had to ignore the week’s worth of recycling in the back. 

Dr. Bob found Lisa and I wandering around a grocery store one day and offered a ride back.  On the way he gave us a tour of Juneau – driving past the Governor’s residence, out-of-the-way hiking trails and restaurants the “locals” frequented.   My colleague, Denny came to the hospital one day and whisked us away for a visit to the salmon fishery and then an amazing tour of the Juneau Empire Newspaper offices – a personal tour of the 2nd largest native art collection in Alaska.  

Juneau, one of the quick stops on the cruise turned out to be a two-week adventure, including the most delicious salmon and crab we ever tasted,  the most spectacular views and scenery, including an afternoon hike at the Mendenhall Glacier.  Most of all, an opportunity to take care of Dad who had always taken care of us when we were sick, and to spend valuable time with my sister who is an amazing nurturer and always makes me laugh. 

So, on second thought – maybe this was not a Bust at all.  

Rest in Peace Albert J. Ehlbeck, Jr., January 7th, 2013


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How History is Written

Me: “Oh, what a beautiful mirror! Did you get it at Raymour and Flannigan?”

Friend: “No, my Great-Great-Aunt Myrna picked that up at a flea market in Poland. It was crafted by a peasant for an aristocrat in France in the 18th century – before the revolution. She had to leave Poland rather quickly in 1830 during the insurrection. Anyway, she left Poland with the mirror strapped to her back. Halfway across the Atlantic, the boat sank and she had to use the mirror as a raft and she used her petticoat as a sail. She made it across the Atlantic and landed on the shore of New Jersey where she set up housekeeping and lived for the rest of her life. This mirror gets passed down to the eldest daughter from generation to generation. Some day it will go to my daughter Tiffanie.”

Me: “Dad, these colored bottles are beautiful. Where did they come from?”

Dad: “Remember that summer we spent in Uncle Jack’s trailer in Vermont? We walked down the lane and snuck into the abandoned house that used to belong to Uncle Jack, but was “stolen” by his nanny when his parents died? The house fell into disrepair and started crumbling.”

Me: “Yes! Cool! Did we find the bottles there?”

Dad: “No, the bottles were gifts from you girls from Avon. They used to have cologne in them.”


Moral of the story: Ask your mother where all the stuff came from.

We are surrounded by stuff that came from somewhere. Your mother knows and has probably already told you when you were younger. Unfortunately, when you were young, your Mom’s voice was just an annoying buzzing in the background saying things like, “You cannot wear those frayed jeans out of this house” and “Save your money and buy your own dippity doo” and “If I have to listen to Build me up Buttercup on that record player one more time I swear I will go crazy” and “You have to keep track of your own skate key” or “Here’s 12 cents – go buy yourself a candy bar and get one for your sister”.

But I digress.

Ask your Mom or someday one of your kids will be saying: “These colored bottles are gorgeous – I bet Great-Great Grandmother McCurnin brought them over from Ireland when her family immigrated to Jersey City. Lets put them in a place of honor in the china cabinet.”

And this is how history is written.

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Moment of Well Being

In this crazy world we live in we often overlook the best moments in search of the big moments.

With 3 adult children, 7 grandchildren, a dog with issues and a demanding job, I find that planning and anticipation of an event often ends up overshadowing the event itself.  As much as I love the holidays and special occasions with my family, my memories are often created by looking at the photographs taken that day.

Example:   We decided it would be great fun to have a “Family Mini-Golf Tournament”.  We created two teams – Green and Orange.  Much planning ensued.    Kids were out of their mind with excitement.  The big day finally arrived.   10 minutes after starting our tournament chaos reigned.   The semi-serious teenagers were mad because the little ones were cheating.  Adults were petrified someone would get a concussion from recklessly flying golf clubs.  Other patrons got impatient following a large group of bickering green and orange golfers.  The little ones were NOT happy with having to follow the rules.  Everyone ended up mad at someone and we went home without ice cream.  We did create a family memory, but not the type we anticipated.  

Now, a couple of years later the golf tournament is one of our favorite stories.  Part of the tapestry of our lives so to speak.  But, so many of the GREAT memories are moments that just happen.

Two summers ago, my 3-year-old grandson was tired and cranky on the beach.    I talked him into sitting on my lap “for just a minute” and he fell asleep.


Somehow I knew that this 3-year-old boy would probably never fall asleep in my lap again.  And he has not.   But, for the next hour, I sat there with my sweet, sweaty boy in my arms while he slept.  I cherish that memory for the simplicity and pleasure of just holding him.    All too soon, the moment was over and he was running off with his brothers without a backward glance.

But, for me it was just a wonderful moment of well-being.  Everything was perfect in my world at that moment.  And, when life is crazy and bringing me down I bring up that memory and feel the weight of that boy and I am happy.

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I miss my Mom.

It is almost Mother’s Day and 7 months since my mother died on my parent’s 57th wedding anniversary.   My sisters and Dad and I are like balls in a pinball machine- bouincing off each other in different directions trying to get to the same place.

Right after my Mom’s funeral, I voraciously read anything I could about grief and the loss of a mother.   I talked to friends who have lost their moms.  I talked to my doctor.  I wanted to know how long it would be before I felt better.  What I could to to make the biggest challenge I have ever faced easier.  Nothing makes it easier.  I just have to wake up every day and get out of bed.

Grief sneaks up on me when I least expect it.  It is not a gradual thing.  There is no measurable progress in healing.   One day I will be enjoying the sun on my face and my dog playing on the beach and suddenly I am hit with what feels like a physical blow so intense I am staggered by it.

I have been waiting for it to get better.   But, my moments of joy will be more frequent and last longer.  My moments of pain will always be there and I do not think they will lessen in intensity.  I will learn not to feel guilty when I find myself singing along to a song on the radio, or laughing with my friends and family.

Here are some of the things I try to remember about Mom:

  • A month before she died my mom was playing miniature golf with her great-grandkids
  • The summer before she died she participated in our family wiffle ball games
  • She drove like speed racer.    She got a ticket for driving almost 90 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone and was angry with the officer because she thought he was profiling her because she was a Jersey driver.
  • She was the Mom all my friends wished they had.
  • She was always impeccably dressed.
  • She had a great group of girlfriends who loved her.
  • Her only goal in life was to give me and my sisters a great childhood and start in life

I reach for my phone to call her several times a day.  I miss her.  I miss my family being whole.  I honor her by talking about her to her grand-children and great-grand-children.  I call and write notes to her girlfriends who are grieving too.   I try to support my sisters and try to help my Dad who is floundering and lonely.

She lives on in our memories.   Happy Mother’s Day Mom…

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My Day so Far

I had to go to municipal court today about a summons for an expired license.

In my defense, my license was to be renewed around the time my mom passed away and then dad got sick with a mass in his chest and then an aneurism in his brain.   Yes, I have been distracted.  The renewal got lost in a pile of papers that I have been ignoring.  Keep in mind that WEEKLY I go through my dad’s pile of papers and organize him.  But, apparently a cop that does a random check for no reason at ALL does not care about my personal woes.

Needless to say, I immediately had to drive to DMV to take care of this.  And I did.

Today was the big day!   After making the big decision about what to wear and fortifying myself with a lemon bar, 4 tootsie rolls and some white chocolate shavings off the cake, I got there right on time.   It looked like the line for Space Mountain in Disney World.  There were rows and rows of people.  There were crying babies in strollers.  There were teenagers making out.  While waiting for admittance, officers of the court came around and gave us some handy courtroom tips.   Keep cell phones off and hidden.  Take your sunglasses off the top of your head.  Keep your hands out of your pockets.  Pull up your pants.  Hide the National Enquirer. Stuff like that.

Finally, I got admitted to the inner sanctum where I got to stand in yet another line with the same hoodlums, children, and for all I know drug dealers.  They do not have separate lines for middle aged women who truly just did not have a stamp in the right place at the right time.

Turns out the line was to wait to talk to the prosecutor who is like GOD.   He said “I will recommend this case be dismissed”.  At least now I got to sit down and watch the proceedings.  Several women charged with shop lifting get fines and community service.  They are not permitted to ever set foot in Boscov’s or Penny’s again.   The judge pionted out that you CAN still access the food court while avoiding these stores in the mall.   The saddest thing was a poor woman who was stealing a shirt and shoes from Walmart who is no longer permitted to set foot in EITHER of the Walmarts in our town.  I can’t even imagine where she will do her grocery shopping now.  Hope she does not starve.   I sat quietly next to Leon, who was wearing handcuffs.  The real kind – not those plastic ties.  On the other side was Annamaria who was pulled over and had both pot and an open container.

Finally, the judge called my name and pronounced it right.  I went up to the defendant’s table and looked up.  The judge said to me, “don’t I know you from another life?”.  Honest to God, that is what he said.  I panicked.  Did I sing karaoke with this guy some long ago drunken night at the local watering hole?  Did we date?  Was he my son’s soccer coach?  I finally read his name plate.  “Judge Golden”.   He was my ex-husband’s divorce attorney.

Oh crap.

I said, “your honor, in my defense, I have sent many friends and clients your way”.   He said “You are right.  I must be good at what I do if you are sending clients my way”.  I told him I thought he was a great divorce attorney.    He said “case dismissed”.  He explained to the angry crowd that there was no prejudice here.  That one situation had nothing to do with the other.  That I did not deserve to do hard time because I am a messy pile keeper.  I slunk out of there amid angry stares and grumbling and high tailed it to Dunkin Donuts because I did all that without my coffee.

I am now a free woman.

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