In Good Company
Linda Lee Greene
A Journey With Grace
A nineteen-hour road-trip ahead of us, my sister, Sherri, her boyfriend, Jeff at the wheel of his van, and I pull out of the driveway of my home in Columbus, Ohio at 5:30 am, Friday, March 2nd, 2012, the vehicle packed to overflowing with luggage and other traveling paraphernalia. Alone in the back seat, I embrace my solitude as in this dim light of the approaching dawn that turns everything flat and monochromatic, the three of us set out on our journey, the first leg of it to the home of my sister, Susan and her partner, Jim, a lovely and spacious house located about fifteen miles north of Clearwater in the picturesque village of Crystal Beach, Florida. A turn west off of the gulf coast highway onto a two-lane avenue banked by quaint bungalows, stately palms, and gnarled live oaks, their home is an enjoyable walk to the pier at the terminus of Crystal Beach Boulevard that plunges into St. Joseph’s Sound in the Gulf of Mexico.
Just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee weather bulletins on the radio explain the rain that pelts the windows of the van, reports of a tornado coming in, intrepid Jeff at the wheel determined to plow through while Sherri in the navigator’s seat implores him to pull over and take cover. Stretched out by now on the back seat, my head cushioned with mounds of pillows, my feet comfortably elevated on my rolled-up blanket, I read my book and refuse to allow the storm to ruin my faith in our mild adventure that is the perfect complement to my pensive mood.
Our cell phones begin to ring, family members and friends watching the storms on their televisions calling us to issue updates and warnings, frantic voices that are in league with Sherri that we pull over and ride out the inclement weather. As it turned out, we had been just half of an hour ahead of the tornado and feeling blessed but also with many “ifs” filling our minds as we arrive at our destination…“if we had left Columbus a few minutes later”…“if we had required fewer restroom stops,”—we would have been right in the middle of the storm.
A few hours sleep and waking to warm, Florida sunshine, we exhaust the first half of our first day on the lanai of our host’s home, a screen-in structure sheltering the in-ground pool; barbeque; alfresco dining and television-viewing areas; plump cushions on white wicker chairs; glass-topped and circular iron table and four mated chairs; cheery tchotskes adorning any accommodating surface —a lanai lush with Susan’s collection of plants, an extensive variety hanging and/or floor-bound in pots; a shabby-chic and a welcoming environment. I need food, however, my grain-free and sugar-free diet requiring fruits and vegetables and other essential items in abundance, and Jeff, desirous of laying-in some beer, the two of us pile into the van for a shopping-spree at the nearby Publix Grocery store.
The driveway slopes downward on its approach to the front of Susan and Jim’s home, and upon parking his van in it the previous night, Jeff had engaged the emergency brake, a piece of equipment he seldom uses. Inserting the key in the ignition, he revs the engine, releases the emergency brake, shifts into reverse, and endeavors to back out of the driveway. The van is frozen in place, though, but he finally gets the vehicle moving and we drive to the store to the accompaniment of a terrible grating noise under the chassis and Jeff cursing himself for failing to replace the brake pads before we had left Columbus. Our shopping completed, we return home, still to the tune of the grinding noise, unload the groceries, and after a few minutes of discussion to form our strategy, Jeff takes the van to a Goodyear shop just behind the Publix Grocery store.
Boy, are we lucky—once again! Not only do the brake pads need replacing, the shoes are frozen to the drums and the emergency brake is so corroded that the mechanic has to cut the cable to release it. Once more our minds are filled with “ifs”…“if, God forbid, we had been in a situation during our 1,800-mile road trip whereby excellent braking ability had been required”…“If the driveway of Susan and Jim’s home hadn’t been a sloping one requiring the engagement of the emergency brake which was the catalyst to the discovery of the problem”…“if it had remained undetected and we had set out to our second destination”—well, you can imagine the rumblings of our minds.
As Susan is in Tampa at rein at Bonafide Pet Grooming, the business she owns, and Jim is performing with his band, The Crystal Beach String Band at the Amvets Music Festival about an hour north of here, at the steering wheel of Jim’s car and Sherri in the navigator’s seat again, I pick up Jeff at the Goodyear shop and the three of us spend the evening touring the shops and gorging on fabulous dinners at Hellas Greek Restaurant in neighboring Tarpon Springs, the city and the restaurant among our favorite spots on the Gulf Coast of Florida. My dinner, accompanied by two glasses of a mellow cabernet, consists solely of an enormous Greek salad topped with shrimp, half of it carted home with me in a Styrofoam box.
Thus far, our weekend enjoyment has been tainted with the news of the storm’s devastation that trickles in, but we are counting our blessings, I, with a strong sense that even more of them are on the wing as the day after tomorrow we hit the road again to visit our family in Interlachen, Florida, a much anticipated visit with my father, Lee; my brother, David; his wife, Dorothy; their son, Leland, and Dorothy’s brother, Johnny. A storm in the middle of the night downs palm tree fronds here in Pinellas County, a squall that wakens me and as the mist of the blowing rain sprays my face, I ride out the storm cozied-up in a wicker chair on the lanai, my body wrapped in one of Susan’s many afghans, colorful crocheted and quilted pieces of fabric art that swaddle chairs throughout the house and the lanai. Feeling grateful for the Grace that is so often bestowed on me, at storm’s end, I toddle back to bed.
Now at 11:00 am, Sunday, March 4th, the sun is bright again, a shining, fair-weather day, and as Jim cooks breakfast, we look forward to our day, a trek to the Dunedin Fine Arts Center high on the agenda. But then again, maybe other things are in order as breakfast is completed, a felty quiet has lowered over the house, an atmosphere owing to Sherri and Jeff’s one-on-one outing, and Susan’s curl-up on her bed. Jim’s nose is in his Sunday crossword puzzle, an activity that consistently captures the interest of this brilliant and intriguing Soul. My work on my blog posting up-to-date, I will head to the bathroom for a shower and a shampoo, content that the day will unfold just as it is supposed to do.
Sherri, Jeff, and Jim, the sports fans in this diverse group of five, are couch potatoes taking in the Honda Classic on television today while Susan and I, the artists in my family, drive to an amazing art exhibition at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center. As evening descends, Jim, the Wolfgang Puck of our group, whips up Cornish hens, rice, broccoli and cauliflower, and a salad, a dinner followed by strawberries for dessert as we settle in for a night of television, the middle-of-the-night rainstorm bringing with it air too cool for an evening on the lanai, but a peek outside reveals a black sky clustered with stars and a moon just one slight press from full.
Largo, Florida, a sun-dappled and scenic drive south along the winding gulf coast highway, a mere fifteen minutes from the Crystal Beach home of Susan and Jim, is our destination this Monday morning, March 5th, my day’s outing with Susan and Sherri to include a tour of the beautiful Florida Botanical Gardens there. Lunch on the glassed-in porch of Sea Sea Riders in Dunedin, mine of mahi mahi and spiced black beans, a seaside restaurant with patrons at nearly every table, is our prelude to Susan’s dental appointment at 2:00 pm, and then home for an evening with Jim and Jeff, one of dinner and a rowdy, late-night game of euchre for the four of them, and bed for me.
My sisters and their mates are avid euchre players, and I lay in my bed for these few moments before slumber feeling pleasure at their heated exchanges: “Why did you trump my right bar?”… “Why did you throw that ace when I had it covered with my king?”…and on and on, the high spirits fly. As my father and my brother are also enthusiasts of the game, I grew up believing that such banter is just part of the contest, but I learned differently when I also began playing it on a regular basis with a group of my girlfriends. Our games are tame—not the battlegrounds of those of my family, although they wouldn’t have it any other way because to them the arguing is required fare of the pastime.
An early morning rise—a shower and a shampoo, and by 9:15, Tuesday, March 6th, Sherri, Jeff, and I are on the road again, the second leg of our journey underway. An uneventful 3½ hour drive under our belts, blessing number three arrives soon after our arrival at the home of my father. Cooled by a breeze from a disappearing lake in a country region outside of the blink-and-miss-it town of Interlachen, Florida, a lake disappearing due to a persistent drought, overuse by a local industry, and too many wells being drilled statewide (according to my brother), phenomena that are draining the aquafer, my 87 year old father greets us joyfully from his chair at his table in his lanai as we enter his tiny, two-bedroom cottage.
The approach to the cottage is circular, the curve to the right skirting the large laundry/second bathroom/storage shed and terminating directly at the door of the lanai, which is the front door of the cottage; the curve to the left opening onto a wide section of front lawn used as extra parking space for the vehicles of visitors. Jeff had nosed his van onto the curve to the left and had parked it on the lawn—thank goodness, considering the event that was about to unfold:
Leland, my Floridian, country-born nephew, upon seeing the van pass by on the common drive to my brother’s house and my father’s cottage, soon after our arrival, drives his father’s Ford Ranger to the cottage, taking the right rather than the left curve of the circle. An eighteen year old, 245 pound, six plus footer, and even taller in his perpetual cowboy boots, Leland moseys into the lanai dejectedly, a perplexed look, for those moments aging considerably, his blond, little-boy face. “The left front wheel of Daddy’s truck jist sunk in a great big hole out by the shed!” he informs us.
“What hole?” in unison my father, Jeff, Sherri, and I inquire.
“There ain’t no hole out by the shed!” my father submits emphatically.
“Well, I know there ain’t, but there is now!” Leland rejoins. “Jist come on out an’ look fer yerself.”
Long minute by long minute ticks by as shovels and a hoe are extracted from the shed and much frantic digging commences, for indeed, the tire of the Ranger is sunk to the hubcap of the wheel in this mysterious hole. The digging is futile, as are items used for leverage, for with each revving of the engine and attempt to move the pick-up, all of the wheels sink deeper and deeper into the soft, sandy soil. All other attempts frustrated, at last Leland lopes up the hill to his house and drives his Jeep back down, and the nose of the Jeep to the back of the Ranger, he pushes the lodged vehicle out of the hole.
At once, a putrid odor from the exposed hole assaults our noses, noxious fumes so horrible it can only be of human derivation. “Gee Gad, it’s the septic tank?” my father exclaims. Indeed it is the septic tank, the smaller one Dad had installed twenty-five years earlier specifically for the laundry and the extra bathroom he had put in the shed. Further digging of a cavity of about five feet square reveals the concrete top of the tank, a top with a large hole caved in at its center, a hole of about 18” wide by 24” long, and two lengths of exposed rebar spanning its length. The weight of vehicles repeatedly driving across it over the years had slowly created the weak spot in the concrete and that very morning it had reached the critical point of collapse. “Gee Gad, what if…,” my father submits, a statement that sets off a whole series of “What ifs” among us.
As fate would have it, the two lengths of rebar are set together closely enough to have supported the wider tires of the Ranger, preventing it from falling completely into the tank. Had it been Jeff’s van with its narrower tires that surely would have slipped between the span of the rods of rebar, and its heavy cargo of three human beings, all of our luggage, and all of our other traveling paraphernalia that only a few minutes before would have accosted it had Jeff taken the right rather than the left curve in the circular drive…well, I’ll leave that up to your imaginations…as once again, I thank Grace for blessing number three on our journey.
Chores on the part of Sherri, Jeff, and Leland have filled the last three days—the repair of the septic tank, the removal of a rotted fence, power-washing of the exterior walls of the shed and of the cottage, and more. I’ve spent my days doing some light housekeeping for Dad, laying in food, and cooking plentiful dinners each evening. Tomorrow morning, Saturday, March 11th, Sherri, Jeff, and I will pack up and head back to Columbus. I end this last night with my aged father counting my blessings—blessings that nobody fell into the septic tank, that the brakes on the van held during our long trip from Ohio to Florida, and with prayers for the victims of the violent storms of the night of Friday, March 2nd, 2012, my mind/heart knowing full well that Grace kept Sherri, Jeff, and me safe from those calamities.