In these uncertain times, nothing beats overdue visits with loved ones

Basking in family's warmth

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2002

I've done a little planet-hopping the past two weeks, touching down in New York and Washington states to be swallowed whole into the bosom of family.

Not as relaxing, perhaps, as days on end baking in the sun on a beach at Cancun, but in terms of nurturing the soul, nothing compares to the warmth from loved ones' smiles when you've been away too long.

And too long can be a short period when measured against certain inevitabilities of time. Some of my loved ones are in their late 60s, 70s and early 80s.

Going back to New York meant flying over the city. I wondered what that would be like. This was my first trip east since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the late 1960s, I lived in Brooklyn. The roof of my apartment house afforded an unobstructed view of lower Manhattan. I watched the rising framework of the World Trade Center towers emerge from the behind the buildings in front of them. I'd left for the West Coast long before they were completed, but I'd watched them being born.

The American Airlines jet out of St. Louis where I'd changed planes cruised across New Jersey and Staten Island about midday on Sept. 7 and turned northeast on its way to La Guardia Airport in Queens, flying directly over the Verazzano Narrows Bridge that links Staten Island to Brooklyn. To the west lay Manhattan Island.

As often as I've seen the images in print and on television in the past year, it still was stunning to see the gap in the city's skyscraper grin firsthand. But the experience closed some kind of imperfect circle for me.

They're gone, likely forever. But I can say I remember when.

A night of wine and fine flavors with my brother and his wife on Long Island led next day to a rental-car drive into the Catskills where my parents, several sisters and their families live.

It was hot, still summer. New York actually gets a fall, unlike Alaska, which goes from something akin to a warm spring to damp fall gray seemingly overnight this time of year.

As the highway lifted into the upper elevations of the ancient mountains covering the state's southern tier, I half expected to see the fall colors for which the northeast is noted. That change, however, was still weeks away. The deciduous forest was still lush green.

I spent the next five days with the family, finding Mom strong as ever, hungrily absorbing the contents of books and magazines, filling in New York Times crossword puzzles in her sleep and staying busy tending to the needs of my stepfather as she has for 40 years.

My stepfather, now frail and bent by arthritis, remains intellectually sharp as a tack. He paints every day, sitting angled back comfortably in a motorized easy chair that can lift him to a standing position in a few moments. Next to him is the remote that controls a television typically tuned to the financial news. Deaf as a stone, he reads the captions rolling across the screen. He also reads lips, which makes conversation with him fairly easy, even when he has his hearing aid turned off.

Three of my sisters and their families make their homes not far from Youngsville where my parents live. Sheila lives in our old family home in Kenoza Lake about five miles away, while Wendy lives just next door, which is doubly fortunate for my parents because she is a nurse who works every day with the aged. Sheila and Wendy's children are grown, one with a family of his own.

Ann lives with her husband and two young boys across the state in Ruby, perhaps an hour and a half away by road. For those unfamiliar with the geography of upstate New York, Kenoza Lake and Youngsville are close to Monticello in Sullivan County, which borders Pennsylvania to the west. New Jersey is almost directly south separated from Sullivan County by a piece of Orange County. Just a few miles away lies White Lake, site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival.

It's right in the heart of what used to be called the Borscht Belt. Dotted with famous resorts, over the years the area drew millions looking for escape from the city. The area enjoyed its popular heyday in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, before commercial jetliner service made Florida the destination of choice for New Yorkers.

Most of those old resorts have sat abandoned for decades. Their exteriors are decaying and wild vegetation is reclaiming once manicured landscapes. A few of the larger resorts managed to change with the times and survived to become premier attractions today. But the Belt isn't what it was.

In an effort to boost the struggling economy of the region, recent changes in state law have loosed restrictions on gambling, which is expected to give rise to construction of new resorts and casinos, though according to local

reporting, some powerful forces are at work to thwart that effort and the issue is far from decided.

Another weekend on Long Island included visits and dinners out with more family and a day on the beach at Robert Moses State Park where my older brother, David, now 60, has spent 43 summers as a lifeguard. Yeah, he has a regular job, too.

The second week of the trip took me to Seattle and the home of my in-laws. The Takeokas celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Lynn pulled our daughter, Kate, from school for the week and joined us there.

I was putting on pounds. Eating and drinking had been the primary activity over the past week and I was looking at another week full of the same. I wasn't disappointed.

Tuesday, I took the in-laws and my family to Safeco Field for a Mariner's game. At the time, the team clung to a slim mathematical chance at the playoffs, though that hope has since died. The M's won in dramatic fashion in extra innings. Kate was captured on camera dancing at her seat and displayed on the stadium's huge screen. She didn't see it, but we all did.

The last part of the week was spent in a rented house on Orcas Island, an anniversary present from the children. Hiking, lounging in the hot tub, pulling crab pots from my brother-in-law's boat and simply sitting about chatting kept us fully occupied.

Of all the memories to be taken from trips back home, however often or rare, is the reaffirmation of how good it is to have such strong family ties. Given the current uncertainty of world affairs and the anxieties they inspire, just knowing that out there is your rock-solid base gives you much from which to draw.

A beach at Cancun can wait a while longer. Until the really aged ones are gone and the urgency of frequent contact is lifted a bit, future trips Outside will include still more visits home.

And, you know, that's OK with me.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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