Sunday, March 5, 2017

Goodbye Yuku Tanaka, My Sensei, My Friend


I met Yuku on a one-mile boardwalk loop called Cranes Roost Park in the early 1990s when I lived in Altamonte Springs, Fla. We were both runners and it always seemed that we ran in opposite directions. We would pass each other and wave, usually six times each morning.

I didn’t know her name and I didn’t know she was nearly 30 years older than me. I just knew she was a determined little Japanese woman who could put down the mileage and never change expression.

Eventually, I bumped into her at an Orlando road race. She said, “I’m Yuku. I see you at Cranes Roost.” The next race I saw her and she asked if I would like to join her for lunch with the Japanese runners who were visiting from Urayasu – Orlando’s sister city.

I had no idea what I was getting into because those Japanese runners wanted to go to HOOTERS! So I sat there eating chicken wings and watching jetlagged Japanese male runners stare at Hooters waitresses as they pounded down beer. Yuku just giggled and told me, “Japanese people, they crazy.”

Yuku and I would go on to run a lot of road races together throughout the years. She was in her mid-60s and I was in my mid-30s. We didn’t run the same times, but she would usually win her age group, and if I was lucky, I might finish in the top-10 of mine. But she always won trophies, and when we carpooled to races, we had to hang around to the end so she could pick up her prizes. Yuku was among running royalty in Orlando.

If we weren’t running road races, we had another Saturday ritual. I would pick her up at her house and we would go to the Winter Park Farmer’s Market, then go to lunch at some new restaurant she had read about in the newspaper, stop by Track Shack, our favorite Orlando running store, and end the day with a visit to Dong A, a rambling Asian grocery store loaded with exotic foods and goods from throughout Asia.

Often, Yuku would pick up groceries at Dong A and cook for me later in the week. I fell in love with her traditional Japanese cooking with such dishes as chirashi (a tossed sushi), hijiki (a seaweed), goma-ae (spinach), spicy gobo (burdock root), miso soup, mochi (pounded rice) and yosenabe (a type of hot-pot soup).

She would tell me stories of how “the mochi men” came to her family’s home when she was a child to pound rice with wooden mallets into a sticky glutinous brick, which was an important food during the Japanese New Year’s celebration. She would also make “rice ball” for me, showing me how to hold the formed rice in her fingers just so, and how the sushi rice needed the right amount of sweet and rice vinegar. She said she made her rice like her mother and that everybody’s rice in Japan was unique to the family’s taste.

We both loved Thai food and once, we ordered a spicy whole fish at a local restaurant for lunch. The dish was so spicy I felt like my inner ear was sweating, but we picked one side of the fish clean, then flipped it over and with our chopsticks, polished off the other side. As we sat there staring at the skeleton of the fish we had just woofed down and dabbing our faces with paper napkins, Yuku laughed and said, “Looks like raccoons were here.” Yes, and they had chopsticks.

I eventually got a job with another magazine and moved to Connecticut. I kept in touch with Yuku and visited when I could get to the Orlando area several times a year. Whenever I did, Yuku loaded up my bags with homegrown pumelo from her fruit trees and homemade inari sushi – my favorite.

She was diagnosed with cancer while I was in Connecticut and had a kidney removed. She also underwent chemotherapy, so I teased her and said her hair would come back blonde or curly. She just laughed.

After her treatments were over, she telephoned one day and said she had decided to run a marathon for the first time. She was now 77. I told her if her doctor said she could do it, we could enroll her in a marathon-training program and then I would run a marathon with her. She did, and we ran the New York City Marathon together in 1998. I had already run that race two previous times, so I knew this would be her race and our celebration that cancer was gone. We would start together and finish together.

Yuku was determined and she ran well, but she got tired late in the race. I encouraged her, walking with her when she needed to slow down, and picking it up again after water stops. Nearing mile 26, Yuku said she didn’t think she could finish. “Yuku, you didn’t beat cancer to quit now, and you didn’t do all that training in the Florida heat to fly up here and not get across the finish line. So let’s go!” I said. I grabbed her little arm and off we went -- Yuku smiling at the finish line and later, staring at the finisher’s medal hanging around her neck.

She went on to run more marathons and when the Japanese runners came from Urayasu to run the Disney Marathon, Yuku and I would usually meet up with them for a meal before the race and then go with them for Chinese dim sum (dumplings) after the race. Most of the time, I had no clue what was being said, but it’s amazing how you can share a meal together and language barriers don’t matter. Good is good, no matter which language you speak.

I ran the Disney Marathon eight times, always starting with my friend Yuku. I remember seeing her in the race and yelling for her. I also remember seeing some of the Japanese runners who drank beer the night before the race struggling on the course. I yelled out to one, “Mr. Kobayashi, drink water, not beer!” He laughed and waved.

Later that day, as we entertained the Urayasu runners over dim sum at Orlando’s Ming Court, I watched a tired and still-jetlagged Mr. Kobayashi’s head sink closer and closer to his plate. He eventually went to his rental car and fell fast asleep in the parking lot. Yuku just laughed and once again uttered her favorite expression: “Japanese people, they crazy.”

Time passed and we shared many more episodes of joy and despair. She was so happy when I was finally able to travel to Japan on business. She was thrilled when I brought her fresh plum mochi from the city I had visited and she listened intently when I described how elderly women were the ones who dove into the deep, dark water for the cultured Mikimoto pearls.

But there were also dark days. Yuku’s husband died after his own battle with cancer. Then her house was severely damaged when the 2004 hurricanes ripped off her roof and she was forced to move into a hotel for nine months while her home was rebuilt. Her son also died and she went into self-imposed isolation for about a year. And then thieves stole her car from the driveway and took it for a joy ride.

Her late husband’s best friend Hank also got sick on a Thanksgiving morning when Hank and Yuku were planning to drive over to the beach where I live and join me for the holiday meal. Instead, Yuku and I spent Thanksgiving in a hospital emergency waiting room. The surgeon eventually emerged, telling us Hank had colon cancer and had just undergone major surgery.

In spite of so many bumps in the road, Yuku stayed active and determined. She walked road races into her 80s, went to the JCC in Maitland for “Silver Sneakers” senior workouts, loved to go out to lunch, read the Orlando Sentinel every morning, showed off new cookbooks every time I visited, and could tell you every point of tennis matches she had watched on the Tennis Channel.

But then the cancer returned. It was discovered a few years ago when Yuku fell and broke both wrists while running. As doctors tried to determine why she was stumbling and falling, a tumor was discovered in her brain. Again, she underwent treatment, including radiation. And again, Yuku appeared resilient, rallying as she had done so many times before.

This time, however, the tumor was growing rapidly. Yuku’s once remarkable balance and grit were now being usurped by the mass in her brain. This tumor didn’t care what she had already been through in life. It didn’t care that she had done more in 86 years than most people could even imagine.

This was the woman who once told me she had seen bombers fly into her Japanese city many years ago, and how the citizens would hide under cars or whatever they could find when they heard the roar of the incoming planes. The American bombers were “so close, you could see their eyes,” she said. She remembered the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, and the pain of war.

But Yuku would go on to marry an American sailor and move to the United States. She would follow him around America, learning English and learning American ways. She was with her husband in 1964 when they were based in Alaska and a magnitude 9.2 earthquake shook the Alaskan coastline. With a resulting massive tsunami on its way, Yuku hurriedly took her cat and a bag of rice and headed for the top of mountain to wait out the destruction that would ultimately kill 119 people.

Even for a woman who lived through war, natural disasters, loss of loved ones and property -- and sometimes, social acceptance because of her heritage -- my friend Yuku showed me an unparalled tenacity. As the tumor pressed against her brain, she struggled to find words during my visit to her hospital room in December 2016.

She looked weak and tiny. She was confused. She was tired. She looked at me and said, “What can you do? Sometimes it just is.”

In her final days, Yuku didn’t recognize her friends anymore and her family was half a world away. Now, she spoke only Japanese. She also crawled deep into a place so distant that she was gone before any of us knew it. Her long race had finally come to the home stretch.

Years ago, Yuku asked me if I would take her ashes back to her home in Kyushu Island to the Tanaka family cemetery. That request seemed so far away at the time. I viewed her as a runner who only saw the road before her and feared nothing.

But now, it is here, and when the time is right, I will take Yuku home to Kyushu. I’ll do it both with great sadness for the loss of my friend, but also with tremendous gratitude for all she has taught me.

Arigato, Yuku-san. Domo arigato.

- Lisa D. Mickey, March 5, 2017

Monday, September 12, 2016

More Than Just Tacos


It started with a conversation about fish tacos and how so many restaurants get it wrong.

“They put cheese on the fish and use lettuce instead of chopped cabbage,” I fussed.

And they miss the whole point of its simple and rustic origin.

Amanda nodded and smiled at my empty plate.

I had just polished off a couple of her spicy “Bang Shrimp Tacos” on homemade corn tortillas with cabbage and lime juice. It was my once-a-week stop at her Honduran taco stand in New Smyrna Beach after the Sunday beach mass.

But as much as I love Amanda’s fish and shrimp tacos, what I truly appreciate is the conversation that happens over plates of real food cooked with real love.

Amanda has been running her little taco and ice cream shop for about two years. It’s something she never could have envisioned way back on the dirt roads of Honduras where she grew up.

Her family didn’t have electricity, so their food was always fresh. There were fresh eggs from the hens and if they planned to eat chicken that day, they’d catch one, slaughter it and have it in a pot stewing for lunch.

“So, how do you catch a chicken?” I asked.

“You have to be fast,” said Amanda with a huge smile.

Amanda’s mother made cheese every two weeks from the cows in their yard, which also provided fresh milk for the kids. Queso blanco, as fresh as you could get it.

Her mother also made her own corn tortillas -- first roasting the corn ears, and then grinding the kernels into a corn masa for the fluffy, slightly fire-tinged tortillas considered a staple in her family’s modest home.

There also was no running water. They drank, bathed and washed clothes by hand in the same river.

Where Amanda grew up, kids went to school from kindergarten to fifth grade. After that, there were no schools in the area, so children either went to schools in far-away cities and stayed with relatives, or found jobs.

Sometimes, it was nearly impossible to go to school and to stay awake because of the jobs they had. Most of the time, girls got married early.

Amanda left home to work as domestic help for a family several hours away. She worked every day from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. She cared for children, cooked and washed clothes by hand on a scrubbing board.

She was paid $20 a month. The family allowed her to go home and visit her mother every two years.

Eventually, Amanda found a better job working in an ice cream shop. That job led to an even better-paying job working in a gas station for a Peruvian owner.

Amanda worked hard and cared about her work, which was noticed by an American who was visiting in Honduras with a church mission program. A mutual friend introduced the two and they began dating.

They married in July in Honduras and her husband took her home with him that autumn to Albany, N.Y., where they had another wedding service.

Amanda experienced her first winter that year in upstate New York. She asked her husband when it was going to be warm again. “In a few weeks,” he told her. Those weeks turned into months and mercifully, finally turned into spring.

Shortly after that, Amanda became pregnant with their first child. Slipping on ice one day during her pregnancy, she fell face first into icy snow as she used her hands and arms to protect her protruding belly on impact. Looking at his wife’s bloodied face, her husband agreed to look for work in Florida.

The two arrived in Central Florida and for the first year, Amanda focused on getting her family settled. Then, Amanda began dreaming about the food from home that she missed.

She wondered if she could transfer some of what she had grown up making back home into this modern world where she now lived? She wondered if Americans would appreciate the nature of something as simple as a taco?

She could have bought tortillas and salsa from the food distributor for her restaurant, but to Amanda, the commercially produced products were not how the food should taste.

Instead, she arrives at her restaurant each morning and chops tomatoes and chili peppers. She doesn’t roast the corn as her mother does, but she makes her own tortillas, turning each one over the fire until flames singe the edges.

She also carefully shapes tamales and stuffs them into the banana leaves that she buys at the local Latin grocery store. There are no banana trees in her back yard and the store where she now shops would dwarf the closest tienda back home.

But Amanda lovingly prepares her food for strangers in the way that she knows. It’s done in the same way that sustained her family, offered comfort and rendered memories.

She doesn’t expect the out-of-town guests who are used to large American restaurant chains and cheesy dishes to always understand her food, but she likes it when their plates are clean.

And she likes it when the locals return, week after week.

After all, what Amanda crafts in her kitchen is simple and basic. Handmade. And every detail is carefully considered as she chops and cooks in the rhythm of her daydreams.

She remembers where she’s been. She thinks she’s now where she’s supposed to be.

And she marvels at how dreams and tacos can turn into friends and livelihood.

Or even how conversation can link worlds and people who thought they just came through the door to eat.

- Lisa D. Mickey, September 12, 2016

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering A Soldier: Young Widow Turns To Pro Golf



In May 2007, while working for the LPGA’s FUTURES Tour, I had one of the most unforgettable interviews I’ve ever had with a young professional golfer. Jenny Hansen of Nebraska had qualified for the Futures Tour and had left home to test herself against other young pros. But Jenny had already encountered arguably the greatest test of her life. She had just buried her husband, a soldier who was killed in Iraq.

Jenny played professional golf for a few years, but eventually returned home to Nebraska. She later remarried and is a mom now.

I always think of Jenny and her late husband, Jeff Hansen, at this time of year. This story was written years ago for the Futures Tour’s website and probably only a handful of people read it, but Jenny’s story has stayed with me for all of these years. I hope this story will remind you why we celebrate Memorial Day. - LM 

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May 28, 2007 -- Last Memorial Day, Jenny Hansen went through the motions of celebrating the national holiday just as many other Americans do every year. There were flags, fireworks, ice cream and neighborhood cookouts for the official kickoff to summer. And in her hometown in Cairo, Neb., a town of nearly 750 residents, everybody knew the ones who had served their country and the ones who were now serving overseas.

But Hansen’s world in small-town America changed dramatically last August. She was working as a manager at an Appleby’s restaurant, holding down the household while her husband, Jeff Hansen, served a tour of duty in Iraq with the National Guard.

The former University of Nebraska-Kearney golfer had no way of knowing how much her life would change when the telephone rang at work one day and the soldier’s voice on the line said, “There’s been an accident. We need for you to come to Germany.”

So many thoughts raced through her mind as she stood amid the clanging hustle of the busy restaurant, clutching the telephone that had just delivered words too potent to completely process. She pondered the weight of the words and the nature of the accident. She thought of her husband waiting for her in a hospital bed, far from the homey comforts of Nebraska.

Jeff Hansen was a police officer in Kearney while Jenny was a college student. They met at a college football game and hit it off. Jeff later asked Jenny if she’d like to go for a walk. The two had their first kiss at the fountain on campus. When Jeff proposed to Jenny during her senior year of college, it was on the 18th green after the final round of the 2002 NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championship in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“Being with him was just easy,” said Hansen, 27, a rookie on the FUTURES Tour this season. “Jeff came and watched me play college golf and he loved it. He was simple and happy.”

But two weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2002, the National Guard called him to serve in Germany as support for U.S. troops. Jeff asked if his deployment could be delayed. Jenny and Jeff were married on October 12, 2002, and he was deployed two days later on October 14th.

Jeff was sent to Bosnia, where he served for 10 months. He consoled his new bride and told her it was “not a big deal,” and that everything would be fine. When he returned home to Nebraska, he became a federal police officer and went to work at the local veteran’s hospital.

“We were on the fast track,” said Jenny. “I had a great job managing the restaurant and he had a great job. We had bought a house, had cars, a boat and a dog. We were getting ready for the next thing.”

But the next thing was a new request by the U.S. Government. Jeff left for Iraq in October 2005. Along with so many other families in the area, Jenny said goodbye to her husband at the air base in Lincoln, Neb.

As a Cavalry scout, his job in Iraq was to go ahead of troops or units of soldiers to secure an area for others to follow. The job was dangerous and this time, Jenny knew her husband was using his experience as a police officer on a much larger scale than anything he had ever known back home in Nebraska.

“He was never scared to go,” she said. “In fact, he wanted to go and believed that’s what he needed to do. He felt he was in Iraq for me, just as he was there for the children of Iraq. It was like he always had a bigger purpose.”

One of Jeff’s duties in Iraq was protecting a specific canal. One night last August, he and three other soldiers drove their Humvee alongside the canal during a fierce sand storm. Suddenly, their vehicle hit a large sinkhole and the Humvee flipped over, pinning the soldiers under water.

Jeff Hansen normally rode in the front of the vehicle, but when he was pulled from the water, he was in the rear of the Humvee where the other soldiers normally rode. The three other soldiers were rescued, which the U.S. Army believed were likely freed by the Nebraskan. Jeff was eventually airlifted from the accident scene, but that evacuation was hampered by the raging sand storm.

“They resuscitated him, but they couldn’t save him,” said Jenny.

Jenny boarded the plane to Germany, not really knowing what she would find. She rode alongside her mother, Becky Deines, and Jeff’s father, Bob Hansen. Jeff’s mother had succumbed to cancer two months earlier, so the members of the two families clung to each other as they crossed the Atlantic, hoping for the best and dreading the worst.

“I convinced myself that he would hear my voice and it would be a medical miracle,” said Jenny. “When we got there, Army ministers briefed us on what we would see. I went into his room and he was lying there, hooked up to a machine. He had a scar on his chin and I kept touching the scar and just trying to believe it was all going to be alright.”

But in that hospital room, the soldier’s bride and former NCAA Division II All-American golfer, came to a sudden crossroads in her young life.

Gone were those easy days of dogs barking across whispering cornfields or shouts of touchdown triumphs for the home team. Gone was the laughter and the kiss at the fountain. Gone was the uncomplicated innocence of small-town America.

This was Germany, miles from home. This was war. This was the most unbelievable circumstance she could ever imagine.

And now, at age 26, she was being forced to make the biggest decision in her life. Jeff Hansen, at age 31, had made the ultimate sacrifice. And as she stared across the hospital bed at the man with whom she had planned to spend the rest of her life, Jenny knew that her husband would never really come home.

“Sometimes, you just make a decision,” she said quietly. “It wasn’t an option. I guess I can second-guess it for the rest of my life, but we found peace with the decision we had to make.”

The breathing ventilator was turned off. The family huddled together. An hour later, Jeff Hansen was gone.

“It was like he was waiting for it to be OK,” Jenny said.

Four days later, Jeff Hansen was buried with military honors at the Lutheran Church in Minden, Neb. A group called “The Patriot Guard” escorted the family to the burial services, keeping their roaring motorcycles between the family and anti-war protestors.

It was surreal. It was numbing. It was something for which she could never have been prepared.

And then a letter arrived at Jenny’s home. It was from Jeff.

Weeks earlier, she had asked her husband what he thought about her trying to play golf professionally. She wanted to test herself and see if she had what it took to compete on the next level. Jeff had written to his wife to say that he was glad she had refocused on golf. The timing of the letter was uncanny. He was gone, but his words of support were as strong as ever as she struggled with what her future held.

“The letter told me to find the focus and dedication that I needed in my life and if there was something I wanted to do, to just do it,” she said. “I still read that letter all the time. I think Jeff wanted me to find new meaning in my life and to not be afraid to try.”

As chance would have it, Hansen traveled to the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship last October, where she met teaching professional and former LPGA Tour member Sue Ertl. Ertl was moved by the Nebraskan’s personal story and her determination to begin taking bold new steps in her life.  Ertl began working with Hansen as her golf instructor.

“It’s easy to watch TV and to know there’s a war going on from afar, but it’s a lot different to know someone who’s been personally touched by this and to see her make a life transition because of it,” said Ertl, who played on the LPGA Tour for 11 years. “I guess none of us can relate to what she’s going through, but she’s committed to chiseling out her new life. Jenny’s using golf as a bridge between now and what’s next.”

What’s next for Hansen took her out of Nebraska. She earned playing status last November at the FUTURES Tour’s Qualifying Tournament and moved to Florida to live with an aunt so she could practice and compete during the winter months. Hansen turned professional in January this year. She has gotten into tournament fields twice this season on the FUTURES Tour, missing the cut in both, but walking away with the assurance that this is a personal challenge she must attempt.

“I’m proud that she felt strong enough to be able to try this,” said Jenny’s mother, Becky Deines. “Jeff always wanted Jenny to play golf and she knows this is what he’d want her to be doing. I don’t want her to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t I take a chance?’ Maybe too, it will help heal the hurt and allow her to move on.”

Hansen knows that being successful on the tour is a long way from her days as the individual champion of the 2002 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and the 2002 NCAA Division II Western Regional Championship.

She knows there is much to learn as a young pro. And she recognizes that there are still plenty of days when she longs for a life untouched by war and unmarred by heartbreak.

“You always know in a marriage there’s going to come a time when you have to say goodbye, but you think you’ll be in your 70s or 80s and that maybe you’ll live with the loss for only a few years,” she said. “I’ll deal with this for 70 years. You don’t really move on. You move with it.”

Hansen wears her husband’s military identification “dog tags” underneath her golf shirts and carries a Ping golf bag that has a digital military print on it. She has received some 3,000 letters, 20 handmade quilts and a gaggle of crocheted angels and butterflies from supportive military families and individuals around the nation. She appreciates each gesture and knows the last nine months would have been even more difficult without the help of others.

“I know things are going to be up and down for a while and I’ll give myself time,” she said quietly. “But I don’t feel like I walk alone. I have an angel walking every step with me.”

- Lisa D. Mickey, May 25, 2015

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dinner At Pauline's


Pauline pushed her way through the swinging doors with a steaming tray of kale in her hands. She carefully lined up the buffet as customers – no, call them neighbors – showed up for dinner.

Even at 69, Pauline has a youthful way about her. Wearing a sundress and padding in and out of the kitchen in her bare feet, she greeted her guests in the same way a cousin welcomes a cousin into their home on a Sunday afternoon.

Only this was not Pauline’s home. This was actually the small church that she grew up attending in the tiny community of Samsula, literally an agricultural road in Central Florida 25 minutes south of Daytona Beach, an hour north of Orlando, and a short imaginary gentle horse trot from a manicured golf-course community in New Smyrna Beach.

The church was going to be torn down because termites had unleashed a relentless taste for this place of worship in a tiny community of Slovenian farmers and ranchers. Pauline used to cook for friends and neighbors in her house next to where the church now sits, but three years ago, her house burned to the ground when she walked a family member to the nearby elementary school and forgot that a frying pan of bacon was cooking on her stove.

With the help of friends and neighbors, her house was rebuilt, but it was not large enough for Pauline to cook like she enjoys cooking. So when she learned that her childhood church was going to meet the bulldozers, she bought it, moved it across the street and across the cow pasture from her new home. It’s close enough that if somebody wants hot sauce on their food and she has run out, she can send her boyfriend across the pasture to her house to retrieve a bottle.

Of course, there are countless home-cooking kind of restaurants, but Pauline’s kitchen -- which is not advertised, does not have a website and officially, does not have a name -- is one of those special places that only the family and neighbors know about and selectively bring others.

She serves a buffet on most Thursday nights and breakfast on most Sundays. On a recent Sunday, it was obvious that word had leaked out to the wintering snowbirds as cars with license plates from Ontario, Massachusetts and New York lined the church’s gravel parking lot.

Pauline’s food is plenty good. On “Slovenian Night,” she offered kielbasa and homemade kraut, beef tenderloin, German potato salad, several other entrees and kale from her garden. She also served a cream of broccoli soup with broccoli she picked from her garden, and homegrown lettuce in her salads. Her homemade apple strudel with ice cream was good enough to qualify as sin on a plate.

But as tasty as it is, it’s not the food at Pauline’s that makes this visit to the old church so special. It’s the fact that this spot is where family, friends and neighbors happily and gratefully spend time together. It’s where her little cousins come to celebrate their birthdays and where, during one of those celebrations, Pauline came through the swinging kitchen doors with a homemade sheet cake in her hands decorated with small plastic horses.

It’s where old men come to dinner with grandsons who can afford to buy them dinner. It’s where friends and neighbors talk across the room to each other and ask about the family, the farm, the cattle and the mud hole that filled up in the road with the last rainstorm.

It’s where teenage girls talk about their horses and teenage boys compare details about their ATVs. It’s where plans are made for weddings, anniversaries, reunions and funerals. It’s where memories fill a room and future plans are laid out on tables decorated with Easter bunnies. It’s where old china plates are filled with buffet items and where cut-crystal dishes of homemade preserves appear with steaming homemade biscuits at Sunday brunch.

“See that room over there?” said Pauline, pointing across what used to be the tiny sanctuary. “That was my Sunday school room when I was a kid. When I heard they were going to tear this place down, I knew I had to buy the church. I knew I could cook here.”

As the Thursday evening dinner crowd thinned out, Pauline strolled the sanctuary/dining area with a beer in hand. She asked her guests if they got enough to eat and if they liked their food. She thanked them for coming over. She asked questions and listened for answers.

She also talked about needing to work on the family tree that she hangs on one wall of the old sanctuary, adding “there have been additions to the family ” and that she needed to get it finished by the next family reunion this summer.

Walking out into a cool spring night, her customers/family members gathered on the front porch talking. Nobody snuck glances at cell phones. Nobody texted or snapped “selfies.” These were people who had known each other their entire lives who were still engaged with the every-day concerns of their family and neighbors.

Talk spilled into the still night air and laughter was genuine, comfortable, easy. As the adults talked, teenage girls climbed over the pasture fence and played with some goats.

Somewhere down the road, a cow uttered a low bellow and a peacock shrieked, probably as it climbed into a tree with the setting sun. Loose gravel turned and crunched as cars rolled out of the driveway.

Driving home, I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows and smelled the country air of Samsula. People go to bed early here and rise with the sun. They have horses and cows to feed, sod to mow and cut, feed & seed stores to run, and vegetables to grow.

This is a tiny spot on the map and if you don’t know it’s here, it’s easy to drive right on by. And if you do know where to find Samsula and you ever encounter the forgotten feel of community, it’s amazing to recall that something that was normal 40 to 50 years ago, still exists here as a matter of daily routine. People here still care, still talk to each other and still listen.

No wonder Pauline bought the old church. No wonder she loves nothing more than to share the food her family grows.

No wonder her sanctuary is a familiar place that has welcomed friends, family and even strangers for decades. And no wonder we all consider ourselves lucky to be neighbors, even if we don’t share blood.

- Lisa D. Mickey, April 10, 2014

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Personal Christmas Story


I was a lucky kid. I grew up in a neighborhood where my cousins lived two doors down and my aunt and uncle lived across the street. Everybody knew everybody and, as kids, we were in and out of each other’s houses all the time.

But one afternoon, I came home early, upset at some news my cousin Ann had given me. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was young and very troubled by this news.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked after I came storming into our house.

“Ann says there is no Santa Claus!” I replied.

My mother looked at me, took me by the hand and led me into the living room. She sat down at the piano and patted the piano bench for me to sit down beside her. Then she started playing Christmas carols and singing.

Pretty soon, I was singing along with her. We sang for quite a while and I kind of forgot why I was so upset.

After a bit, my mom stopped playing and read something to me about the spirit of Christmas. She told me about the spirit of giving and, in context of the Christmas story, what the first gift symbolized at the season we now know as Christmas.

She explained how Christmas got its name. And she explained that while Santa Claus is a character who helps many people understand giving and receiving presents, the real reason we share at Christmas season is less about a man in a red suit scurrying around the planet leaving gifts for children than about the gift of child by the creator to teach us lessons about living life on earth peacefully and abundantly.

My mother never said there was a Santa Claus. She never said there wasn’t a Santa Claus. All she said was that giving was about the spirit of a season for Christian people around the world.

And, she added that we should never give to receive, but to feel the joy of sharing with others whenever we can. To feel the spirit of Christmas is to understand the real meaning of Christmas, she said.

We sang a few more songs and I eventually slid off the piano bench reassured that Christmas as I’d always known it was not suddenly ending.

Maybe I’ve always been a little miffed at my cousin Ann for popping my bubble of belief in the story of Santa, but I’ll always remember how my mom handled that day. She made it all OK. She reminded me of what I needed to remember.

And to this day, when I find myself overwhelmed by the most mass-commercialized and distorted season of giving imaginable, I tiptoe my brain back to my mother’s piano bench and hear two voices singing in the afternoon. The spirit of Christmas was right there in the living room that day.

- Lisa D. Mickey, Dec. 25, 2013

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Mystery of Dude the Cat


The lizards have reclaimed the front porch. In fact, they are now sunbathing on warm bricks and strolling from plant to plant. They are no longer in a hurry to snatch a bug and run for cover.

A spider the size of my palm even had the audacity to find its way into my house and tiptoe above the sliding glass door in horrifying splendor. There was no bug-catcher on duty to chase it away, challenge its existence or alert the head of household.

That’s because, somehow, these creatures knew that Dude the cat was off duty. Gone. And they were now free to reestablish their places at my house with the feline sentinel no longer on patrol.

In past years, he would stalk the fastest lizards and sometimes present them to his mother, alive, albeit tailless. He would leap at the walls whenever a spider came to visit and either swat it down himself or summon his flip-flop-brandishing mother.

Dude arrived in a mystery nearly seven years ago. He was a friendly, adult “tuxedo” cat that just showed up one day when I lived in Lakeland, Fla. He walked down the sidewalk and greeted me. I petted him and told him he was a fine young man. I assumed he belonged to a neighbor.

At that time, I lived in a town home that did not allow pets, and I had a job that required nearly 20 weeks of travel each year. My life was not optimal to have a pet. I have had cats since I was in kindergarten. I still have the letter I gave my father as a child that said, “Dear Daddy, May I have a cat? Circle yes or no.” I missed having my own kitty, so this little visitor made me smile. I picked him up and felt that deep rumble of pleasure that only cats possess.

Soon, I discovered this cat was living beneath the bushes in front of my town home. And I felt a pang of concern one day when a neighbor’s Jack Russell Terrier flushed him out of the bushes and caused him to run and hide. This cat didn’t climb a tree. Instead, he ran and hid under cars in the parking lot. That’s when I figured out he had been declawed.

My roommate, at the time, knew how much I loved cats, so three days before my birthday in October 2006, she left the front door ajar and in walked the tuxedo cat. About that time, I was walking down the stairs from my bedroom, saw him and said, “Well, hey dude, what are you doing in here?” The cat looked at me, circled the room sniffing every inch, then rolled over on his back with four feet in the air and fell asleep for two hours.

That’s when I knew I had a cat. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have a pet, but I also wasn’t going to turn this cat loose to the dreaded Jack Russell Terrier. And something else happened. The complex where I lived was full of college students who, apparently, had owned pets, but when school was out, they left and also left behind their pets. The parking lot was full of cats and dogs and one day, while this new mystery kitty was in my house, an animal control officer came and rounded up all the strays and took them away. I told this cat he was one lucky dude. He was inside my house and missed his free ride to the animal shelter.

I did ask neighbors if anyone had lost a cat or knew who this cat’s owner might be, but nobody knew anything about him. So, I took him to a local vet to have him checked out. The vet said the cat had been neutered and declawed and had obviously been someone’s pet. He added that the cat was probably close to two years old, only had a few treatable parasites in his gut from scavenging for food, and then he congratulated me on my fine, new pet.

This cat’s name could only be Dude. He was truly some kind of dude with his own ideas about things and his own unique style of operating. When he wanted me to get out of bed in the morning, he would jump on the bed and pat me on the rump – sometimes even with both paws in a sweep-sweep-sweep motion on my rear end.

I am not a beef eater, but once, when my roommate had a steak at our house, Dude nearly jumped in her plate for a bite. Ditto for the bowl of Bailey’s Irish Cream ice cream she tried to eat while sitting on the floor. This cat obviously had distinguished taste!

Later, during the summers he spent at “camp” with his grandparents in North Carolina while I traveled for work, my mom informed me that he became very calm and relaxed whenever she played classical music. His favorite spot at my parents’ house was a small rug in the hallway – an intersection -- where he would lie on his back and welcome belly rubs from all who passed. Again, this cat had his own ideas about things.

I often wondered where he got his start, who his former owner had been, and even what was his original name? Sometimes, I tried out names on him to see if he would react. Mr. Whiskers? Tux? Spats? Boots? Who are you and where did you come from, I would ask. He would just blink or roll over for a belly rub.

In 2007, Dude moved with me to New Smyrna Beach, Fla. He now had a bigger house, a garage to explore and a front porch. I trained Dude to sit in a wicker chair on the porch through repetition and positive reinforcement. Sometimes he would sit in that chair for 40 minutes and watch the dog walkers go by. I would hear them say, “Hey Dude, aren’t you a good cat sitting in that chair?”

They would say he “acted more like a dog” (to which I would later apologize to him). The only time he would revert to his feline instincts was when the lizards forgot who was the boss of the porch. That’s why I kept large cups near the front and back doors – to catch the lizards he brought to me when they ran for cover out of the snare of his mouth.

Dude hated for me to travel and I went to great lengths to hide suitcases and to pack on the sly. I would hurriedly pack a few things while he sat on the porch. Still, he always seemed to know when I was leaving and hung his head or worse yet, hid under the bed as I tried to tell him goodbye.

I didn’t really get to tell him goodbye one week ago when he slipped out of this world. I had driven him up to North Carolina in mid-May to spend some of the summer at his grandparents’ house while I travel for several June writing assignments. My parents were excited to see him again and once he forgave me for the nine-hour car ride, he was happy to be at his Carolina home. He would fling himself at my father for belly rubs and visit my mom each time she sat in a reading chair, kneading on her lap with his eyes closed and his purr-engine running.

Dude began coughing and choking last fall and I assumed he was having trouble with fur balls – the accumulation of fur that cats often get in their throats from grooming. I bought him special cat food, combed him at least once a day and wondered why he was suddenly having such a problem with this?

At his annual veterinary visit, I asked the doctor to give him a chest x-ray. The x-ray revealed some “pathology,” as the doctors called it, but nobody was sure what it was. Maybe it was asthma or remnants of heartworms that could have occurred prior to being placed on medication. Maybe it was cancer. They just weren’t sure.

In February this year, Dude was placed on three different kinds of medicine twice a day for three weeks in an effort to eradicate whatever was in his lungs. He hated the Prednisone and antibiotics, but we got through the procedure and went back for another chest x-ray. The doctor said there was no improvement and basically, wished us good luck.

I sought a second opinion with a cat specialist in Ormond Beach, Fla. She informed me that the medications he had just taken had given him diabetes and that he needed to go on insulin immediately. I l learned this is often the case when animals are given rounds of aggressive treatment. Often, the diabetes is reversible once their insulin levels are under control.

The cat specialist suggested that we control his insulin level with daily shots and a high protein-low carb diet. Once we solved that problem, we could refocus on his lung issue. She also could not determine the nature of his ailment, but provided a bacon-flavored bronchodilator to help his breathing in the meantime.

All was seemingly going well. Dude didn’t even flinch from his daily insulin injections and was enjoying his $2-a-can gourmet cat food. While he didn’t particularly like receiving his oral medication each morning, I got it down to an art. The bacon-flavored oral med was down his throat before he could put up a fuss, and the next thing he knew, I had placed him right back down to his plate of food with such gourmet names as “Cowboy Cookout” and “Granny’s Chicken Potpie.”

When we arrived at his grandparents’ house, I showed my mother how to administer the daily meds and she mastered it quickly. Dude was now running their house. He was gaining back the weight he had lost before the insulin and was busy choosing between multiple nap spots in their house, both upstairs and in their full basement. My dad diligently swept the cement basement floor so Dude’s white boots wouldn’t turn gray.

Somehow, Dude knew when I was preparing to leave their house to go back to Florida. I tried to hide my travel bag, but he knew before any zippers had been pulled. He hid under my parents’ bed the morning I was to leave. I had to crawl under their bed and tell him goodbye. Lying on my stomach under the bed, I said, “Dude, I have to leave, but you get to stay here in good ol’ North Carolina with your grandparents, who love you dearly. I’ll come back and get you as soon as my traveling stops. I’m really going to miss you, but I know you are happy and safe here. Be good. I love you.”

Four days later, my mom called me in Florida and said, “If I didn’t know Dude had something wrong with him, I would never guess it.” He was no longer coughing or choking. Dude was sitting in windows, posturing for attention, enjoying his meals, exploring the basement and tolerating my young niece, who was small enough to join him with a flashlight in some of his hidden sleeping spots.

The very next day, my mom again called, this time with great urgency in her voice: “Lisa, we are at the emergency veterinary clinic. I think Dude is dying.”

Dude yelled out a week ago on a Sunday afternoon and my parents went running to see where he was. He was behind the bed in my room having difficulty breathing. My mom scooped him up, put him on a towel, and rode in the back seat of the car with him while my father drove to the emergency vet’s office in Winston-Salem.

At first, the doctors thought it was hypoglycemia and immediately treated him. But the problem was his breathing, so they placed him on oxygen. Dude didn’t respond. After several hours, a decision had to be made. None of us wanted him to linger in pain and suffering. We had to be merciful to this friend we all loved.

Dude was buried in the woods behind my parents’ house where so many of our other pets had gone to rest over the years. My parents placed flowers on his grave. My dad covered his grave with a tarp at night. All of us cried buckets of tears over this cat that had just walked into our lives, gave us such joy and then departed far too soon.

Certainly, Dude came to me in a mystery and left in a mystery. I’ll never know where he got his start and I’ll never know what snatched him from this earth after less than 10 years. I guess Dude always was on a mission. He had his own mind about things. And for now, all of those lizards on my front porch still have tails.

- Lisa D. Mickey, June 2, 2013

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Faith Like The Fishes


I’ve had a lot of time to think about things this year. Losing my job certainly freed up chunks of time and allowed for some serious reshuffling in my life, my perspectives and the very foundation on which everything I think and feel is based.

But while 2012 hasn’t been a blockbuster financial year, it has given me much for which to be grateful. So many times, I looked at my own predicament with great fear. It took all that I had to steady myself and focus on the future. It also took all that I had to let go of the anger and disgust that I have felt for my former employer. It felt as if I had trusted a longtime friend who had, inexplicably and without warning, kicked out my front teeth.

Of course, it’s far more difficult to take steps forward if you keep looking back. It takes time and a concerted effort to only look ahead. It takes faith to believe there is something for which to look forward. When my telephone started ringing with offers for new opportunities, it was as if I had been lifted by the collar and shaken by a universal force that was reminding me that my needs would be met if I could only believe things were happening right on time.

As new freelance jobs emerged just in time to pay my bills, so many times, I recalled the biblical story of the boy who helped feed a multitude of people with only five loaves of bread and two fishes. Back in January when I was told that my job was being eliminated, I wondered how I would make it? How would I survive with no income in a time when there are so few jobs – and even fewer in my field as a golf writer, where I had worked for the last 20-some years?

But just as the two fish and five loaves of bread in that story fed the masses, the opportunities continued for me. This year, there has been work with four magazines, three organizations, and 15 (so far) writing assignments in the New York Times. And then a grant opened up in August that has given me the opportunity to work with high school science students in my county to teach them about marine science.

I also enrolled in a program offered through the University of Florida to study to become a Florida Master Naturalist, which I recently completed. With that certification, along with my work as an eco-tour guide at a non-profit organization and the county’s educational grant program in the estuary, my focus has grown more in line with a new perspective about tomorrow. I can see myself transitioning into environmental writing. I can let go of the other things that I used to think were so important. I can dare to see beyond my own – and sometimes self-imposed – limitations.

Someone recently told me that, “faith is the belief that you already have what you have not yet received.” I buy into that notion. And if I have anything for which to be grateful during this Thanksgiving season and as this year comes to a close, it’s that it took a dramatic change of fortune for me to realize that the greatest gift I have is the gift of faith. With it, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible.

That might seem like such a “no-brainer” for many, but consider that I am a person who tends to want proof or evidence for any statement of fact. I want to see things to know them as truth. I need facts and validity. It’s just the way I am wired.

Interestingly, a new truth has emerged for me this year. It has been that as I have grown to trust that things will fall into place, they actually have. And in the weeks when I wanted and needed work, I got it. I hustled. I prayed. And it was provided.

I still don’t have a full-time job, but I do believe it will come. I have told friends that I have no reason to be so optimistic, but I feel like something good will happen and that all of this will someday make sense. Maybe that is how faith works. Maybe you have to clear out the trash in your head and heart and create an empty space to be filled by abundance.

And maybe like that child in the biblical story, faith is just as possible in mapping out a new career as it was when two fish fed 5,000 hungry people. I’m grateful I now know that if I believe strongly enough, good things will happen, but more importantly, the real blessing is the gift of faith. Without it, the paralysis of anger and the oh-so-tight grip of fear would never allow hope to reach for what lies ahead.

- Lisa D. Mickey, Nov. 22, 2012