Longevity, Loyalty and Love

June 10, 2014

I just returned from helping my parents celebrate their 70th anniversary (no, that is not a typo).

There were 200 people at the anniversary party last Saturday, including two who had been at the original event in 1944:  My mother’s sister (her maid-of-honor) and a classmate of my Dad’s.  Following is the toast I gave last Saturday:

We are here to honor longevity, but my parents’ marriage and this occasion represent a great deal more than just time spent together.

In 30 years of active duty, Jane and Paul made six coast-to-coast transfers, lived in 17 houses, attended at least that many churches, raised three children, and made it all into an adventure. When I look back on my youth, it’s with some awe that I realize the energy that my parents put into creating our lives and making our childhoods as seamless as possible: Finding a house, enrolling us in school and supporting disparate youth activities, exploring our new city, wherever we happened to be. And then starting all over again somewhere else in another three or so years.

And it’s clear that everywhere Jane and Paul have landed, they have created community, and they have built a home. Wherever they have been, they have made good friends, which is why there are so many of us in this room today.

When I told  friends that my parents were about to celebrate their 70th anniversary they were astounded. When I told them that the party was planned for 200 people, they were speechless.

What’s the secret of Jane and Paul’s success? My parents would say that longevity isn’t good for much if it isn’t partnered with loyalty and love.

It hasn’t always been easy. I think my siblings would agree that growing up a Peak wasn’t for the faint-of-heart. Jane and Paul set high standards and expected us to live up to them. They still do, of course, and now the grandchildren get the brunt of those expectations. Among the life lessons Jane and Paul have imparted to us is the reality that loyalty and love go hand-in-hand. Dad has always found tremendous meaning in being part of something larger than himself – the Coast Guard is the most obvious example, but so are all the volunteer organizations to which he has belonged. Twenty years ago, Dad claimed current or previous membership in 35 tax-exempt organizations. The number has only grown since then.

And my parents may have slowed down in their activities, but just barely. You may be aware that Jane is currently serving a three-year term on her college Alumni Board. This requires her to travel to Connecticut College for board meetings and, last month at graduation, it found her in academic procession, complete in cap-and-gown.

Longevity, loyalty, and love. Love for country, and unconditional love for family. In August, Jane and Paul will be heading to San Diego for a gathering of the Peak clan, including all three of Dad’s brothers. Roger and Nicki and I grew up attending these Peak reunions, and again, we – and our cousins — thought they were normal. Today, I would more specifically describe them as awesome.

Jane and Paul’s unconditional love for their children and grandchildren doesn’t keep them from getting exasperated by our antics at times, but any criticism has always been leveled at the act, not at the actor. And more typically, their enthusiasm and support for our activities is boundless to the point of embarrassment.

Seventy years is a long time. It’s so long that the gemstone people don’t come up with a special stone for the year; they just keep on repeating diamonds. Hallmark doesn’t bother putting out a specific card. Seventy years is so long, in fact, that it’s remarkably close to one-third the age of our nation. Jane and Paul have been working on their genealogy for a long time, and now they have become ancestors in their own right. And like all good ancestors, they have created a legacy for those who come after them. A legacy of love and loyalty – as well as longevity.

So let’s raise our glasses in a toast to Jane and Paul.


What’s Old is Young

June 3, 2014

When my parents moved into their independent living retirement complex 25 years ago, they were in their late ’60s and the youngest residents in the building.

They were also young by “Greatest Generation” standards to make such a move. But they had a motivation: They had spent the previous decade caring for their aging parents — at one time both my grandmother and a great-aunt were permanent residents in their home — and they were determined that their children (as my mother used to put it), “wouldn’t have to go through all that.”

So they moved to Vinson Hall, a retirement community in northern Virginia originally built to provide dignity for widows (they were all widows in those days) of officers in the maritime forces (Navy, Marines, Coast Guard) who didn’t have the resources they needed to live independently.

My parents were part of a new wave of elders who moved into a retirement complex because they emotionally wanted to, not because they financially had to. And while they were still a couple. They moved into what I remember was described at that time as the largest apartment in the building — a large one-bedroom created by drilling a hole in the wall and putting two studios together. It WAS large — with a “project room” after one of the kitchens was dismantled, and two (count ‘em, two!) bathrooms.

How times have changed.

Today my parents, now in their early ’90s, have lived in Vinson Hall longer than any other VH residents, and longer than any other home they ever lived in. But they are far from the eldest at Vinson Hall: In fact, my father assures me that the median age of the residents is now somewhere in the late ’80s, up by about a decade from when they moved in.

So by Vinson Hall standards, their age isn’t anything exceptional: They have plenty of neighbors also in their 90s, and a few residents are over 100. In fact, Dad showed me the program for a memorial service to remember all those residents who died last year: There were close to 20 names on the list, and ALL the deceased had been in their 80s or 90s. No residents in their 70s died last year.

So much for the Biblical “three score and ten.”

Not only are residents arriving late and staying later, they are arriving with more stuff. My parents’ apartment is now dwarfed by two- and three-bedroom suites, and a new building is going up within the complex in which ALL the units will be size-ably greater than those from the existing building. Already, the new building is sold out, and move-in date isn’t until the last quarter of the year.

One more statistic: This week my parents will celebrate their 70th (!) wedding anniversary. That’s an incredible milestone, even by Vinson Hall standards. What a legacy!

Nine Years After the Storm

May 11, 2014

I always remind myself that I have never been to a war zone.

This summer will mark the ninth anniversary of Katrina.  Here along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the waves rose up to 30 feet and the tidal surge was 12 feet. Structures that had survived 150 years couldn’t withstand the pressure, and hundreds of people died.

Driving along Highway 90 — the beach road, as it were — remains a surreal experience.  Yes, the place is neat and tidy.  Trees have had their limbs pruned and are once again full and green.  The city smartly turned loose the chainsaw artists on those trees that didn’t make it; rather than  fallen stumps there is weird chainsaw art along the road.  The casinos are back in business — they represent corporate money —  and there are a few other stores and businesses.

The Waffle House franchise famously rebuilt its restaurants with remarkable speed, and as a result gained an even greater following than it had before the storm.  WH may not be upscale, but it is the place to go for grits, and since we didn’t have much time this trip, Frank and I indulged and I did my darndest.  (Maybe it’s the water.  Grits made up north just don’t taste the same.) Despite these small cultural indulgences, it’s hard to get away from the reality that Highway 90 runs past scores and scores of empty lots on what was once the most expensive land in the city.

For the most part, the grass is cut and the yards neat and trimmed (do you suppose there is a city ordinance enforcing neatness?).  But curb cuts lead to nothing, and concrete slabs stand empty.  I looked more closely, and realized that there are many, many “for sale by owner” signs along Highway 90,, and a remarkable number of historical markers announcing the “John Parker Stevens” (or whoever) house, even though the house no longer exists.  Only Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home, has been rebuilt and is once again open to the public.

And yet life goes on.  Children for whom Katrina is only a story their parents tell play in the hotel pool.  The beach is beautiful.  The seafood is good.  It’s only the holes where homes used to be and people used to live that tel the story.

The Epitome of Service Above Self

May 11, 2014

photo 2By prearrangement, we didn’t fly directly home. When we reached Boston we transferred to the Delta desk, and flew to Gulfport, MS, to take part in Rotary District 6840’s District Conference and help present a Service Above Self Award to a Rotarian whose work made a huge difference in bringing back his home town of Slidell after Katrina.

I first met Don O’Bryan in the months after Katrina when I first came down to Louisiana to help with the clean up. In the days following the storm, he had called the two presidents of the two local Rotary clubs, and recommended to each of them that the clubs work together to help rebuild. They both agreed, but each stipulated that Don should chair the resulting committee.

Rotary Rebuilds Slidell ended up working for two years to rebuild 13 non-profits in the city of Slidell. The non-profit raised $2.5 million, and Don O’B gave two years of his life to the effort. He wasn’t alone, of course, but he was the spark plug, the nag, the innovator, the conscience of the work.

I have always felt that Rotary International never properly noted the Rotarians in the Gulf who did so much after their neighborhoods and their way of life was destroyed. For example, the special issue of the “Rotarian” magazine dedicated to Katrina was all about Rotarians who got on an airplane and flew down here for a few weeks, not about those who were working to rebuild despite having lost their own home or business and certainly way of life. But I have also always felt that the District itself didn’t do enough to promote itself. For example, no one in the District has ever received a Service Above Self award for the work they did after Katrina.

Until now.

Last summer my classmate Governor Don Bryan and I both nominated Don O’Bryan (don’t get the two Dons mixed up; it’s easy to do!) for the award. News came in January that Don O’B had won, and 6840’s District Conference was the best time to award it (even if not convenient for the Helmans!).

As it turned out it wasn’t convenient for Don O’B either — a grandson graduated from college yesterday, and all his wife Nancy said was that they “had” to come to the DisCon luncheon. He was not convinced, but Nancy held firm. She also arranged for much of the family gathered for the graduation to come along as well, but to stay outside until the award speech was well underway.

Don O’B was surprised to see Frank and me at the DisCon, but too polite to make much of it. We enjoyed our lunch together — I also don’t think he noticed that we maneuvered the seating to be down front. When the time came. PDG Don and I went to the microphone, I explained what a Service Above Self Award was and then invited Nancy to bring Don O’B up on stage. That’s when he first saw his family and when he realized what was going on.

He is so deserving of the honor. As a rule, I hate surprises, but this one came off perfectly, and a Rotarian who has done so much was properly thanked in front of his peers — and his children and grandchildren. It was a wonderful day.

Winding Down

May 8, 2014

Wednesday, May 7

IMG_4127We woke up later than usual, but earlier than I would have preferred. We met the group at breakfast, and then met a local guide who gave us a walking tour of the old town. We had seen the inside of the Cathedral on Tuesday; this morning we saw the outside and talked about the history of the pilgrimage.

The Cathedral of Santiago is unique in that each facade of the building faces a square. There’s room for lots of pilgrims! Much of the building programs started 1000 years ago, so the basis of the buildings tend to be Romanesque, but there have been a lot of accretions since then. We learned about the legends of Santiago – how St. James came to Spain to spread the gospel; traveled back to Jerusalem where he was martyred, and how his body was brought back here by his followers to be buried. It’s legend, of course, but it’s not completely outrageous: Travel in Roman times was long but possible.

IMG_4044The pilgrimage began in earnest around 1000. The idea was that crusaders could get dispensation for their sins and go straight to heaven; shouldn’t the rest of us? Santiago Cathedral became the third most important pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, right after Jerusalem and Rome. A funny thing about St James’ bones: Philip II built El Escorial and wanted to endow it with the greatest ecclesiastical treasures in Spain. He asked the bishop of Santiago to send those bones. As it happened, the Armada had recently been lost, and Sir Francis Drake was harassing A Coruna and the north of Spain. The bishop wrote back to the King that he was sorry, the previous bishop had secreted the bones so that the English couldn’t get them, and no one knew where they were hidden. The story is that the bishop knew exactly where the bones were hidden, but after several generations of bishops, indeed, the bones became lost.

They were found 300 or so years later, right below the high altar. And that is where the crypt is today. If indeed the bones are those of St. James. Not that it matters much after all these centuries!

IMG_4111It took a combination of the Black Plague and Martin Luther to end the pilgrimage. People noticed that plague broke out when people from many distant places got together. And Luther’s Reformation not only cut the number of people interested in the pilgrimage, the Counter-Reformation paid less attention on indulgences to cut time in Purgatory.

Interestingly, the pilgrimage had been all but forgotten until the 19th century, when a few hardy souls restarted it. In the ‘60s a priest with a can of yellow paint made it his business to re-mark the route. In the ‘90s it became a New Age and adventure travel activity. And with the Martin Sheen movie, the American pilgrims arrived.
Frank and I were not converted by the Martin Sheen film … Frank heard a lecture about the Camino about 20 years ago; it whet his appetite and he has never forgotten about it. And am I glad.

Our tour of the City ended at a tapas restaurant. Two, actually: We tried razor clams and cockles and a local sushi at the first, and chorizo and local cheese at the second. Washed down with local wine, of course. Then it was time to say our final goodbyes.

IMG_4114Frank and I had a different plan for the afternoon: We caught the train to A Coruna on Spain’s north coast (Bay of Biscay). Our destination: The Tower of Hercules, the only Roman lighthouse still in existence! I was delighted to find out that it is in a park on a promontory; civilization in the form of apartment blocks have been kept at bay. The Romans built three tiers of very tall arches, and then surrounded the thing with blocks. Originally, there was a ramp to get to the oil lamp at the top, but at some point the ramp was replaced by a staircase and 256 steps to the top. I climbed; Frank stayed below; it was a beautiful day, a beautiful view, and quite a statement about the Roman empire and commerce and traffic that a lighthouse which required such remarkable engineering was built at the end of the known world.

We returned back to Santiago in time for a bit of shopping and supper. I should add that even these inter-city trains in Spain travel at 100 miles an hour ((160 km)). Our US trains are practically antidilutian in comparison.

And so to bed. Oh, I must finish the story of my boots. I didn’t find a good place to leave them, and was despairing that I would, when it suddenly occurred to me that the skylights of our hotel room could be put to good use. So the boots are now on the roof of the hotel, on the side that slopes down the hill so that they can’t be seen unless one is either a bird, or looks out that specific skylight, or gets on the roof itself to re-tile it or otherwise.

I think those boots might well be there for a long, long time.

Pilgrim Hospital – More than Blisters!

May 8, 2014

Tuesday, May 6

IMG_4091On Tuesday evening, Ignacio had a few more final surprises for us. We met at 7:30 in the lobby of the hotel and walked back past the Cathedral to the hospice built by Ferdinand and Isabella for pilgrims. It was a hospital, hotel, orphanage, and restaurant, all rolled into one, large enough for hundreds of pilgrims in the fifteenth century.

I had seen the hospital built about the same time in Beaune, France, last summer, and the differences between the two were quite striking: In Beaune, a clean water supply was emphasized, and if our guide was to be believed, there was little differentiation between the sexes, to the point that men and women shared the same bed. Perhaps they were more ill than the pilgrims – here, separate infirmaries for the two sexes were evident. And a similarity: Both hospitals had a church with iconography that stressed the sins of this life and the final resurrection (or lack thereof) in the next.

IMG_4089Our tour guide, who works in the hotel, took us through it, ending in the basement in what had once been the morgue, but which is now the fine dining establishment. “We don’t emphasize the morgue part of our history,” he said. And then we went around several more corners, to a private dining room, and our own farewell dinner.

Much sharing. Many tears. All the members of the group had been looking for something on this Camino, even if they didn’t really know what they were looking for. As one of us said, the Camino self-selects its pilgrims. Let’s face it, the past ten days have hardly been a pina colada on the Costa del Sol. Ignacio and Esther, our guides, shared as well, and just when we thought there could be no more surprises, a bag piper came into the room and started to serenade us (if serenade is what one does with pipes) followed by a witch. A good witch, she explained.

IMG_4094Galicia is cut off from the rest of Spain by mountains, and the region is not only remote, it’s connections to Ireland. The Iberians who first came here came from the north – or maybe vice-versa, since the Ice Age didn’t get this far and definitely did cover the British Isles. There are connections between the two in terms of myth, culture, and yes, music. Fun! But tiring.

It was midnight before the party broke up, and we walked back across the old town to the hotel and bed.


Pilgrims’ Mass at Santiago Cathedral

May 6, 2014

IMG_4037Only 4.7 kilometers to our destination — and mostly downhill! We start off after breakfast with light hearts and lighter day packs — it’s amazing what we have learned we don’t really need during our week on the Way.  The group asked Frank and me to lead — that’s putting the slowest in front so that we would arrive together, which is extraordinarily kind of them but typical of the community that has developed among us this week.

We enter the city and are almost immediately on city sidewalks with city traffic speeding past.  Frank finds it tough going over the cobblestones, but we walk on.  We enter the old city and start up the final kilometer to the Cathedral — at this point Ignacio joins us to say that he has been keeping track, and that Frank has walked 63 of the 103 kilometers in this trip.  Pretty extraordinary — neither Frank nor I have been keeping track of the distance, but he has certainly walked every day and  it’s taken more out of him than out of the rest of us.

Before we know it we are at the Cathedral — I hadn’t expected it, but I am in tears — the emotion of reaching our goal after more than a week on the road is overwhelming.  The square is filled with pilgrims — many, like us, with backpacks, but even more who have just gotten off the bus.  Everyone’s Camino is individual and is uniquely THEIR Camino, after all.

IMG_4050We walk around the Cathedral on the outside — it is unique in that each of the four facades faces an open square — and then we explore inside.  This includes climbing up behind the altar to embrace the 9th century statue of St. James — I caress his scallop shell instead of embracing the statue; it feels more right — and also climbing down into the crypt to see his tomb — at least, his tomb by tradition; no one knows if the bones are really his (and they were lost for three or so centuries!).  We also see the stone statue that traditionally, pilgrims touched as they entered the Cathedral, but which is now off-limits because the touches of millions of pilgrims were wearing away the stone.

Ignacio tells us he has a special surprise for us and now we learn — not only is the botafumiero — a huge censor — to be filled and swung at the mass, but we are to sit at the high altar.  The censor is part of the traditions of Santiago Cathedral, and dates back to a time when swinging the incense to the upper reaches of the Cathedral had good hygienic effect.  But now it is only done at special times — or when pilgrims pay for the option.  Our tour sponsors have paid — this we knew — but the seats at the high altar are even more unusual, and I’m really not sure how we got so lucky.

IMG_4052 Of course, delight at being front-and-center for the Mass is immediately replaced by fear that we will be visible to the several thousand people attending the Mass and neither Frank nor I know the proper etiquette. In fact, at a small church along the Way several days ago the priest started the “Our Father”  and the cadence in Spanish was different and I couldn’t even follow along in English.  We  take our seats on the high altar, and I study the magnificently ugly baroque gilt and gold of the altar in front of us. Really closely in front of us! I am intensely aware that I am not a Catholic and really have no reason to be here.  This is going to be difficult …

It turned out to be anything but.  The nun who leads the singing had the voice of an angel.  The bishop who leads the mass has backup from five other priests, plus two altar boys.  The Mass moves swiftly along, and when Communion is served it is announced — and someone translates for me — that if you want a blessing instead of Communion just to bow when you approach the bishop.  With one false start, that’s exactly what I did.

IMG_4056The congregation that is gathered for the Mass didn’t know that the botafumiero would be lit until the end of the Mass.  They were delighted — and I expect at that point forgave us our front-row seats.  The pulpit –and the priests — moved back, the censor was lowered via a pulley to the floor, where an attendant filled it with incense.  Then a total of eight men pulled on the pulley and lifted the huge weight up, and started to swing it, pendulum-style, back and forth in the transcept, higher and higher, like a child on a swing, until it was swinging back and forth the full 90 feet of space to the ceiling so far above.  The singing — the incense — the color and expectations of the crowd — it was a magical moment.

IMG_4059And then it was over.  The attendants slowly let the botafumiero come down to the floor and then raise the censor up to its place about 30 feet high and return the pulpit to where it belongs.  The congregation roars its approval, the Mass is done and we stumble out into the sunlight.

Our next stop is the Pilgrims’ Office, where we show our passports and receive certificates of completing the Camino.  Frank has all the passport stamps he needs, but he feels that since he did not do the whole Way by foot, he should not receive a certificate.  He goes in for the final stamp, however, and has to argue with the attendant to NOT get the certificate.  Frank’s standards are clearly higher than those of the Camino police — but again, the true Camino is an internal one.  Frank has clearly completed the Way, but if he feels he has not fulfilled the requirements for the paper certificate, that’s his option.

The Mass is over, the Camino is complete, and our time as pilgrims is coming to an end.  Tonight we have a farewell dinner, and tomorrow a tour of the city.  But for now, we are exhausted and badly in need of a nap.







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