GOING BLIND

BLOG #50, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
GOING BLIND
December 10, 2014

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My wife and I often travel on Southwest Airlines; whenever we do so, I like to peruse their in-flight magazine, Spirit. The cover story in the July 2014 issue was titled “As the Lights Go Down.”

Nicole Kear begins her gripping story with these riveting words: “The day I found out I was going blind started out like any other.” She was nineteen years old, a sophomore at Yale, undecided as to whether to major in English or in theater.

A routine appointment with her doctor turned out to be anything but! The eye-specialist shattered her dreams by announcing that she had a degenerative retinal disease called “retinitis pigmentosa.” My retinal cells were slowly dying which would result in gradual vision loss. First the disease would eat away at my night and peripheral vision, and eventually it would claim my central vision too…. It was untreatable and incurable.

As she walked the twenty blocks back to her home, she was overcome by wave after wave of fear: “But more than anything, I felt instant and irrevocable loss, like a kid who’s just lost her grip on a helium balloon. I made a grab for it, fast, but it was too late, and I watched helplessly as it receded, further and further out of reach.”

As time passed, she felt for a time that she’d be crushed under the strain of knowing that darkness was inevitable. “But something else was happening, too. Through the fog of my shock and confusion, I started seeing everything with the eyes of someone looking for the last time. Sights I’d always taken for granted–the bits of sparkle in the pavement, the bright, brilliant red of the streetlight–seemed immensely, heart-breakingly beautiful. I’d wasted so much time, I scolded myself, being blind to the beauty around me. Knowing it wouldn’t last forever, I became ravenous for images.”

So how was she to face it?

“Though I couldn’t control my disease or the blindness it could bring, I could control how I responded to it…. In the time I had left, I could stuff my brain with images in hopes they’d be enough to last a lifetime. I could use the death sentence my eyes had been given as a kick in the pants to start really living.”

Time passed. One afternoon, she sat down with her leather-bound journal and drew up a personal bucket list of things she wanted to see and do before her vision gave out. She called it her carpe diem campaign.

She double-majored in English and theater, learned how to be a circus clown, learned how to master the flying trapeze, and traveled to Europe. In Rome, “I sat in front of the Pantheon, drinking in every column, every chiseled Latin letter, sketching these details in my journal in an effort to permanently imprint them on my memory.” She picked sweet-peas on a farm in North Italy, hiked cloud-capped mountains to see where Ovid had lived, watched men on Vespas smoking cigarettes and women gossiping while leaning out of windows, and smelled the sweet aroma of marinara sauce simmering on stovetops. “Spending all the money I’d saved from birthdays and graduations, I bought a Eurorail pass and set off with my sister to Paris, where we watched Grand Guignol puppet shows, and Amsterdam, where we stood by narrow canals eating wheels of black licorice. I witnessed the sunrise over Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, and I felt near to bursting with awe at the beauty and the grandeur.”

After college, she moved back to New York, where she performed Shakespeare in the lower East Side, 1950s cult classics in the West Village, and avant-garde German theater on St. Mark’s Place.

She fell in love several times–but finally the real thing: David proposed to her in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.

Next came Hollywood: “I was an actor, after all, and in L.A. the streets were paved with TV pilots. David and I quit our day jobs as long-term temps at an investment bank, packed our stuff, and ventured west. I was bowled over by California’s beauty. Rolling, golden hills that looked like sleeping lions. Jagged cliffs with precipitous drops to the churning, foaming Pacific Ocean. Even the light was different, and the smells. Every time I walked out my front door and inhaled the scent of jasmine, I stopped to marvel . . . sniffing jasmine blossoms made me feel like a Disney princess.”

Driving became more and more difficult. She’d become totally night-blind. As her field of vision continued to shrink, she bumped into things more and more, and fell down stairs–and fumbled her stage-lines.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. But now, color-blindness was setting in, and her depth-perception was going too. Even so, She and David decided to go ahead with it. “When my son made his entrance, just after midnight on Thanksgiving Night, I soaked in so many sights: his strong chin, bee-stung eyes, the complex curvature of his ear, so tiny it made my heart ache with tenderness…. Two years later I saw my daughter for the first time, a ruddy, round-cheeked newborn sporting a Mohawk.” There were details she couldn’t see, but she didn’t worry about that.

By the time she was 34, she was deemed legally blind. She could no longer read regular print. Even so, she decided to have another baby. “My third baby is now 2 years old, and I’ve been able to read her books (if the text is big enough), take her to the playground (if it’s enclosed), and watch her blow out her birthday candles.”

Nicole Kear concludes her remarkable story with these poignant words: “But I’ve learned not to peer too anxiously into the future. Hindsight may be 20/20, but what’s to come is too murky for any of us to make out. My eyes are so dim that I need to train them on the present, to soak up as much as I can, to slow it down, to make it last. As much as I can, I stop to smell the roses–and while I’m there, I look at them, long and hard. Those blazing red streetlights. The way the skin on the top of my children’s noses wrinkles when they smile. . . I don’t know the kind of life I might have had or the kind of woman I might have become if that appointment 18 years ago had actually been routine. . . . What I do know is the life I have is nothing like what I expected, but it is everything I wanted–full of beauty, love, and a light beyond anything the eye can see.”

Nicole Kear is the author of the new memoir, Now I See You.

* * * * *

Four months after reading this, on a 55th anniversary cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, my eyes became progressively more difficult to keep open, and the pain increased continuously. In Fort Lauderdale, our son rushed me to an eye specialist.

I can now see again, but it has resulted in a profoundly greater appreciation for the daily miracle of sight.

I conclude with this quotation penned by Harry Moyle Tippett:

Out of a world of total silence and darkness Helen Keller found a way to a world of light and holy purpose. In the top floor bedroom at Forest Hills . . . there were eight windows looking out into a vast expanse of blue sky by day and of star-studded velvet by night. Small strings guided her steps to the sanctuary, and there she reveled in an inner illumination that matched the glorious light of day she could not see and the silver sheen of stars she could only feel. She said, ‘I learned that it is possible for us to create light and sound and order within us, no matter what calamity may befall us in the outer world.’

Making Memories with Grandparents – Part 4 – Seth’s 2014 Cruise

BLOG #45, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART FOUR
SETH’S 2014 CRUISE

November 5, 2014

For two years after Taylor’s cruise, the big question was, “Is Seth even interested in mastering the geography of the world?” After all, he’d seen how much work it took for his mother and Taylor to successfully complete such a learning marathon. Furthermore, given that Seth is such an “I’m-the-boss-of-me” individualist, just because

Cezanne’s home in Aix en Provence

IMG_5321his brother did it would not by itself mean much if Seth himself wasn’t equally interested in such a challenge. And, just as was true with Taylor, not until his twelfth birthday did he give the green light to his mother.

Turns out the pace was similar. Not until we were within days of his thirteenth birthday did he clear his last hurdle. When Seth was asked what he’d most like to travel to, he was succinct: “Islands and deep blue sea!” And just as was true with Taylor, his summer sports program was so demanding that we only had a three-to-four-week window to work with; consequently, that reduced our cruise options to a rather small number. We didn’t want to book a cruise that was a carbon copy of Taylor’s because we wanted Seth to feel that there were aspects of the itinerary that were his alone.

In the end, we booked early, in order to get an advance rate, with a cancellation clause that permitted us to back out if Seth failed to complete his challenge in tine. We found a cruise on the Norwegian Spirit that played all the destination hits (from one end of the Mediterranean clear to the other).

Here is the itinerary:

July 3, 2014 – Arrive in Barcelona
July 5 – Leave Barcelona
July 6 – Toulon, Aix en Provence in France
July 7 – Liverno, Florence and Pisa
July 8 – Citavecchia, and Rome
July 9 – Naples, and the Isle of Capri
July 10 – At Sea
July 11 – Mykonos, Greece
July 12 – Istanbul, Turkey
July 13 – Ephesus
July 14 – Athens, Cape Sounion Temple of Poseidon
July 15 – At Sea
July 16 – Venice
July 17 – Return to Philadelphia

As we tested Seth, it didn’t take me long to discover that he was especially susceptible to side-trips beyond the required. In that, he reminded me of my own Grandpa Herbert Leininger, who’d always suffered from an incurable itch to find out what was on the other side of a given hill.

He even expressed his own individuality in his written response to being sent a journal with the trip’s itinerary pasted in at the front of it, and symnopses of each day-trip we had booked.

He wrote,

“Dear Grammy and Poppy,

Thank you for dedicating the last 13 years to save up to take me on a journey of a lifetime. I can’t wait until then. We will have a great time. I wonder what the hotel room on the ship will look like. There are so many things I wonder what will be like. Can’t wait to see you guys.

Love, Seth”

This time, Greg didn’t even try to surprise the new traveler. Of course, he wanted to go along. But no more cramming four people into one small stateroom; he booked an adjoining room for him, and we had Seth bunk with him. Both times, it was great to have Greg along. Of course, the whole purpose of both cruises was the opportunity, at least once in each grandson’s lifetime, to be able to give them our undivided attention. But even so, given that Greg was only one generation removed rather than two (our case), it gave both boys two generational options rather than just grandparent/grandchild.

_MG_5500St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

This time, we made the transatlantic flight without Greg, as he was flying straight to Munich in order to pick up a brand new BMW there. He later met us at the ship early afternoon of the sailing day.

It didn’t take us long to discover that Seth had three obsessions: science, art, and sports. Words too: from someplace he inherited a love for words—individualized, like Ogden Nash, in his case. Rarely a day in which he failed to coin a new word.

At Barcelona, we were lucky enough to get an early check-in, so after our long transatlantic flight we were able to crash for four hours before venturing out on Las Ramblas. Seth was particularly fascinated with the mime who was impersonating Salvador Dali, complete with long twirly mustache. That evening we played a domino game our family calls either “O’Henry” or “Ah Shucks.”

When we got to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, next day, after ten hours sleep, we had to wait in long long lines over an hour and a half just to get tickets—and then two more hours waiting to get in. It was truly amazing to see how much progress had been made in only three years. Of course, 25,000,000 people a year, each paying a hefty admission price, ought to result in progress!

Later on, I was traumatized to discover that somewhere along the way I’d dropped three sets of very expensive bus tickets. We completed the day’s activity by a visit to the great Palace of Art on the hill. Seth was especially fascinated by the Gothic and Romanesque art.

Next day, finally got into the magnificent Palace of Catalonian Music — hadn’t even been able to get in three years before.

Then, check-out, meeting Greg at the ship, and we were on our way late in the afternoon. No storms this time.

Two days later, in Florence, we lucked out with a much more effective and articulate guide than the one Taylor had lampooned three years before. I’ve discovered over the years that great guides can make a trip and poor guides wreck them.

In Rome, we braved long lines in order to get Seth into Michelangelo’s magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Next day, high up on the legendary Isle of Capri—first time ever for Connie and me—, by agreement, we separated into two groups of two. Almost disaster! Connie and Seth waited at the Clock Tower rather than the bus stop, so after waiting a time, the other bus passengers left for the fast ship back to Naples. The guide stayed with Greg and me. Finally, Greg was able to get through to Connie’s almost dead cell phone, and the guide put us on a separate bus. We just made the last ship back!

GangFormal(1) Our Formal attire for dinner one night!

Seth’s journal commentary was uniquely Seth-ish:

July 3 – “When we went through security [Philadelphia Airport] Grammy got searched because her bling-pants set off the beep.”

July 7 – Florence and Pisa – “Today was fun. It was tiring though. It took a little more than 10 hours. This was Florence too and not just Pisa. We saw 2 cities! I also got some cool pics of me and leaning tower. We had the BEST GUIDE EVER! She could actually speak English we could understand.”

July 8 – Rome -“Today we had a ninja tour guide, she kept walking away, expecting all of us to follow, leaving about 10 people behind each time…. We only had 10 minutes in the Colosseum. It shtank!”

July 9 – “Capri – O.M.G. Island with clear water. I took a chairlift to the top of the island. I’m still trying to take in the awesome view. It was so majestic.

July 11 – Mykonos – “Clear water! Yah! I went to Greece! The water was as clear as this circle. [He drew a circle]. It was pretty warm too. I stuck my foot in the water… Or accident, with my shoe on. The greek houses were sicik [sic] too, all white and blue highlights.”

July 12 – Istanbul – “Yah, another cool guide. I got 1 spinnything [a top] and we got 4 scarves for Mom and Grammy… Sheese! There was also a cool welcoming band. We went into a mosque where we had to not wear shoes and Grammy had to wear a thing on her head.”

July 13 – Ephesus – “YESSSS! [pronounced with an h sound at the end]. I slept in. Today was okay but we had the best food than the other excursions. Uncle Greg and I got lost/separated from our group, but we eventually found the group again.”

No journal entry for Athens and Venice. A pity. But Seth compensated for it on the last day of the cruise (almost every day he coins a new word): SHMECKLE – for thingees, words, or terms you can’t think of , or any word you want to substitute for.

I had earlier suggested to Seth that he’d be protective of his Grammy as there are so many pickpockets in the crowded streets. He took me at my word, and almost invariably he’d be protecting one side of her, and expecting Greg or me to cover the other. For crowd-control purposes, each bus-load of people is given in advance stickers designating which bus to board for a designated tour. Seth delighted in later planting those stickers somewhere where we wouldn’t notice them – often on our back-sides somewhere.

_MG_6098Our Sticker Boy!

All too soon, we had to bid adieu to the Norwegian Spirit in Venice; Greg flew back to Munich to pick up his BMW for a few days before having it shipped home to him, and we boarded the plane for Philadelphia.

When I asked Seth to rank his experiences, this is how he did it:

1. View from the Isle of Capri [just as Taylor fell in love with the nearby Amalfi Coast, Seth will most likely never ever forget the sight of the incredibly deep blue sea as seen from the ramparts of Capri].

2. Sagrada Familia [like Taylor before him, he was overwhelmed by the interplay of light inside—it literally takes one’s breath away].

3. Free Soft-Serve Ice Cream! [Seth gave Taylor a run for his money in his multitudinous raids on the poor ice cream machine on the ship].

4. Venice. Especially the late afternoon gondola ride.

5. Pool-side Strawberry Daiquiris. [Clearly, the boys are related!]

6. Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

7. Soccer on the ship! [Everyone in Europe, it seemed, was riveted to the World Cup soccer play-offs; besides that, Seth played soccer on evenings or sea days, with other young people on the ship].

8. Pisa and Florence.

9. Beaches of Mykonos

10. Aix en Provence.

As to Seth’s post-cruise thoughts, he too has developed an apparently incurable case of travelitis. Any time we now go anywhere without him, he sulks.

* * * * *

On Nov. 12, I’ll wind up this series on grandparenting, with some last thoughts and conclusions.

Photos by Greg Wheeler.

MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN – PART 3 -TAYLOR’S 2011 REWARD

BLOG #43, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART THREE
TAYLOR’S 2011 REWARD

October 22, 2014

At the front of Taylor’s journal, I had written in:

“The world is a great book—
and those who do not travel
have read only one page.”
—St. Augustine

In a way, Taylor’s cruise was a trial-run for Seth’s three years later, for Taylor’s re-introduced us to the minds, habits, and speech of a thirteen-year-old. I’d forgotten, for instance, how short a time instructions remain in their mental silos, and how constantly those instructions have to be reinforced. For I should have remembered from Charles Schultz’s immortal Charlie Brown movies how adult talk is received in their minds as so much “wah wah wah.” I mistakenly assumed that once I had thoroughly planted in Taylor’s mind the necessity of writing in his journal each day, he’d faithfully remember. Hardeeharharhar! Three years later, when I scrutinized his journal for the first time, I ruefully discovered that he quit after only five days! Even though I reminded him to write in it several times during the cruise. Of course, when even college freshmen have to be constantly reminded of such things, it was stupid of me to assume thirteen-year-olds would be any different…. Only belatedly did we realize we had taken so many photos of places we visited that we failed to realize how few of them featured Taylor himself!

_MG_0120  Visiting one of Gaudi’s Architectural Wonders  in Barcelona.

 

* * * * *

Finally, the big day arrived. By mastering the geography of the world, during the twelfth year of his life, Taylor had earned his personal dream Mediterranean cruise. But for us, the proverbial moment of truth had arrived. Connie and I now had a duly signed and witnessed power of attorney to be solely responsible for Taylor’s life during the two weeks he was with us. Such a responsibility is more than a little daunting. Much more so than having one’s grandson with us in the United States where most people speak English. For should he get lost in a foreign country, where the native language is not English, in great cities, often teeming with millions of people, and streets and byways our grandson has never seen before—what would we do? More frustrating yet, what would he do? What if some unscrupulous person should lure him away—and we’d never see him again? How could we ever have faced his parents with this perceived dereliction of our duty?

Since our son Greg, an advertising copywriter from Fort Lauderdale, would be with us, and would, from time to time, have Taylor alone with him, what if he’d be lost then?

That this is no light problem, let me share with you one of the scariest moments of the entire trip that took place at Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. Millions of people live in Barcelona, and over 25,000,000 people from all over the world come here each year to see this almost mythical church [it’s not an operational cathedral] over a century in the making. It takes hours just to get inside its gates. Well, while inside, Greg and Taylor went shutterbugging in a different direction than Connie and I did. When I circled back and found Greg, Taylor was nowhere to be seen! Had this been San Francisco, Dallas or New York, I wouldn’t have been nearly as apprehensive. Initially, I assumed I’d find him quickly; when I failed to do so, each additional minute—each seeming like years!—that passed, my stress level skyrocketed. Here, there, inside the teeming edifice, I raced, then outside, but inside the gates, and everywhere masses of people—and no Taylor. I think I must have aged years during the mere minutes it took to find him, nonchalantly taking pictures. Oh the unutterable relief! And, at this juncture, the trip had not even started yet!

At the Monastery at Montserrat.  _MG_0358

Later on, I thought of the parallel in Holy Writ, when twelve-year-old Jesus was lost in the great metropolis of Jerusalem—and his frantic parents searched three interminable days before finding him.

With that preamble, let me back up a couple of days.

ALMOST MISSING OUR PLANE

Up until this day of departure, we’d kept Greg’s joining us on the cruise a secret. Taylor had not even an inkling that his beloved uncle would be sharing the two weeks with us.

On July 27, we were scheduled to pick up Taylor in Annapolis, fly out of Baltimore to Philadelphia, where we’d change airlines and meet Greg at the gate of departure. That was the schedule; the reality proved far different! The reality was that not one, but two Baltimore to Philadelphia planes proved defective, thus placing our connecting flight to Spain in jeopardy.

We, along with some other travelers in a similar plight, were rushed to our already checked-in luggage, then rushed to a waiting van, then a veritable Jehu of a driver risked traffic tickets by racing down the freeway to the Philadelphia airport. Surreptitiously, Connie texted Greg so that he and the gate attendants could keep track of our whereabouts and likely (if no traffic slowdown) projected time of arrival. With bare minutes to spare, we reached the vast Philadelphia terminal and were propelled post-haste through security. We just made it! And the look of disbelief on Taylor’s face when he saw his Uncle Greg waiting for us in line was absolutely priceless! Worth every minute, week, and month of subterfuge it took to pull it off.

We were next crammed into an oversized US Air jet like so many tightly-packed sardines. Very little sleep for any of us during the long trans-Atlantic flight.

On July 28, we arrived in Barcelona, checked in at the Regina Hotel and, because we could not get in our rooms until afternoon, we took our pre-arranged bus trip to the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat. Believe me, when we returned from this jaunt, we found something to eat and we went to bed early, trying to catch up on the missing night’s sleep plus the missing eight hours on the clock.

Following is our itinerary:

July 30 – We board Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas and sail out to sea.
July 31 – Nice, French Riviera, Monaco
August 1 – Livorno, Pisa, Florence
August 2 – Citaveccia and Rome
August 3 – Salerno, Pompeii, Amalfi Coast
August 4 – At Sea
August 5 , 6 – Venice
August 7 – Split (Croatia)
August 8 – Dubrovnik
August 9, 10 – At Sea
August 11 – We dock at Barcelona
August 12 – We board our plane and arrive in Philadelphia in the afternoon.

* * * * *

It is fascinating to see the world (in his journal entries) from the eyes of a thirteen-year-old!

July 30 – “We were caught in a huge storm. It thundered, hailed, and blew a couple of chairs off the boat. That was real cooooool! Then one of the staff let us inside or made us go inside.”

July 31 – “This morning we arrived at Nice. It was cool. We had to get up early though. Dang! We have to get up even earlier tomorrow. When we got to Nice we had to take a tender to shore. It was pretty cool but we didn’t sit up top which would have been even cooler.

“Our tour guide took us to a place called Eze! It was really cool, there was an amazing view and there was this castle, church, or whatever. I think it also could of been a house and a hotel. Maybe all of the above.

August 1 – “Today, we arrived at Florence. We went to Pisa and got a few pictures but the thing that sticks out the most was our guides. Especially Dilleetta! Aghaa! She didn’t tell us anything and she wouldn’t shut up. She would be like the sky is light blue which is a light blue but it isn’t quite blue, it’s kinda light or white but not quite. It’s a blue or a medium blue with white. But it’s not a dark blue white. Then it would be too dark blue. When we first got to Florence she took us to a leather shop for an HOUR. She said it was free time. G R R R R! . . . . We eventually go to Pisa and did all that and having Poppy running away.”

_MG_0818

 Visiting the Colosseum in Rome

My face is still red from that Pisa experience. I had drummed this message [to stay together at all times—and never to separate one’self from the group] again and again into everyone’s head—except, obviously, my own. At Pisa, inexcusably, I wandered off, taking pictures. Some time later, when they were getting extremely apprehensive—had I experienced a heart attack or stroke? —, we found each other. Boy, did I ever get a verbal thrashing! Taylor will probably chortle about the difference between Poppy’s talk and Poppy’s walk until the day he dies!

* * *

A little while after we returned, I asked Taylor if the cruise had made any difference in his life.
A far-away look came into his eyes, then he said, “The world seems so much bigger now.”

His parents tell us, “Ever since his cruise, it’s clear Taylor has been badly bitten by the travel bug.”

In retrospect, when asked to come up with his ten favorite places or experiences, in order of preference, this is what he wrote:

1. The Amalfi Coast [he was overwhelmed by the corkscrew road leading down through mist to the incredibly deep blue sea below].
2. Venice.
3. Monaco [he especially reveled in seeing the exotic Lamborghinis, Bugattis, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, etc.].
4. Eze. [An ancient hilltop village in France].
5. Strawberry virgin daiquiris [his favorite pool-side liquid extravagance].
6. Soft-serve ice -cream machine [no small thanks to near constant visits to it, he gained over five pounds during the cruise].
7. La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
8. Food! All the different food at all the different stops.
9. The storm [as we were leaving Barcelona and heading out to sea, a terrific Mediterranean storm blew out of nowhere, blowing deck chairs, people, and everything not nailed down, hither and thither. Taylor enjoyed most the sheer violence of it; got out in the open so he could take the full brunt of it. The authorities were not amused; they unceremoniously pushed him back under cover].
10. Dubrovnik

Next week, we’ll break from Grandparenting in order to get to Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month October selection. We’ll get back to Seth’s 2014 story on November 5.

Photos by Greg Wheeler.

Making memories with Grandchildren – Part 2 – Master the Geography of the World Before You are 13

BLOG #42, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART TWO
MASTER THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE WORLD
BEFORE YOU ARE THIRTEEN

October 15, 2014

The years flowed swiftly by, as years have a way of doing. I married Connie, the golden-haired love of my life; over time, we were blessed with two children: Greg and Michelle. Michelle grew up and married Duane Culmore. Two sons were born to them: Taylor and Seth (three years apart).

In today’s society, all too few intergenerational families live close to each other. Sadly, the same is true with us: our grandchildren are half a continent away from us. So we see them all too seldom. But there are no easy answers for what to do about it. In our case, Connie’s folks moved half way across the country to live near us, in Texas. Some years later, we moved away and left them there. One has to go where the jobs are.

So how could we spend quality time alone with our grandsons? Some years ago an idea came to me, born of Grandpa Leininger’s love of National Geographic maps and from my own fascination with geography and travel. We shared it with Michelle and Duane first, then with Taylor and Seth while they were still young.

Here is how we phrased it: “If you master the geography of the world before your thirteenth birthday, Poppy and Grammy will take you anywhere in the world you’d like to go.”

Well, the years rolled along and Taylor reached eleven. No apparent interest in the challenge. We began to breathe easier: there would not be big-time draining of our bank account after all. About a year later, just before Taylor’s twelfth birthday, our daughter Michelle phoned us with the news that Taylor was seriously interested in holding us to our promise. “So, Dad, how will it work? What are the requirements? We’ve only twelve months left, and Taylor will have to fit it in against school, sports, music, etc.”

I told her he’d have to know all the countries of the world, capital cities, major cities, mountain ranges, major rivers and lakes, deserts, and islands; also oceans, seas, bays, gulfs—and any unusual geographic features. She would have to be the hands-on instructor and pre-tester; only when he was ready with a country or region would Taylor phone me and the three of us would test him on it together.

And so it began. At first we waited until he’d mastered entire regions; but that proved too difficult to retain in his head, so gradually we reduced the testing areas to a more humane level. Because of his many other involvements, and Michelle’s and mine, it proved to be a long, slow process. Michelle became the taskmaster on that end. The U.S. and Canada (states and provinces too) proved relatively easy since Taylor already knew a lot about them. But after that, it got harder. Harder yet when we tackled European, Asian, and African areas of the world.

Once in a while Taylor would pleasantly surprise me: learning more about a country or region than I required of him. Michelle and Duane reported in to us that Taylor had already experienced a serendipity: when his history teacher referred to a certain Latin American country, Taylor was the only one who knew where it was. More and more, during class discussions, Taylor’s would be the lone-hand raised.

Another problem now surfaced: If Taylor didn’t master the geography of the entire world before his thirteenth birthday, he’d forfeit the promised reward. However, in order to get good booking rates, we couldn’t afford to wait. Yet another problem came in tandem: If he didn’t yet know the world, how could he then choose where he most wanted to go? We finally concluded that we’d need to rephrase the original question so it now read: “Where are three places in the world you’d like to see?” and we would select one of them and book it. Which resulted in yet another problem: Because of Taylor’s busy summer sports program, the available time-frame before school re-started provided us with only a small window of time.

One of his possible choices had to do with the South Pacific, but the time frame and distance to get there and back precluded our booking a destination there. Another two choices: central Italy and Venice worked better. So we booked a 12-day Mediterranean cruise that would feature both locales. But we didn’t tell Taylor because until and if he completed the challenge, we could still cancel the booking. To take him on the cruise without his completing the task would be a travesty and set a terrible life-precedent for him.

Meanwhile the remaining time interval was shrinking alarmingly and his progress towards his goal proved erratic. Our daughter knew she could push him only so far and so fast.

And something totally unexpected had come up: our son Greg had decided he wanted to go along! Many years earlier, when he was about Taylor’s age, I had mandated that he master the world’s geography, promising only to give him a nice reward when he finished. Well, he did complete it, and his munificent reward was only a train trip from Fort Worth to Cleburne, Texas—all of forty miles! Unbeknownst to us, Greg had been sulking about this ever since—and to add insult to injury, here we were promising a European cruise to his nephew for the same task! So, we now added Greg to our already full room in our cruise booking. But we didn’t tell Taylor for Greg wanted it to be a surprise. Naturally, we had to keep Michelle and Duane up to date—and that was tough given all the secrets involved.

The last month came, then three weeks, two weeks, and then there was only one week left—and still Taylor was not done. Needless to say, there was a lot of tension for all of us. Finally, only hours away from his birthday—Taylor tested out on the last piece in the jigsaw-puzzle of the world.

At last, we could send him a journal for him to write in during the cruise which we could now detail for him.

* * * * *

Next week: Taylor’s reward.