Sunday, April 14, 2013





Nancy Appunn, 82, and Sue Phillips, 80

       Nancy Appunn and Sue Phillips are driving across America, visiting everyone on their Christmas card lists. Just like the Christmas cards say: From Our House to Yours. Only this time, they are going to show up themselves. Christmas "presence" in lieu of cards. Nancy is 82. Sue is 80.

      When I tell people this story, they invariably begin to smile. Why? Because we all want to believe in the lasting bonds of friendship.

       Nancy and Sue first met in college in the 50's. They were roommates and ADPi sorority sisters at Ohio University. Now, more than 60 years later, they are still good friends. Good enough to trek off together to New Zealand, China and Pakistan (the latter in a pickup truck). Good enough to drive together across America to visit everyone on their combined Christmas lists.

      We want to believe that our own friendships will have that kind of endurance.

      Cheering on this cross-country road trip by two eight-somethings, we also are hoping that we, too, will be as adventurous -- and robust -- in our 80's as they are.

     A Christmas Card Road Trip, we imagine, would be like time traveling: A journey back to meet all the people who have touched our lives. Our friends from kindergarten. An old flame. A family member who has moved away. People we haven't laid eyes on in decades but to whom we send Christmas cards year after year in order to keep up a link between us -- even if it's only a gossamer one.

      Of course, visiting old friends and family can have its downsides. People you haven't seen for a long time often in your mind are frozen in time. Seeing them -- perhaps with white hair or a slower gait -- could be a bit of a shock. Some of them may have fallen on hard times. Not all of them will look as young as Nancy and Sue do. (Do these eighty-somethings have portraits ala Dorian Gray in their attics?)

     Still, everyone who hears about their Christmas Card Road Trip wants to go along.

     So, let's go. Virtually. Both women are keeping journals throughout their trip and they have promised to send updates for the Creative Late Bloomer blog along the way.


     Last month, using Nancy's house in St. Petersburg as a base, Sue and Nancy started their Great
American Christmas Card Road Trek with a "mini-trip -- for practice."  They traveled south along Florida's west coast, across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and down Hwy 41. Their first stop was near Fort Meyers to a friend Nancy has known since kindergarten. Nancy remembered her, with a little envy, as a striking redhead who was popular with the boys. Now she is struggling with Parkinson's disease.

     That first night Nancy and Sue stayed with a couple Sue met in Pennsylvania who now live in a gated community in Bonita Springs. The next day, Sue, Nancy and their Bonita Springs hostess travelled even further south to Everglades City for a taste of Old Florida. On the way, they stopped in Naples to pick up a fellow ADPi sorority sister.

     Finally, after returning to St. Petersburg, the Christmas Card roadsters headed north to Tarpon Springs to visit one of Sue's old boyfriends and a distant cousin.

     Here are edited excerpts from their accounts of that "mini-Christmas Card trip" in Florida:


SUE: As I child, I remember driving further south on this road and seeing lots of alligators in the roadside ditches. Nancy is a good driver, very careful, so I feel very comfortable. Along the way we see strip malls missing many of their shops or completely empty. The economy still has problems here. Sarasota looks prosperous with beautiful buildings shining in the sunlight beside the water. Then after Sarasota, we see more and more impressive entrances leading to large gated developments.  We are on our way to visit Nancy's friends in a gated community south of Fort Myers. Nancy's GPS is going berserk, giving us contradictory directions, but we finally find them.

NANCY: Mary meets us at the door of their cheery garden-style condo. Piles of sleeping bags in a corner and jackets and shoes meant that the grandchildren were visiting for spring break. "They arrive in waves," Mary tells us, "and I just go with the flow." Mary started kindergarten with me in Cleveland Heights in 1935. She and I were members of the Kit Cat Club and the Girl Scouts. We have all kept in touch over the years. As we have aged, none of us has mellowed, Mary reminds me. I had to agree. Both she and her husband Ray have lived with some health problems. Mary with breast cancer and now Parkinson's; Ray with diabetes which has prevented him from playing golf as much as he would like to. She said the children were talking to them about their future care, a subject most of us are facing in our 80's. But being independent is who we are and giving that up is not easy.


SUE: Back on the road, we head to Bonita Springs where we will be staying the night with Carol and Bill. They are called snowbirds because they live here only in the winter. There are 3,500 people in their gated community and the same number in the one just next door. We must show our identifiation to the guard and tell him whom we are visiting before being allowed to enter. Is this related to the several gun shops we passed along the road? This development is beautifully landscaped, immaculately neat and clean. We see a few seniors out walking dogs, but no children. I have known Carol and Bill for 40 years.  Carol prepares us a delicious meal of Chicken Marsala ending with fresh strawberries and ice cream. I think she serves the ice cream because she knows I am an ice cream addict. Bill who looks a bit like Ernest Hemingway has been taking painting lessons in Bonita Springs. He shows us his recent watercolors on his iPad. They are quite good.

NANCY: Bill and Carol are blue folks in a sea of red, they admit. Bill, a shoo-in winner in a Santa contest with blue eyes and a whimsical grin, is the soul of patience with two extra women in his castle. Carol tells good stories and is all about taking care of us with a yummy dinner and the inevitable strawberries at this time of year in Florida. In the evening after catching up with the whereabout of kids and grandkids, Sue retires to her book and I watch Dancing with the Stars with Bill and Carol.


NANCY: Last night I discovered that Montezuma's Revenge doesn't confine itself to Mexico. But with some heavy duty pills from Carol, I'm ready to venture down to Everglades City and Old Florida. On the way through Naples, we pick an ADPi sorority sister whose name is also Nancy. Sue and I shared a room with her at Ohio University in 1950. We navigate the gate and find Nancy's two-story condo at Villa Mare. Nancy is a new widow, alone after 56 years of marriage to Hud who died of Hodgkins Lymphoma. The marriage had been a happy one, with a family business, two daughters and many grandchildren. Nancy came out of the condo all smiles. "I just figured it up," she says. "We've known each other for 64 years. I can't believe it." Nancy, still tall and slim, with dark hair, does make it unbelievable.

SUE: Nancy lives in a beautiful Mediterranean house, again behind gates. She is also a snowbird, living in Illinois part of the year. Naples reeks of money. No flash and bling like Florida's east coast. Just solid, conservative wealth.

Cover of 16 Most Requested SongsNANCY: In the 1950's we didn't have a lot of money to go to college although the tuition was only $600 at OU, Nancy points out. Most of us only owned one formal dress. "I had a date for a dance and you offered me your pretty light blue satin gown but it was a size too big," she reminds me. "So you wrapped a towel around my middle and pinned it and I wore the dress to the dance." I recall the time that we played Johnnie Ray's "Cry" over and over again on the 45 record player that her boyfriend Howard had given her. We danced the jitterbug in a room crammed with desks. We slept in the attic of the sorority house on double decker cots. She remembers visting me in my house in Cleveland Heights and recalls that my Dad carved the ham at the table. She had never seen that before. It's funny how little things like that stick in our minds after all these years.


SUE: Driving south to the Everglades,  I notice the empty strip malls are back. In the 10,000 Islands at the beginning of the Glades, we first stop at Everglades
The veranda at the Rod and Gun Club in Everglades City
City. It is a small town but much larger than the last time I was here. Some years ago when the population was 300, the FBI arrived in town one day and arrested 200 of them for transporting drugs in their fishing boats. We stop at the historic Rod and Gun Club where we peruse the pictures and clippings on the walls. Then we sit on the veranda watching the swamp buggies go past on the small river in front. We have lunch at the Oyster House Restaurant which specializes in alligator meat and stone crabs.  At lunch, someone asks whether the others would remarry, given the opportunity. We are one married woman, one divorced and two widows. All agree we like the companionship of men but would definitely not marry again. Someone says something about "old geezers" looking for nursemaids or housekeepers.

Oyster House Restaurant in Everglades City
NANCY: At the Oyster House Restaurant heads of deer lining the walls watch us while we eat. We leave the gun and hunting debate for another day. We talk instead about being single and dating and how nice it would be to be asked out to dinner or to a show, but the consensus on marrying again is absolutely "no." But, I think to myself, one good kiss could change that point of view. Even at 80.


SUE: At Chokoloskee we visit the Smallwood store. The old general store built on stilts over the water was originally an Indian trading post and is now a museum. We watch a video of "Totch" Brown telling how he spent the old days killing alligators for their skins and egrets for their feathers, making moonshine. It was beside this store where the whole town stood on October 24, 1910 to shoot Mr. Watson as he arrived in his boat, a story told well by Peter Matthiesson in "Killing Mr. Watson."  A bit of old Florida, the real Florida before all the landscaping, development and gentrification.

NANCY: Chokoloskee is a settlement on a shell mound in the twisted mangroves that form the coast along the 10,000 Islands. Although Nancy, Sue, Carol and I live in four different cities, we are all avid book club members and have all read Peter Matthiessen's "Killing Mr. Watson." Mr. Watson met his match when the town opened fire on him as he got out of his boat. On the spot is the Smallwood store, now a museum of pots and irons and newspaper clippings of an era of mullet fishing, marijuana trade and rugged life in the Glades. A treasure in the back of the store is a video of "Totch" Brown, a native on the island and a hardy survivor of a lifetime making a living in the swamp. And to hear him tell it is to shake your head and wonder how anyone could make a life for a family with mosquitos and heat and very little shelter. But he did it. As I drive back to Bonita Springs, I wonder if I could have lived as primitively as Totch who smiled sincerely as he talked of living free in the mangroves. It's raining as we arrive back to the comforts of Naples and Bonita Springs. That night I have my first taste of Vietnamese food.  I have summer rolls and a Pho soup with noodles, sprouts and beef. The food is similar to Chinese but milder. 


NANCY: After a quick breakfast and wrestling sheets to Carol's washer, we all head north on Route 41 to visit Sue's friends Joanne and Dick who live in a gated community east of Sarasota. Joanne, Carol and Sue met 40 years ago in The Valley Bar in Lancaster, Pa. Valley girls? Maybe. The stories they tell bring whoops of laughter. Joanne and Dick have a happy second marriage with shared kids. Dick's life is golf and he was playing three days a week until a torn rotator cuff put him on the list for surgery. He's helping around the house now, his wife says. We add up the new knees and hips and laugh at how we all are slowly replacing body parts. After our dinner at the Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar, the two couples return to their gated lives and Sue and I head back to St. Petersburg, just in time for me to meet with a contractor who is repairing the garage wall I damaged with my car last week. Is the gated life with lawn and maintenance taken care of by someone else looking more attractive? 

SUE: In St. Petersburg, we connect with another Christmas card couple, Natalie and Dick. I met Natalie when I was with the State Department, working at our embassy in the Ivory Coast. Dick is retired Navy. They live in a condo on the 21st floor of an elegant  building in downtown St. Pete with a fantastic view across the water.  I drink wine. They drink Scotch. Where I live in California, I never see anyone drinking hard liquor. Everyone only drinks wine. Here growth seems to be encouraged. There are franchised stores and restaurants. In my area, growth is severely curtailed. Sprawl and developments are not considered desirable. And in most towns, franchised chain stores and restaurants are either discouraged or completely forbidden.


SUE: We choose not to drive on alternate 19 in order to see more, passing Clearwater where Church of Scientology members are wandering around (they are housed and trained in a huge downtown hotel) and Dunedin, a charming small town on the water, probably my favorite in Florida. On the north shore of the Anclote River, we visit my friend Bob. We met when he was a West Point cadet and I was in college. He lives in an old, funky neighborhood of cottages nestled in a lot of natural Florida vegetation, including trees hanging with Spanish moss. He takes us to see his friend Gloria whose house is on the bank of the river and for whom he has built a moveable chicken house. The chicken house has four residents at present. Gloria also raises rabbits in her backyard.

NANCY: Looking up old boyfriends is exciting. Even when you're 80. Sue once dated a handsome West Point cadet who over the years became a paratrooper, a physician, married four women, lived on a sailboat and eventually settled in the Greek town of Tarpon Springs. Sixty years later, will the old flame still be there? "No," she tells me, but I notice she spends extra time on the hair and make up. Just in case. Tarpon Springs main attraction is the sponge dock with Greek restaurants and sponges, tourists and souvenir stands. We pass all that up in heavy Saturday traffic and drive on to find Bob far from the town in a backwoods enclave. His latest wife has died and he lives alone in a neat manufactured home hidden in the trees. A big wooly dog greets us and Bob appears. Not too tall, pleasant and smiling, he could be the old man and the sea, beard and all. A glass of grape juice and the two old flames get caught up on old times. Did I see a light in his eye when he looked at Sue?

Bob shows us his garden, struggling to renew itself. Would we go with him to deliver a bale of hay to a neighbor? Of course. We follow the pickup down the road to a backyard with a tumbled garage on the Anclote River. Trees shroud the sprawling house and we pad from the back fence to the door. Chickens appear and Bob shows us the moveable chicken house he built for his friend Gloria who comes out to welcome us. She is a retired art teacher and the bushes and vines reveal pottery objects, owls and table tops. Inside we marvel at the family-style kitchen, bright stained glass and wine cooler. Best is the view of a pond with a beautiful water lily, just like Monet, and a glimpse through the tangle of the Anclote River. We are in a fisherman's paradise. I am aware of a shadowy figure daring behind a doorway, a bent woman with soft steps eyeing the strangers in the house. It is Gloria's friend Linda who had retired with her and is now in the throws of dementia and needing care and a watchful eye. A big shift in retirement plans. Gloria has chicks in the bathtub and in a small coop warmed by a light bulb. She is expanding her brood and Bob has brought hay for the coop. As I watch them I see happiness in the simple life with plants and chickens and neighbors in the fish camps and trailers along the river. Sue, the traveler, asks Bob if he has plans to venture abroad. "No," he says. "I am content here." Content. A wonderful state of being whether on the Anclote River or in a gated community.

SUE: We have lunch at Mr. Souvilaki, a Greek restaurant off the main tourist street. Tarpon Springs was settled by Greek sponge divers, but since artificial sponges appeared on the market, not many natural sponges are sold. However, the Greeks are still here. You can see the large sponge boats on the Anclote River which leads to the Gulf. The sponges are displayed on the docks. But more money is made in blocks of tourist shops and Greek restaurants. After lunch we visit my cousin Toni and her daughter Liz. They live together simply with Liz's son John. The family has had financial difficulties, but Liz is now training to be an emergency medical technician. Toni is retired from nursing and Liz is a natural caregiver. She has five cats she has rescued. The last time I visited, she was feeding an army of feral cats, but the cost prohibits her from doing that now. We munch on some delicious brownies before leaving.

NANCY: Out of loyalty to her mom, Sue has kept in contact with her distant cousins in Tarpon Springs. She tells me that they had been a dysfunctional family in bad shape the last time she saw them. Living in HUD housing. Unemployment. Alcoholism. Dementia. All the trauma of human life. Outside the main town of Tarpon Springs, we find them in better housing with a concrete slab for a faded, grey car outside. Her mother's cousin, sweet-faced and charming, repeatedly offers us a seat and a drink. Five cats drape themselves on chairs and ledges. An old dog stumbles by. It turns out the chronically unemployed daughter is about to graduate from EMT training. The alcoholic has moved out. The high school son is doing OK and the flamboyant Lebanese girlfriend is cheering them on. A miracle? Life in this family has taken a turn. Maybe all that faded car needs is a new battery.