Up at 2:00am, leave by 3:00am, airport by 3:45am, on the plane at 5:00am. Rebecca said something about Simon and Garfunkel and their song about Wednesday morning at 3am and that they knew when to leave. Far too early, I thought.
Our first leg of the journey was a short one to Denver. When we re-boarded, (the exact same plane), we got the same awful seats at the very end of the plane, against the wall, adjacent to the bathrooms. So we couldn’t recline and had to put up with the noises of the bathroom and people lined up to use them.
I brought along some noise-cancelling earphones which helped with the airplane and people noises, but the seats were very uncomfortable and constrained.
Before arriving at Orlando, we were treated to a vast array of beautiful and dramatic clouds, compliments of the buildup to Hurricane Florence, I imagine. Or maybe this is typical weather here all the time. Still in my mind, the hurricane (due to hit landfall in North Carolina two days from now which is the day we depart for Europe) is daunting.
To our delight, after an afternoon of wrangling our way through the airport, car rental, and some GPS misfires, we finally met up with second cousin Lynne, her husband Barney, and her mother, Frances in Gainesville, Florida.
Gainesville is a sprawling university town that is laid out in broad streets and boulevards lined in magnificent live oaks and crepe myrtle, draped with Spanish moss. The homes sit far from the streets and are surrounded with wide lawns kept green year-round by the semi-tropical Floridian climate.
Frances is the reason we made Florida our first stop. She is one of the first relatives on Rebecca’s side I met in 1982,when we made a cross-continent trip. Frances hosted us in her home in Norman Olkahoma back in late June, 1982. She was the only person I had ever met that actually practiced yoga back then, long before it became popular.
“Fran” is to have her hundredth birthday party in early October this year, and we will be in Romania by then, so we will miss the big party.
But I think we lucked out by coming now because we have her to ourselves this way instead of trying to share with all the party-goers in October. Fran is a treasure!
We enjoyed an Italian dinner at Pomodoro’s, the local diner where Fran and Barney seemed to know all the wait staff by name. The wait staff knew all the regulars by
“Chicken Parmesan,” “Spaghetti marinara,” “Chicken Florentine,” or whatever the customer typically orders.
When we told our waitress, Hannah, that we were here to celebrate Fran’s 100th birthday, she thought we meant that night, so she and three fellow waiters surprised us by bringing out a complimentary cake with candles, and proceeded to sing an off-key but heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Fran is lively, energetic, curious about others, amazingly fit, and has a twinkle in here eyes that belies someone on the brink of completing a century. She insisted that we take her room with the double bed and private bath. We couldn’t argue since she had already moved herself into her guest bedroom for the three days we were to be here.
She lives in a retirement community in Gainesville called the Village, and the setting is paradise! We took a quick morning walk around the compound and especially enjoyed the many ponds, fountains, and the beautiful landscaping. We discovered a woodworking shop with retirees working on various projects, an art studio, a community garden, and little libraries all over The Village. We found a free dispensary of duck food near one of the small lakes. When Rebecca turned the handle to get a handful of duck food, the ducks recognized the squeaking sound and came running.
Getting to know Fran
Fran is amazing! She can remember all her grandchildren’s’ and great-grandchildren’s’ names without hesitation. She casually mentioned that she intends to take up an oil painting class next week. Had she done that before? No, she said. It’s just something she’s always been interested in.
At breakfast, she had already completed the morning crossword puzzle. She was upset because she had misplaced her datebook which had all her appointments for the next few weeks, so she was busy calling doctors to make sure she hasn’t forgotten any of them.
At dinner tonight, she mentioned that she was reading the Bob Woodward’s new book. “Fear?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she said, “It’s very interesting!” (It was only released on Tuesday!) How did she get her copy do quickly, I wondered!
We had another great dinner with Lynne and Barney and Fran. Rebecca got to catch up on three decades of family stories. Again, we had another birthday cake for Fran. We told her that is was not her birthday but her birth month.
Friday the 14th, our last full day in Gainesville, Lynn took us for a tour of the University of Florida where Barney had taught for over 30 years.
Established a few years before the Civil War, the University of Florida is the home of the Gators, both the natural kind that we spotted in Lake Alice, and the mascots, Albert and Alberta. With an enrollment of over 50,000, it is one of the largest universities in the nation specializing in medicine, dentistry, engineering, education, and physics.
Barney taught in the engineering department for over 30 years.
We stopped at Lake Alice and saw a small alligator at lake’s edge. Rebecca sneaked up to take this photo. Moments afterwards, the hair thrashed about, apparently snatching up some lunch in the lake but it gave us a bit of a fight!