A walk in the park with a 103-year-old

June 5, 2016

Savannah Morning News

Raise your hand if you have one of those wristwatch thingeys, the kind that tell you how many steps you’ve walked in a day. The magic number, I hear, is 10,000 steps.

There appears to be an App for everything. Have you noticed?  But what about happiness? Is there an App that measures that?

A few Saturdays ago I watched Sandy West of Ossabaw Island-fame experience Forsyth Park from the seat of her rolling chair, a very convenient and basic contraption for people weak in their pins. She wasn’t wearing an App but she looked happy. Sandy is a centenarian plus three. That totals 103. An on-again, off-again resident of the Georgia coast for most of her life, Sandy knows about cabbage palms, marsh grass, elusive pigs, dogs, donkeys and horses.  She knows art.  She knows nature. After many a go-around with the state of Georgia, to whom she sold the island in 1957 at a bargain price, she knows runarounds, dead ends, and stalemates.

She also knows Forsyth Park. But it’s been a long time between visits. For decades she was busy with other things, like sharing the undeveloped barrier island with thousands of writers, artists, musicians, philosophers and mathematicians who might be interested in collaboration along with carving out time for the moon, the stars – and silence.

But now that she’s living on the mainland (money and safety the concerns) she’s doing mainland things to feed her soul, like navigating through Forsyth Park, Savannah’s gem of a green space. It starts with a visit to Brighter Day, where Sandy was one of the store’s first shoppers some 40 years ago, for the iconic avocado sandwich. The store “smells the same,” she announces. Later she and co-owner Peter Brodhead chatted like old friends. Peter remembered the vitamins Sandy took, “twice a day: Kal Multi Four.”

With the sandwich on her lap she and several compatriots maneuvered their way past a horde of Forsyth Farmers Market vendors and shoppers. At eye level she surveyed the season’s first cucumbers, bouquets of beets and bags of beans before stopping at a yellow and green creation that looked more like a flying saucer or a children’s toy than the pattypan squash it was.

“What’s this?” she asked. “Who dat?”

“Take one,” said farmer Adam Mincer, handing it over.

“But what do you do with it?” she said, a question I’ve wondered myself.

We pushed on and found an empty bench for our picnic.

“I remember the park,” she said. “It’s marvelous, isn’t it?”

“But what are they doing?” she asked, looking at a crowd of Frisbee-players.

Not so easy to explain Frisbee, not unlike pattypan squash.

When a young couple walked by with a dog wearing what looked like a satellite dish around its neck, she said, “What’s that?” The star-decorated plastic cone keeps the dog from scratching, the woman said. By then Sandy wanted to see the infant tucked against the chest of a young man.

“How old is the baby?”

“Six weeks.”

“She’s 103,” I said.

Later on – because this is a public park where all kinds of people just keep on coming – another family passed by. These visitors came with a set of twin girls somewhere around four years old. When someone complimented them on their bright pink fingernails Sandy, sitting at their height and never one to skip a beat, handed over her tangerine-painted nails to compare colors. One of the twins was glued to Sandy’s polka-dotted socks and the green laces on her Keds.

After lunch we moseyed down the center of the park. We passed the balloon-man, tables of picnickers celebrating recent graduates, visitors with their maps turned upside down, the oversized chimes or xylophones and finally the fountain.

“I recognize that,” she said.

Strolling around the fountain and the purple agapanthus, we stopped to look up at the blooming magnolia trees. The flowers, too high to pick, were at their peak. But someone answered our wish. A woman with a tour guide sticker on her shirt and a coveted bloom in her hands stopped and asked Sandy if she would like the flower.

“I got it at the cemetery,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have taken it but here, you can have it.”

Passing along the guilt, I guess.

We took it, stroking the shiny, silky bloom, feeling lucky and not at all guilty.

When I get old, I thought, this is what I want to do: stroll around Forsyth, mix it up with people, stop to smell the magnolia blooms.

A couple hours later we walked back to the car but not without some struggle getting over what’s supposed to be the handicap-friendly curb cuts. And not without passing what seemed like a hundred Harleys parked at an angle. They belonged to the wingmen, pilots who flew behind the lead plane in a winged formation. It was Memorial Day, after all. It looked as if Sandy wanted to climb one of those beasts and ride away. A few years ago she probably would have.








Lost in Nashville

Savannah Morning News

May 1, 2016


Maps were good in their day. Yes, they were hard to fold back once we opened them up. Yes, the print seemed to be larger back then. Yes, there were fewer highways to navigate. Still, they had a beauty. They were tactile. The markings on them spoke of earlier trips, earlier times. They were particular and specific. They left room for choices. Somehow we got where we needed to go. They had heft, not unlike a landline. I watch a 4-year-old pick up the receiver of an ancient pink princess telephone we keep around the house. She’s curious about it. “Dial,” I tell her, “Dial.” There’s another ancient word. Then she goes to the typewriter. A manual. “Type,” I tell her. She jams the keys and that’s okay. The house is a museum. So are those verbs. Maybe we are too.

I couldn’t use a dial phone anymore. It takes too long for the middle thingey with the holes and the numbers to return to its resting spot. I couldn’t use a typewriter, either. What? No cut and paste?

I guess people – we – had more time back then. Somehow we survived. Fewer choices. No texting, no Facebook messaging, no emailing, no answer machines. You dialed a number – there’s that word again – to reach a friend. When no one answered you tried again. Ever try to make a date with someone today? Don’t ask.

Maps are anachronistic. Now we have someone else doing the thinking, the navigating. It’s all figured out for us on our mobile devices. In 50 feet you’ll turn here, turn there. Blah blah blah. Our anger is anachronistic, too. Get over it, a 30-year-old tells me when I bring her in to “upgrade’ my computer so my new “upgraded” phone will work. Really? This is what I have to be doing when I could be outside picking mulberries? They’re only around a few weeks, I tell her, and then they’re gone. She’s not listening. You haven’t upgraded your computer! she barks. I feel like an idiot. When she finishes “upgrading” (she has to take it home with her – it takes that long) and I get it back I see all my memorized moves,  the tracks of my well-worn muscle memory, are changed. Now, instead of “send” I push “delete.” We’ve replaced words with cute little symbols that make no sense to me. The calendar on my phone doesn’t work. I think I’ll have to go back to a paper version. But I can’t. I’m too dependent on having my calendar with me all the time.

I’m stubborn. Somehow I manage to get to Nashville with my folded map. I’m visiting an old friend. Fortified by seven FM Christian radio stations and nine AM Christian stations I spot my usual landmark to her East Nashville house. It’s a large sign painted in white bock letters on a red brick building that reads NASHVILLE TO JESUS. But the words of the 30-year-old ring in my ear. Since I’m early I decide to take a walk on the wild side and use my GPS navigator function to find Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett’s new store. If this first-class writer had the guts to open an independent bookstore when everyone else is lamenting the demise of independent bookstores, then I can find the darn place. Patchett compares her venture to walking over to a roulette table and betting all you have on a single number. All I’m doing is spending an afternoon in Nashville waiting for my friend to get home.

No problem crossing the wiggly Cumberland River. No problem finding Vanderbilt University. No problem asking someone, “Say, am I anywhere near Hillsboro Road?” because by that time my navigational device was not working. Too much interference.

“Sure,” a driver next to me said. “Twenty-first turns into Hillsboro. Just go straight ahead.”


Except it didn’t. It wasn’t. He meant well. But he meant Twenty-first avenue not street.  (Or was it the other way around?) He meant Twenty-first south, not north. (I think). With nearly 100 people moving to Nashville every day and no public transportation to speak of, traffic is crazy and people use outdated landmarks for directions.

Dozens of U-turns later (most of them interrupted by Vanderbilt’s sprawling campus) I find a street named 21st and I turn – avenue or street, it didn’t matter. I was channeling Yogi Berra when he said, “When you come to a fork in the road take it.” I was on a nice tour of Nashville. I cruise past an impressive statue of W.E.B. Du Bois at the historically black Fisk University. Then the school of dentistry at Meharry Medical College. Then an elementary school with a line of students crossing the street. I’m starting to hit the wall.

That’s when I park the car, walk up to an older gent helping direct traffic and plead my case. “Oh my,” he says, shaking his head, pointing his finger. “You are here and you need to be there, way over there.” He tries to give me directions on the interstate. By then I’ve had it. No! Back roads only, please.  “Wait one minute,” he says, “I’ll take you. I’m going that way myself. Sort of.”

So he does. I get in my car, he gets in his, and I follow him to my destination. No GPS. No Google maps. No navigational ap. A human being. A typewriter. A telephone receiver. I’m home.