Love is Real


                    Dani and me, 16 and 12

I am the oldest of two, and my younger sister, who died at 66 in March, had many health problems. My sister, whose name was Danielen was what used to be called “severely and profoundly retarded,” had epilepsy and other medical ills. Throughout her life, she fell many many times, breaking arms, legs and once her neck. Her doctor, beloved by my parents, also told me that probably she did not feel pain in the same way we did. (This was after I accompanied her and almost fainted when he drew blood and she had a seizure.) To my discredit, I believed him, since he also was the parent of such a child—but in my defense, I was young and would never have questioned a doctor.

I am 71 now, and I know that all humans, in fact all mammals, feel pain. What hurts, hurts. More importantly, I have learned some things in life are not fixable. We all keep trying, but there it is.

I know that not all living is grim and painful. My sister was at home until she was 13, and she visited my parents’ home occasionally thereafter. There was laughter, love, and a succession of beagle dogs all named Tippy. Sunday night supper was always buttered popcorn and Bonanza.

                        Dani and the last Tippy

Dani, as she grew to be called, spent most of her life, over 53 years of it, in New York state institutions and community homes. When our parents passed away, I became her guardian, mostly by phone, since I moved to Washington, DC after college. She, with mom and dad, visited us one Christmas, and I saw her other times in New York, but not nearly as much as I would have liked.

                                         Dressed for Halloween

I heard about her visits to parties, and church and the New York State Fair. And I knew what music she liked, and about her love of cheese puffs and jewelry and dressing up. Obviously, she had a life—her own life, and she enjoyed living.

Dani adored animals and also the many people who loved and cared for her. As a child in Jordan, N.Y. , Danielen had two beloved older women caregivers named “Hinman” and “Hattie.” She called our dad “Lyman Wilcox” and our mom “Sally Wilcox.” I was ‘Laine.

             Sally, Dani and Lyman. She was 16

About 15 years ago, she moved to a specialized medical group home in Chittenango New York, and I moved to Florida, 1,400 miles away. She had two fabulous caregivers and advocates there, Paula and Nessa, whose love, kindness and patience know no bounds.

                                Paula, Dani and Nessa

She was also fond of others in the group home, especially the director, Patrick, who made her favorite breakfast, pancakes, Kim and Melissa from Day Hab, and all the staff at the Jay Street.

Over the years, other caregivers also touched her life. She was a resident at Craig Colony in Western New York, Syracuse Developmental Center and a group home in Weedsport as well as Rosewood Heights in Syracuse. That is what institutionalization meant. I went the day we first took her to Craig Colony in 1965, and I do not know to this day how my parents left her, but in those days somebody must have told them it was “for the best.”

Many former caregivers visited Dani at home before she died, but I was not among them, for a number of reasons. I face-timed her and had frequent telephone conversations with everyone involved, including the Hospice workers we called in to make sure her last journey was pain-free.

                                  Dani, Paula and Baby Wilcox

She died with her beloved doll “Baby Wilcox” by her side. I owe thanks beyond counting to all the people over the years, who took her into their hearts. Strangers, who loved and cared for her because it was their job and because it mattered.

At my home in Florida, I stayed in the kitchen and baked bread. A lot of sourdough bread. I wish I could have given it away to those at her bedside in New York, but it was not to be.

This month, I plan to place her ashes in the grave with mom and dad, in a quiet rural cemetery, with a headstone whose engraving bears three names. May she, after all these years — may all three of them, rest in peace.

Love is real, real is love
Love is feeling, feeling love
Love is wanting to be loved

Love is touch, touch is love
Love is reaching, reaching love
Love is asking to be loved

Love is you
You and me
Love is knowing
we can be

Love is free, free is love
Love is living, living love
Love is needing to be loved

John Lennon


A Maid in the Woods

Back to that Twitter hashtag about first jobs…The summer after my sojourn on the lake in upstate New York,  I sought a job in Old Forge, the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains. As a family, we always went “to the woods” in the summer. This summer, after my freshman year in college, I lived with my gram, in a funny green shotgun house behind the laundry she and my grandfather used to own.

Old Forge is a resort town, full of summer vacationers and fun-seekers. Many visited The Enchanted Forrest, a resort that featured circus shows, reenacters, rides and animals. A statue of Paul Bunyon lorded over everything in the park. To my fascination, Gram rented a cabin behind her house to a man with a long white beard. In the winter, he lived in LA and played Santa Claus. In the summer, he was a gold rush prospector. The Flying Walledas also summered at the Enchanted Forest. But that’s another story.


The Enchanted Forest had a storytale/Paul Bunyon theme. It opened in 1956, around the same time as Disneyland

The daytime job I secured was as a maid to a family from Virginia. They owned a “camp” at the very exclusive Adirondack League Club. signFounded in 1890, the Club owns 53,000 acres, with “rustic” camps on private lakes. To this day, the public is not allowed on club land, which is for the use of members who hunt and fish and relax. It is a gated community. I live in one now, but it’s not the same.

Things I learned as a maid in the woods:

  1. A near-perfect house would be like the one I worked in. It was on Little Moose Lake. All the rooms were joined by a long, winding, covered boardwalk. The bedrooms, kitchen and dinning room, living room, guest houses and a huge game room-all were all separate. Bathrooms were attached. Every time you went to another room, you had to go outside.  It was perfect because you always got to see the lake and the loons and the tall evergreen trees.
    A typical camp at the Adirondack League Club


2.Some people are rich enough to afford a house like this AND a cattle farm.
3. A cook is a really good idea if you can afford it.

Their chef was Swiss, but you get the idea
Their chef was Swiss, but you get the idea

5. A separate laundry room with a window rocks.
6. Rich people might ask you to buy your own uniform.
7. You can say no to some job-related requests.
9. Adirondack lakes are mist-covered early in the morning.misty lake


7. Loons are fantastic birds. They call each other incessantly and it sounds creepily romantic.loon

10.Adirondack style is a real thing. Handmade furniture and deer antler chandeliers are beautiful. Stuffed heads, not so much.

I didn’t know what Adirondack style was then, but now I do

11. Last, Enchanted Forests are sometimes turned in to huge Water Safaris. There are no gold rush prospectors, but Paul Bunyon remains.Paul

Coming up, my Old Forge night-time job, salad girl….stay tuned as I move up in the culinary world.

A Job on a Lake

Finger Lakes are long, narrow and blue
Finger Lakes are long, narrow and very blue

A recent Twitter hashtag queried “What were your first seven jobs?” Celebrities and common folk chimed in, and got me thinking. Babysitting, check. Nanny-type duties at a house in the Finger Lakes, check. Salad girl, check. Maid, check.
Wait a minute, let’s think about a life lesson or two along the way.

First, I must admit that I was incredibly naive. I mean really unsophisticated, except I read books. Reading, at least, offered a view of the world outside my hometown, which had a total population of 2,000. I was 18.

At the lake house, I was in charge of a family of children. I think there were three or four; some came and went. Their Dad had custody for a month, but he was home at night very occasionally and sometimes on weekends.  Some things I learned:

Tuna Noodle Casserole is best if you turn on the oven
Tuna Noodle Casserole is best if you turn on the oven–I forgot
  1. Actual cooking is hard.
  2. Always keep bread and peanut butter and jelly in the cupboard.
  3. Maggots in the garbage container can be killed with Tide detergent and hot water.
  4. Night thunderstorms are best endured if everyone gets into the same bed.
  5. Some Siamese cats like to sleep under the sheets.
  6. Reading aloud is fun.

    We all loved this book
    We all loved this book
  7. When walking to the beach at night, wear a big hat to protect you from bats.

    My hat wasn't this big, but it worked
    My hat wasn’t this big, but it worked
  8. If your employer’s mother asks you to hide his evening beer supply, do it.
  9. Alcoholism is a real disease.
  10. Families are what you make them, even if they only last a month.DucksStay tuned–coming up: “A Maid in the Woods” and “Tales of a Salad Girl.”

Sunday Morning Bike Mystery


I wish this could be a post about the beauties of life. Instead, it’s about my Sunday morning bike ride around my neighborhood, outside the gated community which contains my home. Florida is full of gated communities.  Not sure why…to keep people out or to keep people in? It’s a fair question.


Cute, but no actual guard
     Cute, but no actual guard

Exiting, I rode down the public street, on the sidewalk, past other gated communities. On my left, I spied a record. An album. Vinyl. Whole, untouched, cast into the grass between the road and the sidewalk.  Soon came the sleeve, and then the cover.  Then, another and another.  I rode on , thinking what might have unfolded. But it was early, and I was intent on exercise.

Later, I rode back and found the street still festooned with records. Vinyl records.  33 1/2 rpm, unscratched and pristine, so I gathered them up. They could have blown off a moving truck, I thought, but out of the sleeves? And the covers? My mind went wild. An affair gone sour? An attempt at a new life? A musical reckoning?

There were also bottles and cans that I felt sure were clues.  After arriving home and obtaining a bag, I returned to collect all the evidence. Miller Light, two cans of Red Bull and a big can of hard cider. Redd’s Wicked Apple Refreshingly Hard Ale. Not exactly a high to be proud of. But it might have worked if you needed to pitch your past.

I traced the records, sleeves and covers to a nearby apartment complex. My detection senses awoke.  Clues, I thought.  It was not the end of the month when evictions rule, but clearly someone thought it was a time to get rid of irrelevant stuff .

The albums were: Sweet Freedom by Uriah Heep, Elton John’s Victim of Love, Supertramp’s Famous Last Words and the Edgar Winter Group’s Shock Treatment. These are not hit albums. But they might have been important to the thrower. Say around the the late 70ties and 80ties.

Suppose that person wanted to start anew? Throw out old vinyls and move on. A Victim of Love who is now enjoying Sweet Freedom? At least, that’s what I think.

Uriah Heep




It’s what we call the rainy season in Florida.  Many snowbirds have headed north.  The real birds have as well. When it rains here you can see fish in the street. It’s a fact. They come up through the drains.

dead wake

It’s time to read and possibly nap.  Yesterday I finished Dead Wake by Erik Larson.  I’m moving on, reading-wise, but first I wanted to congratulate Mr. Larson on clearing up a mystery.  His research into the lives of passengers on the Lusitania makes the story come to life.  I love narrative non-fiction, and he is a master. (

Theodate Pope
            Theodate Pope

One of the survivors of the Lusitania’s torpedoing was named Theodate Pope. In her life, she had long struggled with depression. When she boarded the ship, Theodate was 48, wore a velvet turban and was a singular woman for her time.  She was born in 1867 and lived in Farmington, CT, where she went to Miss Porter’s school.  Since this is about me, as usual, it should be noted that one of my college roommates had attended the same school. I also take anti-depressants daily.

During one of her bouts with depression, Theo’s wealthy parents sent her to Philadelphia to be treated by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who treated women with so-called nervous difficulties with a “rest cure.” If you took his cure, you had to remain bed-ridden for weeks, sometimes up to two months.  Inactivity was supposed to cure the patient, who was not even allowed to get up to go to the bathroom! No sewing, reading or–god forbid–writing. Nothing but cleaning your teeth–again all this information researched by the wonderful, curious mind of Erik Larson.


Dr. Mitchell’s approach was later exposed in a popular short-story called “The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman was a patient in 1887, a year before Theodate Pope. Gilman’s story is still taught by English teachers today.  I was one of them. In my high school we taught it along with Kate Chopin’s classic The Awakening.  Mystery solved. I always wondered what the hell that story was about.  I had a dim idea it was about a woman going nuts, but I was never sure.  Truth be told, I’m still puzzled by it, but now I know the relevant back story and can see the link to emerging feminist thought. (Here’s a link to the complete story. You can read it in about 10 minutes.

Reading can open closed doors!  But I hope it’s not to a room with yellow wallpaper.  Or a ship with four smoke stacks. Then again, we can read about them both on a rainy day in Florida. Next up, Sherman Alexie’s War Dances.

The Lusitania before she was torpedoed
    The Lusitania before she was torpedoed

Bird of the Day


Equipped and ready to Bird
Equipped and ready to Bird

I belong to a bird club.  This is not news, lots of people enjoy birding with others because, as my friend France says, “more eyes=more birds.” (See her blog at Bird Tweets at )

The Caloosa Bird Club was founded a long time ago (1958) in Lee County, Florida. Every Monday morning members meet at a pre-arranged spot.  High on caffeine, many of us have been up before dawn.   We quietly creep out of our homes loaded down with binos, scopes, water, sunscreen, hats, notebooks and iphones (with birding apps).  Anticipation is in the air.  It keeps us going–who knows what we might see and hear?  For a birder, that’s key–we live now but there’s always tomorrow.

Vince McGrath, lifetime member of the Caloosa Bird Club
Vince McGrath and Georgia Nef, lifetime members of the Caloosa Bird Club

This particular Monday in November one of our leaders was Vince McGrath, one of the best birders in Southwest Florida.  Vince is a master naturalist and has been watching birds since he was 12.  He’s now in his 50s and has not slowed down or lost his enthusiasm. He  can whistle many bird songs and recognizes chips and churps that the rest of us ignore.  He keeps one eye on the trees, another on the beach and a third on the sky. And he walks fast, sometimes urging folks to keep quiet and walk faster. This trip there are 25 of us.

Birding the Beach
Birding the Beach at Little Estero

We looked for birds in an area called Little Estero Lagoon on Ft. Myers Beach, and  headed for lunch around 11:30. We picnicked under a huge strangler oak at the Mound House, a historical site on the Bay Side of the island. The oak is majestic, the shade welcome and there were enough tables for the whole group, plus restrooms.  (Such amenities, my friends, are birding heaven.)

Mound House Tree
Mound House Tree

As is the club’s custom, we eat and then complete the bird list.  Many of us also list individually on ebird, but the club list is kept internally. Each of us has a sheet to check off the birds we’ve all seen. And so we began: “mottled duck, wood stork, magnificent frigatebird…”finishing with the warblers, which are always last.  Today, we log mostly shore birds, 52 species  overall.

A Semi-palmated Plover
We found lots of Semi-palmated Plovers

Last, we vote on the Bird of the Day.  Vince announces that we “have not yet seen the Bird of the Day. ” In fact, those of us with cell phones have just received texts about a Franklin’s gull on a beach to the south of us , and we speculate that we might be going there, which would be a deviation from club protocol, but possibly worth it. “Yes,” he said, pointing up, “it’s in this very tree…a great horned owl.”

“No,” you’re joking with us,” a member responded, joined by others, who, to our amazement, find we have been sitting directly under the owl.  The owl was content to watch with all-knowing eyes, swiveling his head and then taking a snooze. He was big and brown and high in the tree–to a casual observer, just a bunch of leaves or a squirrel nest.  But not to Vince, who discovered the owl while he was eating and kept quiet for 15 minutes.  Many who know Vince were also amazed that he could keep quiet about a bird for that long!

A great-horned owl at the beach?  That was our Bird of the Day.  Who knows what we’ll see next? That’s the fun of birding.  Our motto:  Keep Looking Up

Owl at Mound House
Owl in the Tree

(To watch a video of Vince in action:



Otter Morning

Otter Morning

Last Sunday was special.  We didn’t go to church so I rode my bike for eight miles.  Came in sweaty and tired.  Looked out the back of the house and screamed at my husband,  “John, get your camera.”  He looked quizzical.  “Don’t stop. Just do it…there are four otters on our dock.”

We bolted into the bedroom, which has a window that faces the dock.  Lake Iona was sparkling and the otters were lolling about.  John tried a few shots through the glass but there was glare.  “I’m going out the front and try to sneak around the side,”  he said, tiptoeing out the door.

Meanwhile, I watched the river otters, who seemed not quite full-grown–teenagers, perhaps–cavort on the deck.  The scratched on the floor boards, rolled around and commenced to groom as if they were dogs or cats, scratching behind their ears.  They even groomed each other.  At this point I presumed these otters were more than just friends.

But I had friends, mostly neighbors who needed to see this! I calling around and soon there was a small crowd of seven — representing three generations — in the bedroom.  (I told everyone to come to the front door, and then I just herded them in.)

You have to picture this–John creeping around from tree to tree in the backyard with his camera, and meanwhile, in the master suite, an unmade bed and darkness.

Everyone likes to look out the back window
Everyone likes to look out the back

Only one window was open to the sunlight so we could see what was going on outside. Various gasps and giggles could be heard, since the otters were nothing if not entertaining.  Tales began to be told–one of the neighbors said he was just leaving the house, his family was already in the car when he heard the tail/tale end of my message (sorry about the pun).  “Something about otters and a dock, ”  he told his family. His wife knew instantly what the message was about, ” Oh, we must go to the Swanks,” she said,  and in they hurried to see our show.

I also told the story of a previous otter visit when an otter swam by our house and picked up a dead fish, killed during a cold snap.  The otter grabbed it, took it out into the lake and then changed his mind.  He swam back to the same spot and REPLACED THE FISH WHERE IT HAD BEEN! John and I stood there with our mouths open in disbelief.

Back in the bedroom, I heard one of our newish neighbors introduce himself.  I assumed everyone knew everyone else, but I was wrong, and glad to provide a venue for neighborly introductions. At that point I turned on a light and everyone could actually see everyone else. Apologies all around and then back to otter viewing.

Our otters stayed for about 40 minutes and did not spook even when John came fairly close.  They were just chillin. The humans, on the other hand, had a rare otter morning. Here’s John’s video.  It will make you smile.

(John’s blog, which contains many other photos of Florida is at