Closed Permanently

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I’ve been thinking about writing this one since November 16, the day I took the three photos you’re seeing here. I took those photos with the full intent of getting home and writing about the experience. Why didn’t I? Many reasons, none good enough. I just needed a little time.

On that day, I had taken a little drive, 274 miles round trip, to drop off a few items at the home of a very dear friend with whom I’d had a sudden and severe falling out three weeks earlier—not my choice, I assure you. I had dropped off a few belongings and Christmas gifts in a last-ditch effort to save a relationship with someone who still matters to me very much and I chose to do it at a time when nobody would be home, in order to avoid a confrontation as well as to ensure that my offering wouldn’t be rejected outright.

And so I was driving home in a somewhat emotional state—don’t ask me why but Wisconsin has always proven to be an emotional state for me. I went to college there. I fell in love there, several times. Got married there, once so far. Had my heart torn to shreds there more than once. Sometime before I drop dead, I am going to live there. Anyway, so there I was, driving home, alone, blasting out my iTunes playlist on my Chevy’s stereo and hoping beyond hope that somehow the day would end differently than it had begun.

As I approached Kenosha, the last set of exits on Interstate 94 before crossing back into Illinois, I decided to stop at Mars Cheese Castle to see if their string cheese offering had improved any since my last time stopping there. Mars, which is actually short for Mario’s and has nothing to do with the planet, is an excellent touristy place to stop for cheese and souvenirs, but their string cheese hasn’t been all that great for the last twenty years or so. Think glorified mozzarella rope. I picked up a couple of bags, only to be disappointed later, along with some heavenly fresh, squeaky cheddar cheese curds for my wife, before continuing my drive home.

Before I returned to the interstate, however, I pulled onto a stretch of a former frontage road (now a dead-end, how appropriate) in order to visit the shuttered location of a different Wisconsin institution known as the Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop, which closed for the last time on July 31 of this year. Earlier that month, my wife had brought home a copy of the Kenosha News article about the store’s closing, so I knew the place wasn’t open anymore. I just wanted to see it one more time. Given my emotional state that day, perhaps I hadn’t picked the best time to do so, but there I was.

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The first time I visited Bobby Nelson’s was in July of 1978, as a teenager on my way home after having experienced Milwaukee’s Summerfest music festival for the first time, of many, in my life. I have no idea why my soon-to-be brother-in-law chose to stop at Bobby Nelson’s, a small, nondescript, rectangular building that sat just down the road from the even then more touristy Mars Cheese Castle. As a 17-year-old kid, not yet in love with the charms of The Dairy State, I was less than impressed.

During the years that followed, I attended Marquette University, fell in love with all that Wisconsin had to offer, eventually married a girl from Kenosha, and learned to appreciate Wisconsin-made cheeses. Only during my post-collegiate married years did I come to appreciate that little rectangular store off I-94. During those decades, Bobby Nelson’s remained pretty much the same while the Cheese Castle up the road evolved into the massive tourist attraction that it is today.

Although the owners Phyllis and Richard Giovanelli never came to know me by name, nor I them, we surely became familiar with each other’s faces over the decades. More than once Mr. Giovanelli acknowledged me as a biker. He himself had ridden motorcycles when he was younger, as he relayed to me during one or two of my visits.

He also appreciated my manners. To this day, I recall walking into his store one day and removing my driving cap as I greeted him. “I can tell what kind of man you are,” said Mr. Giovanelli with a sincere smile, “just by the way you removed your hat when you walked in.” Before getting down to business, we talked for a few minutes about good manners and the current state of society at large. He never asked me my name, nor I his, but we came to identify each other through our interactions.

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And so on a cold and particularly lonely November day, with my heart already at half-mast for personal reasons, I got out of my Chevy and walked around the front of the old store, stepping through the snow that had no reason to be shoveled and snapping a few pictures to share with you here.

The original Bobby Nelson, I learned earlier this year, had been a professional wrestler. Besides being the founder and original owner of this cheese shop, he was supposedly the athlete after whom the “full nelson” and “half-nelson” wrestling maneuvers had been named. Following one last visit to the shop before it closed for good, my wife relayed to me how Phyllis Giovanelli had told her that back when she and her husband bought the shop, they had to promise Nelson that they would not resell the business when their time had come to retire.

The Giovanellis have kept their word. And so a good Wisconsin cheese shop, more than just a tourist attraction, is no more.

The world has since moved on. As for my 274-mile road trip, well, this blog post may prove to be the most substantial byproduct of my efforts. Life is sometimes complicated.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

Ten Wines to Enjoy Without Going Broke

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Before we dive into this subject, I need to disclose that I am literally a lifelong wine drinker. My father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins — all Italian immigrants — all made their own wine. In our culture, vino (pronounced WEE-no) is more than a mere drink. To the Italians, wine is an integral part of the family table, a thing to be enjoyed daily with friends and family. In all likelihood, I probably tasted my first drop of wine (literally a drop of it) long before I spoke my first word. In America today, that may be considered a crime. In my time and place, it was not. Indeed, my ascent into manhood was measured by how much wine I was allowed to have with my supper. As soon as I was big enough, I was allowed to help my father make the wine and on one autumn day sometime during my teens, I was finally allowed to go into the city with “the men” to buy grapes. That was a big deal!

Once I reached legal age, it may seem only natural that I began to explore “other people’s wines” and expand my horizons. And that’s exactly what I did. Just understand that while I am no wine expert by any means, I do understand and appreciate wine. Over the years, I have tasted some exceptionally good wines and quite a few that were fair at best. Being a man of less than wealthy means, I have long focused my attention on good-but-affordable wines. Which brings us to my topic of the day. Alright? Let’s talk about ten of my favorite “everyday” wines worth drinking that will not break the bank.

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1. Sobon Estate — Old Vine Zinfandel
It seems only appropriate that I start with California Zinfandel, as my father made his wine primarily from Zinfandel grapes transported to Chicago from California. Why? Because when my dad first began making his own wine, after he had established himself in the US and bought a house of his own, the older paisani  (people from the same part of Italy as him) advised him that the Zinfandel grape was most similar to the grapes grown in their region of Italy. Sobon Estate is a fantastic find for under $15 a bottle. It has an exceptional fruit-forward palate and pretty smooth tannins for a dry red in this price range.

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2. Cline Family Cellars — Old Vine Zinfandel
Cline is a well-respected name in the California wine country. A cousin of mine used to live not far from their winery and has vouched for the quality of their wines. This is another good Zin for the money. More earthy than the Sobon Estate brand I just mentioned, this wine is also a bit heavier on the tannins. That’s not a bad thing by any means but we should talk about it. I do not hesitate to recommend this wine to those who typically enjoy dry reds.

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Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds, and stems. This is the stuff that causes the “dry” feeling in your mouth when you drink certain red wines. You don’t find the same qualities in white wines, even dry whites, because most white wines are fermented in the absence of skins, seeds, and stems. In some reds, the tannins can cause a harsh, astringent effect and this is not always a matter of how much the wine cost. One way to smooth out that effect is to let the wine “breathe.” Either open the bottle and set it aside or decant it into a secondary container and wait. Thirty minutes is long enough for some but two hours is not unheard of.

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3. Santa Christina — Toscana
As the name implies, this wine comes from the Tuscan region of Italy. I discovered this one quite by accident, while dining at a favorite Italian restaurant near my home. When I discovered just how affordable this stuff was, I began buying it regularly. The predominant grape in this wine is Sangiovese, the most widely planted grape variety in Italy and the base grape of many Italian varieties, including Chianti. Let this wine breathe a bit and you will appreciate its ripe nose, fruity/spicy notes, and smooth finish.

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4. Antale — Veneto Rosso
This wine, from the Veneto region of Italy, is just a bit different from anything else on this list. The color of this red wine borders on purple. The flavor is deep in fruit, yet quite dry. At 14% ABV, this is definitely a full-bodied wine. Let it breathe and you will be impressed with this unique yet affordable find. Not exactly a casual sipper, though I have used it as such.

5. Domaine Chantepierre — Tavel
Before we come stateside again, I need to point out this amazing rosé wine from Tavel, a region of France renowned for its relatively strong rosé wines. Clocking in at 14% alcohol by volume, Domaine Chantepierre Tavel is indeed a full-bodied rosé, which has no counterpart here in the states. The flavor profile is extraordinary, the texture silky smooth. If you can find this wine for $20 or less, buy it.

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6. The Guide — Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir, literally “black pine cone,” is a dark red grape variety that is grown (with difficulty) in various parts of the world, including the United States. Pinot Noir wines are typically light/medium-bodied, fruity, and delightful. This particular brand is very good and pairs well with a variety of foods, especially chicken and pork. My friend Ann and I enjoyed a bottle of The Guide, an Oregon Pinot Noir, with our first attempt at chicken marsala and were bowled over by both. Good stuff!

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7. Castle Rock — California Cuveé Pinot Noir
Here is a super-affordable Pinot Noir from California that offers a smooth, medium texture, pleasant fruit flavors, and light tannins… and can be found for less than $10! I found California Cuveé, one of several Castle Rock Pinot Noirs, on sale at my favorite local wine store and have been buying it ever since. Trust me, you could do a whole lot worse for under ten bucks.

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8. Wente — Morning Fog Chardonnay
The first of the whites on my list, this is also the only Chardonnay I’ll tell you about here. I include it for good reason. Morning Fog, one of several Chards offered by Wente, combines some interesting qualities that make it an absolute delight to drink. First, it’s an oaked Chardonnay, but not overly so. As I understand it, half of the wine is oaked and the other half is aged in stainless steel tanks. Then the two batches are combined. The result is complex, a lightly oaked wine with a delightful fruit-forward flavor profile.

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9. Ecco Domani — Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio translates to “gray pine cone,” a reference to the appearance of the grape clusters of this variety. Pinot Grigio wines (Pinot Gris in French, same grape) are typically bright, crisp, and fruity. These dry white wines are fantastic summer sippers, best served chilled. Ecco Domani is a mass-market brand that can be found in most supermarkets as well as broad-spectrum wine stores. Usually sold for $10 or less per bottle, you could do a lot worse for this Venetian delight.

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10. Grigio Luna — Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie
If you are fortunate enough to have a Trader Joe’s store within driving distance, go there and buy some of this wine. Grigio Luna has many characteristics of Italian Pinot Grigio wines costing at least twice as much. Priced at well below $10 per bottle, if you really like Pinot Grigio, you may want to buy this one by the case.

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And there you have it, my current top ten of everyday drinkers. I consider wine to be something special, something wonderful to be shared with family, friends, and loved ones. I like wine and hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Emotional Stimulus and Response

 

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I was sitting in a managers’ meeting at work a few weeks ago when the facilitator posed this question to each of us: “Are you more about facts or emotions?” He then proceeded to go around the table, which was essentially populated by the leadership team of the company for which I work, extracting an answer from each of us without passing judgment one way or the other. The responses were mixed, which made it very easy to be open and honest when my turn came. Without hesitating, I said, “I’m a walking, talking bag of emotions.” I couldn’t have fibbed if I wanted to, since the facilitator also happened to be my mentor. After everyone had answered the question, I seized an opportunity to return the question. “What about you,” I asked our leader.

“I’m a very emotional person,” he admitted, “but I make my decisons based on facts and I don’t allow my emotions to control me.” My mentor’s response caused my perception of the man to shift somewhat. Oh, I knew he was all about facts and I knew him to be a genuinely happy person, but if this guy was “very emotional,” he was so in a way that was very different from me. When I think “very emotional,” I think in terms of swings and this man is not given to emotional swings. This was a learning moment for me, one of three that would unfold in the space of a week’s time.

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My second learning moment came during a much smaller meeting when my mentor revealed to me something that should have been obvious — it had been right in front of my face for decades — but hadn’t been obvious until then. For many years now, at various companies, co-workers have looked to me for help, guidance, or outright direction even if they did not answer to me. The late Dr. Stephen Covey referred to this quality of leadership as “moral authority,” which differs from formal authority in that the latter invokes authority by title. And here is the second learning moment that my mentor handed me: Because people look to me in this manner, when I display adverse emotions, I profoundly affect others. As God is my witness, this had never occurred to me.

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Now let me back up and explain why this matters so much. Because I have never seen the potential harm it can and does cause, I have never been one to contain my initial emotions. Keyword: initial. For example, let’s say I have been working for several hours on a time-sensitive project that is nearing deadline. There is a substantial queue of equally time-sensitive projects right behind that one. At that moment, someone approaches me with three more such projects, each of which appears to disrupt the current priority and order of events.

My initial emotional reaction is to flare, to outwardly exhibit my displeasure. Without using words, the look in my eyes says, “Are you serious?! What is this, some sort of test?!” Moments later, the emotional flare has passed. I’ve already processed all the facts and revised the order of my business in order to make sure all the deadlines will be met, an accomplishment for which I am revered in consistently achieving.

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No harm done. Right? Wrong! Sure, I’m moving along my merry way again, not even giving that emotional flareup a second thought. But those who look to me for guidance and direction saw their leader falter — and that is the problem. People may feed on that, especially those close to me or who look up to me. Whatever they see, be it fear, anger, resentment, whatever, I just set the tone for the rest of their day, if not longer. What if I caused them to begin withholding vital information about new projects? What if I caused someone to stop coming to me for much-needed help? The results could be devastating for that individual, the department, even the company. Such is the far-reaching impact of my response, however short-lived it may be. Wow. How many casualties had I left in my wake? I silently vowed to myself, “No more!”

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My third learning moment came during a one-on-one session with my mentor. We had been talking about events — those things over which we have no control — and our responses, which are the things we can and should control. I don’t recall the specifics, but at some point I opined, “You aren’t afraid of anything. I wish I could be more like that.”

His next words stopped me in my tracks. “What do you mean? I’m afraid. I’m petrified.” I looked at my mentor, dumfounded. How could this be? The man sitting in front of me was a virtual Rock of Gibraltar. Nothing ever phases him. Nothing. In the midst of a challenge, he smiles. Even laughs. Scared? Petrified? What’s the secret, I wondered.

“I simply don’t let my fears stop me from pursuing my results. I contain my emotions. I control them. They don’t control me.”

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And there it was, my path to a better outcome, presented in three realizations.

  1. I can be emotional without being a slave to my emotions. My choice.
  2. Understanding that emotions are contagious and that I am a carrier, I can spread joy and gratitude just as effectively as I can spread despair and frustration. My choice.
  3. I can be scared as all hell and still move forward if I understand what I am moving toward and why — and others will follow me. Again, my choice.

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You know, it’s pretty cool to be at this stage of my life and my career and to realize that I am still learning, still growing both personally and professionally. I am a work in progress, absolutely not perfect, and that’s okay. I am always learning, always growing.

Sometimes putting my thoughts into words helps me to understand them better so if you’re still reading, thanks for hanging with me.

My Love Affair with Olive Oil

IMG_7331I found myself alone with my thoughts on a quiet Sunday morning, contemplating the contents of my oil decanter, which I had just refilled, and thinking about how many wonderful dishes I have either started or finished with a simple pour of some good olive oil. Truth be told, I love that little decanter, which was given to me by a very dear friend who enjoys cooking every bit as much as I do. Maybe more. After a while, I ended up replacing the pour spout on that decanter with a nicer one that doesn’t leak and made a point of getting her one, too. But enough about that; let’s talk about some of the wonderful things we can do with a little bit of good olive oil.

Right now you may be wondering, “What does he mean by good olive oil?” The answer to that question is highly subjective. I tend to use a lot of “extra virgin” olive oil (EVO), which is made from pure, cold-pressed olives. Some will say EVO is better suited to dipping and dressing than for cooking because of its relatively low smoking point. Me, I use it all the time. “Regular” olive oil may have some cold-pressed oils but also includes processed oils. It’s lighter in color and has less flavor but also has a higher smoke point, meaning that it doesn’t burn as readily. There are also “light” olive oils, which appear to have been developed for people who don’t like olive oil. They have very little color and almost no flavor. Now mind you, there are many different types of extra virgin olive oil with a price range to match. Some are infused with herbs, spices, etc. Some stink to high heaven. Cheap EVO is often exactly that but by the same token, more expensive does not necessarily mean better. Experiment. If you’re looking for a good place to start, my favorite mass-market EVO brand is Filippo Berio.

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First off, you can make some wonderful Mediterranean style salad dressings and bread dips using extra virgin olive oil. People sometimes spend a small fortune on infused dipping oils. The next time you have some warm, crusty bread handy, try this: Pour some good EVO onto a small plate — at least enough to coat the plate and maybe a little more than that. Then add grated cheese, i.e. Parmesan, Romano, or both, followed by a little freshly ground black pepper. The flavor is basic, yet extraordinary. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reloading the plate.

For a simple-yet-bold salad dressing, pour some EVO into a cruet along with a splash of red wine vinegar or balsamic (use slightly more balsamic as it is less acidic). Then add salt, a little black pepper, some finely shredded fresh basil, and a clove of garlic, either pressed or finely minced.

Caprese salad or appetizer skewers? Easy duty. Line up your tomato, fresh basil leaves, and fresh mozzarella. Then drizzle with EVO and a light sprinkle of salt. Purists stop there but you can also add some cracked pepper and/or a drizzle of balsamic reduction to change it up a little.

Finally, my fire-roasted pepper salad, which is nothing more than (go figure) fire-roasted bell peppers, shaved garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt. Put some of that on a sandwich and you’ll see God.

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My best sauces, whether for pizza or pasta, begins with a simple pour of EVO onto a preheated skillet or pot. What follows next depends upon what you’re making. For pizza, fry up a generous amount of garlic and then add fresh, whole peeled, or crushed tomatoes seasoned with oregano, salt, pepper and just the slightest amount of basil. For pasta sauce, use a little less garlic and add onion (for sweetness) before pouring in either fresh tomatoes or tomato purée. Then season with basil, oregano, salt, and pepper, any secret/special ingredients you might have, plus your meats unless you are making a marinara.

By the way, if you’re making a bread dough pizza crust, apply a little olive oil to the top and bottom as you spread your dough. Then pre-cook the crust until it begins to rise and dry out a bit. Add your toppings and continue baking. The crust will be more chewy, with crisp edges, and less mushy in the center.

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Next up, how about some roasted veggies? Roasting brings out an entirely different flavor and texture profile than you would otherwise get. I hated the notion of eating Brussels sprouts until my friend Ann convinced me to try them roasted. But don’t stop there. Many vegetables can be brought to life via pan roasting. Just toss them in some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, turn them out on to a sheet pan, and roast them on high heat, turning at least once until the edges begin to char.

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Of course, you can also sautée your veggies but as sautéeing involves relatively high heat, you must constantly keep your veggies moving so that the olive oil does not burn. You can also use EVO, salt, pepper, and Italian herbs to marinate and grill many vegetables, including zucchini, asparagus, bell peppers, and corn. For me, the perfectly grilled veggie has some char on it but is neither burned nor dried out. The key here, as with sautéeing, is vigilance. You can’t turn your back on this stuff.

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EVO can also be a component in meat marinades, especially pork tenderloin. My go-to Mediterranean pork tenderloin marinade involves a generous pour of EVO, two to three cloves of garlic, pressed or finely minced, a good portion of salt, about half as much cracked pepper, a dash of dried oregano, and some fresh lemon juice. Marinate for at least two hours before grilling. I prefer to sear the meat by grilling on direct heat and then finish indirect, usually adding some wood smoke while the meat finishes.

As an aside… about a year ago, I was on the Baja peninsula of Mexico, an area well-suited to vineyards and olive groves. It was during this business trip that I saw olive trees for the first time. I still smile every time I think about it. For what it’s worth, the wines of Baja California are also quite good but haven’t really caught on in the US yet. I believe that’s coming, though.

olive-oil-601487_640As you can see, olive oil is a versatile component of many Mediterranean style dishes. To be sure, I use other oils for other purposes (do not try stir-frying with EVO) but for the various dishes I have described here, only a good olive oil will do.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Cherish the Gift

Thanksgiving 2019

MGD, Grandma Ruth, and John D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2019

Before we get started, please know that there has not been a death in my family this weekend nor have we just received bad news about anyone in the family. Furthermore, I am not terminally ill — well, no more than the next guy, anyway. I am merely taking this opportunity to share some thoughts with you, thoughts that have been weighing on me lately.

The photo above was taken on Thanksgiving Day 2019, just a captured moment of my son John and I visiting with “Grandma Ruth” who is 92 years old. Ruth has long referred to me as her favorite son-in-law, which is sweet despite the fact that I am first in a field of one. But seriously, we have always gotten along famously since the day I first showed up at her home. I was then a college senior who seemed to be in an ever-deepening relationship with her daughter, who was engaged to be married to another young man at the time. That, however, is a story for another time. My point is that my mother-in-law and I have always been close and now, some thirty-four years after I became her son-in-law, she is the last living parent between Karen and me.

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Karen and Ruth, Mother’s Day 2017

I can remember with striking clarity what it felt like to lose first Karen’s dad in August of 1997, then my mother in April of 2006, and my father in February of 2011. To be clear, it hurt like hell each time. My father-in-law had been struggling with an inoperable brain tumor but his death came quite suddenly and unexpectedly. My mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the Monday after Easter and about an hour after my family and I had left my folks’ house following a nice lunch together. My dad passed after years of steady decline from dealing with leukemia.

In each case, none of us had known when we last saw each other that it was to be the last time we would see each other. Sure, each parent had been dealing with their own health problems, and my parents were in their eighties when they passed, but we always assumed we had time yet. With my father-in-law, with my mom, with my dad, we parted ways for the last time assuming there would be a next time. It hurts to realize there won’t be a next time.

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Grandma Ruth with Teresa and Karen D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2015

Ruth has relatively few health issues for a woman of her age, though her memory is failing and she has become more frail in recent years. Hey, we can’t turn back the clock; we can only keep moving forward. That’s why I must cherish every opportunity I get to spend a little time visiting with my dear mother-in-law, knowing that one of those visits will be our last.

If there is a lesson to be had here, it’s don’t take any day for granted. If you have loved ones in your life, no matter their age or physical state, for God’s sake love them now, while you still can. Make the phone call, have that lunch date, give that hug, tell someone they matter to you, whatever. Just don’t assume you can do it next time.

Thanks for hanging with me.