Thursday, September 12, 2013

Our New Life in Florida

Since I began writing this blog five and a half years ago, there have been long periods when I have been so busy that months have gone by before I had time to make an entry. This is, by far, the longest period of time that has passed and for good reason. Almost everything about our life has changed and I am happy to say, so far, we are loving our new home and lifestyle in Davenport, Florida, about a 15-minute drive from Disney World’s gates. As I write this, Saul sits beside me at Ari’s dining room table in DC to help me get all the important stuff together to get some semblance of an accurate story of the last five months of our lives. We are presently in the north for the Jewish high holy days and right now, we are between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which we decided to observe with Ari at MBI-EE in Philadelphia. We have been driving from shul to Jess and Alex’s so that we can be together for family celebratory meals. We have been staying overnight with both Ken and Randi in Warrington, and Ari in DC in between. We actually moved out of our home in North Wales, PA, on July 25, and the moving van arrived with our possessions in Florida on July 30. There was a somewhat frenetic, and anxiety-ridden period between May and September, which was more than offset by an absolutely delightful summer, probably one of the best in our lives.

During the month of May, we drove down to Florida in Ari’s Mercedes (to use up excess mileage on his lease) to see the new house we were about to purchase. We took advantage of an extra timeshare week we had previously purchased from a promotion at Summer Bay, just 10 minutes from the home. We were delighted with our first encounters with our new home. It was much cleaner and in better shape than we had expected. The purpose of this particular trip was to find contractors to get the house ready for our move. It rained almost the entire time we spent in Florida, an unusual situation, as mostly it teems for a few minutes every day and then the sun comes out within a short time. We did have a beautiful several hours sitting by our pool while waiting to meet various contractors. The last party in our old home was our annual Mother’s Day brunch. The next day, we began packing in earnest. Shavuot fell in the middle of the month, and we observed it with Jess and Alex at TBS. Before setting off for DC, we spent a delightful afternoon with our friends, Marianne and Cliff who live in the retirement community, The Foulkeways. Marianne was Mom’s hospice volunteer. The facilities where they reside are convenient, safe, and aesthetically pleasing almost everywhere you look. Their newly-constructed greenhouse held some real treasures, including a priceless and ageless bonsai. A few days later, we drove to Ari’s and spent a day with my cousin, Anne, who was attending a conference in DC. We toured the Lincoln Memorial, Korean Veteran’s Memorial, and National Arboretum. We had a fantastic lunch at and toured the American Indian Museum, and we were joined by Ari after work for a delightful twilight dinner outdoors on the canal in Georgetown at a restaurant called Sea Catch.

Settlement on the house in Florida went smoothly without our presence, except for a last minute fiasco that involved a glitch in the timing of our bank’s wiring the money. Luckily, we were having lunch with Ken and Randi when we learned of it and were just five minutes from the bank that was handling the transaction, so we were able to rectify the situation in record time, and we assumed ownership of the property on May 17, as planned. The last week of May and the first few days of June were spent back in Florida. Ari drove us down and worked remotely every weekday from a two-bedroom condo that was loaned to us by Ken’s friends Rich and Sandy. Rich was in Kuwait as a contractor at the time, and was really excited about the upcoming birth of his first grandchild. I am sorry to report that we were all shocked and dismayed when, shortly after returning to the U.S., he died suddenly and unexpectedly the day after some surgery for a blocked artery. We mourn the loss of this wonderful husband and dad who was so looking forward to becoming a grandfather. It makes us appreciate the blessings of spending time with our own grandchildren even more. While on this trip to Florida, we chose furniture and televisions for our new home, arranged for repairs, and modifications to the walls and floors, arranged to have it painted inside and out, chose a wood floor-look, porcelain ceramic tile to replace all the carpeting, and bought some basics such as a folding table and chairs to work and eat on, and anti-gravity chairs to lounge in by the pool or inside to watch television. We slept every evening in the condo. We returned north a few days before our scheduled one-week vacation in Ocean City, NJ, with Jess, Alex, Ari and the girls.

During June, our week at the beach was pure bliss. The house we had rented was reasonably-priced, fantastic, gorgeous, and convenient for our needs. The weather was great. If there was any downside, it was that because we were vacationing so early, just before the end of the school year, the big summer crowds had not yet arrived, and some restaurants and attractions were not fully open to their regular summer schedules. The beaches had been restored (to our amazement) after a winter of dastardly storms, to luxurious and pristine condition. We had a wonderful time! Beth came in at the beginning of June and spent a day helping us pack, joined by her friend, Megan with her baby daughter, for a few hours. Our friend, Larry, stopped in to show us his new red Mercedes convertible. The girls returned home to Cherry Hill after our vacation for a few days to partake of the celebrations of the last few days of school, and then Izzy and Yona returned with us to begin this summer’s session of Camp Bubbie and Saba. We all saw Sami off on the bus for her full summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and then began the drive down to Florida for the third time this summer setting out in both of our cars. We spent the first night in DC with Ari. We left the Prius in his garage and continued onto Florida in the Pilot so that we would be able to drive home after returning Ari’s Mercedes following his flight back from Orlando on July 7. From DC, on our several trips down, we have begun staying at the Comfort Suites in Florence, SC, which is very close to the halfway mark and allows us to break the driving into two approximately ten-hour sessions, which is about as much as any of us can stand. The hotel has been very recently completely refurbished, is very reasonable if you bargain with the registration employee at the front desk, has a sofa-bed that accommodates the girls, provides free warm popcorn and freshly-baked cookies, and a sumptuous DIY breakfast by common motel standards.

Now that we have made so many trips down and back, we have discovered a number of treasures along I-95. One of these is a small, non-descript, down-home restaurant in Hardeeville, SC, called Gwen and Franny’s Fried Chicken. On the trip with Ari, we stopped at a barbecue buffet place, about 10 miles off the road into the middle of nowhere in SC to eat at Sweatman’s, which looks exactly like Cracker Barrel tries to look, but is the real thing, complete with bearded, overall-clad, farm types, rocking out front on the porch. Demolition Coffee in Petersburg, VA, was a charming and artsy place for lunch. Virginia is the most tedious part of the trip to my mind as I always feel that we are in it forever on our way down. There is a diner right off of I-95 in Rocky Mount, NC, called the Highway Diner which provides authentic, respectable, diner-type southern-style food in the usual retro diner atmosphere. Also, we liked a barbecue place called Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Pooler, GA, a franchise, but good nevertheless. We discovered a virtual shack in Georgia, Altman’s Restaurant, that has very ample baskets of the most delicious fried grouper nuggets along with fries and hush puppies. The girls all loved them, especially picky Yona, and the staff is delightful with their southern hospitality. Down the road is a touristy, falling-down, farm stand that sells very expensive (but worth it) freshly-made peach slushies that the girls covet, and dense loaves of fresh peach bread, among other delights. Off of Route 4 in Florida, in an upscale shopping center located in an upscale neighborhood, is a superb fish restaurant called Fresh on the Fly, where we had an incredibly imaginative and delicious meal on the way back with Ari.

We arrived in Florida with the two younger girls on June 22 for the southern portion of Camp Bubbie and Saba. The first week, we stayed in a two-bedroom condo at Orange Lake Resorts, also a 10-minute ride from our new house. We needed to use points from our timeshare this summer or we would have lost them, and Summer Bay was completely booked for that particular week. As it turned out, we discovered that Orange Lake has even more amenities than Summer Bay. There were four huge pool complexes on the resort’s property, each with a different character. The first one we explored was geared for teens and singles, with tiki bars, loud live music, and giant water slides. The second had a tube river that snaked throughout the complex, smaller water slides, and a zero-entry pool that led to the deeper parts. The third, where we spent most of our time, was geared to families with small children as it had a huge kiddie pool that was only 18-inches deep everywhere. Other parts had water slides that kept Izzy amused when she tired of playing with Yona. There were also activities for children, such as a scavenger hunt, which Izzy and Yona won on one of the days we were there. The fourth area was one that we only viewed from the car and involved huge blow-up slides and moon-bounce type constructions that required additional fees. We availed ourselves of a camp day for a small fee, which allowed Saul and me to drop off the kids for the morning to try to get our Florida driver’s licenses. We succeeded on this, our second try. We had failed to have all the correct paperwork on the first attempt on our initial trip down. The week at Orange Lake enabled us to oversee the completion of the preliminary work on the house and delivery of some of the furniture we had ordered so that we could begin to live there with the girls for the next few weeks. I had filled the Pilot SUV with all the household items I thought I would need for our stay there ahead of the actual moving date of July 25. Ari drove down to join us and arrived on June 29. Within the first few days, armed with our new Florida drivers licenses, we purchased discounted annual Disney tickets for ourselves and the two girls which allow us to access the four theme parks anytime for free for 365 days of the year with free parking. Ari also bought a not-discounted annual pass for about $150 extra, so we could come and go to the parks whenever we wished. We then began a utopian week of exploring the parks for a few hours in the cool mornings, returning home for lunch and a few hours of swimming in our pool, showers, soaking baths, long naps, dinners out, and perhaps a few more hours in the park, swimming in our pool by moonlight, or vegging out in front of the television with ice cream. One night, we went to see Despicable Me 2, which we loved, but Ari became ill with a sinus infection toward the end and spent a day or two in bed with a fever. On the Fourth of July, after a day in the Magic Kingdom, the girls watched fireworks launched in the neighborhood, and viewed them from the hood of the Pilot parked in our driveway. Saul has been wonderful at walking around the parks this year without the use of a motorized cart. We explored areas of the park that we never had time to see before and discovered shortcuts for getting around, such as boarding the locomotive as soon as we enter the Magic Kingdom to circumvent the Main Street crowds and long walks in the hot sun. We dropped Ari off at the airport in Orlando on July 7, so that he could return to work, leaving his Mercedes for our use and return trip with the girls. We began our drive back with the two girls beginning on July 16, stopping to visit Larry and Adele at The Villages.

We arrived in DC on July 17, and spent the night in Ari’s vacated apartment downstairs. His three-year tenants had moved out the previous week and he was entertaining two sets of married friends from his college years who both had two-year-old daughters. Steve and Sarah flew in from Oregon with their daughter, Ayla, prior to beginning a six-month stint teaching in Argentina. Zach and Claire drove in with their daughter, Ava, from Richmond, so that they could all meet up. To facilitate all of us descending on him at the same time, I was very proud and gratified to see that Ari had prepared dinner for all of us. He made my recipe for Mediterranean vegetable lasagna and, while we were waiting for him to arrive from work, we put together a giant salad from veggies he had purchased supplemented with veggies from Zach and Claire’s garden. Saul and I volunteered to babysit once the kids were asleep so that the four could go down the street for a few drinks and adult conversation like in the olden days before kids. The next day, we all decided to visit the Smithsonian Natural Science Museum. The weather was very hot and they hiked with all the girls the several blocks to the Metro and back. Saul and I drove so we weren’t quite as tapped out, although we also had to park and walk from a few blocks away. All commented about how impressed they were with Izzy, her intelligence, sense of humor, and responsibility that she assumed for entertaining the other girls. They left the museum to have lunch at Ari’s, while we continued home to NJ, stopping to take the girls to a good Chinese buffet, Teppanyaki Grill and Supreme Buffet (which they loved) in Laurel, MD. The next day, Claire asked to see Ari’s vacated apartment and, within a week, without advertising, her brother had rented the space for a year. We arrived at Jess and Alex’s shortly before Shabbat and had a wonderful meal and reunion since the girls had been with us for over a month.

We had real crunch time now to finish packing before the arrival of the movers. Just one week on our own with the added blessing of Jess and Alex coming, sans girls, for a weekend to help organize and do the heavy lifting necessary to accomplish everything we needed to do to move out of a 4100 sq. ft. house we had lived in for 20 years, along with some of the possessions of three previous generations of my family who had lived in the Philadelphia area. The girls went to stay with Alex’s mom for that weekend. The husband of one of Ken’s employees, Ryan, gave us an estimate from a moving company, Clemmer Moving, that we felt was very reasonable, and as it turned out, we were delighted with them for the way in which they accomplished both the loading and unloading of our possessions. We had planned for some of our furniture to be delivered to DC, but the cost was prohibitive because of the size of the truck and the narrowness of Ari’s street. In the eleventh hour, Saul and I rented a 20-foot truck, which the moving guys loaded for us, and which we then drove to DC that evening after the movers had finished. Alex’s brother-in-law, Matt, met us to help us unload and pick up some furniture which we gave to him and Naomi. We slept at Ari’s and returned the truck in DC the next morning. Ari followed us in his car, and we continued on to Jess and Alex’s where we dropped him off to work remotely while we shopped for supplies for a huge Shabbat dinner for ourselves, Ari, Jess, Alex, Izzy, Yona, Rif, Paul and Meredith (who was in from Ohio), Faith, Larry, Naomi, Matt, Talia, Aaron, Stacey, Jacob, Lily, Zach and Elaine. Sami was still at camp. After dinner that evening, we drove back to DC in two cars, the Mercedes and the Prius. We rested on Saturday in DC, and then Saul and I began the drive for our permanent move to Florida on Sunday morning, July 28.

In hindsight, everything went down just about perfectly except for one enormous fly in the ointment. The Philadelphia area began experiencing record rainfalls and flash flooding during this past summer. While we were in Florida, a small leak in our basement, which we thought had been repaired previously, began to leak again unbeknownst to us during the torrential downpours. On the day that our buyers came to do an inspection, let in by Ken and Randi, it was raining in torrents and they discovered the leak. They then proceeded to send in their own assessors for the problem and informed us that the problem might require an expenditure of 40 to 50 thousand dollars to repair. In the meantime, the company that had waterproofed Ken’s flooded basement very competently, Dry Basements by Dean Bender, assessed our problem and assured us that they could repair the problem and guarantee their work for under five thousand dollars. We met with the buyers and offered them the guarantee with an additional thousand dollars to install a water-driven backup sump pump that would work even during a power failure. To our shock and dismay, they decided to withdraw their offer. We had to return their entire good faith deposit, or risk taking the house off the market while legal proceedings ensued for several months. All this went down on June 20, the day before we were scheduled to leave for Florida with the girls. We called a local realtor we had previously interviewed, who came over within hours of our call. We signed a contract with her to sell our house, and I tried to clean up as best I could within the few hours left to me so that the house would be presentable as realtors brought prospective buyers through, something I definitely thought I would not have to worry about. While we were away, I also paid a maid to come and clean as I hadn’t had time beforehand to scour bathrooms and showers, and to clean any mess left behind by the waterproofing company. All this was to no avail. No one rushed in to buy the house in the vacuum left by the previous buyers, and the long period until the final date of settlement which was to be September 27, eliminated the prime months during which we might have sold the house more easily. Now that the house is almost empty, it will be even more difficult to sell and we have lowered the price twice. It remains to be seen how all this will play out, but it is a great worry at the moment. We console ourselves by realizing that everything came together for us to get the house in the first place. Perhaps the delay in selling it will turn out to be bashert (an intended or fated outcome) in some other way.

Despite all the worry and aggravation, Saul and I were really excited to be heading back to Florida on our own to meet the movers. We loved the new colors we had chosen for the house, the beauty of the floors, which have all the beauty of wood with none of the drawbacks, our screened pool and lanai, the gorgeous Florida sunsets, which we can contemplate every evening, the palm trees and tropical foliage, the proximity of the Disney parks which we can stroll around in any time we get bored, nightly fireworks, of which we have never tired, and the air that surrounds us all the time of people enjoying themselves on their hard-earned vacations.

We had almost three weeks in the house to get things together before Jess was to fly in on Friday, August 16, with all three girls. She spent that weekend with us, and flew back herself on Monday morning, August 19. In those three weeks we unpacked and put away everything but our artwork. Although the new house is only 2550 sq. ft., I find I have many empty closets and drawers. I was very happy with my choices about what I chose to take, and what I chose to leave behind. I am very pleased so far with the new furniture I chose. One of the reasons we haven’t hung the artwork yet is that some of the furniture is still on order and has not yet been delivered and I want it all in place before we figure out what to hang, and where to hang it. Because of the high ceilings, pieces that looked large in the old house look much smaller in the new one. Saul replaced the old stove with a glass and stainless steel one we purchased at Lowe’s because it was just about non-functional. I brought my microwave from home because the one above the stove was downright dangerous, turning itself on and off randomly. Eventually I bought a new one at Lowe’s to put above the new stove because it cost almost the same amount as buying a plain vent would have cost. That has yet to be installed. The two of us had a blast playing with our new “dollhouse.” We decided to purchase a Hemnes solid wood bedroom set from Ikea for Sami’s room and spent two days together assembling it. It is perfect! When our mutual friend, Irv, came in from California to stay with Adele and Larry, the three of them slept over and spent a couple of days with us. We explored stores and restaurants in the area and found a great mom-and-pop-style place, A Roll with a Hole, just 10 minutes away, for New York style bagels. Finding good bread in Florida is really a problem. Most people there prefer the mushy soft-crust type of bread, and that is what most stores and bakeries carry, although we can get excellent bread at our favorite nearby cheap-y restaurant, Sweet Tomatoes. We also found a great, homey Mexican restaurant, La Fiesta Mexicana, but it is in Haines City, about a 40-minute drive away. Izzy and Yona really loved it when we took them there one afternoon. In downtown Orlando’s Chinatown, there is a restaurant, Ming’s Bistro that serves very respectable dim sum to which Chinese Americans will drive for an hour or two from as far away as Tampa when the craving hits them. Our three weeks alone were wonderful, but life was about to get even better with the arrival of our three granddaughters.

Jess was content to hang out by the pool for a few days, but as soon as she left, we took Sami to get her annual pass to the park. We were excited to show her all the fun discoveries we had made at the parks, but using our Disney apps, she soon had an agenda of her own, which included character drawing lessons at Hollywood Studios where the two of us learned how to draw Stitch while Saul took the others girls to the “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” playground. She also signed us up for different secret agent-type adventures in the various sections of the Magic Kingdom that involved cards and keys that revealed hidden video screens with short animations in various places around the park. We went to the parks for a few hours almost every day, returning home in time to miss the afternoon showers, but with enough time to get in a few hours swim in our pool. We ate at Sweet Tomatoes, of which the girls never tired, so frequently that not only the staff, but regular customers, recognized us. We kept everyone so busy that almost two weeks passed before the two little ones realized that the toy box from their old room with all their favorites in it had been sitting in the closet in their room. Saul and I ordered and assembled bookcase headboards for their beds. All their rooms are a combination of the new and the familiar and it all worked beautifully together.

When the time came to return home for the beginning of the school year and the high holy days, the girls were torn between not wanting to leave this idyllic lifestyle, and excitement about returning to their newly-decorated bedrooms at home, their parents, Inky, friends, and new teachers. During our visit to Adventureland, Izzy, Yona, and I climbed the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse as envisioned by Disney. Izzy had never read the book, The Swiss Family Robinson and thought that the treehouse had something to do with Peter Pan, so we downloaded the free audio version of the book and began to listen to the entire 12 hour dialogue on the drive home. Saul and I had both loved the book when we were children, a fact we just discovered. He read it four times and I read it twice, but that was over 50 years ago. We really enjoyed hearing it yet again. We stayed comfortably in the Comfort Inn Suites in Florence and returned the girls home in time for another wonderful Shabbat dinner with Alex and Jess. That night, we drove to Ken and Randi’s and stayed with them for a few days. Ari drove in also in time for Rosh Hashanah and slept there as well. After Shabbat dinner with Jess and Alex, the girls, Elaine, Ari, and Rif and Paul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the three of us drove back to DC in one car. This past weekend, we toured the extraordinary gardens of the mansion called Dumbarton Oaks. The hot and humid weather in DC, along with the plethora of spectacular wandering stone staircases that meandered up and down from garden to garden caused us to give up long before we would have liked. We will be revisiting as soon as we are able. This evening, we are preparing to return to Philadelphia when Ari finishes his work day so that we can observe Yom Kippur with our friends and the congregation at MBI-EE. For Neilah, we will be with Jess, Alex, the girls, and Alex’s mom at TBS. After breaking the fast with them, we will begin our much-anticipated journey back to our new life in Florida where Ken and Randi are due to join us for a few weeks. We are greatly looking forward to it!

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