Wednesday, June 15, 2016

March through May, Improvements Underway

Although work officially began on our major home improvements on January 4, we are still in the muddy throes of watching our little slice of paradise come together. The light has begun to appear at the end of the tunnel, however, and what an ethereal light it is!

It was “touch and go” as to whether the pool and spa would be completed in time for the visit of Jess, Izzy, Yona, and her mother-in-law, Elaine. The day before they landed, the first coat of paint was applied to our lanai. We had to wait a couple of days for everything to cure before we could actually use the spa, but we all initiated it together, and it turned out to be beautiful and luxurious beyond our imaginations! Ten days later, after they all went home, the workmen returned to put the second and final coat of paint on the lanai. During our spring vacation, Sami frequently Face Timed us from her exchange trip to Germany, where she was having an amazing experience with her German exchange student, Yasmina. She enjoyed the country so much that she is now talking about possibly attending college there.

On Thursday, March 17, Saul had his second eye surgery for cataracts and, while the results were not as dramatic as the first eye, he was very pleased with the outcome, nonetheless. Finally, by Friday, March 18, our pool was refilled with water. Larry invited us to his home for Shabbat dinner. When we returned from services the next day, we found the electrician working to refine the operation of our pool and spa. Sunday’s concert at Epcot was Little River Band, which we really enjoyed, after which we saw a performance by the colorful flag twirlers in the square in “Italy.” We completed our evening with dinner in the wine bar in Italy with Larry, Ken and Randi, and Randi’s neighbor, Dosia. The following day, we were pleased to receive a thank-you gift from Susan and Ted’s friends who had visited, an assortment of balsamic vinegars and flavored olive oil from the store where Chris works, Olive and Well. I recently used the ginger honey balsamic to make an amazing marinade for grilled chicken.

The kids and Elaine arrived very early in the morning on March 22. We were treated to a host of colorful hot air balloons in the clear blue sky because of the perfect early morning thermals. Everyone was hungry, so on our way home from the airport, we stopped and had a yummy breakfast in Celebration, at Market Street Café. We stopped at Larry’s house before coming home because Elaine wanted to see it before embarking on her own search for a home in Florida. In the evening, we swam in Larry’s pool as ours was not quite ready, and then went off to view the Star Wars fireworks at Hollywood Studios from the benches outside the park. Jamie, and the kids flew in the following day and, at last, our pool was ready! Our long-time friend from Philadelphia, Susan O., joined us as well on her trip through Florida. She stayed with Larry as our beds were all taken by that point. After our brunch by the pool, the pool had the most wonderful initiation possible with lots of family and friends hanging out and in on a gorgeous Florida day! It made all the expense and mess well worth the effort. Later in the afternoon, we split up, with Larry, Susan, Randi, Jamie and Evan attending a baseball game in Kissimmee to see the Astros play the Phillies. The Phillies lost :o(. Saul and I, Jess, Elaine, Izzy, Yona, and Presley attended Purim Megillah reading and services at SOJC. We had ordered a Rapunzel princess costume for Yona in advance of her Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique princess makeover, and she and Presley wore their costumes to the synagogue. Yona had requested the Rapunzel costume specifically for her birthday, but during the services, she and Presley switched in the bathroom so that she then became Queen Elsa. Both girls were very happy! During services they both were given the honor of holding the Megillah scroll while Rabbi Hillel, dressed as a chef, was reading from it. When we returned home, we had pizza and movie night.

The next day, we paid a visit to the Grand Floridian Hotel to see their amazing collection of edible Easter eggs in the lobby. The display was every bit as grand as last year. Following that, we drove to Animal Kingdom Lodge where we viewed the wildlife from various vantage points at both Jambo House and Kidani Village, and had a marvelous spread of food at Sanaa while the kids kept slipping over to the windows as various animals drew close. Larry and Susan went to view the art collection at the Morse Museum in Winter Garden. Susan left early on Friday on her way back home. Elaine bought a three-day pass to finish out the week with the kids inside the parks. We spent Friday at Animal Kingdom. The kids returned home in the late afternoon, while Saul and I went to pick up our vegetarian Chinese dinner at Garden Café in Orlando. This Shabbat meal was at Jessica’s request as Friday, March 25, was her birthday. On Sunday, March 27, we spent the whole day at The Magic Kingdom. It took us a while to get there, because the entire monorail system was shut down. From The Grand Floridian, where we had parked, we had to wait in line until a third boat arrived to shuttle us across the lagoon. We met Ken and Randi, Jamie, and the kids there. We, luckily, had plenty of time to arrive for Yona’s princess makeover in Cinderella’s Castle at The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. We even had time for our Fast Passes to Enchanted Tales with Belle. The photos of the two cousins after the makeover, Presley and Yona, were beautiful. Like her sisters in the past, Yona did not need to stay a princess for long. Everything came off after a dunk in the pool later that evening. We spent the last day of Elaine’s three-day pass at Epcot. We got a map to find the hidden Easter eggs concealed all over the World Showcase. When completed, the girls received a small prize. They also got their “Grammy” hooked on pin trading. On their last day here, we had breakfast at Keke’s Breakfast Café in Clermont and recuperated by the pool from our concentrated three days of Disney parks. They flew home very early the next morning so that the girls could attend school that day.

Saul and I returned home, took a short nap, began cleaning up the house and getting it back in order, and had our first solitary dip in our new spa. Late that afternoon, we met Ken and Randi and family at Epcot, and had a light dinner at The Rose and Crown in “England,” before viewing the IllumiNations fireworks. Jamie and the kids left the following day. That day, the finishing touch to our pool was the second coat of paint to the lanai, which occurred while we finished doing laundry and putting the house back the way it was.

On April 1, Ken and Randi and Larry came over for Shabbat dinner and we barbecued fish on the grill and I made vegetarian French onion soup. The five of us had a wonderful meal followed by a starlit dip in the spa with accompanying goblets of wine. Did I mention that we are really enjoying our new spa?! The next day, we attended services and went to see the Herman’s Hermits concert in the evening at Epcot. We took a long ride to Clearwater with Larry on the following day to visit a fellow teacher who had been a colleague of both Saul and Larry for many years. On the way, we stopped for breakfast at Big Tom’s. Sharon and her husband were very gracious hosts and had a huge deli spread waiting for us when we arrived. We met her son, whom Saul had taught at Adath Zion, and his wife and children there as well and spent a few hours schmoozing. While we were having our usual “taco Tuesday,” at San José with Larry, he received a phone call from his sister, Susan, that she would be flying in on Thursday so that she could check out a home for sale in our neighborhood. While she was here, we heard about another going up for sale shortly from our neighbor, John. To make a long story short, Susan signed an agreement within a few days to buy a home down the street from us directly from the sellers in December. She and Larry joined us for Shabbat dinner that weekend and I made Cold Fish (cod) in Black Bean Sauce with Cucumber Salad for dinner, a dish I have not made for quite some time and I don’t know why. We forgot how good it is. The concert at Epcot the following evening was The Guess Who, and it was a beautiful evening. After Larry took Susan to the airport on Sunday, we met to attend the Maccabeats concert at a high school auditorium in Orlando that is adjacent to “Hogwarts” at Universal Studios. It was quite an anachronism to see the brooding, turreted, aged-stone castle of J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter just around the corner from a sprawling, concrete-block, modern Florida high school. The concert itself was family-friendly, lively, warm, and very enjoyable.

The next unusually coincidental event in our lives took place a few days after the concert. For about 15 years, I have been forwarding Comcast email to a man in Indianapolis who has almost the same email address. His first two initials are the same as my first and last initials and his last name is missing the first initial of my last name. The only difference in our addresses was the number 1 distinguishing his address from mine. Whenever someone forgot the 1, I received his email. In the process of me forwarding his mail, we became email buddies. He retired, and retired the address about the time we moved to Florida, and we said goodbye thinking we would no longer have contact. Then, to my surprise, I received a personal email for him after these several years. At first, I thought someone had resurrected the old address, but it turned out that he had an active gmail address that was the same as mine, but instead of a 7, he had chosen 17. The writer had, again, left out the number 1. It was such an amazing coincidence that I sent him a short note when I forwarded the email. When he thanked me, he inquired about where we had retired in Florida as he and his wife were presently vacationing in Orlando. I offered to meet them and show them around the Disney property. They accepted and it turned out that the timeshare where they were staying was only three miles from our house. We spent a whirlwind two days with Murvin and Linda trekking around Disney and welcoming them into our home. My rabbi used to say that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. So many coincidences were involved in our meeting that it is difficult to believe that it was not destined for a purpose in some way. What a marvelous opportunity and experience to meet such delightful people!

Our spa and lanai finally finished, we had rain gutters installed on our home in preparation for the long-awaited landscaping of our property to come. It seems that rain gutters are considered non-essential on homes in the South. The concert at Epcot that weekend was “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” truly a marvelous performance! Ari arrived that weekend for a short Florida vacation before our road trip to Cherry Hill to join Jessica’s family for Passover. Because Passover and Easter were a month apart this year (the Jewish calendar has a leap month this year called Adar II), the girls did not have the usual time off from school for the holiday, hence, we had to travel there instead of them traveling here. Ari arrived on Saturday evening and we had a delightful supper at Blue Zoo in the Dolphin Hotel. Much to our surprise, Ari had never before been to the Dolphin. On Sunday morning, we had breakfast at the Market Street Café in Celebration and purely by accident, happened upon the final hours of the Celebration Exotic Car Festival. Ari, who has had a car obsession almost since birth, was absolutely delighted to wander among the formula cars as we waited for our table. Returning home, we lazed away the rest of the afternoon in the pool and hot tub. In the evening, we had dinner at Johnny’s Hideaway with Ken and Randi, another place we frequent that Ari had not experienced. On Monday, we spent a few hours at Epcot, where Ari went on The Sum of All Thrills ride and we caught the 3-D Pixar Shorts, among other delights. Dinner was at The Grand Floridian Café and we watched the Wishes fireworks from the outside terrace there. On Tuesday, after packing our suitcases into the car before heading north to New Jersey, we took a bit of a detour to have breakfast with Larry at Big Tom’s Diner in Lake Alfred. We decided to make the “pilgrimage” because of Ari’s love of well-prepared cheesy grits and it would be his last day in the South for awhile.

We headed out on our long trek north after stopping home to pick up our Passover food processor which Jess decided we would need. Our friend Larry S. was kind enough to lend us his car for the trip up and back which allowed us to take plenty of our stuff with us. While we were up north, Jess knew three families of observant friends who, coincidentally, had decided to bring their small children south to Disney for the holiday. It happened that they had rented houses only two miles away. Ken met them at our house so that they could pick up our eight cartons of Passover ware so that they did not have to spend a fortune to bring, send, or rent paraphernalia to observe what can be a rather expensive holiday. We had a delightful road trip north together. No rain! We ate at a popular joint called Tubbs Shrimp and Fish Company in Florence, SC, and decided to push ahead for a few more hours. We spent the first evening in Roanoke Rapids, NC. Ari drove the entire way that day, putting in some difficult extra hours so that we would not have as long a ride on the second day. After breakfast at our hotel the next morning, Saul drove the rest of the way to New Jersey. We arrived around 3:00 p.m. and began cooking prep along with Jess who was well underway. The girls and Alex joined us when school was over. Ken and Randi took Larry to the airport that day and he spent about two weeks in London at Ari’s flat. After a few hours of Passover prep, Ari, Saul and I took the three girls to Bangkok City for sushi while Alex and Jess went to a meeting. Exhausted after our long day, Saul, Ari and I drove the couple of miles to our friends’ Ruth and Giora’s home and promptly fell asleep. Ruth and Giora were in Israel for the holidays. The following day, really serious cooking began. In the overloaded refrigerator, a few dozen of our hard-boiled eggs froze, but with delicious serendipity, Alex turned them into the most striking pink and delicious beet-pickled marinated eggs. That evening, exhausted even more from our efforts, we had a truly incredible meal at The Farm and Fisherman Tavern and Market, a farm-to-table restaurant where Alex and Jess are well-known from their weekly Wednesday “date nights” there. We shared an assortment of imaginative, beautiful, and luscious desserts, which the restaurant provided for us complimentary. Returning home, we did bedikat hametz by candlelight with the three girls before bedtime.

The morning of the first seder, Saul, Alex and Jess had a siyum (study session) so that (as first-borns) they would not have to fast until the seder, after which Saul, Ari, Jess and I went out to grab a quick breakfast at a café nearby. The seder tables looked absolutely stunning as final preparations wrapped up and everyone pitched in to finish the setting. Alex outdid himself in preparing a new set of family Haggadot for the occasion with photos, drawings, and notes from all the families in attendance both nights. After the first chag, Ari flew back to London from Philadelphia Airport and spent a few days touring London with Larry before Larry returned home. Saul and I took the opportunity of being up north to visit with friends. We drove to Warrington and spent a few hours with Saul’s cousin Bobby and his wife Sheryl. Then we drove to Yardley and spent a few hours with our friend from high school, Roxy. Then, we attended an honor society induction at Chestnut Hill College, and afterward, visited our friend, Faith, and had a Passover dinner at her home. The next day was Yona’s birthday and we had brainstormed about what kind of birthday cake would be exciting and feasible on Passover. While her grammy, Elaine, took her for a mani and pedi, I began preparation on a Spanish Windtorte, a “cake” I had wanted to try making since I was a teenager. It appeared on the cover of The Viennese Empire cookbook that was part of the Time-Life series “Foods of the World,” with which I had been obsessed in my teenage years. I also had wanted to try making my Ultimate Carrot Cake with alternative gluten-free flours that were now available to me since the Rabbinical Assembly had voted to allow kitniyot this year. Both cakes were a resounding success! We had an amazing dairy dinner with the use of my new Kitchen-Aid mixer attachment, the “spiralizer” which I had found on sale in Gloucester Outlet Mall. We experimented with potatoes and rutabagas to try to make fries. They were not such a success as they never got truly crispy. But the spiralized zucchini made the most wonderful spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese that was such a lovely break from all the meat we had been eating. Our friend, Faith, drove down for the dinner and among family and friends, Yona blew out candles on her 7th birthday birthday cakes and opened presents. The weather, which was supposed to have been temperate all week, took a decided turn towards freezing. We had not turned on the heater in the home in which we had been staying and we quickly dressed very early and headed for Jess and Alex’s. The rest of the week, we layered all the clothes we had brought with us and turned on the heat in the house. We couldn’t wait to head south again. As the holiday ended, we attended services on the last two days and were very proud of Sami who led Hallel, and Izzy, who read from the Torah. On our drive back home, we stayed in Florence, SC, next door to our favorite Comfort Inn which was fully booked. Renovations made the hotel not very comfortable, but we managed. After an early breakfast, we eagerly got back on the road heading for home. We returned home in time for an early dinner at Sweet Tomatoes, a great place to break the Passover.

The following day, we first picked up Larry returning from England, and then the three of us waited 45 minutes for Elaine to arrive at the airport. She had arranged to see some real estate and spend some more time with us to see if she liked the lifestyle here. The bottom line, was that she really liked it… enough to make a bid on a house just a couple of miles away! When she first arrived, we spent a few days just viewing available houses with a realtor friend of Randi’s. On Thursday, Elaine joined us for a Cinco de Mayo celebration dinner at San José Restaurant where we got high on the frozen margaritas and Larry was finally able to purchase the t-shirts that entitles one to a half price entreé on Tuesdays. That Friday, May 6, we went shopping at the Dillard’s Outlet at Fashion Square Mall and came back with unbelievable bargains! We stopped at Costco on the way back and I bought a giant slab of steelhead trout which formed the basis of a delectable Shabbat meal when Ken cedar-planked it and roasted it on the Kamodo grill. From dinner, Ken and Randi left to pick up Haley at the airport. She was in to attend a conference for business, but arrived with a nasty virus and fever that kept her in bed for a few days. On Saturday night, we went to Blue Zoo with Elaine. The next morning, we arose early, loaded the car with beach gear and headed for Clearwater Beach. It was a gorgeous day. On the way, we had breakfast at Big Tom’s. Parking at Clearwater Beach was a big problem by the time we arrived because everyone seemed to have the same idea about spending a beautiful Sunday there. All our usual parking places were full, including secluded little Bellaire Beach on Sand Key. We stopped to look at some open houses in our travels. Finally, we pulled into the handicapped spot that someone had just vacated at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill on the beach. We had a congenial late lunch there and while Elaine and I walked down to the water’s edge, Saul and Larry managed to get a parking spot by stalking people leaving. We unloaded our gear, and spent the rest of the day at the beach. The water was delightful, although a bit loaded with seaweed. Beats jellyfish! On Monday morning, we met the realtor at a home that Elaine had been studying all weekend. We were the first in a line of people waiting to get in to see it. As we walked in the door, Elaine remarked quietly, “This is my house.” She knew she wanted it even before seeing all of it. Sometimes, you just have a feeling! Luckily, her offer was accepted the next day. Larry, who joined us, loved the house also. That started him searching for his own “dream home.” We spent that afternoon wandering around Disney Springs and the evening in the spa. On May 10, just before Elaine went home, work began on our full property landscaping.

Right after Elaine left, we spent some time upgrading the house while we hung around to watch the landscapers to make sure that everything was proceeding according to plan. Saul spent a couple of days rearranging the garage in readiness to install an electric garage door opener with all the latest smart-phone-operated bells and whistles (literally) on the double-door garage that has been too heavy to lift. We have been parking outside for three years, now. While we were doing that, we also hired an electrician who spent a full day and a half finishing all the electrical projects that we had been discussing since we moved. The electrician installed new wiring and ceiling fans for the girls’ two bedrooms and also ran wires to our garage doors so that we could have outside lighting on our driveway at night. The work was so hot and dirty that we were delighted that we decided to have a contractor do it. When all the existing vegetation was removed, we were shocked to discover that one of our walls was still the yellow color of the house originally. Saul spent a few hours painting all the places that were newly exposed. He also took his time installing the garage-door opener himself, and while he suffered much frustration in the process, was elated when he solved all the problems and got it working as billed.

On Monday, May 16, we met friends with whom had spent our teenage years, but had not seen them for 46 years. In an earlier blog post, I mentioned that we called Mitchell to surprise him on his birthday when David and Karen came to visit. Finally, Mitchell and Sheila came to Orlando, and we were able to catch up on lost time after all these years. We invited David and Karen also, but they had previous obligations up north at the time. We had dinner at the Grand Floridian Cafe on our first meeting after we met them at their time share and they followed us to the hotel. After a very delicious, atmospheric, and congenial dinner, we viewed the Wishes fireworks from the terrace outside the restaurant. Work continued on our home the next day with a new irrigation system being installed for the landscaping. On the 18th, Mitchell and Sheila came to our house and we continued in our car to The Dolphin Hotel, where we had a light dinner at Blue Zoo and walked around to view the other hotels there, stroll the Boardwalk, and cruise the lagoon. From the lighthouse at The Yacht Club Resort, we viewed the Epcot fireworks, IllumiNations. Work continued on the landscaping. On May 20, Saul and I spent the day rearranging the garage and organizing Saul’s tools in preparation for being able to finally pull the car into the garage on the runner we had ordered. For Shabbat dinner, we were joined by Larry and Ken and Randi and Ken barbecued marinated chicken drumsticks on our kamodo grill. On the 22nd, we attended the Night Ranger concert at Epcot. The music was from a period a bit after our prime time teenage years, but we enjoyed the concert very much anyway. On May 23, I hid under the covers as we were awakened by the sound of a chain saw taking down our front two queen palms in order to make way for the new pindo palm that was replacing them. The sound of a chain saw cutting down a live tree really disturbs me. Holes were dug for future trees and bushes. This date was the 52nd anniversary of our first date to Olney High School’s Kix and Kapers. The landscapers began planting the next day.

We attended the opening of Animal Kingdom on the occasion of its first evening hours. We watched the new Jungle Book Alive with Magic evening show at the lagoon-side stadium. There were no seats, but we had a fairly good vantage point from the bridge. We took the evening safari ride and it was the first time we ever saw the lions in an active state, chasing and swatting at each other. On Sunday, Memorial Day Weekend, the last Garden Rocks concert, was The Spinners. We coincidentally met friends there from our synagogue, Ed and Marion. The last concert was one of the best! Unfortunately, it was cut short at the very end by a loud clap of thunder and the announcement that a thunderstorm was just minutes away. Although we hurried back to pick up our car at The Beach Club Resort, the storm drenched us for the last few hundred feet of the trek.

We had invited a bunch of our friends for a Memorial Day barbecue on Monday afternoon, about 15 people, some of whom we have not seen for several months. In attendance were: Larry; Ken and Randi; Jelena and Olivia; Carly, Peter, Ella, Harrison, Henderson, and Emma; Mario and Meta. I had prepared almost everything ahead of time, so we had a wonderful time being able to enjoy our guests without too much fuss. The kids bonded really well and the weather cooperated so that everyone could enjoy the pool. Although there is still a lot of dirt outside the pool enclosure, we are beginning to see a real garden take shape, and that is very exciting after living with our scruffy exterior the last three years.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

We Leap into Fun-Filled February

This year is a leap year, so we were able to squeeze an extra day of fun into February. When last I wrote, we were expecting a visit from old friends from our teenage days who had recently moved to Ft. Myers, Florida, from the Baltimore area. We had reconnected a few times over the past 40 years, right after our kids were born, and after Jessica and Alex moved to Baltimore for eight years. David and Karen lived just a few miles away from them and had us over for dinner several years ago. They sometimes came to our kids’ parties in Baltimore. Since the advent of Facebook, we have been able to communicate and keep up with each other’s lives, and the lives of mutual friends much more easily. Karen and David were able to leave just ahead of a large storm front of torrential rain that was moving through most of Florida for several days, so in their two-and-a-half hour drive northeast to us, they encountered only light moments of rain. We had a lox and bagels lunch ready for them when they arrived. After they had settled in for a bit and the rain seemed to be letting up, we decided to take a drive over to Animal Kingdom Lodge to see the two facilities, Kidani Village and Jambo House and watch the free-roaming wildlife. The weather was much less than optimal while we were there, but we were able to see an interesting array of animals, including giraffes, zebras and wildebeests. Because many were somewhat motionless in the constant drizzle, David at first, thought they weren’t real. Then some zebras and giraffes strolled by. We wandered around the magnificent resorts and Karen let me know that she would adore touring the many and varied hotels here as they had not been to the parks for many years and had no idea of the vast size and diversity of the Disney World complex. We went from there to the Boardwalk Hotel, where the setting encouraged us to reminisce about our teenage days at the Jersey Shore. Then, we hopped aboard the Friendship Cruisers and circled the lagoon. Eventually, we disembarked at the Swan and Dolphin Hotels and had dinner and drinks in the lounge at Blue Zoo in the Dolphin. We came out just in time to watch the Symphony in the Stars fireworks over Hollywood Studios from in front of the massive fountain at the entrance to the Dolphin. Hopping back on the cruiser, we were able to see some of the IllumiNations fireworks over Epcot as well on our way back to the Boardwalk. We returned home with two totally exhausted, but happy guests.

In the morning, during breakfast, we were reminiscing about a mutual friend, Mitchell, that none of us had heard from in many years. David suddenly remembered that it was his birthday and I thought it would be a great idea for his two long lost friends to call him. We knew he lived in southern Florida, and we tracked him down on Facebook and White Pages by narrowing his name to two possible people. The first try was correct and he seemed as pleased as anything to hear from the two of them on his birthday. He said that the phone call made his day. After breakfast, David and Karen were raring to go again, so we headed out to Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney, to see some of the new attractions there. We walked from the parking lot at one end near the Cirque du Soleil, La Nouba, tent-shaped arena to the boat dock at the other end of the complex. Among the highlights were watching Disney-themed candy and chocolate apples being hand dipped and decorated, posing with awesome hogs at Harley-Davidson, viewing the vintage amphibious car-boats that ply the lagoon, watching mini car races and posing with huge installations at the Lego Store, sampling free chocolate at Ghirardelli’s, and just generally wandering in and out of the many interesting stores. At the end, we hopped a boat back to our starting point near the House of Blues. The rain was on and off the whole time, but in typical Florida fashion, we also saw bursts of sunshine and blue skies. From there, we continued on to Abracadabra so that they could enjoy the unique experience of nitrogen ice cream. They were quite contented with the experience of ice cream as lunch. We traveled home after that to prepare Shabbat dinner, as it was Friday and we were expecting additional guests besides Larry and Ken and Randi. Ken and Randi were also hosting guests for the weekend, Betty and Tony, who were the parents of their daughter, Jamie’s, former long-time boyfriend, Michael. With David and Karen’s help, we all had a fantastic dinner which included homemade challah, homemade guacamole, black bean soup, seared tuna, potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce, and warm sesame dressed spinach salad. For dessert, we had carob brownies, peanut butter cookies, chocolate mousse crepes, and mince pies that Ari had brought from London. After dinner, Larry went home, but the rest of us continued to the Grand Floridian where we enjoyed the orchestra in the lobby for a little while, and then viewed the Wishes fireworks over the Magic Kingdom from the outdoor terrace. It was a wonderful evening that we all spent together!

When Saul and I arose the following morning, Karen had already finished cleaning up the kitchen from the previous night. I had left the crystal stemware and pots and pans that didn’t fit in the dishwasher so that we could get to the fireworks in time. The kitchen was spick and span and ready for us to prepare breakfast. After a leisurely breakfast, they hurried back home to prepare for guests that were coming to visit them the next day. Saul and I cleaned up, packed an overnight bag, and headed down to Bal Harbour in North Miami to visit our cousins, Willie, Bob, and Abe—the ones who had just visited us. They had called shortly after leaving us to invite us for Shabbat, but we had made the plans with David and Karen months earlier. We arrived, after a pleasant three-hour drive, in the early evening to a warm welcome from the three brothers. We had not seen Willie for many years. The condo where we stayed, which belongs to Willie and his wife, Jane, is one of the most beautiful and spacious seaside condos we have ever encountered. After chilling out while overlooking the ocean from the comfy outdoor terrace, we piled into Bob’s rented minivan to travel a short distance to Little Havana in Deerfield Beach for a congenial meal of whole grilled fish and pitchers of margaritas. I was feeling very mellow by the end of the evening.

In the morning, we rose relatively early to beat the breakfast crowd to the nearby best Jewish deli outside of New York that we have encountered in many years—Mo’s Bagels and Deli. It may have even been better than the ones in New York. We sat down to a large complimentary plate of delectable assorted Danish. Our waitress, a zoftig, sassy, and extremely efficient lady, saw that our every request was met. Our breakfasts were huge and delicious with the best toasted bagels and breads anywhere. Even the coffee was incredible. Saul and I, so starved for good bagels in Central Florida, ordered two dozen to take home with us for the freezer. Returning to the condo, we changed into bathing suits and headed downstairs to our waiting, “customized” lounge chairs on the beach. Willie needs only to place a phone call for everything to be prepared for us. The weather was not great, but acceptable considering the fact that another huge rainstorm was on the way. We lounged for a few hours, waded into the Atlantic for a bit, took a long walk on the beach, schmoozed with our cousins and a friend of Willie and Jane’s from the condo. Willie had left us for a while to honor a previous date to golf with some friends. When he returned, we all showered, Saul and I packed our bags, and we walked to dinner together at a nearby Italian restaurant, Carpaccio’s in the beautiful mall, Bal Harbour Shops, down the street from the building. Because the storm was arriving before morning, Saul and I had decided to leave right after dinner to avoid a long drive in teeming rain. Alas, an hour into the drive, Bob called to remind us that we had left our two dozen coveted bagels on the kitchen table. Mmmpf#@&$%!! At least the rest of our drive went well and we arrived home shortly before midnight.

We used the opportunity of the ensuing rainstorm the next day to relax and do a bit of deep cleaning of our house. I also began a job on the computer for the last client I have left that did not transfer to Jessica when I turned my desktop publishing business over to her last year. Also, during that day, Larry’s sister Susan and her husband Ted arrived to take up temporary residence in their new house in Florida for a month. Ari arrived in New York for a Legal Tech convention, but was unable to connect with members of the family while he was in the U.S. for a week.

Somewhat recovered, we met Ken and Randi and Tony and Betty for an afternoon at Epcot the next day. Meanwhile, work continues on our pool and spa. The whole procedure is fascinating to watch, but it is progressing in true Florida snail-like manner. The results so far have been more beautiful than Saul and I could have imagined, so we are trying to be patient and laid-back about the process.

We used the following day to make the rounds of the places where we shop to restock our pantry. We returned to find most of the plumbing done for our spa and the following day, we watched as they blew the gunite concrete onto the rebar form that was created. I was really happy that we were home when they had begun creating the form, because it was protruding too far into the pool and not what we had discussed at all. By fixing the problem at the right time, we avoided huge complications. On Friday, we prepared Shabbat dinner for Susan, Ted and Larry. We had rainbow challah, homemade chicken soup with homemade dumplings, warm sesame dressed spinach salad, roasted asparagus, roasted cauliflower, mah po tofu, black and white rice, and jumbo peanut butter oatmeal cookies.

Our neighbor, John, was celebrating his 70th birthday that Sunday and his children made him a party in their new home. John and his wife are in the process of buying, through lease-purchase, a ranch-style home just down the street from his two-story home, which is just down the street from us. The party gave us an opportunity to meet some of our neighbors that we had not met before. When we returned home, Saul and I prepared dosa batter, because Susan mentioned that while they were in India during their extensive trip around the world, they had encountered Southern Indian food and specifically dosas, and loved it. We spent that Monday with Susan, Ted and Larry at Epcot. In the evening, we celebrated Saul’s birthday a bit early with Ken and Randi at Johnnie’s Hideaway.

Larry had guests, mutual friends, Don and Diane, visiting overnight the next day. Larry dropped them off at our home as we were finishing installing a new kitchen fixture which we ordered from Overstock. When we were done, we met Larry with Susan and Ted at the Edgewater Hotel in Winter Park where they treated Saul to dinner for his birthday. The food was wonderful, as usual. Larry dropped off Susan and Ted at home after dinner and joined Don and Diane, and Saul and me at Hollywood Studios where we all viewed the magnificent Symphony in the Skies fireworks. It was a chilly night, but we weren’t outside for very long.

The celebration of Saul’s 69th birthday continued the next day when the whole group of us had the sumptuous, African-themed, buffet dinner together at Boma at Jambo House, Animal Kingdom. We always look forward to the food, impeccable service, and lush atmosphere of this amazing restaurant. It was as good as ever.

For several years, Saul and I have been wanting to visit Bok Tower Gardens, about a 45-minute drive from our home. Somehow, we have never found the right day for a visit, but it was on the top of Ted’s list of things to do in Florida. He had visited this memorable place on a family vacation to Florida as a child, only 79 years ago! As we had been led to believe by many long-time residents here, it was definitely worth the visit. We arrived on an absolutely gorgeous day and were bowled over by the acres of manicured gardens, water features, and especially the colorful, mosaic beauty of Bok Tower itself. We had arrived just in time for the afternoon concert that rings out from the tower’s world-famous carillon, a diverse musical program played by a renowned carillon musician. A viewing station was set up outdoors, under the trees, where the actual performance could be seen live on a closed-circuit screen. Following the performance, we wandered the grounds, taking photos and enjoying the beautiful setting and weather. We stopped on the way home at a thrift shop, where Ted and Susan bought some folding tables and glassware. Then we stopped for a light bite of lunch at Ovations. Shabbat dinner that evening was a last-minute affair. There was no time for homemade challah, so we made do with two ciabatta breads from the freezer. Most of dinner came from the freezer, except that Susan made biryani rice and I had made cod lamaize in the morning before we left, which we ate on lettuce leaves. Ken and Randi joined the five of us for dinner. Saul and I went to services the next day.

On Sunday morning, I baked a Presley Bella cake, set it upside down to cool, and joined Larry, Ted and Susan at Epcot. Ken and Randi invited us to their home for dinner that night. I convinced Susan to linger at the park and that we would make her spring rolls at Randi’s house together. Randi, as usual, had a delicious array of food waiting for us (artichoke dip, brie en croute with blackberry jam and pecans, crudités with sour cream dip, medjool dates, tapenade with chips, etc.) to which we all contributed our yummy leftovers: cod lamaize, guacamole, shrimp ring, assorted cheese board with fig jam, fresh chick peas. For dessert, we had the Presley Bella cake iced with mascarpone.

The fun part of our spa and pool renovation got underway on Monday and Tuesday. Saul and I spent several hours in rapt attention as our crew began to add the decorative tiles to our spa. On Tuesday, February 16, Ken and Randi treated us to an incredibly delicious birthday dinner at a mystery restaurant, recommended by their neighbors, for special occasions. None of us had ever dined there before, and they kept it a secret from us until we arrived there for our reservations. The restaurant turned out to be Chatham’s Place, a central Florida long-time fixture that deserves its excellent reputation. While the menu looks somewhat ordinary, the food was anything but, and the waitstaff are the type of pleasant and efficient professionals that even the finest restaurants in the world have trouble hiring and maintaining. As impressive as the food was, we were almost as impressed by the professionalism we saw all around us, not to mention the old-world-style ambience that is usually so pompous, but was warm and inviting here.

We had been taking things easy with just short evening walks in the parks as Saul was due to have cataract surgery on his left eye at Celebration Hospital on Thursday. The results were absolutely amazing! After undergoing a 15-minute procedure to replace his cloudy lens with a custom-manmade one, his vision was so improved that he is now free of his heavily-corrected trifocals (which haven’t been improving his vision much for many years) for the rest of his life. He hastened to schedule his right eye to be done as quickly as possible. He has been dependent on his glasses for so many years that he is still pushing them up his nose even though they are not there. I am delighted to see his face all the time, especially driving, without them. On Friday, February 19, we enjoyed Shabbat dinner with Susan’s best friends, Julie, Christine, and Mary, who had arrived from Chicago to visit Susan and Ted for the week. We had a great time getting to know them and sharing some of the delights of living here near Disney with them. Saul was still recovering from his cataract surgery and they all were very helpful preparing and cleaning up after dinner. On Sunday, we caught up with Haley and Erik, and their friends, Binky and Joe, who had been staying with Ken and Randi for a long weekend beginning on the previous Thursday. We were joined, also, by the daughter of Ken and Randi’s old neighbors Art and Eileen, Marcia, who was in town to run the Disney Marathon. Saul and I broke off eventually, while the rest of them went to dinner in the park and finally were able to complete the process of “drinking around the world,” which had been rain-delayed last time. Saul and I had dinner at The Grand Floridian Café, with Larry, Susan and Ted and their friends and spent the rest of the evening with them listening to the orchestra in the lobby of the Grand Floridian and viewing the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from the terrace outside. On Monday morning, before the kids flew home, Ken, Randi, Haley, Erik, Binky, Joe, and Marcia came over for a huge breakfast. Ken and Randi picked Marcia up from the Art of Animation Hotel, where she was staying. I made a carob cake for which Joe had been pining since his last visit. I also tried a new trick that I learned for making a dozen poached eggs at a time in a muffin pan, and it worked like magic! We had home fries, lox and bagels, and benedicts with mousseline sauce, a type of hollandaise that I hadn’t made in years, along with all the usual trimmings. Everything worked out beautifully and easily with very little effort.

On Tuesday, February 23, Saul and I drove out to Jacksonville for an afternoon appointment with an assigned nurse practitioner at the Mayo Clinic. How this happened to come about is a long story. Two years ago, I scheduled colonoscopies for Saul and me, literally back-to-back, when we were up north. We had not yet chosen a team of doctors in Florida, and decided to go back for our yearly check-ups, etc. and get them all out of the way at the same time. I was about a year overdue for a colonoscopy, and Saul was a few months early. The night before our prep, the gastroenterologist’s office called to say that, because I was not yet 65 and on Medicare, they had been notified by our insurance company that my procedure would not be covered. It would have cost us over $2,000 out of pocket just for the basic procedure, let alone any complications that might arise. Since I had no symptoms, I opted to wait the eight months until I was eligible for Medicare, and I spoke about my situation with the gastroenterologist when he gave me the “all clear” after Saul’s colonoscopy. He felt, based on my history and lack of symptoms that it would be okay to wait. In July, a few months after I turned 65, Saul and I selected an internist from nearby Celebration Hospital and we had our first check-up in Florida. He recommended the gastroenterologist in the suite of offices next door to his in the hospital. I was shocked after my colonoscopy to find that three large polyps were removed, one of which was described to me as pre-cancerous. The gastroenterologist set up an appointment for another colonoscopy three months afterwards, on January 11, to make sure everything was still clear. At the end of December, I received a phone call saying that the appointment had to be cancelled because the doctor was not available, but the procedure could be rescheduled with an associate. I opted to wait until my doctor returned and told them to call me on short notice if they had a cancellation. I called in January and was told that she had not returned. Saul and I went in to our new internist for 6-month check-ups at the end of January and he told us that it was a big mystery as to the circumstances of her “disappearance.” After calling again to try to schedule the follow-up colonoscopy, I got the distinct impression that she would not be returning. At that point, I decided, on my own, to contact the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Ken had been there for treatments of his condition and couldn’t say enough about how wonderful and efficient was his care there. When I called the number he gave me, the whole thing fell into place easily. Under the circumstances, my internist was more than happy to give me a referral, and once I was registered at the Mayo Clinic, everything happened very quickly. I was given an immediate initial appointment and was on the schedule for a colonoscopy there on March 15. We were, indeed, extremely impressed with the efficiency and personal care we received on our initial visit there. The nurse practitioner, upon hearing my story, set up a more comprehensive colonoscopy at an even earlier date of March 8. The story has a very happy ending because the gastroenterologist who performed the procedure was a large polyp cancer specialist and he found no significant problems and told me I need not return for another procedure for three years. I was so happy that I made the choice to have the procedure done at the Mayo Clinic because I can now put the whole thing out of my mind with confidence. Still no word on what happened to my first doctor. We found the most wonderful restaurant when we left the Mayo just a few miles away in quaint Neptune Beach. As the sun began to set, we had a sumptuous, beautifully-prepared meal on the patio of North Beach Fish Camp. Afterward, we walked the block to the ocean and strolled in the sand before heading home.

Susan and Ted returned to Chicago on the morning of February 25, and Randi’s sisters came for a visit. We spent the evening together in Epcot. They joined us for Shabbat dinner on February 26. That evening, after dinner, as a surprise to their children up north, the three sisters flew to Philadelphia for a planned family get-together. After we went to services with Larry the next morning, we stopped by an open house at a hydroponic farm to view strawberries being grown above ground and went to lunch together at Bates New England Seafood. In the evening, we met Ken for dinner at D’Oro Palazzo in Posner Park and then went to see the movie Deadpool at the Cinépolis Theater. It is one of the goriest movies I have ever seen, and I spent half the time with my hands over my eyes and the other half laughing my head off, a weird combination that I have never experienced before. I’m glad we went, but I never want to see it again. Saul and I spent all of that Sunday cooking to use up and preserve a lot of the extra food that Susan and Ted had left behind and the food that we had left over from all the entertaining we had been doing.

On leap day, we rewarded ourselves with a day of leisure and pedicures. In the evening, Saul and I parked at The Contemporary Hotel, walked the quarter mile to the Magic Kingdom, and strolled around for a few hours. The weather was beautiful. The next day, I picked up pasteurized eggs to see if they would work in the mousseline sauce to make preparation safer and easier, and they worked like a charm. I have now perfected an amazing and easy breakfast—poached eggs, napped with mousseline, on roasted red peppers atop crispy polenta rounds. The recipes will soon be appearing on my recipe blog.

Work has continued on our pool area, and over the last week, we have enjoyed watching the work progress while catching up with chores around the house. I finished my publication. We went to see Kung Fu Panda 3, with Larry on Mexican food and movie night Tuesdays, which was very cute and a great antidote to Deadpool. We made Mickey Mouse shaped poached eggs with a cute silicon muffin pan that the sisters gave us as a gift when they came for dinner. We made rice pudding with extra milk that Ted and Susan had left. On March 3, the Flower and Garden Show began at Epcot, and we took our evening stroll there and have attended two concerts since—The Orchestra, with former members of ELO, and Starship with Mickey Thomas. Both concerts were fantastic! I was on a special diet for three days before my colonoscopy, so no special birthday meals out. For two days before the procedure, I was on a clear liquid diet. We stayed in a beautiful Holiday Inn Express and Suites in Jacksonville overnight before my procedure while I prepped. After I got the good news, we packed our suitcase, and immediately headed over to North Beach Fish Camp again to break my fast and celebrate. It was just as good the second time. We were home sleeping soundly in our own bed by 10:00 p.m. A few days ago, on March 9, we went with Larry, Ken, and Randi to Bahama Breeze for early bird dinner and then, sans Ken and Randi, walked on to the Magic Kingdom via the Contemporary Hotel where Saul and I embarked on the “Pirates Adventure” where we received five different treasure maps and activated various secret animations throughout Adventureland. Then the three of us found a great spot to watch “Celebrate the Magic” and the Wishes fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle. Larry picked us up on Thursday, March 10. Saul drove his car to a new breakfast place for us, Big Tom’s Diner, which was excellent and inexpensive. It made up for the recent disappointment when we went to Egg City and discovered that our beloved grits were gone, replaced by a watery, tasteless, cheese-less version. From Big Tom’s, where we were privileged to see a nest of American bald eagles in a nearby tree, we headed to Plant City’s huge annual Strawberry Festival. We strolled around the grounds for a few hours and had a custom trivet made. We bought a gorgeous flat of freshly picked berries and a large bunch of strawberry onions. When we returned home, to our pleasant surprise, the pool had been cleaned and resurfaced, and the screen enclosure expansion was in the process of being completed. Saul and I spent most of the day on Friday preparing some new recipes for Shabbat dinner, which was just the two of us and Larry. Ken and Randi had traveled to south Florida to visit Randi’s sisters. We made strawberry shortcake, fried onion rings, guacamole, and vegetarian French onion soup, in addition to the usual homemade challah, and tossed salad.

On Saturday night, we received a request from relatives in Israel to please, as a favor, proofread a master’s thesis written by the husband of Saul’s cousin Sylvia’s daughter. The paper was highly technical and impressive and took the two of us together most of the day yesterday to proofread. With the energy we had left, we made three batches of hamantashen dough in preparation for Purim next week. The men were here to grade our property today and our contractor promises to have our pool ready for swimming when Elaine, Jess, and our two youngest granddaughters arrive for spring break next week. Sami will be leaving for Germany on Friday to visit her exchange student who was here over Thanksgiving.

All good things have been happening this month! May the fun continue!

Monday, February 1, 2016

An Extravaganza of Parties, Pools, Fantasy, Food, and Warm Fuzzy Feelings

Saul and I tried to take it easy in the week leading up to the arrival of our many guests in December, with pedicures, sleeping in, and long strolls in the parks, but we were just so psyched to see everybody and, at this point I think, addicted to fun. We wanted to make sure that everyone would have as much fun as we did in the preceding months and so, in-between our rest periods, we spent a lot of time in preparation, gathering together all we would need so that we could relax and enjoy along with our guests. What a luxury to be able, in our retirement, to have the health and resources to do this!

Our friend Larry needed to go to Winter Garden to see about a glitch in his furniture order. We accompanied him there on the first Sunday after everyone left and discovered, thanks to Yelp, an out-of-the-way, but locally revered, restaurant that served a mean breakfast—Dixie Cream Café, definitely a place to which we will return. The next day, gathering some supplies at Lowe’s, we photoed an SUV that could probably exist in only a handful of places in the world. The photo alone will do it justice. Suffice it to say that fantasy and whimsy are alive and thriving where we live! Returning to Hollywood Studios for our Monday evening walk, we were finally able to see the 9-minute preview of the new Star Wars movie without huge waiting lines and check out what they had done with the building renovation when we could view it without throngs of people milling around. It was much more enjoyable that way, a fun evening! We walked back to the Boardwalk from there (about a mile and a quarter) and discovered a new (for us) hotel pool complex and a great shortcut to the Boardwalk hotel where we parked. The next day, we parked at The Grand Floridian and hopped the monorail to the Magic Kingdom for our evening stroll. On the way back, we stopped at The Contemporary Hotel to view the fourth Disney huge gingerbread construction and purchase the fourth of the limited edition gingerbread pins for the girls as a belated Chanukah present. Beth arrived in Orlando that evening, but was picked up by her former mother-in-law, Sandra, at the airport and whisked back to The Villages to spend a couple of days with her parents. Before Beth (the first of our guests for the holidays) arrived, Saul and I spent the afternoon and evening in our pool, finally satisfied that we were ready to welcome everyone, and determined to rest, relax and enjoy ourselves as family and friends began to arrive.

We took our friend, Larry, to the airport to fly back to Philly for a weekend wedding on December 17. As we returned, Adele and Larry A. dropped off Beth and visited for while before returning home. That evening, we went with Beth and Ken and Randi to the Grand Floridian to watch the Very Merry Christmas Party fireworks over the Magic Kingdom from the outdoor terrace. We also enjoyed an a cappella group that was caroling in front of the huge Christmas tree in the magnificent lobby of the hotel. Even more serendipitous, as we strolled around the grounds and wandered over to the nearby Wedding Pavilion, we found it open and accessible. We had been curious about the interior for several years and finally had a chance to really explore the facility. The interior was pretty, but a bit of a disappointment compared to some of the other awesome interiors we have experienced at Disney World. Early on Friday morning, we met Ken and Randi for breakfast at Nikko’s Egg City. Ken had arranged for us all to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX 3D at the new Cinépolis Polk County theater. Even though it is the closest theater to our home, we had not yet been there, and we were thrilled to find that the facility is state-of-the-art. The feature itself was very entertaining, although not quite as satisfying as the reviewers made it sound. I would see it again. We returned home afterward to start preparing Shabbat dinner, Beth’s choice. Her choices included braided rainbow bread, caprese salad, cod lamaize, and chocolate crepes with vanilla custard sauce. Ken and Randi joined us for dinner. Ari arrived from London on Saturday evening, the same evening that Sami left for Israel with her Confirmation class. Beth accompanied us to Orlando airport to pick up Ari and, after the four of us initially went to the wrong restaurant, we finally found the nearby one where we had previously dined with Ken and Randi, Nona Blue. We had a delicious, if somewhat chilly and noisy, meal on a tented patio warmed only by overhead heat lamps. A large party of firemen and their wives/dates seated at the table next to us had some of the loudest and most obnoxious drunks in their party that I have ever witnessed. After they left, we were able to actually have a conversation and enjoy all of the small plates we shared.

Sunday was awesome! We began with dim sum at Lam’s Garden, checking off one of Ari’s to-do’s in the States. This was supposed to be a prelude to shopping at the outlet malls, since Ari has lost about 50 lbs. in the last few months and has gone from an extra-large to a medium size. But, this was the last Sunday before Christmas, and I was trying mightily to convince him and Beth that the size of the crowds in Orlando’s outlets would be unimaginable to them. I diverted them into checking out the nearby Fashion Square Mall after breakfast. They were unimpressed until we decided to check out Dillard’s there. We discovered that this particular Dillard’s is entirely a close-out store for all the others in the area. Racks and racks of designer clothing were marked down 75% and then 50% more was taken off at the register. I bought almost an entire new wardrobe that I adore. Beth and Ari bought a number of items also and were very pleased with them as well. We spent so much time there that we didn’t have time or inclination for the outlet malls right before Christmas. We did, however, stop at Costco on the way home so that Ari could buy his obligatory 4-lb. canister of Jelly Bellys for his office mates in London. That evening, we parked at The Beach Club, and the four of us had a buffet seafood dinner at The Cape May Café, a Disney restaurant that we had been wanting to try for a few years. It was very good, and a good value. I ordered my first Moscow Mule there, but was disappointed that it was not served in the iconic copper mug. It was also very sweet, although sweetened with lower-glycemic agave syrup. It was okay, but I had nothing previous with which to compare it. After dinner, we walked for miles around the Boardwalk lagoon, viewing the Epcot IllumiNations fireworks followed immediately by Epcot’s special Christmas fireworks from the Yacht Club’s lighthouse. Eventually, we walked to Hollywood Studios and back. On the way, we had a great view of the Star Wars fireworks there. As I said, an awesome day!

On Monday, December 21, Ari wanted to have a breakfast with authentic Southern grits. I had been raving about how the best grits ever were at Nikko’s Egg City. We drove for a half hour south to get there, and to our famished disappointment, discovered it was closed on Mondays. I had the brilliant idea to travel even further south to the Dundee Diner, but the breakfast was pretty ordinary and the grits were very disappointing. Ari said he would rather have traveled back to nearby Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Later, Beth and Ari had a bonding day getting pedicures, having lunch, checking out local real estate open houses. We picked up Larry at the airport that afternoon. Then, together with Larry, we deliciously checked off another to-do on Ari’s list by having dinner at The Tasting Room at the Edgewater Hotel in Winter Garden. As usual, it did not disappoint. After dinner we went back to Larry’s home so that Beth and Ari could see what he had done with the place and to check out Susan’s new home before the first renters arrived. While there, Saul received a call from our next door neighbors that Kim had been in a fender-bender near Summer Bay. They asked if we were available to pick her up and deposit her at home so she could feed her dogs and let them out. We obliged, leaving Ari and Beth at Larry’s. He encouraged them to take his red Mercedes convertible for the rest of their visit and they met us at home.

Early on Tuesday morning, December 22, we picked up Alex, Jess, Izzy and Yona from Orlando airport. Returning home, we all had an elaborate lox and bagel breakfast. We were joined, as we were finishing up, by Rif and her friend, Alice, who had driven up from Alice and her husband Gary’s home in Wellington, Florida. In another serendipitous turn of events, Alice had invited Rif, a few days earlier, to share a drive down to Florida from New Jersey to deliver a fragile piece of sculpture. She and her husband were then leaving for a pre-arranged cruise over the holidays. After they ate and we cleaned up after breakfast, Alice and Rif decided that they would like to go shopping in Orlando. I told them about the Dillard’s clearance store and Saul and I offered to lead them there, taking two cars so we could return to the kids quickly. The store would be difficult to find even with a G.P.S. We thought the round trip would take about two hours, but we encountered the worst traffic we have ever seen in Orlando. We were actually gone about four hours and worse, when they arrived, most of the merchandise had been thoroughly picked over. Happily, Izzy joined us for the long drive, so we had a great time catching up with her life in the last few months. The other kids didn’t miss us much, as they spent several hours in the pool on a gorgeous day and Yona got to be an “only” for awhile. Ari and Beth disappeared after breakfast, enjoying tooling around Orlando in the red convertible and shopping. Later that day, when everyone returned, we all had dinner at Sweet Tomatoes, except Alice, who decided to drive back to Wellington that night. Having arisen in the wee hours of the morning to fly here, the girls were practically falling asleep during dinner and couldn’t wait to be tucked into their waiting beds.

Before dawn on Wednesday, December 23, Ari, Beth, Alex and Jess arose to play their pre-scheduled round at Disney’s Magnolia golf course. They grabbed travel mugs of coffee, and tea and snacks to get them through the morning. Izzy (ever the early riser), shortly after they left initiated the new waffle iron that Beth had sent us. Those of us left behind had pumpkin waffles with maple syrup and whipped cream, frozen homemade strawberry/banana smoothies, and steamed oatmeal with berries. While the others spent several hours golfing and then went to lunch, Saul, Rif and I spent the time in the pool with the girls. In the afternoon, when all had returned, we went for a drive to Abracadabra so that we could introduce Alex, Beth, and Ari to the experience of nitrogen ice cream. Ken and Randi stopped over in the late afternoon with their house guests, Randi’s niece Stacey, her husband Shawn, and their two boys. They had come to see our house and so that the kids could meet and play together. We couldn’t decide on a restaurant for dinner that would satisfy all of us and feared that we would not be able to get a reservation for such a large number, so we decided to meet later, after dinner. Since the evening weather was delightful, we were able to snag two adjacent outdoor tables at Big River Grill at Disney’s Boardwalk. Their group wound up at Blue Zoo in the nearby Dolphin Hotel. While we were waiting for dinner, Izzy and Alex went to play carnival games just across the boardwalk from where we were seated and Izzy won. She chose a sock monkey as her prize. As we were finishing up dinner, our waiter offered to take her across for a different game and had an “in” with the cast member in charge. Together, they won her a light saber. Also while we were waiting, Rif went with the girls to watch some of the clever street performers on the Boardwalk. When Ken’s party met us as our dinner was ending, Stacey and Shawn were anxious to get on the road to spend a few days at Stacey’s mother’s new home in southern Florida. The boys did not have time to spend trying to win a light saber like Izzy’s and, when she realized how much they admired it, she magnanimously offered it to them to keep. We are all so impressed with Izzy’s generosity of spirit. She started life as a very self-absorbed child, but has turned into the most amazing, sensitive, empathetic, and intelligent eleven year old. We headed for home after viewing Epcot’s fireworks from the Boardwalk.

We spent a leisurely day together on December 24, as it was Beth’s last day with us before she was due to fly home to Arizona that afternoon. Ten of us had breakfast at Keke’s Café in Clermont. While everyone hung out at the pool afterwards, a few hours later, Saul and I headed off to deliver Beth to Orlando Airport. As evening fell, we met the rest of the gang for dinner at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant in Winter Garden, Garden Café, which was a first time for us, but oft to be repeated I believe. Since we were nine people, along with Larry S., we were able to try many of the dishes on the menu. The Yin-yang soup, which was particularly photogenic, was okay, but it was overshadowed by the other two we ordered, shark’s fin and velvet corn. Especially wonderful was a curried lamb dish… with vegetarian lamb, of course. Although the portions were quite large and we all ate until we were full, the bill was very modest especially considering that these dishes are very labor-intensive. We divided up differently into the two cars in which we arrived because Larry, Rif, Ari, Alex and Jess wanted to see Star Wars. Unfortunately, we later discovered that when they arrived at the theater, they found the movie was sold out. By the time they arrived back home, Saul and I had put the girls to bed and were asleep ourselves.

Christmas Day fell on Friday this year, so it was a perfect opportunity to prepare an elaborate Shabbat dinner and begin preparing some make-aheads for our New Year’s Eve Party. Jess and Alex and the girls headed off early to Universal Studios to meet friends of theirs, Jill and Jeff, who were here in Orlando vacationing with their three girls. Much of the dinner came from the freezer as I had put things aside over the last few months that I knew that the girls would like. We had chicken soup with homemade dumplings and matzoh balls that the girls had made over the summer. With a lot of help from Rif and Saul, I made a pareve version of my Magic Rainbow Braided Bread, leaving out the parmesan cheese. We also made two pies, lemon meringue and crumb-topped apple cranberry. I used coconut oil in place of the usual margarine that I use when making a pareve pie crust and the two crusts turned out flaky and even more flavorful. Also pulled from the freezer was a tray of sliced, smoked turkey in gravy. Leftover from Thanksgiving dinner was my cranberry apple chutney. I made guacamole and chips, fresh spinach salad with warm sesame dressing, and black and white rice. The kids returned from Universal shortly before sunset, and as we kindled the Shabbat candles, I felt an awesome sense of joy and contentment because I was experiencing one of those now-very-rare occasions where my whole family was here together enjoying good times and good food. Sami was missing and greatly missed, but we all were consoled knowing that she was having a great time in Israel on her Confirmation Class trip.

Saturday, December 26, was an absolutely beautiful, warm Florida day. We had a leisurely lox and bagels breakfast together, spent the afternoon by our pool swimming and snacking, and had a Shabbat nap in the afternoon. After dinner and havdallah, we all headed for Epcot. We parked at The Beach Club, and strolled to the International Gate, where Ari bought Rif and Alex “Epcot After Four” annual passes as belated Chanukah/birthday presents. Jill and Jeff were staying at The Beach Club, and we all were able to meet up together and enjoy some of the park’s delights, such as margaritas from La Cava del Tequila in Mexico, beer from Germany, the Three Caballeros boat ride, Soarin’, the Candlelight Processional, and IllumiNations, among others. As the park closed, we drifted back to The Beach Club lobby to schmooze for a while, inhaling the luscious perfumed scent of the hotel mingled with the scent of gingerbread spices from the huge gingerbread carousel with its white and dark chocolate horses.

On Sunday, December 27, Rif and Alex relaxed by the pool in the afternoon, while Saul, Jess, Ari and I took the girls to The Magic Kingdom. We arrived in time to view the Christmas Parade coming down Main Street. Yona befriended a Victorian-costumed cast member, a middle-aged lady who told me she had been working at Disney for 16 years. She stood guard over Yona allowing her to view the parade unobstructed from a walkway (a big no-no at Disney), and shooed away all other employees who tried to get them to move. Jess and Ari took Izzy on Space Mountain a few times with our Fast Passes, while we occupied Yona with some of the more tame rides and activities that she likes. We had an amazing afternoon! In the evening, taking advantage of the “Epcot After Four” memberships, we all went there and divided up into three groups. Jess went with the girls to meet their friends, Jill and Jeff and their kids; Ari and Alex went off in search of booze; and Saul, Rif and I met Ken and Randi at the Candlelight Processional concert. After the concert, Saul, Rif and I took the Friendship Cruiser over to the Dolphin Hotel and had a bite to eat in the lounge at Blue Zoo. There, I had a more authentic Russian Mule that was served in the iconic copper mug, and it was not sweetened. It is fast becoming my new favorite cocktail. We had been on our way to see the Star Wars fireworks, but we were too tired to stick around to view them at midnight. Eventually, we walked back to The Beach Club, met the others, and headed for home.

On Ari’s last full day here, Monday, December 28, we finally felt it was safe and long enough after Christmas to approach Orlando’s Prime Outlet Mall. We were wrong! I went shopping along with Ari, Jess and Alex while Saul and Rif stayed home by the pool with the girls. We spent almost 45 minutes just riding around and around the enormous parking lot, stalking shoppers who were leaving to see if we could find a parking spot, but being beaten out by other stalkers who were there before us; and all this with a handicapped sticker at our disposal, too! Because of the vast number of stores, we found the shopping only moderately crowded and frenzied. Ari was able to find almost everything he wanted to take back to London, in part, because we were mostly shopping in the higher end stores, such as Brooks Brothers and Saks. Jess was able to find some good buys for Alex, too, so we went back satisfied with our afternoon efforts. On our way home, we decided to meet Ken and Randi; Rif, Saul and the girls; and Larry S. at the new Manny’s Chop House that had just opened on U.S. 192 near our homes. We switched cars, putting the child seat into the Prius so that Jess and Alex could continue on to Epcot to meet their friends and graze for dinner there. Our dinner at Manny’s was a fiasco in many ways, beginning with our call-ahead reservation not being registered, a rude receptionist, and a long wait for a table. After that, we all squeezed into a small booth with three of us on outside chairs. They were out of the one dish that Ken always orders. Larry’s dinner came long after the others. All the steaks that were ordered had to be sent back because they were horribly overcooked and they messed up the side dishes as well. The owner of the restaurant eventually came over to apologize and, along with offering us all a free dessert, she comped us for some of the bill. Rif was especially happy with her slice of key lime pie. After dinner, we met up with the others at Epcot. That night, while Saul went to see the new Pixar Shorts where Captain Eo used to be, Rif, Ari and I went on Soarin’ for the last time. It has now closed for renovation. The others watched the fireworks. We all met back at The Beach Club where we had again parked for the evening. We said goodbye to Jill and Jeff there as their family was going home the next day.

On the morning of December 29, Saul, Rif, Ari and I finally went to Egg City for breakfast, and Ari agreed that their grits were the best he had ever had. We went home to help him pack his stuff for the trip back to London. We decided to stop at the International Food Club on our way back from the airport as it was not that far out of our way and Rif had been wanting to see it. Jess and Alex and the girls met us there after their day at Universal. We arrived in the parking lot at exactly the same time. Shopping with separate carts, we had to be careful not to duplicate each other’s purchases. We were able to find some great foodstuffs to prepare for our New Year’s Eve party. Rif left with Alex and Jess for home, while we headed to Garden Café to pick up an order of vegetarian Chinese that Jessica ordered as they were heading home. The order was almost ready by the time Saul and I arrived. We weren’t sure how the food would be after the 45-minute, traffic-laden trip home, but it was just as good as the dinner on Christmas Eve and we had the added benefit of being able to just relax and put the girls to bed afterwards.

The weather was iffy on the thirtieth, and we wanted to be able to relax and enjoy our party, so most of the prep was done a day ahead. Working together, we were able to produce a prodigious amount of really beautiful food, much more than we thought we would need for the party, but we managed to either eat or freeze the leftovers so that nothing went to waste. Our party food included deviled eggs, spanakopitakia, falafel, Israeli salad, puttanesca-stuffed artichoke bottoms and trumpet mushroom “scallops” topped with baked mozzarella pearls, potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce, assorted cheese board with grapes and kumquats, dolmas with hummus, guacamole with multigrain chips, crudités, pepper and eggplant salads, pasta shells with satay sauce, winter pasta with butter, masala potatoes with dosas, gingerbread, sweet potato cake, carob sheet cake squares, chocolate mousse crepes, mince pies from London’s Waitrose supermarket, pizzelles, homemade peanut butter cookies, halvah, chocolate-covered pecans, assorted nuts, and almond joy candy bars left over from Halloween. That evening, we had a yummy Mexican dinner at Aye! Jalisco and managed to put away two large pitchers of margaritas. Even so, after dinner we were able to continue cooking for several hours… and without cutting off any fingers!

On December 31, Jess and Alex took the girls to Universal Studios early, where they met other friends, Adam and Alex and their three children who were vacationing here. The five of them were invited guests to our party that evening, as were our Florida friends, Jelly, John, and their daughter, Olivia. Larry S. joined us also. Ken and Randi celebrated at The Grand Floridian Café with their guests, Neil and Paula and Randi’s sister Lori and her husband, Jules. Adele and Larry were supposed to join us also, but Adele wasn’t feeling well that afternoon and Larry called to cancel. They were supposed to sleep over at Larry S.’s home that evening, as all our beds were full. Working with Rif and Saul, I fried up beautiful and delicious falafel right after breakfast. In the afternoon, we made gingerbread and royal icing so that the six kids would have a project to occupy them—assembling and decorating a gingerbread house and gingerbread people and teddy bears. We need not have worried, as the evening was warm enough for the pool and the kids had a blast swimming and playing in it for a few hours. Jess was concerned about getting back early from the park in order to help prepare for the party, but all worked out well, and I encouraged them to stay as everything was under control. For dessert, the older girls assembled the most incredibly imaginative gingerbread house that they decorated to look like Hagrid’s house, inspired by their trip to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts at Universal Studios. The younger ones had a great time decorating and eating the cookies. The grownups relaxed with with beer, wine and cocktails while keeping an eye on the little ones. All the kids were still up at midnight when we watched the ball drop, had champagne with peach sorbet, and blew our noisemakers. I only hope the whole year goes by as smoothly, easily, and filled with fun as our party did this year.

On New Year’s Day, Saul and I, and even Izzy, slept a bit later than usual. When Saul and I upgraded our iPhones to 6Ses, we gave our old ones to Izzy and Sami. Jess ordered a new case for each of them, and the back of Izzy’s case was a Lego board. We awoke to find that she had given new meaning to the term “mobile phone” as she made it into a vehicle with her mini Legos. Jess and Alex went off before dawn to play a very early, nine-hole, scheduled round of golf at the more difficult Palm Course. The early, nine-hole schedule was supposed to include breakfast, but they discovered that no vegetarian options were available to them. Subsequently, when Jess called about the glitch, a manager called them shortly after from a wedding on his day off to apologize profusely and offered them another complimentary round of golf with a vegetarian breakfast. Unfortunately, they never had the opportunity to take advantage of the offer. When they returned, Saul, Jess, Izzy, Yona and I headed for Hollywood Studios. Jess had set up Fast Passes several days earlier for some of the rides and for the Frozen Sing-Along. Yona did not want to see the new Star Wars pavilion and we had to practically drag her in. Once inside, she was absolutely charmed by the rather scary-looking Jawa creatures roaming around. Each carried a sack that contained scavenged items from other visitors. Without any verbal exchange, Yona made a deal to swap one of her Mickey Mouse stickers for a new rain poncho. Then she traded another sticker for a birthday hat. Izzy traded a transportation card for a paper clip, and then went to another Jawa to trade it for an eraser. Once Yona realized what was going on, she would have spent the entire afternoon there trading stuff with the Jawas. Having leftovers from our party proved to be a great boon, because we were able to stay at the park for several hours and still get home in time to set up Shabbat dinner, especially because I made the magic rainbow challahs which don’t require as much rising time as the regular ones. Saul and I had a wonderful evening enjoying Shabbat dinner with Ken and Randi, Larry S., Neil and Paula, Rif, Ari, Jess, Alex, Izzy and Yona.

On Saturday morning, January 2, Jess, Izzy, and Yona spent the morning categorizing and rearranging the pin board in her room so that there was a Mickey Mouse configuration in the center, and room for more pin collections. Saul and I babysat that evening so that Rif and Larry S. and Jess and Alex could all go to see the new Star Wars movie at Universal Studios City Walk. Following the movie, they had dinner and drinks at Margaritaville. Sami flew back from Israel that evening, arriving the next morning. We arranged a “movie night” at home for the girls and put them to bed early.

Our next door neighbors, Paul and Kim had invited us over to see their Christmas trees (plural), and we finally had a quiet day to take them up on their offer. Their three trees each had a different motif and the girls really enjoyed seeing them and playing with their two dogs. We had lunch at Sweet Tomatoes that afternoon. We went to Epcot that evening to see the fireworks.

On January 4, Rif lounged at home, while Jess, Alex, Saul, the girls, and I took advantage of our annual passes to The Crayola Experience at the Florida Mall. We spent a few delightful hours there and then decided to have lunch. Not finding anything suitable at the mall (a new conveyor belt sushi place was a week away from opening), we tried to have lunch at Garden Café, but found it closed on Mondays. Because of this, we made another great vegetarian discovery. Not 10 minutes away was Dandelion Communitea Café. Although the day was a bit chilly, the garden setting was so charming that we decided to sit at one of the outdoor tables. The food was well-prepared, imaginative, and reasonable. We were delighted to add this place to our repertoire. We stopped at Costco on our way back to Epcot so that Jess and Yona could use the bathroom, and wisely, I ran in and bought a fleece coat so that I wouldn’t be cold as the temperature was about to drop drastically when the sun set. Larry S. picked up Rif and we met at the Boardwalk Hotel for a wonderful evening at Epcot. Yona was cold as the evening wore on because her jacket was too light, so Saul, Rif and I decided to have fish and chips in The Rose and Crown in “England.” That way, we would be out of the cold and still have a good vantage point for the fireworks. As it turned out, Yona was invited by a waitress there to kick off the fireworks with a magic wand from the outdoor deck right below us. She even was presented with an official certificate to remind her of the rare occasion. By then, Larry, Jess, Alex, and Izzy, who had eaten their fish and chips outdoors on the patio next door, had joined us inside. This was the last full day of our vacation as Jess, Alex, and the girls were leaving before dawn the following morning.

After dropping them off at Orlando International, Saul and I drove directly home and climbed back into bed, sleeping until almost noon. Later that afternoon, Larry came with Adele and his bridge partner, whom he introduced to us, before leaving Adele here so that he could play in a several-day-long bridge tournament near Disney Springs. That evening, we took Rif and Adele to Hollywood Studios so that we could all see the beautiful Star Wars fireworks from our bench outside the park.

On Rif’s last day here, the four of us wandered around Disney Springs for a couple of hours. Rif had wanted to return to Boma in Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Jambo House after the fantastic meal we had there on her previous visit, and Saul had managed to snag an early reservation for five of us. We had invited Larry S. to join us, but he declined, and as it turned out, the fifth person wound up being Larry A. who called just as we arrived for our reservation. He and his partner had decided to call it quits after the first round and he had cancelled his reservations at his hotel. During dinner, however, she called to request that he return to complete the evening rounds, and he left right after dinner. Lingering over our delectable meals after he left, we decided to proceed on to Epcot to further take advantage of Rif’s “Epcot After Four” annual pass on her last night here. By coincidence, we were able to have a good vantage point for the Star Wars fireworks from a bridge at Epcot that we happened to cross at the right time. After IllumiNations, we returned home, and Larry arrived from his tournament about the same time. The next day, we all had a leisurely breakfast together and Larry and Adele decided to return home shortly before it was time to take Rif to the Airport. That afternoon, the initial work began on our pool when the contractor and his help arrived to remove a section of our pool screen so that equipment could get through.

It took us about three days of laundry and cleaning to get the house back to its pre-vacation state, during which time we tried to catch up with our rest as much as possible. We continue to walk in the parks about every other day and usually put in three to five miles. After about 10 days of unseasonably cold and rainy weather, the work on our pool, spa and deck commenced in earnest as the pool was drained and the guys with sledgehammers, jackhammers, and pickaxes began to remove the concrete on the section of deck where the spa is going in. Ken and Randi went on vacation to Mexico for a long weekend with Haley and Erik and Betsey and Horace, an early special birthday celebration for both Randi and Betsy. They had an awesome time! We attended Rabbi Skolnik’s monthly Tuesday morning class and arranged to meet for lunch at a kosher food truck that is visiting our area from Chicago for two weeks. Saul and I shared a brisket sandwich, baked beans, and coleslaw, which were very good, but very expensive. The rabbi had a chicken sandwich. We had six-month check-ups with our new internist.

This past week was especially exciting because we were treated to a visit from Saul’s first cousins, Abe and Bob. We stay in touch, but haven’t seen them in several years. With impeccable timing, the two flew down from the Philadelphia area right ahead of a massive snowstorm that socked in almost all of the East Coast. Even our weather in Florida was unusually cold and rainy for the time they were here. We picked them up at the airport on Thursday evening. On Friday, the one full day they were here, the weather was truly horrible as predicted. Fortunately, we had a lot of time to just sit around, schmooze, and reminisce. By mid-afternoon, we knew that we would not be going anywhere, and we began to prepare the Tu B’Shevat seder that preceded our Shabbat dinner. Despite the bad weather, we had a wonderful short seder and meal. We were joined by Ken and Randi, and Larry S. Beginning and ending early, we were able to spend a blustery, but clear evening viewing the fireworks at both Hollywood Studios and Epcot by cruising around the lagoon on Disney’s Friendship cruisers. We delivered Abe and Bob to The Orlando Hotel around noon the next day so that they could pick up a rental car to continue their Florida vacation. They were driving down to Miami to meet their brother, Willie and sister, Elaine and her husband, Michael, so that the siblings could spend some quality time together in Willie’s condo. It was really nice seeing them, and we hope they will return soon. In the meantime, we are awaiting the next round of guests in a few days, David and Karen, friends from our teenage years who have just moved to Florida. They are spending two days here and it should be great to revive some of the old memories we shared together many years ago.