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.

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