Thursday, March 9, 2023

Seven Months of Family Vicissitudes

We had an absolutely fabulous time in England and Italy over the beginning part of the summer (see previous blog post). That left late July and August for all the medical stuff we had been putting off for a number of months leading up to this grand vacation. Accordingly, my cataracts, which had been worsening at an increasing pace were surgically repaired about two weeks apart with amazing results. I expected my eyes to feel different or irritated after the procedures, but miraculously, they felt exactly the same only with my old clear eyesight back. What an incredible relief that was when it was all over! Then, a few weeks later, I had a large and painful cystic lump removed from the bottom part of my middle finger. It had been surgically removed 20 years ago, but had gradually grown back had recently become a big annoyance any time it received the slightest bump. The surgery was quick, effective, and left practically no scar. Again, an incredible relief to have that all finished! Our other doctors appointments, eye checkups, wellness checkups, and cardiac checkup for Saul were all very positive. Only my A1C test remains a problem, but I assume that will be a problem for me for the rest of my life, unless there is some miraculous breakthrough in diabetic medication in future years.

Shortly after we returned in July, Sami, who had been faithfully wearing her mask (and was practically the only one to do so) at her job as a concierge at a Disney hotel, came down with Covid. Although she became ill in the middle of the day, they insisted that she finish her shift as there was no one to cover for her. She entered the house through the pool bathroom door that attaches to her bedroom so as not to contaminate us by walking through the house. For the next week, we blocked her doorway with a table on which we placed food, drink and medication for her, and she spent the week in bed. Luckily, only the first few days were rough and Saul and I succeeded in avoiding the dreaded virus.

In our travels restocking the house after our lengthy vacation, we happened upon a delightful, hippyish, restaurant near Costco, Hungry Pants, which provided a really interesting vegan breakfast, although the restaurant is not completely vegan. In the evenings, we were able to catch up with some really wonderful shows at Epcot’s outdoor American Theater at the end of the Food & Wine Festival—Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Christopher Cross, and Air Supply. Yona and Jessica had flown from London back to NJ following Alex home, and then spent a week touring private schools for Yona in the New England area. Before they returned to Orlando to celebrate Sami’s 22nd birthday, Yona had a few days as an only child, drawing in her sketchbook, recreating her mother’s ballet recital pose, creating interesting costumes and makeup, and as ever, baking her wonderful cupcakes and cookies. Besides, celebrating with Sami and hanging out by the pool, in our travels, we happened upon a brand new restaurant named Jacked Up Vegan, that on a Sunday, handed us three separate menus, one including brunch, from which we could choose anything we wanted, including an amazing assortment of unique mocktails. We had an incredible feast that day.

Paul had been having a problem walking, and found a marvelous doctor here in Celebration who was able to reconstruct the bones in his toe. Although he was getting around with a knee scooter for a while, after a few weeks, he was able to join us for a walk through Disney to do a “gingerbread crawl” to view all the various huge installations in many places in the parks and hotels. The Israeli branch of the family continues to grow and thrive.

Orlando is home to a month of “Magical Dining” which means that participating restaurants offer various three course menus for a fixed price of $35. Although it is difficult to find places that accommodate both vegan (for us) and meat-eating diets (for friends and family), we were able to greatly enjoy two that met those criteria—DoveCote and Vinia. The proprietor at Vinia was extremely helpful. Paul was still on his knee scooter and he met our car in front of the restaurant, told us where to park in the back driveway so that Paul could roll up the ramp and be seated comfortably. The food was absolutely wonderful, but is a bit pricey when Magic Dining is done. The same can be said for DoveCote. For our 51st wedding anniversary on September 2, we were able to snag an early morning reservation at Boma, our favorite breakfast buffet at Jambo House at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Sami and Izzy surreptitiously arrived while we were breakfasting, paid our check utilizing Sami’s cast member discount at the hostess station, and left. It was a lovely anniversary surprise.

Cousin Ellen arrived and was staying with Ken. We arranged a day at the Morse Museum of Glass in Winter Park and had a fantastic, multi-course dinner together at Sebastian’s Bistro in the Caribbean Beach Resort. Some weeks later, we repeated the same dinner with Ari and Rif and Paul. After dinner, Saul, Ari and I took a long stroll through the resort area and the Riviera Resort area, completely around the lagoon at the center. 

One of the other downsides of these last seven months was that Ari was laid off the week before the purchase of his beautiful new home in London. That certainly put a damper on our joy. The system in England does not leave one without a parachute, however. He was put on what is known in England as “garden leave” which requires his company to extend him three months salary, in addition to his month’s worth of unused vacation and sick leave pay. Unfortunately, in the present economic climate, and although he has been diligent about seeking new employment, no offerings have been forthcoming as of this writing. An upside, if you can call it that, was the death of Queen Elizabeth and her funeral a few days after he moved in. That gave the entire country a few days off and he was free to attend and photograph the various ceremonies. Little by little, he acquired the bare basics furniture that he needed to live comfortably.

We had a tremendous hurricane when Ian blew through Florida, but after Irma, we at least knew that our windows would hold and not blow in, so we could weather the storm more comfortably at home, only moving into the garage our outdoor furniture and potted plants. We had a very scaled-back Rosh Hashanah lunch this year with only Elaine attending. Jessica managed to visit Saul’s parent’s graves in Mt. Sharon cemetery up north as is our custom at this time of the year.

In between festivals, the Disney Parks are not so crowded. There was only one ride in all the parks that I had not been on, only because the lines were always so long for a pretty insignificant ride. On a slow day in Magic Kingdom, Saul and I finally got to ride the Astro Orbiter. We tried to squeeze into one spaceship, but it was too small, so we rode separately. Afterwards, we photographed a practically empty plaza that is usually crowded with people.

In ten years that we have lived in Florida, we have only had harmless geckos in the house a handful of times, therefore, we were greatly surprised to find one on the handle of Saul’s hairbrush one morning. They are very beneficial at eating harmful insects, so we generally trap them and release them back outside. At Sami’s job, there was a cupcake contest during Halloween, She made mini bundt pumpkins which were sweet potato cake with an orange-dyed brown sugar icing and won a prize for them. 

Saul and I continue taking advantage of the beautiful winter Florida weather and the nearby Disney Parks for long, interesting strolls, getting some great Animal Kingdom photos and enjoying great concerts at the American Theater at Epcot, such as Boyz II Men. The trash cans at Disney are kept so spotless that you can eat off them, literally. We happened upon a couple who had purchased a set on Etsy designed specifically for that purpose. Unfortunately, in November, Saul and I came down with Influenza A a day apart. We were given this news in the emergency room in Celebration Hospital, where I required an I.V., unfortunately, but we were relieved to find that at least it wasn’t Covid. The upside was that Saul was okay for my ordeal in the E.R. so we knew what he had and what medication he needed. We both laid in bed for a week, while Sami put a table in front of our door, and brought us tea, her homemade soup, and medication. Luckily, we were over it just in time for the family to fly in for Thanksgiving, and luckily, before we came down with the flu, I had already begun preparing for it. Izzy drove in from her college in Marietta, Georgia to join us, and it was such a pleasure to have the whole family together again.

Another upside of Ari’s situation, was that he was able to spend an extended period of time with us during December and into January. During that time, Beth visited us with her delightful friend, John. A visit from Sami’s friend, Max, overlapped with Ari’s visit, and we had an incredible day doing a “gingerbread crawl” around Disney after Saul and I had a great, early-morning breakfast at Boma together with Rif and Paul, Sami, Max, Beth, John, and Ari. As usual, the gingerbread installations were mind-boggling.

One of our favorite places to spend a gorgeous, breezy, Florida-winter afternoon is Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming Kitchen. Our favorite table is on the screened, covered deck, overlooking the lagoon. After that, we walk off our meal with a stroll around Disney Springs, sometimes skirting the golf course that is part of the Saratoga Springs Resort on the other side of the lagoon. We began our evening at Cirque du Soleil’s “Drawn to Life” at this restaurant. The tickets were a present from Sami. The show itself is so amazing that afterward, I felt that the whole world should see it sometime. When people ask me if the tickets are worth the money, I can only rhapsodize enthusiastically that “yes, yes, yes”! they should see it.

This year for Chanukah, I just made lots and lots of my vegan, oil-free latkes, as it turned out that not only did we like them better, but everyone else was happy eating them as well. We all got together for latkes, donuts from Donut King, light snacks, drinks, and lighting the Chanukah candles together. Izzy came in for an extended period of time because she was on winter break. Chanukah also coincided with Rif’s birthday, and for the Shabbat dinner celebrating her birthday, she requested a carrot cake and coconut flan for dessert among other things. Elaine invited us over for a Shabbat dinner at her house one Friday. For New Year’s Eve, Ari and Izzy went out to buy fireworks again, with each year producing a more elaborate display. We hosted a New Year’s Day breakfast of lox, whitefish salad, with the accompanying accoutrements, and leftovers from the previous evening.

After Jessica’s family left, Ari made it his mission to find interesting new restaurants and things to do here in Florida. One morning, we had breakfast at the Maple Street Biscuit Company in Celebration before heading off to Disney so Ari could ride the new “Guardians of the Galaxy” ride in Epcot. One morning we took a very long walk and explored areas in Saratoga Springs that we had not seen before, such as the “Tree Houses” section of the Resort. We wandered so far afield that some Disney cast members offered us a ride back to the main resort on one of their maintenance golf carts, for which we were very grateful. We had breakfast at the Celebration Diner on a Sunday morning, explored the Sunday Farmer’s Market there, and then took a long and scenic walk completely around the lake there—something I did not know was possible in all my ten years of visiting Celebration. 

Another unique and interesting excursion that Ari had proposed was visiting Tarpon Springs, apparently the hub of one of the largest Greek Orthodox communities in the country, for Epiphany. We invited our friend, Ed, who now lives in The Villages here in Florida, was formerly married to Beth, and lived next door to us up north for a few years. Ed is Greek Orthodox, had always wanted to see the unique ceremony performed there, and happened to be free on that particular day. Towards the end of our two hour ride, in Wesley Chapel, Ari had even scoped out a wonderful restaurant, The Brunchery, now known as Egg Town, that had delicious vegan fare as well as the usual Southern fixings, for breakfast. We found a convenient parking spot in Tarpon Springs, and after the service (during which we waited in a large crowd outside the church) which is held in the large and imposing church for members only, the community, led by their priest and church officials leads a procession of community members and competing teenagers for a few streets down to the water. There, the appropriately-dressed teenagers swim to a ring of boats as the competition is about to start. The priest, from a dock opposite the ring of boats, throws a large golden cross into the lake. The teenagers dive from the boats and the first one to retrieve the cross is blessed and guaranteed a year of good luck and prosperity. It was a very chilly day as we stood outside the church, but thankfully for those wet souls, the afternoon sun produced our usual Florida hot weather. The town holds many activities in their social halls, including food and dancing, but the venues were so crowded that after observing the Greek dancing for a while, we opted to find a nearby Greek restaurant for a late lunch. We lucked out in that we found parking and a not-too-crowded, highly-rated restaurant in which to have a congenial repast. Before heading home, we patronized the Greek bakery across the street for a supply of braided bread, baklava and other similar Greek pastries made with phyllo, walnuts, and honey.

In the course of our conversations, we realized that Ari had never gone with us to Bok Tower Gardens. We had once tried, during Covid, but the crowds were so overwhelming that we opted to go for a walk around a lake in a nearby vicinity. We went to visit Bok Tower on a beautiful temperate day and added this unique experience to Ari’s repertoire. The camellias were in full bloom, along with other beautiful flowers, and the campanile player was giving lessons in the tower to a student.

Perhaps the most unique of all our day trips was our visit to “Solomon’s Castle.” A quirky and clever artist who built his pieces from discarded industrial materials and found objects, Howard Solomon created his “castle” in Ona, Florida. Unfortunately, most of the property was built on swampland that flooded severely during Hurricane Ian. But our visit proved most worthwhile, anyway, and we were wowed by the body of work he produced, his clever use of shiny outcast offset print plates to clad his castle, his themed, stained glass windows, the ark he built to house a restaurant and gift shop, and his exemplary antique car collection. Before Ari found this place, I had never heard of it or the Florida town where it resides in “the middle of nowhere.” The day we visited, there were a surprising number of people there for the tour and to patronize the restaurant. On our drive back home, we received a most shocking phone call. Saul, David and Max had been the closest of friends in high school. Several years ago, they discovered that they were all living in Florida. Before Covid, we had all gotten together here in Orlando several times as all the wives knew each other from high school days as well. The shocking news was that Max had gone out after breakfast for his daily several-mile walk and was hit and killed by a car as he was crossing a roadway. Our shock and dismay was nothing compared to that of his wife and two daughters. It was a very sad reminder to us that no matter what petty upsetting and inconvenient traumas we were experiencing, they pale by comparison to what others are enduring, and we must make the most of each day we are given.

We revisited Animal Kingdom with Ari and were pleased to see that the Tumble Monkeys and the flying Blue Bird Ballerina have returned to the Festival of the Lion King Show. At Hollywood Studios, we also took a picture in front the the access door that serves as entrance and egress for the cosseted guests staying at the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel. On the same excursion, we had lunch at a new restaurant for us—Veggie Garden Vegan Vietnamese Kitchen. The food was exotic, and very flavorful, not to mention reasonable. Saul and I went back on another occasion in February, only to find that the restaurant is closed on Wednesdays. The door was open and the two ladies who were having lunch (employees) went into the kitchen to see if they would serve us, but the kitchen staff was afraid if we were seen eating that others would demand to be served as well. In desperation, we wound up eating at a vegan place that we had passed many times, Loving Hut. It doesn’t look very inviting from the outside, but the pho we had there was probably the best vegan pho we have ever had. Ari was here for the start of Disney’s Festival of the Arts, and we all got to sample some of the delectable offerings in the kiosks around Epcot.  We also went there with Rif and Paul for an evening concert, although they were not so happy with their samplings. We also went back to Celebration for another stroll around the lake before Ari left for London.

The evening Fantasmic show at Hollywood Studios had been shut down for a few years because of Covid until the last few months. The crowds had been huge as soon as they reopened, but Saul and I ventured over there one evening, shortly after Ari left, to see the new iteration. The costumes and sets had all been refurbished (the show had gotten a bit shabby in recent years), and some of the “politically incorrect” skits, such as those involving Pocahontas had been replaced with more recent movie characters like Moana. It was nice to have the show back again in all its glory. I couldn’t resist posing with one of the 3-D chalk drawings at the Arts Festival at Epcot. I love them, but I will henceforth limit myself to ones I can stand on. I had a terrible time getting up from my sitting position on the pavement, even with the wall alongside to bolster me. Another new addition to Epcot is a little thing, but it creates lots of joy for both adults and children waiting for others at the restrooms outside the Odyssey Building. A box that looks like the back of an air conditioner blows prodigious amounts of soap bubbles filled with smoke that wafts away as you pop the bubbles. 

Many times in our excursions around the parks, we will see people taking pictures of their families and offer to take the photo for them so that they can be in the scene also. It usually affords a chance to chat a bit with far-flung visitors, who can be very interesting. One evening in Epcot, just such a situation presented itself. Usually, we take the photo with their camera, but they were having trouble with their flash. So we took the photo with our camera and shared it with them. They were, perhaps, the most interesting of all the people we have met. They are Jewish Canadians from Montreal who might be interested in moving to our area and wanted to discuss neighborhoods that we thought would be good to check out. What made them the most interesting, however, was what Eli Batalion does for a living. He and his friend, Jamie Elman create an award-winning Yiddish comedy web series on YouTube, Yid Life Crisis, which provided us with hours of hilarious, if very irreverent, entertainment. Every segment is performed in Yiddish with English subtitles and a bit of French thrown in as well. Saul only occasionally gets to hear or speak Yiddish, so this was really a joy for him, and he loved when he got to explain to me the nuances of Yiddish that are lost in the English translations.

Towards the end of January, Paul and Rif treated us to a concert by Jason Isbell at the Walt Disney Theater in the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. My cousin, Ellen, had mentioned wanting to see a show at the theater, and in all this time in Orlando, I had to Google it to learn about it. What I didn’t realize was that there are three theaters side-by-side in one absolutely architecturally-stunning modern building. Seeing these venues were almost as good as the concert itself, which was, believe me, excellent.

As the Festival of the Arts wound to a close, we enjoyed the “Disney on Broadway” concerts at Epcot, featuring the amazingly talented Broadway actors who wowed us with their superb voices and snippets of their acting and dancing roles. We watched an artist who created a painting in front of the eyes of a large crowd using his fingers and brushes. When finished he, surprisingly, flipped the canvas upside-down to reveal an artistic portrait of Minnie Mouse. A first for us, even after 10 years of exploring the Disney Parks, was discovering a small remote section of Dino Land in Animal Kingdom that we had never accessed. It may not be there much longer as I understand the area is due to be replaced shortly with a “Zootopia” theme.

Although we had just been to Bok Tower Gardens with Ari, we couldn’t resist the invitation, as members, to get a little closer to the inner sanctum beyond the fanciful, dragon-encrusted, locked iron gates of the tower. In front is the tombstone of Edward William Bok, who funded the building of the tower and gardens. Once a year, the gates are opened for members to pose in front of the elaborately decorated brass doors at the entrance to the tower. The doors depict the story of Genesis. We waited in a long line for about 45 minutes for the privilege, but it was fun chatting with those around us who had such diverse life stories.

We had a nice crowd for a Shabbat Tu B’Shevat (Sabbath New Year of the Trees) seder and dinner this year. I love the scavenger hunt of trying to find a nice assortment of fruit for the centerpiece and the four symbolic categories that represent the four seasons. Winn-Dixie, thankfully, had the four different colors of Kedem grape juice for the brachot (blessings) that accompany the four platters of tree fruits and nuts. The whole meal was designed to showcase the bounty we enjoy that the trees provide for us.

At the beginning of February, we received a photo from the Israeli cousins that the family is growing by leaps and bounds.

A downer in February was discovering one morning that some of our ensuite shower tiles had cracked and collapsed into the floor. A small hairline crack in a few tiles had apparently led to water seeping in and destroying the integrity of the wall behind. The upside of that same thing was that the old shower tile could not be repaired, and I got to choose a stunning, new, large, marbled-porcelain tile pattern that will have practically no grout lines, will go from floor to ceiling, will surround the adjacent bathtub, and, to boot, I can now redesign and have a wheelchair-accessible shower, which I hope we will never need. Not a good time for the expense, but it was one of the things we considered redoing because of the hairline crack when we bought the house ten years ago. As if this weren’t enough, during this crisis, our insurance company sent us a letter saying our policy would be cancelled unless we replace our roof.

When Sami visited London, and we needed to get her to Tampa International Airport, Rif decided to join us for the ride. Paul was involved with a Ham Radio convention at the time. After dropping Sami at the airport, we travelled on to Clearwater Beach where we snagged a really good parking spot and watched the gorgeous sunset from our table at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill on the beach as we had dinner before leaving for the drive back home after rush hour.

During February, we continued our strolls in the Park as the weather continued absolutely beautiful, and planted our seeds—heirloom tomatoes, unusual basils, and flowers. When Sami returned from her fabulous London vacation, we worked together to produce the best hamantaschen we have ever made to distribute to friends and neighbors during the March holiday of Purim.

Breaking with tradition, Saul and I booked a flight to London for Passover this year. We plan to Zoom into the family seder, which Ari usually does himself, and it will probably take place here in Florida when Jess, Alex and Yona arrive to enjoy their spring vacation. 

It certainly has been several months of uncertainty and trauma, highs and lows, ups and downs, but we are trying to take each day as it comes and make the most of it. Having written all this down now, I realize that the good far outweighs the bad, especially when compared to the problems many others face. We will try to keep a positive outlook, no matter what the future holds because we know that we are uncommonly blessed.

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