By Julie Gagnon Prior
Do you remember as a kid; overhearing the adults reminiscing over how much the world has changed in their lifetime?
Sometimes I would take a seat on the floor and listen intently to the conversations, especially when my Grampa talked. Grampa’s stories involved such detail and colorful description that his words played out like a movie in my head.
I remember being awestruck over the vastness of change within his lifetime. But at the same time, I was confused and conflicted because I couldn’t fathom that much change within my own lifetime.
But now, at 50 years old and with my own grandson’s arrival; I realize that the stories that I have to tell may have the same effect on him.
After reflecting on the changes between my childhood and the childhood that kids experience now-a-days, I have made a game plan. I like to think of it as my “Grandkid Bucket List”.
The lifestyle of children in this day and age is so very different from only a few decades ago. I can’t help but smile to myself as I fill out the list with some of the very simple yet memorable childhood experiences and lessons that I want to pass on.
Overall, the “Grandkid Bucket List” I am creating revolves around experiencing nature and respecting and appreciating people.
Now my grandson is only a little over a month year old, so I have some time to expand or edit the goals. But I thought that I would share with you some of my initial thoughts.
1. Catching Crawdads. Ahhh, a stream or river with a shallow edge and small rocks is perfect. The soothing sound of the rushing water needs to drown out any other sounds of civilization. We’ll find the right size rocks for those little hands and pick them up carefully so as not to stir up the mud (making the water cloudy). We will discuss that crawdads swim backwards and the place to grab them is behind their pinchers. Of course, we will never hurt them and will always put them back to go back to hiding under their rocks.
2. Climbing Birch Trees. A skill my brother Bob taught me; it’s guaranteed to amaze. We will find the proper diameter and height tree for each of our own height and weight. Of course, I will have to help them climb their tree the first few times. But I imagine it won’t take long for them to learn to do it on their own. We will take turns climbing a tree, up, up, up, until it begins to slowly begin to bend. Then, inching up higher and higher until the sweet spot is reached. It is then that the precious, caring birch will slowly and softly bend over; bringing its passenger back to the ground with grace and ease. Once released from the hands of the traveler, the tree springs back to it’s original pose, reaching for the sun.
3. Touch-Me-Knots (Jewelweed). Popping touch-me-not pods is quite possibly one of the most relaxing yet addictive late summer past times. The bigger the pod, the bigger the explosion. Sometimes the challenge is to pick as many pods as you can and put them in a hand…without them exploding upon touch. Many people aren’t aware of this phenomenon and it’s a fun one to share. The joy and amusement on a child’s face as they share a pod with another (who hasn’t had the experience), as the pod explodes and startles the newbie is priceless.
4. Puffball Stomping. This can be a bit of a trickier experience as the puffballs need to be located and they need to be at the proper stage of ripeness. The experience is even more enjoyable when done while barefoot. Stomping on a ripe puffball barefoot is nothing short of awesome while witnessing the black smoke escape out from under one’s feet and thru their toes. One of Mother Nature’s own magic shows.
5. Wild Berry Picking……. Will Not be on the list… Big, ugly, scary spiders like to hide amongst berry bushes and this is unacceptable.
6. Summer Night Outdoor Lights. Education at its finest. On a hot summer night, after leaving the outdoor light on, we will step outside to witness a magnificent variety show of all shapes, sizes, and colors of insects. A stunning spectacle of characters gathered together almost in worship of the light. We’ll be starstruck observing characters that we’d never witness during the day. At this point I feel that I need to clarify something. Despite collecting June bugs on nights like this (when I was young) and convincing my younger brothers that it feels good to have them crawl around on their tongue…. I won’t do that to my grandkids.
7. Christmas Cookies. The more variety the better. We will work together to create colorful, magical treats; all while listening to the Christmas music recordings created by my Dad playing guitar(s). Then, after creating packages of the mix, we will travel to unexpecting, kind, friendly people and present them with the gift of love and appreciation.
8. Easter Bunny Cakes. Another opportunity for “giving”. I’ll make the cakes ahead of time, cut them and arrange them in the shape of an Easter Bunny head, and cover with frosting. We will have a variety of candies such as licorice, gum drops, food colored coconut, colored marshmallows, and more. Each person will decorate their own individual cake and then choose who they will give it to. Of course, we will have one for ourselves as well. But the grandkid(s) will be encouraged to take a moment to think about who might be most appreciative of such a gift. I used to do this with my own kids and we would often bring a couple cakes to the halfway house in Waterbury (people who were once in the State Hospital).
This is just a sampling of the “Grandkid Bucket List”, so many more ideas and goals are swarming thru my head.
Truly, I am going to treasure every chance I have to share stories and experiences from my lifetime with these children. And at the same time, I am going to treasure being part of the stories and experiences that they will someday share with their grandchildren……
By Julie Gagnon Prior
“As an advocate, Julie Gagnon Prior has had to give a lot of hugs. She didn’t hug much before she got sick, she said, but now hugs are her greeting of choice — fierce, warm squeezes that she administers with all her might.”
This quote is the opening lines of a feature (about the calendar) in Seven Days, by Sabine Poux written June of this year.
Had a journalist written about me in my earlier years, the quote would have been alarmingly different.
Growing up in the seventies and eighties, hugs weren’t a common practice in my family. I am not sure if this was a sign of the times or if it was just a personality trait of my family.
I came from a family of eight, and the only one I remember hugging me on a regular basis was my brother Bob (who lives in North Hero).
For this piece of writing, I asked him why he hugged me so much.
He explained, “when we lived on the river and you were 1 and I was about 5, you knocked over my block tower. I yelled, and you cried. I knelt down and hugged you, and you stopped crying. I decided right then I never wanted to make my little sister cry again.”
The hugs from Bob continued. During the school year, he gave me a hug every morning before he walked out the door to catch the bus. Then again, every afternoon when he returned home he gave me another. This is one of my memories from childhood that makes me just relax and smile softly but oh so warmly. It’s a memory that brings me peace, strength, and pride.
Unfortunately, when I started school myself, I learned that hugs weren’t always positive. One confusing hug was when a relative pushed me away because I was too excited and hugged too hard. I had hurt her.
More confusion came when another relative pushed me away and said that I was too old to be hugging: a concept that really threw me for a loop.
The real kicker that stopped me from hugging whenever I could (without being rude) came from the news of the arrest of a school bus driver in Jericho. My family had moved from Jericho to Essex Center the summer before I started fourth grade. I don’t remember exactly when I heard the news, but I do exactly remember how it made me feel: confused, angry, embarrassed and afraid. See, the bus driver who was arrested was my bus driver for grades 1 through 3. Luther was his name, and he always made me feel so special. At the holidays he had a five gallon white bucket full of candy for the kids. But for me, I could get candy every day of the school year if I gave him a hug. As an innocent, naïve, little kid, I believed I was extra special and being rewarded for being a good girl. To this day these memories make me feel sick to my stomach.
Not hugging for the years after moving to Essex really wasn’t a very difficult task. Back in those days a very large percentage of Vermonters weren’t huggers. Emotions and gestures of affection were guarded commodities. Heck, even when my dad walked me down the aisle to give me away in marriage, he turned to me and shook my hand. And I was good with that.
Having kids brought out a lot of hugs in me. But, heavy sigh, I do wish that I had hugged them so much more… When relatives started getting terminally ill and passing, I stepped up my hugging game another level. Whether they be hugs of joy or hugs of sadness, each hug seemed to melt another layer of hardness off my heart. Me being older and the world being warmer, I began to expose myself with more vulnerability, trust and faith in others.
Interestingly enough, a by-product of my personal growth resulted in an increase in hugs of those around me. I think that observing this phenomenon increased my curiosity and appreciation in the true magic of an embrace.
Now, add to this equation a chronic illness. The result, for me, is an unhindered, unweathering drive to spread the healing beauty of hugs.
Like learning anything, there is an element of trial and error. My own personal effort to learn to accept and spread hugs has had its share of shameful, uncomfortable failures. I learned the hard way that I need to remember that not everyone is comfortable with or enjoys hugs. It’s ironic that I would forget this at times considering my own past. But yeah, I have offended and upset people by assuming that they would enjoy a hug. I am so very sorry for those situations, and now I always ask, “would you like a hug?” or, “are you a hugger?”
I have to admit, I now really do love hugs. I love giving them to people who enjoy them or need them. And I really appreciate people who go out of their way to give me a hug.
Hugs make my mouth smile…but they also make my eyes, heart and soul smile too.
Yup, hugs and smiles. That is where its at. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
I was born into this world sporting some personality traits that have caused quite a bit of concern for many of my family and friends over the years. Admittedly, my over-the-top lack of inhibition, unbridled trust and childlike curiosity in strangers quite often has many others on edge with worry. I feel bad for putting loved ones through this confusing (to them) stress. Yet, I wouldn’t trade these qualities I was blessed with for anything. These qualities combined with my “simple” mind have allowed for awe inspiring conversations with complete strangers that have left a permanent impact on myself as well as some others.
The “Julie’s World” segment of The Islander has been a fantastic avenue for sharing some of these stories. If you haven’t read the story titled “A Lesson of the Heart” from the 6/25/19 publication: I strongly suggest that you go to https://www.theislandernewspaper.com/juliesworld/a-lesson-of-the-heart and read it before continuing on with this story. You will understand why I am making this request; when you reach the end of this piece.
Just a couple of weeks ago I had another random, feel-good, goose-bump ridden encounter when I stopped at a corner store in Winooski. I grabbed a couple of waters and as I approached the counter, I observed a man leaning on a cane. The cane was highly decorated (in a most unique way) and I walked closer to get a better look. The range of eclectic items weaved amongst each other had me laughing out loud with amazement. When the man noticed me, I exclaimed, “I love your cane!”
Now, very seldom do I travel with a camera (and my flip phone doesn’t take very good pictures), but that morning before heading out; my gut prompted me to throw my camera in my backpack.
When in the store, my camera was out in the van. I asked the man if we could go outside, and if I could grab my camera and take a picture of his cane. When he said yes, I further explained that I sometimes write a piece for a local paper in the Islands. I asked permission to share the picture and some of our conversation. He was happy to oblige and happy to talk a lot as well.
He began by sharing the story of his 4-year-old granddaughter who wanted to decorate his then-bare cane with a piece of ribbon. After that beautiful addition, he continued to add odd and / or meaningful items. He pointed a few of his favorites out to me. Among them are a pair of old, dried up dentures. Yeah, this item definitely falls under the “odd” category. He pointed out some bells that are very reminiscent of ones that might be used on Santa’s reindeer. I noticed a sort of “voodoo doll” but he didn’t bring that one up and I didn’t ask about it. He did point out the pacifier. “The pacifier,” he said, “is for when I meet people who are whiners. I show it to them and ask if they need to use it to settle down”
As we stood by his truck, he also became very excited and said, “Oh I have something else to show you!” With that he reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out a pinwheel. At this point I asked him if I could record him for a bit (instead of photos). He said, “Well yes!” and he began blowing on the pinwheel to make it spin as I recorded.
He then said something, and I have this recorded, that just about made me have to sit down from shock.
Now this is the point that I truly hope that you have read the article from The Islander website that I referred to in the beginning of this peace.
Ok, so while I am recording him on video on my camera, he continues to blow on the pinwheel. But then, like a flipped light switch, he suddenly stopped, looked at me and then blurted out a most random part of his life story. He proceeded, “My friend Birdman, he’s a local boy in Burlington. Been there 30 years. And he inspired me because he’s got this shopping cart with everything, he owns in it.”
With that last comment, he decided it was time to leave, said goodbye, climbed in his truck and left.
It seemed like forever before I could even pick my jaw up off of the top of my boots.
It was 31 years ago, when I was on a very mournful, lonely walk….
That I came across a man who carried all of his belongings in a shopping cart. I never knew the man’s name. But that day he handed me a gift. A gift that I have to this day. A gift that plays the songs of a bird…….
Louis Armstrong said it best, “And I think to myself What a wonderful world.Yes, I think to myself, What a wonderful world”
By Julie Gagnon Prior
It’s been several weeks since I have submitted a piece to “Julie’s World.” It hasn’t been by choice, and believe me; I have tried.
Have you ever seen the movie “A Beautiful Mind” with Russell Crowe acting as John Nash? It’s a movie from 2001, directed by Ron Howard. The movie is based on a brilliant mathematician. There is one scene in particular that I empathetically and personally appreciate. The scene displays the walls of the character’s office covered, like wallpaper, with pages upon pages of handwritten math equations. I imagine that to see such a “manic” display would confuse most people. Yet, I can understand, relate and even feel a bit validated by this particular scene.
I have not been able to submit any writing of any quality recently. But it not from lack of trying. I, myself, have pages upon pages of thoughts, rhyming words, notes of encounters, deep feelings and more that my soul wants to share.
Unfortunately, with Lyme, it is not only your physical body that suffers. It also affects your emotional and mental abilities/capacities.
For me personally, medicines are a slimy, slippery slope. The introduction of new medicines or the omission of needed meds can send my brain into a very delicate, unstable, unpredictable whirlwind of dark storms.
In the past ten years, there have been times that I have been so overwhelmed by my brain’s malfunction that I have been dangerous to myself and others. And yes, I have been suicidal.
Once my chemical imbalance has been stabilized after one of these episodes, I am afraid. I am afraid because I don’t remember much of them. I am afraid because it represents a loss of control. I am afraid because it is a period of time where the real me disappears.
Sometimes I have reached out for help and sometimes I haven’t.
Sometimes my brain allows me to seek out a friend or relative; sometimes my brain will go to extreme measures to keep them from knowing.
These past weeks I have been able to recognize that I was on that slippery slope and heading downhill. I contacted my doctor to have blood drawn to check for issues, and I did something else of which I am very proud. I went to Sheriff Ray Allan and asked him to help me make a safety plan. Yup, I am extremely impressed with myself for being honest, realistic and humble enough to share my fear and concern. Ray was fantastic, and I and my family are feeling much better about the future with this additional support and game plan. It was just a few days after meeting with the Sheriff that I received my blood work results: hypothyroidism that requires two medicines to balance my body function. This case of depression (and other symptoms) was validated: Validation always feels wonderful.
I am now on a positive track. The meds are kicking in, and I had a procedure at Dartmouth Hitchcock that is reducing some of my physical pain.
The very first feel-good story that I would like to share is the miracle of the arrival of my first grandchild. My son Joshua and his partner Shannon gave birth to Ryan Hudson Prior. My mother, daughter and I went to visit the young family in the hospital in St. Albans. It was such an overwhelmingly, surreal experience. As I am trying to find words that will do justice to describing the event, I realize that I am shaking with emotion. It’s a good “shaking,” but it does make it difficult to type. Witnessing the love, gentleness, inherent caring and instinctive nature of my son with his own little boy brought me to tears of awe. These two parents, with their first child, have displayed a calm, comforting environment that not only resonates within themselves but carries over to those around them. Observing the soft touch as my son caresses his own son’s face, the soothing voice, and the curiosity and amazement as he plays with his fingers and toes makes my eyes leak a steady stream of warm tears of amazement.
When I held Ryan in my arms, life was perfect. Now, when away from him, I actually feel my body mentally and physically ache wanting to feel his warmth and soft skin back in my embrace. Ahhh, Life is Good, and I am going to do everything I can to stay here and enjoy it.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Growing up in Essex Center in the 1970’s and 1980’s was much like living in Grand Isle in 2019. There wasn’t as much farmland as there is in Grand Isle. But there was plenty of it, some of it right behind my house on Towers Road. I spent many hours in those fields, kicking and chasing a soccer ball, flying kites, cross country skiing, walking through to get to the skating pond or frog catching pond (depending on the time of the year). I shared the field with bobolinks, deer, rabbits and other friends.
When I started college in 1986 and moved to Burlington; I felt like I was in a foreign country, not understanding the culture or language. There were so many people that I felt claustrophobic, but at the same time I felt like I was on the outside of them all.
Have you ever noticed the formation of flock of geese when they are migrating? Have you noticed that sometimes there is one goose who isn’t in formation and seems like it’s always trying to catch up and be part of the group? I felt like that goose. I felt like I should be comfortable in the grouping within the big city of Burlington. But my heart and soul wanted to be by myself back in my small town.
One day I was feeling very lonely and lost, and decided to go for a walk. I went downtown and instead of walking on the main touristy streets; I took to the side roads. It was on a quiet, rundown road that I met one of the most generous people of my life. This man, about in his sixties, was pushing a full shopping cart. I said, “hi” to him and his face lit up as he said “hi” back. He asked me if I would like to see what he had in his cart. Of course, I said yes. He was exuberant as a child showing off their new prize marble. As he picked out each item, he shared the story of where he got it and what it meant to him. He truly appreciated and cherished each one of his treasures.
After quite a long time of talking and laughing over his stories, he looked up at me and paused. He then smiled ear to ear, and told me that if I would accept it; he would like to give me a gift. At first, I hesitated, because I didn’t want to take anything from someone who had so little to begin with. But after seeing his smile and the sparkle in his eyes, I said that I would love it. So, he reached down deep into his cart and pulled out something I had never seen before. It was a plastic white ball about the size of a baseball. The plastic was shaped kind of elegantly with simple designs around the globe, all attached to a small white cord with a plug. I had no idea what it was. But he said to take it home, plug it in and see what it does. It was then that he said that he must be going, smiled and walked away, pushing his cart in front of him. When I got back to campus, I immediately plugged it in. It was the most awesome moment when I heard the sweet song of birds coming out through the ball. I was overwhelmed. Here this man had all of his life belongings with him, and he was so unselfish as to share with me. I will never forget that generosity.
When my kids were born, I would plug the gift into the outlet; and they were thrilled to think that we had our very own special bird that lived in the ball. I guess now that they are adults, I should tell them that there really isn’t a bird in the ball….
To this day, I still have that gift, story and lesson in my mind and heart.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
From November, 2018 to February, 2019 my pituitary gland was malfunctioning. This caused a lot of symptoms, one being extreme, debilitating fatigue. My Mom is my Medical Proxy and caretaker for times that are severe like this.
While in bed at Mom and Dad’s, I received a lot of computer messages from people asking if they could help or come visit me. One example is on Dec. 8, when my friend Mandy asked if I’d like a visitor. I wrote back, “Hi! Too weak for talking, but I want a raincheck.” Her reply, “You’ve got it my friend! Keep your chin up.”
By the time April came around and Carl and I were scheduled for our trip to Virginia, I was gaining strength but honestly very fearful of leaving the house. But there were more reasons to go than to stay: so, I played the odds. I won the bet.
Carl and I stayed a few days at my brother Brad’s house in Woodbridge, Virginia. On April 14, my sister-in-law Sandy asked if we would like to go for a ride to see where Brad used to work. Well of course we did!
Brad is a Marine and worked in Quantico. Sandy commented that there are other things within Quantico that we would see, like the FBI Training Academy. At this news I got silly excited. I said, “No way! I saw on Facebook just last week that a friend of mine is training there!” Sandy laughed and said, “Well, maybe we can see her.” I immediately sent a message to my friend asking if she could meet. We lucked out because it was a Sunday afternoon and she had it off from training. My friend said we could meet in the parking lot of the FBI main building. This was all too funny!! We were both so crazy psyched to see each other. We all busted a gut when Mandy said, “I couldn’t come visit you in Vermont in December but you made it here to Virginia to come visit me.”
The next day Brad brought us to the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Carl and I thought it’d be interesting, but the Museum far exceeded our expectations. It is a phenomenal place.
We walked up on a small crowd listening to a Marine tell the story of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. I was beside myself excited because Brad and I have a connection to one of the Marines involved in this event. See, my Grampa had told us about his brother “Lucky”. His given name was Renford Gagnon.
When he arrived at Iwo Jima, he had to walk across the rocks to get to shore. He sat down for a break on a torpedo on the beach. His superior hollered at him to get off in case it was a booby trap. As he was walking away, the torpedo exploded, knocking him onto his stomach on the beach – but otherwise leaving him unharmed. That is how he earned the name “Lucky”. He was also a “runner”. Wikipedia defines a runner as “… a military courier, a foot soldier responsible for carrying messages during war.” When the decision was made to get a second (and larger) flag for the press photos; Lucky was the runner. He’s the one who brought the new flag to the photo shoot.
As we listened to the Marine tell the story, I also learned that Ira Hayes was part of this event. This excited me even further as one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs is his cover of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” I had always thought that the song was made up; I didn’t know Ira Hayes was a true life Marine.
When we got back to Brad’s house he asked if he could talk to me alone. He was all serious and such; very unlike Brad. He faced me and put his hand out (implying a handshake). I reached out and shook his hand, which held a coin. He said, “This is a Marine Challenge Coin. These coins can’t be bought. A person only has one if it is given to them. They are given when someone does something outstanding for themselves or for others. This is for you. You have challenged yourself above and beyond all expectations to fight your illness and still be here with us. You are an inspiration for so many.”
He went on to say, “I received mine for arranging a military funeral for a friend. I was handed my coin after the funeral.” I love my brother.
But wait, there’s more… I love saying that. Now here is a coincidence...
If you look back to the Islander Facebook page on June 14 at 11 a.m., you will see another link to our family history. Uncle Renford’s niece (and my dad’s first cousin) Sandy came up from Connecticut to visit the site of my great, great grandfather Joe LaRose’s blacksmith shop in South Hero.
I find it mindboggling that at the same time that I was writing this column for The Islander, The Islander posted photos and a story that involved our family history as well.
It’s a freaky cool world out there
I am not sure of the reason. Maybe it was the norm for the ‘70s and ‘80s, maybe the result of his upbringing, or maybe even just his particular personality, but during my childhood my Dad didn’t talk much. It’s humorously ironic because nowadays he’ll talk someone’s ear off if they are willing to listen.
I remember he had to go on business trips quite often for work (IBM). Every time he returned, he brought me back some fancy hotel soaps. A small gesture on his part, but it meant a lot to me.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned more about his work. I can’t even remember how the topic came up. He mentioned that he worked on the electronics for Apollo 11 and some other NASA projects. I didn’t believe him at all.
It turns out he wasn’t pulling my leg! For this column I asked him to explain it briefly. Here’s what he wrote,
“The Apollo 11 BOM (Basic Operating Memory), so many things associated with the government have a TLA (Three Letter Acronym), was designed, built and tested in Essex Jct. The integration with the main computer was done in Poughkeepsie, NY. I was involved, at some level, with all phases. The importance of the program was demonstrated during the integration phase when Poughkeepsie needed support from the memory people. If only one person was needed, they would fly two of us down in separate planes. If one plane crashed, they would still get the help they needed. IBM built three of these systems: one for NASA, one for Goddard Space Institute and one as a spare in the event of a major failure. There is more computing power in a Smartphone than there was in that system.”
I am extremely proud about his accomplishments. The fact that he was so humble and never boasted impressed me. I remember asking him, “Why haven’t you told me this before?” His answer, “You didn’t ask.”
When Carl and I went to the Smithsonian this spring, I was most excited to show him the Apollo 11 exhibit at the Air and Space Museum.
When the day came, we spent the morning at another museum, and then I needed to rest. Carl and I found a park bench so I could lay down. I tried to rest, really, I did…but I was so excited that I just couldn’t relax. After what seemed like forever, I sat up and looked at Carl saying, “I just can’t sleep. Can we go in now?” He smiled at my excitement and said, “Yes Dear.”
When we walked through the doors, I was so geared to find the exhibit that I didn’t want to look at anything else. Carl calmly said, “We will get to it Dear, let’s just look at the things that are along the way.” Frustrated, yet understanding his approach, I agreed.
Just inside the entrance, there was a large exhibit to the right. A lot of people were in the area, but weirdly no one was looking at that one exhibit. With no crowd there, we went there first.
As Carl was reading the exhibit description, a woman about my age walked up to us. She said, “I am sorry to interrupt you, but I just need to share this. My dad worked on this.”
It was an odd moment, yet not the least bit awkward. I looked at her and got all excited myself as I replied, “That is so cool! What did he do?” She replied, “He worked on the electronics.”
Carl and I both had to just about pick our jaws up off the ground. What a coincidence! I blurted out, “My dad worked on the electronics for the Apollo 11!”
I asked her if she would be in a picture with me in front of her dad’s project. She was more than happy about the idea. After the picture she faced me and said, “This means so much to me, thank you.” I could see emotion welling up in her eyes and I asked if she needed a hug. Nodding yes, I held her. While in each other’s arms she said, “I have been walking around feeling lost. My dad and I would come every year to see this. I am alone this time, he passed last year.”
Now both of us were crying. Looking over at Carl, I saw his eyes leaking as well.
We shared names and contact info, and recently Laurie shared more of her story in an email.
“My dad’s name was Seymour Altmark and he was an amazing husband and father, but also a brilliant man who happened to be an electrical engineer. He worked to design the electrical systems of the LEM (that’s what he called it). I wish I had asked more questions of him when I could have. (There is a lesson there, yes?)
Here’s the kicker—my dad was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease in the early 90’s and this awful disease basically sidelined him from engineering work for the rest of his life. I know that if that damn disease didn’t slowly and painfully destroy him, he would have been involved with some other amazing project that would have, like the lunar module, changed the world. “
That day, we said our goodbyes, and Carl and I eventually made it to the Apollo 11 exhibit.
It was closed for remodeling. I was pretty upset, but not for long. I told Carl, “It was like we were supposed to be here for Laurie. I am sorry I couldn’t show you what dad worked on, but I’m really ok with it at the same time.”
Laurie summed it up perfectly in the end of her email.
“Thanks for asking me to do this! I’m sure it’s way may more than you wanted or need, but even with the tears pouring down my face, it felt great to get it down.
There are no coincidences, Julie. Things happen because they are meant to. We were supposed to meet that day and connect over our fathers. It seems this meeting had a dual purpose; for me to give you info for your writing and for me to find my own voice and strength and to begin to write all that is in me. Things happen for a reason.
Let’s stay in touch. -Laurie”.
Everything is Relative
Frustration overwhelms me. I know that the quote I wanted to start this column off with is out there, but I am so geared to find it that it is beyond my reach.
I am sure that I read it in the beginning of “The Qur’an” or “The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk.” Neither of which I was able to read beyond the first chapters.
It wasn’t because the content wasn’t there; it was because my comprehension was not.
Regardless, I do remember adamantly that there was a quote that said something to the extent of, “Everything is Relative.”
I remember because I was so excited to see those words in print, I felt validated.
Since I can remember, I have had the belief that everything is relative. That my pain, sorrows or suffering were on the same level (regardless of the situation) of everyone else in the world. I believed (and still do) that everyone has different challenges but that they are all relative to who we are individually and to the tools that we have been given in our own unique tool bags for this life.
In all honesty, I do also realize that this approach has been a very significant coping mechanism for me. How else could anyone possibly explain such grand inequality within the human race? A large part of my heart has always needed a way to rationalize why so much suffering exists from newborns to the elderly; across the globe.
This theory, this approach to life, is why on this week I am breaking away from the story of our trip to Virginia and expressing what is bursting at my heart strings and fingertips to share with others.
I actually wrote this column on Memorial Day. Earlier that day I was driven to make this Facebook post:
“I was just thinking about how very different it must have been - between the safety and beauty of our lives in Vermont and the fear and devastation on the soils of war. Memorial Day is a fantastic day to pay tribute!
But... kinda along the lines of ‘don’t only tell your mom you love her on mother’s day; tell her as often as you can’: I believe that (despite whether or not we agree with war and all related issues) we need to recognize those who fought for what they believed in. And we need to recognize those who went to fight because they had no other - or limited other options.
Every single time I see someone with a hat/button/tattoo or any other indication that they served; I make a point to go out of my way to say, “Thank You.”
I’ve heard it said, you can’t understand something that you haven’t experienced.
I can’t begin to understand it...but I have witnessed a lot of the aftermath and pain and suffering of those who fought, their families and friends. Thank You to all the Veterans. My biggest wish for you is Peace.”
But my reflecting didn’t end there. That same night I was scared and anxious as all get out because of what was scheduled for the next morning. Last Tuesday, at 8 a.m., Channel 5 would be arriving at the house to gather footage for a feature on the Vermont Pinup Girl Calendar 2020. It may come as a surprise to many that despite my lack of inhibition or shyness; I am extremely uncomfortable with public speaking or being atop a “soapbox” of any sort.
But as I was freaking out Monday night, something in my gut brought me back to read what I had written just hours earlier on Facebook. Rereading my own words, but in a different state of mind; I was humbly reminded that I was stressing over problems that were really miniscule in the greater scheme of things.
How is it that I was in such a panicked state about an opportunity to help others? How selfish was I being in letting my own insecurities overwhelm me to the point that it might affect the final outcome of something so important?
I took a deep breath and tried to put my fear into perspective.
What about the fear of the Veterans that I just wrote about?
Or that of my friend after recently losing the love of her life at such a young age?
Or my brother’s fear of letting the world know that he is gay?
How about my own younger brothers who are Marines?
Or my Mother’s fear in persisting through a marriage to an alcoholic (who has been clean 30 years now).
It was in taking a step back and admiring the strength and courage that others have displayed… That I embarrassingly realized that my current situation wasn’t so horrific. And, I also realized that I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t dig a little deeper in my own personal toolbox.
It took some time digging around to find the tools that I was looking for. But I ended up finding them right next to my saddle. “Saddle” you might ask? Yup, see I feel that we add tools to the bag as we journey through life. I added a saddle when my son gave me this plaque for a gift about a year ago. It’s one of my favorites lately, and honestly, I know it will be a favorite forever.
The first day and night of our vacation was spent in a parking lot by the Cebco Village Mart in Marion, PA. The good news was, we were extremely blessed to have landed in a most exceptional town. Every person we met helped us with everything from knowledge sharing to food to moral support. The bad news was, the mechanical problems turned out to be more complex then Carl initially thought.
First thing in the morning we traveled (very slowly) the eight miles from the Cebco to the auto parts store. Carl had been in touch, and they knew we were coming. We pulled into the parking lot, and Carl asked me to please go in and talk to them while he put on some work clothes to begin the repair.
The employees, Dave, Gin (short for Virginia) and Tom, had seen us drive in. When I walked through the door, they had a warm and empathic welcome at the ready. I asked were we should park to do the maintenance and possibly stay the night. Dave pointed out an area and I expressed our appreciation. He replied, “Helping you is no problem. It’s just what my daddy taught me. My dad would take care of anyone who needed help. So, you just let us know what you need.”
I mentioned that we needed a siphon hose and Gin spoke up. “My father has a length of hose he had just put into recycling. I’ll call him up and have him bring it on over.”
Again overwhelmed with emotion, I asked, “are either of you huggers?” They both replied, “normally no, but from you, yeah.” How cool is that?
I went out to Carl and gave him the update. He told me that we needed some wood pieces to stack up and drive the RV onto (to create space to work under it). We were in a business area, and across the street was a huge auto dealership. I crossed the four lanes of highway and found the “do-it-all man” Carroll. He was extremely helpful and led me to his tool shop where he had more than enough lumber to do the job. He told me to just help myself and if we needed anything else to let him know.
Later, needing a tool, I did walk back over but was unable to find him. I went into the main building to the receptionist desk and met Billie Jo. We hit it off immediately and even exchanged contact information. She knew where Carrol was and called him on his phone. Again, his attitude and support impressed me. Before heading back to Carl, I asked Carroll if I could talk to his supervisor to tell him or her just how great he was to these Vermonters down on their luck. He led me to his boss, the owner of the business! I praised Carroll, and then the owner thanked me for the feedback. He said that if we need anything at all, Carroll would be there for us. Feeling indebted I asked if I could rake and do some cleanup on their property in exchange. The owner wouldn’t have anything to do with that. Instead he offered us a free lunch in the restaurant area.
I went back to Carl and shared the latest events. He said that Gin had brought the hose out to him. She also said that her mother really wanted to make us some dinner or some cookies, but they were too busy preparing for moving to a new home.
Carl continued to work on the RV, and when I wasn’t needed to assist, I walked the short distance to the railroad tracks.
I placed a penny, nickel, dime and quarter on the tracks. My parents used to stop by the railroad tracks at times so my siblings and I could do the very same thing. If you have never done this before and are curious, here’s a photo of what the train does to the coins.
Over the next two days, Carl continued to work on the RV. Unfortunately, there were problems with the wrong parts being delivered, a malfunctioning part and quite a bit of frustration. Dave and all the employees in the parts store continued to go out of their way to help.
A guy who lived next door came over and asked if he could help. He had been playing basketball with his family, a refreshing sight to see. Carl didn’t need any help, so I started talking with him. He was from Alaska (lived there 20+ years) and moved to where he is now so that his wife and their three kids could be close to his wife’s mother. So honorable.
At one point we needed more ice for the RV refrigerator. The nearest store was too far away for me to walk. So, I went back to see Billie Jo, and she filled a bag of ice for us from the restaurant. She and I continued to talk and discussed people and how everyone has their own challenges/battles. She shared a favorite saying of hers: “Do not judge.” Simple but oh so meaningful.
All this time Carl and I were going into the parts store to wash our hands and use their bathrooms. Before long Dave said, “You are family now, don’t walk all the way to the front door every time; come in the side door.”
Again, trying to show my appreciation but also to get a laugh, I found a big push broom (like school janitors use). I started pushing it up and down the aisles. Everyone laughed, except for the manager who hadn’t met us yet. He didn’t know what to make of the situation and made me stop.
Eventually, all the parts, tools and Carl’s knowledge had the RV running like a top. We decided to spend the night (it was already late afternoon) and leave in the morning.
As they closed shop, before they went home, our three dear friends came out to say goodbye.
A most special goodbye came from Tom. He explained to me that he is a Shriner. My favorite part of any parade is the Shriner cars! As he handed me a pretty blue pouch, he explained that it held one of few special Shriner coins that he had purchased for gifts. He wanted me to have it. So touched and proud, I felt like I was standing ten feet tall.
I said goodbye to Gin and found out we are both Scorpio’s and a year apart in age. We laughed about the temperament of a Scorpio and God help anyone who ticks us off!
Dave came by before he left and for someone that was not a hugger, gave a pretty amazing one.
Before calling it a night, I went to the snack bar next door to get a creemee. I had $2 on me, and a small size, with tax came to exactly that. I paid and the girl proceeded to make a pretty darn large small creemee for me.
She then turned and asked, “Would you like sprinkles on it?” I replied, “But I don’t have the money.” She looked at me smiling. She paused and then asked again, “Would you like sprinkles on it?”
I laughed as I realized that she too was being extra kind and giving. With thanks in my voice I said, “If some colored sprinkles fell on it, that would be ok.”
What an amazing journey! The first three days of our vacation were far from what we planned. But like I told Carl as we left, “You know, we have experienced more human kindness in the last three days then some people may encounter in a lifetime. I don’t know about you, but I feel so energized and have a renewed faith in mankind.”
Tom and I with the Shriner coin he gave me.
My Mom shares a story sometimes of the first day our family lived in Essex Center after moving from Jericho. She laughs as she tells others how the 8-year-old me went for a walk. When I came home and she questioned where I went, I told her that I visited every neighbor’s house and knocked on their door to introduce myself and to get to know them.
No; shyness is not an issue for me. I especially enjoy talking to strangers and listening to them tell their stories.
Last month Carl, my partner, and I went on a vacation to Virginia. Along the way, the RV began having mechanical problems. After we passed Scranton, PA (30,000 lbs of bananas), things got worse. The RV acted like it was starving for fuel.
We ended up pulling over in a truck stop because the problem had escalated to the point that we could only go 35 miles per hour uphill on the interstate. We saw a sign that said, “Next Exit ¾ Mile.” Considering all options, we decided to go for it. We got off at the exit, which had a gas station/store a stone’s throw away. We pulled into a Mennonite Nursery gravel parking area across from the Cebco Village Mart in Chambersburg, PA.
Carl began troubleshooting, and I walked over to the store (quite similar to a Mobil station here in Vermont). I was pleasantly greeted by a husband and wife team, Chip and Cathy, and their friend Jerry.
I asked them all a mess of questions, from where we could park to where we could get parts. All three of them were extremely patient and went out of their way to help us.
Cathy gave us permission to park right where we were across the street and Chip and Jerry provided us with the parts store information. I walked back to Carl and shared all the info. He proceeded to call the recommended parts store and talked to Abram. Abram lived close by, so he said he’d bring the part to us when his shift was done at 6:00 p.m.
Coincidently, Abram’s brother showed up at the auto parts store, Advance Auto, so Abram had him bring us the part so that we’d have it earlier. Unfortunately, Carl ended up needing another part, but Abram helped on that one and delivered it to us after his shift. Now this part of the story, involving Advance Auto, will come into play in later stories as well. Both young men were extremely polite and accommodating. It was very refreshing to deal with such promising teenagers.
While Carl was working on the RV, I went back to the store and talked with Cathy. We discussed differences between the food there and Vermont. Of course one huge difference is the maple syrup. She strongly informed me that their syrup isn’t anything like ours; I laughed knowingly agreeing.
I then ordered a cheeseburger and fries. While waiting for the food I talked with her husband and Jerry. The conversation was fantastic, honest, open, positive and inspiring. I have to say this is a recurring theme through our entire vacation. I felt like Carl and I were in an episode of Twilight Zone where everyone was so nice that it was too good to be true…I kept waiting for all of them to turn into zombies and eat us.
When a customer came in and took Chip away from the conversation, Jerry and I talked among ourselves for quite a bit. Admittedly, he was bit unique looking as his facial bone structure was different from the norm, and at times it was difficult understanding what he was saying.
We hit it off from the start and found we had very similar ethics and approaches to life. We discussed the youth of today and how many of them don’t seem to have either the parental or personal motivation to get into the working field. I commented how my some of my siblings and I lied about our age in order to get a job. Back then you could get away with that. Some of us started working at McDonalds at age 15 even though the legal age was 16. Heck, my older brothers would get up at 4:00 am and hitchhike to work or ride a bike the 4 miles (in the dark) to prep the facility for breakfast, right down to cleaning the toilets.
We also discussed our commonality in appreciating the small things in life, positive attitudes, and being thankful for what we have instead of being angry at what we don’t. It was then that I shared some of my challenges, and he responded with sharing some of his.
Jerry explained that he was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS). According to NORD, TCS is a rare genetic disorder characterized by distinctive abnormalities of the head and face. Craniofacial abnormalities tend to involve underdevelopment of the zygomatic complex, cheekbones, jaws, palate and oral cavity (mouth).”
Jerry shared that he was born without ears and with structural issues in his face. He lifted his hat and hair and showed me: no ears. I never would have known.
When I asked him how he can hear and talk, he explained the surgery he had. Doctors implanted a microphone in one ear and a receiver in the other ear. He also has (very expensive) fake ears that he can glue on and take off when he wants. But he said, “I don’t wear them. Not only is the glue horrible, but I just figure God made me this way, why would I want to change?” He also told me, “God gave me what I needed to do the things that I need to do. I have two eyes, two arms and hands and two legs. I am not defined by my disability. People need to put things behind and move forward.” He is so freaking cool!
We talked until my food was ready and Chip called me to the counter. I put my credit card in the reader to pay. It showed $5.35 on the amount, and I said, “Is that all it is?” He said, “You are all set.” I thanked him (thinking he gave me a discount) and left my card in the reader. Still nothing happened. He repeated, “You are all set.” So, I looked back at the reader to see if I had to press something, and still nothing happened. Cathy pipped up, “He’s telling you that you are all set. It’s all taken care of. Have a good night and we hope you sleep well. Oh, and I added some fried corn for you in case you like it or have never had it.”
Dang, I was just overwhelmed with appreciation! I asked them if they were huggers. They all adamantly said, “No.” But Jerry did reach out to shake my hand, and Chip gave me a fist bump.
This was only the first day of our trip! I have so many more stories of random acts of kindness and beauty to share; it’s hard to only share one piece at a time.
Before submitting this column to The Islander, I reached out to these new friends to talk about what I was writing and ensure that they were comfortable with it. At the same time, I asked if they had anything they would like to share.
Jerry told me that is very proud of himself and doesn’t see himself as handicapped. He shared that two years ago he met his biological mother for the first time! They now have a very special, loving relationship. Jerry said, “She is absolutely beautiful inside and out.”
He is so proud that he said he was honored if a picture of him and his mother were in the column. See, she also has TCS and she has been a fighter from the beginning as well. Jerry told me with pride, “She would never go on disability. She did whatever she could.”
Cathy wrote; “Think positive, thank God every day when you wake up! Spread love, joy and happiness it doesn’t cost anything to be nice! It was a pleasure meeting you and your other half I’m glad you got home safe. I showed everyone your calendar they all got a kick out of it! God Bless and good luck on your article. If you need anything else just ask.”
And, as I am writing this Cathy called me on the phone. We talked more about our meeting and I thanked her again for her kindness. She said, “It’s what I learned from my Grandfather. He died from cancer, but he lived his life to the fullest.”
I have to admit, this hit me hard. My Grampa was and is still an inspiration to me. My Grampa, RIP, lived his life to the fullest. I miss him.
Who would have thought that being stuck overnight at a gas station would be so heartwarming and fun?
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she contacted by a tick bite on Nov. 1, 2008.
She has recently published the “Vermont Pin-Up Girl” calendar in an effort to raise funds for Vermont Lyme, www.vtlyme.org You can purchase the calendar at many local businesses and online by emailing email@example.com or view the calendar online on facebook, @Vermont Pinup Girl Calendar.
The Islander will periodically publish “Julie’s World” to share her unique perspective of the world we share.
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she