Stafford: What I did on my spring vacation

CHICAGO — It was one of those March days when, despite a valiant effort, the warmth of the sun in a cloudless sky wasn’t quite a match for the chilly wind.

We’d stopped at a shop north of the Bahia Temple on Chicago’s North Shore.

Knowing my wife would be shopping for shoes, I’d brought a book along and headed for a bench along a wall I hoped would offer enough protection from the wind to make outdoor reading while basking possible.

A step toward the bench, an aroma hit me and triggered a memory of a cartoon in which a hungry wolf on his way to some sinister errand wanders past a restaurant, catches a whiff and, entranced, begins floating in the air with his eyes closed toward its source.

I soon was in the Convito Café and Market, where I hoped to find a bowl of soup to warm me and enough of something else to tide me over until late afternoon, when we were to meet my Mom, who turns 95 this week, for a meal.

Unsure of which soup to get, I sought the expert opinion of one of two middle age women whose own presentations matched that of the food nearly so neatly arranged inside the glass deli counters.

In a voice as warm as soup itself, she disclosed that the potato leek was always a treat and that I could, indeed, order it in the dining room if I’d like.

A few minutes alone at a table made me feel slightly outclassed by the cost of the wines on the menu, which I wasn’t going to partake in anyway. There also was the of the toney North Shore crowd in which I felt I didn’t quite belong, no offense intended to them.

Abandoning the table-for-1, I got the soup to go, along with a small plastic bowl of julienned vegetables lightly coated with dressing recommended by the second woman, who proved to be as good a source of advice as the first.

Although the small outside table was in the shade, I moved the chair into the sun. A sip of soup, smooth as silk, warmed me to the point that I knew this would be one of those simple pleasure moments that would make the visit memorable.

Which is why I decided it should be the first part of my report to you all about what I did on my small pleasures Spring Vacation.

Down the hall from my mother’s comfortable apartment in a senior care center, I found the stuffed animal dog trapped between a handrail and the wall, as it has been for years. So, I took a picture with my Smart phone and sent my daughter a text reading: Dog held hostage at nursing home.

A few minutes later, on the other side of the hall, I attended the staff’s annual care review my mother. It was another unexpected pleasure of the trip.

I appreciate the instinct of all of you now reaching for pens or keyboards to advise me that if a highlight of vacation is a care conference, it’s time for me to either get a life or begin sampling the pharmacopeia widely available not only in prescription but over- and even under-the-counter.

On the other hand, what I learned at the care conference was this: My mother was being cared for by people who care for and know her.

Vitals good except in moments of emotional upset, which is true for all of us. Habits excellent with regular walks, an eye toward her diet, and participation in the social programs available – as well as the regular bridge club, in which I suspect my mother continues to use kings, jacks, queens and lowly trump 2s to club into submission anyone who underestimates her skills, though in charming fashion.

Not only was the meeting as thorough as the thrashings I received at her hands at the card table in my youth, but in the room with a caring nurse and thorough social worker was a guy whose title and name I didn’t get but who gets my mom in spades.

He ticked details of my mother’s fearless march into older age with the detail of a baseball stats geek. His obvious regard for her was impressive to the point that I almost passed him a note providing my mother’s size should I be incapacitated during a bra sale, so he could carry out the duties customarily assigned to me, the younger son.

About him, I have only one slight reservation. He self-identifies as a Cubs fan.

Chicagoans bear an extra burden the rest of us are spared. In addition to death and taxes, they have to deal with the Dan Ryan Expressway, some stretches of which is to city expressways what the Aliens series is to sci-fi horror.

We ended up on it when I took a wrong turn, which, given the behavior of the drivers on it, is the only reason anyone ever is on. Those who have not visited since COVID should know that it now has been turned into a kind of laboratory in which people regularly experiment with methods of counteracting every principle and device involved with automotive safety 24/7.

I was sure a group of three of four drivers were weaving in and out of traffic wearing virtual reality goggles being tested for the release of a new game, “The Driving Dead,” a kind of sequel to the wildly successful television series.

Oddly, I’ve not found a better place to see the downtown lights of Chicago than the Dan Ryan. Then again, from hell, purgatory looks a lot like heaven.

This whole Dan Ryan fiasco meant we’d be heading home on Lake Shore Drive and portions of the Indiana Toll Road we’d missed on the way up due to my ill-fated turn.

All that seemed like a good idea until traffic began backing up half a mile before Museum of Science and Industry, the turnoff to get on the Chicago Skyway and the Toll Road.

As four lanes of traffic became one, I felt the first pressure on my bladder from downing too much coffee at breakfast time.

Fine, I told myself, I’ll be patient. And while my mind tried to reassure me that the next bit of construction, in which only three lanes narrowed to one, was good news, my bladder wasn’t buying it, and I began focusing my mind on an image of the hallway in back of the Speedway at the first Crown Point exit off I-65.

Much of this drama unfurled in the perfumed air of Gary, Ind.

In a moment of panic, I imagined that, next to the red light that comes on when the gas tank is running low, my car had next to it a yellow warning light to warn the operator of the danger of bladder overflow. For similar reasons, as I approached the station I was more worried about my physiological response should that last traffic light turned amber than if it turned red.

Fortunately, I did not have to find out.

Which leads to the final thing I learned about any Spring Vacation.

When it comes to traffic, they’ll get you coming and going.

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