Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not Whistling Dixie Yet (Philly through Wilmington)

Top: Dale & Eileen Dallabrida, Dot & Joe Dallabrida and me in Wimington on Wednesday night
Middle: Sally Todorow and me outside Walter Hagen Elementary school on Wednesday afternoon
Bottom: Brett, Mike, me, Ann & Jack Schoen in Brookhaven on Tuesday night

By my calculations I had three more days left to enjoy being north of the Mason-Dixon line.. Beyond that the Maryland/Delaware border loomed and with it, undoubtedly secessionists three deep wherever I would look. What? It's not 1859? Sorry, I got caught up in a Ken Burns documentary for a second there.

The weather was threatening rain on Tuesday as I left Philly, but it was just that - threat. The day stayed dry and I walked peacefully through Southwest Philly, out through Darby and then along an endless stretch of Macdade Blvd which eventually brought me to the outskirts of Brookhaven where I would lay my sunhat for the night.

Within a few minutes or arriving at Jack & Ann's Schoen's house, I experience a touch of deja vu. Ranch style house in the Philadelphia suburbs? Check. Phillies game on in the family room? Check. A mother who is waiting on me hand and foot to make sure I'm comfortable? Check. Am I absolutely sure I haven't been transported back to my parent's house in Phoenixville?

I assure myself that can't be the case. When I was in Phoenixville someone made me dinner every night and I didn't have to go to work. That is nothing like what my life is like ... wait a second. Doh!

Despite the similarities to my family, the Schoens are a family unit all their own. Jack and my mother worked together for a time at Ardmore Presbyterian Church and that is how I got connected with them. Ann took care of me just as well as my mother would have. She cooked me dinner. She made me brownies. She asked if I needed any laundry done. If I slipped at any point of the night and called her Joanne, I apologize. But I think I kept my doting mothers straight. It was nice to feel so at home at a place that wasn't my home. Ann's son Brett stopped by so he and I could have a youngest son summit and then his friend Mike came over as well, leading to a cigar smoking session on the back deck. While we solved the world's problems over cigars (like Clinton, I didn't inhale) the Phillies were splitting a double-header with the Marlins, inching every closer to a NL East Pennant. I figured I would cash in and go to sleep while everything was still working in my favor. I had to keep this north-of-the-Mason-Dixon line mojo going, especially since Wednesday I would be addressing the youth of this nation (albeit on a slightly smaller scale than Obama a few weeks ago).

There are words that could aptly describe the industrial corridor between Chester and Wilmington, but beautiful and bucolic are not two of them. I spent much of my day along that corridor on my way to David Harlan Elementary School in North Wilmington. Sally Todorow had invited me to talk to her 5th grade class about my walking journey and my experiences moving to Zimbabwe at the same age her students were now. I was happy to oblige, especially since Sally is my friend Jude's aunt. She had found out about my trip after I stayed with Jude on that first night.

I saw it as my duty to share some of my road wisdom with the 5th graders of North Wilmington, even if it was less widsom and more repackaged platitudes I picked up from podcasts. Just kidding. I was looking forward to my return to the classroom if only for the chance to answer their questions about why someone would be crazy enough to walk 1500 miles and not get paid for it. As it turns out, my return to the classroom was really a return to the auditorium. The other two 5th grade classes had heard about a Z List celebrity visiting the school and had asked to be included. So there I was looking out upon 70 eager young minds, about 65 of which had their hand up to ask a question.

I'm proud to say that I had enough time to answer almost all their questions. I was even asked about my age and was given a look of such incredulity when I told them I was 36 that I will cherish it forever. For the record, the girl asking the question would have guessed 25. She gets my belated thanks for making me feel young again. Now if I could just convince my joints of the same thing.

Over the hour I was with the students we had a great time. I showed them pictures of me in Zimbabwe, I regaled them with stories of corporal punishment in schools there and I told them honestly why I decided to take this journey. After so many afternoons of simply walking and writing, spending time with kids was a really nice change of pace. Thanks to Sally and the other teachers at David Harlan Elementary School for including me in their day.

It was time for my last supper while still behind Union lines. What better place to sup than Delaware - the first state. My dinner companions for the evening were Dale and Eileen Dallabrida and Dale's parents Joe and Dot. First the deja vu of the night before and then dinner with a small, loving grandmother named Dot. If I wasn't so sure I'd planned this journey myself, I would think I am in an episode of This Is Your Life. For those of you who don't know, one of my grandmothers was named Dot. Well, Dot to her friends. Nana Dot to her grandchildren. She died in 1996 and is buried in a peaceful plot of ground not far from her beloved Lake Fairley. So I admit to being very happy to have a chance to share the table with another Dot, especially one who reminds me so much of someone I loved.

Dale and I worked together at Geneva Global, but in different departments. It says a lot about the sense of community engendered by that company that I would feel comfortable emailing a former colleague who I didn't even work closely with two years after last seeing him and say, "Would you mind letting me stay with you for a night." Dale's reply was a quick yes. Such was the spirit of those who worked there.

I'll say it here for the record: I don't think I will ever be a part of a company where its work force got along as well and cared about each other as much as Geneva Global. I worked there for three years and it spring boarded my life in a positive direction which I, quite frankly, almost sabotaged only two weeks in. Thanks to the care of Steve Beck to reach out and convince me to return, and then to the mentorship of my boss Simon Barnes and the friendship of others like Endel, Carolyn and so many others I left Geneva Global a healthier, more confident person than when I arrived. I want my co-workers and friends to know I appreciate that.

For Dale and I, the evening was a chance to get to know one another. His wife Eileen put on a wonderful dinner and Dale and I and his parents shared stories over a glass of wine. Dale was first a musician and then a newspaper man before going on to other opportunities. I can relate to one of those professions but only be in awe of the other. I was impressed that he managed to support himself solely as a musician through his late 20s. He traveled all over the East Coast, writing songs and playing bass for the band Bad Sneakers. He was following his bliss and doing what he loved.

It has almost been a full month that I have been on the road, and the dinners I share with different families every night never cease to be a source of enjoyment for me. I appreciate the work that goes into serving them and the kindness that under girds inviting me into a house and sharing that nightly ritual with me. It is a wonderful way to get to know one another. Even though my night in Wilmington was just one of many, it was definitely my privilege to be a part of the Dallabrida family for those evening hours. I might not be whistling Dixie yet, but the tune I am whistling is certainly one of contentment and gratitude.


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