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Brody Leven @brodyleven
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Here are my parents at dinner last night in Ethiopia. They are nearing the end of their 10-day stay. It's the first overseas trip they've taken since their honeymoon, to Italy and Greece, 45 years ago. Now they're in Africa, Thanks to Margie. Who's Margie?
Margie is my parents' neighbor in the woods of rural northeastern Ohio. My parents have lived in the same house for 35 years. It's the house I was raised in. And Margie lived next door all through my childhood. When I go home for Thanksgiving, she's still there.
Their houses are in the woods, so it's not like they can see one another out the window. But they're still neighbors. And ever since Margie's husband died, probably 15 or 20 years ago, my parents have really stepped up to help her around her house. Margie is at least 80.
So when Margie needs a lightbulb changed, or some large branches cut down, or help carrying something, my parents help her. My dad plows her driveway all winter with his tractor. But Margie's husband is the one who drove them everywhere. Margie learned how to drive late in life.
When she was ready to learn to drive, my dad drove her to buy a car, and taught her how to drive. She prefers sports cars. This makes no sense, living on a dirt road in Lake Erie's snow belt of NE Ohio. But dad still plows her driveway, all winter.
Margie also loves to travel. As long as I can remember, she's gone on a few massive trips every year. She goes all over the world--Svalbard, Antarctica, Patagonia, Eastern Africa. She seems to have been everywhere. And at 80+, she still goes on a few big trips each year.
The good neighbors they are, my parents usually drive her to the airport, almost an hour away. When she returns, she'll sometimes offer to make dessert and put on a slideshow for my parents. When I was little and lived there, my sister and I would be invited, too. We rarely went.
In the past 15 years, my sister and I have, individually, traveled all over the world. My sister has worked in places like Alaska, Antarctica, and Afghanistan. I've climbed and skied in places like Uganda, Romania, Colombia, and China. My parents, meanwhile, watched from Ohio.
Each Christmas, after my family has exchanged gifts and eaten. She calls before she comes, and arrives in a Christmas sweater and holding gifts. She sometimes sits down, rarely even for a cup of tea. She's in a hurry to get back home. But she lives alone.
My parents will give her some little gift: olive oil, or a book, or some candles. She'll hand us a bag of gifts and a box of homemade cookies--she makes 10 different kinds and gives us a sample of each--before rushing out the door, through the snow, over the hill, to her house.
This is the only time I see Margie each year. But she doesn't seem to age much, she's still spry and still traveling. Last Christmas, it was a little different after she left.
My mom and dad sat next to one another, in the same living room on the same couch they've had my entire life. Each year, they open Margie's gifts, usually a book, maybe a donation in their names, and read her card. They opened her card and started reading.
My mom's face got a little twisted and she showed it to dad. She just said, "well this is awkward." This wasn't her normal reaction to a Christmas card. I asked her to read it out loud.
"Dear Barry and Gloria, You have been fantastic neighbors over many years. While I have traveled the world and you have watched your kids do the same, you've stayed home and helped me so much. I don't know how long I'm going to be around, and I want you to have something...
"...while you're still able to enjoy it. Enclosed, please find a catalog to the company that I use for all of my travels. I want you to choose a trip of your own, valued up to $12000 per person. I suggest everyone visit Africa at some point in life, but choose as you will.
"When you've made your choice, please let me know and I will put you in touch with Eric at the agency. He's taken good care of me for many years and will treat you with the same respect.
Merry Christmas,
My parents were never particularly close with Margie, even though they've lived a hundred feet apart for 35 years. It takes a certain type of person to choose to live in the woods. Generally, not a highly social one. My parents and Margie both fit that mold.
My mom doesn't know how to act after reading the card. I instantly say, "Sooo, if you cut that in half, Chelsea and I can come, too!" My mom says, "Oh shut up." My dad says, "Well, I guess I'm plowing her driveway for the rest of my life."
They decide, "This is too much, we can't accept it. We aren't going." Meanwhile, dad is already flipping through the catalog of trips. Kenya Safari for $14k. Canada wolf watching for $9k.
Mom hasn't worked a job since I was born. Dad, a teacher for disabled students for 35 yrs.
Mom calls her sister. My aunt tells her to put some boots on, go over the hill, and talk to Margie. Mom says Margie is cooking Christmas dinner. See, Margie has no family. None at all. But she cooks a massive multi-course dinner, dresses up, and enjoys it in her decorated house.
But my aunt convinces mom and dad to walk over. So into the snow they go, disappearing over the hill. They come back 15 minutes later. "I guess we're going," mom says. "Margie wants us to go. She doesn't have much, but her dad's investments from long ago have paid for...
"...her trips for years and years. Even after her husband died, she's continued to travel thanks to these investments. She says she's thought about it for a long time and that it's time to give this to us." Holy smokes, my parents are actually gonna go on a trip.
So they start looking through the catalog, wide-eyed. They're asking my sister and I--me visiting from my Utah home, my sister from Alaska--about various places we've visited. Where we think they should go. "Korea? Nepal? How about Madagascar? Brody, haven't you been to Lofoten?"
They start looking at various places, but it's becoming too much. They're looking at Alaska, and Canada, and Chelsea and I are both saying, "No! You've been there! Go somewhere you wouldn't otherwise go." So they start mentioning Tibet, Japan, Easter Island. It's too much.
Mom and dad decide to, individually, make a list of their top three destinations. When they do that, they'll compare, and choose based on that. They take a few MONTHS going through the catalog, the website, understanding this is a once-in-a-lifetime-experience.
After the months of research, they put their lists side-by-side. They are wildlife people. They love wolves, whales, bears, snow, mountains. They don't do heat, fish, beaches, churches, or choirs. I wasn't encouraging any specific place. Neither was Chelsea.
At the top of both of their lists? Ethiopia. I was so, so, so proud. I couldn't believe it. They were pleased to go to Africa, since that is what Margie wanted, but to find a part of Africa that they didn't know existed: huge mountains, cold temperatures, Ethiopian wolves.
Wolves have been my mom's favorite animal since forever. I was raised with photographs of wolves all over the house. Books, statues, obsession. She's only seen them in person twice, both times in Alaska, her favorite place.
Today is day 9 of their 10-day trip with this fancy tour company. At 68, they're the youngest people on the trip. They're eating food they've never had, socializing with people (!), drinking coffee (!), and even trying wine (!). None of which are things they do.
Like my sister and I, they're experiencing the joys of international travels and cultures with which they're unfamiliar. The other folks on their trip are like Margie, having gone on many many of these trips over the years. They're the least-traveled of them all.
They're not very good with their phones, but this morning my mom was finally able to figure out how to turn on the wifi and connect in their final hotel. "Update just got power. Saw 6 Ethiopian wolves. All individually. Got very close. Colobus monkeys birds galor and more...
"...Dad got a bad belly today. He is laying down. I'll now go on a guided walk. Not sure what's wrong. I started dioxmox yesterday he didn't. We went to 14300 today." SHE.SAW.WOLVES.
the odds of her seeing wolves were wildly low. She wanted it more than anything. She loves them. And though Margie has never given my parents more than a $50 bill or a bottle of olive oil from her trip to Israel or more sweet cookies, she just gave them something bigger.
She gave them the ability to see wolves. She opened their eyes to travel. She offered them an insight into the lives of their children.
And those are things that no amount of snowplowing will ever be able to repay, Dad.
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