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A year ago today my father, Frank Joseph Breen, Sr., passed away from complications of a stroke. He’d been in either the hospital or a home since late April, with no sign of improvement and no real hope of recovery. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t move his left side, and didn’t speak well. He had no control of his bathroom functions, which was a source of great pain and embarrassment to him, yet he’d discuss it loudly and profanely with his family and with the medical staff. He became more disoriented as the weeks wore on and suffered dementia toward the end. He had just turned 77 years old on June 14.

My brother and his family had arrived from St. Louis on Thursday for what we knew would be a farewell visit with Dad, although we had no idea how long Dad might hang on. On Saturday morning, the home called to say Dad was being moved to the hospital because of problems with breathing. By 7 a.m., the ICU nurse contacted me about permission to perform some function that would help his respiration. Dad had told us for years never to prolong any suffering, and he had a “do not resuscitate” order. I confirmed that we didn’t want anything done beyond making Dad comfortable. The nurse suggested his family should come.

Every time my brother visited from St. Louis, Dad always tried to get all four of his children together, preferably with the grandkids as well. It was hard to accomplish. My brother who lives locally has an erratic work schedule, I usually wasn’t available for the big King’s Island hoopla that Dad wanted to throw every time, Diamondqueen had things with her own kids to schedule. It was one of those little gifts of life, and a minor miracle, that all four of Dad’s children were at his bedside when he died.  We entered his room in the ICU expecting to be there all of the day and possibly all night or longer; but Dad was gone before noon. I tried to tell him that we were there and rubbed his shoulder sometimes, the way he’d asked me to recently and even going back to childhood. I always had strong hands and a “feel” for giving massages. We watched the various numbers on the screen go up and down while he lay there silently. Finally the numbers plummeted and we couldn’t see his chest move at all. The nurse came in to confirm that he was gone.

It was a relief. He was so miserable from the effects of the stroke. The evening when the stroke had taken him down, he was supposed to have gone out to dinner with several neighbors who were his friends. He was extremely active over the years, even after he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and had a couple visits a year to the hospital to be checked out for abnormal bleeding.

I was glad he was free and out of misery. I was especially happy that his children had been there to see him off. I admit I was relieved that he’d died naturally and I’d never had to kill him, which had seemed a possibility many times during the years when he was violently intoxicated, especially during my teen years when the psychological abuse was so damaging. At the same time, I wasn’t sure until he’d lost all his capacity to move and get around that he wouldn’t kill someone himself, either out of anger or because of drunk driving, although he’d been dry since the late 1980s. There was always an electrical charge of danger about my father, christened The Mad Monk by his co-workers at the Cincinnati Water Works. That he died in such a peaceful fashion was a blessing for everyone–and for him most of all.

We never got the storms overnight Friday into Saturday, at least not in Berlin, Ohio. It was gray out, but the pavement was dry. I personally felt the dreary adrenalin drain that always comes on the morning of the last day of vacation when the excitement is over and you’re heading home. We’d lightened our load for the one night at the Comfort Suites, so it wasn’t that hard to get packed up. We dined across the road at the Farmstead Restaurant for their breakfast buffet, where everything was tasty but often blindingly sweet. Example: killer cinnamon rolls, but the icing on top was an inch thick. I saw bowls of something that looked like chocolate pie. I don’t know what it actually was; absolutely delicious, but what I thought might be meringue was another thick, sweet cream of some kind. Fortunately I had enough sense to counter the sugar with scrambled eggs and sausages.

J.Hooligan was thrilled to try the cinnamon rolls, too, but was cross-eyed sick after just one (and they aren’t typically huge rolls, more dinner roll size). There was a concoction made with Oreo cookies, but J. had to give up halfway through. S.Hooligan, on the other hand, continued her rotten ways from the day before and decided she didn’t like the good bacon from the buffet, so her mother brought plate after plate of purple grapes. S. spotted a giant gumball machine as soon as we entered the restaurant, and her mother said she could have a gumball if she behaved during breakfast. She didn’t. In fact, she outdid herself with obnoxious behavior, then couldn’t understand why Diamondqueen would deny her the promised reward.

We finished up our experience with me trying to flush the toilet in the restaurant bathroom and having the handle come off in my hand and fall to the floor with a clatter. I was alone in the bathroom, fortunately, but had just broken the toilet in the handicap bathroom without successfully flushing, unfortunately, so I ran right to the cashier and told her the problem. Later Diamondqueen was in the bathroom with S., and S. hollered, “Hey, THAT’S the toilet Chester broke!” (It’s a long story, but S. started calling me Chester last September and delights in annoying me with it.) One of the Amish girl servers came into the bathroom, and S. yelled at her, “Don’t go in there, that toilet’s broken!” Diamondqueen pointed out the girl already knew that since she had a sign she was going to put up on the stall door stating that fact. We scurried out to the van and burned rubber out of town, convinced we’d left the same mark on Amish country that we’d left on Sandusky, Marblehead, Put-in-Bay, Cleveland…

I’d thought maybe we’d make the traditional stops Mom and I enjoy on the way to Columbus – the longest covered bridge in Ohio and the Velvet Ice Cream factory grounds – but at that point everything seemed anticlimactic. The kids were absorbed in their videos of Tru Jackson and SpongeBob, and Diamondqueen just wanted to get home. We made it back without incident and steered into the Hooligan driveway around two o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Since I live with Mom now, at least I didn’t have to return to an empty apartment and feel blue in my post-trip decompression. In fact, Mom had a serving of leftover chicken and dumplings and small apple pies waiting for my return home, sure medicine that will cure anything.

We checked out of Great Wolf Lodge within minutes of the 11 a.m. time and stole a final visit to the arcade so J.Hooligan could show me how he plays Guitar Hero. The incomparable animatronic show was playing as we walked out the door, which was somehow fitting.

Late breakfast at Bob Evans, and then we started our drive. Backroads the entire way; we took 250 through Wooster because Diamondqueen decided she wanted to see Lehman’s Hardware in Kidron. The kids fell in love with a couple of old-fashioned jack-in-the-boxes, except S. chose Curious George and J. chose a sock monkey. Expensive, but they both had their own money to spend.

We took a few backroad detours on our way to Berlin to see some of the Amish farms up close. J. seemed interested initially, especially in the fields of horses and cows, but he and S. were too distracted by their new toys to pay as much attention as they should have. We staggered into the Comfort Suites in Berlin around 4 o’clock. The hotel is fairly new and the room is spacious and pleasant.

After a rest, we drove up to the Troyer market for their hand-dipped ice cream. We tried to visit around downtown Berlin, but most of the shops appeared to be closed by then, even on a Friday evening, so we gave up and returned to our hotel, which is just a short flight of steps downhill from the shops.

We lounged around for several hours, which included me taking a bath and reading Thurber, me stopping up and clearing the toilet, and S. locking the bathroom door from the inside and then pulling it closed behind her so we couldn’t get in. Diamondqueen and I fiddled with a credit card and small pocketknife. We wound up completely taking the knob apart (not necessarily on purpose), but finally the knob came loose and we had bathroom access again.

S. then turned the bathroom into her private art studio/office, sitting on the toilet bowl with the lid shut and using the top of the tank as her desk. Diamondqueen suggested a drive around the area before it got dark. When I went to the bathroom, I could see that S. was working on her own picture book about a caterpillar, with the words sounded out so they reflected her unique spelling style.

We took a nice dusk-time drive down through Charm and back. We saw a big gathering of Amish young people playing volleyball in a schoolyard, and another gathering at someone’s house. By the time we came back the same way, the house gathering had broken up. There was a constant stream of carriages with headlights coming at us on the left, and Amish families wearing reflective wristbands walking along the right side of the road. J. saw lots more horses and cows, which he seemed to enjoy. S.Hooligan, who seemed to have taken an extra dose of Rotten Pills this morning, talked loudly the entire time. She got onto the subject of heaven and something about being allowed to ride in the trunk when she died and went to heaven. Both kids agreed they thought heaven meant getting to do anything you wanted to do.

We finished out the evening quietly back at the hotel, hoping to get to bed a little earlier. However, it appears there’s a line of thunderstorms headed this way, so we’ll see how restful our night’s sleep turns out to be.

We left our Cleveland side trip until today because we wanted to include a stop at the house from “A Christmas Story,” which has been restored to the way it looks in the movie and includes a small museum and gift shop across the street. It’s open only on Thursday through the weekend, so this was our one chance.

First we had breakfast in the lumberjack-themed room – a cold bar of fruit, cereals, biscuits and gravy, and pastries, followed by breakfast basics served family style (French toast sticks, scrambled eggs, sausages, and bacon). I drank two full mugs of coffee because I had a bad night’s sleep, for some reason.

Our drive to Cleveland was smooth and pleasant; rather overcast, but everything is very green and lush. We followed Mrs. Garmin’s instructions to “A Christmas Story” house in a fairly rundown neighborhood of large old houses. However, the Christmas Story complex is at least reviving that one street. It was obvious new sidewalks had been laid in places and a crosswalk was being installed between the house and the “museum” across the street.

We had to purchase tickets in the gift shop, which gave us a preview of goodies just waiting to be purchased. We had a few minutes until the next tour, so we stopped in at the museum. A gentleman held a couple in thrall with nonstop anecdotes about the movie, and soon we were sucked into his vortex. Turns out he was one of the men who carried in the crate containing the leg lamp, and obviously he was thrilled with his role as on-site cast member with plenty of backstage tales to share. Behind him stood the original leg lamp from the movie. Various other memorabilia were on display behind glass, such as Ralphie’s pajamas from the movie.

We had to pry ourselves away from our museum host to get across the street for the 11 a.m. tour. It was a thrill to stand there and gaze at the house from the same angle as it appears in the credits in the movie. There were a few obvious updates in restoring the house from the condition into which it had fallen since the movie was filmed, but they did a great job capturing as much of it as possible.

Inside a small group of us stood endlessly as another enthusiastic staffer explained about the house and various connections between  Cleveland and the movie. Interior scenes were shot on a soundstage in Toronto, so the house’s rooms were simply attempts to recreate aspects of rooms in the movie, but they did a good job. There was an exact replica of the round cocktail set (the staff referred to it as “the Old Man’s bowling trophy”) on an antique radio, a leg lamp stood in the center window, and there was a lighted, trimmed Chritmas tree in the corner (with a blue bowling ball among the gifts). The kitchen was small but effective, with checkerboard linoleum and a sink with wooden doors on the bottom that visitors are welcome to open for photos.

Ralphie’s scene with his new BB gun where he nearly shoots his eye out was filmed in the backyard, as well as the fantasy sequence with the masked marauders, so it was a pleasure to walk around back there and take pictures of the restored shed. The staffer couldn’t guarantee that the back steps with the screen door was actually where the Old Man yelled, “Sons of bitches! Bumpesses!!!” Just in case, I snapped a photo of Diamondqueen enacting the line from the top step.

Back in the museum, we viewed such treasures as the original zeppelin Randy received, various pieces of clothing (including the winding scarf and snowsuit that bound Randy up so bad he couldn’t move his arms), and some architectural pieces salvaged from the Toronto school that was used as Ralphie’s grade school. At the gift shop, we loaded up on wondrous junk, including boxes of  “Oh, Fudge!” fudge.

Then it was off to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Diamondqueen and I had been there back in 1995 soon after it opened. I liked it but hadn’t been as overwhelmed as I hoped I’d be. I wasn’t any more impressed this time, although there’s tons of stuff to see, including lots of original stage costumes from everyone imaginable. Diamondqueen had designed a scavenger hunt for the Hooligans, complete with little books with various stars’ photos. The idea was they had to find something for everyone in the book, and she’d burned a CD of songs to go with the book so the kids would have some familiarity with the musicians and at least one song.

The kids did find everything eventually. It was kind of strange to hear nearly-seven-year-old S.Hooligan loudly proclaiming, “We have Country Joe and the Fish, but where is Green Day?” The prize for their completed scavenger hunt was they could pick out anything they wanted from the gift shop. Unfortunately, nothing struck their fancy, so Diamondqueen said they could shop elsewhere during the rest of the trip.

When we got back to Sandusky, we stopped for an early dinner at Applebee’s and had the same server who’d taken care of us the other evening. I asked her, when S. was away from the table, if she possibly had found a cheap toy ring. She checked for me, but there was no ring. S. has moved on by now anyhow. Of course, after the Hall of Fame, her heart was crushed again when she discovered that J.Hooligan had sat on the fan I won her last night and accidentally tore it.

After a rest, we had a final visit to the waterpark part of the lodge. Diamondqueen and I took turns swimming the lazy river with S., who throughout the trip has insisted she’s a St. Bernard who rescues swimmers from the river and often drags her mother, afloat in an inner tube, all the way around the course. After a long visit, during which J. rode down the long slide numerous times and S. and I sat in the hot tub for awhile and played on the tower with all the squirting pipes and spilling buckets, S. said she was ready to leave. She went with her mother to the lazy river, but when she returned she was crying. Diamondqueen said she was upset because we had to leave the hotel. I said it was a sign of a successful vacation if S. was that miserable to leave. When I started back to the room with her, she whimpered, “Goodbye, lazy river,” and then sobbed all the way back to the room. As I was taking a shower, I could hear her crying by herself.

She recovered by the time we were dressed and heading down to the lobby for that damn animatronic show again. First we stopped in the gift shop and got a girly wolf stuffed animal that S. chose as her prize for the scavenger hunt. After the show, we joined Diamondqueen and J.Hooligan in the arcade to finish up the game tokens and cash in the tickets. There were several thousand points, with a couple hundred left over after the Hooligans chose the prizes of their dreams. Diamondqueen passed along the extra points to a boy who happened to be standing at the counter, and he literally hopped up and down with joy.

We stopped at the ice cream station in the lobby for huge cones, which we ate sitting before the big fireplace. A few final photos, a couple of smashed pennies out of the machines, and we headed back to the room for the kids’ baths. They played Nintendo while Diamondqueen packed up four days’ worth of dishevelment.

Tomorrow, an overnight in Holmes Co., then home.

Our very full day started at Perkins, where S.Hooligan constantly harassed the servers by yelling, “Hey! More bacon!!!” We had to intercede each time to make sure we weren’t up to our chins in bacon (at that, S. had an adult side order to go with her kiddie breakfast). Our waitress, when she brought the bill, said, “I just had to tell you, she reminds me so much of that little girl in the Our Gang shows.” We told her we’d noticed the resemblance years ago; we did NOT tell her that for awhile our nickname for S. was “Darla da Hood.”

We drove back down to Sandusky to board the Jet Express boat to Put-in-Bay. The weather was warm and sunny with variable clouds, but the wind was stiff, whipping the surface of the water into whitecaps. As soon as we boarded the boat, it was clear the voyage was going to be rocky; and Diamondqueen, who succumbs to motion sickness rapidly, had her head down on the table soon after we’d accelerated toward open water.

I, on the other hand, don’t have problems with seasickness – at least, not on a rough Lake Erie – so I got to enjoy the scenery, not that it was always visible. Water shot back and splashed against the windows, which we found out pretty quickly because of one window that was open by our table. Just the same, it was pleasant to view the rides at Cedar Point, Marblehead Peninsula with the lighthouse, and the boats and other sites on the water.

We made a brief stop at Kelly Island, but we stayed on the boat. I went out on the open deck in back for a breath of fresh air and to snap a couple of photos. Back in the boat, S. and J. grew more subdued as the trip continued. Diamondqueen raised her head at one point, and I pointed at her: “See, guys, ‘turning green’ isn’t just a figure of speech.” J. said, “Wow, you’re right!” while regarding the cast of his mother’s face. By the time we were circling South Bass Island, J. was leaning his head against me and muttering, “I’m feeling kind of weird.”

Our first business in Put-in-Bay, after bathrooms, was to find somewhere that carried Dramamine. Fortunately, a small drive-through sold it, and while we were there we picked out drinks we planned to carry across the street to the park and drink. However, we discovered that every picnic table was matted with some kind of lithe insect with fluttery wings, which set the kids off.

We went around to the front of some official building with a low brick wall out front. Diamondqueen tried to dole out Dramamine tablets with instructions on how to swallow them while the kids screeched about bugs, whether in the air or on our clothes. The bugs were everywhere, including all over the porch and steps of a shop in one of the Victorian-style buildings, but we cajoled the Hooligans through the gauntlet and into the shop.

There we found a replacement ring for S.Hooligan; nothing like the one she lost, as this one was a huge glob of loudly colored plastic. S. also spotted a bottle opener with a small plastic flamingo floating inside and cried, “We <i>have</i> to get this!” (She’s gotten into flamingos this spring and does a mean flamingo imitation with those long, skinny legs.)

J.Hooligan loves sock monkeys, so his take-home was a miniature sock monkey on a clip. He also chose a pirate necklace. Down the street at a fudge shop, he turned down fudge (“I’m getting a little tired of it”) and chose some commercial candies instead. S. selected one of those suckers that comes in a plastic bottle or some such weird thing. (Candy is all novelties now, lots of dye and corn syrup and cheap plastic gadgets.)

We hadn’t planned to stay on the island long, so we headed back to the dock for our 2:30 return cruise, leaving enough time for tickets and a couple of bathroom stops. The boat to Catawba Island was getting ready to load for a 2:00 departure, and we were astonished to see the dock loaded with Amish of all ages. Since we’re heading to Holmes Co. on Friday, I pointed out the people in the bonnets and straw hats and explained who they were. It was a site to see them gathered on the top deck in the sunshine as the boat pulled away.

We sat on a sunny bench waiting for our own departure. Because of the wind, it wasn’t hot at all. We could see all kinds of activity around us – sailboats, seagulls and cranes, a brightly painted speed boat that the kids found interesting. They sucked on their individual forms of sweet gunk, with S. asking every 30 seconds, “When does OUR boat get here?”

We sat in virtually the same place as before. Diamondqueen’s head went down on the table immediately. The kids were quiet, whether because of the Dramamine or boredom or plain fatigue wasn’t clear. For a different perspective, I moved to the front of our section where theater-like seats faced the front windows. Shortly before we reached Kelly Island, J. and then S. joined me as well. On the final leg, J. fell asleep. S. remained awake, but her eyes were glazed and she just stared at me whenever I asked if she was okay.

Fortunately, we weren’t parked far from the dock, so we were able to get right into the van and start back to the hotel. In the room, I, Diamondqueen, and even S. crashed for naps (unheard of for S.), and J. got on the computer to do something with his dinosaur games. We all roused around 5:00 and went to Friendly’s for an unhealthy dinner of sundaes. (S. chose a hot dog and fries since she hadn’t eaten much but bacon at breakfast.)

We went straight to the arcade upon our return to Great Wolf for a brief session of games. S. really wanted to swim again, so Diamondqueen went off with her. J. and I played for awhile, then returned to the room. I’d settled in with my crocheting when Diamondqueen and S. arrived, and I learned that S. wanted to go see the puppet show in the lobby again, so I dug out my clothes and got dressed. I’d won a toy fan at one of the arcade games, and I gave that to S. She brought it with her, and she curled up next to me on a sofa in the lobby where we could watch the show, all cozy in her PJs and opening and closing her new fan.

We finished out the evening with snacks, television, an hour of rented Nintendo games for the kids, baths, etc. We hope for an earlier morning tomorrow for our longer drive to Cleveland.

After Bob Evans for a very late breakfast, we drove to downtown Sandusky just to look around and see what’s what. It was a cool, gray day with intermittent drizzle, but it was pleasant walking around. We strolled out to a promenade on the water (Jackson Street Pier?) where we watched gulls and a crane, peered over at Cedar Point and it’s many looping coasters, and just enjoyed the peacefulness of the wide expanse of bay. J.Hooligan took his digital camera around taking many interesting photos. S.Hooligan just annoyed everyone; we kept our eyes on her to make sure she didn’t pitch headfirst into the bay. (Diamondqueen got up from a bench and turned back just in time to see S. licking the bench. Gotta watch that girl like a hawk…)

Sandusky has a beautiful modern plaza with a fountain, while all around are these fascinating old buildings from several eras. Water Street with its ancient-looking stone foundations reminded me, for some reason, of Savannah. We entered the foyer of a grand-looking movie theater from more elegant times. J.Hooligan seemed disbelieving that there were such buildings for just going to see movies. We couldn’t get into the theater proper, but there was a gift shop off to the side where S.Hooligan fell in love with a black labrador hand puppet and whined and howled about it through the streets of Sandusky.

We had spotted a metaphysical shop near the lot where we parked, so we stopped in there. Buying a couple of new stones distracted S. from her tears over the dog puppet; she rebounded to become cheerfully obnoxious, making the clerk in the store laugh to a point. (By the time we left, though, the clerk told Shannon, “I’m going to take back that sucker I gave her.” She was kidding only in part.)

Driving back to Great Wolf Lodge, we saw some spectacular houses and mansions. I could have been entertained endlessly just by driving around and looking at architecture. Back at the lodge, Diamondqueen and S.Hooligan went to the arcade. J.Hooligan couldn’t wait to play a dinosaur game on his hand-held unit, and I caught up on the computer. I took a lovely nap on the couch after Diamondqueen and S. returned. By 4:30 we were heading to the water attractions again. I swam for awhile in the lazy river with S., then sat reading Thurber while “keeping an eye” on J., who was going down the big slide over and over.

We went out for a late dinner around 7:30. Too hungry to care, Diamondqueen and I spotted an Applebee’s, so we went there, much to the kids’ delight. I got a frozen margarita which tasted wonderful but gave me no buzz at all, to the point I wondered if there was any real tequila in it. S.Hooligan was high-spirited throughout the meal. At one point she was playing with Diamondqueen’s sunglasses. I told her to watch out, she was getting fingerprints all over them. She slipped them on, glowered at me, and drawled, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” I nearly choked on a piece of burger that caught in my throat while I was laughing.

Then tragedy struck. S.Hooligan had gotten a cheap ring out of a gumball machine yesterday at Otay’s Pizza which she treasured and made over in the ensuing 30 hours or so. She’d been talking about the ring at dinner, and apparently she put it down on the table and forgot it when we left. We were almost back to the lodge when she shrieked that she didn’t have her ring and sobbed as only S. can sob.

We turned around and headed back to Applebee’s. The hostess accompanied me back to our table, which had been partially cleared. We found the little bottle of hand sanitizer J. had left behind, but no ring, not even under the table. I wanted to see if the server had found it, but the hostess wasn’t at all encouraging, saying they probably wouldn’t save something like that if it was obviously worthless, or it might have even been scooped up with the trash and thrown away. S.Hooligan was inconsolable, but started coming out of it when Diamondqueen said she could have this dippy chenille worm toy she’d seen in the lodge gift shop.

We made it back to the lodge just in time to get the worm and then find places for the 9:00 animatronic show. It was just me and S., and she insisted I sit on the floor with her. The show was lame and boring, although S. seemed to pay attention throughout. Then it was back to the room for a round of baths, TV, and generally pestering. The kids finally gave up around 11:40 and turned in to their “wolf den,” although J.Hooligan continued to play dinosaurs in bed.