Weekend Visiting

We lead such an exciting, glamorous life. My husband David and I planned a few weeks ago to take last Friday off and drive down to visit a niece of ours that lives in south-central Illinois. We visit her periodically because she lives a long way from home, and we don’t get to see her very often if we wait for her occasional visits “home” for birthdays and holidays.

We think these visits are important for emotional well-being, both hers, and ours. She’s always happy to see us, and we feel happy and sad for her at the same time. She has a home with people she likes, she has fun activities to take part in most weekends, and she has work to do that she takes pride in. These are the good things, the “upside,” of her situation.

The “downside” is that she’s far from other close family members, and doesn’t get to talk to them or see them as often as she’d like. It’s relatively easy for us to visit her, even without taking a Friday off; in the past we’ve driven down Saturday morning, spent the afternoon and evening with her, and come home Sunday afternoon. This time, we both had Friday off, so we drove down in the afternoon and took her to dinner and to see “Monsters vs. Aliens.” Unfortunately, it was only in 2-D because the local theater hadn’t installed the 3-D system, and she was tired after working all day. Maybe in the future, we’ll stick to just dinner on a Friday night, so we don’t tucker her out. She’s young and healthy, but seems to tire easily. It’s possible to overdo things with her, so we try not to run her into the ground.

For the record, we had dinner at Lone Star, breakfast the next morning at a cute local place that specializes in waffles, lunch at a fisherman’s restaurant at a nearby state park (I had catfish), and went shopping for socks, smelly girly stuff, and stationery. The waffle place was new to us, although other family members had recommended it on their own visits. It had a funny menu with a cartoon logo that made us laugh: “Eeeat moooore waaaah-fils,” the caption said. Imagine, LOLWaffles in a small Illinois town! They’re really up-to-date!

There aren’t that many places to eat in town, but in the past we’ve had REALLY good steaks at a restaurant attached to the biggest hotel in town. There’s also a nice resort/hotel restaurant that caters to boaters and fishermen at a state park farther to the south. There are also the usual chain restaurants and truck-stop buffets that are found at any major highway interchange in the U.S., some of which are better than others. It seems that our visits revolve around food, making silly jokes, and finding something new and different to do. She’s happy enough with the arrangement, as it’s a break in her routine and she likes the attention.

Our niece’s needs are simple, but the occasional shopping trip during a weekend visit can seem to stretch into infinity if she thinks her visitors are willing to keep buying her stuff. It’s pretty funny, actually – this time, she clearly wanted to get some new DVDs after getting the other items, but I had to shut down the spree or we’d never have gotten out of there.

On another visit, she definitely needed some new clothes, which is problematic as the task clearly falls to her aunt (me) instead of to her uncle (David). I’m not a shopper, hate shopping, and hate feeling overwhelmed by choices. Somehow, though, we get through the experience relatively unscathed, as at least she’s an easy size to fit, although we have to be careful about finding something that “works” for her. I stick to fun, casual clothes and shoes that she can wear to work or on the occasional outing with her housemates. Girly fashion isn’t my thing, although I did ask her on this trip if she needed any new “lady stuff” from Sears. She said not, so we settled for socks, as most of hers had disappeared into the Sock Dimension over time.

Where she lives, there’s just not that much to do, so we make our own fun. We go to movies, we’ve visited the local historic village when there was a special event, we drive to state parks and forest preserves, we walk around the Veterans’ Park and look at the ducks and geese. We have yet to visit a nearby art museum, and there’s still the pleasures of the bowling alley yet unsavored. Our niece is proud of her bowling ability, yet I sense that David is not too keen, so it’s become a joke: “Well… we might have to go bowling.”

She likes taking photos and looking at her family and wildlife pictures, so we go out to local parks, walk in the woods, watch for wildlife, take pictures, and then update the images in her digital picture frame. She keeps her room extremely neat, and the digital frame is prominently displayed. She’s kind of fixated on it, and when the frame periodically breaks and has to be replaced, it’s kind of a production getting her another one and helping her set it up. The other people she lives with aren’t too technical and we’ve found to our chagrin that we can’t “walk her through” the process remotely, via phone.

She also really enjoys getting postcards when any of the family are on trips, and on our recent trip in Hawaii, David sent her photos from his Flickr stream via Qoop.com. While we were with her this time, I had the idea that I could send her postcards anytime, from home, of family members or whatever else she might like. I’ll try to do that from time to time.

With our niece, a little time spent goes a long way. She’s a cheerful, chatty person, though, and the conversation never lags. She has call privileges twice a week, so to her this means she should call every single person in her address book, both days. We’ve talked to her in the past about maybe splitting up her call list so that she’s not stressing out about trying to reach everyone both times. She seems to agree that this might be a good idea, but the next week she’ll try calling everyone anyway.

We’re guilty of sometimes letting the calls go to the machine when we’re involved in watching some show, but after our visits with her, we try harder to pick up and make silly jokes to get her laughing. A current favorite is to say “Hi, I’d like to order a pizza,” when answering the phone, because with Caller ID, we always know she’s calling. Occasionally, we call her instead, and we’re working on getting her to call us on a night when we’re not likely to be out to dinner or busy watching “Chuck” or “CSI.” Last night, we made sure to call her when we were almost home. It was close to her bedtime, and as she had asked us to call, David thought she might be waiting up. When she comes on the line, he likes to say “Hello, beautiful lady!” She always gets a kick out of this.

Thank goodness it’s finally spring: there are some trees in bloom in the forest preserves near her home, and in the woods along the roadside for much of the way. Some of them were really lovely, a delicate shade of purple. As this is her grandma’s favorite color, she talked about how pretty it would be if she could put one in her grandma’s front yard. We agreed, and made time for some phone calls so she could say “hi” to her grandparents and tell them about her day. It was a good visit for the weekend, and we’ll try to plan another visit sometime later on, probably by fall.

Driving down there has become a pleasant routine. We’ve got it down to a science – it takes almost exactly 5 hours to get there, not including stops for food or rest breaks. Along the way, the view out the windows gradually changes from suburbia to open farmland. You get a real sense of the work people put into the land at this time of year, in addition to all the commercial crap and hints of another viewpoint (gigantic spotlit roadside crosses, signs for online gun shops). Occasionally, hilly woodlands replace the cultivated fields, and the land is rumpled like a discarded comforter. I suppose that’s a sign of where the glaciers came to a stop, or maybe the forests are well beyond their southern margins, where the landscape hadn’t been scraped flat.

Along the way, we listen to NPR, switching stations as the signal fades. Now that we have the iPhones, we use an FM radio adapter gadget and a “public radio application” to listen to whatever station we want, especially in the dead area beyond the Chicago station’s coverage, and before a Southern Illinois station’s broadcast zone. I read articles in my newsfeed off my phone, and David drives. We make the time pass.

This time, we stayed at a Hampton, as the bigger full-service hotel in town has really stiff mattresses. Although there’s no restaurant on-site, the room included a microwave and a decent-sized fridge. And the bed was definitely more comfortable for me, at least. There’s an indoor pool and Jacuzzi, although we didn’t bring swim stuff with us this time. We’d probably stay there another time. For one thing, it had a nice clean smell that wasn’t overpowering. The other place, for all that it’s big and updated, has a slightly fusty smell (probably due to the indoor pool) that’s not entirely overcome by the scent of powerful air fresheners in the hallways. Also, there’s a characteristic scent in the room at the bigger hotel that I always associate with that particular chain; it’s something to do with the in-room air conditioning unit. Finally, on our last trip, there was a leak in the ceiling near the elevators on our floor, so it seemed like it was time for a change.

I joke that the town is south of the Sweet Tea Line; farther to the north, when David orders iced tea, the server brings a glass of iced tea. South of this invisible line, the server always asks “do you want regular tea, or sweet tea?” Even farther to the south, over the state line somewhere, the servers bring sweet tea unasked. Southern Illinois seems to be a buffer area for this phenomenon. Also, biscuits, gravy, and grits are on the breakfast menus in most restaurants, something that’s rarely seen in the Chicago suburbs. I’m not sure where the line of demarcation lies for breakfast foods. Maybe someday, I’ll try grits, although an Englishman who was interviewed on an episode of “Whad’ya Know” that we heard on our way back noted that he’d never gotten over the experience of mistaking sausage-and-grits for bangers-and-mash.

We counted up and realized that we’ve been down to visit our niece about four times now – alternating between spring and fall, to avoid the extreme temperatures of summer and winter, mostly. As yet, we still have managed to avoid taking her bowling… she would probably beat us both at that game.

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