Reflections on the Sunset

By Laura Stassi

April 27, 2015

Paul Peter Stassi was a man of faith, kindness, great humor and fun. He constantly challenged himself physically and mentally, and he possessed an infectious zest for life.

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Newly minted Army Air Corps cadet Paul P. Stassi, circa 1943.

 

Dad was also an unassuming man. When he was stationed in Okinawa during the Korean War, he was awarded the Bronze Star, which is given for heroic or meritorious acts in a combat zone. But we don’t know exactly what Dad did to earn it. We think it had something to do with a jeep crash near the border. Dad wouldn’t talk about it, though. The most he ever said was that he didn’t think he deserved the honor. In his mind, whatever he did shouldn’t have been considered extraordinary.

Most of all, Dad was a family man. I could go on and on with stories describing his unending love and devotion…

How he worked throughout his childhood to help support his brother and sisters and after graduating from high school in 1938, went to work at Rockford (Illinois) Mitten and Hosiery for two years, at 35 cents an hour, so he could save money for college tuition and help his family pay the household bills. Then he almost didn’t go to the University of Alabama because he didn’t want to leave his baby sister, Therese, whose first word was not “mom” or “dad” but “Paul”…

How he went out of his way to make each of his six children feel special, and established family traditions that we’ve passed down to our own kids..

How he raved over my mom’s home cooking and long before any study came out touting the benefits, insisted we eat dinner together as a family every night…

And how, when faced with the prospect of paying for six college educations – most of them overlapping — he worked his veterans benefits and found a way to get paid for going back to school. Dad took night classes to earn extra money and wound up earning a second bachelor’s degree, in accounting. (And by the way, he also tutored, for free, a West Point cadet who was in danger of flunking out.)

There is not enough space here, nor words in the dictionary, to fully convey the measure of this man.

In these past few years, Dad often wondered why he was still alive when people far younger were dying every day. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings were especially upsetting to him; Dad always had a soft spot for children.

About three months after that tragedy, in early March 2013 after a joint birthday celebration with his sister Bena – she was turning 94 to his 93 — Dad fell and broke his neck. He searched for the meaning of his survival, and finally concluded he was spared by God because he was supposed to accomplish something else in his life.

Then Dad joined a Bible study group and discovered Genesis 6:3. Dad now was even more convinced he was supposed to accomplish something else because according to this verse, he said, he was going to live to the age of 120. So we probably had been a little premature, Dad added, in taking away the car keys.

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Paul Stassi on his 95th birthday.                                                                                             (Photo by Laura Stassi)

 

But on March 22, 2015, the day Dad turned 95, he told us he missed his own father, and he missed his mother, and he was ready to go home. Several hours later, he had the stroke that launched him on that final journey. He died on April 12.

To my loving dad’s dismay, I’ve never been one to go along to get along. And so I’ll tell you that I think Dad got it wrong. I think God gave Dad these final two years not so he could do more, but so he could receive more. Hadn’t he earned it?

In the Bible, five is the number that represents God’s grace. And during these past two years, Dad experienced the joy of welcoming a fifth great-grandchild  and a 15th grandchild. For a man like my father, for whom family was everything, these were surely the greatest gifts he could receive on this Earth, and proof of God’s grace.

 

Destiny and Tea in Darjeeling

By Laura Stassi

April 2, 2015

Somewhere on the grounds of the Yiga Choeling Monastery, in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal, India, is an American boy. He was a toddler when he began having visions of a past life and at the age of 11, he was officially proclaimed the reincarnation of the 13th century lama Gyalwa Lorepa.

Window detail from a monastery in India. (Photo by Laura Stassi

So the boy said goodbye to his classmates at a Catholic school outside of Boston. He turned his back on all the accoutrements of an American kid’s existence and agreed to get his head shaved, don a red robe, and live full time at the monastery so he could learn everything required to fulfill his destiny of becoming a Buddhist high priest.

The boy’s undoubtedly conflicted parents upended their lives, too. They sold their Beantown business and most of their possessions and moved with the boy’s younger sister to the town of Darjeeling, about 8 kilometers from the monastery. They’re allowed to visit the boy once a week for the next decade that he lives in virtual seclusion.

As our tour guide, Satyen, tells us about the American boy, the air vibrates with the energy of the Tibetan Buddhist monks banging drums and rhythmically chanting prayers. I find the sounds lively yet soothing.

My journey to the Darjeeling region had been arduous. Earlier that week, seven traveling companions and I had boarded a train near Varanasi, on the banks of the River Ganges, for a 14-hour ride across the Indian plains and up to the Himalayan foothill town of Siliguri. From there, we chartered a small bus for the rickety ride up narrow, winding mountain roads, some of which had been partially washed away by recent monsoons. The 90-kilometer climb lasted six hours, and there were several moments I was convinced our bus would topple over one of the guardrail-less roads and we would never be heard from again.

Finally, we’d arrived at Darjeeling’s Windamere Hotel, a former boardinghouse for British tea planters that was converted into a hotel in the late 1930s. The hotel later was expanded to include the convent school that Darjeeling-born actress Vivien Leigh — she, of “Gone with the Wind” movie fame — had attended as a young girl while living here with her British parents.  The Windamere is perched on top of Observatory Hill, where we can look down onto the town promenade and out to the Himalayan mountain peaks, the world’s highest.

We score an even more breathtaking view of those peaks at Tiger Hill, about 10 kilometers from the Windamere. We arrive before sunrise one morning and position ourselves along the Observation Room’s side windows, hoping the clouds will break so we can see the peaks of Mount Everest, Khangchendzonga, Jannu and Kabru. Outside and below us, people are gathering to stare at the sky, a reminder of the iconic scenes from the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  When the sun rises and the clouds briefly lift, those of us without cameras pressed to our faces erupt with cheers and clapping.

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Prayer flags at a Gangtok monastery. (Photo by Laura Stassi)

Our time in Darjeeling also includes visits to the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, where the prices in the shop selling blankets, clothing, jewelry and other handmade items are so low there’s no need for the sign saying bartering isn’t allowed; and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which was established the year after Darjeeling resident Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first two climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The adjoining zoological park houses snow leopards, Himalayan black bears and other animals but for one group of tourists from southern India, we prove to be as exotic an attraction. Through hand gestures and smiles, they ask to be photographed with us.

On the afternoon of our final day in Darjeeling, we wander into a local tea shop. Darjeeling tea is considered one of the tastiest in the world, but I consider returning to the hotel to prepare for the next day’s journey to Ganktok, instead of staying with some of my traveling companions for a tasting. Still, I take a seat, and the shopkeeper and his helper commence with bringing us pot after pot of delicious tea for generously sized tastings.

After several cups, I find myself feeling giddy and slightly trippy. When my  traveling companion Larry starts talking about tea harvest times — called first and second flushes — an old Brewer & Shipley tune pops into my head. Without thinking, I sing the first verse out loud, slightly changing the words.

“One flush over the line, sweet Jesus, one flush over the line…”

My traveling companion Al laughs loudly and joins in. “Sittin’ downtown at a railway station, one flush over the line…”

It’s then that I think I finally understand what the Buddhists mean by “staying present,” and I’m truly grateful to be sitting at this table, enjoying this moment in Darjeeling. I’ll think about Gangtok tomorrow. As Scarlett O’Hara herself said, tomorrow is another day.

 

Guinness: Two Pours Make the Perfect Pint

By Laura Stassi

March 16, 2015

My beverage color preferences have long been tan (coffee), red (wine) and yellow (beer). Then I traveled to Ireland and was properly introduced to Guinness, a deep-ruby-red beer with a cream-colored head that’s achieved by a two-pour technique.Two perfectly poured pints from The Mariner in Drogheda, Ireland.

Two perfectly poured pints from The Mariner in Drogheda, Ireland.      Photo by Laura Stassi

My first taste of Guinness was in Drogheda, an industrial town on the River Boyne about 35 miles north of Dublin. Thanks to a Groupon travel package I’d purchased for this mother-daughter trip, Drogheda was the first stop on our eight-day tour of the Emerald Isle.

Cecelia and I arrived in Drogheda around 9 a.m. After settling into our room at the d hotel and taking a long nap, we were ready for lunch. A small pedestrian bridge outside the hotel led us to The Mariner, where a TV behind the bar was reporting on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, then missing for about 48 hours. (“The Americans know what happened to that plane,” I heard the barmaid say to a customer.)

We each ordered a plate of fish, chips, peas and onions, with a Guinness to wash it down. I had hesitated when placing the drink order — it seemed irresponsible for the traveler in charge to be drinking in the middle of the day. But Guinness, I discovered, was my Goldilocks of beer: rich but not too rich, filling but not too filling, and with a head so unexpectedly creamy that Cecelia and I both wondered if it was actually a whipped cream topping. Mmm, just right.

Several days — and pints in Galway and Cork — later, at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, we learned about the two-pour technique that gives Guinness its consistently uniform and creamy head. Roasted, malted barley makes for the beautiful hue; the other three ingredients in Guinness are hops, yeast and water.

The Guinness Storehouse is a former fermentation plant that was remodeled into a museum-slash-monument paying tribute to all things Arthur Guinness and the company he built, and the price of admission includes a free pint at the Gravity Bar, on the seven-story building’s top floor. That’s where Cecelia and I drank the final pints of our Irish adventure, after bumping into a man wearing a windbreaker emblazoned with the logo of Washington’s professional football team. (“Do you come here often?” he asked playfully. But that, my friends, is another story.)

I still like my coffee tan and my wine red.  But when it comes to beer, I’ve changed my preference to deep ruby red.