And then, he was gone again.

Willie was shy. That is what we all assumed.

I don't remember him ever saying more than what was necessary to answer a question. It didn't matter if the questioner were a classmate or a teacher, Willie kept it brief. So why is it that I can still hear his voice echoing in my head so many years later?

Willie and I either met in kindergarten or first grade which is to say a very long time ago. He was shy. Or at least that was the conclusion I quickly came to.

I was not shy. If anything, I was even more of an extrovert growing up than I am today. Talkative and outgoing, but also sensitive and anxious too. I wanted people to like me. Through the years, I always tried to win Willie over, to gain his trust and become actual friends.

For a quiet person, Willie was popular. He was handsome and smart. Girls had crushes on him. He played football and had a circle of friends to whom he seemed close. But in retrospect, who really knows--maybe he was as much of an enigma to the guys as he was to me?

 If you can find me, you can see Willie. He's just over my right shoulder.

If you can find me, you can see Willie. He's just over my right shoulder.

After high school, Willie and I went our separate ways--him to Penn State and me to Cornell. I didn't give him much thought until we had class reunions and he wasn't there.

Growing up, Willie lived right near my friend Kristin and she seemed to be able to pierce his bubble a bit better than me. After college, Kristin was my only source of info about how he was doing. I heard he was sick with a chronic illness and living at home with his parents. While I felt empathy for him, I didn't understand why that would cause him to become even more withdrawn.

This part is on me: I didn't reach out to Willie. I didn't call his house to ask how he was doing and to tell him he was missed. I assumed he would not care to hear from me because as time passed, I started to wonder if he and I were ever really friends. I feared rejection. I worried about being intrusive.

Years passed. Kristin would run into Willie in their neighborhood sometimes. I remember bugging her for details about him but there weren't really many. 

This summer, Willie joined Facebook. I was shocked and thrilled. Once we connected, he and I spoke more via Messenger than we probably had during four years of high school. He asked me about life in Brooklyn. I asked him what made him suddenly appear on Facebook and he told me about his desire to rejoin the workforce and reconnect with people.

I thought about telling him how welcome he would be at our next class reunion, but I didn't want to overwhelm him. I considered suggesting we meet up during my upcoming trip home for Labor Day Weekend but didn't want to pressure him.

And then he was gone again.

A few days after our last exchange of messages, Willie was found dead in an apparent suicide. When police went to his house to notify his father, with whom he lived, they found that he too was dead. 

I never could have imagined Willie's story would end in such a dark way and my heart aches for his surviving family members. 

Please know this: I am not saying that little ol' me could have prevented this tragic outcome. But I will always regret not asking Willie more questions in an attempt to connect with him and to let him know I cared. 

The other grandmother

It makes me sad not to know if I would have called her Grandmother or Granny or some other name.

It would not be Nana. That name was reserved for my mother's mother. I never got a chance to call my father's mother, Sophie Lillian Demsky Keene, anything; she died when I was less than a year old. 

Grandma Keene scan.jpeg

 

I have to use my imagination to fill in the gaps of my real life knowledge.

I can only guess that she might have liked to be called Babcia.

Through the years, Dad revealed tidbits about my other grandmother, his mother Sophie, here and there. When I was a little girl and I had drawn something my father particularly liked or mastered a new song on the piano, Dad would say "your grandmother would be so proud of you."

She was little more than an abstraction to me, but I liked my father thinking that way.

Sometimes I didn't ask my dad the questions I wanted to because the stories he had told me were obviously tinged with sadness. Dad expressed bafflement by some of the things he experienced, like when Sophie made him allow her to curl his straight hair for a church photo. He could never understand why someone would do that to a little boy, why she would embarrass him that way.

Dad's communion 8x10.jpg

 

Each time he brought up this time in his life, I gently reminded him that it was a long time ago. That Sophie, an immigrant from Poland, loved him and surely didn't do it to hurt him.

"You're probably right, Jen," he would say, but I didn't know if he meant it.

When my dad was still alive, I turned to Google, in an effort to try to spare him the hurt my prying questions might provoke. And now, years later, I have found even more info on Ancestry.

Thanks to the 1940 census, I now know that Dad's mother was just 17 years old when she bore her first child. I have tried and failed to imagine what that was like for her, particularly with a husband nine years her senior. While Polish like her, Joseph was born in the States and had a very un-Polish sounding name (alternately Keene, Keen and Kin), a mystery that I still haven't unraveled. I used to joke that we had an Ellis Island name, but I have since learned that was a myth

My father was Sophie's last child, born when his older brothers were thirteen and nine years old and his sister was eleven. He was unplanned. Dad's father was not around much during his childhood and I know that money was tight. 

But two things keep this story from being too sad to bear.

First, there is the fact that I had a wonderful dad. I imagine that Sophie had something to do with that.

Then there is this: Sophie was a painter. Somehow, some way, in a life that was sometimes cruel, Sophie became an artist. One proud enough of her work to sign every last painting with her name. Several hang in my childhood home, and two more in my Brooklyn apartment.

My grandmother found beauty, as well as the time and means to share it. I'm glad, Babcia. Thank you.

Photo Jan 21, 8 57 11 PM.jpg

New Year's in Turks and Caicos

Is it too late to talk about New Year's? Oh well. It has taken me some time to get this post together (thanks stomach bug).

Anyway...

One week after my friends and I put down a deposit on a place in Orient Bay, St Martin (SXM), Hurricane Irma hit. 

 

I was crushed--and not just for myself. SXM is a special place and it has been awful to know that the people there are suffering as they work to rebuild. Last year, two friends and I spent a full week on SXM and it was such a relaxing trip. I came back relaxed, a little tan and ready to start a new year.

 

While our rental was apparently fine, the real estate agency admitted that the surrounding area had been devastated with restaurants leveled and supply deliveries slowed.

My friends and I struggled to agree on a new destination. Flights were expensive, just about everywhere, as were accommodations. Our plans fell apart.

And then one of my terrific friends, Christy, made a suggestion: Turks & Caicos (TCI). She had gone there on her honeymoon, and was under the impression that their hurricane damage was minimal. Soon after, I searched flights, found one for $350 and talked to my friends. Ultimately three of us-Adrienne, Christine and me-went to TCI for five nights--that is until stormy weather in NYC added a sixth night for two of us.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of visiting Turks & Caicos.

 

Accommodations

We stayed at La Vista Azul and which was my fault. When we were ready to book in November, AirBNB options were thoroughly depleted, and hotels were either pretty cheap or exorbitantly expensive (like $2000-$10000 per night). Because only two of us were confirmed to travel at this point, I recommended that we book the conservative option: $1575 for five nights.

While the hotel was fine-ish, the location was not ideal and we spent a lot of money on taxis (more on that later) before renting a car for two days. Vista Azul is in Turtle Cove and Grace Bay is really where you want to stay. Additionally Vista Azul is most definitely not a resort-style experience. The two rooftop pools are small and mostly shaded each afternoon. 

Our other conservative option, Ports of Call, was about $2200 for the same time period. It's the same approximate class as Vista Azul, but the Grace Bay location is so much better. You can walk to the beach, grocery store, shops, etc. Our only walkable option was Naughty Gull which was cute and convenient if pricey (an extra shot of espresso in your latte? That will be $4.).

If the price is right, stay at Grace Bay Club, Sands (where Adrienne and I stayed when our flights home were canceled), Villa Renaissance or pretty much anywhere in that strip.

Beaches

They're beautiful, pure and simple. Because we weren't staying at a beachfront Grace Bay property, it was a little awkward figuring out how to stage the perfect beach day: chairs, umbrellas, food and drink.

In Orient Bay, SXM, most of the accommodations aren't beachfront so everyone rents chairs and umbrellas from the little beach bars and restaurants. Then you order food and drink from their servers at your leisure, and you get access to their restrooms and wifi. It's a great set-up.

Grace Bay beaches all have public access, which is wonderful, but the various resorts didn't seem to know what to do when we asked if we could use or rent their chairs and umbrellas. Ultimately it worked out but no one tried to sell us food or drink. Missed opportunity!

There are, of course, lots of beaches beyond Grace Bay but our schedule of excursions didn't allow for a ton of exploration. Next time!

Activities

Adrienne and Christine hit a home run booking our excursions. They were terrific! We did a sunset horseback ride on the Blue Hills Beach through Unique Tours. It was a lot of fun. We also took Island Vibes' full-day BBQ tour on a catamaran. Our captains, Dondre and Big Mike were terrific. 

We visited uninhabited beaches and saw how conch is harvested. We also saw the abandoned Mandarin Oriental property. Wild!

 

Transportation

Taxis are expensive in TCI. When three of us traveled together, the trip from our hotel three miles to Grace Bay for time at the beach or dinner would run $10 per person. Given that rental cars can be found on Priceline et al for ~$40 per day, a rental car is a good investment, particularly if you're not staying in Grace Bay or if you want to explore more. My friends had a pretty easy time driving on the other side of the road--there isn't much traffic on TCI.

Rental cars in the Caribbean tend to be beaters so between that and the insurance you get through any travel-focused credit card, buying the car company's insurance isn't a must.

 

Food and Drink

TCI is a good Caribbean destination for dining, but I kept comparing them to the restaurants of SXM, which were largely more budget friendly for the same quality. TCI highlights included Coyaba and Coco Bistro.

On New Year's Eve, we started the night at Infiniti before moving on to Ricky's Flamingo Cafe. Ricky's ended up being a highlight between the bonfire, the fireworks and the opportunity to meet locals. Don't miss it.

 

Something to keep in mind: a lot of TCI spots do NOT engage in continuous service a la restaurants in the US. Additionally, bars where tourists tend to go often close down earlier than we're used to. If you want a late night, befriend a local!

The Verdict

Would I go back to TCI? While my heart is still in St. Martin, until the island is truly ready for visitors, I will absolutely make plans to return to Turks & Caicos.

My [super basic] tips to help infrequent fliers hate traveling a little less

"You travel so much. I don't know how you do it."

It's rare that I go a week without hearing those words. My response probably surprises them:

I actually love the travel.

Sometimes my words are met with uncomprehending stares. Like, how could I possibly enjoy so many hours trapped in a metal tube jammed in with strangers? Some travelers, frankly, are gross.

I must be insane.

But I truly do love that travel is required in my job. I get to see incredible places and have unique experiences. Spending time face-to-face with clients, colleagues and business partners usually creates tighter bonds and yields more business opportunities. As a bonus, I used frequent flier miles to fly business class to Italy this year. How could I complain?

It's true that sometimes things go awry, but I know from experience that my attitude and some degree of preparation can make things better or worse. Why not choose better?

 

I flew more in 2017 than I ever have in my life, including more than 100k miles on American alone, which resulted in me hitting American Airlines' Executive Platinum status. Perks include the ability to check two bags for no charge, access to preferred seating (e.g., extra room seats up front), bonus miles, upgrades and even free meals and alcoholic beverages in coach if an upgrade doesn't come through. Oh, and a dedicated service hotline for when I need customer service.

(It pays to be loyal to one airline.)

With time and practice, I have developed an approach that keeps me as comfortable as possible while in transit. If you also travel a lot, these tips may seem overly basic to you, but I would love it if you added your suggestions in the comments.

Booking Tips

First, if you haven't signed up for the major airlines' frequent flier programs already. Do it RIGHT NOW. Don't take a single flight for which you don't get credit. If you flew recently without an account, you may be able to get retroactive credit. Check the airline's web site.

American, Delta, United and Southwest are the US airlines to start with. You should enroll in hotel loyalty programs too, but that's for another post.

When it's time to book a trip, I usually turn to a site like Kayak to figure out the itinerary that is best for me. My primary airline is American, but I don't love the way their search engine works which is why I turn to Kayak even though I don't usually book there.

While cost will almost always be a consideration when booking a flight, I consider factors including how long the flight is, if I need to go direct or can consider a connection, what the total travel time (so important), desired departure or arrival time, and whether or not alternate airports are in play (e.g., JFK vs LGA).

If you don't have status with an airline (I'm assuming you don't if you're reading this post), beware booking the cheapest available fare unless you are positive you can travel without checking a bag (or in American Basic Economy's case, putting a bag in the overhead bin). I generally do not recommend these "basic" fares because you'll almost certainly end up in a middle seat in the back of the plane, which is an uncomfortable way to fly, in my opinion.

The reason I'm dwelling on this is that if you start your travel day feeling nickel-and-dimed, you're likely to feel salty on the rest of your day, and that's not helpful!

Once you book your flight, choose a seat. You can do this either on the airline's web site or using their app. In the days leading up to my flights, I check the seat map in the airline app often, looking for the seat in which I'll be most comfortable.

For me, that's a window seat near the front of coach. I like to control the window shade 😀 and if I'm tired, I find napping in a window seat easier.

If I don't recognize the aircraft by seat map (believe it or not, I usually do at this point), I'll go to SeatGuru to avoid such pitfalls as a seat that doesn't recline or one that is notably drafty.

Preparing to Fly

I approach my flight with the mindset of "what do I need to be comfortable in case no one offers me anything for the duration of the trip?" Thinking that through will help you pack useful stuff in your carryon. 

If you're a novice flier, it is helpful to go to the airport earlier than someone like me - thanks to TSA Pre, I sometimes arrive at my gate in the middle of boarding. Do as I say, not as I do.

Some of the things I consider before I go to the airport include:

  • Can I fit everything in a carryon bag to avoid checking?
  • How long is my flight?
  • Do I have somewhere to go straight from the airport or can I dress for comfort?
  • What are the chances of an upgrade? If they're low, what kind of food should I take with me.
  • Where is my phone charger? Pack it now. Right now.

I'm a hangry sort of person so I almost always have some combination of string cheese, Kind Bars, Gardetto's and cut fruit in my bag. I am trying to eat less sugar, but it's obviously not going very well.

I always have a refillable bottle (my current fave is from Ban.do) because I drink a ton of water--even more when I'm flying. Before boarding my flight, I refill the bottle with at least water, but also ice if available. 

While I do not tend to be cold on flights, I prepare for that uncomfortable scenario. News flash: blankets in coach class are rare these days. Often I'll bring my ancient BCBG wrap that is just like this. It functions as a blanket and pillow as needed, and if I ever lose it, I'll be very sad.

Sometimes I will take a travel pillow but recently I lost mine somewhere in my apartment. Seriously, one minute it was there and the next it was not. 😜 Short term, if sleeping on a flight is an option, I get by just fine with a sweater. 

Some planes have entertainment systems, some done. If you have Netflix, choose something from the downloadable section. Bring a book or a magazine. It's good to have distractions in the air, obviously.

 

Reminder: you should be checking your flight's seat map again now.

At the Airport

If you prepared using the steps above, this part should be easy.

But let's say something goes wrong. Maybe your flight is delayed or perhaps the gate agent wasn't as friendly as you think he or she should be. If you remember one thing from this post, let it be this: keep your cool. Acting like an angry entitled jerk never helped anyone--not you, not your fellow travelers and certainly not the people working at the airport.

What does help is staying calm. Whether you achieve that via deep breathing or venting to a friend (via text or email! No one wants to hear you complaining aloud.), just do it and then figure out what your next move is. If the weather is bad and no flights are leaving the airport anytime soon, can you reschedule your flight for the next day and avoid sitting in the airport surrounded by disgruntled people? If yes, act quickly before everyone else is doing the same thing.

Be kind. Be patient. If someone is trying to help you, smile a little, and say please and thank you. Why not make an airline employee feel good about their efforts to address your situation rather than resentful? Save your anger for those circumstances when writing a ragey post-trip letter or email to the airline is truly warranted.

And if you turn to Twitter to look for help from the airline, choose your words carefully. Focus on what you're trying to make happen versus complaining. 

In most cases, your flight won't be delayed. The same "be kind" approach means acknowledging the flight crew as human beings with a job to do. Say hello and then take your seat. If you have access to an outlet, plug in your charger before you actually need it and if the outlet is shared, don't hog it for the duration of the flight.

And if you're in the window seat, be a dear and put the shade down at least after takeoff. I promise you: there's nothing to see at 40,000 feet.