by Keith Hoffman

My first hint that my trip home to Ohio was not going to go exactly as planned was a text from my cousin Jenny on my way to the airport.

“Hey Darling. We are expecting snow storm tonight and tomorrow. Snow then ice. Telling people not to travel. Mom cancelled meat tray.”

I naturally went into a full-blown panic.

She cancelled the meat tray?!

The meat tray party at my aunts was one of the major tent poles of my trip home to introduce my boyfriend to the family.

Without the meat tray party…well…. all was clearly lost.

How could this be? Only yesterday a beautiful red cardinal had landed at my window. My mom had loved cardinals when she was alive and it’s the Ohio state bird (it’s also the Indiana and Kentucky state bird—those Midwesterners could have pushed themselves a little harder on the state bird-naming issue ). This cardinal was clearly a sign from my mother that this trip home was was going to be perfect.


(A Visit From Mother? )

I believe in signs and needed this one. It wasn’t that I was afraid of bringing a boyfriend home. I am no spring chicken and my family has accepted my alternative lifestyle since the last century. I brought my now ex home (who for the purposes of this blog I will call “Steve”) early in the ‘90’s and Aunt “Steve” is still a beloved part of the family.

And yet first impressions are important on both sides so approaching this trip with utmost control and rigidity was key. There was no room for improvisation.

Just as I was about to demand that the taxi driver turn around immediately,  my boyfriend Saul calmed me down. He is used to my panicked irrational reactions. Even though we have been together less than a year some already describe him as long-suffering.

Saul convinced me to bravely soldier on with this trip–weather be damned!

When we got to Cincinnati we would make our own meat platter.


Our first stop after we landed was of course Skyline Chili.

We Cincinnatians love our Skyline chili and we push it  to anyone who comes within a five-mile radius of our city like heroin,

Skyline Chili is like no other chili in the world. It has a secret recipe that involves cinnamon, it goes on top of spaghetti and it includes piles and piles of cheese. At Skyline you can order:

A Three Way: Chili and spaghetti with cheese;
A Four Way: Chili and spaghetti with cheese and onions; or
A Five Way: Chili and spaghetti with cheese and onions and beans

I don’t know if the Greek brothers who started Skyline back in 1949 meant to be so provocative or if they just were naive about American sexual lingo but it’s hard not to get titillated every time I order.

The times that I drive home from NYC I know exactly where the first Skyline Chili restaurant is once I get into southern Ohio. Since I have been gluten free for a few years now, I order the cheese conveys with onions and mustard at the drive-thru and finish by licking the bun while sitting in my car. (Perhaps now you can understand why I have been single for so many years before this).

Anyway I was nervous when Saul put on his plastic bib and bit into his first five way. ”Steve” hated Skyline. He just could not see why anyone could possibly like it. (I don’t think “Steve” and I ever recovered from that).

Luckily Saul liked his chili and finished the entire gigantic meal in one sitting

Yet one more sign there may be hope for us yet.


(Who could Resist a Man in a Plastic Bib?)

Even before our chili was digested (which after all could take a few days) we hit the road in our rental car.

I had decided that if I had only one snow-free day in Cincinnati I would take Saul on a condensed tour of my childhood.

Now taking a tour of my childhood on a cold February day in Cincinnati may not be as fun as you might imagine. (“Steve” used to say they should make a Crayola crayon called Cincinnati Gray to describe the sky of my hometown in winter).

Here is a quick rundown of how how a tour of my childhood goes:

“This is house I lived in when my dad died suddenly when I was only seven”

“Here’s the spot on the playground of my grade school where I used to sit by myself lonely and full of shame while the other kids played Red Rover.”

“This is the home over the Ohio River where I spent some of the happiest years of my life…before it was destroyed by a landslide…”

“Here is the plot of land where my high school was before it was torn down to make room for this parking lot.”

“This is where my mom lived down the block from my sister before they both tragically died within mere months from each other.”


(From Left To Right:  Place I Last Saw My Father Alive;  Lot Where My Happy High School Memories Were Torn To Pieces By Bulldozers)

You can see why Saul had to take a nap in the front seat of my car at the hometown tomb of William Henry Harrison—whose main distinction as President was that he didn’t wear his coat at his inauguration and caught pneumonia and died after serving the shortest presidency on record. The fun and excitement must have been too much for the poor guy.


(A Captive Audience)

After visiting my aunt and uncle (I can forgive her cancelling the meat platter but I can never forget), we ended the day at my sister-in law Minette’s cozy house where she lived with her husband Jeff

Saul was thrown head first into my family –meeting my brother, my nephew, his wife and two children and other various and assorted relatives all in one sitting.

Meeting family is never the easiest thing in the world and the two of us are both lean towards the sensitive side so we devised a code word at the beginning of the trip in case one of us needed the other’s help in a social situation.

The word we came up with was PETUNIA.  PETUNIA could mean many things such as “I’m really tired can we leave soon?” or “rescue me from your boring uncle” or “This party is lame. Pretend you have a medical emergency so we can leave now!” (NOTE TO SELF: change code word before our next dinner party with someone who may have read this blog).


(One of the Family)

About three quarters of the way through the evening with my family,  Saul looked at me a bit plaintively and whispered PETUNIA. At first I was disappointed because I really thought he should have used the word in a complete sentence to achieve maximum effect but then thought better of criticizing him during his moment of need.

I quickly ascertained that he was exhausted from travelling and reliving the tragedies of my life so after a half hour we went to bed.

So far my family liked Saul and Saul liked chili.

Things were going swimmingly.




It turns out they were wise to cancel the meat platter.

The snow was coming down in droves.

There was no getting out. There was no one coming to see me.

We were stuck at Minette”s.


Let me tell you about Minette.

Minette is kind funny and generous and…well…I…if you are going to be snowbound somewhere in Cincinnati for the weekend, Minette’s is not a bad place to be stuck. Her only drawback is she that asks a lot of questions, which isn’t awful unless you are watching a movie with her.

“Why is he walking in that house??”
“I don’t know Minette. The movie started 30 seconds ago.”
“Oh okay. Who is that woman he said hello to?”

You get the picture.

I’m glad you like MInette,” I said to Saul later that day.

Is it possible not to like Minette?” was his reply.


So our formerly tightly wound scheduled day turned into a lazy lounging day of eating homemade chili (we really like chili in Cincinnati), homemade tomato soup, napping, more chili and tomato soup, more napping, walking in the snowy woods near the house, buying malts at UDF—(UDF malts are another Cincinnati tradition. They are as good as Skyline but with the added benefit of sugar—lots and lots of sugar. Even “Steve” couldn’t argue with UDF malts.).

min4 min3 min2 min CINSNOW4 CINSNOW2 CINSNOW

 (Frolicking in the Snow With Jeff and Minette) 


(Why Cincinnati Has Never Made the ‘Top Thinest City’ List)

After the malts we naturally had to take another nap. Sugar highs are exhausting.

Later we heroically mustered up the energy to watch two movies in Minette and Jeff’s basement on a large screen high def TV sprawled across two overstuffed comfy couches.

After a day like that I didn’t need to hear PETUNIA to know we needed a good nights sleep to recover from all that napping.

CINCINNATI…DAY 3–Get Me To The Church On Time

It was the last day of what was becoming our snowbound getaway and my brother Paul and his girlfriend Donna were able to make the trek across snowy roads to join us. We celebrated their arrival by changing out of our pajamas (a herculean task) and getting another UDF malt.

The streets had cleared up so we reluctantly left Jeff and Minette behind to tour the city even though facing life without them, and their food, entertainment, hospitality and soft bed seemed tragically bleak indeed.

I have to give this Saul guy credit in that he was actually excited to tour Cincinnati That is a rare quality to find in anyone.

We were determined to see the inside of churches before we left the city. We liked looking at churches when we travelled. It had become our “thing”. Some couples like key swapping parties. We liked exploring churches.

Luckily the downtown Catholic cathedra and the Jewish synagogue were right across from each other so we could kill two birds with one stone . First we tried the cathedral and excitedly tugged on the huge wooden doors only to find them locked This seemed inhospitable especially on a Sunday afternoon but the synagogue was right behind us and seemed even more grand and beautiful so we dashed across the street with our hopes high and ran up to the doors and….

Like everything else this weekend,  things weren’t turning out as we planned. In that moment I began to understand the term Rolling with the Punches which if you think about it is a pretty violent and unpleasant thing to have to do.


Paul, Donna, Saul and I wander around a tiny but beautiful church high atop a hill overlooking the beautiful Ohio River. We are the only four people in the church and can’t believe our luck.

In a last ditch effort we had driven to this quaint part of town called Mt. Adams before heading to the airport. I remembered this tiny but locally famous beautiful church from my childhood but surely it would be locked like all the other churches right?

But here we were…inside…the four of us alone. We had this magical little chapel all to ourselves.

We walked around in awe as the winter sun shone through the stained glass from above and candles flickered from corners warming the faces of the saints and virgins from below.

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate and bow to the beauty and grace of a place like this.

As I looked out the window down the frozen river below us, I remembered how I wanted to turn around in the taxi at the beginning of the trip. I was afraid as I saw my wonderful illusion of a perfectly controlled weekend tragically slip trough my tight clutches

I had to change plans, listen to my partner’s needs over my own (well…at least a few times) and although I missed seeing some of my cherished family this time around I got beautiful snow that I didn’t have to shovel, and lots of naps and food and love.

I had to wind and flow like that river to ultimately arrive to this sacred place I now stood with people I cherished.

Besides…as much as I love my family deeply–maybe in the end it’s better they be introduced in small doses.

(Coming Up  With Profound River Metaphors in Mt Adams)


If you know me you know I like my signs.

Like I said, the day before my trip I saw a cardinal outside my window.

On the very last day as I was loading my suitcase into the rental car I saw four cardinal’s outside Minette’s window

And on the plane ride home when I asked for club soda or seltzer, the flight attendant told me they were all out.

“The only thing I can offer you is Fresca.”

My mom loved Fresca.

She adored Fresca.

She lived for Fresca until the day she died.

Think what you will but I know she was reminding me that letting go was the way to go.

I ordered two Fresca’s and settled in for the ride.


(A Sign)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is busy trying to control his life.

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Keith Hoffman lives with his artist husband, dog and two cats in the small town Lambertville, New Jersey 72 miles outside of New York City. He has completed a memoir entitled The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.

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