[Editor’s note: After the week’s issue of the newspaper went to press, Penny Carman Blume passed away on Tuesday afternoon, January 21, 2014.]
It’s not uncommon for me to wax rhapsodic about life in the Upper Delaware River Valley. Having lived in major cities and then making the choice to relocate to the Catskills changed my life in so many ways that I’ve lost count. One constant is that I had a pretty active social life back in the day and still do. If there is a difference between the two, it would be that small town life connects us in ways that (IMHO) simply do not occur in a larger area. I discovered this quickly the very first time I crossed the threshold of (what was then) Blanche’s Diner on Route 17B in the Mangaup Valley. I spied neighbors and friends, who were reading The River Reporter, as Blanche herself held court, while Bud cranked out Blanche’s famous flapjacks, calling out “order up!” to the ladies who worked the tables, smiling, laughing and catching up with the regulars.
An attractive blonde approached my table and shook my hand. “Hi, I’m Penny,” she said. “You’re new around here, right?” I nodded my head, introducing myself and asking for a recommendation. “It’s all great,” Penny replied. “You’re at Blanche’s Diner!” She was right, of course. I quickly learned that the place was legendary, and in an instant, the place, the staff and Penny became a big part of my life. I learned that we had many friends in common and that Penny was a “local” born and bred. A graduate of Liberty High School, she had so many pals that her name popped up wherever I went and over time, I realized that our lives were intertwined. While the pancakes were great, it was the camaraderie and conversation that drew me to the diner daily, and I dished with Penny, Bud and the crew, keeping them up on the news, while they sat at my table, schmoozing and smiling, working hard. Hundreds of breakfasts later, I strolled into the place, but Penny was nowhere to be seen. “Out sick today,” Blanche barked. “Don’t worry, she’ll be back.” As it turned out, Penny was pretty ill. It was 2011 and that week, the news wasn’t so good. Penny had been diagnosed with lung cancer and her prognosis, I learned, wasn’t great. While I was morose, Penny was surprisingly upbeat. “Watch and see,” she said, “I’m going to be the one who beats this.” The mother of two insisted that she had “a lot of livin’ to do,” and had “no intention of giving up,” proceeding to prove her point by learning everything she could and exploring every aspect of treatment available, all the while smiling through the occasional tears, losing her hair, and her boyfriend, but never giving in.
Once again, small town life showed me the way. Penny’s friends rallied ‘round, and her upbeat attitude was infectious. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” Penny admonished. “What do you think of my new wig?” It’s been said that “when one door closes…” and the point was driven home, when I learned that Penny had met a “very special man” named Don. The two found each other online, through a lung cancer survivors group, and what began as a friendship, quickly blossomed into romance. Their inspirational story became national news (abcnews.go.com/Health/couple-share-lung-cancer-undying-love/story?id=17231220) and has been covered extensively in stories across the globe and here at home, including a report on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Penny and Don’s romance was, according to her, “just what the doctor ordered,” and as they spent more and more time together, I found the best way to keep up with them both, was via Facebook. It was through social media that I recently learned that Penny was entering the final stage of her years-long struggle. A woman I didn’t know had written, “Asking my friends to please send prayers for my friend Penny, who is nearing the end of her battle with lung cancer.” Scrolling down the page, I was overwhelmed with the response. With more than 50 friends in common, I recognized many names sending prayers to Penny, Don and to her family, but it was the incredible outpouring of emotion from those I didn’t know that affected me more. “You are a beautiful person,” one wrote, “I’m so happy you got your wish to celebrate your 50th birthday.” Hundreds of messages have appeared on Penny’s page and Don keeps us updated hourly on her journey, which is drawing to a close. Words like “admiration, strength, courage, inspiration and love” play across the screen as so many share their thoughts during this difficult time. Sitting at my desk, I scroll through the years. “I have the most amazing friends!” Penny wrote in March of 2012 and then in September shared this: “I would like to thank all of the people who have made the telling of [our] story possible.” Don posted a few hours ago with these words: “The family wants to thank everyone for the overwhelming love and support you are showing Penny. I know she can feel it… and just to be sure, I am whispering it all in her ear as they come in.” Turns out that “A Penny for your thoughts” is priceless.