Migration Pattern Each autumn, just like clockwork, snowbird Brenda Kirkpatrick prepares for her yearly flight to Las Vegas, where warm weather and her other life await.

October 28, 1997|By PATRICIA MEISOL | PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

Brenda Kirkpatrick wrapped her Christmas presents in August and delivered them in September. When the cold arrived, she battled to keep the telephone company from dumping books on the doorstep of her home in Columbia next spring. Then, last week, she got off a plane in a place where Old Bay seasoning costs twice its usual price. "I'm home," she cried after her feet hit the ground in Las Vegas.

Winter is approaching, and if Kirkpatrick couldn't take flight to her second home, her 58-year-old soul would be lost. Age, maturity, an attack of winter blues six years ago: These are factors that led her to float between two households, two churches, two sets of friends and two cultures.

This is her third season as a snowbird, someone who migrates to warmer climes in winter. At a calm pace, she removes the car battery, turns off the water, pays bills she can pay ahead of time, caulks the bathroom, schedules a flu shot -- all while maintaining her full routine of church meetings, parties and visits with friends and family.

The first year she waited until November to buy Christmas gifts and broke down in the post office in Nevada when she learned the cost to mail them. The next year she bought gifts in August and planned to deposit them early in the homes of her two children and nine grandchildren, but hit another bump: "Do you know how hard it is to find Christmas paper in July?"

Changing these routines is simple compared with tackling the bureaucratic quagmire snowbirds encounter state-to-state. Imagine paying full price for a half-year's trash pickup, taking a new driver's test every six months, finding a doctor in winter who meets the approval of a health maintenance organization chosen thousands of miles away in summer.

Kirkpatrick is working to solve these issues for herself and others. Last summer, she persuaded the American Association of Retired Persons to let her dig into their computers to learn where snowbirds go and who they are so she can propose model laws to ease their lifestyle. "We need ammunition," she says.

Her personal goal is no less ambitious: to get on the plane with only her pocketbook. It has never happened. This year, a half-price sale on makeup at Woolworth's helped fill one of her two suitcases.

A rule against dragging things back and forth is a blessing for a woman who shops as much as Kirkpatrick. Shelves of shoes, in hundreds of styles and colors, take up half a bedroom in her Columbia house. The custom closet has enough clothes for a two-year turnaround. Building a new collection in Las Vegas is not only practical, it's fun. But each wardrobe is different -- purples and blacks fill her closet here; different shades of sand there.

"Why carbon copy yourself?" she asks.

She met her husband at a convention in California and they corresponded for three years before they married in 1996. She didn't want to sell her Maryland home. Neither partner liked snow. "Let's do something different," they told each other, and they began exploring possible second homes. A light went on over their heads when they reached Nevada.

It was not the opportunity to gamble that appealed to them, but the availability of a full meal at 2 a.m., the opera, ballet, famous lounge acts, a tournament-level scrabble club, libraries open long hours, and side trips into the desert. Kirkpatrick wants it all -- life in the fast lane, but a moral life. She calls herself an active, practicing Christian.

As a guidance counselor at Baltimore City College for 30 years, she urged students to reach for the stars and showed them how to do it intelligently. She never understood why some kids wouldn't leave Baltimore even for a few weeks. "Good things come to people who wait? Insane," she says.

The question people ask Kirkpatrick most when they hear she lives in two states is, "Who watches your house?" She worried about that detail, too, but didn't let it stop her. "What's wrong with that picture? You can't enjoy life if you have to be watching the house."

People also say they could never leave their families for six months, as she does. She thinks that's merely an excuse. "Some people find comfort in predictability. They can't tolerate something that is open-ended or a situation in which they are not sure of the future or the outcome. I'm not like that because I do my homework," she says.

It's not that she doesn't love her children and grandchildren, she says, but she doesn't have to be in the same town to participate in their lives. Her relationships continue in letters and commentary, such as on the newspaper article she sent her daughter, a turtle-lover, about a local lady who dresses and walks her turtles. "See how far this can go?" Kirkpatrick wrote in the margin.

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