In a Grain of Sand

Starry mum.jpg

The alarm chirps merrily. I roll over and smack it, and Mark throws off his blankets. Then no one moves. Time pauses—suspends, momentarily.

Then Mark sighs and rolls out of bed, unhooks the C-Pap and turns it off, and trudges off to the bathroom.

Wednesday morning: he is off to the gym before work. I drowse and wake.

“I should get up,” says the brash, panicky person who lives in my head, and I look at the insistent digital screen. 6:20 a.m.

“Or…” replies the calmer, mellower, mind-mate, “I could sleep for another ten minutes.”

I drift away, float into a tiny cloud of sleep, a dimple of time just big enough to let me slip back into dreams.

I wake up, and the clock face reads 6:29.

I am awake. That nine minutes was just long enough.

***********

I pummel the bed into shape. Never one for matchy-matchy linens, I have a nicely woven white sheet on the mattress. I push pillows aside, pull that fitted sheet up, tuck it in firmly. Then I rotate around the bed, tucking in the sides and bottom, until it is satisfyingly taut. I smooth the top sheet—a faded, apple green and blue check—up over it. I bundle up the soft old comforter. I fold the sheet over its top and smooth it down.

I pluck the pillows, one by one, from the chair, and I plump them. Two are clad in cases that match the top sheet. Two are in fine old cases that I scored at a thrift store years ago; these cases are maroon and green, the plaid a lot like that in Catholic school uniforms. These cases always make me smile.

There is one more pillow, the odd one I slide behind my head when I am reading in bed. It is clad in crisp white linen. I center it on the plaid pillows, and step back, and a little something snicks into place.

I feel like Goldilocks. The bed, somehow, just seems right.

**********

The coffee is brewing; my hair smells like apple blossom shampoo. It’s still almost dark out, and the house is quiet. I rummage in the cupboard for my morning pages binder, find my Pentel RSVP pen. I pull out two sheets of loose-leaf and settle in at the table.

“What’s today?” I ask my muddled self, and I slide my phone over and press the home button.

“Oh,” I think, when it lights up to tell me the date. October 10th. Dennis’s birthday.

How old would Dennis be? How long has he been gone? I pull open my letter-writing drawer and find my parents’ address book snugged in among post-its and address labels and packets of refills for long-forgotten ink pens. I flip to the back where my mother meticulously recorded birthdays and death days, anniversaries and the dates of hospital stays and surgeries.

Dennis, her Palmer method handwriting tells me, was born in 1946. He would have been 72 today.

He was 55 when he died. He was the biggest brother. Now all of us, even Sean, the youngest, are permanently older than Dennis will ever become.

Dennis called me not long after we moved to Ada, moved on our big adventure: Mark, at forty-somethin’-somethin’, was going to law school. Some people thought we were irresponsible to up and sell the house, to move into a trailer, to uproot Jim from school, to pursue Mark’s dream, which he had held to, fast and tight, over all the years.

“I wonder what Jim and Jean would have thought?” Dennis mused on the phone that night. He thought, he said, that we were ballsy and cool, but he hoped we wouldn’t drift away, geography trumping relationship. I heard real concern in his voice.

“Never happen!” I assured him, glibly, and he asked me if there was any place to camp near Ada.

We had just passed a neat little RV park that afternoon. Although it had a lake that we, growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, would scoff at and call a pond, it was neat and trim; it had all the amenities.

Dennis and Judy had just gotten a pop-up camper.

“I’ll send you the info,” I said, and Dennis said, “This Fall…”

But by Fall, he was dead, and we had buried him and returned to a life that was different from the one we’d known, and a life that would never, biggest brother missing, be quite the same.

Dennis was sweetly sincere and occasionally arrogant, tender and cynical, haunted and hope-filled. He was newly retired and just getting started, logging in surprising successes. Life was new, and he was out to embrace every possibility.

And then he died.

We didn’t have enough time, I think, smoothing the clean, blue-lined field of my loose-leaf. We didn’t have enough.

And what does THAT mean? answers the smart-ass voice in my head. Maybe you had enough time. Maybe you had plenty. And maybe you just wasted too much.

**************

Before I remember the brother I miss in my morning pages, I put a little note on Facebook about his birthday. Sharon, a more-family-than-friend kind of person, replies almost immediately, and it warms me to know that memories are shared. I snap a photo of the address book page and text it to Shayne Dennise, whose birthday is recorded there, along with her father’s, in her grandma’s hand.  We text back and forth for a round or two, and I feel that satisfaction of connection being made.

And then I go out to get the newspaper. I stand on the brick front step and breathe in, deep; the weather is changing. There’s a shivering little breeze and acorns fall audibly. Two deer, chewing contentedly in Deirdre’s front lawn, glance at me without alarm. The mugginess is fading.

I bend to reach the newspaper, flung under a little gray chair that holds a pumpkin, and I see that a perfect, star-shaped leaf has wedged itself into the mum that is just beginning to bloom. It is a perfect image; it is, somehow, just the right image. I pull out my phone and take a photo.

************

I open a brand-new box of granola for breakfast; I pour it into a plaid ceramic bowl and float it in skim milk and enjoy the crunch and the sweetness. I read the morning paper and I do the word puzzles, and what’s jumbled becomes orderly; hidden meanings emerge.

I work through my email and I grade some papers—some stellar papers; sometimes, it’s a joy to grade papers. I happen on a brand-new recipe that will combine the peppers a friend gave me with exactly what’s waiting in my crisper and my freezer. I take things out to thaw for dinner, and I write a letter, and I make out a check and put it in an envelope to pay a bill. Then I walk the half-mile to the mailbox, and I slide the envelopes safely inside, and walk home, swinging my arms.

The weather is perfect, sun sliding out behind clouds, pleasant breeze, pavement drying after a night’s rain. I will, I think, get the Shark out and vacuum the furniture and the carpet on the stairs; I will grade a few more papers. I’ll make sure Jim is up in time to shower and eat before work; and I stop for a moment, thankful to the core that the boy has found work he loves and is taking courses that help him grow.

I round the corner and leaves are falling; Sandy’s tree always goes first, and she has a spreading gold stain in her side yard. Our sweet gum tree has begun to eject leaves; some float lazily, right now, down into the yard I just mowed. And more will meander off the tree and into the grass, but it will take them until December to be well and fully shed.

And, suddenly, almost physically, it strikes me that it’s enough. Today is enough. I know that there will be striving and discontentment and problems; I know that people will dissemble and back out of their promises, and that, sometimes, I will be one of those people. There will be disagreements.

Adjustments will need to be made.

But maybe it’s wisdom whispered from a brother speaking from another realm: this morning, the colors are true and the outline is clear and the picture is fully realized. Tomorrow (even, maybe, later today) I will enter the fray again. I will struggle with responding authentically to environmental warning, and I will try to determine my role in a political landscape that seems lunar in its strangeness. I will rail against responsibilities I undertook freely, and I will lament lack of time, lack of money, lack of understanding and ambition.

I know all that will happen, but this morning, kicking away the crisp leaves and the rubbery sweet gum pods as I walk back up the black-topped driveway, I feel as if everything has clicked neatly into place. For this one morning, this one moment, I realize: everything is in focus. This is, for right now, enough.

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Lightening Strikes

September is a nice month. I like September.

But this year September was a little…grindy.

September was a new routine, a return to teaching in earnest after a time away. September was writing tests and creating assignments and acclimating to a whole new learning management system. September was figuring out rides and fitting walks in, in-between, and grading big batches of papers.

And September was a big event, a master responsibility, that grabbed the month’s hem and stuck a pike through it, pinning it down firmly. September said, “I’m holding you here, right here, until you get this planned and shopped and communicated and executed.”

“No shirking,” said September, “and no time to waste.”

September, a bossy, belligerent month, grasped my wrists and pulled me along, dragged me over pot-holed roads, and didn’t care when I pleaded with it to slow down.

I like September.  But, gee.

So I slogged along; what else, after all, can we do? I learned all the students’ names, and I got to a point where I could ramble reasonably through their on-line course world. I graded papers; that rhythm kicked in. And paychecks came in—paychecks: oh, boy! I filled the freezers and lined the pantry and shoved cleaning supplies under the sink. The house was stocked, and James was rolling along in his new fall schedule, and Mark was getting up three times a week to hit the gym.

 
And then, all of a sudden, that event was over.

And one morning, I woke up and stepped out the back door; the five deer nibbling on the frail bushes at the back of the side yard looked at me, mildly curious. I waved to them, and I thought, “Something is different.”

And I realized the air was lighter and fresher, the sky was softer and closer, the leaves were trembling and turning.

October, I realized, has come.

***************

I round the corner, heading home, and see the flower pots on the little gray chairs at the side of the house. The flowers—red and yellow-orange and white—that we nurtured along all summer (flowers that went along with us, sort of good-naturedly, but never really sprang into ecstatic bloom),…well, those flowers are dead. I park in the carport and wander down the brick path on the side of the house; I grab the black plastic pots and drag them out behind the carport. I trundle the little chairs to the front, put one on either side of the front door, and James and I go shopping. We buy two fat pumpkins to sit on the chairs. We buy two hearty mums to sit in front of them.

I take the summer wreath, with its soft violet flowers, from the door. Later that day, I splurge on a new wreath, one with pine cones and wheaten sheaves, little orange gourds and pumpkins,–one twisted with bronze and golden autumn leaves.  I hang the harvest wreath on my door.

Across the street, one neighbor has filled her window-boxes with tiny orange pumpkins, and another has hay bales and scare-crows in her front yard. October! says the neighborhood, and we all relax a little because the grass slows down. The lawn doesn’t need to be cut every day that it doesn’t rain, and we can sit outside, in the cool wash of the early evening. We can sip a coffee, read a book, and not be nagged by that thought that I really should mow…

The larder is full. Some deep urge impels me to buy things I might ordinarily pass by—leeks and potatoes, squash and beans. The freezers are filled; the pantry is stocked.

It’s October now, and I wake one Sunday morning and think: STEW. I pad downstairs, barefoot; pad down another set of stairs to the basement. I root in the well-stocked freezer until I find a boneless beef roast, and I set it out to thaw.

That afternoon, I cube the meat and shake it in a plastic bag, coating it with oat flour and a fine dusting of potato starch, and I sauté it in a thin pool of sizzling olive oil. I add onions, sliced thin; garlic, crushed; and carrot coins. I defrost beef broth and pour it in. I crumble herbs between my palms and sprinkle them over the bubbling pot; I toss in a bay leaf. I shake salt and pepper. A concoction, I think, and I feel like maybe I should be waving fingers over the pot, chanting about toil and trouble. It is October, after all.

I turn the heat down, and, later, I add the potatoes; the rich stew simmers all afternoon. We eat it from thick white ceramic bowls as the sky darkens on that Sunday night, sitting at the scarred oak table, feeling safe and sated and secure.

I give in, again and again, to the impulse to cook big pots of chili, of spaghetti sauce, of stew, of soups. Harvest time: that sense of completion, of reaping the benefit of our hard work during the growing season.

The sky is navy blue velvet, deep and secretive, by 7:10 p.m. I am drawn to reading fat books, to carefully plotting out my sewing projects. I gather in birthday gifts for October’s special people. I write letters, and I use the stamps with the scratch and sniff popsicles—summer’s leftover stamps,—to pay the bills.

One afternoon, I go through my syllabus and realize that it is midterm, and that we have, next week, a midterm break. I feel that lightness in my shoulders; I remember the student joy of break time. I think about planning a solitary October adventure on that magically unlocked day.

I get my calendar out and realize that there’s a treat built into every week of October. There are lunches with friends. There is Mark’s birthday coming. There is a hay ride (how is it that I, growing up in western New York farm country, have never been on a hay ride? Forty years later, I’ll make up the lack). There are road trips and get-togethers, and there’s the impending fun of trick or treaters.

Thanksgiving, I think. Christmas! I make lists. I start ordering books for our December book flood.

I think of baking apple crisp, and I plan to stop at the farm market on my way home from the far-flung campus. But a storm breaks, clean and sudden, just before I round that corner; I come home without apples.

But it’s okay: there is time.

**********

And that’s the message of October, isn’t it? There is time now. Take a breath.

The hot scramble of summer is over; the hard and grinding September slog is past. I stride briskly on my morning walks. Acorns pocka pocka all around. Each day, more leaves accept their autumn gold, their last-legs crimson. The trees hold on tight for one last minute; they sigh and then release. I walk and leaves float down around me, and I am glad of the warmth of long pants, of my long-sleeved shirt.

The air has lightened, and it swirls.

The harvest is in. Some ancient rhythm quells my rushed thoughts, whispers that the harvest is safe, the animals are snug. The braw, boisterous work of the year is coming to an end.

The urgency and the burden of completion have lifted, and a door has opened into a restful, thankful time. September has ground away the rough edges; October bathes us in clear amber light. We settle in, the striving over for a little time. For now, it’s time to savor what we’ve wrought.

The winds blow; rain clatters at the windows. I grab my book and head for the reading chair.

Uncivil Liberties

After a long string of HOT, it was a beautiful day for a walk. I let my arms swing, and the wind blew the hair back out of my eyes. There were lots of people out this morning: I said hello to other morning walkers and to kids and their moms and grandmas and caregivers who were waiting for school buses. I stopped to talk with a dog walker or two, and then, on the home stretch, I ran into a woman—call her Geraldine–I know because she works hard for worthy causes all over town.

We stopped to chat for a moment.

“How are you?” asked Geraldine.

I opened my mouth to reply.

“Oh, I KNOW,” she said, quickly jumping into the void. “It’s hot, isn’t it? That’s why you’re out here in the morning. Better to be in the house, in the air conditioning, in the hot afternoons.”

I realized I hadn’t told Geraldine I was teaching this semester, so I opened my mouth again. But Geraldine got there first.

“Did I tell you we spent a month in Florida this summer? My daughter had twins and we were happy to help. But HOT? Oh, my goodness. We never left the house except to get into the air-conditioned car and go to an air-conditioned restaurant or supermarket. But those babies! They are so cute. And healthy, thank God.”

Geraldine cocked her head and looked at me expectantly. I started to ask her whether the twins were boys or girls or both, when she looked down and tsk-tsk-ed.

“Wouldn’t you think,” she said, “the city could FIX these sidewalks. How many times have you almost tripped on this jagged cement? I know,” she said before I could answer what was clearly a rhetorical question. “dozens, right?”

She patted my arm. “Well,” she said. “I’d better run. Chet will be wondering where I am.” She marched off, but then she turned around and smiled back at me.

“So nice,” she called, “to talk with you.”

I smiled faintly and waved and thought, But you didn’t talk with me. You talked TO me.

I like Geraldine, I really, really do. But our exchange—or her monologue—was the last in a list of creeping incivilities that I’d been totting up all week.

I walked home wondering whether people have lost the art of listening to each other. Perhaps it’s a skill no longer taught…but that doesn’t explain Geraldine, who’s (I think evilly) a good ten years older than me, went to school when listening was a learned skill, and should know better.

Too much exposure to media that demands one-sided interaction, maybe?

******************

I’ve been thinking of dear Kim, lost to cancer at age 62; her birthday would have been this month, and she’s been on my mind. Kim and I cooked up some schemes together that flew (we talked our church into sponsoring a fun food-sculpture activity to benefit the hungry way back in the day, for instance. I moved away shortly after that, but Kim turned the event, which she dubbed Can-Do, into a tradition.) And we dreamed some schemes that never came to pass. One of those was a newsletter we’d call Civil Discourse, a place where we’d demonstrate that we all can listen to each other, agree or disagree with each other, and do it in a respectful, intelligent, courteous, meaningful way.

We talked about that concept a lot and sent each other articles and wrote up paragraphs that might seed some ideas, and we kept the email lines buzzing with our thoughts. But we never got that cumbersome craft to lift off from the sticky grounds of our imaginations.

We agreed, though: something needs to be done. The art of civility is fast disappearing.

I miss Kim.

And I miss the chance to talk with her about the rules of discourse, and about the niceties, the things we once took for granted (oh, I’m sounding old), that become more and more rare.

******************

At home, I pour myself a coffee, and before I can sit down, the mail slides through the door. I go to fetch that tumble of paper and I stand by the table, sorting.

There is junk mail. I stack some for the recycle bin, immediately. I snip the ones that offer one or all of us instant credit cards. Preapproved! No annual fees! (I would prefer that no one searching through the bins of paper find a credit opportunity in my name. Snip. Snip, Snip.)

There are ads with coupons. I cut away the ones we’ll use and put the remainder in the recycling pile.

Jim has two slim packages.

There are—oh, joy!—two handwritten envelopes, and the handwriting is familiar and much-loved.

And there is an oversize, glossy postcard. It has a distorted picture of a gubernatorial candidate, an ugly close-up, on the front. The text on the back tells me why I should spurn, hate, and vote against this man. It goes beyond hype; it plunges into vitriol.

I examine the card for a return address. (When similar hate mail appeared before the special election not long ago, I wrote and asked the responsible party to stop sending those missives to me. Tell me the good things about YOUR candidate, I wrote, but don’t send me poison to taint the opponent. I’m not reading mail from the haters. The postcards stopped coming to me. They still slid through the mail slot, though, addressed to my husband or my son, instead.)

There’s a vague mention of a committee. There’s no address. When I go on-line, I can’t find that special committee to contact them.

It’s a little chilling, this anonymous, hate-filled doggerel, sleek and expensive looking, floating through my doorway, tainting my day.

Remember our mothers wagging fingers and saying, “If you can’t say anything good…”?

Remember the rules of civil engagement?

Remember when the candidate whose team leveled low blows would be accused of taking cheap shots?

I believe that we need a fair press that honestly reports the good and the bad, the outstanding and the indifferent, about those who want to lead us. I’m tired of the hateful half-truths and innuendo.

I want the candidate’s team to tell me what their person’s qualifications are. I don’t want to know how well they sling their mud.

*****************

After lunch, I pulled up my college email. There are several messages from students.

Three of them have no subject line, and no message. Each sports an attachment.

I carefully compose an email to those students.

“I see you’ve sent me an email with an attachment,” I write. “Would you please re-send this? I would appreciate it very much if you’d put your class number and section as the subject. Then, please write a message telling me what you’ve attached, and what you’re hoping I will do.”

I end with thanks for their time and attention. I hope I am teaching a little email etiquette.

I have teaching friends who delete subject-less emails. I have teaching friends who will not respond to emails with attachments but no messages.

Email is a relatively new technology, yes, but it’s been around long enough that we can develop some expectations about e-courtesy.

******************

At school the next day, I park far enough away that I can stretch my legs walking to the building, and I head across the crosswalk. There is a yellow sandwich board in the middle of this intersection; it sports a red-lettered sign that reads, “STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS.”

I step out into the road, but the gleaming black SUV barreling down at me is clearly not stopping. I leap backward, and try to make eye contact with the driver, a woman of about my age. She keeps her gaze straight ahead and does not meet my glance.

She ignores me pointing to the sign that tells her to stop.

So does the silver pickup that streaks by, blowing the hair back off my forehead, and the little white sedan. Both of those drivers, too, keep their faces rigidly focused on the road ahead, carefully not catching my eye.

In class that day, working with my college students, we share a treat of cookies and grapes—it’s Nat’s birthday, after all. Every single student stops to thank me for the goodies, and each of them wishes Nat a happy day.

My spirits lift a little.

**************************

Because I have been getting discouraged. What’s happening to us?

We often don’t listen. And maybe, after the need for water, food, and shelter, one of our most basic human needs is to be heard.

Our politics are polarized; fact and reason give way to emotion. I picture two raucous camps divided by a wall so high that we can’t see each other. It’s not so high, though, that wall, that we can’t fling our garbage gleefully to the other side.

And then, imbued with righteousness, we are deeply insulted when steaming, stinking bags of rubbish come flying back.

I want to find the dignity of debate and engage in a real search for truth and understanding.

Our daily interactions are rushed and abrupt; we are tense and intent on our own needs, and we studiously avoid considering the people we rush by.

We seem driven. We’re unhappy.

Civility, I mourn. Where have you gone?

Something, I think, needs to be done.

***************

I am sitting at my computer desk when Jim begins telling me a long story about a show he’s been watching. I start out smiling and nodding, but my right hand soon creeps to the mouse. I click and open.

As I pretend to be listening, I am focused instead on a rousing game of Forty Thieves.

Jim winds down.

“I’ll stop bothering you,” he says, and heads downstairs.

Nice message you gave that boy, I think to myself.

**************

I am cleaning out my email and I groan a little bit because there’s a message from an awkward acquaintance, someone who has a funny way of expressing herself, who always seems to be on the offensive. But I open it, and sure enough, she makes several suggestions I could implement to improve myself and my methods.

It’s hard, of course, to read tone into emails, but I do it, anyway, ascribing her motives.

“Beee-yatch,” I think automatically, contemptuously, and then I reign myself in, appalled.

This is a person, after all, who deserves my respect, and who, despite her clumsy communications, truly does mean well.

I close the email without an immediate response; I will wait until I can respond with kindness and with clarity.

***************

We are at lunch and Mark is telling me about a thing that happened that morning. All the while I am making just the right sympathetic noises in the pauses that demand them, I am running through my to-do list in my head. I am envisioning shopping and errands, trying to decide when I will have time to, finally, paint the dining room.

The conversation winds down and I can’t remind one thing that we said.

*************

I am not, always, civil, myself. And before I start complaining loudly about the state of the world, I need to consider the state of my life.

More and more I think, as I decry so many things—the state of the environment, the nastiness of politics, and the lack of general civility,—the only place that I can make a start is HERE.

So I bring my stainless steel straws to the restaurant. I pack my re-usable shopping bags when I got to the supermarket.

I write letters, honest letters, questioning letters, mournful letters, to the people who’ve been elected to represent me.

And I shut my mouth. I take my reluctant fingers off the keyboard, I place my hands in my lap, and I try, very hard, to make contact. I really, really work on my listening.

I remember to remind myself that every person has inherent dignity; I try to head off my knee-jerk derision before it occurs.

When I hear the voice of a chatty, opinionated acquaintance in the supermarket, I do not run to dive down the nearest unpopulated aisle. I shop along and when we meet, I smile and say hello and stop to talk for a minute that does, indeed, last longer than I’d like. But it’s not an interlude long enough to harm me or my comfortable life.

I resolve to be civil myself before I demand that others meet my highfaluting standards.

*************

It is not enough. It is far from enough. Our broken, jagged-edged world needs much more healing; there are so many sharp edges that can grab at our fabric, rip our soft and unprotected skins. My efforts are not much more than fluttering, but I cannot demand great, sweeping changes when I’m unwilling to change myself.

I can’t be marching and carrying a sign that says, “Clean up our common space!!!!” when my own room is hopelessly cluttered.

There is so much more to do, but I am not sure what next steps to take, what might help and what might make a difference. So today, while I am trying to figure it out, I’ll just keep trying to pull myself back to the present, to attention, to kind and compassionate response.

Today, just to begin, I will keep my ears open. And I will try to keep a civil tongue in my head.

Have Yourself A Party (A Loolie Tale)

“Here,” says Loolie. “Do you still like to do these?”

She hands me her local paper, opened to the puzzle page. And there, — oh, joy! — are both the Jumble and the Cryptoquote.

I grab a pen and happily plunge into my usual morning routine. I unscramble the Jumble, read the funnies, then take a piece of loose-leaf paper out of my bag and transcribe the Cryptoquote.

Now I can solve it and weave its message—sweet, silly, or profound,–into the way I approach this day.

************

We are sitting at Loolie’s broad kitchen table, savoring our morning coffee. It’s been a good visit; we met up with four of our dearest high school friends, forty years later, and we collaborated on a wonderful dinner in Loolie’s kitchen. We each brought photos and we cracked open our dusty yearbooks.

We reflected on then, but we really concentrated on now: on who we’ve become and on the journeys that brought us to here and on celebrating the sweet essence of those unknowing young girls, all those years back.

Some of that essential sweetness, we were all delighted to discover, still remains.

Two of us–TJ and me—bunked out in Loolie’s lovely home. And now it is 7:30 on a quiet Sunday morning. While we wait for TJ to rise and shine, wait to fix breakfast together before we pack up and say our goodbyes, I solve the Cryptoquote.

The words were Jorge Luis Borges’. Here is what they said:

“So you plant your own garden and embellish your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring flowers to you.”

Borges Quote

“Huh,” I say, and Loolie, of course, says, “Let me see.”

She studies the paper and she grins.

“Yep,” she says. “He’s got it just right.”

******************

Loolie gets up and pours herself another steaming mug. She gestures at me with the pot; I shake my head, and she returns it to its machine. Then, she whirls back to the table in her flowing, multicolored bathrobe.

As she settles into her seat, I can see it coming on. Jogged by the Borges quote, we are in for a story.

“You know,” she starts, catching my eye to make sure I am fully engaged, “for all of their married life, Dan’s father gave Dewey a Whitman’s Sampler and a bouquet of flowers from the supermarket for her birthday. Dewey hated it! She’d made a big happy fuss the first time he did it, so he figured that was just the ticket. It took her a couple of years to realize that he’d just forgotten her birthday and run into the supermarket and grabbed the first festive things he could find.

“By the time she figured it out, the candy and the flowers were a tradition. That was it, Dewey said; that was her birthday. She spent hours of time and effort making sure everyone else had such wonderful birthdays, Mort and the kids and her in-laws, even; planned surprises and meals and treats and good friends and games—all the things the birthday person loved. But on her birthday: the Sampler. The flowers, which she had to cut and arrange so they looked like something special. Cards and gifts from the kids. And then a great dispersal, and Dewey was left getting dinner on the table and then cleaning up as Mort went off to watch the news and the kids went to do homework.”

Loolie sighed, and she took a deep slug of coffee. She plunked her mug down on the table.

“It got, Dewey told me, to the point where she HATED her birthday. ‘Say something!’ I’d tell her. ‘DO something about it!’ But she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

“Then Dan and I got married. The first year was all romantic. The second year, our feet had hit ground, and I was pregnant, and we were both working crap jobs and money was tight…and on my birthday, Dan came home with a Whitman’s sampler and supermarket flowers.”

“Oh, NO,” I said.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “He was tired and stressed, and I didn’t have the heart to say anything that night. But I understood how disappointed Dewey was, year after year. And I have to tell you, I really hate the chocolate in a Whitman’s Sampler.”

She sighed again, and we heard TJ stomping down the stairs, and we poured her coffee and got organized and started tag-teaming bacon, eggs, and toast. And we caught TJ up on the topic, and Loolie picked up the thread of her story.

“So the next year,” she said, “there I was, home with a baby who needed LOTS of attention, tired and bedraggled. And I thought to myself: this year of all years, I need a wonderful birthday.

“So I started dropping hints—they were more like blatant infomercials than hints, actually. I needed a new jacket, I told Dan, and I wrote down the size and the style and the store. I really wanted to get out and see a movie. I gave him THAT info, too. I mentioned that his mother was dying to come and stay so she could babysit.

“And about a month before my birthday, I started leaving notes that said things like, ‘Only thirty shopping days left till Loolie’s birthday!’ I’d put them on the fridge. I’d write them in soap on the bathroom mirror. I’d tuck them into his pants pockets.

“I was pretty sure I had it covered. On the day of my birthday, I took Kerri’s little hand and we waved Dan off to work together. I cleaned the house that day, so it would look nice when Dewey—surprise!–showed up. And I got the baby down to sleep about four, so I could shower and dress up a little, put on some make-up. Be ready.

“And Dan came home and he looked at me in surprise. ‘YOU look nice,’ he said.” Loolie paused, dramatically. “And just guess what he handed me?”

“Oh, NO,” TJ and I said, together.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “And I vowed it was the last Whitman’s Sampler birthday I would ever endure.”

There was a long pause. Lools likes to check and make sure her audience is listening. I tong-ed the bacon onto a paper towel-covered plate and put it on the table.

“What,” I asked, “happened the next year?”

TJ brought a plate of buttered toast to the table and slid into her seat. Loolie spooned fluffy scrambled eggs onto all of our plates, replenished our coffee, and continued her tale.

“The next year,” Loolie said, “I decided I was going to give myself the best birthday ever. I was back working by then, but I took the day off and I took Kerri to daycare anyway. Then I went home and soaked in a bubble bath. I got gussied up and I met Peggy for lunch at the Forum. I love Greek food,” she said dreamily, “and we had the best lunch. First time I ever tried ouzo, too.” She grinned. I’m thinking she might have tried more than one.

“After lunch, I took myself out shopping,” Loolie said. “I bought myself a pair of jeans, and I got my hair shampooed, and then I went and got a massage. On my way to pick Kerri up, I stopped at this wonderful chocolate shop and I bought myself a quarter pound of chocolate covered caramels.

“It was the BEST day. And when Dan came home with the Sampler and the flowers, it was almost funny. But the next day, I suggested to him that he take the chocolates to work and share them. I told him that was too much candy for me, and I hated to see it go stale.

“’I thought you LOVED Whitman’s Samplers,’ he said, and I told him, gently, that no, I really didn’t.”

Loolie got a little thoughtful, and it was clear she was playing her years with Dan out in her mind.

“He never got me a Whitman’s Sampler after that. There were a few years when he really tried and my birthdays were filled with wonderful surprises. And then there were the years when things started going south, and a birthday surprise would not have made much difference to the sadness we were living.

“BUT,” she said, and she looked at us and twinkled. “I have celebrated my birthday just the way I wanted to ever since. I’ve always taken the day off, made wonderful lunch plans, and pampered myself with the special things I long for the rest of the year. And, you know what? If people forget, well, that’s okay. But when they remember, it’s just wonderful—like all this extra icing on top of a cake that was heavenly in the first place. The calls and the cards and the mementos are all wonderfully unexpected surprises. I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that the reason they’re so wonderful is that I don’t DEPEND on getting them.”

We sit quietly for a little bit, finishing up our breakfasts, sipping last mugs of steaming brew.

“I told Dewey about it,” Loolie says, “after Dan and I split, while Mort was still around. And she loved the idea. She started going  to a movie matinee on her birthday, with a friend. Mort always hated going to the show. And she gets herself a hot fudge sundae afterward. She still does that, at 88. She said it turned her birthday from something she dreaded and resented into a day she looks forward to all year.”

We’re quiet for a minute. Then TJ says, “I love it. SO much better than being a long-suffering martyr.”

“So much better,” I agree.

We push ourselves reluctantly away from the table; we carry dishes and scrub pans and wipe down the table. And then TJ and I drag our bags downstairs and stash them in the trunks and come back in to say our goodbyes.

Loolie hugs us both tight. “Embellish your own souls, ladies,” she says, and she hands me the folded loose-leaf with the deciphered Cryptoquote.

We promise to text on safe arrival, and we look forward to a planned visit in a couple of months, and then TJ and I get into our cars, back down the drive, honk our farewells and head off in our separate directions.

Then I pull out onto the Interstate, thoughts buzzing. Loolie always distills issues down to their roots, and things seem so simple. Why WOULDN’T one go out and grab the things she wants, rather than sitting and waiting for those things to be bestowed? Why wouldn’t she shape her days rather than waiting to see what shape others would give them?

But I remember stern dictates from the 1960’s and 1970’s. A lady never calls a man. A girl never asks a boy out. So, often, a person sat on her hands, waiting for someone else to open the door for her, the door she dearly wanted to go through.  It was a kind of self-imposed disability, so ingrained that to make the first move was impossible.

And I remember, too, avidly reading articles with titles like, “Make Him Think It Was HIS Idea!” or “How to get Him to Do What You Want him To Do Without Asking!” It was an age when subtle manipulation and the fine art of passive aggression were the tools to achieve an end.

I never learned those tricks.

And then things exploded, in the late sixties and early seventies, and there was a push for equality.

You want to get to know him? Go talk to him.

You want to have lunch with him? Go ask him.

I never quite mastered the art of forthrightness, either. A lot of us wandered, I think, in a kind of hazy gray area in-between.

But how much better, I think, sliding into the left-hand lane to pass a lumbering semi, to take the Loolie approach. Decide what you want (that, it seems to me, is half the battle), and then take steps to put that desire into place. Simple, elegant, and no one suffers from misconceptions…or from forty years of Whitman’s Samplers when that’s not her heart’s fond wish.

I finally reach the spot where the FM reception is good, and I turn on the radio and find an oldies station. And wouldn’t you know it, the first song they play is Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond singing, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”

“Plant your own damned garden,” I say to Barbra. And then I turn the song up so I can, in the anonymity of my speeding vehicle, sing along.

Piecing It Together: Making a Start

You didn’t just go out and buy all the fabric even if you had the money, which most of the members did not. You made quilts out of what was on hand, like flowered feed sacks or pieces remaining when you cut out a blouse, or from trading scraps with one another. You got pleasure knowing this piece was left over from your high school graduation dress or that one was passed down from your grandmother.

—Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club

Squares.jpg

A gray and glowery afternoon. The house is fairly clean, my grading is pretty well caught up, and my head is pounding. I take my book and sit in the reading chair.

I am asleep before I get through the first paragraph.

I wake up, abruptly, a scant twenty minutes later. There’s a command clearly lodged in my mind: Work on your quilt.

So I stand up, quickly, to comply. Time, at last, to make a start.

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Image result for bookshelf quilt image

Bookshelf quilt image from Pinterest.com

I think my friend Theresa first sent me a picture of a bookshelf quilt; since then, I’ve seen them on line many times. The squares look like books—neatly standing, straight up; leaning; stacked flat; toppling. The background is black. The borders are brown, like shelves.

So cute, I thought, and then I studied the pictures, enlarging them, looking at the detail. I could DO that, I realized, and I thought about a quilt as big as a bedspread, –a queen-sized quilt with fabric images of all the books we love.

What would be better than that to snuggle under with a book on a raw and windy winter night?

I began gathering and collecting material.

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I have made one other hand-pieced quilt, long ago, back in the 1990’s. My boss’s wife, a skilled seamstress named Jannie, invited my colleague Lisa and me to make simple quilts with her. We would cut fabric into triangles, match the triangles to make squares, and put the squares together in strips. We’d sew the strips together and decide on backing and borders. And, in the doing, we’d have crafting time together—time to talk and savor the feeling of creation.

Jannie and Lisa went out and shopped carefully for material; they were making quilts for their daughters, ten years apart in age: an off-to-college quilt; a now-you’re-a-big-girl quilt. I went home and went through drawers. I found old curtains I’d made in college, blue jeans gentled by time into suede-y softness, leftover material from projects long completed or abandoned. I got out my sewing shears and cut away seams and hems and created squares just the size I needed.

It was Mark’s first year of law school, and money was stretched so thin I could see right through it. I didn’t have the cash to go out and buy fabric, so I’d make myself a vintage quilt, a snuggle-while-watching-television quilt.

I cut away worn spots, and carefully saved the buttons I picked off, sliding them into the button tin—buttons from generations of thrifty women,—my mother had given me. I saved pockets; surely there was something fun one could do with old pockets.

I sat and sewed with Jannie and Lisa and created a crazy quilt top. I quilted it onto a soft old blue blanket. I bordered it with brown calico scraps. We hung that quilt over the back of the lounge chair in the living room, and, for years, and in four different homes, one or the other of us grabbed that soft, warm covering on chilly nights—snuggled up under it and watched us some TV. Last year, the fabric scraps finally wore thin; the blue blanket, pilled and sad from one too many washings, poked through.

There were holes in places. The dog tried to nestle the quilt into a cozy bundle and got her claw caught in one. The claw bent backward; the dog howled piteously; and I realized it was time, at last, to throw that threadbare blankie OUT.

But I didn’t feel bad; the blanket had been a new life for old cloth, old garments. Quilted, they lasted about 15 years longer than their original purposes would have let them live.

*************

Toward the end of her life, my mother made quilts. I have the first one she made, with Sunbonnet Sue embroidered on it, and solid, brightly colored patches alternating with pretty, country patterns. Some of the patches are worn to gauze; the quilt has been used and used and washed and used again. I save it, now, afraid of its frailty, not wanting to let it go.

Mom's first quilt

Mom decided she would make quilts for all the grandchildren, from the oldest on down, and so Brian and Jason got their quilts. Then her health started to slip, and hospitalizations began to happen. Mom would take her graph paper and colored pencils to the hospitals; when she was well enough to concentrate, she would sketch out quilts.

She made one for Shayne, and one for Meg, one for Matthew, and one for Ben. She had Jessica’s all planned out when she died. I have that soft and flannel-y piece of graph paper somewhere; when I come upon it again, I will send it to Jess, who did receive one of her Grandma’s other quilts. It was a flying geese pattern, made, maybe, when my mother knew that her own flight was imminent and unavoidable.

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I decided that, for the bookcase quilt, too, I don’t want to buy fabric. I want my fabric books, like my real ones, to have been touched, to be a little worn, and to have a history. I’m going to sort through old clothes, cut them carefully apart, make neat and even squares. I have some old black patterned bed clothes (what phase was I traversing when I decided black sheets would be chic? Sheesh. But I’m glad I have them now.) The pattern is soft and faded, and those will be perfect for the dark background the books will rest against.

I have a pair of brown slacks that just never fit right, and I have some brown pillow cases whose feel I just never liked against my cheek. They will become the shelves that frame the books.

I iron out and cut apart an old Hawaiian short of Jim’s. It is blue with beige flowers picked out in black. I cut away the collar, turn my scissors up the side seams. I take the sleeves off.

The hems of the shirt are fraying. I snip away the tattered edges, and I clip off the buttons to save. I salvage a pocket, which I think I’ll use in wrapping a gift for a child— the three-year-old son of a young colleague of Mark’s. I’ll glue the pocket onto the wrapping, which will hold a book; I’ll slide a bookmark, and perhaps a lollipop, into it.

And then I have flat pieces of Hawaiian print material. I take out my template and cut as many 8.5 by 8.5-inch squares as I can get. I stack them in a box, and I trim up the smaller pieces and put them in a basket. The edges and scraps, I put into a plastic shopping bag. I wonder, briefly, if I could use them as stuffing, tie them into a rug, or create a scrap fabric wreath. But I wrench my attention sternly back to the job at hand.

I envision the fabric books, and I realize I need fabric with tiny stripes to look like pages. We have purged all of Mark’s striped shirts, taking the ones that don’t fit, the ones he wouldn’t wear, to thrift shops or donating them to a clothes closet. But I see exactly the kind of stripes I need in my mind’s eye.

I slip on my shoes, and I drive to Goodwill and buy five striped shirts for eight dollars. They are perfectly page-patterned. I search out and throw away all their labels and price tags, and I throw the shirts into the washer.

Shirts

The bookshelf quilt is growing real in my mind.

*************

I pull out my beautiful quilted bag to carry my books to class. Terry made this bag, a masterpiece in its autumn colors. The quilting is more detailed and expert than any I will ever accomplish; I have to let that go and know that my funny, homespun attempts will be a different kind of special.

Terry

Terry gave several of us, all of us leaving the same place of work at the same time, quilted bags. When we get together once a month, old colleagues now retired or working at different jobs, one of us usually has her Terry bag with her. The bags are sturdy, creatively made, practical and lovely at the same time. They bring to mind, now I think about it, their creator.

There’s another work connection quilt, one that rests, neatly folded, on the end of my bed. Just before three of us retired, our younger colleague Barbara invited us out to lunch. She wrestled us for the check, insistent she would pay, and when we walked out to climb into our cars, she stopped us. From her back seat, she pulled three beautiful quilts she’d made, in colors that made her think of the receivers. She placed them in our arms and shushed away our thanks and drove off with a smile and a wave. We stood there, we three women of a certain age, jaws open, arms full, light-headed with shock and delight. The quilts were incredibly lovely.

Barb

I couldn’t resist playing with a quilt metaphor, silently, for the three of us so gifted were retiring from positions that would no longer exist. Our work was being spread out and carefully cut apart. Certain patches would be sent to different offices. Some pieces—although we’d thought that fabric was sturdy and strong—would be tossed away.

It was part of the process of leaving, to see what was become something new, but for each of us, it was hard in a different way.

So it is good to meet each month, now, and to spread out the new pieces we’ve acquired, to see a new, upbeat, resilient pattern emerging.

*****************

One of my favorite books, The Persian Pickle Club, centers on a group of women who quilt together during the Depression in dust-bowl Kansas. They are old and young and in-between, married, single, and no longer wed. Some would face starvation if not for her friends, and some have the wherewithal to be generous. All have their sorrows, and all have a fierce loyalty to the other members of the club.

PPC.jpg

And then comes Rita, who has married Tom, the son of one of the quilters. Rita is a city girl. She can type and she can do the latest dances; she can write newspaper articles and she can walk into a room of strangers without a qualm. But her country skills—cooking from scratch and scrubbing a floor, keeping a fire hot and piecing a quilt—those are sorely lacking.

And she doesn’t understand; Rita doesn’t see the pattern or understand what weaves things together. The first time she meets with the Pickles, the women, although Rita’s stitches are looped and sloppy, encourage her to take up quilting. And Rita, to be polite, says, sure. Sure she will. Maybe, she says, she can get Tom to take her to the department store, where she’ll buy enough fabric to make a quilt.

There is a shocked silence. How can the women tell her that one doesn’t BUY fabric to make a quilt; that one uses what one has? One rejuvenates the worn-out sheets and tablecloths; one spreads out her dearly loved ‘best’ dress, worn now beyond all patching, and cuts away the finest parts to savor in a quilt.

Every quilt they craft is a kind of living history. The women don’t try to explain this to Rita. But they each reach into their quilting bags, and they pull out pieces of fabric, squares and scraps and shiny silks, and they pass them down to their new friend. They tell her the stories behind each swatch she receives. When she leaves that day, she has enough quilting material to make a baby blanket for a friend.

And she begins, just faintly, to get a glimmer of the pattern the other women had grown up seeing.

*********************

The weather turns; the 90-degree days slide off, backward. Clouds tumble together, thunder rumbles, and the temperature plummets. The AC clicks off and stays off. We open the doors to the screened-in porch. Rain-sweetened air rushes in, and the house is lightened.

I spend my free time wrestling with material. I wash it and iron it; I clip it and I smooth it out onto the dining room table. I trace squares and I save buttons; I pick out seams, and I notice that, even when the seams have been cut away, the buttons and collars removed, there is still a trace and a clue of what’s been before. I can look at squares from the old black pillowcases, smooth them out and know where the sweet spot was, the place our heads rested most of the time. I can see the vibrant, almost new colors of the fabric that waited, tucked away, folded inside the case.

I work at it for days, growing impatient, wanting to get to the creative, fun, pretty part, but wanting, too, to build a strong foundation for the blanket I see more and more clearly in my mind.

I’m just beginning the process, creating the pieces that I’ll put together; making sense of what no longer worked, revitalizing fabric I can’t bear to give away. There is something here, I want to say, about reducing things to their original parts in order to give them a whole new kind of life.

There is something here about making a new thing and honoring the past that made it possible.

I make my templates; I snip away the tatters, and I plan. This phase will be done—soon, I hope,–and then I can begin.

Piecing it together.

Trying to see the pattern.

Creating something new.

Autumn In All Its Crispness

It is 6:30 a.m. when Mark glides the Impala into the car port. He is back from the gym. The coffee is churgling to completeness, and I pull my morning pages notebook from the cabinet. I pop my morning old person’s pill, and I settle at the table.

But Mark does not come in. Before I pick up the pen, I go to check on him.

He is standing on the back steps, looking out over the yard. I step down onto the cement stoop and shoot him a quizzical glance.

“It’s just…nice,” he says.

I step up next to him, breathe deep. Birds are starting to trill and chitter, and there’s an underhum of cicada. The breeze brushes our hair back gently.

And it is cool, that special cool that only comes when autumn dances over. There’s a clarity to that coolness, a transparency that has nothing to say to summer’s humidity.

“Crisp,” I say.

“Crisp,” Mark agrees, and we stand there for a long moment, reluctant to leave that refreshment to enter a house that now seems stuffy and stale.

****************

Later that day, some tasks accomplished, I sit down to do some writing, and I find my mind is filled with empty rooms. I go wandering, looking for a topic, searching for a shard or a crumb that might lead me on a word trail. But, instead of the usual tumbled clutter, I find nothing.

I wait a bit, expecting an overhead door to open and some fine thought to come dropping in—to bounce on the bony floor of an empty room and come rolling over to nudge my consciousness, which is sitting sadly, its head in its hands. When nothing happens, I go to my prompt jar. I shake it, and I stir the little slips of paper. They are goads I prepared three years ago, over a period of a month or two, getting ready for moments like this: creating suggestions for the days when it seems there’s nothing to write about.

I stick my index finger deep into the papers, and I stir them again, bringing the bottom slips up to the top, bringing the oldest slips up to the present. I shake the jar, I swirl it around one more time, and then I reach in with finger and thumb—pincers—and I draw out one folded yellow sheet.

Here is what it says (I kid you not): CRISP.

Crisp.jpg

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Crisp is such an autumn word.

I remember crunching through autumn leaves with my mother, walking to pick up the big boys from the Catholic school down the street. I was dressed, if that memory serves, in my Little Red Riding Hood cape, which I had decided was a fashion necessity. I had my black ‘hard’ shoes on (sneakers were ‘soft’ shoes). Piles of leaves were snugged up against the stone retaining wall that fronted the school grounds, and I stood next to my mother and stomped on leaves.

They made me think of corn flakes before the milk hit.

“Crunchy!” I said, looking up at my mother.

“Crisp,” she agreed, eyes searching the emerging children for a brother who had, I think, a dental appointment.

“Crisp,” I whispered, and I knew she was right. Crisp was the perfect word for Fall.

*************

The air is crisp. The leaves are crisp. I like that. Crispness is what it is, sharp and hard and no-nonsense. Crisp doesn’t float on top of a ninety per cent humidity pool. Crisp grabs the curtain in one strong hand and pulls.

“So,” it says. “Take a look.”

And it shows us leaves shaking out of trees and cradling to the ground, and summer flowers drying into brittle black stalkiness and hard beige patches of grass that would pricker my feet if I were silly enough to walk on them barefoot.

“That’s it!” says Crisp. “Like it or not.”

I think of a person I’ve worked with recently, a tech support person, a busy lady, who sat me down, showed me exactly what I needed, and asked, “Anything else?”

“Uh…no,” I said. “No, I think I’m good.”

And she got up, trotted briskly around the desk and held open her door with a smile.

Dismissed, a little light-headed, I packed up my stuff and headed home. Where, when I got on my computer, I discovered that I did indeed have everything I needed to accomplish the task at hand.

My tech support person was crisp, but very, very helpful.

Crisp can be like a splash of vinegar in a spray bottle. Oh, the smell makes me wince. But when I spray my windows and scrub, it does its job, crisp, fast, and well.

**************

Of course, I start wondering about the roots of crisp, its definition, its etymology, and I log on, pulling up etymonline.com, which shares some wonderful facts.

Crisp, the site tells me, comes to us from the Old English, meaning “curly, crimped, wavy,” and being applied to heads of hair and pelts of sheep and such-like.

And before that, Latin had it at crispus, which meant the same. And way before that, in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots of the word, it was sker. And that meant to turn or to bend.

To turn or to bend! And I picture autumn reaching for the lamppost at the end of summer, grasping it firmly, and heaving the whole long body of its season around the corner that lamppost guards. For autumn is the turning season, isn’t it? It bends us inexorably, often unwillingly, toward the bare bold face of winter.

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But there is beauty and joy in crispness, too.

Here come those changeable days—one humid and summery, one crisp and clear. And on those crisp, clear days, back to schoolers gladly pull on long-sleeved shirts and long-legged pants. They wear wooly soft socks, and they lace up sturdy, beautiful new shoes, and they go off in crystal clear air to crunch and stomp and wind up in the classroom, cold-cheeked and open-minded.

On those days, teachers can just lift the hinged top of each noggin and liberally pour in the learning.

Crisp, clear, learning days.

Smoke floats on the outdoor breeze; in these climes, people still burn their leaves in autumn, spreading the ashy residue for enrichment. The air tangs; it bites with that pungent smoke upon it. Crisp—that smoke-scented air.

The leaves crisp up and fall. Warm rich colors bloom. The apples plump up and blush up and wait to be picked.

I drive by a farmer’s market every Tuesday and Thursday on my way to a campus in Coshocton. The first time I stop, it is for the mums: five mums for twenty dollars! I pack a couple of cardboard flats into the back seat and load them up with potted plants. A couple bloom gold; a couple are a kind of copper with a golden-orangey eye. There are some that are a sort of maroon, and one, at least, in an autumnal purple. Crisp colors for the season, for the front yard.

And then the apples begin to arrive, and I drive by a couple of times, and it’s like there’s a magnet there I can’t ignore. One sunny day, I pull in and look through; I chat with the helpful clerk—We like ours pretty crunchy, I tell her—and I load two burgeoning white paper bags of varnished fall fruit onto the floor of my back seat.

It is just warm enough that I roll the windows closed and turn on the AC. I  drive the thirty miles home with apple perfume floating around me, enticing me to think of recipes: apple pie, of course, and baked apples; applesauce  set to simmer with nutmeg and cinnamon all day in the crock pot.

And apple crisp, for heaven’s sake. What is autumn without an apple crisp to top off some kind of pork-y, potato-ey dinner?

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At home, I go searching. I look through my wooden recipe box of family recipes. I find apple bread and apple bars and apple cake instructions.

There are no recipes for apple crisp in my notebooks, or in the family cookbooks Jim put together for me. And then I know just where to look.

I pull up Jodi McKinney’s blog, The Creative Life In Between, and have the recipe I need within minutes—a crisp little expense of time:

Double Crumble Apple Crisp

Sunday, I think. Sunday will be an apple crisp/crisp apple day.

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Today I woke up and the sky was pressing down, trying to rub up against a damp and surly earth. Pushing humidity at me. Hot. Muggy. Dense.

But we have sker-red; we have turned the corner, bent the season. The muggy days will come, here and there, but more and more, we’ll feel the brisk breezes beneath the heat, and clear days will shove the dense and heavy ones aside.

Autumn is upon us, clear-eyed autumn, offering its hand to guide ours, ready to help us safely ascend into the shelter that winter demands we find. Autumn instructs us to harvest and save, to snuggle in and hunker down, to get ready for the frigid beauty that is winter.

Mark and I will greet more and more days on the cement back stoop as they rush in, cool and refreshing. I’ll take the energy those cool moments share.   I welcome Autumn, acerbic and plainspoken, that crispest of seasons.

Awake, You Sleepers!

Once there were three citizens of a bungalow-kingdom.

There was Lord Delancey, brave and strong and true, who strode forward each day, leaving the bungalow-boundaries. He went forth and slew any pesky dragons he encountered and then he returned, around 5:45, for dinner and a couple of episodes of Twin Peaks before retiring to his reading chair with a thick book of modern wisdom.

Lord D

(Someone once suggested to him that he could be known as the BungaLord, but he said, “No. Lord Delancey will be just fine, thank you.”)

There was Dame Dowenwanna. She’d slewn a few of her own dragons in the day, thank you very much, but, for the most part, she was pretty happy now to be the main bungalow-maintainer. She greased the wheels and stoked the fires and made sure the lamps were lit in the gathering dark.

Dame D

And finally there was young Lord Lyric, who was slowly but firmly, step by tender step, learning the art of dragon-slaying. He ventured out into that noble world just a little, but, every season, a little bit more.

And meantime, he chronicled BungaLife with his clever and witty songs.

Three citizens of Bungalow

All for one to make life go

Swift and smooth and straight and slick

Collaborate to make things tick!

And things hummed along pretty smoothly.

And then the power stopped surging to things here and there.

***********

First it was the garbage disposal. Dame Dowenwanna was preparing a lovely stew, with carrots and potatoes, celery and onion, and she gleefully peeled and diced and rough chopped. And then she sink-dumped the peelings and the scrapings and she pushed them toward the disposal’s metal maw—she pushed with a wooden spoon, turned a strong stream of water on the mushy mess, and hummed while she reached under the sink to flick on the disposal switch.

But, instead of the expected electronic, metallic gnashing, there was silence. No whirring into action. Nothing.

The sodden veggie peels waited, limp and disgusting.

Dame Dowenwanna toggled the switch. She took a break and let it rest and tried again. She kept it up for 15 minutes and then she said, “Something’s wrong.” She went and got a plastic bag and scraped all the veggie residue into it, and she disposed of those leavings by hand.

Scrapings.jpg

When Lord Delancey came home for dinner, she informed him of the issue. He stood at the sink, ran the water, and flicked the switch. And still, nothing happened.

There was a time of quiet, and then, between them, Lord and Dame, they called it.

“The garbage disposal,” they said, sadly, “is dead.”

Oh, we have lost our garbage disposal!

Will it be replaced?

Who knows,

Who knowsal?

Peely scrapey, where’ll you go???

“Why, thank you, Lord Lyric,” said Dame Dowenwanna. And the young Lord bowed and went to sit at the dining table. Disposal or not, dinner must be served.

**********

The next morning, Lord Lyric went to work at his computer. He was humming a merry little lay-about-y tune, brisk and sunny. The tune grew slower, and then it grew less sunny, and then a despondent Lord Lyric stuck his face through the kitchen doorway.

And he said this:

My monitor keeps dying!

“Oh, NO,” said Dame Dowenwanna.

“Perhaps,” said Lord Lyric, “when Lord Delancey comes back, we will call the corporate help desk together. Meanwhile,” and he pulled himself up to his full height, pointed his left index finger at the ceiling, and firmed up his voice, “meanwhile, I have no choice. I will have to type on my laptop.”

Lyric.jpg

Dame Dowenwanna shook her head sadly and went back to stuffing food scrapings into an old Kroger bag. She heard young Lyric singing from his workspace.

Oh, oh, lackaday me!

My monitor’s dark

And I can’t see

The words I’ve typed

Though I’ve squinted and stared

Oh, how long

Till it’s repaired?

***********

She bagged the garbage.

He used his laptop.

And the next night, as darkness spread its inky stain over the world, Lord Delancey opened the dishwasher door, and he stood assessing. Hip cocked, lips pursed, he looked, and then he thought, “Aha!”, and he bent down to act. He rearranged a glass and a plate. He moved a serving dish from top rack to bottom. He rinsed out his ice cream bowl, lodged it securely into the new space he’d created, and stepped back to look once more.

Satisfied, smiling, he drew a dishwasher pod from the cupboard under the sink, and he secured it firmly into the pod-place. And then he turned the dishwasher on.

But nothing happened.

He started over. He checked for obstructions. He insured the machine was plugged in.

And then he closed the door and tried again.

The machine did not respond.

***********

Oh, sang Lord Lyric,

There’s sadness in the land

And all the bungaladishes,

They must be washed by hand.

Those nasty pots a-soaking?

Attack them with a will-oh!

The dishwasher died,

And you’re left with just a

Brillo.

**********

Life went on in the bungalow, but it was just a little more bumpy. Dame Dowenwanna sighed a lot more often, and she clattered dishes when it was time for clean-up, and Lord Delancey found himself elbow-deep in soap suds much more regularly. And young Lyric muttered and grumbled as he pounded the fragile keyboard of his laptop.

Once a day, at least, one of them would mutter, We have to get this fixed!

But time went by, as time is wont to do. Days began and ended, months slipped by, and seasons changed.

Years,–yes, even years--passed.

***************

And then one morning—well, who knows why Dowenwanna did it? There, in the midst of her Saturday morning cleaning, she reverted to old habits, turned on the water, flipped an under-sink switch,—and Dame Dowenwanna began dancing around the kitchen, breakfast dishes be damned.

“Listen!” she caroled, and both the Lords came running—running to hear a raspy metallic chortle.

“The disposal!” she cried “It’s working!”

Lord Delancey grabbed her and they swung around in an elegant waltz, and Lord Lyric sang,

To life!

To life!

Disposal!

…which was the best he could do under such frenetic circumstances.

And Lord Lyric got a thoughtful look, and while Delancey and Dowenwanna danced, he slipped away to his desktop.

The only noise for just a bit was the musical chomping of the disposal and the pounding of four dancing feet,…but then! A triumphant song!

Oh, my monitor:

Happy day!

The lights are on

And I have to say,

A new cord’s

What made it work!

Two years dormant;

Oh, I feel like a jerk!

Ho, de hidey, ho de ho!

*********

And Dame Dowenwanna shooed Lord Delancey out of the kitchen, turned off the disposal and pulled out the mop so she could clean the floor. She swept and she scrubbed. She maneuvered the mop into corners and nooks; she mopped around Lyric’s large sneakered feet when he sidled in, in his joy, to get a snack. She pushed the mop beneath the moribund dishwasher and she hummed as she twiddled the mophead around, pulling out dust and ditties.

And then she swirled around, dancing the mop into the space surrounding the stove.

And Lyric stopped short.

“Dame,” he said.

And when she, humming, didn’t hear him, “DAME,” he said, louder.

And pointed toward the dishwasher.

Which was on.

They shouted in wonder; Delancey came running. They fiddled with buttons, touched spots on the touchscreen. They ran a refreshing rinse cycle.

Because it was true: the dishwasher, too, was working.

**********

Oh, oh, what do you know?

Machines must sleep!

Nap’s over, though.

A turn of events

Precisely stunning:

What once was junk,

Now is running!

Happy happy hey hey hey!

**********

Oh, the happy bungalow hum! Garbage disappeared, a desktop keyboard preened under a long overdue stroking, and three people woke up to gleaming, sanitized dishes.

What a day! What a wonderful day! Who knew that appliances, electronic devices, machines, could heal themselves!

Breakfast was a grand affair, and Delancey garbed himself for his daily foray—dragons were no match for a man with his dishwasher restored—and strode off into the thick of it.

Lyric, words pounding in his head, marched off to pound on his keyboard.

And Dowenwanna, after checking her email and ordering a book or two online, swirled through the house with the dust mop. She vanquished a few stubborn cobwebs, and she swiped a bit of fuzz from the woodwork.

And then she pulled the heavy old vacuum cleaner from the closet, let lose its cord, and plugged it in.

**********

Lyric came running when he heard her wail. He saw her, bent over the lifeless cleaning machine, the vacuum cleaner that refused to suck, and a dirge leapt into his mind. He opened his lips to sing.

But Dowenwanna lifted a hand, palm out.

“Don’t EVEN,” she said, and she wrapped the cord around the prongs and trundled the vacuum, verve vacated, back to its dark and lonely hiding place.

Vac

What We Hand Down

Ray takes care of our neighborhood. Several single women of varying ages, elderly couples of varying activity levels, busy young families, live all around us. Ray, a skilled handyman, works to keep their lawns mowed, their gutters cleaned, their windows washed and replaced when needed, their shingles and siding and roof tiles in good repair. I see him around the neighborhood almost every non-rainy day; he wears his long-sleeved, acid yellow, work shirt, long cargo pants and a baseball hat. (He is protected against the sun. Ray is probably somewhere in his fifties, and when age starts creeping in, delight in that beef jerky tanned look goes creeping out.)

When two friends asked about finding someone reliable to clean their gutters and do some autumnal house repairs, of course I thought of Ray. I went to Sandi’s door to see if she had his contact number; Sandi was not home. Phyllis seemed to be gone, too. But then, driving James home from work, I saw Ray out mowing her lawn.

I deposited the boy at home and walked over to talk with Ray.

******************

“Nah,” said Ray. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I got too much.” And he told me that, in addition to the neighborhood work that keeps him busy every single day, he manages a couple of apartment houses—does maintenance and repairs and, when needed, cleaning. And that week, all three skills were required, because a young tenant, months behind on the rent payments, had turned into a midnight runner.

Somehow, Ray said, they’d learned she debarked to someplace down south, leaving behind her a filthy flat with holes in the walls and broken windows and smelly, ratty clothing ankle-deep on all the floors of all the rooms. Ray needed to clean the place out, repair the holes and gashes and breaks, and paint and shampoo and scrub so the next tenant could move in to a place that was light and fresh and clean.

“These kids,” Ray said sadly, and he wiped an acid yellow arm over his beaded forehead. “They have no idea how to keep a place clean.”

“Who teaches them, I wonder?” I said, and I had a vision of kids growing up in chaos and moving out to live in chaos of their own making.

“Jeeeezzzz,” Ray answered, long and deep and distressed, “they don’t even know how to keep their laundry clean, half of ‘em. I think they run to WalMart when there’s no more clean socks.”

And we reminisced then, about our diligent mothers, who had Spring Cleaning and Fall Cleaning; who made us scrub down walls twice a year and wash the woodwork with Murphy’s Oil Soap suzzed up into a bucket of hot water. Who had days for washing and days for ironing, days that they baked and days they changed beds and scrubbed tub and toilet—because often, back then, the bathroom, no matter how many kids were crammed in the house, numbered one—and days they went to the market and brought home a week’s worth of groceries. They taught us, our mothers, to wield an iron and dry sparkling glasses in the dish drainer and to cook up a passable stew or spaghetti sauce. And though I certainly wasn’t grateful at the time, many’s the time I’ve silently thanked the household gods I had a clue about what to do when, and how to do it.

Ray, of course, as a boy back in the 1970’s, trained at his father’s school of household maintenance, too, and learned to change a fuse and run a mower, to stick his hands into gloves and clean disgusting, decomposing stuff out of gutters twice a year, to caulk a window and to reinforce a sagging table-leg and to keep a vegetable garden healthy and weed-free. He could seal a driveway and he could fix a small engine. He was good at those things, Ray was, and when he grew up and got married, he and his wife bought a fixer-upper and turned it into a proud-to-owner, and people started paying Ray to do the same for their houses.

We talked about all this, and then I asked Ray if he knew of anyone I could recommend to my friends who needed gutters cleaned.

Ray sighed, a shudder that shook his whole tired body, and he said no. “No one knows how to do this kind of work anymore,” he said sadly. “Or, if they do know how, they don’t want to do it.”

We talked a little bit more and then I thanked him and walked back home, leaving the man alone to get back to his work.

But the conversation stayed with me. I wonder: who’s passing the basic arts of living on down to our [collective] kids?

*********

Last week, Mark replaced the motor for the fan in the powder room. The old one had been dying, loudly and painfully, for a year, but every fourth or fifth time, we’d flick the switch, and the thing would hum into quiet, vibrant life, and we’d say, “See? It’s okay! There must have just been something stuck.” Mark took it apart and cleaned it, and it was great for ten days or so, and then it just was done.

So Mark, who’d learned home repair at HIS father’s school, took the old motor out and sat down at the computer and searched. It WAS an old motor, too—sturdy and reliable, it lasted upwards of thirty years without a hiccup or a grumble. It had a name and a number on it, limned in the dust of the ages, and, while Mark couldn’t find that exact make, he did find a motor that would fit exactly into the space left vacant.

He ordered it; it arrived in two days, and he installed it in the powder room. The only glitch was where the wires connected; they interfered with the vent going back on and Mark had to get creative. But he handled that and screwed the vent back on, and now, there’s the reassuring whir of the powder room fan whenever needed.

“I was thinking about it,” said Mark, “and I just could have replaced the whole fan. But I thought, we throw things out too easily. Why not fix what we’ve got?”

He probably saved fifty dollars on the project, and he walked around for days with that straight-backed sense of accomplishment: I fixed it.

The week that Mark fixed the fan, I walked by a house down the street on garbage pick-up morning. A huge TV—the kind that has an enclosed triangular bump-out behind the mega-screen—sat at the curb. I had a vision of a sleek new flat-screen sitting or hanging proudly in the house. Maybe the owners would have had, too, to replace the TV stand or entertainment center; with each new technological innovation, the furniture that holds our media grows also obsolete.

As I pumped on up the street, I conjured a vision of my father unscrewing the back of our old black and white TV (my parents didn’t get a color set until most of us kids had flown the coop; my mother always claimed the picture was better—crisper, more delineated—in the black and white world). Dad would hunker down and peer and fiddle; he’d decide which tube was causing the problem. He would disconnect that tube and put it in a bag and drive down, on a Saturday afternoon, to the TV repair shop. He’d return with a new tube to ease back in; he’d replace the back of the old TV, and he’d turn it on, cock his hips and purse his lips, and run out to play with the antenna settings on top of the house.

He’d complain about the cost of replacement tubes: Two dollars! he’d mutter, bitterly, but fixing the TV was always a priority.

Today our televisions are sealed mysteries; and when they’re done, they’re done. We put them out at the curb, and we go buy a new one.

So it’s nice when something, like Mark’s fan, can be repaired. And essential that the house guy has the skills to fix it.

************

There has been a break-off in there somewhere, in how homely arts are being passed down. Oh, there are still families that take their kids and anchor their little faces on the jobs at hand and patiently—even when it would be easier to let them go play and just do it themselves—tell them which tool to get and what it’s called and how to wield it, explain why the baking soda is necessary to the mixture, or show them how to plummet down onto their knees and thoroughly scrub a bathtub. But that’s, I think, the exception these days.

Because lots of things have happened.

Maybe some of the change took place in my generation—we who came of age in the sixties and seventies and rejected so much of what we were expected to mindlessly accept. We women, we would work outside the home. We would bring home the bacon, and fry up the bacon, and be perfectly seductive and sweet-smelling at the end of the day. A whole industry grew up to support us, an industry that includes labor-saving appliances and ready-to-heat foods and mixes.

Michael Pollan, in his essay, “Eat Food: Food Defined,” advises this (and it’s his all-caps): DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. Real food, says Pollan, was the kind of food people ate before squeeze tubes of yogurt appeared in the dairy case and cereal breakfast bars became a thing. Pollan calls the food we eat today—the processed, packaged foods of mysterious origin,—‘modern food.’

They’re complicated, these modern foods, he says, and there are many reasons to avoid them.

There were many reasons to embrace them too, though, when changes came. Women were busy—stay-at-home moms in the sixties, for instance, often had five or more kids, all at various ages and stages, all needing various things, including time and rides and soulful attention. And food. Putting a meal on the table at 5:30 when the ravenous dad came home could be a challenge after an afternoon spent picking up, dropping off, meeting kids after practice or rehearsal and getting them home in time for homework and making their beds and all the frou-frah of everyday life.

And just think how complicated that life would be if you were a mom who worked outside the home.

So what’d be wrong with taking a brick of burger from the freezer and stirring up, in twenty minutes or so, a hearty double pot of cheeseburger helper? And kids got used to the taste of powdered cheese mix, raised their eyebrows at concoctions that came from their mothers’ shelves and imaginations.

Why make a casserole from scratch when the family likes the Helper-style better?

And sometimes, the mixes WERE magically better. Hand-mixed and baked cakes, for instance, required patience and no loud thumping around the oven area for a good sixty minutes—a calm that could be tricky in a busy, bumptious household.  I can remember the first time my mother tried a cake mix, and the two chocolate layers came perfectly out of the oven, with their rounded tops and tender texture. She decanted them onto plates and let them cool; she frosted them into an exactly symmetrical, light and airy concoction.

Everyone loved that cake, and I don’t think my mother ever made another scratch cake after that. And I learned how to add mayonnaise to a chocolate cake mix, or spices to a yellow one, but I never learned, back then, to make a cake from scratch.

******************

We are busy: more employed than ever before, and more locked in to outside the home activities—into meetings and classes and practices and memberships. Cooking from scratch is often a fond memory; these days, family supper itself—even a fast food one–is a rare event.

And a whole industry stands ready to assure us that we really don’t have time to cook.

I remember discussing favorite foods with a favorite student once. She mentioned that she loved mac and cheese, and I told her I had a great recipe.

“How would THAT work?” she asked, truly curious. The only kind of mac and cheese she’d ever eaten came in a slender blue box.

********************

Another thing happened, sometime around those heady days of personal revolution and re-defining freedom: we decided, as a society, that everyone needed to go to college, preferably for a four-year degree.  I can remember my mother advocating what she called trade school—get a skill and get a job, she said, and then you can go to college if you want to. But you’d always, she suggested, have a skill to fall back on.

That was especially true for girls as divorce became more common; girls just couldn’t plan to be the home-half of a marriage partnership any more. Because husbands left for whatever reason, and wives were stuck with kids and mortgages and no viable resume.

My mother had shorthand skills and typed; when I went to high school, I looked forward to acquiring those skills, too, but my guidance counselor quickly disabused me. I could be business track or college track, and I had good grades. College track it was, and it would have taken organizational machinations to merge the two. So on to college I went, a two-fingered typist, wishing fervently that I’d at least found time for a keyboarding class. I graduated with my English literature degree and visited with friends who’d taken their business skills right to work after high school, and who were making more money than my father did after thirty years at the same plant.

But now, the jobs available have changed; the steel plants shuttered, manufacturing disappearing from US soil. Many industries demand at least a two-year degree of their entry level employees.

Going to college is an expectation. But what if learning a skill or a trade was an expectation, too—and what if we granted the earned respect to the people who did that?

********************

Maybe Madison Avenue did this on purpose; if we’re functionally dependent, we need to buy products and devices and services that once we would have made or fixed or done at home. But there’s a costly loss in terms of pride and satisfaction and tradition…and in the sense that we’re sending our kids off into the world with the skills they need to navigate most kinds of emergencies.

So I try to be mindful. I blow dust from my sewing chest and, when I iron a shirt and find a tiny tear, I take the time to mend it,–before a tiny tear become a roaring rip and a good shirt becomes a rag or a discard. I buy some soft, pretty yarn on sale, and, at night, watching that sleek flat screen TV, I knit throws for the family room. I dig out recipes books and remember how to make soups and stews.

I think about making chocolate cupcakes, and when I discover there’s no devil’s food cake mix, I try making a batch from scratch. They are denser and moister. They sink down, a little, in their centers. I find a recipe for salted caramel icing, and I fill the little dents with that, and then frost again over the tops. The boyos say they like them better than boxed—but they could be just being kind.

And once a week, I try to engage Jim in the kitchen, sautéing and stir-frying, chopping and creating. He wavers between reluctance and fascination.

He is firmly in the reluctant lane when we work on laundry and cleaning skills, but I persist. Slowly and surely, he’ll learn the skills; whether his house or apartment will meet the Mom-test—well, that’s not up to me. What’s up to me is to make sure he’s got the tools.

He’ll decide how to use them. Someday—and in the greater scheme of things, not so very far in the future—I’ll be gone. I hope he’ll be prepared, by then, for an independent life.

***********

I believe we are at a transition time, a time of cataclysmic change, as life-changing a time as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time of wonder and magical technology. It’s a time when we’ve become entirely dependent on what’s made by other hands—a time of both opportunity and great danger.

And part of that danger is in what can be lost—the skills, the confidence, the knowledge passed on.

************

I text my friends and tell them Ray is not available. They text back, sadly, that they understand.

A guy like that is bound to be busy, they say.

 

All of a Sudden: Mid-August

Leaves in the grass

I wake to the rattle of the spare room door. The wind, blowing in through the screened window, is shaking it. And a hard rain is driving down: the outdoor world a cacophony of discordant sounds—pelting and blowing and shaking.

I stumble over to prop the spare room’s door open. Then I crawl back into bed, pull the sheet up to my chin, and drift back off to sleep, oddly lulled by the dissonance.

In the morning, I slip my old shoes on and go outside. The grass is beaded with silver dew, and the little tree, the one by the kitchen window, has lost many of its leaves, pounded off by that insistent rain. They lay curled on the ground; they are golden and brown. They are harbingers of autumn.

It is August, the eighth month—the august month of portent and change.

*************

The library calls; the book I’ve requested is waiting for me. So Jim and I take an afternoon swing over, and, while he pores through the DVD’s, I take Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine to a table. This is an old, old book, with a third copyright date of 1968. There’s still a pocket in the front to hold a library card, and stamped dates march up and down the page. The oldest reads “FEB 79,” and it was taken out many times after that, too.

I flip to the first page of text and read, “It was a quiet morning…You had only to lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.” And I get to know Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, whose summer vacation is just beginning.

The novel takes place in 1928, but it describes a universal whoosh of “Welcome, Summer!” I felt it, this year, the first time I sat with my coffee at the wobbly patio table—maybe late in May—and realized the summer was opening up before me. There was so much I wanted to do, so many people to connect with. There were places to visit, meals to cook, and chronicles to write.

I gave myself up to that feeling of endless summer, and I  plunged: I did many of the things and saw many of the people. I visited some of the places, and I chronicled a tale or two.

And then, slick and sly, the pedestal whipped into a sudden turn, whirled me around a bend, and I looked straight into the eyes of August. Mid-August: that corner season.

August stared me down.

“Things are changing,” it said to me, and it turned its back and marched on.

Endless summer, I knew in that moment, had ended.

******************

August is rain. I open the weather app on my phone. Three of the next six days have thundercloud icons; two show suns peeking behind puffy cumulous-nimbuses. Only one day promises a clear sky and a pleasant temp.

It has rained almost every day this week; the crab grass which suddenly appeared this summer is tall and taunting.

I need to mow.

I need to spray a new coat of blacking on the metal patio chairs.

I need to hunker down and dig up the grass that is inching inward, overtaking the disappearing pavers that lead to the alley out back.

I plan to do all that in that one sunny day, and bowing to the season, start prepping the dining room to paint. August means working inside.

A memory pops up: my mother, keening at the window as rain streaks down the screen.

“It always rains on your vacation,” she says to my father.

My father manages my brothers’ little league team. Their season goes from May until July—longer if they make the play-offs, and they often do. There is no point, my father says, in taking time off until baseball season is over.

So August is vacation time, and we talk about trips to the lake and marathon backyard wiffle ball games. My father plans to paint the trim and change the oil and fix a couple of electrical things, outside.

But, my mother is right: it is August, and it always rains. My father sighs, and shrugs, and lights a cigarette. He turns a page of the newspaper in the quiet house.

And the rain pounds down.

***************

The newspaper is full of county fair news. The fair starts on Sunday, and, for 4-H kids throughout the county, a long year’s work is coming to its culmination. Fair week is competition week—kids will show their chickens and sheep, their goats and hogs and cows. They will shampoo and comb and coax; they will lead and prompt and try not to stumble. Solemn judges will watch and inspect and hand out ribbons and “master showman” honors.

People will bid on the livestock. Our butcher shop may have a sign: We purchased the best-of-show steer from Joey Shlagelholdt!

The winning kids’ hearts will leap—joy and pride, and sorrow, too, as they groom and stroke that winning creature one last time—preparing for the hand-off, knowing what it means.

In the buildings, other judges study handmade goods. They gently finger soft, knitted blankets, kneel down to peer at hand-painted pictures. They examine fragile antiques and vast collections. Some lucky judges slice into tall cakes on milk glass pedestals, cut into sugar crusted pies that ooze blueberry syrup.  Ribbons appear—yellow, red, and the royal blue ones. Ribbons that say, “Best of Show.”

The air is rich with steamy, fragrant, scents—Italian sausage, peppers and onions. Yeasty, cinnamon-y, fried dough.

The fair is the midway, too—the clash and grind of the rides, the whirling and spinning and laughter and screams. The people who travel with the fair seem rootless, disconnected; they open a curtain to let us look quickly into a different world, a mobile, ever-changing one. They carry a scent of the exotic, a little glint of danger. Middle school kids crowd the rides, in love with the mystery and their own daring.

August is the blatting of the loud-speaker, the harmonies of Montgomery Gentry and Jo Dee Messina, the free stickers at the political parties’ booths.  August is the county fair.

**********************

I need, I decide, a cooking day. One late morning, I buy two huge packages of ground chuck at the little supermarket—such a great deal, and so many things we can do with it! After lunch I dig out recipes—“Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs,” “Best Ever Meat Loaf,”—and I pull the big blue polka dot pasta bowl down from atop the cupboard. I make bread crumbs in the food processor: I measure milk and grated cheese and I crack eggs. I slide my wedding ring off and put it on the window sill, and I splay my fingers. I plunge my hands, wincing, into the cold, wet, eggy mess.

There is no other way to mix the meatballs.

I shape a tray full of big, bold meatballs for spaghetti. I make a tin of tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup.

While they roast in the oven, I pat meatloaf into pans, shape fat, hearty burgers, and stuff the remaining two pounds of meat into Tupperware. I carry a wobbling tower of packages to the chest freezer and pack them in.

When the meatballs are done, I pack them up and let them cool, and I think it’s a shame to waste an already heated oven.

I pull out dark brown sugar and dark and milk chocolate chips, flour, eggs, and butter, vanilla, and baking powder. I mix up a batch of cookies, drop lumpy balls onto cookie sheets, read a friendly novel while they bake.

I spatula golden, brown-edged cookies onto the broad old metal pizza pan, and when they are cooled, I stack them in my two plaid cookie jars.

It is August, and something deep within calls me to fill the larder, to preserve the fruits—to prepare for the darker days ahead.

*************************

I sit next to a solemn young Boy Scout at a board meeting; he must attend, for a badge, a public forum where differing opinions may be heard. He must write up a detailed report. He opens his notebook, writes, “Notes” at the top of the page, and neatly numbers down the margin.

“When does school start?” I ask him, not thinking, and his face darkens.

“Some day next WEEK,” he mutters, and I see that the joy of his endless summer has begun to leech away.

It always seems early, the mid-August back to school here in Ohio. It dazzled me, when we first moved here, to hear people say, on July Fourth, “Ah, summer’s almost over already!”

“What do you MEAN?” I wanted to chivvy them. “Summer’s not over until Labor Day.”

But, calendar be damned, summer ends when teachers report back for Preparation Days, when the football teams trot out onto the field and sully their pristine leggings with grass-stains, when the cross-country runners span out over the edge of the highway—fleet to fledgling,–and when the kids go back to school.

So summer ends, here, in August. Summer, as I thoughtlessly reminded my young colleague at the meeting, ends next week.

******************

I come home from another meeting to find packages on the front steps—new black pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a floaty black top. Back to school clothes, for me, for the first time in several years. This Fall, before the end of August, I will be back in the classroom, teaching at two different colleges, trying to rub the love of words into a hot incense between my palms…and then, opening my hands, I will puff, trying to diffuse at least a little, tentative breath of that heady brew into my students’ beings.

I know I won’t always be successful, but sometimes—oh, sometimes—those tendrils reach out and find a welcome.

And I am caught in the excitement of preparation, in what some of my colleagues over the years have called Syllabus Hell, a time of sitting with the calendar and looking at the assignments, ticking off the holidays and fitting the semester’s expectations into a neatly plotted chart. A time to craft and tweak assignments to elicit, if not outright excitement, then thought and reaction and a spill of words onto a page. Or many pages.

My inner child geek still lives on, loving the smell of new loose-leaf paper and the first bloopy scrawl from a virgin ballpoint pen, and the fun of planning the term.

And this year, post-retirement, I am reporting to a smart young professional, at one of my schools, who used to work with me—who has graduated from adjunct to full-time faculty, to program coordinator, and now to the overseer of adjunct faculty at a different college entirely. Creative, compassionate, energetic, she embraces the role, and I sit across the desk from her and sign the forms she passes my way and accept the textbooks she hands me.

I am retired and teaching because I want to. I am retired, and I get to exult in the trajectory of people I’ve mentored who go on to do wonderfully unexpected things.

August is a time of year, but I realize it is a time of life, too.

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I read my Bradbury and mourn for that endless summer feeling, but a little fizz of excitement bubbles, too: new students, cooler nights, celebrations. I will go out and buy new pens and spiral notebooks; I will get a pair of sensibly stylish black shoes. I’ll goad the boyos into an autumn wardrobe contemplation, and we’ll think about, maybe, an October adventure.

There are things to be done and things to be planned, and the last, tastiest dregs of summer to be shaken from the bottle, mixed up with clear, cold water, and enjoyed.

It is August, with that clear-cut sense of what is ending, and the mysterious promise of what might be about to begin.

 

 

 

Getting Catty With It

Cool Cat 2

Image taken from planwallpaper.com

Lately, I’ve been running into feline phrases, and this week, for some reason, I am driven to figure out their origins.

And there, I’ve done it again. I was going to try to build this essay slowly toward a focus. Instead, I’ve gone ahead and let the cat out of the bag.

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This whole cat-language obsession started a week or two ago. I published a blog post that said something about a thing being kitty-corner from another thing. My friend Marcie responded.

“I’ve always said CATTY-corner,” she wrote. “Have I been wrong all my life?”

I had heard catty-corner, of course, once or twice; it sounded wrong to MY ears, but I was betting it was kind of a regional issue. So I looked it up.

The Grammarist (http://grammarist.com/usage/catty-corner-kitty-corner/) told me this:

There are really THREE versions: kitty, catty, and CATER-corned. (The Grammarist prefers cater.) And they all come, the Grammarist tells me, from the Middle English catre-cornered, which means four-cornered. The term’s morphed through the years to today’s meaning–diagonally across the way,–and any of its forms are acceptable. The region in which we learn to use the term seems to define the choice.

So…no feline influence at all, at all. The Grammarist can keep her cater-,and Marcie can still use catty. I know, at this late stage and age, I’ll never switch from that ingrained kitty.

It is nice to know, for a change, that everyone is right.

And it gets me thinking about English as a catty kind of language.

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What about, for instance, the grand old term, ‘cattywampus’? There’s a word I’d love to throw into an appropriate spot. It comes, I learn, from a cobbling of Middle English and early southern dialect.

Will, on Quora.com (https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-origin-and-meaning-of-cattywampus) writes:

It’s a Southern American slang that is over 200 years old in origin. It roughly means askew or not in order and implies something totally deranged and screwed-up. Most recently I heard it applied to highway organization in and around Atlanta.

The word stole a little from Catty-corner and another Southern term Wampus (to flail about).

Oh, I’m looking forward to writing about something totally deranged and messed up, just so I can use this word…which also seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with a cat.

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So….let’s put the cat back in the bag and see how it got there.

And, oh, the things I find out when I go digging. The first published use of “letting the cat out of the bag,” Matt Soniak tells me on Mental Floss, was in London Magazine in 1760. A reviewer was critiquing a book; its author must have been just about as discreetly inclined as I am. Matt quotes the reviewer as writing, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/31180/whats-origin-let-cat-out-bag)

So the term’s meant the same thing for a while as it does now: to let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret, probably at a too-early stage. I need to figure out where that all got started, and Matt Soniak gives me two possible scenarios.

The first has nothing directly to do with a cat…or a secret, for that matter…but it does go right to painful consequences. This explanation has it that the ‘cat’ was not a sweetly purring animal at all, but a whip: the cat o’ nine tails used to mete out punishments to errant sailors. The whip was kept in a bag to keep it from drying out; hence, when punishment loomed, when consequences were about to be bruted out,  the whipping one would have to let the ‘cat’ out of the bag.

Eeeeeeuw.

The second explanation does have to do with a cat, but it’s no less ornery. Vendors, back in the day, would sell live piglets to those who wanted to raise a meaty sow or boar. They’d pack those piglets in sturdy bags, where the little thing would wriggle and raise a ruckus—so much so that buyers wouldn’t want to open the sack and check on the little beastie’s well-being. If they did, the piggie might just jump out and run away.

So unwary buyers might get all the way home to find they’d been given a kitty instead of a piggie. This turn of events, Matt Soniak tells me, not only accounts (maybe) for letting the cat out of the bag. It is also the origin of the cautionary saying, “Never buy a pig in a poke.”

At least, there’s really a furry feline involved, to some extent, in this turn of phrase.

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And my mind wanders to Cat Stevens, and from there to the cat in the cradle, and I wonder about that—that game we used to love to play in middle grades and middle school: cat’s cradle. So I look it up. And find, again, the feline connection is pretty flimsy.

The game of cat’s cradle seems to have been around since ancient times. It may have been, The Times of India tells me, a good-luck game played by ancient Greeks on special days; the passing of the cradle from hands to hands also spread good luck.  (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/What-is-the-origin-of-the-term-cats-cradle/articleshow/1429029.cms)

Wikipedia suggests the game may have originated in China.

But the game’s name had nothing to do with a cat. Whatever the ancient Greeks or Chinese called it, the theory is that the title changed when Christianity became entrenched. “Cat’s cradle” was a morphing of “Cratch cradle.”  And a cratch, according to Merriam-Webster, is a manger.

So when we weave those strings around our fingers, we’re not making a bed for a kitty cat. No, we’re weaving a safe, soft place for the little baby Jesus to sleep.

Maybe that’s why I learned to play the game in Catholic school.

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But surely some of our cat-language has feline roots. What about, I wonder, the pot of money called, in poker and in other places, a kitty?

I pull up a site called “Say Why Do I…” which has a promising picture of a cool cat in shades next to its definition of ‘kitty.’ And here is what I learn:

…although the term originated in poker games, it’s okay, now, to call any common pot of money a kitty. A PTA, for instance, might refer to the place they put fund-raising cash as its kitty. And there are, says “Say Why Do I…”, several theories for the way the term prowled into our language.

  • In the Middle Dutch Language, “kit” referred to the place—be it a bag or a barrel—where someone kept his tools. Card players borrowed that concept in an ironic kind of way. (“Say Why Do I…” tells me that language experts like this explanation the best.)
  • Or how about this? “Kitty,” back in the day, was a nickname for women who plied what some call the world’s oldest trade. When gents were playing cards in dens of ill repute, they would throw the money into the lap of a lady of the establishment. The money was held by a “Kitty.”
  • “Kitty” is also, the site asserts, slang for prison. So the money in the pot was imprisoned money until one card player freed it by luck or by skill.
  • And finally, there’s this possibility. Cockney slang is rhyming slang. (This reminds me of Basher, in Oceans 11, rhyming trouble with ‘Barney Rubble.’) So…money was often tossed, literally, into a hat. Cockney card players might rhyme that with kitty cat, and then shorten that to kitty…

…and again, no sign of a cat hair on ANY of these theories. Funny, isn’t it, how our language works?

http://www.saywhydoi.com/money-in-the-kitty-why-do-we-say-we-put-money-in-the-kitty/

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But, hey—what about that suave cat wearing the shades on the site I just left? What ABOUT the term, ‘cool cat’?

Ken Fishkin (https://www.quora.com/When-did-Americans-first-use-slang-to-equate-cats-with-coolness-as-in-the-phrase-cool-cat) asserts that it was jazz icon Louis Armstrong who popularized that phrase. Fishkin points to Armstrong’s song, “This Black Cat has Nine Lives” as evidence.

And that connection, at least, has a direct link to our aloof and oh-so-suave family pets. It’s their untouchably unruffled demeanor that makes humans want to imitate their coolth.

*******

Well, I’m feeling just a little bit disappointed in all the cat terms that are really not at all related to cats. I’m feeling snarky and cranky and like I want to be a little bit…catty. Mrrrreoow!

I look up catty, too. The Urban Dictionary tells me this is a gender neutral term (only women can, you’ll excuse me, be bitchy, the site suggests, but ANYONE can be catty.) It means to be “subtly or indirectly insulting.”

(https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=catty)

And here, too, the cat-connection is strong. Etymonline (https://www.etymonline.com/word/catty) tells me the term was first noted in 1886, and it meant “devious and spiteful.” It evolved, they think from cattish, which means, of course, “pertaining to cats.”

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So…all those cat terms and all those kitty terms and only a passing glance to the animal I always believed they gave homage to. English—what a language: affected by region, by story, by sly and clever turns of phrases disguising slightly (or overtly) shady connections. It seems a little askew, doesn’t it? A little deranged and screwed-up?

I love the language, of course, but please just let me say this. When I go digging into it, I have to suggest: English is often cattywampus.