Stuff to Ponder on Mother’s Day Weekend

We are driving, for the first time in well over a year, to western New York State. It won’t be a long visit, and we won’t be able to see everyone we long to see. But Mark will be able to visit with his mother; he missed seeing her on her last birthday and her last Mother’s Day.

And we’ll see Matthew and Julie, who is the wonderful mother of our wonderful granddaughters.

It’s been too long, and it’s been too COVID-y, and we are glad that, in our newly vaccinated states, we can travel, with care, a little more freely.

And the wheels thrum on the highway, and the countryside changes…morphs into remembered settings. The hills, the Lake, remembered landmarks. Missing landmarks.

It is Mother’s Day weekend.

We are returning to the scene of the crime(s).

Memories come flooding.

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I press my forehead against the cool glass of the passenger’s window and I remember odd and random things.

I remember, when we lived on Whallon Street in Mayville—even before the birth of young James—we had a lovely neighbor named Helen. Helen gardened; she mentored me patiently, bringing me cuttings of almost indestructible perennial flowers.

Sometimes I would destroy them. Helen would bring me more.

For inspiration, I would walk past her house. She had transformed the front yard into an English garden, with burgeoning trellises and ample borders and flowers—white and purple, red, pink, and yellow,—-flowers, flowers, flowers from early spring until late fall.

One year Helen walked down the street, laughing, and told us to come see her Mother’s Day present.

In her front yard, a truck was dumping a pungent load of organic matter.

We looked at the stuff, and we looked at Helen, puzzled.

“It’s MANURE!” she said. “My kids got me a load of cow shit for Mother’s Day, and I LOVE it!!”

She really did love that gift, too, and she loved it that her kids came over to help her shovel, to fertilize the uncultivated spaces where Helen could grow even more amazing plants.

We saw her a week later, and she was still grinning.

“Best Mother’s Day EVER,” she said.

One just never knows.

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I know we always tried hard on Mother’s Day; I don’t remember the gifts themselves or their reception, except for one. That was a plastic waste basket that fit over the console in my parents’ blue Pontiac; it had a place for a lunch-sized bag in the trash compartment, and little slots to hold other things—reading glasses, maybe, or pens and a notepad.

It was a gift at a time when my parents, my father newly retired, were venturing out to do a little traveling.

My mother normally didn’t go on about presents, except to protest their expense, but she raved about that little plastic wastebasket. It made trips so much NEATER, she said.

Then she added, “But you shouldn’t have spent so much.”

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I remember, at my first ‘big girl job,’ when a colleague in another office lost her mother to death. Three of us in my office, three youngish professional women, all had mothers who were deceased.

My boss wrote something like this to our colleague: “This is a club I am sorry you had to join.”

Our colleague glared at us after she read that. She didn’t want to be one of us.

She would stomp by us in the hallway.

She was so, so bereft, and so, so angry, and it took a lot of time to soften that.

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It takes a while for some of us to accept it when our mothers die. It felt to me like opening a door at the top of the stairs and walking out, surprised, onto the roof of the building. Now there was nothing between me and the sky and the edge.

Now I was at the top, unprotected, on my own.

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The miles churn away under the car’s thrumming tires, and I think about the aftermath of my mother’s death. It was like this: like I discovered a sturdy backpack I had to label now and carry.

I bedazzled that sucker.

I embossed “Guilt” on the flat side, on the side that rubbed against my back.

On the flap in front, I painstakingly bedazzled, “Regrets.”

And then I stuffed that backpack. I loaded it up with all the times my mother had hurt me. I jammed in every fight and misunderstanding we ever had.

And then I shoved in all the things I’d said that I wished I hadn’t, all the times I was dismissive, every instance when I did not bother to try to understand.

Those last things—they were the heaviest on all.

I set that backpack on a high table, and I backed up to it, and I slid my arms into the straps, and I hefted it.

The bumpy, bedazzled ‘Guilt’ chafed my back. The weight pulled at my shoulders.

I tried to forget it was there, sometimes, but I carried that backpack with me always.

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The Lake sweeps into view right around 4:00, right around Northeast, PA, and suddenly I remember a night. I was in college, a junior or senior; it was summer; and for some reason, my friends and I all decided it would be great to take our mothers out. This was not the kind of thing we were normally wont to do, and we had to scrape together the funds from our part-time jobs; but we got feverish about the thing, and we wanted to do it right.

Our mothers were surprised at the invitation, and they were, maybe, a little wary. Going out was not something these hardworking women often did; they were housewives, survivors of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. It wasn’t so long ago that they’d traded their housedresses in for slacks. My mother had just gotten her first pair of jeans.

Going out for a night on the town with the girls was for them a rare,–a very rare—occurrence.

And they none of them got along swimmingly with their daughters all the time. But somehow the notion captured all of us, both generations.

Let’s all go out!

We made our plans. Dinner; then, maybe, drinks and a live band.

And we dolled ourselves up, and we arranged rides together, and we met at a restaurant…one that, because it was a above a burger joint named Mark’s, called itself, majestically, the Top of the Mark.

We ate a lovely dinner, and we all had a little wine, and our mothers, who didn’t really know each other very well, began to relax. They loved the food. They told embarrassing stories about their darling daughters. We told funny, sly stories about our fathers, about times when our mothers got around them, lovingly, in ingenious ways. We laughed and laughed.

When dinner was over, we suggested going to a kind of night-clubby kind of place to listen to the band. The night club was on the Lake; the weather may have been just like today’s—clearing but chilly. (Something made me remember this.)

Mom, to my surprise, enthusiastically agreed. We bundled into cars and went to the club.

We settled in at a table near the little stage, and the band leader, a dark, handsome man with piercing eyes, came over to talk with us. Someone explained that it was a night on the town for our mothers. He seemed bowled over by this.

“The daughters are taking the mothers out?” he asked, as if this was a very unusual thing.

He made us feel proud. We sat up straighter.

“Yep,” we told him. “It’s a two-generation girls’ night out.”

The drinks arrived, and the band started another set, and the lead singer sang right to our mothers. He especially targeted Mrs. W, Patty’s mom, who blushed and laughed and joked with him.

The band played covers of fast songs and some of us got up and danced, and they played covers of slow, romantic songs, and we sat at the table and listened, talking softly.

Ice cubes clinked, and soft laughter flowed, the night drew to a close, and the lead singer said they were going to sing one last song. It was for, he said, the beautiful women who were out on the town for a special night with their daughters. And the band launched into Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl.”

The singer came over to our table, and he sang right to our mothers. It was a soppy song; it was a break-up song; but somehow (the wine and the drinks may have had something to do with it) it was just the right song. We all,–every one of us, the mothers and the daughters, all of us– sang right along. And mine were not the only eyes glistening.

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And the music ended, and we gathered up our bags and wraps, and we hugged and talked about what a fun night it was.

“We need to do this AGAIN,” we said.

And we never did…maybe because it had been such a perfect time.

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I carried that heavy backpack around for far too long before it occurred to me that my mother did the best she could, and I responded with the only tools I had at the time. And in between the angst and drama, there were good memories too—moments of communion, bubbles of laughter, instances of grace.

Moments when the band sang the Silver Fox’s theme song.

And for all the shouting and angry words, there was never, I realized, never a time that I thought my mother didn’t love me. In that way, I was blessed.

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I have made mistakes in my mothering; I will try not to, but I will make more. I will react out of anger or selfishness, from impatience or distraction.

I will wish there was a re-set button—that I could go back and get a do-over.

And then I’ll get up and try again, and maybe, at this advanced age, I’ll actually get it right sometimes.

And maybe not.

But I hope my boys will always remember this: there was never a day, or a moment, that I wasn’t glad they were in my life. And that they were always, every minute, deeply and everlastingly loved.

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Oh, and tomorrow’s Mother’s Day, and there will be gifts that make moms laugh and gifts that make moms puzzled and gifts that only that one mom and her particular kids could ever conceive of.

There will be empty moments thinking of mothers who have passed. And there will be the heartbreak of mothers whose arms are empty.

But in all of it, if we go digging in just the right spots, there will be memories that let the light shine in. And if we’re really, really lucky, and really, really blessed, there will be chances to try, one more time, to get the whole thing just right.

May all of us—all who have mothers, who are mothers, who love mothers; all who nurture and support, who nudge and niggle, who search for wisdom and want for succor; all who grieve and rage and wish for a different ending—may every one of us, at every stage and age, finding meaning and find comfort in Mother’s Day 2021.

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https://genius.com/Charlie-rich-the-most-beautiful-girl-lyrics

Cake

“Where there is cake, there is hope. And there is always cake.” —Dean Koontz http://sayingspoint.com/cake-sayings/

“[S]he talks a lot about cake.”

–Jim Gaffigan

The Foundation where I work provided the cake that won a first place award at the 35th annual Carr Center Cake Auction this week.

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The Carr Center is a local organization that helps a whole lot of people. It provides eldercare, for instance, and speech therapy for a wide range of people. People with autism get help there, and kids whose schools went virtual went to the Carr Center and studied online this year, but with guidance and supervision. The Carr Center helps kids learn to read better,–learn to love reading, in fact. The organization quietly does a whole lot of good in the community, and the Cake Auction is its yearly big fund raiser.

Historically, organizations or individuals donated cakes and attached incentives, and then those cakes were displayed at the local mall. For a couple of days, interested folks could go to view the cakes, taking along a list, marking down the most delicious cakes and the most delicious incentives.

Here’s an example: a bank, say, might donate #167, a rich, fudge-frosted double layer chocolate cake, and the top bidder for that confection would also receive, perhaps, one night in a lovely hotel and a gift card for dinner for two at a beloved local restaurant. If that was a treat dear to the viewer’s heart, they’d mark that cake’s number down in their cake-and-incentive-list, and then, when the auction itself opened, they’d call in to bid on number 167.

But other people might want that cake and that incentive package, too, and so the bidding could grow furious, until the allotted fifteen minutes was up and the last bidder won the day. And the cake.

Last year, though,—2020—shut down a whole lot of things, and the Carr Center Cake Auction was one of them. This year, the folks at the Carr Center were determined to bring it back, but, like that whole lot of things, it looked different. This year, the cakes were displayed in the lower level of a local theater, and people viewed them electronically.

The Carr Center adapted. The bakers baked. The donors gathered incentives.

And the event, after a year’s pause, was, to my eyes, anyway, a roaring success.

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There’s a cheetah named after J.W. Straker (Mr. Straker and his wife, Mary Helen, founded the Foundation where I work; they are both deceased now, but their foresight still has great positive community impact) at the Wilds, which is a wonderful, reclaimed, wild-land place in the hills not too far from Zanesville. It’s a place where endangered species are nurtured and their offspring thrive. Visitors can safari though the extensive lands in buses and see white rhinos nudging their babies down to a lake, or watch deer and wild ponies running across their paths, or be surrounded by the cutest animals I have ever seen, baby zebras.

There’s a separate section for the carnivores, and that’s where Preep lives. (“Preep” is the name Mr. Straker’s oldest grandson gave him, when that grandson was a learning-to-talk babe.)

The Wilds also has—away, of course, from any exotic animals—a section called Straker Lake. There are Cabins there, built by Mr. Straker and the Foundation. The cabins house a program called Mighty Oaks Warriors, which helps veterans with PTSD.

When the Mighty Oaks program is not meeting, anyone can rent the cabins at Straker Lake.

So, the incentive we hit on for the Foundation’s first entry in the Cake Auction was a night for up to six in a cabin at Straker Lake. Along with that came six open-air safari tours, and a chance for two especially daring visitors to tour the Wilds by zip line.

To build on the theme, we hoped to have a “Preep” cake.

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Could a cake baker make a cheetah cake? We didn’t want something cartoon-y, but we couldn’t envision exactly what we did want.

Becky Clawson, the Carr Center’s director, gave us the name of a fantastic baker. Shala Aiken made the cake we wanted but couldn’t quite envision, and there’s a picture of her work at the start of this post.

You can see that Shala is a true artist. As donors, we were able to go and view, in a socially distanced kind of way, all the cake offerings…and there were close to 300. I realized, as I slowly walked down cake-filled aisles, that there are amazing bakers and makers in Muskingum County. And I realized there are amazing, community-centered donors, as well.

The morning after the view, the auction began on the radio. I tuned in when I could, and I made sure to listen when our cake was auctioned.

And so, this week, the bony caverns of my mind are filled with cake.

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Why cake? Have you ever thought about that? Couldn’t we just as easily have settled, in our history, on pie instead?

We could have birthday pies and wedding pies, for instance.

We might repeat an oft-quoted line this way: Let them eat pie!

(A little search, by the way, leads me to believe that Marie Antoinette really did not say anything like that. The History Channel’s website cites historian Lady Antonia Fraser. Lady Fraser says that the queen was too smart to say such a callous and inflammatory thing. Moreover, says Lady Fraser, Marie Antoinette was sensitive to the needs of the poor despite her sometimes outlandishly extravagant lifestyle. The queen gave generously to many charities. It’s sad that the quote we all attribute to her may be rooted in historical propaganda.)

But there’s something, it seems, about cake. I look up the history of that sweet confection, and I learn, from foodtimeline.org, that cake has been around in one guise or another since ancient times. It was more bread-y in those far-off days, sweetened with honey, and studded, perhaps, with nuts and dried fruit.

Cakes as birthday treats go way back to those days before the Christian era. Claire Nowak, in “Why Do We Eat Birthday Cake?’ (https://www.rd.com/article/origin-of-birthday-cake/), writes that birthdays were first celebrated in ancient Egypt. It started with the pharaohs; Egyptians considered the day those god-like rulers ascended to their thrones a day of rebirth, and they celebrated with cake.

The Greeks, Nowak tells us, got wind of the cake-to-celebrate-birth custom and appropriated it. More democratic, though, they would celebrate anyone’s birth, not just an august ruler. The Greeks liked their celebrations sweet, and the cakes they used to celebrate birthdays were often in the shape of the moon, a tribute to the goddess Artemis.

To make the moon-cake even more celestial, the Greeks would stud it with lighted candles, and so the tradition of candles on birthday cakes was born.

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My mother decorated cakes beautifully, but when I was very young, she did not believe in cake mixes, which were way too easy and thus entirely suspect. (If anyone could do it, what was the value of a thing?)

So she made her cakes from scratch, and then spent quiet hours making frosting, filling white canvas bags with icing, switching colors, switching decorating tips. She painstakingly crafted beautiful cakes.

But while the cakes themselves were baking, we needed to be soft and quiet. A hefty jump on the kitchen floor, tromping feet, too rough handling of the oven door, even, it seemed, over-loud voices, could flatten the cake.

And of course, flattening happened. I remember one cake that was, I think, for my brother Dennis’s birthday. It was a yellow cake, and it fell to half its hoped-for size. The cake layers were hard, flat, pancakes.

My mother whipped up her frosting and decorated them anyway; we did not waste food. That birthday cake looked like one layer, and it was beautifully wrought, of course.

And it was chewy, but tasted of buttery, sugary, goodness.

After that deflating disappointment, though, my mother slowly changed her stance on cake mixes. By the end of the 1960’s, she was a convert. Her cakes were made from a box, but her frosting was always her own.

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The Romans, now—they were probably responsible for wedding cakes. Marissa Laliberte writes about that in “The Hidden Secrets Behind the History of the Wedding Cake (https://www.rd.com/article/history-of-wedding-cakes/). She relates that, when ancient Roman couples tied the knot, someone would crumble a scone-like cake over the bride’s head. This had something to do with invoking good fortune and spurring a fertile marriage.

The couple’s first shared act would be to nibble on the crumbs.

The Romans took that custom to the British Isles. They were never quite able to bend those unruly people to their will, and they finally, the Romans did, gave up and went home.

The Brits may have given the conquerors the boot, but they kept some of their customs, wedding cakes among them. They took that whole scone idea and kept elaborating on it. A British wedding, for instance, might include a pile of sweet cakes—a tower of them!—and the challenge to bride and groom would be this: could they kiss over the top of the wedding cakes?

The tower turned into tiers when, in, I believe, the 1700’s, a baker’s apprentice in London fell madly in love with the boss’s daughter. To woo her, he created the most incredible cake. It’s said he was inspired by the tiered steeple of St. Brigid’s church, and he built an amazing confection, stacked and frosted, and now imitated at weddings around the world.

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We are pie lovers, of course, but there is something about cake. There is something about the smell of a cake baking (candles are made that evoke that scent). And for most people, talking about cake invokes memories.

My nieces talk about my mother’s chocolate layer cakes, which always had white buttercream frosting between layers. The outside frosting was a rich chocolate buttercream. That cake, for them, says celebration.

For me, it’s German chocolate cake, and it dates back to my high school days,—days I spent, mostly, fighting with my mother. The summer of my freshman year, we had a real rip-snorter a few weeks before my birthday, and Mom informed me that I could just forget a birthday celebration that year.

That would be just fine, I said, because I didn’t want her celebration anyway.

I grieved, though, because of course I wanted a birthday celebration, with people saying, “Hey! We’re so glad you were born!” Stubbornness and pride decreed, though, that there’d be no backing down.

The day before my birthday, some friends invited me to a picnic lunch, and, lo and behold, it turned out to be a birthday party, with laughter and stories and thoughtful gifts, and a lovely German chocolate cake in a small square pan.

I’d never had German chocolate cake before, and I fell in love with the caramelly, coconutty, nutty frosting. I went home loaded with goodies and gifts and the leftover cake, which I generously shared with everyone…even my mother, who might, I realized years later, feeling repentant, have dropped a hint or two among my friends that a birthday celebration was in order.

Since then, German chocolate cake has tasted like salvation to me, salvation and friendship and redemption. If I’m feeling depressed and lumpy, eating a lovely slice of German chocolate cake still opens a doorway and shows me the way out of that slump.

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Cake is part of our cultural consciousness, too.  Remember the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where the Dursleys have squirreled Harry away to a remote cabin on a desolate island, trying to get away from all the invitations to Hogwarts? 

In the film, Harry’s pictured on the floor of the dingy place, drawing a picture of an oval cake in the dust. “Happy birthday, Harry!”is written on the dust-cake, and then he draws little stick candles. When the clock turns midnight and Harry turns, I think, 11, the sad orphan blows the stick candles away.

But then an amazing thing happens. Someone raps on the door. They rap on the door HARD, and when no one answers, they just bust the door down.

It is Rubeus Hagrid, the giant, and he has a little white box with him.

The white box holds Harry’s birthday cake, the first he’s ever had, which Hagrid himself frosted in pink icing. And he painstakingly wrote the words Harry imagined seeing on top of the cake, although his spelling might have needed some polishing.

The Dursleys quake in fear, and that is when things change: the cake signals that Harry’s fortunes have turned. He will enter Hogwarts, and he will encounter grave danger, but he will also see friendship blossom, learn about his parents, encounter wise mentors, and find a home.

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In Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, cake is the comfort food that soothes a broken heart.

When Bill goes off with Donna, Rosie orders cake.

When Sam comes back to find Donna, and bereft, stalks away, ignoring Tanya, Tanya says to Rosie, “WHERE was that cake?”

And the friends sit at a table and fork lovely, comforting cake into their mouths.

One should never treat emotions with food, of course, but, oh, it’s true: cake has the power to make one feel better.

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“Tell me,” I begged the boyos, “about the cakes you remember best.”

There was a long pause.

“Uhhhhhhhh,” Mark said.

Jim added, after a long pause, “I like chocolate cake.”

Maybe specific cake memories are more a girl thing than a guy thing, but I can tell you for sure: the boyos do like cake. There is, in particular, a chocolate sour cream Bundt cake recipe that they endorse. It is made with cake mix and pudding mix (I do not have the purist scruples my mother maintained), and it comes out lovely, every time.

It is easy to make but festive, and it disappears quickly.

Here is where the recipe is found: Double Chocolate Bundt Cake – Taste and Tell (tasteandtellblog.com)

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I am very proud to tell you that Shala’s creation, the Preep cake, won first place on Wednesday at the Cake Auction (see it here: http://www.carrcenter.org/cake-auction.html), and that it, and its incentive, were the object of a nice bidding battle, and they earned a sizable chunk of change for the Carr Center.

And that just reinforces the belief that my musings bring me to: cake is a powerful thing. It helps us mark the passages in our lives. It nurtures and succors us.

Cake stimulates creativity and sheer artistry.

It inspires us to give.

It doesn’t erase reality, of course. There are big things to ponder and big hurdles to overcome.

But, as we ponder, and as we hurdle, it is nice to think there’s a cake waiting, a tender, sweet slice, to reward our efforts, and to urge us on.

Tool Tales

The garden trimmer came on Thursday. I pulled it out of the box; the handle fit snugly in my right hand, and it had two attachments—a kind of mini hedge clipper, and a jaggedy grass trimmer.

Mark came over, eyes alight: a new tool! A new toy!

He turned it over, examined the parts, took out the charger.

I looked at the owner’s manual.

We put pieces together, plugged the charger in. The red light blinked on, and my new little tool settled in, getting ready to meet my yard.

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Saturday was mowing weather. In all the nooks and crannies, by all the rocks that ringed the erstwhile flower gardens, on the edges of the pavement, snuggled up against the house, in back of the carport wall—tufts of unruly grass and weeds sprouted up, insouciant, defiant. They knew, those raucous sprouts, that there was no way I could touch them with the mower.

But—ha. Now I have my garden trimmer. And now THAT’S a different story.

I put my garden gloves on and wielded my new, buzzed-up little friend, and the tufts and towers, shocked, disappeared.

“Cuts like buttah!” I thought, and I moved from space to space, trimming and skimming, until finally my back said, “Okay, sister. That’s enough.”

Then I stood up and stretched and looked at my handiwork, and I thought, “For heaven’s sake. Why didn’t I get one of these years ago?”

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My mother was made up of an unholy trinity of attributes: she was a first generation Scottish American, a Depression kid, and a newly minted Catholic. All those things together meant that she believed in the redemptive power of sacrifice…and she did not believe in spending good money on things when you could make up for their lack with elbow grease and ingenuity.

I don’t believe my family owned a toaster until I was in high school. We toasted bread in the broiler, the bottom drawer of the oven. I would stand there and wait, pulling the drawer open every two seconds to check, flipping the bread so both sides were evenly golden.

A moment’s distraction could mean charring—blackened edges that I had to scrape off the bread with a butter knife, leaving a piece of toast that looked as though it had shaved its own head with its eyes closed.

I had to eat that toast; we did not throw good food away.

“Next time, you’ll be more careful,” my mother said.

Next time, I was, but I thought of my friends who had electric toasters, who popped two slices of soft white bread into the slots, turned a knob to their preferred shade of brown, and pushed down the lever. Those friends could wander away, read a page in a  book, watch a minute’s worth of TV, waiting to hear the resounding POP of finished toast.

I stood at the oven, anxious, pulling open the broiler drawer.

“I wish we had a toaster,” I said to my mother.

“Aaaah, aaah, aaaah,” she replied, and she waved a hand as if shooing away flies.

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Another thing we didn’t have was a clothes dryer. In good weather—something like half the year in western New York State—my mother hung the clothes outside. One of the first things my father would do, when we moved house, was to string clotheslines in the backyard…from house to garage, maybe, or from garage to tree or post.

There would be at least four clotheslines, and they would be long: we had a family of seven, generating lots of dirty fabric. My mother would hang sheets and towels on the outside lines, where people might see them from the street. The furthest back line would be pants and shirts; the backyard neighbors could see those. In between, out of sight of inquisitive eyes, she hung the skivvies and unmentionables.

My father went out and bought wood and made clothes poles…long, sturdy, thin lengths of wood, six feet high or so. In the tops, he’d hammer two strong nails. We would shimmy the rope between the two nails, and move the pole until it was straight up under the clothesline, and the wet, heavy laundry would not drag onto the grass.

Sometimes I hung the clothes (I especially hated hanging socks; they had to be pinned just right, or there was a depressed, damp spot when we rolled the pair into a lumpy ball; eeeuw), but most often Mom did that while I was at school. She had a method; she worked like an energetic, precise machine, marching up from the washer in the basement, basket under one arm. The clothespins were in a cloth bag that hung from the clothesline by a curved metal hook and slid. She’d grab the pins she needed. She’d pluck a wet washed item from the stack. Pin pin, slide. Next piece.

Pin pin, slide.

In moments the backyard transformed from kickball field, from greenspace, to curtained mystery, halved sheets blocking views, empty shirts flapping sleeves like wafting ghosts.

I was allowed, often, to take clothes down. Sheets, I freely admit, smelled wonderful: there is, still, nothing as sensuously pleasing as a bedsheet line-dried in fresh air. But I had to be careful: sometimes bugs crawled into the folded innards of a sheet or towel. Sometimes there’d be a bee, who would cling and hide until that sheet was spread on your bed, and your bare foot slid down that fresh expanse of coolness to meet a hairy, winged, dangerous crawler…

In the bad weather, Mom hung the clothes in the basement, the giant old furnace circled with more lines Dad had strung for her, lines that crissed and crossed. In the winter, I had to plan my clothes-washing: jeans washed today would not necessarily be ready tomorrow. If the furnace was on, if the jeans hung close to the furnace, they might, but I might have to wait two days, even three, for the soggy denim to dry.

Then the jeans would be hard, almost as hard as cardboard; they would stand up by themselves if I placed them, just right, on the floor.

The only way to soften the denim was to iron it; I may have been the only kid, in the swinging sixties and seventies, whose bellbottom jeans were sweetly worn and tightly creased.

Towels dried hard, too—“They’re CRUNCHY,” I said.

“Aaaah, aaah, aaaah,” said my mother.

Why not a dryer? I asked.

We don’t have 220 wiring, she’d reply, and a gas dryer was too pricey. And all of that was probably true—I think we never realized just how close to the bone my parents cut, budget-wise, to maintain a one-job, at-home mother lifestyle with an active, demanding family. But I think it was true, too, that my mother somehow thought, in her heart of hearts, that if it didn’t make your muscles pull, if it didn’t stretch and tire you,—well then, that thing was not worth doing.

“Move your lard ass,” she’d say to me, crisply, whenever I dared to complain.

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The neatly trimmed edges, the nicely mowed lawns…well, they became kind of a showcase for all the weeds in the front yard and the back this weekend. I concocted some weed-be-gone from vinegar and Epsom salt and dish detergent. I sprayed that on the patio bricks, and the dandelions and scrubby grass and other mysterious plants shoving up in between obligingly turned brown and shriveled away.

But the weeds in the beds, or hugging the stone edges of flower bed walls, or lining the walkways…they were undeterred. And I knew, though I hated to know it, that the only way to get rid of them was to get down on my knees, stick a trowel in the unforgiving dirt, and pop those suckers right on out of there. When I finally did that, though, my flimsy dollar-store trowel bent itself right backward.

The next time I tried, the little spade part snapped right off.

I could have (last year I seriously would have) interpreted that as the Garden Gods saying, “Oh, honey, don’t WORRY about those weeds.”

But having my handy new trimming tool had opened some rusty doors in my mind.

Now I thought, “Hey. Maybe if I bought some heavy-duty garden tools…”

A mere ten minute’s search, and the tools were on order. They arrived on Monday, just before the unseasonable snow.

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

And, oh, my friend: they’re lovely. They have hand-friendly handles that even my niece Margaret, an engineer whose job titles have included “corporate ergonomist,” would approve. My fingers curve around their cushioned, comforting bulk; their shining metal digging, or cutting, or crimping, parts are strong and confident.

For the first time in my life, or since age four when I happily dug in the dirt with an old spoon, I am looking forward to crawling around the yard, weeding.

Could it be that most people who don’t want to do certain jobs really aren’t lazy?—that maybe, they just don’t have the right tools?

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

My mother made do with a stove-top percolator; an old-fashioned mop that clamped rags, folded in half, onto its base; with flimsy can openers; and with cheap vacuum cleaners. She used an ancient treadle sewing machine she pumped with both feet to power. She used cheap little dime store mixers. She nudged all those things along, she and my dad; they kept things going long after they might have expected them to belly up and be discarded.

My mother’s house was clean, clean, clean; her garden plants were healthy and unbothered by weedy interlopers. Torn clothes were thoroughly mended.

She was famous among our friends for her never-empty cookie jar.

She took great pride in her house and yard and larder, but, oh, that woman worked hard.

It wasn’t until the last ten years of her life that she and my father felt like they could loosen up a little. They bought themselves some nice clothes, a pretty, reliable car. My mother got a really good vacuum and an electric sewing machine.

Their favorite acquisition, I think, was an electric carving knife.

It’s too bad that those things came to them so late in their lives, when their hands were permanently hardened and bent by the work they’d done, and by the inexpensive, ineffective tools they’d felt they had to use.

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

Things are not important in the sense of value, in the sense of permanence or of providing companionship or joy. But the right tools can make life so much better.

I searched online for a long time, trying to discern the best mop for tile floors. I love the mop and bucket that I finally decided on based on that search, which also led me to a new floor wash and polish.

I love the sturdy brush I bought to scrub the grout in the shower.

My bread machine makes freshly baked bread a weekly part of our lives, and my Kitchenaid mixer makes fresh pasta and all kinds of other treats possible.

I am not the world’s best housekeeper; I am not the world’s best cook; and I am far, far, far, from being the world’s best gardener. But I’ve discovered joy in all those roles when armed with tools that make the work go more easily, that let me pitch in and work along and then settle back, surveying, pleased and satisfied.

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

I have inherited, I’m afraid, a more than hefty dose of frugality. Moths fly and leather squeaks and groans when I have to open my wallet. I realize, though,–belatedly maybe, but soon enough to make life zing,—that spending a little extra for something that really works is thrifty in itself.

Now when I find myself dreading or avoiding a job, I think about this: maybe the job wouldn’t be so bad if I just figure out the right tools to use.

What the Weathercaster Says

Now the most hectic time is over, and I am back to going in to work at 9:00 a.m.,—9:00 a.m. instead of at 8 a.m., and the morning time stretches, fluid and flexible, over the shoals of those earlier hours.

Now Daylight Savings Time arrives, and the days lengthen naturally, too, and the birds begin to chirp and chitter and trill before six o’clock, before Mark sighs out of bed and shuffles into the bathroom for his shower. By 6:30, the birds’ full-throttled, panicked, oh my gawd day is coming, noises have settled into ordinary morning chirping.

By 6:45 a.m., the sun has risen.

I go downstairs and say hello to the husband, grind coffee beans, pour the filtered water into the coffee maker, and ferret out my walking shoes from the last place I left them—between my reading chair and ottoman, or under the loveseat if, last night, I’d been watching TV.

I lace up and I pack my pockets…two sugar free cough lozenges, a fresh hankie, keys on one side, phone on the other. I zip my fleece, make sure I have a thin pair of gloves, just in case it is cold enough this April morning to warrant covering my hands. Then I push the ‘on’ button, set the coffee to brewing, and I flail a goodbye to Mark.

It’s a treat, after a long dark winter that included, this year, a foot surgery that slowed me down for a while, to have the time and the soft start-of-day light for morning walks.

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

I am predictable—same time, most days, and I see many of the same people. There is the Friendly Couple; they start where I turn around, and they turn around where I start, so sometimes I pass them both beginning and ending.

There is the Grim Jogger, whose frown says, “I’m doing this for fitness, not pleasure.” She nods her head and inhales heavily through her nose–kind of a sighing snort–when I walk by.

And there is a tiny lady who seems to have a limitless number of matching neon walking suits. Her pink walking shoes are tightly laced, and her hair is improbably black, and I would guess that she is, maybe, ten years older than I am…but then I remember how old I AM, exactly, and I think, “Well, maybe she’s my same age.”

Or younger; she could, actually, be younger, too.

She strides along, on a mission, all business, but usually stops to speak. What she says and how she says it…well, those things have earned her, in my mind, the name of Weathercaster.

If the day is lovely, she throws out her arms. Her grin creases her face; she swings her hands in to place them on her hips, and she stops to tell me what a beautiful day it is.

Some April days are so perfectly, liquidly, wonderful, that she cups her hands in front of her face; she looks as if she’s trying to capture great gulps of air and drink it in.

Other days, her hands chop the air—a “Let’s get rid of this; what IS this stuff, anyway?  I didn’t order this!” motion. On those days, she’ll say something like, “Mittens! Mittens in APRIL!”

And she won’t stop; she’ll stomp along, a woman cheated, a woman on her way to get her money back.

The week started out with the Weathercaster taking deep, thirsty gulps of the blossom-scented air, throwing out her joyful arms, and stopping to talk.

By this morning she wasn’t even slowing down; today she just walked by me, growling, “You should have brought an umbrella. JUST IN CASE.”

And she stomped by, her own umbrella pumping dangerously up and down.

I remembered to social distance, stayed an umbrella-length away; the shiny silver tip of that umbrella looked vicious, and the Weathercaster had no humor in her stride.

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

For two weeks or so, the weather was what I could only call perfect. A lovely 55 degrees in the morning. Maybe a little hazy or gray. But by two in the afternoon, the sun had cracked the clouds apart, and teased the buds on the trees into leafing. Some days it was 68 degrees; one day the mercury climbed right up to eighty.

After five days of that, James and I took the knitted stocking hat off the metal horse and went out to buy Babe, the stone pig, something a little springier to wear. We found a beach hat with bright pink flamingoes on it; it’s a hat that both promises warm weather and keeps the sun off the sturdy little pig’s delicate cheeks. And then I surveyed the gloves and mittens and winter hats in the side hall, and I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s time to throw them in the wash, get them put away.”

But laziness or wisdom slowed me down, and that was good.

Because the weather plunged this week. The skies grayed up and the air cooled down. Some days, clouds spat cold rain.

Morning walks were mittened walks, and I zipped my fleece up all the way and didn’t need to push myself to keep striding right along.

From sunny singing days to gray, wet, grizzle: you’d think we’d all be grizzling along with the Weathercaster.

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

The days of warmth and blossoming are incredible. It’s like the Spirit has tattooed PROMISE! across the impossibly blue sky, and I am energized thinking of all the possibilities.

Just in the backyard, for instance, as I push the mower for the first time, I think that soon I will…

…dig out around the paver path and mulch. Then Wendy shares a picture of a garden path where some clever one created mosaics of pebble and stone around her pavers, and I think, “Oh: THAT! Never mind the mulch: I’ll do mosaics.”

…clear out the old flowerbed where African iris grow wild along with every kind of yard-weed, and fill it with coneflowers and daisies and those bushy, yellow, daisy-like flowers…none of which our many deer friends seem to notice. I could plant a lilac bush smack in the center.

…move the rocks that circled what must surely have been a flowerbed by the patio, back in the day, but now is just a rock-surrounded round of grass. And then I can just take those rocks and use them elsewhere…maybe a dry creek bed effect?

My thoughts are like that as I tackle the front lawn, too (chop down the ailing holly bush! Fill the window boxes! Use my cute new trimming tool to conquer the ivy trailing and tangling over the south side of the retaining wall!)

Inside I think about painting the cellar steps and taking the louvered doors down, putting them on a table in the sunny backyard and scrubbing the daylight into them…then spraying them with a sparkling new coat of white paint. I look at wooden furniture that could use a face lift with a good sanding and new knobs and a coat of paint.

Walls need to be painted, too.

Curtains! I need to pick new curtains in three rooms.

And I look up ‘painted floor cloths’ online, and I start sketching designs for the kitchen.

The sun streams in and the air is fresh and perfumed, and I think about cold salads and veggies and meats on the grill, and when I go to bed at night, plans whirl. Even in my dreams, I’m thinking, “I could…I could…I could…”

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

Truth be told, I get just a little bit exhausted by all the possibilities.

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

And then, as if to help me out, the weather hunkers down and changes.

The balmy breeze grows a chilly edge. Gray clouds scut across those paintbox blue skies; those clouds slow down and linger.

Then they cluster.

Suddenly, it’s not all sun all the time; when the clouds break and a narrow sunbeam sluices through, it’s an alleluia moment.

And I thank the stars I didn’t pack all the winter wear away, because I’m sliding gloves on and wrapping scarves around my neck, and coming home from morning walks with cold and rosy cheeks.

Now I look in the freezers and plan out different kinds of meals. I pull the cooked chicken from the freezer, and chop it to make a big batch of Kathie Brown’s chicken and wild rice soup. Another night we roast a chicken. I bake yellow cupcakes, make ganache for topping, and mix up some vanilla pudding to fill them with…miniature Boston Cream Pies.

Stews. Mashed potatoes. Cookies.

The house feels good when the oven’s on, when something is simmering on the stove.

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

My go go go thoughts slow down, and I focus…at work, at home. It’s a time to plunge into necessary jobs, to see them through, then to tick them off the list.

We eat dinner and clean up the dishes and then I head happily to the reading chair, where, covered with a soft knit throw, I fall completely into my latest book’s spell. A good book on a cold night…a little bit of magic.

And in the mornings, I still walk, but the walks are brisk, no-nonsense, and I nod and just faintly smile at the storm cloud visage of the Weathercaster as we march on by each other.

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

The two weeks of perfection have flowed into two weeks of drawing-close weather; there’s even, on Wednesday’s space in next week’s weather prediction, one of those symbols…you know…for a possible bout of that S-word stuff.

“What happened to spring???!!!!” wails the Weathercaster, and she does not wait for a reply.

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

But it’s okay, I’m thinking.  Spring will be back.

In this chilly respite, I’m going to simmer my soups and bake a pie and read a bunch of very good books. And I am going to sit with pen and paper and write down all those extravagant plans I made…those plans to, in 28 hours or less, completely revamp my castle, outside and in. I think there are some good ideas in there. And I think there are things I can do myself; there are things we can do as a family; there are things we might need to contract out; and there are things that just (come on) are never getting done. Without the weather beckoning me outside to play, I can use this respite time as a reality check.

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

Tonight, I may even set the flames to flickering in the fireplace before I plunge into Klara and the Sun.

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

I hope the cold is not disrupting things for gardeners and planters; I hope that everyone has all that they need to stay warm these chilly days. And I hope I can use these days to plot and plan and shape the summer that is, inevitably, coming…those halcyon days of promise fulfilled.

I bet those will be days when the Weathercaster trades her neon sweat suits in for matching short sets; I bet those will be days when, mostly, her face is grin-cracked and sun-creased, and her arms are open to embrace the rays.

Time to Play

In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Jennifer Shubin in “The Benefits of Play for Adults” on https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/benefits-of-play-for-adults.htm

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

My colleague and friend Pam and I were talking yesterday. I told her about seeing Tom and Susan on my morning walk.

“What time do you get up?” she asked, interested, and we started talking about walking in the morning.

Pam, who works out a LOT more than I do, acted a little apologetic that she doesn’t get up and take long walks. Instead, she says, she sits on the couch with her tablet, and she exercises her mind. She plays Mah-Jongg, and she plays word games.

“It jump-starts my brain,” Pam said, and I, who can’t start the day properly unless I do my three Microsoft word game challenges and AARP’s CodeWord puzzle, heartily concurred.

“It’s good for us!” we agreed.   

Because of course, we’re grown-ups; we’re doing these things for serious reasons. We are too old, after all, to be playing.

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

But it’s funny: lately I’ve been noticing many articles that tout the idea of play. Make cleaning FUN, one recent post encouraged, for example. And it occurs to me that after a year or more of quarantine and isolation, of gritting our teeth and toughing it out,–well, after a pandemic, we might need to have some fun.

We might need to play a little.

And we might need to learn how to DO that.

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

Here’s how pathetic I am: I have to look up play to get a definition. The online Oxford Dictionary tells me that play is “…activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.” (Even our dictionaries send that strong but subtle message: grown-ups are supposed to be serious, not playful.)

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

I’m deep into a book called, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (and wouldn’t THAT title make a great T-shirt???), by Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s book reviewer. In her intro, Corrigan writes about how much FUN reading is…how she discovers, through her work, maybe ten amazing books a year—books that transport her and uplift her.

Reading, for Corrigan, is mostly pleasure, though sometimes obligation; and I agree. Reading is a venture that can take me out of myself and onto sandy beaches in the cold dead of winter, or off into a carefree summer day where the biggest stress is the hero running out of mayonnaise when he’s making potato salad. Books like that,–light books, frothy books,–are great to read on high-stress days; they are doorways out of the anxious world and into a world where all is under control and there’s nothing, my friend, to worry about. (Oddly enough, murder mysteries do that for me, too, as long as the detectives have integrity and are smart, authentic, and likeable. The more intense the mystery, the more the muscles in my shoulders ease. It doesn’t make sense, does it? But reading about imaginary murders, for me, is fun.)

I feel torn about my reading, sometimes. I get books I think I ought to read, and those often feel like work. I give myself assignments: a chapter a day; five chapters a week. If I do my work right, I can have the weekends off.

And then I can read just for fun…read about traditionally built lady detectives in southern Africa, or a mad cook during the Great Depression, or someone who deliberately put false words into a dictionary, or about the adventures of another crazy book-lady (or man).

Reading seems weighty and serious, but the truth is this: when I read for pleasure, I’m having FUN.

Reading, at those times, is a kind of play.

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

Watching TV is that kind of play, too—a little more passive than reading, but still: a good show creaks the hinged lid of my mind open, pours in rich ideas, or funny situations, or heart-wrenching tragedies. TV shows us scoundrels and heroes and everyday people and amazing superpowers.

It’s fun to watch a completely different world,…to see the Durrells struggling along in Corfu (but read the book first), to watch Sam and Graham cavorting through Scotland in their kilts, to re-watch an episode of Big Bang or M*A*S*H* with Jim, or to watch, with Mark at the end of a long day, Hemingway’s life unspool. (Sometimes the day has been so long that Mark’s soft snores are a counterpoint to the emphatic narrator, but, hey: naps can be fun, too.)

Viewing and reading can be play, but they’re a sort of taking in: we open ourselves to absorb the words and images and ideas of someone else. And that can be like eating too much chocolate (there is, I’ve discovered, such a thing); I go beyond feeling uplifted and move into feeling glutted.

Sometimes, play needs to engage us and draw us out; I need to be contributing and not receiving.

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

I have friends, for instance, committed do-ers, who play in their gardens. A week like this one brings them great joy, because shoots are spearing through the ground, and petals are drifting from mock fruit trees. Other trees are greening, spitting fuzzy red leaf-covers onto the sidewalks (they feel like sodden velvet underfoot), and the air is lush with freshness and promise.

These friends survey their back forty,–or their front twenty–and their eyes are avid. Move the hydrangea! they’re thinking. Take down the fence and create a dry creek bed!

That corner is crying out for hosta, or yucca, or a tea rose…

They use shovels and axes, clippers and buckets. Their biceps tauten. One success—one three foot flower bed transformed—fuels their fanaticism.

Let’s make a waterfall off the garage roof! they think, and when they turn to talk with you, their eyes are wide and sly.

They might put out a statue (our nice neighbor just nestled a little pig statue in her front flower bed. It is a little pink pig with bright blue rain boots on, and it looks happy. It makes us smile when we walk by.) or a decorative stepping-stone or a lilting wind chime. They might fly a brightly colored flag or make a mosaic around their pavers.

They are playing, those scary, creative gardeners. Their jeans are mud-kneed, and their hands are caked with soil. Under their neatly clipped nails, they have an eyeliner line of garden dirt. They don’t care if the temperature is 34 degrees Fahrenheit or 89; they are outside, digging. Their imaginations are engaged, and their muscles are too, but, oh: they are having fun.

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

I look up “the benefits of play for adults,’ and get 640,000,000 hits…clearly, this is something a lot of people have pondered. I read the first entry; its title is exactly the same as my search terms. It’s on helpguide.org, and it’s in the mental health section, and it says, emphatically, that grownups must play.

“Somewhere between childhood and adulthood,” the authors note sadly, “we stopped playing.” And play, they state, is crucial for children, but it’s important for everyone else, too.

“Play,” the article tells me, “can add joy to life, relieve stress, supercharge learning, and connect you to others and the world around you.”

Play, it seems to me, might be an antidote against the pandemic…or at least a good shot of vitamins to make our pandemic-endurance that much stronger.

Play is what brings us a sense of enjoyment, of having fun, and so play can be very different for different people.

Here are the benefits the helpguide.org authors point to when they talk about adults and play:

  • Play’s a stress-buster. The art and act of play releases endorphins into our system, and we feel happy and relaxed.
  • Play ramps up the workings of our brains. Things that challenge us in fun ways—puzzles, games,–help us keep our memories keen and enhance the ways our brains work. And if it’s social play—a card game with friends, a board game with family—stress is reduced, and depression is lightened.
  • Play opens our doors, and it lets in learning and creativity. If we make a new task fun, suggest the authors, we’ll learn to do it better.

A playful attitude helps us improve our connections with others, or create new connections. Playing, laughing, with others builds empathy, compassion, and trust…and that leads us into deeper friendships. Play can relieve the awkwardness in situations with people we don’t know well and help us forge new friendships; playfulness can even, counterintuitively (work should be SERIOUS!), help us build new business or professional bonds.

It’s never, the article says, too late to learn to play. And it tells me to set aside regular, quality play time.

And then…what would I do?

The article suggests some possibilities…

…host a game night.

…get colleagues together and do something fun—go bowling, for example. Play cards.

…go to a park, and toss a Frisbee, bat a wiffleball, or fly a kite.

…play with a fun-loving pet.

…seek out other playful people and concoct a plan together.

…explore something fun: are you interested in magic? Quilting? Drawing or painting? Do you secretly love building with Legos, or mixing up batches of scientific concoctions?

If you are lucky enough to have your favorite kids nearby, and it’s safe to get together, the article suggests letting kids be your guide. Maybe a cooking extravaganza or a trip to a playground (where you have to pump the swings, too) or a really funny movie…

A scavenger hunt.

Chalk drawing on the driveway.

Hopscotch.

Kids are masters. They can teach us how to play.

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

Walking, lately, has been a form of play for me. I set out in the morning; as the days get more Aprilly, I shed my mittens and downgrade from lined jacket to fleece, and the air, each day, smells richer and more promising. I have that feeling from childhood, that feeling that I got on the day when I asked for the eleventy-hundredth time, “Can I go OUT and play?” and my mother, finally, said, “Yes!”

I feel so free I want to dance down the sidewalks. Spring is here!  What fun!

And the trees change daily—buds turning into flowers, petals strewing themselves in my path. I see people I’ve missed all winter—other walkers, walkers of dogs, intent runners who bob their heads.

The more I walk, the more walking I want to do. It’s fun.

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

Art can be play, too, just messing about and being creative. I love to draw, although I’m rusty and untrained, and I love the immersion. There’s a shift that happens when a person immerses in drawing, Betty Edwards says in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Mentally, we shift from processing on the left-hand (logical) side of the brain and move into the right side, where we meet our creative selves. And we experience time differently then.

She describes the shift like this:

  • Time seems to be suspended.
  • Spoken words have no power…so someone can be calling you, and you don’t ‘hear’ them; you are rapt.
  • What you’re doing is so fascinating that you’re concentrating solely on that thing; you’re attentive to the process, but you’re calm, confident, and unstressed.
  • When you finally make the shift back to left brain, it doesn’t matter what you’ve been doing. You feel refreshed.

I think the shift Edwards describes takes place, too, when we let ourselves go and play, whatever form our play takes.

Play could be redecorating a room, and that could involve carrying furniture, painting walls, shopping for curiosities to share, matting and framing and hanging art, sewing,  shopping for curtains and rugs.

Ironically, play can be work—redecorating is work, gardening is work, cooking is work—but when we find our play-mode, we end up energized rather than exhausted.

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

The pandemic has done many things to us. We’ve lost people; we’ve lost health; we’ve lost time.

And I’ve lost balance. I have stepped into the land of Grim, and I feel like I’d be frivolous to step right on out of there.

People have died; people are dying; things are just kind of a mess. How can I even think of playing?

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

But playing isn’t denying or disregarding; playing is recharging. I need to find the play-modes that work best for me, and I need to play.

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

The other day, when I came home from work, James said to me, “I had the strangest dream.”

And he, a person who has never, ever enjoyed anything resembling organized sport, told me he dreamed about playing video basketball, and loving it….until a monster came charging onto the court to devour him.

Dream turned to nightmare there, but still, James said, it made him yearn a little. Maybe it would be fun to dig the baseball mitts out and toss a ball around. What did I think?

I think YES, I said. Yes, let’s head outside into the backyard; yes, let’s smack our mitts, and talk trash, and throw a ball around. Yes, let’s try for a beautiful arced toss, a graceful leaping catch…and if we don’t quite get there at first, let’s toss that ball again.

Yes. Let’s play.

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

And as New Normal builds, I hope I remember this: it’s all about the balance. I need to build in time for work, but just as surely, I need time to play.

Burning Bright

Sunday morning: gray, wet, and cool. I am making tiger cookies.

We haven’t had tiger cookies in, probably, years. But we have frosted flakes in the cabinet, and chocolate chips, of course, and, a couple of days ago, I mentioned the possibility to Jim, and his eyes lit up.

“I like tiger cookies,” he said.

Last night, thinking about this morning’s cook-a-thon in the rainy weather, I offered up the possibility of regular old chocolate chip cookies, but, “No, no,” said Jim. “Tiger cookies would be great.”

If Jim had been a little older, he might have said the cookies would have been “…grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—-eat!” but he, a nineties kid, missed knowing too much about Tony the Tiger. Wikipedia (not, mind you, a legitimate academic research source, but a fine place to start) tells me that Tony was birthed by Kellogg’s in 1951; his final iteration was polished by a group of Disney animators. The tiger spoke his signature line in 1955,–the year, coincidentally, that I was born–when he stole a mic from Groucho Marx, and said of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, “You bet your life they’re Gr-r-reat!”

The Wikipedia article says Tony is still around (Thurl Ravenscroft, who voiced Tony for a long, long time, died in 2005, but able mimickers are working), so it’s possible Jim heard him utter that rolling great line more than once. But Jim and his generational peers were VCR kids; they got their cartoons via VHS tapes, and the commercials that formed a life-soundtrack for older folks were mere annoyances to them.

Anyway. However Jim says ‘great,’ I melt the butter, melt the chips, crush the frosted flakes (an off-brand, I’m afraid; not Tony’s own, but we like them just as well), and use the wrapper from the butter stick to grease the cookie sheets (how unusual to have a recipe that says to grease the sheets!). The oven bings its readiness; I mix the ingredients in the KitchenAid, and then I scrape every sticky bit of goodness off the beater, back into the bowl, so I can swirl the melted chocolate into it.

And I use a tablespoon to scoop dough onto those greased cookie sheets, and I bake us up some tiger cookies.

And they, my friend, taste GOOD.

A tasty, trusty recipe…

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

I can’t think the word ‘tiger’ without mentally adding, “…burning bright.” I may have been a slapdash student, rushing through reading and written work to get to the other work that paid the rent or the party that succored the seventies’ soul, but Blake’s words reached tentacles out around the distractions and sank in.

Because of my haphazard scholarship, I have to look the poet up at poetryfoundation.org to find his biography (born in 1757 to a family of moderate means; apprenticed when younger to an engraver; always and forever a thoughtful, imaginative rule-breaker). I find the words to “The Tyger” there, too, and glory in that meditation on fearful symmetry.

 “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

That’s something to ponder, for sure, on a rainy Sunday morning while cookies cool. And, “Hey!” I say to Jim. “Are you reading any Blake in your lit class?”

“Blake?” he says, and he checks his English lit syllabus. “No. I don’t see Blake.”

You can’t fit every poet into a survey course, and Jim’s been reading great things. Still, “Rats,” I think.

No tyger, tyger, for the boy this time around.

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

The cookies are done, and I start the fixings for chicken broth. Into the old black enamel cookpot, on top of a shimmering olive oil slick, I dump two bags of chicken bones I’ve been saving in the freezer. Then I clean out the produce drawers in the refrigerator.

I add the last of the celery, growing limp and pale; some aging lettuce leaves; two carrots, peeled and chunked. I chop up an onion and throw it in. I sprinkle in basil and sea salt and ground white pepper; I add, because I have none fresh, some garlic salt.  And what the heck: I dash in some oregano, too. I drizzle more olive oil on top and use two wooden utensils to lift and stir and toss.

Then I put the pot into the hot oven. Almost immediately good smells waft.

Funny: the mean cat—fat and scowling, white and black and brown; the cat who uses the grass around our little tea rose for a litter pan and waves one sturdy paw in dismissal and disgust when Mark yells it away, the cat with the pale yellow eyes it squinches at us when we dare to walk past its house—is prowling through the yard today. It stops and looks at the house.

Does it smell chicken bones roasting? Does that aroma pierce its angry feline heart?

The mean cat makes me think of another cat, not mean at all: Stacks, who used to live at the Zane State College/Ohio University-Zanesville campus library. Stacks had his own office, but he often prowled the library proper. Cat-friendly folks could ask for kitty treats at the desk, and Stacks would run to get them. Then, like a dog, Stacks would roll over and let the gifter scratch his belly.

Stacks had to retire from the library eventually; he went home with one of the librarians, and I wonder if he’s there and happy still, or if nature crawled up and claimed that loveable cat.

And it occurs to me, now that I’m meandering about tigers, that the college was a definite feline-friendly institution.

I taught at Zane State College; when I first visited there in 2003 I was startled to see a Bengal tiger, stuffed but clearly “real,” caught pacing in a glass case over the back door of the main building. That, I was told, was Monado.

I learned the tiger’s story piecemeal over the years, and then I had a student in a tech writing class who plunged into a Monado project. She filled in all the blanks, and wrote about how…

  • Monado came to the campus as a kitten after the fledgling school, in the 70’s, decided it needed a mascot;
  • The tiger was named by the student body. (I cannot find out for sure where the name came from; although there’s a sword named ‘Monado’ in Xenoblade, the dates don’t line up, as far as I can see. But it’s a strong, unique name.)
  • As a kit, the little tiger roamed the college’s halls and curled up under the president’s administrative assistant’s desk. He would fall asleep, warm and heavy, on her feet.
  • Monado lived in the dorms and would greet the students when they came home from a night out. There was rough and tumble play, but the tiger never hurt anyone. In fact, he would tolerate a leash, and he’d come out for sporting events.
  • Eventually, the tiger reached his full growth and had to be housed in a fenced enclosure.
  • And then, the story goes, Monado had a toothache so painful he had to be taken to the Ohio State veterinary clinic in Columbus. There, people in white coats did things to him he didn’t like at all. And after that, Monado lost some of his people-friendliness…
  • …which led to his escape from his enclosure, and law enforcement’s attempts to capture him. Finally, he was shot with a tranquilizer dart, and the medicine worked all too well. It stopped Monado permanently, not just temporarily. And the community who’d known and loved the tiger mourned.

Now, Monado’s spirit has been invoked as a college Mascot; pictures of college events show a dashing, dancing, grinning Monado-impersonator interacting with students, and images of a tiger grace college literature and paraphernalia. There’s a Facebook page devoted to the real Monado, too.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright…in memory at least.

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

It strikes me, speaking of tigers, that while Jim isn’t steeped in commercial pop culture from the 90’s, he IS immersed in 1980’s rock music. These days, it seems, people listen to everything, classic rock, punk rock, early metal, and all those sounds and genres that have evolved from those roots. Jim is drawn irrevocably to eighties rock.

So when we are riding in the car and Jim is providing a soundtrack for the ride, we might hear Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, and the Beastie Boys.  He’ll play Duran Duran, Don Henley, Rick Springfield,…and certainly Survivor. Jim loves “Eye of the Tiger.”

We’ll be driving along, and Jim will play a song and I’ll say to him, “What’s the story behind this one? What’s it about?”

And Jim, not a picky English teacher like his mother, will say, “I don’t know. I just like it.”

I’ll say, “Well, I’m looking it up when we get home. I’m gonna find out.”

And then of course, I forget to do that until the next time we’re in the car and Jim is rolling his eyes.

So this morning, I look up “Eye of the Tiger,” and I learn, from songfacts.com, that Sylvester Stallone picked the band Survivor, liking their sound, and they wrote and recorded “Eye of the Tiger” for Rocky III. Three weeks after the movie debuted, the song climbed up to number one and the charts, snuggled down and stayed there for quite a while.

Survivor would have other hits, but none as anthemic as “Eye of the Tiger.”

In the song, the website tells me, the tiger’s eye is the place of edginess and hunger, the dangerous place where the beast prowls. It’s the place Rocky’s trainer pushes him to find…the liquid, volatile place where he’ll tap, again, into the will to be champ.

And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night

And he’s watching us all
With the eye of the tiger…

…is what the song tells us. It’s talking about someone training hard, overcoming hardships, realizing their potential.

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

Now it seems to me that tigers have padded on my path throughout my life. I remember, back in 70’s high school English classes, earnestly debating the story of the prisoner who had to choose a door—behind one, a beautiful woman who would be his wife should he choose well; behind the other, a hungry tiger who’d make the prisoner its dinner should he choose poorly.

I remember my father being loyal to his hometown teams, but having, always, an affinity for Detroit’s Tigers.

I remember one Christmas bringing my brother and me little black and gray tiger plushies; their bellies zipped open and we could stuff our jammies inside till bedtime came again.

I remember catching a tiger by the toe to choose captains for teams or to see who went first.

…And I remember now to check the chicken broth.

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

It has boiled down nicely, brewed into a rich concoction. I strain it into the big old Pfaltzgraff bowl, dispose of the bones and boiled off veggies, and wash the big pan.

The sun shines in on me as I stand at the sink, and I shout to the boyos, who are ready for a walk. I pile the cookies into the plaid cookie jar, rinse off the platter, dry my hands.

And we head off for a walk on a breezy sunshine-y afternoon. It feels good, very good, to get outside, to stretch my legs, to breathe deep, especially after a morning spent inside and in thought, exploring all the corners of an unexpected tiger’s lair.

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

…And then, last night, deep in the dark heart of the night, Mark gasped and cried out. I woke him from a bad dream, and he sat up and looked at me with shocked eyes and then settled back into sleep.

In the morning, he tells me a tiger was chasing him in his dream, drawing closer and closer. I woke him just as he was about to be eaten.

“A tiger,” I say, wonderingly; a tiger. Is that our theme for the week or the season?

So I look up the meaning of tigers in dreams, and in life, and journeyintoreams.com tells me that tigers symbolize our intuition and power. “Being chased by a tiger in a dream may mean it’s time to embrace your own power,” I say, reading from the site..

“Huh,” says Mark.

“Tigers often come into our lives and dreams metaphorically as a symbol of strength and power,” the website says. And certainly, tigers have padded through my life this week, a recurrent theme, an interesting concept to ponder and explore, especially in days when power and control all seem to reside somewhere else, far away…

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

https://journeyintodreams.com/tiger/

This Week, A Couple of Little Things

Let the headlines wait
Armies hesitate.
I can deal with fate
But not the little things.

Armageddon may
Arrive anyday.
I can’t get away
From the little things.

Danny Elfman

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

Some weeks, there’s a theme, a big, rich, under-girding message that defines everything that happens. Some weeks, there’s not; there are just strands of little things—little things that may or may not add up to some sort of revelation.

This was a week of little things.

Such as:

  • One day this week, I came home from work and found not a hint of junk mail and nary a bill. Instead, three—THREE!—handwritten letters waited for me on the dining room table.
One day’s unexpected treat…

One was a beautiful Easter card from Larry, a beautiful friend. Flowers shout on the card’s cover, and they look just like the kinds of flowers Larry grows in his abundant garden. And inside was a long, detailed, catching up kind of note.

One was a lovely but somber note from Robin, the obligatory after-funeral note. We can’t wait to see Robin in person, but the little note channeled her quiet artistry. It was a handwritten connection.

And the last came in a wonderful small envelope addressed simply to “Aunt Pam.” (How nice to live in a small enough city that the mail carrier doesn’t even question that.)

Three little notes; three links to three special people.

  • One morning I went to butter toast, and I discovered only the tiniest dollop of butter left on the dish.
Who DOES this? Who leaves only this much butter on the dish????

“HUH!” I humphed. “What kind of person leaves a tiny shard of butter on the dish and doesn’t put a new stick in the other butter dish!”

The I discovered there was no more butter in the upstairs fridge, and I humphed some more.

“You’d think SOMEONE could march down the stairs and get a NEW package of butter. But noooooooooooooooo…”

And I harrumphed my way to the basement. I got the butter out of the fridge and put it on the stairs, and while I was there, I took some chicken from the chest freezer for dinner. Also, I realized the sheets were waiting to be washed, so I set them up and turned the washer on. Three of my shirts were hanging where some nice person hung them, plucked warm from the dryer and nestled neatly, wrinkle-free, onto white hangers.

“HUH,” I thought. “What kind of person takes the time to hang my tops up so nicely?”

The washer chugged.

I took all three blouses upstairs with me, along with the butter and the chicken, and I realized that I’m not quite the martyr I thought I was.

And the little trip downstairs added 150 steps to my FitBit’s daily count.

  • One afternoon, I drove Jim down to get his second vaccine. I went in with him to register, but he didn’t want my company for the shot itself. I took my book to the socially distanced waiting chairs and read.

Jim came back very quickly.

“That guy gave a GREAT shot,” he said. “I barely felt it.”

We sat for the requisite 15 minutes, then went home, Jim cheerfully  choosing music to serenade the ride. I encouraged Jim to take some preventive Tylenol, and that night I watched him for signs of reaction.

Mark and I both felt kind of washed out in our vaccine aftermaths; I was headachey and had the chills. Mark was really tired, and, of course, our arms were sore.

Jim sailed through. One day he said, thoughtfully, “I think my arm’s a little sore,” and he took his Tylenol, but other than that, he felt just fine. He trooped along happily when I dragged him our for an afternoon walk the next day.

And, hey: in two weeks, we’ll all have that essential immunity. We’re already thinking about maybe going out to eat in celebration.

We won’t go hog wild, of course, but the rigid walls have just become a little more giving.

  • One night this week, I went to a virtual book club hosted by a magazine in Buffalo, New York. A panel of three young book lovers discussed their take on Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, by Sonali Dey. A vibrant group of readers commented contiguously on the chat.

Dey’s book is a romance with roots in Austen’s classic work; there are names that echo Austen. There is pride on one side and prejudice on the other, and those warring qualities tumble boulders into the paths of two people who really should be in each other’s arms.

They butt heads instead, until the thaw happens, and the growth happens, and then, of course, the right thing happens. And that is very satisfying.

Early on in the hour or so of the book club meeting, I realized that I was Grandma in a group of much younger participants, but it was a joy and a pleasure to soak up the reactions of a different generation of avid readers.

And today I opened my email and discovered I’d been randomly picked as a prize-winner; sometime in the next couple of weeks or so the book club will send me a package with a mug and a tote and a candle. What a cool surprise.

So even email offered good mail this week.

  • This afternoon, our little writers’ group met, and we celebrated Larisa’s signed contract for her first book. Wendy has a book coming out, too, and they talked about the process and the aftermath. Wendy told Larisa about the fun of going to book fairs and signing copies for interested readers, and there was energy and joy in that meeting.

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

This week brought the birthday of one special friend, and the anniversary of another special friend’s death. It was a week of warm weather and long stretching walks; the week started out with a few shy daffodils daring, and ended with a riot of daffs all over the lawn.

The forsythia are out, too, some bushes chaotic, some bushes manicured, but all shouting yellow in the spring warmth. Trees are budding. Irises push up in the corners of the yard.

This week, we tried a couple of new recipes and revisited some old ones, and one night, we heated pre-packaged frozen meals for dinner, and we liked them, very much. I clipped out two new recipes to try on Easter—white cheddar scalloped potatoes and miniature cheesecakes in muffin papers. I ordered our groceries, and, though we were sad when the spiral ham was unavailable, we are easily reconciled to steaks instead of ham for Easter dinner.

Jim was really excited about the Snyder cut this week, and we divided it into portions and watched it together. Because Jim had read all about it, because he has been waiting for the Snyder cut for years, he narrated the film for us, and we appreciated what we watched that much more. And it was nice that, mostly, anyway, the good guys won.

Last night, the predicted heavy winds came through, starting in the wee dark hours. When I got up for a sleepy creep to the bathroom, I heard wind like I had never heard it before: it roared.

But our little house wasn’t buffeted at all; it bore the storm, calm and steady. I crept back to bed and slept that special sleep—the kind I sleep when all around is wild weather, but I feel safe and snug.

This morning, I had the chance to talk for a goodly time with an old friend, and for the first time in over a year, we said things like, “Maybe we can meet for lunch in May…”

It was a busy week at work, busy with good things, and a busy week at home, with good things too.

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

I look back at the little things this week churned up, and I don’t know that there’s a theme; there is sadness mingled with happy surprises and relief and enjoyment…just a bunch of little things, all mixed up together.

Maybe, even, a bunch of little blessings. And really, I realize, that’s all the theme I need.

And Now For Something…

Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different…

(Attributed, maybe wrongly, to C.S. Lewis…)

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

Early in the morning, when the house is still, I light up the computer and play my morning word games. Then I pull up my personal email (look at all those unread messages!) and sort things out.

I ditch junk mail after junk mail, but I do save these things:

  • A recipe for chicken cordon bleu lasagna; I save it, and I send it to the boyos. Whaddaya think of this idea? I ask.
  • A notice about the Aminah Robinson display at the Columbus Museum of Art. (I forward that to the boyos, too.)
  • The confirmation of my registration for an online book club. It’s through a newspaper I subscribe to; serendipitously, the book we’re reading arrives today as well.

A new recipe, a potential outing, a fresh connection with other book lovers…nice things among the ads and trash of email. I clean and file and delete, delete, delete, until I am down to five unread messages.

Some days I just don’t have the energy to wade through all the gack, but now I am glad I did.

And I think this to myself: Something about today is different.

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

Here’s something new, and something to celebrate: Mark and I are fully vaccinated. James gets his second shot this week. In two and a half weeks, then, we’ll be a vaccinated pod.

We can start judiciously venturing out; an art museum browse on a spring afternoon sounds like a nice way to push open that heavy door between us and the real world.

Maybe we’ll do our annual Easter trip to the botanical gardens, as well: all that room to safely distance and walk…

That heavy door takes effort to shove open; we won’t be flinging it wide and running through it willy-nilly. But the opening is big enough to slip through, and the breeze that comes curling in smells of fresh grass, newly turned dirt, a flower or two, freedom.

This week, we reserved a little Airbnb house in the town where I grew up. We’ll stay there for Mother’s Day weekend, and Mark will be able to give his mom a hug for the first time in 14 months. If things work out, we’ll be able to see Matt and his family, too.

Today I am thinking about visiting.

That’s a very, very unusual feeling.

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

The sun is shining this morning after yesterday’s dismal, all-day rain. We went to the mall and walked yesterday, and the place was crowded, rife with young families. Toddlers scooted and heart-broken babies wailed. Teenagers put their heads together, grabbed arms, giggled. Sedate seniors walked methodically. Clerks stood sentry at the entrances to their stores, controlling numbers.

The security guard smiled on his rounds, doing the thankless job of asking people to mask up.

The air in the mall was a little bit stale; in one corner, leftover movie theater popcorn aroma wafted. In the food court, the smells of hot pretzels and pasta sauce and grilling burgers lured people to lonely tables. The floors were shiny and slick, and the people walking them had different paces. I had to dodge and zag, murmuring.

“Hello.”

“Excuse me!”

And I remembered what it was like, all winter long, when the sidewalks were thickly packed ice for a month and more, and the mall was our only walking spot.

But these are outdoor walking days.

Today, I walk a letter down to the mailbox near Maple Avenue, and think that the old expression, “Not a cloud in the sky,” is literal. The air is crisp, and robins hop—I try to pull my phone out in time to capture them, those harbingers, but they’re too fast and too skittish.

The flowering trees and bushes have fat buds swelling, and there’s a haze of red on many of the trees: leaves coming soon, that sign says.

The middle of March; winter not quite over.

And yet, the signs of Spring are clear and definite and filled with promise.

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

Time for change, we agree at home, where tried and true recipes and menus have grown a little bit boring. I look for ideas in newspapers and magazines. In the early morning, I page through notebooks of long-ago clipped recipes and through cookbooks that have been waiting patiently on the shelves.

Mark sends me recipes he sees online.

We confer and experiment.

We try…

…pasta e fagioli

…fondant potatoes

…baked rice

Joy of Cooking’s rice pilaf

We buy leeks and clementines, and I order Easter chocolate from Ohio chocolatiers who boast of bean to bar fixin’s, sustainable goodies that reward the far-off farmer, too.

Mark notices a big ad in the Columbus paper; there are great butcher shop bargains. One Sunday we mask up, grab the hand sanitizer and drive to Carfagna’s, just outside of Columbus. There is brisk business, but mostly empty aisles, as people shop and go, and a smiling meat room clerk calls our number almost immediately.

We buy chicken and a whole beef loin, which the clerk, swinging a gleaming knife, cuts expertly into steaks. There is a gaudy belt, the kind World Wrestling Federation champions wear, hanging above his workstation.

I ask him what that’s for, and he smiles. It’s not for a champion wrestler, he says; it’s for a champion customer service provider. He grins at us and we laugh.

“Champion BULLshitter,” another white robed meat clerk coughs into his gloved hand, and he winks.

“What’d he say?” our guy demands, stacking white-paper-wrapped packages on the gleaming silver countertop; then he hurries away to get our pork and Italian sausage.

Checked out, we pack the meat into the big cooler, iced up in Mark’s trunk, and we drive home discussing recipes and menus and the best way to cook a steak. Mark is looking forward to smoking two nice pieces of white fish in his little smoker, and he ponders the merits of different wood chips.

It feels good to think of changing things up at dinner time, to use loved ingredients in different ways.

It feels good to do something a little differently.

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

I sign up for a New York Times book club in April and for a Buffalo (New York) News book club at the end of this week. The library has one of the books; the other I order from an online used bookstore.

One book is a classic thriller; the other is a retelling of a classic tale with an interesting spin. I would probably not have picked either of these books unless nudged. It will be fun to read something out of my ordinary wheelhouse, and fun to see what the moderator says about the book, and how the participants respond.

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

One morning I am reading the paper, mired in tales of discord and dissension at all levels of our government, and a fully formed thought plunks down into the bony mind cavern. “They don’t control your everyday life,” reads the thought, lettered in black on heavy rock.

I carry that thought with me and examine it whenever I have a chance. I roll it over, look at it from every angle.

And what I think is that life is HERE. There are outside forces, of course, that poke and prod, that take our money and give only chunks of it back, that issue mandates, that try to uproar and uproot us, but really, life is here.

Somehow, pandemic winter pushed us away, made us feel that life was taking place somewhere else while we, snowed in and quarantined, waited for a thaw, a vaccine, an end…waited to be able to join in.

It is good to be global, to be aware and attuned, and it is essential to fight against things that are wrong and pervasive and woven into society. But I forget, sometimes, that real life is right now, right where I am. If a butterfly flaps its wing in China and a hurricane results, what happens when I sneeze?

What happens where I am–where each of us is–matters.

Our everyday is important…the books we read, the food we eat, the places we venture out to visit. The words we utter, the silence we embrace; the people we reach out to and the things we let go: all of these matter in a real and vibrant way.

It’s easy, I think, to be constantly looking away, looking for where the power lives, to peer through our computer screens, to try to translate the newsprint into understanding…to ask how those Big Things happening affect my small life.

But today, something has shifted. And today I think: the little changes, the shy crocus, the unexpected book, the card from a friend, the spoonful of savory soup—maybe these are, truly, the big things. And maybe my job is to catch my perspective before it wanders off, to keep that focus, and to remember just exactly where real life really takes place.

A Really Bad Trip, Man

Once, when Matthew was eight or so, we went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Mark asked a colleague of his who enjoyed Gettysburg and visited there often about accommodations. The colleague told Mark about a place where he often stayed. It was clean and comfortable, he said, and very reasonably priced, and a short ride from the parks and restaurants and sights.

We’ll call that recommended place the Jones Motel.

We checked the Jones Motel out; it was reasonably priced—so reasonably priced that it made me a little nervous. But we had the colleague’s trusted intel, and so we reserved rooms for Mark, Matthew, and me and for Mark’s mom and dad, Pat and Angelo.

The drive to Gettysburg was longish but uneventfully pleasant, and we had a nice supper before heading to the motel.

The Jones Motel was one of those long lean places, a throwback to the 1950’s, but it was freshly painted white, and sparkling black shutters bracketed the windows. The lawn was manicured, and there were beautiful flowers in front of each room. In a little grassy area at the front of the driveway, there was a painted cement deer—a buck with large antlers—that caught Matthew’s eye. (“I could ride that deer,” said the thought bubble over Matthew’s head.)

We parked the car. Mark and Ang went and picked up the keys, and we headed back to the rooms.

Pat and Ang’s room came first; Mark, Matt and I had the room on the very end. (“Good!” we thought. “No noisy neighbors.”) We lugged luggage to the door, and Mark dumped his to wield the key. We entered a very clean room.

A very clean room…and a very small one. There was a cot set up for Matthew; that was in the place where, normally, a motel might put a luggage stand…at the foot of the bed. The rest of the room, mostly, was a queen-sized bed. One frightened midcentury modern dresser huddled against a wall.

The bathroom door opened in. The bathroom was so tiny, that, once in, squeezing around the opened door to shut it was a problem…and that was back when I was thin.

But it was clean!

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

We went out for a drive that night, then came back to take turns squinching into the bathroom to shower. I had to sidle around Matthew’s cot to climb into the bed. Matthew huffed over in disgust at being interrupted on the drive to dreamland, and, after a long day on the road, I climbed into bed.

And discovered it was uncomfortably hard. I like a firm bed, but I don’t like sleeping on what feels like bare boards.

And the pillows were the kind that looked puffy, but were insubstantial. When I put my head on one, my head fell right through to the hard mattress…I was left with two fluffy clouds leering at my ears.

Aargh. What I needed was a good book and an hour’s reading time, but, except for the tiny bath, only reached by displacing two people, there was no private place to turn on a light and read.

To make it worse, both the tired boyos, my husband and his sweet son, snored. Their snurrrfaxxes scortled up and down against each other, sawing and rubbing.

I lay still, trying to will myself to sleep. I think I finally drifted into slumber at about 4 a.m..

Then, just before 6 a.m., this:

KERRRRRRRRR Chunka chunka chunka.

KERRRRRRRRR Chunka chunka chunka.

“What the sweet [bleep bleep]?” said Mark, jerking awake, and he pulled on some shorts, climbed over Matt, and went outside to investigate.

Turns out the downside of having the last tiny room was being next to the dumpster, which, at 5:45 every Friday morning, the garbage truck came and emptied. Noisily.

So up we got, some of us ravenous, one of us tired and cranky. We took turns using the squinchy bathroom, and then went outside to walk in the morning sun and ride the deer, while Mark went to rouse his parents.

They were not happy about awakening before seven on what was supposed to be a vacation, but up they got, gamely, and off we went to breakfast.

We visited somber sites that trip. We walked the quiet fields where, over a hundred years ago, boys from our county had fought and died. We watched re-enactments and browsed museums. We toured the Eisenhowers’ farm. The sky was bright and clear; we discovered nice places to eat.

Matt loved the room to run and climb, and, inspired by his dad and grandpa, he soaked up some history.

I never got a good night’s sleep in that bed, and I grew more and more claustrophobic in that tiny shower.

On the last full day of the trip, we drove to a different city where a colleague of Mark’s [call him Bob] lived with his wife, Debbie, in a 200-year-old house that they had lovingly restored. We wandered through their beautiful gardens. Mark and Bob shared stories of work projects they’d collaborated on. Debbie and I talked about teaching.

Bob told us about his new job at a small artisan ceramics company. He was happy to have stepped off the corporate climb.

We had a beautiful meal together.

Toward evening, we drove off to our new hotel, a place Matt called the Luxury Bullet Inn, making me think of mobsters with sawed off shotguns sauntering its halls.

What a difference. Our room was roomy; it had two queen-sized beds with plenty of room in between, and a bathroom one could (well, I couldn’t but one could) turn a cartwheel in.

The bed was comfy, and I got first dibs on the shower, so I even had time to read in bed a little.

And we were on the second floor, up above noisy things, and in the back, away from the street.

Luxury. Sweet luxury.

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

Then:

Just before 6 a.m., this:

KERRRRRRRRR Chunka chunka chunka.

KERRRRRRRRR Chunka chunka chunka.

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

“Noooooooooooo,” moaned Mark, jerked from a sound sleep, and he ran over to the curtains and pulled them aside.

And we realized then that the hotel was built on a slope, and that the back of our room was at ground level.

It was at exactly the ground level where the dumpster was,…where every Tuesday morning the garbage truck came, at 5:45 a.m. and dumped that dumpster out, shaking it several times for good measure.

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

These days, when we talk about that vacation, we called it the Dumpster Adventure.

Man, we say. That was a bad trip.

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

I read Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another last week; in that book, Gellhorn (1908-1998), an inveterate traveler, writes about travels she took that were NOT fun.

Gellhorn loved to travel. She was a female war correspondent when women rarely had such jobs. She traveled the world and wrote about what she saw (and, sometimes, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gellhorn blurred the borders between fact and imagination).

Gellhorn met Ernest Hemingway in Florida; they traveled together to Spain, where they both covered the Spanish Civil war (according to The Washington Post’s Marc Weingarten, Gellhorn’s dispatches were much better than the famous writer’s.)

Then Gellhorn married Hemingway for a little while.

During their brief marriage, Gellhorn took Hemingway along when she was tasked with writing about China during the early years of World War II, a time when Japan was relentlessly drubbing China, attempting to take it over.

That was one of the trips Gellhorn reflected on in Travels With Myself and Another. By the time she was reflecting, in the late seventies, she was highly annoyed that people remembered her more for her short-lived marriage to a famous writer than for her own prodigious and acclaimed work. So she refers to the man only as the U.C.: the unwilling companion.

She writes, too, about a trip to Africa that was rife with disaster, and about a visit to Russia that made her kiss the carpet of the British airliner that took her away.

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Gellhorn’s trips were a lost more exotic than mine; her problems and the quirks and foibles she encountered were much more problematic and quirkier and foible-y than the ones I have butted up against.

But still. Her adventures got me thinking about travelling and how sometimes that can be a wonderful thing, and sometimes, not so much.

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The summer after James turned a year old, I was kind of worn out. What kept me going was the thought of a four-day trip we were taking to the Finger Lakes. Getting away, with no housework, no meal prep, with beautiful vistas and sumptuous surroundings…walks along the lakes, time with a good book while James slumbered peacefully…I could not wait. The idea of that adventure, the promise of the trip, propelled me.

And so off, finally, we went. The drive up was not bad. It was a coolish summer day. I can’t remember the name of the town we landed in, but it was American-dream beautiful. We checked into our hotel, and then we walked along a sparkling lake front.

We explored a winding, paved hiking trail; Jim chortled in a swing, the breeze whipping the soft bangs off his forehead. We bundled back into the car and explored the lake, which was carved out of its surroundings, impossibly blue, dotted with sailboats, nestled in a valley.

We ate a lovely dinner (Jim coo-ed and brandished a bread stick happily) and walked some more and drove back to our lovely hotel.

Jim laughed and splashed in the tub and I zipped him into his snug blue jammies and put him in his portable crib and he began to cry.

And cry.

And cry.

I picked him up and walked him.

I sang his favorite songs.

And Jim cried.

I read him books.

I searched frantically for kid friendly TV programming.

And Jim cried.

He cried for about four hours straight, until finally, totally wiped out, he fell asleep (to the vast relief of our neighbors) about 1:30 a.m. Exhausted myself, I slunk into the bathroom, took a hot bath and crawled into bed, thinking that Jim would probably, now, acclimate; the next day would be better.

Mark woke me up about 4:30 a.m.

“I’m sick,” he said, and to emphasize the point, he ran into the bathroom and threw up. He vomited until he had nothing left to offer, and then we cleaned him up, packed the baby and our things up, gave the key back to the sleepy desk clerk, and drove home.

On the four-hour trip home, Mark slept, exhausted from being ill.

Jim slept, exhausted from his four-hour crying jag the night before.

And I, the third little piggie, feeling utterly sorry for myself at the demise of my much-anticipated adventure,—I sniveled as I drove, all the way home.

That was the Truncated Barfing Adventure.

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Sometimes trips just don’t work out, and sometimes that feels like disaster.

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And yet.

A year or two ago, when traveling was still safe, we took a long weekend trip to Toledo. I had discovered a second story apartment right in town, an Airbnb home, that overlooked a little inner-city park. It was in a brick Victorian in a grand old neighborhood. It looked great online, and when we got there, it did not disappoint.

We settled our stuff in, explored—a butler’s pantry! A little screened in sitting room overlooking the park! Gleaming hardwood floors, comfy furniture, Wi-Fi, cable, and a big screen TV!

We drove to a nearby supermarket, stocked up, and came ‘home’ and made ourselves dinner.

Kitchen: nicely stocked with dishes, silverware, appliances, pots and pans. We opened windows and ate in the cool breezes, enjoying the feel of the evening sun through the screens after a week or two of rain.

After dinner, Jim kicked back on the couch, and Mark and I walked, exploring the park and admiring the stately old homes that lined the streets.

Nicely tired, we walked back, read for a while in the little sitting room, and then went to bed.

The dining room ceiling fell crashing down about 11:30 p.m., waking us up.

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That trip, we wound up moving to a downtown hotel at midnight.

That trip, just about everything we planned tumbled down and crashed.

There was a natural history museum at the Toledo Zoo that I thought we’d all enjoy. But just before we pulled into the parking lot, the skies opened up. The skies opened up, and it was like some malevolent spirit was sluicing rain down at us; there was no way we were walking in that torrential downpour the at least half a mile to the museum inside the Zoo grounds.

There was a restaurant that was a Toledo original that we thought sounded great. When we pulled into the strangely empty parking lot, though, we saw a somber sign that read, “Godspeed, Grandma. Restaurant closed today for services.”

But.

The hotel that we moved to was right on the lakefront, and Mark and I took early mornings walks, exploring. Jim loved having his own room, access to vending, the freedom to stay up all night gaming if he wanted to, with no one to say him nay.

When the Zoo museum washed up, we did some quick phone searches and found, not so very far away, a wonderful, snug, well-stocked used bookstore. We browsed and we talked with the learned and friendly proprietor. We carried out a satisfying bag of books, and, by that time, the sun was once again peeking out.

Instead of the historic family restaurant (blessings to that grandma!) we found a pub and grille not so very far from the hotel. It was in a historic old industrial building, with wonderful brick walls, exposed beams, and photos displaying the building’s past. The service was amazing; the food nurtured.

And the breakfast place we had found on-line turned out to be perfect—relaxed down-home atmosphere with food that floated us off to comfort land.

The Trip When the Ceiling Fell could have—maybe even should have—been a disaster, but it turned into a time of unexpected adventures instead.

Of course, the fact that the hotel bed was incredibly comfortable and that I got to read myself to sleep two nights in a row might have helped with my resilience.

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So. Mark and I got our second vaccines this week. Jim gets his at the end of the month. A few weeks after that, the CDC advises, we’ll be safe to visit the also-vaccinated. We’ll be safe to eat in restaurants. We’ll be safe to mooch through museums and take walks in parks and neighborhoods we’ve never before explored.

Of course, we’ll still be masking, social-distancing, but the world will open up, just a creaking little.

We’ll be safe to travel, to explore someplace new.

That exploration may meet exactly our every hopeful expectation.

That exploration may tumble boulders of disappointment in our path.

That exploration may cough up crazy consequences we could never conjure, never in our imaginations.

But we can take our chances and travel a bit; we can plan as much as we can and relax and let ourselves encounter whatever happens.

Soon,–oh soon!,–we can plot out the plan for the First Trip After COVID Struck, and we can see where that adventure brings us.

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https://www.notablebiographies.com/supp/Supplement-Fl-Ka/Gellhorn-Martha.html

When Feeling Bad is What I Should Be Doing

Today, when nearly every question can be handled instantly by Siri, or Google, or Alexa, we’re losing the habit of pausing to look inward, or to one another, for answers. But even Siri doesn’t know everything. And Google can’t tell you why your son or daughter is feeling hopeless or excited, or why your significant other feels not so significant lately, or why you can’t shake that chronic low-level anxiety that plagues you.” – Vironika Tugaleva

fromhttps://beyondtheshopdoor.com/2020/09/10/35-powerful-quotes-on-the-importance-of-emotional-intelligence/

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I got up early and did my cleaning and planning so that Mark and I could sit together at the computer upstairs, open a Zoom link, and ‘attend,’ long distance, Craig’s funeral. The service was thoughtful and set in the church where we first met Craig and Robin, Paul and Isaac. The piano was lovely, and the prayers and readings hit those deep spots.

But there was the remove of watching farewells through a computer screen, the oddness of saying goodbye to Craig that way…Craig who was so immediate, so ready to laugh or to listen, a talented—no, a gifted man, with broad, eclectic interests. A devoted man.

I remember him by a campfire, the flames dancing light on his face as he talked. I remember him solemn, ringing bells in church with gloved hands. I remember him laughing, fingers flattened on a round table, head thrown back. I remember Craig’s kindness, how he listened to Jim, their long intricate talks about fantasy novels and movies.

We have not seen Craig and Robin and the boys for a long time—the last time, maybe, when Jim and I visited to talk with Robin about a writing project I had in mind, writing about people who devotedly raise chickens. Isaac was home that day and had us rapt with his bird discussion. Robin took us into the basement where baby chicks were sunning under warm lights. We went outside and visited the mature hens and the rooster in their free-range paradise.

When we went back in, Craig, home but at work, emerged from his office to say hello. We talked for a bit. Then he went back to his duties.

Sometimes, sharing a pleasantry, a chat, with someone we deeply care for becomes, in retrospect, our unexpected farewell. There are things we just can’t know, and although we shouldn’t live as if everyone we love will be gone tomorrow, it would be good for me to live with heightened appreciation of the people who are so important, so essential, to my equilibrium.

I am not entitled to these amazing people. I have no guarantee that they—or I—will still be here tomorrow.

I need, I think, as we leave a note in the Chat and then sadly sign off, to steep myself in mindfulness.

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Instead, I steep myself in chores.

I wash tiled floors and vacuum carpeted ones.

I clean out the upstairs freezer. I find, in that smallish space, unexpected things: two containers of baked ham, packages of Italian sausage patties, the remains of two bags of French fries. Slices of roast beef; slices of roast pork. A container of cooked potatoes.

And, in a big Rubbermaid container, buried way in back, a meaty ham bone.

I put everything on the counter and sort. I leave out the last boneless chicken breast and the last of a batch of spaghetti sauce and meatballs. We’ll have pasta for dinner tomorrow: red sauce for Mark and me, chicken Alfredo for Jim.

I pile individual sized containers of tasty leftovers on the freezer’s bottom right. I can grab and go for weekday lunches, thrusting a serving of chili, or rice and beans, or sweet and sour chicken, into my lunch bag, adding a spoon and a napkin.

I organize and stack things sensibly, so they’re easier to recognize and find, ending up with bags of veggies, cans of juice, a couple of packages of Angus beef hot dogs.

I leave the ham bone out, and I go looking for ways to use it. The only ham bone recipe in my repertoire is Capital Hill Bean Soup, and somehow that just doesn’t seem right today.

The first idea that pops up on the Internet is a meaty ham bone soup. It’s kind of a hammy vegetable concoction. There’s a slow cooker recipe and a stove top recipe; I choose the stove top version. That bids me make a broth by simply immersing the bone in water and simmering for an hour or two. I dig out my sauce pot, fill it with water, add the bone.

The water begins to bubble; I putter, doing laundry, taking a walk, tidying, answering a couple of calls. And then I turn the flame off, let the heaving pot liquor settle down, and  I pull out the bone and put it on a thick old platter, cream-colored with a blue border, a chip on one rounded corner. I pull forks and a sharp knife from the silverware drawer.

Mark comes over, interested, and together, we carve off the useable meat, even though we know we should wait till it cools. The bone steams, our fingers fly, our knives swoop. A tidy pile of shredded ham grows.

“Damn!” we take turns saying. “Damn! That’s HOT!”

I chop veggies—onion and garlic and carrots and potatoes. I heat oil in the heavy red Dutch oven.  I sweat the veggies, and then I pour in the broth, sprinkle herbs and spices, stir, stir, simmer, stir.

The flavors meld, and I fold laundry.

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Jim looks at the leftover ham bone soup and decides to nuke up one of the forgotten Hot Pockets I found buried in the freezer for dinner. But Mark and I eat steaming bowls of savory soup with grilled sandwiches on the side, kind of like a childhood school lunch. It tastes good.

It comforts.

After dinner, we package up the leftovers: more tasty, quick, easy lunches.

And finally, I light the fire and sit in my chair. I pull the soft golden throw over my sock feet and I open the book I am excited to start.

But there it is: the thing I’ve been bustling about and avoiding all day. Craig is dead. Robin and the boys can’t busy themselves away from that reality.

The sadness hasn’t lessened just because I’ve submerged it. I let go my grip and it rises, patient and obdurate.

The sadness will (and should) have its day. A good man, a good friend, is gone.

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And, oh, I know there are good consequences from this pandemic…the discovery of hidden talents and resources, the turning of our gaze to what is close, to what really matters.

But there is no denying that this is a time, too, of loss and fear and pain. It’s a time when friends watch funeral services via Zoom, when grandparents don’t see grandchildren for months that turn into years, a time when people who are dear to us cannot be near to us. It’s a time of separation and a time for caution.

It is a time of hugs withheld.

Loneliness, for many people, is a constant now.

And, oh I wish—for our own selfish sakes—we could be at Robin’s door with pots of pasta sauce and deep fierce rocking hugs. Compassion once removed, I find, leaves its own special kind of frustrated freezer burn.

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We are all, I think, people who try to be brave and strong, to be upbeat and hopeful, to find the glimmer of good in a God-awful swamp.

“I’m fine!” we say, our teeth flashing in a grin. Our shoulders are thrown back, our heads high; a manic courage flickers in our shiny eyes.

But sometimes we’re not fine. Sometimes life is hard and sad, and the stupidest of soppy TV commercials pushes tears from those twinkling eyes.

And I think then that we should quit toughing it out and give ourselves a chance to heave and howl.

These are times that call for energy and bravery, for stiff upper lips and for taking the long view. But sometimes, it’s okay—sometimes it’s NECESSARY—to give ourselves permission to admit it.

Everything is NOT okay.

I am feeling really sad.

Tomorrow might be better, but sometimes, things just suck.