A dog barks, nearby, urgent, in the dark cave of night-time. I wake up, listening, startled out of a silly dream in which my job seems to be driving my car around a former campus and picking up students who can’t walk on the slick ice.
And then my 62-year-old bladder reminds me it’s awake, too. We take a walk together.
In the bathroom, with its window on the backyard, I breathe in the deep, pungent odor of skunk. Now I know why that pup was barking. And I know what that family is going to be doing for a few days–the tomato baths and the special shampoos, and the reluctant letting of the smelly, shaggy hound into the family room to sleep on these frosty, crisp, clear nights.
Skunk smell seems to graft itself into tender sinus tissue. Long after it’s dissipated, you still think you smell it.
Ah, the mercurial gifts of nature, I think. I crawl back into a warm bed, pull the covers high, and drift back into sleep. My little dog, curled into her cozy dog bed, doesn’t twitch.
Mark does not let the dog run out into the backyard this morning; he clips the leash onto her collar and walks with her, just in case a furry black and white friend still lurks in a cozy, shrubby spot. They startle Mama Deer and her two almost-grown babies curled up in one of the rock-walled flower beds; the deer reluctantly shake themselves, heave up on their long, stalky legs, huff somewhat indignantly, and head, unhurriedly, away.
But, fortunately, Mark and Greta do not find the skunk.
What Mark DOES find, tucked between the glass door and the mail-slot door, is a fat package from Florida, a gift from my niece Shayne. He brings it to me, and I put my pen down and grab a pair of scissors. I cut the top away and find wonderful things–a card, a hand-written note, a lovingly decorated oven mitt, and a pot holder artistically emblazoned.
They are almost–almost!–too nice to use; I could hang them on the wall in the kitchen. But I know I will not do that. I will use the oven mitt and pot holder; they will become my new favorites, and they will make me smile every time I pull a steaming casserole from the oven, lift the top off a bubbling sauté, or situate a tray of cookies on the rack, ready to be lifted off onto a platter.
Nieces are the nicest, I think, and grand nieces are, too. What a wonderful gift to find wedged in my door on a skunky cold morning.
After breakfast, I lace up my sneakers and head out into the cold sunshine. I walk down the hill and away from the skunk smell. Tomorrow, there will be wind and rain and the scent will wash away. Today it’s a reminder of all the different kinds of things that nature gives us, the yin and the yang of it.
I walk under trees that burst with color, as if they have grabbed all the sunlight they can get and gripped it fast in their soon-to-be-fallen leaves. Flaming colors–golden, red, amber, almost purple. I try to capture the glory, with my limited skill and technology, in a cell phone shot.
I think of the tree in my front yard, which is called, I believe, a Taunting Tree. Trying diligently to keep our leaves from cluttering our treeless neighbors’ yards, I rake or mow every three days. Mark says the tree waits until I’ve turned my back on the uncluttered green expanse I’ve just created, and then it does a sassy shake. Leaves detach and flutter down.
By evening, it’s not really clear that anyone has recently cleaned that lawn.
And the Taunting Tree plots, coyly. It hangs on to its leaves, sending only outliers to the ground–enough to keep me working, but not nearly all it has to share. This week, the city will send the metal-pated leaf sucker around. It will snuffle up the piles of leaves neighbors have raked to their curbs. Their trees are all but bare, and when the voracious sucking is done, their leaf-cleaning duties will be over.
But not my tree. My tree waits until the leaf-sucker goes, lumbering, sated, down the hill, before it starts to pelt the ground with leaves in earnest. How do you like me NOW? it asks me gleefully, as the leaves pile up, and I debate the merits of raking and bagging over mowing and mulching.
Sometimes, it times the divestment so well that snow covers the thick pad of fallen leaves, and they are there for me to deal with in the spring.
Not this year, I vow. This year, I’ll deal with all the leaves that tree can give me. I’ll do it in real time. This year, I will not be snookered into a spring leaf cleaning.
Of course, I’ve vowed that vow before.
I pour myself a cup of decaf, post-walk, and pull up a list of books that Terri sent me. These are wonderful books, essential books, books to tease and tweak and entice kids of all ages into a lifelong love of reading.
I think about the books I loved as a child. There was a little book that probably had been handed to me by three sets of older brother hands, a story about a little boy who lived in the West but was too small to help with the horses. By the end of the book, he’d proven his worth, and his dad had given him a real, ten-gallon, cowboy hat. I craved that book. I demanded that book, over and over again, thousands and thousands of times.
I think that was the book that taught me how to read, the repetitions turning into keys to the code.
And then, one day, that book was gone. I mourned it and searched for it at the library, but I never could find another copy. (Knowing now what I did not realize then, I almost bet my mother threw that book into the burn barrel and danced around it, knowing she would never have to repeat those familiar, threadbare words again.)
I think about reading A Wrinkle In Time in grade five or six, a book found on a library shelf, and having some brand new doors crack open. A plain, sometimes cranky, unpopular girl who loved math and science as a HERO! Of a fantasy!
A copy of that book, and its companions, remains on my shelves today.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Caddie Woodlawn. Chronicles of Narnia. Anne of Green Gables.
I think about reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to a snuggly boy in footie pajamas. I think of reading Mike Mulligan and The Steam Shovel and having that little boy’s teenaged big brother and his two friends sneak into the living room to listen.
I remember plotting ways to destroy the chirping device in the Eric Carle very-quiet-cricket book, and substituting a hungry caterpillar book as soon as I could.
Books are gifts; being read to aloud is a gift. And it’s a gift, too, to work with Terri to get good books into tender, pudgy, eager hands.
And then it’s time to get ready for lunch. I close up my laptop, and I carefully iron an old work shirt I have embroidered new words on.
It used to say, “Zane State College.” Now it says, “I do not work at Zane State College anymore.”
I am meeting four equally retired women; we will crunch into our salads, spoon up steaming soup, and we will remember past days and celebrate new ones. Because retirement brings both perspective and opportunity. Some of us are volunteering in grade schools, giving children–maybe children not gifted with wonderful books–a firm hand up into the land of reading. That’s a land from which, I know personally, you can travel pretty much anywhere.
Some are spending more time with grandkids and grown kids and nieces and nephews. Some are traveling. One has seasons tickets and never misses a Buckeyes’ game, come snow or high water.
Some of us are working independently, and some are using this long-awaited time to polish new skills–crafting beautifully quilted bags, mastering the art of a perfectly fluted pie crust, dipping brushes into water color paints.
It’s a wonderful time of life in many ways, and I realize it’s a gift to share it with these wonderful women. And I think about this time of life and the gift of friendship, and how things circle back. The important people, from all of your ages and stages, seem to make their way back to you…the people you knew in school, the people you met on jobs, like-minded souls from organizations you joined, people forcibly thrown toward you by chance, who wove themselves firmly into your fabric. It’s a real gift, now, to be able to spread out that fabric and see the pulsating patterns emerge, the wonderful shots of color. The individual shades and hues of friends.
Some of those shots occur once, in a vibrant section of the cloth, and disappear. Some appear early and then return. And some persist, a constant motif, a joyful, laughing presence, especially important when the weaving goes through one of those phases–when the threads are gray and black and purple, when the uplift of those vibrant colors are needed most.
What a gift, those friends.
It’s a day with an overwhelming bounty of gifts, a cornucopia of gifts…some a little sweeter smelling than others. I should, I think, write a thank you note, and I begin to compose it in my mind.
Dear Universe, (I’ll write) thanks so much for this day’s gifts…for the strength and health to walk and to see, and for the front-yard tree that keeps me in touch with the world outdoors. Thank you for words that last, and for friends that last, and that both those things continue to inspire. Thank you for the love that arrives unexpectedly in the mail, and for reminders, as I light the candle or lift the cookies from their tray, of people I cherish, both near and far.
Thank you for this gift of time and place, even when my knees ache and my energy flags.
And thank you…thank you, thank you…on this Day of the Skunk, that this time, it’s not my dog getting the tomato juice bath.
What an instructive and joy-filled set of gifts you’ve given me today. Thank you. I treasure them all.