What Autumn Brings

Late tomatoes

We wave Mark off for his weekend in western New York. I turn to walk through the carport, back into the house, and I am distracted by a brisk breeze that tipples dry leaves in the front yard. They float, crisp and yellow, on the updraft; they lazily wend their ways into the neighbors’ yard across the street.

I have been taming the lazy early-autumn drift by mowing the leaves into mulch, but suddenly the trees are industriously shedding, getting serious about molting their summer growth. This weekend, I realize, it’s time to break out the rake.

But it rains all day Saturday, loosening even more leaves onto the grass. On Sunday morning, I wield the rake, and I drag loads of leaves to the grassy strip between the street and the little rock wall. I fill four sturdy black bags, and Jim helps me drag them back to the alley, to where the city workers will pick them up.

It is autumn, and time to rake.

The rains come back, and it is good: there are things to do inside. I finish one project, corresponding madly in the last days before deadline with Terri; we make a concert of words and thoughts. Finally she emails me a picture of our finished product, now delivered, and we both feel very proud.

I drag my notes out and polish up a paper. I email a new contact, and I back-and-forth with some other women, retired women, who want to get together for lunch. We pick a place and set a date and mark our calendars.

I think about the season, and I think about retirement, and I ponder new starts and the growing flexibility of time and pursuits.

It is autumn and time to hunker down inside, to reconnect, to rediscover interests long left to simmer unnoticed.

I buy two bags of McIntosh apples. I make a pie. We eat polished apples, crunching juicy bites. By the time Mark drives off, there are only five apples left. A friend mentions that she has made apple crisp.

I peel apples and lightly grease a thick ceramic pie plate. I heat the oven and I mix brown sugar and rolled oats and butter and cinnamon until it’s a crumbly mass and I layer and sprinkle and put the stuff in to bake.

“It smells like fall,” says Jim.

Another friend mentions making gumbo and I run to open The Joy of Cooking. I pull chicken thighs from the chest freezer and smoked sausage from the freezer upstairs. We will have spicy gumbo for Mark’s homecoming, with apple crisp and whipped cream. All that cooking warms the rainy day kitchen.

By the time Mark pulls in the next day, the sun is high and the temps climb into the 80’s.

It is autumn, time to bake and simmer; time to welcome a completely changeable day.

I read my way into a stack of thick books, and I realize I have appointments on every single day. I email retired friends and we joke about not having time to work—how did we ever fit that in? I meet with some new connections, two passionate professionals working to build college opportunities for young people who are disenfranchised and often forgotten. They are wonderful people; it is a wonderful cause. I leave the coffee shop excited and ready to dig in.

And we travel into the hills of Ohio, to places we’ve never explored before. We see the home where Clark Gable was born, meet two amazing volunteers who helped to make the museum a reality, look at pictures of The King, and at his 1954 Coupe de Ville, at his monogrammed pajama top. We think we need to get a copy of The Misfits, read a biography of Gable.

We drive through a torrential downpour, on winding, narrow country roads, past where a peace officer waves us into the other lane. There is a tow truck pulling an aging minivan from the roadside ditch.

There is no emergency medical vehicle; we hope that no one was hurt.

And we twist around corners, and we edge over on the odd times when another car approaches, sharing that narrow strip of asphalt. The wipers whip madly. And then suddenly the rain abates. The sun shines, and we pull up to another historical marker, this one for the birthplace of George Armstrong Custer, whose story was both lustrous and deeply tainted. We wander through the informative kiosk, our curiosity about his Civil War life teased by shared shreds of story. We stand before the imposing statue. We look over the hills and there is a rainbow, strong and bold.

It is autumn, with triumphant stories and desolate ones, with reminders of disaster and hopes of glory.

I come home, in the dark, from a meeting, and the dog trots gingerly out to meet me, gently butting, turning her head.

“Wait,” I say, “is something…?”

Mark crouches, turns Greta’s muzzle, and we see her left eye, swollen and weeping.

“Damn!” he says. “She surprised a black cat on the backyard step; they got into it. I think it scratched her.”

She goes to ground, Greta does, creeping into her doggy bed, sighing, hiding the hurt eye. She does not move when I reach to pet her. She does not want to eat.

She is so still I check to see if she is breathing. I make an appointment for the first available morning opening at the vet’s.

And I realize my foot hurts and my knee creaks and that age brings more than freedom with it.

It is autumn and I begin to dread goodbyes.

But the morning brings sunlight and the dog, suddenly, lifts her head and jumps from her perch and trots to the back door; she opens both eyes wide and licks my hand, and we walk through falling leaves and crunching acorns. She sniffs and explores, and she is trotting; she’s excited. At home, I scoop out a good bit of food and she eats greedily and begs for hot dog treats.

The vet finds a scratch on the white of her eye, administers drops, tells me she’ll be fine with rest and medication.

And I bring her home. We turn right around, the whole family, traveling to take Jim to an appointment, to hit our favorite bookstore, to eat a hearty dinner at an Italian restaurant. It rains a little on the drive in; the sun pierces scudding clouds as we head for home.

And Mark picks the last of the kitchen-sink-garden tomatoes, and the carport shelters drifting piles of leaves. Even when the days are hot, the nights are cool. It’s dark by 8 PM.

I think that we need to sort the winter coats, get the boots out, match the gloves and mittens.

It is autumn: winter is coming.

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

Metaphor and reminder, paradoxical vortex, wind-blown messenger-season. Time of change, of growth, of healing; time of comfort. Time to recognize the reality of loss.

It is autumn and time to hunker down, to appreciate; time to prepare for what’s to come.

Rainbow in the hills

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Seeds

Pagoda 2.jpg

Their new house, tiny, two-storied, two bed-roomed, was the last house before downtown started. On the downtown side was a squat brick building where a man did picture framing; in the back a “whole health therapist” had her offices. Beyond were antique shops and ice cream parlors, a deli and lunch room, gift shops and a hardware store. The print shop where her mother worked was down two blocks and around a corner. Until they got back on their feet, they would not need a car.

On their other side was a big house with a triple lot and a wrap-around porch and flowers, flowers everywhere. An old lady lived there. She was an active old lady. Every morning, from the first August day they moved in, Sheila saw her out walking, every morning right at 9:00. Her name, Sheila learned from her mother, was Mrs. Ruby Candell.

Mrs. Ruby Candell was tall with gray hair, neatly pulled back with a big barrette, that came to her shoulders. When she walked in the morning, she wore a skirt and a button-up blouse whose sleeves came below her elbows. Her shoes had two-inch heels and straps to hold them on; she strode along, every day, as if she were wearing tennis shoes. Usually she had letters in her right hand and Sheila guessed she must walk to the post office each morning.

Who does she write to, Sheila wondered. And how many bills could she have to pay?  Who generates that much mail?

And then Sheila thought how pathetic she was, a twelve-year-old with nothing better to do than wonder about her elderly neighbor’s postal life.

In the afternoon, at 1:00, Ruby Candell worked in her garden. She wore neat jeans and a rainbow of matching, wordless, t-shirts. She pulled her hair back with a scrunchy. Sheila thought she looked as though she was in a costume: Woman Working in Garden. She thought that the morning clothes were the clothes that really expressed Mrs. Ruby Candell.

When Ruby Candell walked past Sheila, she nodded solemnly, a smile fighting to lift the corners of her mouth. She did not speak.

Sheila spent a lot of time on the porch that August, waiting for [dreading] the beginning of school.

She was going to a new school; she’d be in grade six, changing classes. At her old school, she had been known and liked and elected class president. Here she would be a stranger amid kids who knew each other, had their own leaders and established cliques and processes and habits Sheila knew nothing about.

The teachers would like her right away; she was smart and conscientious and offered answers when no one else cared. The kids would not. They would look at her and see a dull dumpy fat kid. It would take forever, Sheila knew, to make new friends, although she hoped it would happen, gradually.

Her mother was not helpful. Sheila reminded her about school clothes; they ordered online without pomp or ceremony. The packages came; everything fit: end of story. They walked down one afternoon to school to register her; her mother took the afternoon off work, and they stopped at a little coffee shop and had drinks on the way home. This was a luxury; Sheila knew money was tight, that her father was fighting sending child support.

Her mother said, “Well, they seem nice,” and Sheila nodded obediently. She thought the woman who talked them through the process was impatient and condescending; she imagined a thought bubble above her head that read, “Oh, JOY,” when she learned that Sheila was a new student.

But she would give it a chance. They walked home and sat on the porch a minute. Then her mother’s phone rang and she sighed and went inside, went to fight with her father over legal fees and money for Sheila’s upkeep.

She read a lot, those days on the porch, having discovered the library that was around the corner on the not-downtown side. Sheila turned at the big brick apartment building and there were city offices and a sprawling playground and, set back behind, the huge library. She loved to read. The library was a place to go that wasn’t her sparse, sad home. She brought home stacks of books–dystopian series, graphic novels, teen romances,—and she read through them grimly.

When she wasn’t reading, she was drawing. She brought a packet of looseleaf out on the porch, and she set a sheet on a big coffee table book her mother had (The Great Gardens of Europe was its title) and she drew whatever came to mind. Lean, nasty-eyed girls wearing clothing that was ripped and tight and dangerous looking. A rocking chair and a cat, in a corner with a vase of flowers and a rag rug. A fantastic landscape, rocky and tumbling, mountainous, with a tiny, long-legged figure balanced on top of the highest peak–just balanced, looking as though she might tumble into the abyss any moment.

More angry-eyed teen rebels.

One windy day, a sheet lifted and blew into the yard next-door, where Mrs. Candell was working. She was crouched on the ground, digging, and she sighed, sort of, and rotated her shoulders, and then straightened up and snatched the paper before it fluttered again. She held it carefully with two muddy fingers just at the edge of the page, and she looked at it a long time.

Sheila jumped up. “I’m sorry!” she said. “It just got away.”

Ruby Candell stood up, arched her back, and stepped over great blooms of flowers and a stretch of lawn to hand Sheila the drawing. It was one of the angry teens.

“There’s something,” she said, “in those eyes. Those eyes hold mine.”

Sheila looked at her a moment, not sure what to say.

“I taught art,” said Mrs. Candell. “You have something.”

Sheila thanked her for the paper, folded it into The Great Gardens of Europe, and took her books and drawings up to her room.

*******

The next day, Mrs. Candell asked if she’d like to help her weed two afternoons a week, a job that would continue after school started. She would pay her two dollars an hour.

“I don’t know much about gardens,” Sheila said, honestly.

“I can teach you,” said Mrs. Candell.

So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Sheila weeded. They started in front, where there were flowering shrubs–azaleas and rhododendrons, a gloriously wild forsythia bush that would be a riot of yellow in the spring, said Mrs. Candell; flowers that were perennial, flowers that needed to be planted each year.

Mrs. Candell told her they had vagabond deer who would eat just about everything. She tried to plant deer-resistant blooms; she mixed up a foul-smelling batch of homemade, organic repellent and put it on the rest after every rain. Sheila could smell it, old-eggy and ripe.

Mrs. Candell showed her how to get under the roots of dandelions and pop them out. “We’ll never conquer them all,” she said, “but we keep at them.”

They worked their way to the gardens on the side closest to Sheila’s house; it took two full weeks of weeding. Mrs. Candell told Sheila to call her “Miss Ruby.” It was friendlier, she said, than Mrs. Candell, which made her feel like a teacher again.

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

And every night Sheila’s mother came home at 5:25; they scrabbled together a dinner–hot dogs, chunky soup, grilled cheese sandwiches. They did the dishes and sometimes they watched TV–Gilmore Girls re-runs, old episodes of Lost.

And school started.

It was just the way Sheila expected it to be. No one was mean, not one person was sarcastic, but she felt pretty much invisible. She had a music class; in Spring semester, it would switch to art–something to look forward to. They were reading Hunger Games in English. She brought two library books with her every day, and read, by herself, all through lunch.

The teachers liked her.

One night, her mother had a different kind of conversation on her cell phone; it was the lawyer, she said, and child support would start arriving in October. So that, she said, was a good thing, at least.

That night, Sheila heard her sobbing through the thin wall that separated the bedrooms.

There was, apparently, no visitation agreement. Her father never called or emailed.

**********

At Miss Ruby’s, they started planting mums, offsetting the ones that were budding up, that had survived the winter and the hot summer and were getting ready to bloom. Miss Ruby gave her a hard-bound sketch pad, three wonderful pencils, and a  little pencil sharpener. She waved away Sheila’s thanks.

“They were sitting in a drawer,” she said, “and they’re meant to be used.”

Life settled into a pattern. There were agreeable parts, and Sheila watched her mother carefully for signs that she was growing stronger, happier, more interested in life. Some days she swore the signs were there.

And then one Sunday, coming in from a drawing binge on the porch, she found her mother curled up, sobbing, in the battered old barca lounger. “Las Vegas tragedy” read the banner on the TV screen.

“Sixty people,” choked her mother. “I can’t stand it.”

She jumped up. Sheila rushed to hug her, hold her tight, but her mother put up a hand.

“No,” she said. “Don’t.” And she pulled the throw tighter around her and went upstairs.

Dread settled: this wasn’t right. The only thing Sheila could think of to do was get Miss Ruby.

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

Miss Ruby spent a long time with Sheila’s mother; she heard their voices rising and falling from her mother’s bedroom. Gentle. Soothing.

Finally she came downstairs.

“She’s going to sleep a little,” she told Sheila. “I said we’d wake her in an hour. Then we’ll all have dinner. I think,” she said, “we’ll have beef stew. You can help me make it.”

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

After dinner was eaten–the rich broth and tender veggies, the meat that fell apart when touched by a fork–they settled Sheila’s mother in the lounge chair and sat on the porch.

“She’ll have to have help,” said Miss Ruby. “We’ll start on that tomorrow. And you, too,” she said. “You need someone to talk to.”

Sheila told her about an advancement at school: that just this week, another girl joined her at the lunch table. She brought books with her, too. They read in companionable silence, and awkwardly shared rudimentary information as they packed up to go.

“Promising,” said Miss Ruby. “But you need a little more structured conversation that that.”

They were quiet for a good stretch. Then Sheila asked, “How do you cure sadness, Miss Ruby?”

Miss Ruby stretched out her hands and slowly cracked the arthritic knuckles. She stared across the street, watched a young mother hump a stroller up the porch of an aging duplex. She sighed.

“You don’t cure sadness,” she said. “It’s always there. The best I can do is to temper it by growing something. Making something.” She smiled at Sheila.

“I plant my sadness in my garden,” she said. “You can draw it in your pictures. We use it, like Rumpelstiltskin. We weave it into something we can live with.

“Your mother,” she said, “has it all packed tight inside. She needs someone’s help to start teasing it out, letting it go. We’ll call a counselor I know tomorrow, and she’ll want to talk with you too.”

There was quiet again; Sheila felt dread and a little squirrel of hope battling in her stomach.

“It will get better,” Miss Ruby said softly. “Not with a crash and a bang, but slowly, and one day you’ll wake up and find out you’re looking forward to the day ahead.

“But the world,” she added, “is always going to bring us unspeakable things. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’ll get stronger; you will. But somehow, we need to put the good stuff out there. The best way I know is to make something beautiful grow.”

They sat for a moment more, and then Miss Ruby said briskly that they’d better get at those dishes. They filled the sink, and set up a rhythm; to Sheila’s surprise, her mother came out and grabbed a towel to help her dry. Afterwards, they walked downtown to get ice cream.

The panic in Sheila’s gut subsided, although it didn’t go away.

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

That night she took her bath and then she stood in her bedroom window, surveying Miss Ruby’s gardens. She was thinking of doing a sketch for her for Christmas–maybe of the whole garden from a bird’s eye view, a little abstract, with colored pencils. Or a focusing in on just one detail–the stone pagoda tucked in by hosta, maybe.

The gardens were huge, she thought; it would be hard to pick what to draw. And then she thought about what Miss Ruby had said, and she thought about the work it must have taken–she appreciated that work now–to make the gardens what they were. There was planning and shopping and planting and tending. Fertilizing and weeding. Pulling out. Starting over. Seeds and cuttings and mistakes, and poison ivy, bees and insects and pesky deer.

And yet: Miss Ruby’s garden was a splendor. How much sadness is planted there? Sheila wondered, and then it was like a small door cracked open, and she saw what it was like to grow up, to have to deal with  senselessness and insanity. She wondered why people killed each other, and she wondered why parents would refuse to give their kids the money they needed to be healthy, or even to call those kids and say, “Hey, how are you?”

She wondered how you could love someone once and then hate them afterwards, hate them and want to hurt them.

There are bad things, she realized, but the life that was right around you could get better, too. I can grow something, she thought. She gripped her new pencils, looking at the expanse of Miss Ruby’s garden.

A Day to Shop For Shoes

Mismatched

In the golden spill of lamplight, sitting cross-legged on the plump, white comforter of the queen bed in my Airbnb, I open up my traveling satchel and pull out my dressy shoes.

The satchel is shiny red, bought at TJ Maxx after I returned home from the second flight I took for work. I had waited, again, by the luggage terminal, waited with dozens of other people, for my black and gray wheelie to come around. I touched, and those other people touched, dozens of wheelie clones, before we each claimed our own dully identical baggage.

I’m getting a new bag, I thought then. Maybe in neon purple. Maybe in chartreuse.

I settled on the shiny red. Distinctive and sassy, the color serves me well, even though my travel now is mostly done rubber to road.

The color of the shoes I pull out of that bag–well, that’s not so accommodating. One is black, the other brown. The matched pair I had set out the night before, reached for in the early morning, plumped inside the bag quietly so I wouldn’t wake my sleeping spouse–half that pair remained at home. In its place, a stowaway.

All  by myself, in the quiet luxury of an apartment to myself for one lovely, tub-soaking, blissful night, I start to laugh.

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

I am on what I’m calling a ‘Recon’ mission–stealthy, focused, I am reconnecting with special people from whom, for one reason or another, I have been separated for much too long. Before I unpacked my mismatched shoes, I had a long, gossipy, wonderful dinner with Sandee. We have known each other forever, Sandee and me, since we were seven or eight-year olds at a mutual friend’s house and Sandee came barreling around a corner, in a scarlet pea coat on a crisp fall day. She was yelling, of course, “The red coats are coming! The red coats are coming!”

And so we all began to run in October exuberance.  “That girl is fun,” I thought, and then a span of two years and my move to a nearby city put us in the same class, on the second floor of a grim, boxy, three-story Catholic school.

Our teacher was Sister Fabian, and she was tiny and wiry and (even now I feel a twinge of frightened guilt–I look back over my shoulder apologetically as I write this truth) MEAN.  One day she grabbed Sandee by the collar of her blue serge uniform and shook her out of her bolted-down desk. I, a recent refugee from public school,–with all the laxness of discipline that involved,–turned and gasped, and the little nun finished shaking Sandee and glared at me, bearing down to check my work–which, thank a benevolent god, was neatly, completely done. Pacified, the nun swished to the front of the classroom, wooden rosary beads clicking, and Sandee and I exchanged a glance that contained horror and conspiracy and sympathy.

We have been friends ever since, even though my Catholic school stay that year was shortened by my older brother’s expulsion for unknown crimes against the sisterhood.  Sandee stayed; I returned three years later to do my eighth grade year and be confirmed. In between, my family moved to a house two blocks from Sandee’s, and we were well-positioned then to nudge and shove and shield each other through the harrowing events of our high school years. We kept that friendship habit through marriages and moves and kids and jobs, but when Sandee entered the chemo tunnel for thyroid cancer, my support had to be long distance. She was isolated from any kind of germs or contagion. Hugs had to be put on hold.

We spent a lazy day together the weekend before the chemo started; we had coffee and mooched through shops and had lunch and laughed and remembered; we talked about the disease and the treatment and the optimistic prognosis and we shopped some more. And then we hugged hard before parting, knowing it would be a year, anyway, before we met up again, and during that time, Sandee would be irradiated and medically poisoned, and she would lose hair and weight and her buoyant energy.

But the optimism was justified, and so we celebrated that night, the night of my Airbnb stay, with soup at Panera and a long-delayed chance to catch up.

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

I wore my sneakers to dinner with Sandee. And I can wear them to breakfast with Terri and Jo, and to lunch with Marsha and Kath. But after that, I am heading to see my friend Wendy. Wendy has a gift card to a fancy restaurant. I am going to need real shoes.

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

I call Mark and tell him about my shoes. He laughs and laughs, and then he says, “Hey: you left a pair just like that at home!”

Just go buy some shoes, he tells me. Buy yourself a pair of shoes.

And just like that, I regress to the autumnal excitement, back to what it felt like when Sandee and I first became fast friends. It is Fall, and I am going school shoe shopping.

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

Shoe shopping with my mother was fraught with both excitement and dread. Whatever new shoes we got would last me the whole school year. That could be glorious, or that could be disastrous.

My mother, whose poor feet were twisted by outrageous bunions earned by years of hard work in ill-fitting shoes on cement floors, was of the opinion that Oxfords were the only shoes that gave the proper support. And saddle shoes, she thought, were the best kind of Oxford.

Saddle shoes! Remnants of the Elvis Presley era! I wanted nothing to do with them in the swinging sixties. I wanted slingbacks or slip-ons or even earth shoes. I wanted–I really, REALLY wanted–penny loafers.

Your feet aren’t the right shape to wear loafers, my mother would tell me, and we would return from our shopping trip with another pair of dismal Oxfords, quite often of the saddle shoe variety.

I will be the weirdest kid at school, I thought glumly, and I tried to think of ways to carry those shoes off with panache.  (Maybe I could…paint them???)

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

Those shoes, though, built in me a work ethic. As soon as I could, I took babysitting jobs, and then I graduated to part-time work in a supermarket deli. I would save my money and buy my own clothes. I would wear shoes that I picked out.

Naturally, it wasn’t simple. I was tall and my feet were correspondingly big. I was a size nine-and-a-half, and in those days, ladies’ shoes went up to size nine, then jumped to size ten. I had to shop and try on, and hope that one style ran a little large so I could comfortably wear the nine, or that a ten would not flop off my feet. I pinched my toes a lot during those days, a martyr on the altar of fashion.

Serious work tempered that–walking up and down a classroom floor (at first, in that same boxy Catholic school, a place transformed in spirit from my fifth grade sojourn) was murder in ill-fitting shoes. I shopped for cute styles with foam soles, cushiony inserts, a little bit of a wedge, maybe, but something that would comfort and support all day, until, students gone, I could change into my sneakers.

And years went by. Marriage happened. Children happened. Moves happened.

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

And one year, I found myself signed up to walk a half marathon in Columbus with Wendy, briskly walking Wendy, who had walked that route before while I cheered her on at the finish line,–who had walked that route and made it look like fun. So early one spring morning we parked a car near Nationwide Center, lined up with thousands of other marathoners–some full and some half, some runners and some walkers–and we bounced to the pulsing music and we waited for the gun to roar, for the announcer to urge us on, to walk our 13.1 mile route.

And walk it we did, at a brisk, companionable, 15 minute-mile rate. But at the end, oh my feet were a mess. I had worn my nicely broken-in but not too old Nikes, and I hated them by the time I crossed the finish line. My feet HURT. And my poor big toes! The nails floated on top of punishing bruises, and within days, the nails had fallen off. Oh, oh, oh, my aching feet.

As soon as my feet could bear it, I went to a legendary shoe shop in the wild hills of Ohio, the kind of place where they carefully measure your feet and squish the toe of the shoes you try on and do not let you leave the store in any shoe that does not fit. And there the perky little clerk informed me that I was no longer a nine and a half. No, my feet had broadened and flattened into robust size elevens.

“It happens as we age,” said the clerk, who might have been all of 21, sympathetically. “No wonder your poor toes were so sore!”

Out I walked that day in size eleven sneakers, sneakers that felt like clown shoes. Fwap. Fwap. Fwap.

But my toes felt so much better.

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

I was once again in that place where the store might not carry the size that I needed–many shops only carry women’s shoes up to size ten. But, ha: the Internet was here, and I could order online–order up a pair of respectable shoes, type in the 16 digits of a number on a piece of plastic, and within days a pair of lovely size elevens would present themselves on my brick front step. I would never, I thought, have to march my big feet into a shoe store again.

Until my Recon Mission, when I pulled a pair of mismatched shoes from my shiny satchel.

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

I awake in the cool and quiet of the Airbnb, make myself a cup of detox tea, check my email, read the news. I spend a lovely half hour on the little private porch with my book. And then it is time to go.

I drag my bags out to the car, stow them in the trunk, and do a last once-through, making sure all is in place and the keys are back on their hook in the kitchen. And then I set off to buy shoes before breakfast.

The big box store is the only place open, and I go in with trepidation. It is not a place I shop if I don’t absolutely have to. I do not like what I have read of their employment policies; I do not like that their goods may come from sweatshops overseas. And I am wondering what the biggest size they carry might be.

I am pleasantly surprised to find my size elevens well-represented. I pick out two pairs, one black and one blue, and I check out and drive off, just in time to meet my two old friends for a long and hearty, talk-filled breakfast. And then I am off to meet Marsha and Kath, for lunch and a visit to Kathy’s apartment and a wonderful pocket of time in which to re-establish old ties. And then I hit the road to Wendy’s, where, after arriving and unpacking and taking a brisk, muscle-stretching walk, I freshen up and change so I’ll be presentable for dinner at a nice restaurant.

I wear a flowy, patterned shirt and my good black pants and my new shoes: black, size eleven. Finally. By accident, maybe. But here I am: proud owner of those long-sought penny loafers.

In this small way–and in so many bigger ones–life is so darned good.

Penny

Brown Sauce Broodings

As the light warms the early morning, I take the dog outside. The marigolds blaze in the corner by the driveway; the mums are just starting to blink at the world. Tiny red leaves from the burning bush spatter the dirt and the pavement, and in Sandy’s yard, a thick layer of crisp, leathery leaves stains the grass and seeps out into the street.

Thocka. Thocka. Acorns steadily pelt shingled roofs and metal car tops. A lone leaf detaches from Sandy’s tree and drifts, slowly, slowly, down to join its peers. And, Chicken, I think suddenly. We’ll have chicken for dinner.

I steer the little dog back home, where I take a container of chicken thighs from the chest freezer. And all morning, the picture of what dinner will be struggles and evolves in my mind.

While I’m doing laundry, I think about last week, when I took Jim to Riesbeck’s market. He ordered himself a fried chicken luncheon. When the clerk asked what pieces he’d like, he selected a breast and a thigh, which surprised me.

“I like the thigh,” he explained, “if it’s FRIED chicken.”

I do not really want the splatter and mess of stove-top fried chicken tonight; I’d rather dress it and put it in the oven. I remember a recipe from a cookbook I ordered before Jim was in school–ABC Cookery, a Gold Medal Flour cookbook for kids. I still have the book. There are instructions in there for oven-fried chicken; we once enjoyed that very much. Moves and schedules, I guess, relegated that method to the past, but today, I decide, I will revive it.

I find the slender cookbook and put it on the shelf next to the microwave.

So the entree is confirmed. We get in the car, running through the sudden, unexpected rain, to pick up Mark, to go to the post office, to stop at Panera and enjoy lunch financed by the last of a gift card, and I am thinking about sides. Green beans, steamed, I think, having had many, many green salads in the last four days. And maybe…rice?

But plain rice is missing something. Then I realize this would be a great day to try out a new sauce recipe.

********

I have been away for four days, and I need to cook.

*********

When we get home, I pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, open to page 54, and I read.

“Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” writes Julia Child, in collaboration with her French cooking comrades, “yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”

Good, I think, and I flip through the chapter. A brown sauce would be just right, I decide, and I read on, realizing I will need the whole afternoon for the task. But it is just 2:00, and I have time.

I run my finger down the ingredients list, and I take chicken broth from the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw. I pull out a carrot and an onion and a slice of ham (Ham! I think. That’s a surprise!) I get out my good knife, and I pare away the outer edge of the carrot and I peel off the papery onion skin. I chop and dice while oil heats in the heavy pan. I cut the ham into thin strips, and I dice that, too. Then everything goes into the pot, and it simmers and swirls for ten minutes, before I add the flour.

The flour melts into the oil, coating the sofrito, and I follow the instructions closely and obediently, stirring for another ten minutes. The mixture slowly turns a nice nut brown. I see what Julia Child means: this is not rocket science, but patience, rhythmic patience, is required.

I pour rich hot chicken broth into the pot, and I add two tablespoons of tomato paste and a handful of herbs; I whisk until the paste is melted into the mix, and then I step away to let time do its work. I get out the strainer and a blue ceramic bowl; I set out the pots for rice and green beans. I scoop out the rice, and I pour water into a measuring cup.

I wash the chicken and pat it dry, and I melt half a stick of butter. I mix flour and paprika and salt and pepper and a dash of cayenne. I slide each chicken piece into the butter, then dredge it with the flour. I put the pieces, bone side down, on a metal rack in the glass roasting pan. When I have placed the last piece of chicken carefully in the last space, my fingers are coated, fat with buttery clumps of flour dough.

I wash my hands and I stir the sauce, which is bubbling softly. It is brown and thick and aromatic.

I put laundry in and I take laundry out. I hang dress shirts and tuck matched socks into each other and I fold t-shirts into rectangles and put cold, wet towels into the dryer. I vacuum up dog hair from the carpet in the family room; shedding season seems to have begun in earnest. I answer emails and update my calendar, and I run downstairs to check the still-damp towels, setting the dryer for another cycle. And every fifteen minutes I check the brown sauce. I skim frowsy acid off the surface, peel away the skin that forms, and marvel at the alchemy taking place.

I have no idea what it will taste like. Some of the ingredients are totally unexpected.
But I trust Julia Child, who has never once led me astray. We simmer on.

********

I heat the oven to 425, and Jim comes in to inspect the chicken just as I’m ready to put it in to roast. “Hmmm,” he says, noncommittal; he will wait and see how closely ‘oven-fried’ resembles the fried chicken of his dreams.

I put the rice and the beans on when Mark pulls into the driveway. I grab oven mitts and pull the chicken from the oven; I use tongs to turn it, and Jim and Mark lean in to approve the crisp golden coating. Jim is being swayed. It smells really good, he says.

And the rice cooks up to soft and sticky, and the juices run clear on the chicken. I turn off the heat and I mitt up, hefting the big cooking pot and pouring the sauce into the strainer. “Strain,” the instructions exhort me, “pressing juice out of vegetables.”

I press the veggies. The little dog dances at my feet as I scrape them into a throw-away bag.

***********

The kitchen clatters: plates are pulled from the highest shelf and silverware from its drawer, water is poured, and serving spoons and tongs wrestled out of their jumbled space. The chicken is tender and perfectly cooked,–the crunchy coating, a triumph. The beans are crisp and buttery. And the sauce is thick and rich and savory,–more, I think, than the sum of its parts. It’s the magic of time and patience and good things combined.

We eat and we talk, and the chicken disappears; Mark and I split the very last piece. We scrape the juices from our plates, mop up the last bit of sauce, eat every morsel of sticky rice. A good meal, simmered and slow-roasted in the time provided by this post-work era. A good meal, providing the time to catch up, to family up, after having been away for four days.

We are reluctant to leave the table, but the little dog begins to dance, and a home-cooked meal offers up a sinkful of pots and pans to scrub, and there are chores to be done, plants to water, runs to be made. We are fueled and fortified, though.

There’s a metaphor, I think, in the making of a long-simmered sauce, in the surprising combination of sturdy everyday ingredients into a mixture once unthought-of. There’s an analogy in the thoughtful preparation, the dicing and the sauteing, the careful addition and nurture of the flour, and the long, slow, vigilant bubbling. There’s a lesson to be drawn.

And maybe tomorrow, I will draw it. But tonight I am lulled and comforted by the hearty food, enjoying the re-connection with the boyos, the lazy walk at dusk with the slow-footed little dog. We step back into the house, into a kitchen still rich with the smells of roasting and simmering. It is right, it is good, to be home.

Speaking in Terms of the Dead

“Do you think,” my son Jim asks me, “you might be home early?”

I contemplate the event I’m about to attend. It’s one I helped plan, and by rights, I need to stay after it concludes and make sure things are orderly and well-wrapped-up.

“No,” I tell Jim, and I am rueful. “I think I will be there until the last dog dies.”

There’s a startled silence. Then, “What?” says Jim. “Eeeuw!  What does THAT mean?”

“Well, you know,” I say, taken aback. Can it be I’ve never used that expression before? It’s one I grew up with, and, like so many turns of phrase we regularly use, never questioned. “It means…well. It means I’ll be there until the very end.”

“Ooooo-kay,” says Jim, and he gives me an odd look and leaves the room.  And he leaves me thinking: where DOES that odd phrase come from?

I type, “…till the last dog dies…” into a search engine.  And my goodness, what I learn.

********

I learn that President Bill Clinton used the phrase in a speech in Dover, New Hampshire, in the early 1990’s. If the citizens would give him a second chance, Clinton promised, he would hang in there until the last dog dies. There are several references to the phrase in reports of this speech–maybe it’s taken to be a quaint Arkansas-ism, although I heard it from my mother whose speech was influenced by her Scottish family and her Buffalo, New York, companions. How is it that Clinton and my mama share this unique phrase?

I type ‘etymology’  after ‘the last dog dies’ and hit search.

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

Again, I hit a treasure-lode of theories. It seems the phrase evolved from another, more specific one: until the last dog is hung. Stuart Edward White used the term in his 1902 novel, according to http://www.phrases.org. White wrote, “It was a point of honor among them to stay until the last dog was hung.”

This theory posits that ‘dog’ referred to an unsavory human–specifically, to a desperado in the Wild West. There is talk of ‘noose parties’ at which dozens of undesirable ‘dogs’ are dispatched at once–this particularly macabre party was over, then, ‘when the last dog was hung.’

That Wild West interpretation could explain how the phrase trickled into an Arkansas vocabulary, but not so much into a western New Yorker’s.  I read on.

Another theory has it that the phrase is based on Seneca Indian lore. The Senecas, it is suggested, celebrated a five-day New Year’s festival, culminating in the strangling of a white dog, which was then hung from a pole. The holiday lasted, the revelers stayed on, until the white dog was hung, I guess, according to this interpretation.

Eeeeuw, indeed. Hung varmints, hung dogs. It is isn’t getting any nicer. But, grimly, I read on.

Mark A. Mandel–also known as ‘Dr. Whom,’ so I am guessing he must be of meticulous grammar intent–writes about a reference to the phrase in Margaret George’s fictional The Autobiography of Henry VIII. (This is not a George book I have read, although I enjoyed her Mary Queen of Scots book very much.) George writes a scene, Mandel  says, in which Henry is vividly bringing a point about loyalty home to his nobles, who have been caught plotting intrigue against their king. The monarch pits a pack of feral dogs against a regal lion. Woe, Henry thinks, to the dogs.

But, ooops. Henry didn’t plan for this: the dogs overpower and kill the lion.. Henry has to do something definitive fast, so he orders each of the dogs to be strung up and hung until dead, and  he orders the nobles to stand there and watch until the very last dog breathes its very last breath.

Lovely stuff. I am feeling a little queasy.

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

This gets me to thinking, though, about phrases we say that contain the word ‘dead,’–like for instance, when we say a thing or person that looks just like another is a ‘dead ringer.’ There’s a grisly theory, my online research tells me, about this phrase, too.

Many people believe it comes from the custom, in the days before science could prove definitively that a person was really most sincerely dead, of tying a long string around the presumed corpse’s finger. The casket would be buried, but the string would wend up to the surface of the grave and be attached to a bell on a pole. Then, if the corpse should re-awaken, the twitching of the finger would pull the string and ring the bell and grave diggers would converge and hopefully, disinter the poor surprised buried person before the air ran out, six feet below.

A not-so-dead ringer, I guess in reality. But wait–says one site–what does that have to do with the meaning of the phrase? A wakened sleeper could be construed as a once-dead ringer, but how does that relate to two things that appear to be mirror images?

In fact, it does not, my research suggests. Instead, in late 1800’s horse-racing, there was a habit of substituting a horse that looked remarkably like the authentic racer. The subs were called ‘ringers’, and dead here meant precise or exact–a dead ringer, an exact substitute.

That makes more sense, I think. It also is much less the stuff of which nightmares are made. (This all puts me in mind of a horrendous Scottish folk tale my mother used to tell about a beautiful young wife who had what they called the ‘sleeping sickness,’ and was buried alive, accidentally, while her devoted sea captain husband was far, far away…but the hair on my arm is rising and a chill finger creeps up my back. Let’s leave that tale alone…)

(I look up, by the way, the definition of dead as precise, exact, or irrevocable, hoping to find that etymology, but my quick search just tells me English speakers have used ‘dead’ in that way for a long, long time.)

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

Unbidden an old, old memory comes to me, of a young and crazy time, of being sound asleep when a warm body slipped in next to mine in the wee morning hours and whispered hoarsely, “You might find a few dead soldiers in the kitchen when you get up.”

And on tumbling out of bed for work the next morning, I found not a few, but a battalion of empty beer bottles marching all over the table.

When did an empty bottle become a ‘dead soldier’?

Phrase Finder (phrases.org.uk) offers me an interesting post from Mike in 2001, saying that William the IV orginally coined the phrase ‘dead marines.’ He was at dinner with the Duke of Clarence, and the table was quite cluttered with irritatingly empty bottles. The King waved to have the surface cleared.

“Take away those marines,” he said, gesturing to the bottles.

A high-ranking marine officer was at dinner. He respectfully asked the King why he chose his branch of the service in talking about the bottles.

“I call them marines,” Mike reports the King said, “because they are good fellows who have done their duty and are ready to do it again.”

Clearly, In William the Fourth’s day, beer bottles were refillable.

Mike goes on to report that empty beer bottles have been called ‘dead soldiers’ in the US since WWI. (Dictionary.com supports this, tracing the usage back to 1915.) It must have been another grimly humorous acknowledgement of the loss of life and the need for comfort in a harrowing time. And it was an apt image, perhaps, Mike suggests, in that “the ‘spirits’ had left the bottle…”

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

I close up the Safari app, and I get up to clear away the dishes. I am humbled.

I am the snooty English teacher who has said to generations of students, from sixth graders to college seniors, “Don’t USE a word if you cannot DEFINE a word.”

I am the pain-in-the-neck mother who has preached for yay, these forty-some years, “If you don’t know what you’re saying, you shouldn’t be saying anything.”

And yet, “I’ll be staying till the last dog dies,” I say blithely and unthinkingly. I, who thought I was so conscious, so mindful of my speech. I who thought I was in control of my turns of phrase.

I rinse the plates and I slide them into their dishwasher slots and I think sadly that I have been dead wrong.

Stemmed, but Branching

 
If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.
        —Michael Crichton

“Did you know,” asked my brother Sean, “that our great-grandfather died in a poor house?”

Sean had been to visit our uncle, Joe, our father’s much-younger brother, and Uncle Joe had been sharing family history facts that maybe weren’t so well-known. Some were about endearing personality quirks. But—a poor house? That was a little more serious. That smacked of Dickens and gray Gothic grimness. Our great-grandfather had living children, after all–our grandfather among them. How, in his final years, did he wind up in an institution for people who had hit rock-bottom, who had absolutely nowhere else to go?

Then I thought I remembered that the county home–the ‘old folks home’–in the county where Sean and I grew up had once been the poor house. It struck me that maybe the poor house had once been the place where the elderly were sent when their families could not care for them. Behind this ruminating is a hope that maybe things were not so bad there.

This week, I’m going to learn as much as I can about poor houses in western New York State in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It seems like something I need to understand. Because the fact of our great-grandfather’s institutionalization has some sort of impact on all of us. Having consigned his father to an institution, for instance, it may have been easier for our grandfather to place his own children in orphanages when their mother died.

My father’s years in Father Baker’s Home for Children surely shaped the man he became. We could see it, for example, in the melancholy that descended before the holidays,–a kind of yearning for something long denied. The reality of Christmas always seemed, ultimately, to chase away the sadness, but at that time of year, my mother would warn us not to push our father.

“It’s hard for him,” she would say. “He has an image of an unattainable perfect holiday in his head.”

It’s funny. When the December holidays approach, I always get a whiff of that as we prepare for Christmas–of the idea that other people are enjoying a perfect, harmonious, color-swirled, music-filled extravaganza. That my poor family is getting, somehow, a shorter stick than the others drawing in this competition. And then it dissipates in the brisk breeze of intrigue and baking and shopping and get-togethers with friends and family.

I wonder how my child-father felt about his grandpa being in the poor house. Was there shame and sadness; were those feelings renewed when he crossed through the orphanage gates to become a resident? Or was there relief in knowing there was safety, there was a warm bed and food on the table, and the wolf, for a while, was at bay?

My father is long gone–gone thirty years ago–and it is too late to ask him those questions. But it’s not too late to feel the impact of his thoughts and emotions–to be touched by the actions of others in generations before me.

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

We were a little full of ourselves when Mark completed the law school years and we struck out into a brand new town, into brand new territory.

“Look at us! Aren’t we daring?”

It was a wonderful time, full of growth and revelation, the forging of new relationships, the refining of beliefs and values. We evolved, because necessity demanded it, new definitions of home and the meaning of work in our lives, of family and of friendship, of where and how we fit into a community, and of what we owed the place that stretched and morphed to let us in.

We felt sometimes, I think, like we had invented the concept of the daring move to a brand new place.

And then one day it occurred to me that my parents had done much the same thing. And that our grandparents had been much, much bolder. Imagine Mark’s grandparents leaving Italy as young people in their late teens, striking out for a country where they didn’t even speak the lingua franca. Imagine my mother’s folks pulling up roots in Scotland, packing up babies and the few family heirlooms they could stuff into the limited luggage they could bring, and boarding a ship to an unknown city.

Maybe bold moves were part of our heritage, and maybe our move was much safer and far less thrilling than those of the people who’d that had gone before.

It was a humbling realization. Along with it came this: I might understand myself better if I understood my history better.

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

We hired some wonderful folks to paint our house this summer; yesterday, they put up the last shutter, and we all went out front, painters and inhabitants, and snapped cell phone photos. The transformation was striking.

Our neighbor Sandy has lived in her house for 16 years; it’s the first time, she says, the little house has been painted during that time.

Sixteen years ago, we wouldn’t have called Young Ministers Painting; sixteen years ago, we would have painted the house ourselves. Time and knees and energy have changed that situation.

But we did commit to painting the garage, the car port and the long fence that borders our backyard. And as we plunge into those jobs, we are learning something about the place in which we live and its history.

“Look at this,” Mark will say. “Why did they do it like this?” And he’ll get out a legal pad, sketch a new plan, because the way of hanging the door, or the way the wires are run, suits a need long-filled and gone. But pondering that need tells us something about the family who lived here before us. We consider whether the little garage was kind of a potting shed for the couple who lived here for many, many years; they  were, neighbors and friends tell us, great gardeners. He grew the blooms; she arranged them creatively; they marched away with high honors from the county fair each year.

Knowing that, we look at the way the garage functions and think maybe we understand a little bit.

And standing at the garage wall and scraping is a literal act of peeling back the years. The garage was many colors before it reached sage green. It was creamy white and brick-red. It was never, as far as these layers tell us, Seriously Gray, which it’s becoming now. This color choice is new to us, new to the house, a new chapter in neighborhood history.

Acknowledging that we’ll never reach their level of horticultural excellence frees us to re-imagine the garage as a space for something else, and Mark builds shelves and re-wires the electric and moves his chop saw into the space.

*********

There was a rectangular hole in the dining room floor right under where the table would practically go that puzzled us when we moved in. We pointed it out to our friend Susan.

She said, “That’s probably where the button to call the maid was.”

The maid! Mark and I looked at each other; this was a revelation about the family who’d lived here before us, and about the times they had lived in. Mark cut a piece of plywood and filled the void. We laid down an area rug and answer only each other’s summons for kitchen fare.

Knowing a little of the house’s history informs us; we understand, then, how and why things are configured. I honor those former habits. At that same time, knowing those practices are gone frees us to change the flow, to make the place our own.

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

My understanding of local history is hazy but growing clearer. This city was once two towns. The Civil War highlighted their differences.

In what was once Putnam, fiery abolitionists brought blazing orators to town, smuggled escaped slaves from hidey-holes to furtive river launches, defied their more conservative neighbors who gathered with torches and outcry. This side of the river, folks recall, was populated by people with different politics, people who upheld the status quo.

New research reveals that some of those folks were working behind a facade; Underground Railroad operatives did not hang ‘welcome’ signs by their front gate or leave diaries about their illicit and illegal acts of daring and kindness.

Devastating flood waters surged over both areas in the early 1900’s, and city planners with foresight and good communication limited loss of life and property–people knew, for instance, to turn off their kerosene lamps as the waters filled their living spaces. In that crisis, the two disparate parts of the city worked together. Those waters, some say, may have washed away some of the invisible walls separating people from the two areas.

But the long-ago distinctions between the two areas, now parts of one unified city, still have some impact; one can still see hazy outlines of those borders in the way some things are done.

It helps to delve into the history of your town.

*****************
The alchemy of realizing the history of family, home, and place works, I suspect, kind of magic.

Maybe it’s time of life; maybe it’s the fact of retirement and the flexibility to explore the unexplained puzzles of family life. Maybe it’s the transformation of the house, the change of the seasons, the surfacing of information. Probably it’s a confluence of all of these things.

But I am struck, more and more, by the need to embrace the present–to live fully and mindfully in this moment. There’s an imperative need, I think, regarding my son, 27 years old and disabled, to plan carefully for the future.

But there is a need, too, to understand the past, to come to grips with the forces and the wisdom and the ignorance, the faults and the talents, the mistakes and the triumphs, and the mundane habits of everyday life,–my own and those of people before me–that have brought me to where I am.

So this week, I will contribute in a small way to a community forum, with a wonderful, well-known speaker, on drug addiction and recovery–a present day plague whose roots we certainly need to understand. I’ll work on grants, and try to finalize reports for some community activities; I’ll get ready for meetings and take the boyo to get leeched at the hospital lab.  I will bake lemon bars and I will shop for a pair of decent shoes, and I will follow a deep-seated, genetically imparted schedule, and change beds on Friday, mop floors on Saturday, cook up a fine family dinner on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll scrape the garage and help Mark paint.

And in the nooks and the crannies, I’ll explore. I have some local history research to do for a project in October–I need to track down some area lore and contemplate the impact on a forgotten local star who fascinates me. It will broaden my hazy understanding of local history–maybe opening some doors.

And I need to find out: What were poor houses back in the day? Were they the joyless, soul-sucking concrete asylums my imagination suggests, or was there comfort there? Why would a grown child consign an aging parent to such a place? I need a more complete understanding to assimilate the idea of my great-grandfather ending his days in that kind of a setting.

I want to know. I don’t want to be a leaf separated from its tree. I want to gain the whole picture, to understand the currents that swirled before and the eddies I navigate now.

And I want to be able to determine, at least in small part, which way the future will flow.

Just Another Neighborly Day in the Beauty Hood

Say, who are the people in your neighborhood,

the people that you see each day?
        —Sesame Street

It was an inopportune time for the water to be shut off. Dirty dishes filled the sink—of course, that was the morning I decided to cook a big breakfast. And two stacks of dirty laundry awaited their turn in the washer.

I tried the faucet one more time: a hiss and a fizzle, then nothing. I clipped the leash onto the dancing little dog. Off we went for our morning walk.

Phyllis was out weeding in her magical garden, with its radiating brick walkways and its wildflowers and bursting colors. In the center, a wise old stone rabbit surveyed the riot of blooms. And Ace, who looks like a smaller, longer-haired version of Lassie, came over, his beautifully coifed mane floating, to stick his regally long snout through the fence slats, sniffing at Greta.

I asked Phyllis if she had water.

No, she said. She’d noticed something going on around the corner on Norwood, and figured the city was doing something with the pipes.

We chatted a moment, inconsequentially, and then I nudged the dog to move on.

“Hey,” Phyllis called after us, her gloved hands deep in mulchy soil, “keep an eye out for poison ivy. It’s everywhere this year!”

We meandered, Greta and I, to the corner of Norwood, where there were cones in the street and a bold orange ‘road closed’ sign. Halfway down the block, workers in lemon-yellow shirts stood around some sort of digging machine which had its munching proboscis deep in the earth beneath the street.

The dog and I both sighed. Missions accomplished, we headed back.

*********

At home, James was up and had discovered, for himself, that water was not running from the pipes. He brushed his teeth with filtered water, and we took a ride over to the nearest dollar store. I was a little leery–I remembered water outages where all the bottled water had quickly disappeared from the store shelves–but there in the entryway was a huge display of shrink-wrapped water bottles. We loaded two twenty-four packs into a cart and went in search of gallon jugs. We added four of those.

The friendly clerk asked if we were going camping, and when we told her her about the water shut-off, she said, “Uh oh.” She lives on Norwood.

Fortunately, she said, no one was home, and maybe, if she was really lucky, the water’d be back on by the time her shift ended.

“Hey–have you had a problem with poison ivy this year?” she asked, handing me the receipt.

********

We lugged the water into the house, a two trip endeavor, and put gallon jugs in the bathrooms. We opened one plastic wrapped package of serving-sized bottles and slid them into the fridge.

“Jeez,” I started. “You’d think they could have warned us! What if we had health problems? What if we were shut-ins and couldn’t get out to get water?”

As I whined, my eye wandered over the hedge to Shirley’s house, and my thoughts wandered to Shirley, who DOES have health problems, and who IS a shut-in. I dialed her number and got her voice mail.

I’m leaving a gallon jug of water on your front step, I told her.

Shirley called later. By then the water was blessedly back on, and I was contemplating things I take for granted, like the never-ending supply of clean fresh water I enjoy, unlike people in, say, Texas, right now, or in many other parts of the world, who do not always enjoy such bounty. Shirley said thanks and told me she was feeling pretty good, all things considered, and asked how I liked retirement. Just before she clicked off, she said, “Oh, honey, I have to tell you. When Merilee was here yesterday, she noticed there’s poison ivy all around under the hedge between the houses.

I went out and looked. Leaves of three: let ’em be. Leaves of five: ‘sakes alive.

***********

That night before dinner I mowed the backyard and Mark, freshly changed into grubby clothes after work, mixed up a batch of weed killer and walked slowly along the hedge that wanders the property line between our house and Shirley’s, decimating the invidious poison ivy. After a thorough scrub down, we grilled our supper and then took an evening walk.

We passed Jeff, the serious young pastor down the street, walking with his two children. Jeff’s little guy is about two; he was struggling along on a tiny bicycle with training wheels. His face was scarlet with exertion, but he refused to get off and walk. He chattered, every sentence beginning with “DAD!” His thoughtful sister, aged four, maybe, was much quieter. She held tight to her dad’s hand, slogging along in knee-high rubber boots paisley-patterned in pink and yellow. A glittery green cape whooshed gently behind her; every moment or so, she tugged at its knots as they tugged at her neck. When she spoke, Jeff leaned down to catch every word.

We smiled and waved (“A little quiet time for the mama?” Mark suggested), and we waved, too, to the tiny woman, sun-browned and jaw-jutting, mowing the yard at the little house down the hill. She and her teen-aged daughter are the newest neighbors.

***********

I took my tea out to the patio just as the light began to wane; I opened my book, but didn’t read. I listened to the birds, and to the trilling of the cicadas, and then Sandy slipped through the passageway from next store with a seriously lumpy gift bag in her hand.

It was a collection of Avon stuff–lotions and powders and potions and blushing colors–with a woman of a certain age and of a certain retired status in mind. (Sandy’s daughter works at Avon and gets a nice discount, so now I luxuriate in scents and unguents I would never, being fervently frugal, buy for myself.)

We talked about Sandy’s recent foot surgery; she is NOT, by her own admission, a compliant patient, and she was out in the yard, watering, the day she came home from the hospital. Two weeks off my feet? Bah, she scoffed, although she allowed, ruefully, that her doctor was not too happy with her. And she was worried about mobility; she and her boyfriend are embarking on a cruise in just a couple of weeks and she wants to hike and dance and  explore.

We talked about getting the neighborhood together for a picnic, and we talked about the best colors to paint houses, and about what flowers the darned deer will leave alone. And, when the bugs started biting, we both reluctantly got up, stretching, to head inside.

“Oh,” said Sandy, “you might not have noticed. There’s poison ivy all through the hostas on your side of the line.

***********

The next day, Mark came home from work and mixed up more plant poison. While I chatted with Becky across the street, and played peekaboo with her pretty niece-baby, Eleanor, Mark trudged up and down the property line on the Sandy-side, spraying for poison ivy.

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

During the law school years back in Ada, we lived in a mobile home court, our trailer on the very edge, bounded by the street, an unending corn field, and one neighboring trailer. I remember, one night, taking a book about modern life out on the little patio we created in front, and reading about the dearth of neighborhood interaction. It used to be, that author (his name, and the title of the book, long-forgotten) opined, that people new to an area gathered their information from their neighbors.

Where to shop? Which dentist to see? The most patient teacher for a reluctant-to-learn third grader? Once moms would glean that information from other moms who lived nearby, or dads, as they grilled hit dogs or tossed a ball to young Bubba, would transfer knowledge. Nowadays, said the book, people do not talk to their neighbors, do not interact beyond perfunctory hellos. They often don’t even know each other’s names. Work has become the new neighborhood, the place where people socialize, and exercise, and answer the questions, and share the wisdom, of every day life.

I thought ruefully that the author might have a point, and lifted my head from the book to see one of the neighbor families out for a walk—mom, dad, the four step-stoned little ones, three boys with close blond crew cuts, one fragile little girl with long platinum hair. They all waved and said hello, the children exquisitely mannered. They went to our church on Sundays. Then they were dressed to the nines in buttoned-up shirts and little bow ties–Dad, too–and mom and the tiny girl in flouncy dresses.

On nightly walks, though, the kids wore shorts and slapped along in flipflops, and Dad, who was a tattoo artist and shaved his head to show off the art on his scud, often had his pet boa constrictor wrapped around his noggin.

That night, the snake was there. I waved, relieved they declined to stop and talk, and laid the book down to contemplate the neighborhoods we’d lived in. I remember thinking about how lucky–how blessed–we had been. Our neighbors had been unique–funny and empathetic, traditional and wacky, young and old and in-between, and ethnically diverse and distinctly and differently abled–but they had always been people who knew our names and shared our worries and celebrated our joys. We’d lived in many neighborhoods; we had always felt surrounded by people who cared, people who would drop everything to help in emergency times.

We’ve lived in two neighborhoods since the law school days, and I continue to be warmed by the knowledge that those who live near to us are people we know, people who share, people who laugh and nudge in the good times, and who pitch in to help in the trying ones.

We just never know when we move into a new neighborhood who we’re going to meet. The ages, the family situations, the economic habits, the spiritual beliefs and political values, the lawn-mowing habits–all these things may be vastly foreign to ours. What ties us is the land beneath our feet, the air we breathe, and the proximity we have to each other.

It’s joyful, in these new retirement days, to renew and strengthen those everyday ties, to realize, as Mr. Rogers’ and Sesame Street’s words wove so firmly into our social consciousnesses, just how important are the people we see each day.

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

Mark hacks down bushes and overgrown shrubs, getting ready for the painters to come, creating access to house walls and clearing serene clear spaces in the yard. He totes the rambling cuttings in the new wheelbarrow, dumping them into the parking area behind the garage.

When he is done, when that space is filled, Buddy, from the house behind us, comes out to see him.

Every neighborhood has a ‘mayor’; Buddy is ours. A single fellow, not employed, he keeps an eye on things. He is helpful and observant. He talks with everyone.

Now he talks with Mark. What, Buddy asks, does Mark plan to do with all those rangy cuttings? The two men hunker, examining the five-foot deep pile that extends two car lengths.

Mark talks of chopping, bundling, packaging and mulching, saving some large pieces of woody growth and some small pieces to dry out–kindling, maybe.

 

Nah. Buddy disagrees. I got a friend, he says–my friend Curtis–he’ll come in his pickup truck and take the whole thing away. Give him, maybe, twenty bucks a trip; he’ll take it out to his place in the country, chip it up for mulch.

Two trips, you figure? says Mark, and Buddy says yeah, two trips ought to do it.

That evening, Curtis comes in his truck, hauls away the brush. Buddy comes back over, stands with Mark, and they survey the newly clean parking place.

It’s good, they agree.

Buddy asks about the painters; he approves of the folks we hired, discusses with Mark the garage, which we will paint ourselves. What about the garage door? Buddy asks. Same color or contrasting?

Mark tells him what we have planned. Buddy contemplates, then offers his opinions.

They shake hands, finally, and Mark turns. He’s envisioning a fire in the fire pit; he’s thinking of two fingers of that nice single malt–iced, maybe–that comes from the village in Scotland where my mama’s family lived. And then Buddy calls him back.

“Looks,” he says to Mark, pointing, “like you got p’ison ivy climbing up that pole. Best get on ‘er.”

Mark looks, and sure enough. He sighs and trudges off, off to mix more plant poison, to work to quell that scourge, to dampen the eternal pop-up of that dangerously itchy plant, to insure we’re not promoting the spread of something harmful to the people who live around us.

It’s what you do, after all, for your neighbors.

 

*****

Some names have been changed to protect the unsuspecting…

Of Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Patina of a By-Gone Era…

Used furniture 1
Today is a Murphy’s Oil Soap day. Today I am cleaning some brand-new used furniture.

This is how we came to buy it.

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

“Solid oak table,” says the posting on Facebook. “Three leaves. Top shows mild wear. $25.00.”

It is exactly what I want for my dining room renovation project. I’ve been prowling on-line second hand sites, wandering through local stores–antique emporiums, junk shops, and re-purposers’ paradises. I’ve gotten lots of great ideas, but nothing has been the bargain I’m seeking.

I want a sturdy round table that can be extended for parties and holidays. I do NOT want the chairs that go with it–my vision mandates three pairs of chairs, different styles, maybe even different colors. One set will have arms and be, when the table is at its full length, anchors at the head and foot. The others, strong and comfortable, but in some yet-to-be-discovered funky, fun design, will slide up to the sides.

And I want it all, of course, for next to nothing.

Nothing too matchy-matchy, I tell Mark bossily. I do NOT want to go out and buy a ponderous dining room suite. I want something unique, something we assemble. I want something we can spin in our own special style, but something that, put together in a new grouping, has not just a history, but a future, of its own.

Mark rolls his eyes. (He has been known to ask, a little plaintively, “Do you think, someday, we could have bedroom furniture that matches?”) He is intrigued by the idea of the mismatched chairs, though, if we could just find the right pedestal table to anchor them.

And then the ad pops up on my FaceBook feed.

“What do you think?” I ask him. “Should we go and look?”

“Why not?” he says. I message the seller.

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

We thought we were so organized. We took both cars. We’d cleaned out the trunks and folded some soft, old blankets into them. Mark carefully selected tools he might need for dis-assembly, and we were off, convoying to a set of storage lockers thirty miles away. Young James rode along with his dad to provide extra muscle.

The seller–we’ll call him Tom–was waiting for us. He was a big, bearish, youngish man with a broad, open face, glazed in sweat; he’d been moving furniture on that hot summer afternoon. The table was at the entrance to the storage pod; we inspected the pedestal and the top and the three leaves that would extend it. We looked at each other.

“Yes?” said Mark.

“Perfect.”

Money changed hands. We opened both trunks; Jim and I carried the leaves and slid them into mine. Mark removed the pedestal from the tabletop and angled it carefully into his back seat. Then he and Jim rolled the top itself to his trunk–his trunk being broader and deeper–and hefted it up to slide inside.

There was no way. They slid it back down and got the measuring tape. They looked at back seats and measured them. They rummaged in the toolbox.

Meanwhile, I was talking to Tom in the storage pod.

“I got to get rid of a lot of stuff by Wednesday,” he told me on that Monday afternoon. “I got a sale in Columbus, and I’m gonna need the room. Is there anything else you need? I got a nice dresser back there.”

Part of my dining room vision was repurposing an old dresser,–painting it, adding fun hardware, and then hanging shelves above it for plates–kind of, I thought, a home-assembled china cabinet effect. But the ‘dresser’ Tom referred to was, actually, a china cabinet. It had a glass door and three shelves and a drawer. Swirly bulls-eyes marched down the sides, and the carving was in mint condition: not a flaw or a chip.

It was gritty and dusty, but it was the perfect shape and the perfect size for the space I had in mind. I hesitated.

“Fifty bucks?” he said.

I thought of badly damaged cabinets I had seen in stores and on-line with tags that read, “Solid wood! $300. Great project!”

I bent to open the drawer, and Tom said swiftly, “Oh, that don’t open.”

But it did, revealing plastic place-mats printed with pictures of wine glasses, a deck of playing cards, and a child’s toy, unopened in its plastic bubble.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Tom, and he quickly scooped out all that treasure. He nodded at the cabinet.

“You want it?” he asked.

“I’ll talk to Mark,” I said.

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

But Mark and Jim had determined, meantime, that there was no way the tabletop would fit into any area of either car, and that dis-assembly was beyond the tools and inclination Mark had brought along. Tom rolled the top back into the pod, and we drove off to reconnoiter at a Wendy’s we had seen down the street–to make a plan to get that tabletop moved and to talk about the cabinet.

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

Friends are a wonderful gift. Sitting in the blast of air conditioning at Wendy’s, I texted Terry, and I asked if there was any way her patient husband Paul would have time to drive his truck and Mark out to those storage pods the next day. And Terry messaged back almost immediately: Sure. What time?

Mark and I discussed the china cabinet all that night; by morning, we had decided to buy it. So we messaged Paul that the load had just gotten a little heavier.

Tom was available at 3:30; Mark came home from work and changed, and Paul picked him up. James went along, too, which meant that Mark scrunched into the bumper seat behind the driver.

He had only twenties in his wallet, Mark did, and Tom did not have change. In the dickerings for the china cabinet, poor Paul, who was already donating his time and gas and resources, had to loan the boy ten dollars.

I was off that day on a wonderful road trip that is another story in itself. When I came home, the tabletop was leaning against the dining room wall and the china cabinet was perched in front of the fireplace. Mark was grilling chicken, and he and Jim were pretty pleased with how the whole day had worked out.

I’m not quite sure how Paul felt about everything.

 

Used furniture 2

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

So this morning, I will get to know the newest members of our furniture family. I’ll fill a plastic bucket with hot water and sloosh in a glop of Murphy’s, sudsing it around with my fingers until it melts completely. I’ll take my little hand vac and clean out the china cabinet, suck the loose grit out of nooks and crannies of the table, and then I’ll wipe everything down. And then I’ll dip a soft, white cloth into the bucket of suds, and I’ll begin the long, slow, exploratory process of getting to know my new china cabinet and table.

I’ll work from the inside out, shoving the rag into the smallest corners and nooks, making sure any dirt and residue is washed away. We’ll talk to each other, those wooden fixtures and I, while I scrub and massage and polish.

The treasure Tom scooped out of the drawer already lends me some clues to the china cabinet’s past–that the folks who owned it were practical types who liked a place-mat they could wipe down instead of laundering and ironing; that there was a special child worthy of a new toy (I imagine a grandma seeing a little something she knew the five-year old would just love at the dollar store, bringing that gift home triumphantly, putting it in the drawer, and maybe, forgetting it was there–the right time never quite arriving to give that treasure to the little guy.)

That pack of cards had been well-used; I imagine the china cabinet overseeing long games of euchre at the dining room table.

Washing the cabinet will tell me more–the soap may draw up and wash away layers of tobacco gunk, for instance, and I’ll think of a home like my parents’, blue with cigarette smoke and loud with jokes and laughter. I will imagine card games and jokes and laughter, smoke-free, in this cabinet’s future.

The wear on the top of the table will tell its own tale, about meals and other projects. Did a woman drag out her portable sewing machine and load it onto this table, shoving the corded foot pedal underneath, mending knees of jeans and sewing curtains for the Florida room and whipping up a special dress for her sister’s youngest’s wedding?  Are there marks and indentations from years of kids wielding sharpened pencils, intensely doing homework or drawing epic scenes of imagined historic battles?

I’ll imagine someone’s joy in getting this piece of furniture new, a long awaited purchase made possible by her hard work at a weekend job. I’ll think of the china cabinet coming into, maybe, a young couple’s home, a gift from his parents, a gift that had stood for many long years in his beloved, and now-deceased, grandmother’s dining room. I’ll imagine that cabinet settling in and watching the young couple become parents, the children growing, and the years passing–passing into a time when the cabinet, loved but no longer needed, gets passed away itself into strangers’ hands.

And I will sluice away the grit and residue of recent postings. If these pieces were kept in dank basements or spider-filled barns, moved about from pod to pod–THAT, I don’t particularly want to know. I want to bow my head to the rich history the pieces exemplify. I want to wash away any storage unit past.

I love used furniture–love it, of course for its bargain-rightness (I do believe that, somewhere out there, just the piece I need is being sold at a fraction of its ‘new self’ price; my challenge is to track it down and bring it back to  vibrant life.) I love it for its workmanship–for the careful joinings, for instance, so different from the glue and staples of discount buys. I love it for the use it’s had and the care someone has taken and for the future it offers us in its new home. I love it for its environmental responsibility, for the re-use of a resource that will not have to be harvested and stripped for my vision to take fruit.

There’s a patina and there’s a promise to the right piece of used furniture, lovingly restored.

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

Oh, we have projects. Before I buy the paint for the dining room, I need to finish up the details on the almost-painted car port, and then we need to get the drop-cloth curtains hung and the tables covered and the chairs arranged, and invite dear friends, and celebrate.

Before the painters come to start the house, we need to paint the garage and the long fence that delineates the way back part of our backyard. We need to cut back rambling neglected bushes. We need to root suckers from the lilac tree and buy some hydrangeas and sink them into sad, neglected garden spaces so that, in a year or three or five, there will be, henceforth from that time, an annual bloom of exuberant flowers.

There is a lot to do. But in there, in the near-enough-to touch future, we will be cleaning,  spackling, and prepping the dining room; we will be rolling on bold new paint color. We’ll be repainting the existing low boy. We’ll be treating the venerable wood floor, and we’ll be beating the dust from the heavy carpet.

And then I’ll be moving in the new pieces–new to us, but seasoned in their experience of dining rooms, bringing years of service to this new story we’ll unfold. New story for us, but new chapter for these venerable pieces, lovingly cared for, lovingly restored.

Used furniture–the right used furniture–brings with it a sense of past, a comfortable present, and a promise for the future.

And it brings a smile to my frugal face.

Free Agency: The Moment of Realization

I have a plan and a process in mind for a blog post this week, but it’s a post that will not come together. I wrestle with it. I structure it—it’s a perfect topic for a classic essay. Three main points. I have a good hook, I think, for an opening, and the points lead right to a firm and satisfying conclusion. And this is something I really want to write about.

But the post refuses to gel, and when I try to force it into shape, the writing sounds whiny, and bossy, and petulant.

So on Friday morning, I get up early and run over to the lab to get blood drawn (they are so quick about it, I barely have time to open my book before they hustle me off to greet my day). I’m back before Mark leaves for work, back in time to brew a full pot of decaf, to take the little dog for her frenetic morning walk, to eat my toasted, sprouted, many-seeded, bread, and to conquer the word puzzles in the paper before I take a steaming mug of joe out onto the patio.

I have my notebook and a pen, and I take a deep sip of coffee, and I order myself to figure out why this blog post isn’t forming.

**********

It’s quiet. It stormed last night, and we had to medicate the little dog against the frightening crash of thunder, chemically insulate her from the lightning flashes. The soothing, calming pills seemed to backfire yesterday, and she woke me out of a deep, sound sleep–I had the strong, regretful sense of sliding out of a very, very good dream. I brought her downstairs and let her out.

When we went back up, though, she couldn’t settle. And I wanted so to go back to that wonderful dream place.

Instead, I brought my book downstairs and read while the dog paced and panted. When she finally dragged her dinner bowl out from under the table, brought it over next to me, put one paw inside to hold it down and started licking residue, I realized she might be hungry. I asked her for the dish. She gladly gave it over, and I mixed kibble with wet dog food. She ate it all and licked the bowl clean, and not long after, I got her up to bed and back to sleep.

So she was snoring. Mark was snoring. I sat in the dark of 2:30 a.m., and a bitter taste of resentment biled up: Sure, you guys sleep. I have to be up in four hours to get to the blood lab… and then I had the moment. I realized that the day about to dawn was mine, that no external fists were pummeling my day into shape…that, if I wanted to, I could come home from the lab and stretch out in the comfy reading chair and close my eyes for as long as I wanted.

It was, I think, the first moment that I knew, deep in the embracing-life, truly-knowing part of my mind, that I really, really don’t have to go back to work.

There was a shift, a reckoning, and a joyful acceptance. The shape and space of my days, the structure of my week, changed viscerally.

***********

A morning after a storm is quieter in some ways. The birdsong is tentative and far away, not raucous and burgeoning. The bugs, though–their chatter is electric, atonal. It kind of buzzes right through my veins.

The air is heavy and wet, but, as I sit and write, freehand scrawling in the soft August morning sun, I feel a breath of real coolness. I think to myself that air conditioning is great–what would we do without it?–but that true coolness is only available out of doors, in the path of a blessed breeze. The trees twiddle their fingers idly at me.

And Sandy and her little dog wave from the yard next door.

“Still feel like you’re playing hooky?” she calls, grinning.

No, I answer. Today, I feel retired.

And I see a new twist to my morning routine. Unless it is blowing, pouring, or snowing, I’ll do my morning pages on the patio, getting to know the new day.

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

I think about the phrase, playing hooky. As an academic, that’s the feeling vacation always brought to me: there were things I should be doing, but look at me! I’m taking time away from the job, the class, the planning. I’m sipping coffee on the patio when I should be…doing something for someone else.

I wonder idly where the hooky phrase comes from, and then I realize I have the time to find out. So I type it into Safari, and I pull up a long list of results.

I discover the term ‘to hook’ was once vulgar for ‘to steal,’ so playing hooky might mean stealing time from some intended purpose. I discover that if you were said to be ‘on your own hook,’ it meant you were responsible for yourself. Playing hooky may have come from that, too–when you play hooky, you take your time to yourself, not reporting to anyone else.

And I discover that there was a term in 1840’s and 1850’s United States: to hook Jack, which meant playing truant…in that, maybe, somebody hooked poor Jack away from school. Clearly, there’s a rich history to the term playing hooky, and I have time now, to look it up, and to mark it down for later study.

I have time to research playing hooky, but today, this day, I don’t feel like I’m doing it.

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

This day is not a broad, empty one. I shake some pork bones into the old black Dutch oven; I clean veggies out of the refrigerator—summer squash and broccoli stems, a fat onion, quartered, and a sturdy carrot, which I peel and slice. I add a bulb of garlic and a sprig of rosemary from the plant that hangs from the corner of the carport. I take dried basil and oregano from our own backyard and crumble it between my hands. I sprinkle salt and grind pepper, and I drizzle olive oil. Then I put the whole mess into a 350 oven so flavors will blend, and components will turn a rich brown color. Later, I pull out the pan, fill the pot with water up to the brim, let it simmer, slow and low, for hours, bubbling up a rich deep broth.

At noon, I drive to my friend and colleague Kris’s, where we sort flyers and surveys and bookmarks and bundle them together with boxes of children’s books to give away to Scout groups and the art museum, to libraries and after-school programs. It is the joyful time of our community read initiative, when books–new books, nice books, hardcover books,–get into the hands of young children who, maybe, never have had a brand new book before.

Kris and I pack them up, and divide the list. We tote boxes out to my car. In the afternoon, Jim helps me deliver, and we end at the library, where he browses films and I browse books.

It’s not that I am not doing any work. It’s just that I am choosing the work I want to do.

***********

I like what my new friend in the blogosphere, Kimberly Allen, wrote about the fact of retirement. We had been back-and-forthing about the term, ‘retirement,’ about the out-to-pasture sense of it, and how we needed to land upon a better term. Last week, Kim wrote, “The words I am currently using, borrowed from a friend, suit me. Free agent!”

I’m a free agent, I think,–working of course, but in charge of what work I will do. The reality of that seeps into my head and my skin and my bones.

**********

On the way home from the library, we stop at the store, James and I, and we buy freshly-baked hamburger buns along with the other few groceries we need. I unpack the two light bags; I pull hand-formed burgers from the chest freezer. I put some new potatoes on to simmer and a brown egg on to boil. We’ll have, I think, a little batch of potato salad with grilled burgers…and maybe an ice cold Canadian beer on this muggy August night.  I will chop and stir and mix and season, but I will still have time to read, in the afternoon quiet, a long slow chunk of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages, another chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass.

I read, these days, in the comfy reading chair before dinner; I read on the patio with a glass of ice water after my evening walk. Words are revelation again; not trying to hurry through, I cannot stop myself from plunging ahead. The words of good writers move and shake me.

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

The big moments come in ordinary time, when we are usually dealing with the here and now, the immediate needs. So the transition is only appreciated, digested, internalized, after the passage has taken place. Student. Graduate. Employee. Supervisor. Significant other. Partner. Parent. Grandparent. There are all kinds of transitions, all kinds of new roles. And it takes a while for each to settle in, to become a living breathing part of the way we know ourselves.

Free agency. I have the time, and I have the freedom, the health, and the resources, to choose what I will do. Maybe, next week, that will be to write the blog post that wouldn’t solidify, to explore, effectively, the concept of ceremonies of welcome, and maybe it won’t. I have the opportunity to take my time, to decide on the action, the topic, the project, or the path. The reality of this freedom comes claiming me. I am dizzy with my great good luck, with new lightness, as a heavy cape slips firmly from my shoulders.

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

A Bird in the Hand

We have constructed an artifice, a Potemkin village of an ecosystem where we perpetrate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh, not been ripped from the earth. This enables us to imagine that the only choices we have are between brands.
                —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Black chick

This week, I’ve been thinking about chickens.

I’ve been thinking about chickens because we’ve been eating them–experimenting with using dry rubs, letting the breast meat soak that in, and then roasting it on the grill, basting it with a barbecue sauce, letting it slow cook, and then eating it with farmers’ market corn and new potatoes from Randy’s fields. Rubs are new to our chicken repertoire, and the results–tasty and moist, seared on the outside–are a welcome revelation.

But I’ve been thinking about chickens, too, because of the folks we know who raise them. They are varied, these chicken-raising people: artists and officers, class-act retirees,  professors, stay-at-home moms. These are people, for the most part, who have been quietly tending their fowl for a long, long time. Their chicken preoccupations predate the current poultry raising craze by a broad span of years. Their stories, I think, would make a compelling article, and I message my friend Robin to see if she’ll let me come and visit, to interview her about her chickens and her art.

Robin is gracious and welcoming, and so, on Thursday morning, James and I pile into the car and drive north to Mount Vernon.

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

Robin lives, with her husband Craig and their sons, Paul and Isaac, in a pretty red cottage on the borderline between town and country. The house perches on a little slice of verdant heaven, and we pull up the long gravel drive and park next to the family van. We walk up a path bordered in green, past a homey looking chicken coop, and up the steps to the back door.

We sit at the table and visit while cinnamon buns bake and Robin makes a second fragrant pot of decaf. Isaac, about to enter his last year of college, tells us about a new bird he’s been watching this summer. It’s wren-like, but with a longer beak and a different perching pattern, and it’s been pecking at his window. He realized, he says, that it had peeled away a corner of the window screen to get to spiders spinning homes in the space between window glass and summer screening. He’s excited because that means the bird has taken its instinctual feeding pattern–foraging in the bark of a tree,–and adapted it to human construction.

Isaac is tall and lean, ponytailed, with piercing black eyes. He is a biologist, studying, right now, fish and their adaptive relationships in Ohio waters, but birds are his passion. He loves video games, too, and Robin and I leave him and Jim discussing a digital world. We take our coffee and warm-from-the-oven buns, and we retreat to a little sitting area at the top of the stairs. It’s where Robin does her sewing, away from everyday house bustle.

Robin moves the sewing machine close to the window, pulls out chairs, and we settle in. Emily, the aging poodle, sweet and friendly, hoists herself up the stairs, too, settles in, falls asleep on the area rug at my feet. Robin shows me her just-finished project, a beautiful, capacious, quilted bag that she puts up on top of the sewing machine and covers. Otherwise, the cat will find that soft and comfy fabric, mash it down, and create for herself a new sleeping spot.

And then we talk about chickens.

Robin and Isaac started raising chickens together twelve years ago. It was a 4-H project for Isaac; he got several Banties, who first lived in the basement. Every day, Isaac and his mom would take them outside and put them in a hutch with a run; every night, they would herd them up and bring them back inside. They grew completely used to humans, those chickens; Isaac took to wandering around with the rooster on his shoulder, like a pirate with his parrot. He loved the chickens and he continued to raise them long after his 4-H time was over.

The Banties were joined by other breeds–Orpingtons and Wyandottes, Barred Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, Cuckoo Morans, and Rhode Island Reds. Robin loved the birds, too, and even after Isaac went away to school, she continued to keep the chickens. She favors heavier hens who lay brown eggs–they are tougher birds, she says; it’s harder for a hawk to swoop down and carry one away.

Still, they have attrition. One night, as she turned up that gravel drive, Robin’s headlights illuminated a coyote stealing off with a bird in its jaws. It dropped the hen and ran away.  Robin butchered that freshly dead bird–something they do only rarely, although they enjoy the eggs year ’round.

Chickens are one connection, for Robin, to an Iowa farming childhood. She may not have time, with her full-time job at a bookstore, and her commitment to teaching ceramics, to till a kitchen garden or tend to goats or pigs. But chickens she can do.

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

We go into the basement and visit the newest chickens–babies just fluffing out working wings. There are eight or ten chicks; they are all hens and all different types–pale and dark, some with patterned beaks, some with feathered legs, some just beginning to sport a comb. They tumble together in a big galvanized tub, sweetly cheeping, running to get food, taking impatient little drinks of water. They are impossibly fluffy and impossibly cute.

Outside, the mature chickens–a Banty rooster named Earl, Lord and Lady Orpington, and a Wyandotte hen, wander peacefully among the shrubs by their coop, poking their heads out, looking to Earl for instruction when Robin offers feed.  They are big and bright-eyed, strikingly colored,  and beautiful.

Grownups

Robin talks about predators–raccoons are the worst, she says, followed by foxes and an occasional coyote, and they have to balance a healthy, free-range life with the carnivore threat.

She shows me chicken catalogs, with glossy, alluring pictures of beautiful birds accompanied by lists of characteristics. You can choose size, of course, and appearance and egg color; you can choose the level of cold-weather hardiness and you can choose disposition tendencies.

There’s a lot to think about with chickens, I begin to realize. There’s a lot, say Robin and Isaac, to love.

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

Robin has taken to photographing the grownups; she sketches from the photos she likes, and then the sketches flow into her ceramic designs.  She’ll throw a batch of mugs, then pull and place the handles, coat them with a slip made from local, Knox County, clay and bisque fire them. When they’re cleaned and washed, she’ll do a wax drawing of a chicken, a drawing taken from life. She shows me a photo of Earl pecking at a nugget of food; she shows me a mug with a perfectly proportioned, stylized rooster in the very same pose.

Wax drawing done, Robin dips the mug into a base coat of glaze, applies a second layer of wax, adds the top glaze coat, cleans the base, and then loads the kiln and fires the mugs.

A  mug takes at least two and a half weeks to create.

Chicken Mugs

You have to love the process because it brings you joy, says Robin, but you’ll never recoup, in dollars, the time you put into it. You have to own an appreciation of the long, slow way of doing things.

It’s true in raising chickens, as in art, of course. We talk about the difference between a factory farmed egg and its free range counterpart–the richer, more deeply colored yolks, the shells’ fragility, the difference in flavor.  The same differences, says Robin, are seen in the chicken meat. Factory farmed chickens are bred to maturity within eight weeks; their meat is watery and flavorless, their bones flexible and rubbery.  Free-range chickens  take a minimum of twelve to fifteen weeks to grow into themselves, and their bones, and their flesh, are firm. The flavor, Robin says, is incomparable.

It’s a dilemma, she acknowledges, because to buy a free range hen for roasting, you’d probably pay something like $6.99 a pound–a cost most families can’t embrace.

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Long ago, I read that United States Americans seldom think about where food comes from. They just eat it—a lot of it.

And I think about the chickens–food chickens–in this context: I’m reading Robin Wall Kimmerer.  In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes about the relationship between a person and her food. In her native American tradition, when she gathers food, Kimmerer asks permission and she gives thanks. And she never takes everything.

So she’ll go out to gather wild leeks to make a risotto for her visiting daughters, and when she locates a patch, she will ask the plant’s permission to take her harvest. Then she’ll dig up a tiny portion; if the plant has granted her permission, it will be whole and healthy. Kimmerer will leave a gift of tobacco and judiciously harvest what she needs, leaving enough to perpetuate the food plant’s life.

It’s a philosophy, a practice she calls the Honorable Harvest; she applies it to the eating of plants and to the eating of animals. We need animals, she acknowledges; we need their flesh and their fur and and their hides and their feathers; we need their bones to make our stock. But we need to use them wisely, judiciously, reverently. “Gifts from the earth,” she writes, “or from each other, establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”

And I wonder if this has something to do with the pull that draws many to the raising of chickens–the ability to hold the tiny chick in your hand, to feed it, to allow it to run and explore and take dust baths in the bare spot under the rhododendrons. To get to knows its quirks and foibles and to enable it to have a natural life, a wholesome life, a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. To say thank you when the eggs are harvested. And, when the hen or the rooster is butchered for food, to make it happen in a quick and respectful way. And to use, as Robin says, every part of that chicken that can be used–even the heads and feet in a stock that, she affirms, is more flavorful than any you’ve ever tasted before.

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Knowing the bird on the plate before me has to make a difference, to slow me down, to make me appreciate, force me to savor. This is not just one of a million identical bred-to-eat birds, I acknowledge. I know this bird. This was an individual who flapped and pecked and socialized, a being who gave us joy in life and sustains us by his dying. We gave him freedom, sunshine, and companions. He feeds us. We knew this rooster’s name.