Up on the Rooftop (Thinking Pause)

It’s cold out on this roof. My fingers poke out of tattered gloves, and I wiggle the fiddle curiously. How does one hold it? I think of performers I’ve seen, of hoe-down scenarios, and I snug the gleaming wood instrument under my chin. I drag the bow across the strings; awful, discordant sounds screech out.

I put down fiddle and bow, and I stare out at the silent night, at the velvet, star-studded sky. The street: so quiet. The neighbors’ spotted white cat darts behind the white pillared house across the street. Muted lights glow behind drawn shades and drapes pulled tightly shut. Way down on Linden Avenue, car tires thrum. A buried, throbbing, bass pulses from the college bar a half a mile away, way over in the industrial district. To the south, the Christmas lights on the courthouse flare up: first red, which dulls to rose, then pales to white, then flickers away. Then a blast of green shoots up, fading, fading…It’s replaced by a triumphant golden glow.

Cold, clear, peaceful, I think. And I eye the fiddle again.

Then, “What are you doing out here?” asks Mark. He leans halfway out the open window of the spare room, hands flat on the black-clad roof. He pauses, he ponders, and then he crawls out to join me. The roof here is flat and broad and rimmed with a little railing: no danger of sliding and falling. I sit with my back against the wall, legs straight in front of me, silent fiddle in my lap. Mark slides over to join me. He slips his hand over mine and we weave fingers. We sit, quietly together, looking out over our little world.

And then, again: “Why are you on the roof?” asks Jim, his head out the window. There’s a little pause, and, “Wait,” Jim says. His head disappears.

He reappears a minute later with two warm, silky duvets, which he throws out the window ahead of him. He butt-slides over next to his dad, and we pull the coverlets over us, glad of the warmth, contemplative in the quiet night.

I handle the fiddle to Mark, who shakes his head. He says, “Oh, no. Not me.”

“I’ll try,” says Jim; he positions the fiddle backwards on his extended legs. He presses a finger on the frets, and he draws the bow across the strings. There is a long, sweet, lingering note. It splits the night and fades away. We listen to it disappear, and then we are silent.

Finally, I say it. “Without tradition,” I intone solemnly, “our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on the roof!”

We’ve got the fiddle. We’re on the roof.

But we are, all three of us, feeling pretty firm.

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

My December Country Living magazine comes in the mail. It is my guilty pleasure, a full half hour of guaranteed enjoyment: a celebration of home and hearth and hearty foods. This month, there’s a white house on the cover, the kind of house built, maybe, in the 1880’s—sprawling, two-storied, pleasingly gabled. The red front door sports an evergreen wreath with a crimson bow. Evergreen garlands wrap around the wrap-around porch, and two regal collies step off that porch to greet the viewer.

A vintage turquoise pick-up truck, Christmas tree resting on a plaid blanket on its roof, waits in the drive. There is a story here, of family and festivity, of grand preparations and gleeful anticipation of a great day.

I page through the magazine, and the story continues. I visit homes decorated for the holidays—vintage homes with deer heads on walls and hand-hewn tables; homes where a happy young mother plates cookies in the kitchen. A table is set with warm plaid blankets as tablecloth; there are tartan plates nestled on white chargers and tangerines snugged into a pine-bough runner. The old white chandelier shines above an evergreen garland that drapes a broad hutch, and I feel that hushed moment when the house is cleaned and decked and shining—the moment before the guests arrive, crowding in with faces rosy from the cold, shedding coats one-sidedly, juggling their dishes to pass as their host tries helpfully to grab the shrugged-off outerwear.

I look at the vignette and picture the peaceful preparedness shattering into the warmth and bustle of welcome.

The guests will soon arrive, the wassail begin.

I flip through the rest of the glossy magazine, contemplate the recipes, and I think this publication takes our cultural expectations and puts them onto paper precisely. The family homestead. The groaning board. The shining faces gathered joyfully around the table.

That’s the holiday.

That’s the tradition.

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

“I looked up tradition,” Mina says, “and it is supposed to be something that is handed down or done over generations. But my mother calls and says, ‘You HAVE to be here. It’s tradition.’” Mina exhales and looks at her dear confidantes, Corey and Blake. They are all 34; they are old school friends, moms of children five years old or younger. Mina is an assistant principal. Corey is a nurse practitioner. Blake is a CPA. They are smart, savvy young professionals.

“My parents,” Mina continues, “have only been having Christmas at their house since Grandma and Grandpa bought the condo when I was 14. Twenty years! I told my mother that’s hardly long enough to be considered tradition.”

“So, what are you going to do?” asks Blake.

“I caved.” Mina sighs. “My sister called and whined about how it just wouldn’t be the same, and my dad came over to let me know he had the train set up and he reminded me how much Little Barry loved the trains and the tree lights last year…and I just said, Fine. We’ll be there.”

“Well,” says Corey. “we’re not. Laura is old enough to want to wake up in her own bed this year, and run downstairs to open her gifts. We’re having Christmas in our own home, and I’m cooking a roast, and anyone who wants to come can join us.”

“You rebel,” says Mina. “How many people are coming so far?”

“I don’t know,” says Corey. “No one’s talking to me. Although my brother did call to thank me for ruining Christmas before he informed me we weren’t on speaking terms and hung up. Jeff’s parents will be there, though.” Corey crumbles her roll onto its little plate and turns to Blake. “What about you guys? What are you doing?”

Blake looks a little abashed. “Well, I’m incredibly lucky, I guess,” she says. “This summer, the whole family was at the beach, and my mother got us all together and suggested we figure out a way to celebrate together that didn’t make everyone crazy. So we decided we’d have the Burke family Christmas on Epiphany this year. The 6th is on a weekend, and it will ease up on that after-holiday letdown for the kids.” She looks at her friends almost apologetically. “We’ll go to Matt’s parents on Christmas Eve and then be at home on Christmas Day. My sister and her kids will probably come over that night.”

There is a little silence, and Mina and Corey look at her with a little unbelief and a little jealousy.

Finally, “That’s so cool,” says Mina. “I wish my mother could see that the tradition is about the being together and not so much about a command appearance on a certain day.”

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

Curious, I look up ‘tradition.’ Mina is right: the definition tells me it is a custom or belief handed down through generations. So it has to be pretty darned old, generations old, that custom, to properly wear the mantle of tradition.

So the claim that ‘You HAVE to be home! It’s our tradition!” is, really, a false one.

Because once those grandparents were young parents too, dragging their cranky children to one set of in-laws or the other, eating Edna’s dried out turkey when they’d rather be home with a tasty pan of lasagna and the promise of a family board game after dinner. But they did it—they sucked it up until the grandparents couldn’t host any more—until they moved into assisted living, or moved, tragically, into the green fields of a memorial park.

And then, “Our turn,” those parents sighed contentedly, and gloried in the kids around their own table, the food their own family favorites; they welcomed the grandparents well enough to join them, the kids’ friends with no special place to be. They welcomed the significant others as the kids grew into young adults.

They grew solid in their expectation that Christmas wasn’t Christmas unless every kid was home. Twenty years passed, and it began to seem like they’d celebrated this way forever. Like this celebration was tradition.

But it isn’t really—it’s just the way they’ve done things for a couple of decades, and a year dawns when a different kind of celebration is in order.

Expectation: not tradition.

And unrealistic expectations can overload and sink a holiday.

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

Jim is typing furiously. When he pauses to take a breath, fingers suspended above his keyboard, I ask him what he’s working on.

“A reading list,” he says. “Want to see? First, I want to finish It.” Stephen King’s thick tome sits next to Jim’s computer; the bookmark reveals he has only about an eighth of the book to go. Jim wants to read it through before seeing the movie, which people have told him is not bad, although, of necessity, it leaves out some parts of the dense and intricate book.

Then he wants to read The Wheel of Time series in its entirety; he has read the first four books, but now he wants to start, again, at the beginning, and follow Robert Jordan’s long saga until the very end of the very last book. Then, on to Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, and more.

It’s an ambitious list, and it does my aging English instructor’s heart good. It validates what we plan to do for the holiday this year, too, adopting an Icelandic custom on Christmas Eve. We’re going to grill steaks, and then snuggle into new flannels and light the fire in the fireplace, and we are going to crack open our new books. We’ll read, cozy in the fireplace glow, the tree lights twinkling, too, and we’ll dip into chocolates,—chocolates from our favorite local chocolatier.

My inner bossy teacher surfaced this November, and I gave each of the boyos a ‘Christmas Wish List’ form to fill out. It asked what books they wanted, and what kind of chocolates. It asked if they wanted any special gift cards, and then there was a category for ‘other.’ The boyos took the lists to separate corners, and thoughtfully filled them out. Their book lists were fairly long; on the ‘other’ list, both Mark and Jim listed only one simple, inexpensive thing.

Isn’t that funny? I thought to myself, and I wondered if we finally have circled around and settled on the kind of Christmas the three of us truly enjoy—with home and family and the permission to slip down into a chocolate-fueled reading binge part of a bona fide tradition from another culture. And with the creaky, crabby old dog safe in her own home, gnawing placidly on her rawhide candy cane, and not anxiously pacing a roomy kennel cage while her people are away.

Which is not to say that we don’t value the gathering with family and friends—gatherings we will try to do at different times and in other venues, preceding the holiday, stretching the holiday, maybe meeting at a restaurant with a broad hearth and blazing fire, and where no tired mama has to put together a meal and then, exhausted, clean up after it, too.

It seems to me that tradition guides the belief and the value: and we believe that the holidays give us a chance to connect with those we cherish. We would not honor the tradition if we didn’t make the connections, but we don’t have to do it the same way each and every year.

Instead we need to search inside and discern: what are our values? What do we want?

And we need to deal too, with the reality each of us brings to the table—that the autistic personality, for instance, does not do well with intense anticipation, or uncertain travel plans (“Where did you say we are staying???”) or the bustle of gatherings that flow and build with jokes and undercurrents and the puzzle and the mystery of family dynamics. Or that the dog is 14 years old, at least—her birth year uncertain—and that we might well be leaving the white-muzzled beast in a cold, lonely kennel for her very last holiday. Dogs do not care about Christmas, we remind ourselves, but there are dissenting voices arguing in both our heads.

And we love to read, to indulge ourselves with really good chocolate, and to enjoy the comfort and the glow of a warm, clean, cozy home. This Christmas plan, this year, and this place—well, it all seems very right.

But it’s not a tradition—it’s a practice: it showcases how much we value reading, and how much we value home and hearth. (And—all right—how much we value chocolate.) Next year, we may do something completely different—the Yule Book Flood just a practice that fit this year’s needs and circumstances like a warm and cozy hand-knit mitten.

(Whatever next year brings, though, I’m pretty sure there will be books and chocolate involved.)

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

So maybe—maybe—tradition is about the transmission, from generation to generation, of deeply held values, important beliefs? And maybe each of us has to measure that against our awareness of who we are and how we operate within our unique worlds.

So, say, giving is a tradition—a value passed down—caring for others who are in need. Maybe, for many years in our family of birth, people got together and assembled shoe boxes full of goodies to send overseas to children who, compared to our kids, had ridiculously little. And maybe, for whatever reason, we’ve decided that’s not the most effective way to give.

We could change the practice. We could knit warm hats for preemies, or order books for children who have none. We could ring a bell outside a supermarket or serve up a hot, sustaining meal at a soup kitchen. We could write a check to support a cause that touches our hearts. We could visit a lonely elder in assisted living whose family and friends are long, long gone.

There are many ways of giving, and some will bring us joy while others lard our bellies with dread. But if everyone found their own special way, wouldn’t the season be bright?

It’s not the practice that’s tradition—it’s the belief that undergirds it. And Christmas, I’ve been taught, is a time to give. I need to take that concept, and I need to make it mine.

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

My feet, I realize: I can’t feel my feet. They are poking out of the silky duvet. Encased in silly canvas ballet slippers, they are numbed by the frigid air.

“What time IS it?” I ask the boyos, and at that moment, away in the distance, the light show stops and the no-longer-illuminated spire of the courthouse disappears into black night. We sigh and shift and scrunch up the puffy blankets. We lift up the spare room window, the window we’ve left open just a crack—so the house stays warm, and so we can climb back into it.  We shove the blankets through and crawl in after them. Mark draws the window down and latches it securely.

The dog is dancing nervously at the foot of the stairs, her “Where were you?” and “I have to pee!” combination dance. We hurry down to tend to her concerns.

And Jim takes the old fiddle and tucks it away into the worn black leather case. He shoves it back onto the top shelf of the hall closet, and we bustle about to ready the house for the end of the day—coffee set up, dishes away, the table cleared and ready for morning.

There is much to do tomorrow—cleaning and shopping and packages to mail, a birthday surprise for a December sweetheart, trips to libraries, deadlines to meet, and the prep for a long-overdue repainting of the dining room. Tomorrow brings plastering and road trips, the roaring hum of the vacuum, meal-making decisions, and intense computer time.

But all of that is lit by the little spark of joy—a holiday approaches, a special time of celebration. We will meet it with tradition, with the beliefs we have examined to agree: these are things we value.

And we’ll shape our practice to those beliefs, and we’ll gather in the people we love so well.

Someone may coax sweet notes from a fiddle; someone may even make it sing, and toes may tap and arms reach out and the dancing may commence. Feet may pound and music thrum, but the floor, on its strong foundation, will hold firm. Not shaky. Not shaky at all.

We move into the holiday season, illuminated by our authentic knowledge; we move ahead, to celebrate tradition.

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

Here, by the way, is one post about Iceland’s bookish holiday tradition: http://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/jolabokaflod-meet-favorite-new-holiday-tradition/

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Different Darkness, Different Lights

Early morning: I let Greta out into a pitch black world, and I stand shivering on the cement stoop while she traverses the backyard. Her white patches glow; they signal where she’s headed. She doesn’t dilly-dally; it is cold, and there are secrets hidden in the dark.

Later that day, I clip the leash on the little dog just before supper, and we go out for our last real walk of the day. Not even six o’clock yet, but the sky is deeply navy blue, heavy with clouds, and dusk is turning quickly into a very early night.

It is the season of darkness, when the dark steals more of our hours than are owned by the light. If I were not retired, my working day would be bracketed by the dark, by a stealthy office arrival in velvet pitch, by departure into a world already settling in to night. Daylight is squeezed harshly and flattened in-between. I’m glad Mark gets out for lunch, feels the cold wind on his face, soaks in the wan rays of the furthering sun.

It is the season of darkness, and this year, I am making a constant and mindful search for the light.

**********

This year I am drawn, just about every day, to use the fireplace. Dinner dishes done, Mark lights the gas insert; its flames blaze up, blue-tinged and charring white. I take my book; I settle into the chair closest to the fire, putting my stocking feet on the ottoman, looping a light blanket over them. I settle into the contemplation of someone else’s words and thoughts. Often Mark and Jim turn the TV on in the next room; their laughter is warming, too.

And the dog slips in, climbs onto the couch, sighing, and circles around and settles, her snout pointed toward the fire. Her eyes slip slowly closed, setting like the sun: a last glint and then they’re gone. Her soft snores underscore my reading.

The firelight dances; I look for light in the words I am reading, and in the little family gathered beneath this roof. An oasis in the darkness, I think, and I know that one of the values of winter is the gravitational pull of a gathering light.

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

 

Lanterns 1

We search for light-filled ways to mark the season. I read on a local blog about the Chinese Lantern Festival at the state fairgrounds in Columbus. That sounds intriguing to all of us.

On the very night it opens, we head off: first to a theme dinner at a Panda Express, where we fuel up on orange chicken and fried rice, then on another twenty miles to the site. It is cold and inky black; I think of another night similar to this,  not so many years ago, when we dragged Jim to see the Zoolights. Everyone likes the Zoolights, right?

Jim hated them. He was too cold. It was too crowded. Raucous Christmas music shouted from the whirling, twirling exhibits, and everywhere he turned an aggressive baby stroller threatened his shins. We insisted on seeing at least the greater part of the light show, but no one was happy, and three grumpy people (“I can’t believe we spent all that money for that little glimpse,” Mark muttered more than once) stalked the long way back to the car and huddled in their uniquely miserable complaints for the long ride home.

I was crazy, I think now, to plan to see the lanterns on opening night, and there’s a little dreadful foreboding dancing around my gut. But Mark drives us into the parking lot, where a car pulls out of a space right in front of the ticket gate. Score number one: a great place to park.

I have purchased and printed our tickets on line, to avoid waiting in line; there isn’t much of a crowd anyway, but we skirt the few people gathered and hand our tickets to a smiling young man who waves us into a lofty, barn-like cement building. There are food concessions and (yay!) indoor restrooms; a big set of double doors are open into the outdoor path to the Chinese Lantern festival.

It is a cold clear night. We walk through a kind of tunnel, arched by giant, glowing, silken candy canes. Bobbing silken red ornaments sway over our heads. Jim looks a little uncertain, but, “I like the music,” he says. (I am too ignorant to be able to pinpoint what kind of music this is–“Asian” is my best attempt at categorizing it–but later that night I read an interesting note in To Siri With Love, by Judith Newman. She is writing about her autistic son Gus, who loves music and is pitch-perfect, and she mentions that many autistic people are drawn to Asian music. “Pentatonic scales for example, ” she writes, “used in Chinese and folkloric music–are open-ended, and don’t call for resolution the way dissonant chords do. They are seductive and meet you on your own terms [Gus’s music therapist] says.”)

The candy cane exhibit is the last aggressively Christmas-y display, and it is clear immediately that this show is something Jim enjoys. We pass through a long covered walkway where traditional red silken lanterns sway overhead. Then there is a splendid dragon, maybe half a city block long. Eastern princesses dance, suspended in swaying silken lanterns, watched over by sharp-eyed egrets.  There is a life-sized tea set, blue and white porcelain rendered in silk and lights.

There are fields of glimmering butterflies, and there are characters rendered in an almost chibi-manga style. There are fish and owls and a long, triumphant phoenix. There are dinosaurs. There is an archway of hearts; lovers bundled in winter coats and hats kiss inside while a friend snaps pictures.

“Awww,” says Jim. “That’s sweet.”

A pavilion houses a series of displays that show how the lanterns were constructed. Mark, with his engineer’s soul, plunges enthusiastically, hands deep in pockets, dancing a little, but taking the time to read each installment. Jim stands right beside him, cold be damned. They learn that once the lanterns would have been made of rice paper, susceptible to rain and wind and fire. Now the intricate sculptures are made of wire with a sturdy, silk-like cloth stretched over the frames. They are illuminated from within. They glow but do not glare.

We wander out, finally, to the last exhibit, a huge, colorful pagoda, ornately bedecked with a profusion of symbols–among them, Chinese dragon heads guarding each of the corners. We circle slowly; our hands are freezing and those bathrooms beckon, but we are reluctant to be finished with this evening.

*******

Before he leaves for work the next morning, Mark says, kind of wonderingly, “The boy really liked the Chinese lanterns.” And when Jim gets up he says, again, “Those lanterns: that was really cool.”

********

I let that enjoyment tumble in my mind all day. Why was this so much better than the zoo lights, despite the same, cold, wandering kind of format?

I think about Jim’s particular set of challenges. He has autism, which brings with it some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He also struggles with the bear of major depressive disorder. I have known others who walk with that black bear for a companion, and the bright lights and glorious music of holidays do not seem to scare the beast. If anything, the strident holiday reminders agitate the bear, make it rear up and show its claws.

So maybe piercing lights and in-your-face music are too much on the raw skin of depressive disorder.

The muted lights of the Lantern festival, the simple and elegant Asian chords, and the  symbolism from a different culture entirely spoke more clearly to Jim than Deck the Halls or reindeer sleighs.

There are different kinds of darkness–inky seasonal darkness and the relentless darkness of the mind. There are grief and regret and consuming loneliness. There are physical challenges that restrict sight and sound, the ability to move and to communicate.

There is terminal disease; there is addiction. Mental health challenges. Disability and different ability. So many challenges the human family faces: so many shades of darkness.

And different kinds of light illuminate the different shades of night.

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

It is another early morning, and Greta and I wander down the hill, and I realize that the folks in the white colonial are all decorated for Christmas, still over a month away. Our door is wearing a glittery orange leaf; it catches the gleam of the little sconces we hung on either side of the door after the house was painted. It mirrors the leaves blowing into the front yard, and it beckons the whole yard-full of leaves still stubbornly stuck up in the front-yard tree: C’mon guys! Take the plunge!

The glitter leaf will stay there until Sunday, at least, and then we’ll think about how we’ll decorate for this yuletide season.

We have small, thin fake evergreen trees, pre-lit, that we’ve put on either side of the front door for the past two years. We store them in the old garage; this summer Mark peeled a long, leathery snakeskin off one of them. The bloom is off those little trees, at least for me.

We have stake lights that Jim picked out some years ago; they look like giant, old-fashioned Christmas bulbs. He liked them a lot the year he got them. Each year since, they’ve lost a little luster. We’ll let him decide if he wants to plunge those into the ground this year, lighting the path to the house.

There are tangled bales of colored and white twinkle lights. There are oversized plastic ornaments that have sometimes danced from the boughs of the tree outside the oversized kitchen  window.

I am happy, this year, to go with whatever the boyos decide about outdoor illumination. (Last year’s November was downright balmy, if I remember right. This year, it is cold, and dark, and not great weather to be climbing on ladders and stringing twinkling lights.)

I’m thinking simplicity: green wreaths with red bows on all the windows.

I’m thinking we need to buy candles for the Advent wreath, which is just a green wreath we lay on a side table. We snug in four mis-matched brass candlesticks and begin, four weeks before Christmas day, to light one candle at dinnertime. I like the idea of the candle glowing in the bay window, of another joining the chorus each week. I like the symbolism of the light intensifying as winter grows darker, and as the celebration grows nearer.

Sometimes we buy the traditional colored candles: three purple tapers, and one pink. Sometimes we go with green and white candles, or with red and green. One year, I think, we had blue and silver tapers. We’ll wander out on Friday, Jim and I, buy chocolate for Christmas packages, get the last of the mailing-out gifts, and we’ll pick up the candles that will light our path to Christmas.

And we’ll look for light-filled ways to get ready. We may do something traditional; there are some drive-through light exhibits, including one at a state park not too far away, that don’t require leaving the warmth of a car. Driving allows us to control the loudness of the music, too. Maybe we’ll explore that this weekend.

This morning a friend sent a notice about a historical yuletide exhibit in a nearby town, in a restored Victorian house–a Christmas tableau lit by candlelight and flickering flames from a broad brick hearth. Maybe we’ll visit there, too.

********

And certainly we will explore other ways to pierce the darkness–with floods of words that speak to our hearts, with music that uplifts us, with films that make us laugh and sniffle and think about what could have been, what shouldn’t be, and how we can touch the future. We will gather with friends; we will reach out to family.

We will each confront our own special darkness, the physical and the spiritual, the emotional and the intellectual. Because, I realize in these latter days, we can’t ask others to constantly hold the lantern, to shine our demons away. It is our job–it is MY job–to find the sources of my darkness, and then to light the flames or turn on the spotlight that will illuminate those dreary, darkened corners. And only then, with my own darkness under control, can I, perhaps, help others light their special ways.

*********

We will each this year, in our own way, search for the light that illuminates the season.

A Quiet Kind of Thanks

She gingerly sorted through the frozen turkey breasts, looking for the absolute smallest one. She wasn’t that crazy about turkey, Ella wasn’t, but she bowed in recognition of the day. She would have a slice or two; she would freeze the leftovers.

One day in cold December, she would bake a turkey pot pie.

She pushed her little cart down the vegetable aisle, and added two cans of green beans and a big container of French fried onions to the mix. Prowling, she found boxed stuffing and a bag of pecans, corn syrup, and a carton of heavy cream.

She backtracked and picked out two big potatoes.

Cat food and kitty treats and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. She was ready to check out.

Allen, her favorite stock boy, watched over the self-check-out, and he grinned large when he saw her. She knew, with her teacher’s eye, that Allen had some sort of developmental disability. He was as large as his smile, big-bellied and booming voiced, and he had adopted her as a favorite customer. She knew all about the miniature train tableau he kept in his mother’s basement, how each payday, he added a tree or a figure.

The train had been his grandpa’s; his grandpa, now, was dead. But Allen felt close to him when he ran the trains, when he added to the display.

She checked out her groceries, hefting the turkey into its own bag, and bundling up the rest of the stuff, and Allen loomed at her side.

“Special dinner!” he said, and she smiled and agreed.

He insisted on carrying her groceries to her car.

“Thank you, Allen,” she said. “You’re very good at what you do.”

He grinned, beet red, delighted.

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

The library was quiet, and Sallie at the desk waved to her.

“Miz Graham!” she said. “Your reserve is in!”

“Wonderful,” said Ella, and she reached for the hardcover mystery. It was the fifth in the series; she’d been waiting for it. This was a pivotal story: the detective would find a new lease on life, or he would not. This author didn’t give things away, and she wasn’t afraid to disappear major characters. This mystery really was a mystery.

Ella surfed through the new books, taking a few of the novels out to read the dust jackets. She selected a new memoir, a story of the autistic boy who found a friend in Siri. It was written by the boy’s mother. Ella’s grand-niece had autism; her parents, Ella’s nephew Tim and his wife Gayle, barely had time to do the dinner dishes. She wanted to read the story, and she wanted to ruminate on how that mom made time to write.

She checked out both books, looking forward to the time to read.

“Thank you, Sallie,” she said, smiling at the beaming clerk. “Have a happy Thanksgiving.”

“Thirteen people!” Sallie groaned, and she rolled her eyes. “Do you have special plans?”

“Oh, yes,” said Ella. “A very special dinner.”

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

She put the turkey breast in the refrigerator, packed the rest of the groceries away, and picked up her buzzing phone. It was her oldest, dearest friend; they’d met in Grade Five and never lost touch. She sat down and had a wonderful talk.

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

On Wednesday, she roasted the turkey breast, and that night she had a turkey sandwich, with mayo and salt and pepper and one crisp slice of lettuce. Afterward, she cleared the table and wrote a letter to her niece, a soldier in Afghanistan.

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

On Thanksgiving day, she slept in—slept all the way until eight o’clock!—and she was still in her robe when the neighbor, Ginny, knocked at the door. Ginny had a plate of turkey-shaped cookies, and she wanted to know if Ella had dinner plans.

“I do, indeed,” Ella said. “Very special ones. You’re very kind to ask!”

Ginny came in for a cup of coffee, and they lamented the tree that still had not dropped its load of leaves.

“We’ll be raking in January!” Ginny said. Ella shook her head and dunked a turkey cookie into her creamy coffee.

After Ginny left, she dressed in her maroon sweats and quilted vest; she put a Wonder Woman stamp on her niece’s letter, and she walked it down to the postbox.  Her cheeks were crimson when she came back.

“Time to turn the oven on,” she thought. She rolled out crust and whipped eggs frothy; she constructed a pecan pie.

At two she made her dinner: a big pan of green bean casserole, made with white sauce instead of canned soup. She liked to add cheddar cheese, and she used every single French-fried onion. She ate it from her best china, with a side of Stove Top stuffing. She shared some with the cat, who much preferred his slice of turkey.

After the dishes were washed and put away, Ella turned on the gas insert in the fireplace, and she kicked off her sneakers. She got her favorite knitted blanket; she bundled up, and opened her book. She was asleep within minutes.

She woke at seven. The fire snapped, the sky was dark, and the cars were pulling away from Ginny’s house. Ella imagined stuffed daddies and cranky children and tired moms who’d spent hours cooking a meal that disappeared in minutes. She smiled, and pulled the heavy cream from the fridge and poured it into the bowl of her Mixmaster.

When it was whipped into high, snowy peaks, she cut herself a generous piece of pie. She took it to her chair by the fire, and this time, she read her mystery. She made the rich slab of pecan pie last for the better part of an hour.

The cat jumped on her lap when she put the empty plate on the side table, and Ella sighed and turned another page.

At nine o’clock, she shagged the cat off her lap and did up the last of the dishes. She turned off the fire and locked the doors.

The weekend loomed, with visits and meetings; she had promised to bake cookies for the social time at church, and her brother and his wife would be coming on Saturday. There would be busy days.

She thought back on the day just past and sighed. It had been a perfect day. It was, maybe, not everyone’s idea of a Thanksgiving celebration, but it had all the elements she needed. She had wonderful food, and a visit from a neighbor; she had touched base with people dear to her.

She had discovered, to her delight, that the detective survived and solved the perplexing mystery. She was rested and refreshed and ready for the whirlwind the weekend would bring.

She shut off the lights and turned down the thermostat and shooed the cat up the carpeted stairs, and she whispered a soft “Thank you” in the quiet dark.

 

 

First Frost: A Peregrination

Frosty morning fog

Greta and I crunch out into the driveway, down to the street, and we gaze at a changed world. Each leaf, in the waiting pile, is finely limned, dusted and glazed. They are not what they were yesterday. A cold fog hovers over Sandi and Colleen’s houses, over the Helen Purcell home up on its hill. And the lawns are white, each blade of grass carefully picked out, Crayola greenness muted on this cold, cold morning.

My valiant marigolds have thrown up their petals in defeat. The last seven blooms are choked and crispy. Today, I’ll pull them out, throw them on the leaf pile.

It’s over, the season of outdoor growth.

First frost has come.

*********
The Impala is warming up when we sidle back through the carport, and Mark is bundled into his winter coat. We wave him goodbye. The furnace chugs in the morning house, and I grab my cell phone and go out to take pictures, to try to record the magic the night has wrought on the neighborhood. I try to capture the immensity in my forlorn little shots, the transformation and the message. Because the season turned a corner last night, irrefutable, irrevocable.

First frost brings, of course, the possibility of Indian Summer, which can only happen after temperatures have plummeted. But there is no doubt now: winter surges toward us.

Leaves on grass

*********
In the dining room, I stare out the clear, insulated glass in the bay window. I remember waking to lacy, intricate tracery on my bedroom windows long ago. It was art that grew and moved, climbing upward, rolling forward. I could make it stop, make it disappear, with the heat of my fingers.

“Jack Frost has been here,” my mother said. I pictured a fox-faced, blue-tinged boy ordering frothy designs to appear on the cold glass of my windows, and I shivered. That impish sprite felt like no friend of mine.

But now I find we are fascinated, as a culture, by Jack Frost. I look him up on Wikipedia and find that every culture that has winter also has some sort of Jack Frost figure. He may be old (Grandfather Frost in Russia) or female (Mother Holle in Germany). The Hindus believed that a giant from the arctic regions ruled the highest, permanently snow-covered areas of the Hindu Kush; this giant waited, malevolently, for all passersby, and one had to be canny and fast to elude him.

The Jack I know comes to us from England; he may have traveled there with his Anglo-Saxon ancestors or on a Viking ship.

He has appeared in books and poems and films and television–impish, sly, a little destructive. He slows things down. He stops them, mid-growth. He makes things end. He seduces us with the power of his pretty art—art that draws one closer to explore the detail, to gasp a bit over the never-ending variety of pattern. And all the while we are drawn further and further into the cold.

Wikipedia notes that Elizabeth Bishop mentions Jack Frost in a poem, “First Death in Nova Scotia,” and I pull my Complete Poems from the shelf and look it up. The poem tells the story of the death of a cousin, little Arthur, who is laid out in the narrator’s childhood living room. Her mother gives the girl a sprig of lily of the valley and bids her put it into the baby’s hand.

Jack Frost had started to paint him [Bishop writes]
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever. 

Bishop’s work makes me think of another Frost, of Robert Frost; the anthology of his collected works sat on my parents’ bookshelf. It was a gift, I think, from my brother Dennis, who focused on the poet in his undergrad days. Dennis came of age as John F. Kennedy was sworn in, with Frost as his accessible, inaugural poet, worn and craggy voice of a hopeful people.

We read in school, of course, about the two roads diverging; I fixated on that patient little horse. And I explored the book of poems and was caught by “Out, Out—” Another child dead, this one from the leaping, malignant, laughing saw (it shared a little of Jack Frost’s horrible mischievousness, I thought–a blank-walled lack of care about who might be hurt). The suddenness, the horror, the raw, untempered grief…and then the return of the family to the things that every day must bring. The boy, buried and gone.

I went back to that poem time and again, worrying it like an aching loose tooth, feeling the frost.

************
Now, wondering about the history of the word itself, I go to dictionary.com and find that ‘frost’ has not changed much over hundreds and thousands of years. Hard, cold, crystallized, the word fell through time, from the Old Norse, the Old High German, the Old Saxon: a shared word, it seems.  It tumbled untouched, hard and brittle, through the Middle Ages, and landed in this modern age, self-contained, essential. Frost, akin to freeze. It means what it means, now as it did then.

Frost is “a degree or a state of coldness sufficient to cause the freezing of water.” It is the forming of tiny needles of ice in the night, “when they have cooled,” the website says, “by radiation below the dew point.” This is called hoarfrost, a lovely, harsh romantic word, evoking flint-eyed battling giants in my mind.

We are in the time of the hoar frost, I think, and the days begin to wear a kind of frozen splendor.

*********

There are many other ways the word ‘frost’ can be used. Relations, once warm, can become frosty. Enthusiastic planners can find their proposals stopped by frost. Plays and movies, songs and stories, may meet a frosty reception. Frostiness is not what we want to encounter at, say, a job interview.

We frost cakes. We frost glass. We frost people, as in, He was so nasty that the whole staff was frosted at him. We frost our hair.

My hair is frosted, not by design, but by nature, a consequence of retired life: I decided to stop coloring when I decided to stop working in higher ed. I waited, tentative and nervous, to see what would emerge. The last time I’d seen my real hair, there were occasional sproinging grays that stood straight up, like periscopes sent skyward by a spying scalp. A random pure white strand would wiggle out to breathe, brittle and tough. But most of it , seven years ago, was my own reddish color.

First I decided to add blonde highlights, Then, I said, let’s make them all the same color–MY color.

Now I want to know, in these latter days, what ‘my color,’ means.

We cut my hair as short as it’s ever been, and then wait. Each month, Don, the master hair cutter, trims off the colored ends. They fall like brassy auburn leaves to his immaculate shining floor; he rakes them up and tosses them away.

By November, he says, you should be completely YOU.

My hair frost coincides with the hoar frost.  That’s something I need to ponder.

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

The growing season is over, but that does not eliminate the chance of growth.. In fact, I think, with the tumult and lavish energy expended, now is the time to employ the fruits. The frost has come, the crops are bundled into their silos, the potatoes are in their cellar bins, and the tomatoes glow in rows and rows of Mason jars. Now we think about what we can make from those harvested treasures.

Growing time over, it’s time to create.

Time, too, to celebrate: to gather in, to roast gifts of field and flock and give thanks for another year’s bounty. Time, maybe, to mark down the costs the year brought us, and render their meaning into mindfulness. The frost has come, and we are called to be grateful.

The time of frost deepens into winter, and our lights spring up as the darkness enfolds. We become makers: cooking and knitting, painting and rearranging. Labor of the growing time done, we can bring order and thought and care to the living of our daily lives. We can rest, and we can prepare for the swing back into spring.

*************
First frost–it seems, at first, like a mischievous, ill-meaning, taunting time, but as I explore more deeply, I find comfort and possibility. There is beauty here, and there is potential. There is the chance to bundle up against the chill, to walk on crisp, leathery leaves in the small remaining sunlit hours…to wave at neighbors, to savor the sight of pumpkins and corn stalks. There are the evening hours that open up to literature and films and the writing of letters. There are naps in front of a crackling fire, wrapped in a warm afghan.  There is the impulse to create.

Every season has its depth and its meaning and its purpose. I settle, as if drawn by Jack Frost’s fern-like artwork, deeper into the time of frost. I hunker down, tentative and a little fearful, but I see more clearly now: this time can be so good.

Leaf on leaf.JPG

 

 

A Fresh, Hot Batch of History

Snickerdoodles.jpg
Oh, it’s a changeable day…clouds scud across an early moon as it edges out the pale setting sun. Dry leaves skitter across the street, and children, in puffy quilted jackets that belie their terrifying masks or princess-y tiaras, trick or treat. One burly little football player is made even bulkier by the fact that his snowsuit is UNDER his uniform. His mama, wrapped up in a thick woven blanket, grins as she escorts the boy from door to door.

Mark is doing candy duty on this cold, October-fleeing night, braving the insistent wind and foot-fending the little dog who desperately wants to bark the costumed visitors away, away, away from her door. And I—I am in the kitchen, baking cookies.

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

I opened the cookie jar after lunch to find just two chocolate chip cookies.

“Cookie?” asked Mark, my hard-working husband, wistfully, and I handed them over. I washed out the jar, setting it upside down on the cast-iron stove spiders to dry. And then Mark went back to work and James and I drove to the library in Westerville.

The knowledge of that empty cookie jar went with me, a subtle but insistent prod. We have a history, cookies and me, and somewhere along the line, I signed the pledge,– the one that says an empty cookie jar will always, and soon, be filled.

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

My mother, a stay-at-home mom most of the time, kept her cookie jar full. We seldom had things like soda pop, potato chips, or ice cream novelties in the house, but we always had something baked. My friends all knew where the cookie jar lived; they all loved my mother’s baking.

I bemoaned the fact that her chocolate chip cookies doubled the batter and halved the chips.

“You don’t NEED that many chips,” she’d reiterate, good Depression kid that she was, frugal nerves twitching. But I DID–I did need my chocolate chip cookies to be lumpy, crunchy clusters of morselly delight.

My friends didn’t care. They poured tall glasses from the opened gallon of skim milk in the refrigerator, sat at my kitchen table, and munched.

“These are GOOD,” they mumbled, spitting crumbs, and they looked at me like I was crazy to complain.

I sighed. I was happier when the cookies were ginger snaps, or peanut butter drops pressed flat and crunchy with the sugared tines of a fork. I liked the oatmeal cookie recipe I was pretty sure crossed the ocean with Mom’s family from Scotland, and when Mom added Snickerdoodles to the everyday cookie pantheon, I fell in love with those too. She made chocolate sugar jumbles and frosted them with white frosting. She made molasses cream cookies and tinted the icing pink or green.

Dad liked weird cookies–like Italian fig bars, which Mom made only at Christmas. The recipe, though, made a thousand or so cookies, and they would haunt the kitchen in their tupperware for a month. Dad contended they improved with age, and he would take a bundle in his lunch, every day, until they disappeared.

He also liked minced meat cookies, which looked a lot like chocolate chip cookies, but one quick read of the ingredients on the minced meat can swayed me firmly onto the side of ‘No, thank you.’

“Try one,” Dad would say; “they’re really tasty!”

I would make an awful face and back away.

“Aw,” he’d mutter, “you kids don’t know what’s good.”

I can live with my ignorance, thank you, I thought but did not say.

Christmas and Easter brought cut-out cookies, made with a short bread recipe that was family-bound, too. Those were glazed and dusted with colored sugar. Just getting the cookie cutters out, pulling them from the top cabinet where they resided in a battered old tin, was  excitement.

Cookies were part of the everyday fabric, and part of the special times fabric, too.

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

Family photos:

My cousin Barbara shows me a picture of our grandmother Wilhelmina, my mother’s mother, in her wedding gown. She has a Gibson girl hairdo–glossy, thick hair piled high above her open, pretty face. Her elegant dress is beaded, buttoned, high-necked, long sleeved. She smiles tentatively. She is beautiful, this woman that we never knew.

Barbara tells me she has spoken with someone–an aging family member, or an old, old friend of the family, I don’t remember who–who told her that “Minnie” was ever smiling, welcoming, hospitable. She always had cookies in the jar for kids and for company, this person said.

My brother Sean sends a photo in the mail one day. Wait until you see it, he messages. When the manila envelope arrives, I carefully lift open the flap and pull out  a glossy black and white picture of my mother, tiny, scowling deeply, being held in her brother Jim’s arms. Next to them is Annie, Barbara’s mother, in a cloche hat, her arms full of flowers. Annie and Jim, young teenagers, look tired and desperate. In front of them are mounds and mounds of flowers.

They are standing at their mother’s freshly dug grave.

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

There were always baked goods when we visited Aunt Annie, a special trip that only happened once a year, if that. There were always cookies in my mother’s kitchen. For two grown girls, bereft too early of a beloved mother, maybe that was a way of maintaining connection, of keeping the faith.

A cookie jar that’s always full means someone really cares.

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

Cookies: background to my personal history. But cookies are an essential part of our larger culture, too, I think. We use cookie language. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” we say, philosophically, when things go wrong. Or, “She’s a smart cookie!” we say admiringly, when she figures out a clever, savvy way to navigate a tricky passage.

We sing, along with a fuzzy monster, “C is for Cookie! That’s good enough for me!” We sing about animal crackers in our soup.

On Facebook, I see a meme: “If a redhead loses her temper,” it reads, “do we say Ginger snaps?”

When Bill Clinton ran against the original President Bush, there were hard issues on the table, but chocolate chip cookies caught the attention of United States voters. Whose recipe was better–Barbara Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s? The amount of press and attention that got was a measure of how deeply we value our cookies.

So where, I wonder now, did cookies come from?

Cookies have been around a LONG time, I find on whatscookingamerica. net–gosh, since at least the seventh century AD. Scholars posit that the first cookies were ‘test cakes’ in a time of uncertain oven temps. Conscientious bakers would whip up a batch of cake dough; to make sure the oven was hot enough, they would bake up a little portion to see how well or how quickly it cooked. I imagine a jolly, roly-poly royal baker indulging in a hot little cake fresh from a flaming oven, bouncing the toasty treat  on his tender fingers. “Oh, yeah!” he’s thinking. “That oven’s hot enough. And damn, I make a good cake batter…”

Persia, I learn, was one of the first countries to cultivate sugar, and, as a result, cookie-style cakes. By the 1400’s, Europe had embraced the use of sugar and little cake-baking. A Parisian shopper in that era could purchase sweet, filled wafers on the busy city streets. Renaissance cookbooks offered an abundance of cookie recipes, What’s Cooking America (whatscookingamerica.com) tells me, and, in 1596, a cookbook called Goode Huswife’s Jewel contained directions for square shortbread cookies enriched with egg yolks.

Settlers brought their cookie traditions to United States ovens,–cookies called things like tea cakes, jumbles, plunkets, or cry babies. And the railroad made exotic ingredients available–coconut, pineapple, and oranges, for example–and broadened the boundaries of Cookiedom.

Mr. Kellogg invented the corn flake in the early 1900’s, and shortly after that, his company proposed the concept of adding cereal to cookies. (Tiger Cookies, with crushed up frosted corn flakes and swirls of melted chocolate, are a family favorite here. The random addition of the forlorn leftovers at the bottom of the cereal box to any old cookie recipe is highly frowned upon, however.)

Refrigerators hit the big time in the 1930’s, and icebox cookie recipes did, too.

And maybe the best known morsel of cookie history is the story of the Tollhouse cookie–how Ruth Wakefield, at the Tollhouse restaurant, ran out of nuts one day. She decided to chop up a chocolate bar and add that to her “Butter Drop-Do” cookie dough (www.culinarylore.com). Patrons went crazy for the cookie; by 1939, Nestle was marketing Tollhouse chocolate chips to accommodate the craze.

I go searching for the story behind Snickerdoodles, the deliberately NON-chocolate cookie that fills our cookie jars this indulgent Hallowe’en season; their story is nowhere near as crisply outlined as the Tollhouse cookie’s tale. Grit.com tells me the  recipe might have come to the States from Germany or Holland, or it might have come from a creative, whimsical New England cook’s kitchen. The name may be an Americanization of ‘Schneckennudelin,” which means, ‘snail dumpling.’ (Eeeuw.) Or–the cookies might have been named for an early 1900’s hero called Snickerdoodle. (But then, he might have been named for the cookie.)

An American Food Historian (americanfoodhistorian.blogspot.com) reports that the earliest mention of Snickerdoodles in print might be from page 8 of the June 14, 1898, Boston Globe. So of course, she notes, the cookies had to exist before then.

Like most of our history, it seems, Snickerdoodles were created in the quiet, with deliberation, maybe, but not much fanfare, and then their popularity spread, until the little cookie became ubiquitous. Most people, these days, if you whisper ‘Snickerdoodle’ in their ears, will immediately think, Cinnamon. Chewy. Yummy.

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

It’s the morning of November 2 as I finish typing this ramble; I sit at my dining room table in the just-dawning day. My son and I have a breakfast plan this morning: we will dine at the classic Denny’s out on Airport Road. Last night Jim read me a long litany of hot cake possibilities, including pecan sticky bun and red velvet variations. A purist, I will probably order something more traditional than those glorious concoctions.

But it will be an hour or two before James shakes off the night’s sleep and we pile into the Hyundai to search out sustenance. I sip my fragrant cup of fake coffee and realize I am little bit peckish. I grab two Snickerdoodles from the big plaid cookie jar. We like our cookies crisp, not soft; we like the edges nicely browned. These two, stolen from the top of the pile, are just perfect.

I place the cookies on my napkin, and yield to the importunings of the anxious little dog, who wants her Second Walkies now. We slip off into the dawning day, gray and wet, and she sniffs and considers for fifteen minutes or so. My silly slide-on shoes soak up the morning rain.

I am not concerned. My pay off waits–that steaming coffee, those two crunchable, spicy cookies. Let the winds blow, and the rains come. My shoes will dry. We’ll light a fire in the fireplace, snuggle up with fuzzy blankets.

In an uncertain world, symbols of security are precious. Today, we feel fortified and fortunate. We have our reserves. There are cookies in the cookie jar. We’ll weather the storm all right.

Thanks for the Gifts of Stuff and Spirit

Gifts.jpg

A dog barks, nearby, urgent, in the dark cave of night-time. I wake up, listening, startled out of a silly dream in which my job seems to be driving my car around a former campus and picking up students who can’t walk on the slick ice.

And then my 62-year-old bladder reminds me it’s awake, too. We take a walk together.

In the bathroom, with its window on the backyard, I breathe in the deep, pungent odor of skunk. Now I know why that pup was barking. And I know what that family is going to be doing for a few days–the tomato baths and the special shampoos, and the reluctant letting of the smelly, shaggy hound into the family room to sleep on these frosty, crisp, clear nights.

Skunk smell seems to graft itself into tender sinus tissue. Long after it’s dissipated, you still think you smell it.

Ah, the mercurial gifts of nature, I think. I crawl back into a warm bed, pull the covers high, and drift back into sleep. My little dog, curled into her cozy dog bed, doesn’t twitch.

**********
Mark does not let the dog run out into the backyard this morning; he clips the leash onto her collar and walks with her, just in case a furry black and white friend still lurks in a cozy, shrubby spot. They startle Mama Deer and her two almost-grown babies curled up in one of the rock-walled flower beds; the deer reluctantly shake themselves, heave up on their long, stalky legs, huff somewhat indignantly, and head, unhurriedly, away.

But, fortunately, Mark and Greta do not find the skunk.

What Mark DOES find, tucked between the glass door and the mail-slot door, is a fat package from Florida, a gift from my niece Shayne. He brings it to me, and I put my pen down and grab a pair of scissors. I cut the top away and find wonderful things–a card, a hand-written note, a lovingly decorated oven mitt, and a pot holder artistically emblazoned.

They are almost–almost!–too nice to use; I could hang them on the wall in the kitchen. But I know I will not do that. I will use the oven mitt and pot holder; they will become my new favorites, and they will make me smile every time I pull a steaming casserole from the oven, lift the top off a bubbling sauté, or situate a tray of cookies on the rack, ready to be lifted off onto a platter.

Nieces are the nicest, I think, and grand nieces are, too. What a wonderful gift to find wedged in my door on a skunky cold morning.

*************
After breakfast, I lace up my sneakers and head out into the cold sunshine. I walk down the hill and away from the skunk smell. Tomorrow, there will be wind and rain and the scent will wash away. Today it’s a reminder of all the different kinds of things that nature gives us, the yin and the yang of it.

I walk under trees that burst with color, as if they have grabbed all the sunlight they can get and gripped it fast in their soon-to-be-fallen leaves. Flaming colors–golden, red, amber, almost purple. I try to capture the glory, with my limited skill and technology, in a cell phone shot.

I think of the tree in my front yard, which is called, I believe, a Taunting Tree. Trying diligently to keep our leaves from cluttering our treeless neighbors’ yards, I rake or mow every three days. Mark says the tree waits until I’ve turned my back on the uncluttered green expanse I’ve just created, and then it does a sassy shake. Leaves detach and flutter down.

By evening, it’s not really clear that anyone has recently cleaned that lawn.

And the Taunting Tree plots, coyly. It hangs on to its leaves, sending only outliers to the ground–enough to keep me working, but not nearly all it has to share. This week, the city will send the metal-pated leaf sucker around. It will snuffle up the piles of leaves neighbors have raked to their curbs. Their trees are all but bare, and when the voracious sucking is done, their leaf-cleaning duties will be over.

But not my tree. My tree waits until the leaf-sucker goes, lumbering, sated, down the hill, before it starts to pelt the ground with leaves in earnest. How do you like me NOW? it asks me gleefully, as the leaves pile up, and I debate the merits of raking and bagging over mowing and mulching.

Sometimes, it times the divestment so well that snow covers the thick pad of fallen leaves, and they are there for me to deal with in the spring.

Not this year, I vow. This year, I’ll deal with all the leaves that tree can give me. I’ll do it in real time. This year, I will not be snookered into a spring leaf cleaning.

Of course, I’ve vowed that vow before.

**************
I pour myself a cup of decaf, post-walk, and pull up a list of books that Terri sent me. These are wonderful books, essential books, books to tease and tweak and entice kids of all ages into a lifelong love of reading.

I think about the books I loved as a child. There was a little book that probably had been handed to me by three sets of older brother hands, a story about a little boy who lived in the West but was too small to help with the horses. By the end of the book, he’d proven his worth, and his dad had given him a real, ten-gallon, cowboy hat. I craved that book. I demanded that book, over and over again, thousands and thousands of times.

I think that was the book that taught me how to read, the repetitions turning into keys to the code.

And then, one day, that book was gone. I mourned it and searched for it at the library, but I never could find another copy. (Knowing now what I did not realize then, I almost bet my mother threw that book into the burn barrel and danced around it, knowing she would never have to repeat those familiar, threadbare words again.)

I think about reading A Wrinkle In Time in grade five or six, a book found on a library shelf, and having some brand new doors crack open. A plain, sometimes cranky, unpopular girl who loved math and science as a HERO! Of a fantasy!

A copy of that book, and its companions, remains on my shelves today.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Caddie Woodlawn. Chronicles of Narnia. Anne of Green Gables.

I think about reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to a snuggly boy in footie pajamas. I think of reading Mike Mulligan and The Steam Shovel and having that little boy’s teenaged big brother and his two friends sneak into the living room to listen.

I remember plotting ways to destroy the chirping device in the Eric Carle very-quiet-cricket book, and substituting a hungry caterpillar book as soon as I could.

Books are gifts; being read to aloud is a gift. And it’s a gift, too, to work with Terri to get good books into tender, pudgy, eager hands.

*************
And then it’s time to get ready for lunch. I close up my laptop, and I carefully iron an old work shirt I have embroidered new words on.

It used to say, “Zane State College.” Now it says, “I do not work at Zane State College anymore.

I am meeting four equally retired women; we will crunch into our salads, spoon up steaming soup, and we will remember past days and celebrate new ones. Because retirement brings both perspective and opportunity. Some of us are volunteering in grade schools, giving children–maybe children not gifted with wonderful books–a firm hand up into the land of reading. That’s a land from which, I know personally, you can travel pretty much anywhere.

Some are spending more time with grandkids and grown kids and nieces and nephews. Some are traveling. One has seasons tickets and never misses a Buckeyes’ game, come snow or high water.

Some of us are working independently, and some are using this long-awaited time to polish new skills–crafting beautifully quilted bags, mastering the art of a perfectly fluted pie crust, dipping brushes into water color paints.

It’s a wonderful time of life in many ways, and I realize it’s a gift to share it with these wonderful women. And I think about this time of life and the gift of friendship, and how things circle back. The important people, from all of your ages and stages, seem to make their way back to you…the people you knew in school, the people you met on jobs, like-minded souls from organizations you joined, people forcibly thrown toward you by chance, who wove themselves firmly into your fabric. It’s a real gift, now, to be able to spread out that fabric and see the pulsating patterns emerge, the wonderful shots of color. The individual shades and hues of friends.

Some of those shots occur once, in a vibrant section of the cloth, and disappear. Some appear early and then return. And some persist, a constant motif, a joyful, laughing presence, especially important when the weaving goes through one of those phases–when the threads are gray and black and purple, when the uplift of those vibrant colors are needed most.

What a gift, those friends.

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

It’s a day with an overwhelming bounty of gifts, a cornucopia of gifts…some a little sweeter smelling than others. I should, I think, write a thank you note, and I begin to compose it in my mind.

Dear Universe, (I’ll write) thanks so much for this day’s gifts…for the strength and health to walk and to see, and for the front-yard tree that keeps me in touch with the world outdoors. Thank you for words that last, and for friends that last, and that both those things continue to inspire. Thank you for the love that arrives unexpectedly in the mail, and for reminders, as I light the candle or lift the cookies from their tray, of people I cherish, both near and far.

Thank you for this gift of time and place, even when my knees ache and my energy flags.

And thank you…thank you, thank you…on this Day of the Skunk, that this time, it’s not my dog getting the tomato juice bath.

What an instructive and joy-filled set of gifts you’ve given me today. Thank you. I treasure them all.

…And Other Things I Just Don’t Need

We need far less than we realize.
        Dorothy Gilman
Dishes

I plunge my hands into the soapy water–it is steamy, and it feels good on this first-furnace morning of fall. I wash small plates, rinse them gleaming, lay them gently on the drying pad. I shake refillable water bottles full of sudsy water, then I rinse and shake, rinse and shake, until I can’t smell a hint of dish soap. I scrub a colander from the top and spray it clean; then I turn it over and repeat the process from the bottom.

And my morning dishes are done, sparkling, cheerfully stacked. It took me, maybe, seven minutes.  I dry my hands, and a horrifying thought plunks itself squarely into the middle of my mind.

Maybe I don’t really NEED a dishwasher.

Sacrilege! I shake my head hard, trying to dislodge the notion.

We have been hand-washing dishes for a month or so, since the dishwasher, which had been losing functions one by one, finally lost all initiative and sat, blinking idly, refusing to go on.

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

Mark is irked by the dishwasher’s demise. It is only three years old–we had the former, reliable machine for almost seventeen years.  The store where we shopped defers all liability to the maker. With this company, Mark’s had trouble getting responses to his emails and calls. Google has been our best resource, offering owner’s manuals and suggestions for what to do when this light’s blinking, when that function’s unavailable,–but in these latter dishwasher days, even Google has no solution.

Mark wants the manufacturer to know our frustration. When he calls the company, a well-known, respected, appliance-maker name, he gets routed into an automated menu so complex that he gives up after 15 minutes with no hope of talking to a live person. He writes a letter instead; he is polite and measured, but he clearly expresses his unhappiness. Two weeks later, he gets a call. The customer service rep offers to sell Mark a new machine at a forty per cent discount.

“Why would I buy another machine from you,” he asks, “when I was so unhappy with the first one? When no one responded to my questions or returned my emails?”

“Well,” says the clerk, “we wish you nothing but the best.”

Mark grimaces and puts the phone down. “Notice,” he says, “they never offered to fix the dead machine.”

Meanwhile, we do dishes by hand.

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

There are only three people and one small dog in our household: washing dishes by hand is not a huge inconvenience. And while we fill the sink with suds and plunge the dirty dishes into those soapy depths, we are circling around the purchase of a new dishwasher. By holiday baking time, I am pretty sure, a machine will be installed and functioning.

But I have to admit, I don’t NEED it. With a little effort, a little planning, I can get by just fine hand-washing my dishes.

It makes me wonder what else I depend on that I don’t really need–need to have, or need to do.

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

For instance.

Every month, in the last six or seven years of my working life, I went faithfully to Don, my ‘coiffure engineer’ (a wonderful, wonderful man, and an artist, to boot), sat myself down, and had him dye my hair a color very similar to my natural one. Then I started to notice, a few months before I retired, something seemed jarring every time I looked in the mirror. ‘My hair looks great,’ I’d think. ‘It just doesn’t go with my face.’

I had the hair color of a vibrant 38-year-old; I had the honestly-earned face of a woman, 62.

I didn’t want the transition–that growing out line of demarcation–to take place while I was working, but, retirement looming, I called that hair artist and talked him into working with me to grow the dyed color out, to go natural. He was a little reluctant, but I was truly determined. The week after I stopped working, Don cut my hair short, and we began the process of letting the natural color emerge. To my surprise, the color is not bad at all–as the clear, true red of the dye grows out, there’s a frostier reddish-brown growing in.

I like the way my hair feels–natural, soft, uncoated–and I am surprised by how much I like the look–the sprigs of gray and pops of white among my old faithful auburn strands.

I am surprised by how much I love the ease of short, short hair. I love the reality of its color. It looks appropriate. It looks right.

I still go see Don once a month; he keeps my wild hair shaped and tamed, and he feathers in the transition from dyed to owned. By next month, I think, the color will be all mine.

I do not need to dye my hair.

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

It is mid-month. I am still adjusting to the new pension-check-arrival schedule of retirement, and I am in a little panic. I thought I’d make tacos for dinner, but we are out of lettuce and tomatoes. I’m not even sure we have ground beef.

‘I need to go to the store,’ I think, and then I straighten up.

First, I need to know exactly what we have to work with.

I take a legal pad and I open the freezer on top of the fridge in the kitchen. I pull things out and stack them on the counter, and I write down exactly what is there.  I am surprised by the bounty–there is boneless chicken and little Tupper-ed  up cubes of homemade broth; there are veggies of every sort, and there is pie crust ready to defrost and roll. There’s a forgotten pound of turkey bacon. There are beef bones to make a savory stock.

I do the same with the little chest freezer downstairs, and my list grows and grows: we have so much food. I put everything back except for the package of two year old soup I somehow missed, last freezer cleaning (that will meet the Dispos-All), and I go upstairs to conspire with The Joy of Cooking.

I don’t need no stinkin’ road trip.  I have plenty of food options right here in my cupboards and freezer spaces.

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

Nearly every day, I write a check or a note or a nice long letter; then I pull the car out of the driveway and head over to the post office, where I drive through and drop those missives in the box. And every night, I kick myself: too bad you didn’t get a walk in today, I think.

And then one bright and sunny morning, as I’m bundling up my post office cargo, I stop. Why can’t I just walk these down to the mailbox on the corner of Dresden, near Maple? I change my penny loafers for my tennies, and set off at a brisk pace.

On my way, I stop to chat with a neighbor I’ve never spoken to before, a big guy with a tiny, friendly dog, and we move from weather topics to solving the world’s woes. We do solve them to our satisfaction, at least theoretically, so we wave and move on. As I stop, watching traffic before turning the corner, another new neighbor-acquaintance drives by and honks. She’s the proud owner of an elder dog, Boston, whom she recently adopted at the Humane Society. Boston, a bulky, barrel-y, black Lab-by sort of dog, is as friendly as our little Greta is skittish. When he sees us out for our evening walk, he heaves himself up to his feet and comes over to chat. He is white-muzzled and trusting.

Now when I see his person (we need to get names in place: she is ‘Boston’s mom’; we are ‘Greta’s family’) we wave and exchange updates. Walking brings me closer to neighbors and reminds me that it’s acorn crunching season, that the leaves need taming, that the air has taken a turn for autumn cooling.

I walk down Dresden Road to the mailbox, slide my envelopes inside and turn to head home. When I arrive, my health activity app tells me I’ve walked almost a mile and a half.

I do need that red-cheeked, social, muscle-moving walk. I don’t need to drive to the post office every day.

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

And now I am asking myself:

Do I need to buy paper napkins? Couldn’t I iron up the old white napkins huddled in the drawer and put those on the table?  Couldn’t I buy a swarm of handkerchiefs and put them, in some kind of cute basket, in the bathrooms instead of Kleenex?

Now that I’m not working, do I need all these business-y clothes?

I clean out my closet. I am thinking I need a pair of black dress shoes, but I pull out a pair with a busted buckle–I love their style and fit. And I think that there’s a shoe repair shop around the corner and down the road, and that I don’t really need to buy a new pair of shoes. I’ll just get these old friends fixed.

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

And I am reading, as often happens, a book that locks right into my train of thought.

“If we are heading into a world of shortages [Dorothy Gillman writes, in A New Kind of Country, way back in 1978] we, too, will have to learn the art of mending and preserving; it will do us no harm, and it will sharpen our wits. I have read that in Zen monasteries or schools the first lesson a Zen student must learn is to practice economy in living: lights never burned wastefully, a minimum of utensils, a single mat to sit on; the fewer the number of possessions, the more we are in touch with them and their nature and care for them.”

I will never get to a state where I have just a single mat to sit on, but I need my wits sharpened. And this seems like the time to scrutinize, to sort, to really be aware. Time to ask: What, really, do I need to own?

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

I know we will replace the dishwasher. And I know, too, it is a luxury, not a necessity. But I think it is okay to indulge in a well-thought out time- and effort-saver, in a machine that probably has health and sanitation benefits as well as the great good boon of hiding dirty dishes away from anxious eyes. But the process of being without it brings mindfulness, encourages realization. The things I take for granted; the things I use, heedlessly and without appreciation; the corners I cut; the dimes I spend…

This week, I take myself to task. Of all the cluttered possessions in my home, of all the busy things I do, which ones, really, are the things I need?

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

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