Kind of Like a Duck Walk

We sat on the steps of the old farmhouse, Shayne and I, the first ones up at a family gathering, on a soft and sunny summer morning. It was less than a year since her dad, my brother, had died. I was telling her about the butterflies I kept seeing. They hovered. They lighted. They flew, over and over, onto the windshield of my moving car.

“I have decided to take them as a message, as a token,” I said. “I’ve decided they mean that Dennis is all right.”

Shayne sighed in the gentle sun of a sunny summer morning.

“I wish I’d get a message,” she said.

And in that moment, a butterfly: hovering just in front of her, long enough to be seen, to demand her full attention.

And, “One turned to two,” says Shayne,  “and two turned into…dozens.”

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Huh. Probably, you know, just a big year for butterflies.

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As we headed down the hill for our nightly constitutional Mark asked me about a friend who, post-retirement, is not always in town. A story she shared not long ago popped immediately into my head, and so I, in turn, shared it with Mark.

My friend’s daughter and her family live in a southward state; my friend splits her time between that state and this one. One day her daughter was explaining to her toddler twins, a boy and a girl, that Grandmother was at her Ohio home that week.

Little Will considered this news about his grandmother solemnly, my friend said, and then he made a  pronouncement.

“Her,” he stated, “has two houses. Her is a lucky duck.”

Something about that story just tickled me, and it seemed to tickle Mark too.

“A lucky duck, is her?” he said, and we rambled, on a night of cool breezes, down the hill, under a cloud-scudded sky.

We turned at the corner of Normandy and began marching up Englewood.

“Well, hey,” said Mark. “Lookie there.”  On the dashboard of a shiny new Mustang, there was a large mallard duck bobble-head.

“Hey,” I said, “SPEAKING of ducks…”

 **********************************

Just like that our evening stroll became a duck walk. Go figure.

And what are the odds that, wandering through a land-bound neighborhood, we’d come upon a park-like stretch of long green grass, long enough to ripple in the wind, and wide enough that the duck sitting contentedly in the center looked tiny indeed?

“What???!!!” we both said, and I joggled my phone out of my pocket. By the time I pulled up the camera app, the duck was on to me; he was waddling away as fast as his flat webbed feet would take him. I snapped the picture anyway; his back was to me, and his back was far away, but still: documentation of our duck walk.

Duck

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And then, the next night, I took young James to Kohl’s to buy a new vacuum, and on the way out of the parking lot, we had to stop for a family of ducks. The mama didn’t look much older than a teenager herself, slight and still a little downy, and her six fuzzy little charges–well, they were all over the place, on the curb, in the street, veering and waddling. Mama was beside herself. She was back and forth, across the street, up on the curb, flapping and quacking; she was back in the street and herding.

The car approaching us stopped. We stopped. The cars behind both of us stopped. And then the baby ducks disappeared. We peered over and around the hood of the car, but they were just gone. Gone UNDER the car? In front of it? Mama bobbed and weaved and quacked, and there we were, a line of frozen cars, wondering what happened to those fuzzy little ducks.

So James opened up the car door to see if he could spot them for me, gingerly putting one foot down on the blacktop. That was all they needed. An explosion of ducklings ran across the street, little wings flapping, raucously yelling, WOK!WOK!WOK! They clustered around the little mama, and, in a scrum, they headed over the grassy hill to safety.

I imagine them years hence, telling the story: “And then this giant MAN put his foot down on the hard top and we RAN out from under the car…”

What a week it was. What an adventure of ducks. Why did it feel so poignant?

Why did I feel so sad?

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An old, old memory came back to me–a memory of writing, for Mrs. Halsey in second grade, my first research paper. We had drawn slips to get our topics, and mine said, in Mrs. Halsey’s spikey, perfect, Catholic school script, “The mallard duck.”

I carried that paper home like a treasure or a sign. This, after all, was REAL homework! This was, finally, the big kid times.

I remembered the dull old encyclopedia, red cloth cover faded to rose, and the wonder of finding the article about mallards within. I remembered my mother patiently telling me how to take notes; I remembered her showing me how to record where I got my information. Because it was cheating, she informed me, to learn from someone else but to claim that knowledge as always having been our own. I nodded, serious and alert, and I carefully wrote the title of the article and the name of the encyclopedia at the very bottom of the page.  (That may have been the moment my fate as English teacher was sealed.)

I learned about downy feathers that lined ducks’ nests and the oil that gave the ducks their buoyancy and protected them from frigid waters. I learned about habitat and migration, about eggs and natural predators. I drew a square on my lined yellow page and inside it, I copied the encyclopedia photo of a nesting duck. I copied it in pencil; the picture was black and white. I drew a shiny glint spot in the eye, but, not being able to envision the colors, I did not  get my crayons.

When I was done, my mother told me I’d done well. “Well, this is what I’ll do,” I thought. “I’ll just write papers all my life.”

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Ducks, I remember. And research.

And why not a little research now? I think.

So I pull my iPad toward me, touch the Safari app, and pull up Yahoo. “Ducks,” I type, “symbolism.”

I get thousands of hits, and pick a promising one.

If a duck has waddled across my path, spiritanimals.com suggests, I should take note of my surroundings; a new opportunity is being offered. “You will have to move forward swiftly,” the page’s author advises, “so your new ideas can take flight.”

I like the sound of that and I read on. “Alternatively,” reads the text, “Duck may be reminding you that today is a day you should spend exploring your emotions.”

And just like that another memory surfaces, of being at Mark’s parents when Stephen and Patty come in, drenched and dripping from the rain.

“How are you?” someone demands, and they laugh together and say the words that were their mantra: “Just ducky.

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

Ever after, when I asked Patty how she was, she would tell me she was just ducky. She said it the first time she beat cancer back. She said it when it returned seventeen years later, and she beat it back again.

But cancer is vile and clever and invidious, and it was waiting; it was working out a way around her strength. “We’ve got to be stealthy and quick to conquer this one,” it must have said. It must have, for Patty to be up and doing laundry of a Monday, and dead at cancer’s hand that Sunday, surrounded by her family, on that ironic Mother’s Day.

It struck so quickly she didn’t have time to fight it off, to be just ducky again.

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

When a dear one who lives far away dies, you can pretend there’s nothing wrong. There’s no big gap in your everyday life. You tamp down that sadness, and you pretend it’s just not there. You plunge into the whirlwind of daily routine, of Things That Must Be Done, and you deny, deny, deny.

I’m not listening, you say, and you plug your ears against the persistent whispers.

But the hurt of Patty’s death was there with me, waiting to be acknowledged.

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

Some folks believe that when God or Nature or Spirit has a message for you, it will get through. It will come in a dream that carries through to daytime awareness. It will emerge in a passage from a book that speaks so clearly, so strongly, it must be acknowledged. A horoscope, read just for fun, will have sudden, deep-seated meaning.

Or it may come as a symbol, showing up over and over until it cannot be ignored.

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Despite the feyness of my Celtic roots, I’m a smart, sophisticated, educated, objective woman. I know that God has much, much better things to do with Her time than to send us image after image after image, to meet us at every corner, to suggest to us in certain terms that, although Patty may be gone, she is all right.

No, the ducks were just a coincidence. The ducks were what I call the ‘New Car Phenomenon’: I get a new car, and suddenly, I see that make and model all over the darned place.

I had my duck lenses on.

And so, I saw ducks.

I’m much too objective to think that we were getting a cosmic message, but I am glad, anyway, that those ducks were my catalyst to awareness. I can hear a message even if they weren’t sent especially to carry one.

Here’s the message I hear:

Remember (the ducks remind me) the blithe and blessed spirit that was Patty.

Lovely Fresh Veggies–and Converting the Kale-ist Among Us

Randy H
Randy with a burgeoning vegetable treasure basket

A message arrives just after I get to work Thursday morning: I have your goodies here in the back room, my friend!

 Be right over, I message back, and I drive the car across the street to College Hall, where I pick up my weekly veggies from Randy. Randy runs the duplicating center and mail room. He is a tall, slender, dark-haired man with a  perpetual smile. He dances, Randy does–he dances for miles each day, a practice he discovered in the face of great loss. Randy dances, and he feels his joy return to him.

Farming is another thing that brings him joy, and he is very happy this year, when a cool and rainy spring and the recent sunny heat have coaxed the greens into freshness, and the fruit bushes preen.

Today, the canvas tote Randy hefts up over the counter is filled with treasure: pearly new onions with their long stalky leaves, two tender heads of romaine, a clutch of collard greens, and tough curly leaves of kale. We talk about recipes for a moment, Randy and I do, and he invites me out to see the farm this weekend. I hope to go. He tells me that his berry bushes are burgeoning with buds. We both take a minute, imagining sugar-dappled pie crusts, with sticky, deep-purple syrup bubbling thickly through the pastry vents.

And then I head back to the day’s duties. My veggies wait for me on the floor of my back seat.

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In other years, I have contracted with Randy for a full growing-season CSA–a Community Supported Agriculture contract. In a CSA, the buyer shares in whatever is fresh and ripe that week on the farm. So spring brings greens and asparagus and tender onions, and then the berries begin. Potatoes arrive, and peppers, and exotic things like garlic scapes and celeriac. There will be summer squash and sweet corn. The onions will grow fatter, more mature, and stronger in taste. They will nestle in the canvas carrier with sweet potatoes and cabbage. Perfect little watermelons celebrate the hottest days of summer. Little pumpkins and winter squashes herald the fall.

This summer because–whooo hooo!--I am retiring, and I will not be on campus every week to pick up my bounty, I am going short-term, week by week. I could go out to Randy’s every weekend and pick what I want and need; I could just tell him what I’d like to see in my weekly basket.

But I like discovering, each week, what is snugged up in that carrier. I like running to fetch my Joy of Cooking, flipping to the glossary of veggies, figuring out what this milky green, many-armed, bulbous vegetable is, and reading to see just what I might want to do with it.

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

At home, I unpack my treasures. I wash the romaine and lay the leaves out on a big towel-covered chopping board. I dry each leaf carefully, admiring the colors; some leaves are a robust green. Other are paler, and they have veins of lavender and purple.

I set the romaine aside to completely air-dry; later, I will put the leaves in a plastic bag and refrigerate them. The salad we’ll make from them, with home-made croutons, will bring us the taste of the warm spring sun.

I peel the dirty outer layers from the onion bulbs, chopping off the hairy roots, and I place them, long green shoots and all, in a red ceramic casserole. Then I wash the kale and the collards, leaving them in the colander to dry.

Onions

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Mark comes in while I am paging though Joy of Cooking, looking for the quiche recipes. We’d talked that morning about having a breakfast-for-dinner supper: scrambled eggs, maybe, with sausage links and country French bread toast slices.  But seeing those tender onions, I thought of quiche,–which real men do, indeed, eat.

I have taken two lumps of pie crust from the freezer, and I carefully defrost them, using tiny time intervals, in the microwave. When the lumps are malleable, I roll them out.  I line a small tin for Jim, whose autism displays in very definite food sensitivities. He will not tolerate the smell or texture of most vegetables, especially something as strong as onion, so his dishes are always simply and plainly prepared. For Mark and me, I use a heavy crockery pie plate. I crimp the edges of both crusts, and I put them in a hot oven to bake.

“Hmmm,” says Mark, poking through the ingredients, interested. “Quiche? Want me to chop those onions?”

He wields the chopping knife, moving from the onions to the ham, and I whisk eggs and evaporated milk together. I stir in some nutmeg and coarse salt, crank in a little pepper. I pull the hot pie shells out of the oven. We have grated mounds of cheese, cheddar and Swiss, and we scoop it up and mix it in the hot crusts.  We layer ham bits on top of the cheese, and sprinkle all the chopped young onion into the bigger pie. Then I pour egg mixture into each shell, and back they go, into the hot oven.

We make side salads and pour some Chardonnay. Jim comes out and stacks plates and silverware on the counter; he gets the bread and puts more butter on a little dish. By the time we’ve shared the high points of our days, a sharp, slender knife slips cleanly in and out of the quiches; they are firm and ready. We pull them out and cut them into healthy portions and carry our plates to the table. Each slice is steaming-fragrant.

And, oh, it is good, with the fresh salad on the side, and the gentle zip of the tender onions motivating the cheese and the meat. Jim eats every piece from his small pan. Mark and I do well, too, leaving only two slices, which Mark will heat for breakfast the next morning. We finally push away from the table, begin gathering up the dishes,and Mark says, “That little bit of onion–that just makes all the difference.”

I agree; Jim snorts; and we clean the table and stuff the dishwasher and fill the sink with hot sudsy water.

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The kale is more of a challenge. My husband, usually so balanced and objective, does harbor a bias or two–and one of them is against kale. He is, in fact, as Jim says, a confirmed kale-ist.

Mark does not want kale mixed into his salads. He does not care to sample kale chips. He would be happy to put the kale into compost.

But I am determined to give everything that comes in the weekly carrier a fair and open-minded try.

Friends suggested, when we’d all embraced the CSA concept a couple of years ago, that maybe we could use kale in any recipe that called for spinach. Now, I look up spinach recipes on line, and I find a promising one from Martha Stewart: hot spinach dip. It sounds savory and creamy and ultra-cheesy—so cheesy, in fact that all health benefits from the kale are surely buried under rich, thick, dairy calories.

But I think that it might be a way Mark would actually enjoy kale, so I add cream cheese, half and half, and mozzarella to the shopping list. On Friday, James and I do a big shopping. We put a package of ruffly, cup-shaped corn chips in the cart.

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I trim and chop the kale, a little less coarsely than the recipe calls for; I want it to be as innocuous as possible. In a heavy cast iron skillet, I sauté more of the fresh onion and two minced garlic bulbs in melted butter, and then I stir in the chopped kale. It soaks up the butter; it turns dark green, and it shrinks down by about half. I scrape the veggie mixture into a colander, pressing it down, and I pour some half and half into the hot skillet. When the cream begins to steam, I stir in chunks of cream cheese, and I whisk that together until the mixture is thick and smooth. I add Worcestershire and Tabasco, and I scrape the kale and onions back in. Then I stir in a quarter cup of mozzarella. The blend smells tangy and rich, and I spoon it into a little glass casserole. I top it with a half cup of grated mozz, and I put it into the hot oven.

In twenty minutes the dip is bubbling, bronzed on top; I take it to the patio table with plates and chips. Mark grabs a cold beer and grudgingly tries the dip.

“Not bad,” he admits, although he allows that, next time, we could be a little more liberal with the Tabasco. The two of us devour more than half the savory dish. Jim, spying the little green flecks, declines a taste.

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All that’s left are the collard greens; I think I will just chop them and put them into vegetable beef soup.  There is a limit to the culinary experimentation one week’s adventures can bear.

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Kale has a long growing season. There will be kale, I am pretty sure, in each weekly treasure chest. I pull cookbooks from the shelves and search for spinach recipes. I borrow more cookbooks from the library.

In Guy Fieri Family Food, I find a new riff on Italian Wedding Soup. It calls for diced red pepper, sliced carrots and celery, half moons of zucchini. It makes the meatballs from healthy ground turkey. It uses two heads of escarole, trimmed and chopped into one-inch pieces. I can easily, I think, substitute kale for the escarole. This would be a soup we like.

I bookmark this recipe, and I continue my search. I imagine veggie-carriers to come.

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I will not lie to you and claim I will never buy another pre-bagged package of lettuce. But getting our weekly packages from Randy’s burgeoning farm not only changes the way I eat, it deepens my awareness of the land around me. I am aware, now, when lettuce season ends, and when the first tender zucchini squash begin to sprout. I see the shift as summer matures, the sun bears down, and corn ripens.

And I know my food more intimately. I wash them, those bunches of greens that were this morning rooted in the rich brown dirt, and I pat them dry. I package that myself and put it in the refrigerator to break out triumphantly at some night’s dinner. I peel and rinse and chop. It is more work, for sure; there is more to this than ripping open a bag and banging a bottle of salad dressing onto the table. Sometimes, for true, I look at the carrier full of veggies–veggies demanding my time and attention RIGHT NOW,–and I sigh.

But I know where this food came from; I have seen it sprouting, and growing, and ready to be picked. I swear I can taste the Ohio sun when I eat it. And I definitely taste the difference when I eat its factory-farmed cousins.

So we’ll savor the freshness and the goodness of the Ohio growing seasons, freezing what we cannot eat, and we’ll experiment with recipes and learn about veggies we’ve never cooked with before. We’ll add newcomers to tried and true recipes–to soups and stews and salads,–and we’ll try new recipes suggested by the foods that arrive in the weekly carrier.

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Will I convert my kale-ist? I have my doubts. But it won’t be for lack of trying.

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For more on Randy’s produce, like the Hutchs Haven page on Facebook.

Here’s Martha Stewart’s hot spinach dip recipe: http://www.marthastewart.com/338357/hot-spinach-dip

Hillbilly Energy

I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me…The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim picture–that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year.”
                        –JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy*

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New Straitsville Moonshine Festival Returns! shouts the headline in the Times-Recorder. I scan the article to see who’ll perform; there are the Gospel Harmony Boys; there is a Van Halen tribute band; and there will be a country duo. Someone will be crowned Miss Moonshine. There will be a parade and a cruise-in and wrestling matches.

And of course, there’ll will be moonshine–drunk from cups, baked into pastries, flavoring savory broths.

We tried to go to the Moonshine Festival last year–or, maybe, it was the year before,– meandered our way out country roads until we found and navigated the little village of New Straitsville. But parking was premium, and people were packed, body to body, in the enclosure of the festival grounds. It was a giant pulsing mass of moonshine enthusiasts; my adult son, who is on the autism spectrum, turned pale at the thought of maneuvering through that crowd. We wound up eating pizza in Lancaster, Ohio, that night, but I was glad I’d had a glimpse of the Moonshine Festival and that I’d seen its broad appeal.

I was glad because this is where we live, in a land of moonshine and Mamaws and Papaws, of roads with names like Dog Creek Hollow, and of people who proudly claim the title ‘hillbilly.’ There is poverty here, for sure, and the opioid epidemic runs rampant. JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy shone a great light on those things, and the attention the book received brought much-needed awareness of serious regional problems.

But no light can catch everything in its beam, and what Vance’s beam missed is this: there are people who do, indeed, grow up in tough circumstances and determine they will spin that dross into gold. They will stay and work to make change. They will be role models, and they will push their children even further than they’ve gone.

I’ve met lots of those people in my work at a local two year college. I’ve met people, for instance, like Tracey, Missy, Ron, and Larisa. They are people who, despite challenges, have gone on to great success, staying in the region where they grew up.

They, and so many like them, are everyday heroes. I’d like you to meet them, too.

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

Tracey: That could have been my story

“There were several times, while reading the book,” says Tracey, an associate dean at a branch campus of a small Appalachian Ohio two year college, “that I could have replaced ‘JD Vance’ with ‘Tracey Smith’  and it would have been the same story.” Both of her mamaws, Tracey notes, died young, so she missed the solidifying influence that Vance enjoyed. But she remembers her maternal grandmother.

“I once saw her take the barrel of my dad’s shotgun and push it into her chest and tell him to pull the trigger while she held a knife to his belly,” says Tracey. “He was chasing my mom with the shotgun and my grandmother stepped in. She used very colorful words just like Vance’s mamaw, and she wasn’t afraid of anything. She was very loving to me (her first grandchild) and always took time for me.”

Unfortunately, Tracey’s Mamaw died at 47. Up until that time, Tracey’s mother had been what she calls a functional drug addict. After Mamaw’s death, all function fled. The need for drugs consumed Tracey’s mother, who wound up in jail three times, and who, with a series of boyfriends, had three more babies. Tracey became the surrogate mother to her little siblings, and then, in her senior year of high school, her mother decided to take the babies and move to Florida. Left behind, Tracey couch-surfed, living wherever she could in order to finish school.

Tracey’s dad was (and is) a functioning alcoholic who felt the best gift he could give his daughter was to stay out of her way unless she asked for help.

But both of Tracy’s parents believed in and encouraged her. “My mother loved me very much and she never physically abused me or talked negatively to me,” Tracey says. “She always said I could do and be whatever I wanted. She just could not see beyond her addiction to help achieve any of my goals/dreams.”

“My parents,” Tracey adds, “gave me words of encouragement, but were never able to put words into action.”

But Tracey has lived her life very differently. After working at a nursing home and a pizza parlor (the pizza parlor, she says, was a formative place; friends she made there remain an important part of her life today), she decided to go to college. A friend who was going to school in Columbus, Ohio, took Tracey along on a campus tour, and it all clicked into place: Tracey knew college was what she needed. She earned an AAS in child development, a bachelor’s degree in leadership, and a master’s degree in education.

It wasn’t an easy road. Not understanding the financial aid forms, Tracey filled the FAFSA out incorrectly. She received very little aid, so her mother, who dearly wanted her daughter to get an education, took out a parent loan to cover essential costs. She is still, says Tracey, paying that loan off today. And in the last year of her associate’s degree, Tracey became pregnant. A wise instructor-mentor talked her out of leaving school, and Tracey’s mother stepped in to care for her granddaughter so Tracey could graduate.

Tracey knew that, degree in hand, she would return home to southeastern Ohio. It was, she says, mainly because of her daughter. She needed the support system of family to give the child a solid grounding. And Tracey had a deep, unwavering desire to give back, to make a difference. Before entering the post-secondary realm, she worked for a community action agency. She was an active community member, presiding over the Junior Women’s League and running a local Christmas program for underprivileged kids. She volunteered with youth programs. And her work at the college is all about helping people–many who never thought they’d ever be in college–make their dreams come true.

“I was, and am,” says Tracey, “determined to pay it forward. From all the people that let me sleep on their couches to the people who saw potential in me and encouraged me…I was, and still do feel, indebted to them.”

Now a happily married grandmother and a successful leader, Tracey lives close to her children and grandchildren. She wants her children to stay in the area and make their community better. She wants to lift other women up so they can be drug-free, fully realized people–great mothers, great leaders, great WHATEVER their passion leads them to be. She wants her mother to live out the remainder of her days drug-free. She wants southeastern Ohio to be a leader in education, and in business and industry.

She wants to live to be 100 so she can see her grandchildren make their dreams come true.

Tracey still works to assimilate the pain of her childhood–reading Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy brought several aching memories to the surface. But she’s trying, she says, to turn that pain into the energy she needs to fuel the next step in her life.

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

Missy: Maybe it’s because I am a hillbilly

Missy, the course materials coordinator for a college bookstore, credits the bad times for building her strength…and her stubbornness. She grew up, in 1970’s and 1980’s southeastern Ohio, with a father who had to have the latest, the greatest, and the best. So they had waterbeds, for example, and they had mobile phones–which came in suitcases back in those days. And they had financial challenges, which resulted in her father’s bankruptcy, and his plunge into alcoholism.

After that, “I could not remember a positive comment he ever made to me,” Missy says. As far as her father was concerned, there was nothing good about life–or about her.

After high school, in 1987, Missy didn’t see the need for college. She went right to work, snagging a full-time position in computer data entry for an accounts receivable office. The next year, she became pregnant. Her mom helped her navigate the challenges of single motherhood; then, in the mid-1990’s, Missy and Cody, her six-year-old son, moved to Alabama. There, she learned a lot. She was the business owner of a productive automotive garage. She was also entangled in a mentally and physically abusive relationship  with a man she terms “my so-called fiancé.”

There were compelling reasons to stay–a thriving business, a new home, three acres of land, the five vehicles they owned. And Missy’s hobby was working on cars; she enjoyed the chance to rebuild transmissions and engines. But she wanted better–she wanted safer— for herself and her son, and seven years after the move, they returned to southeastern Ohio.

“I was back,” she says, “to my comfort zone.”

Missy’s second son was born when she was 37, and if she thought she had gained in strength and wisdom in the preceding years, she was to find there was a whole lot more learning in store. The baby arrived two months prematurely; at 1-1/2 years, he was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation, a condition in which the lower skull grows incorrectly. The first brain surgery occurred before the boy was two. Missy realized her minimum wage job wasn’t going to provide the benefits and the cash reserves she’d have to have to meet his medical needs. She decided then that higher education would be her answer.

In 2011, Missy enrolled in a Quickstart program at a local community college. Quickstart was a risk-free way to try out higher education; there was no cost for the college-readiness program, which would provide credits toward a degree if she was successful and decided to go on. It had been a long time since Missy graduated from high school with a 3.95 GPA, but she reclaimed her scholarship skills quickly. She earned her associates degree and went on to earn a double bachelor’s degree in business areas. Missy is now working on her MBA.

She is glad she decided to return to southeastern Ohio.

“Maybe,” she says, “it is because I am a hillbilly and I need family to feel safe and comfortable…I feel comfortable and at ease here. Knowing I have support, I know I can do anything I put my mind to.”

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

Ron: The woods were my playground

Ron grew up about eight miles out of the small town of Caldwell. His grandparents lived down over the hill, and the woods were a safe and comfortable playground.

“I used to leave in the morning,” he says, “and go into the woods and come back for lunch and then go back out.”  He notes that he played in the ‘crick,’ and that his mother ‘worshed’ the family clothes. A lot of what JD Vance depicts in Hillbilly Elegy is very familiar to Ron.

Ron’s father was a union pipe-fitter, a hard worker who put in long hours…and then had long dry spells when there was no work for him. During those long dry spells, Ron’s family might have to go on food stamps. He and his uncle would hunt and fish.

But unlike Vance, Ron’s parents were always there for him. He never lived with his grandparents, he says, “but I was down at their house a lot.”

Ron attended a technical high school, studying electronics, and joined the Air Force. He returned to Ohio when his enlistment was over, and he enrolled at a two year college. When Ron graduated, he was the first in his family to have earned a college degree. A devoted family man with a passion for political science and history, Ron currently works in IT at a college; he’s been there eight years. He volunteers many hours for his kids’ activities–scouting and sports–but he carves out time to continue his education. Ron has attended the local university steadily and recently completed all the courses necessary to earn his bachelor’s degree.

“I love this part of Ohio,” he says. “I love how beautiful this area is in the fall, and I like being close to family.”

What does he dream of? “I want my kids to do better than me,” says Ron. “I want them to get good jobs and have happy families.”

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

Larisa: I knew education was important

“There’s no town that I live in,” says Dr. Larisa Harper, CCP director with the Ohio Department of Higher Education, “just the rural part of the county with a city mailing address. I remember when I was growing up that our address was RR7–or Rural Route 7. I still don’t know what the 7 reflected, but I remember asking what ‘rural’ meant!”

Larisa remembers, too, a joke her father, a beloved coach, would tell at speaking events. His wife, her father would reveal, had a little bit of a hearing problem. At night, he’d ask her, “So…..would you like to sleep…or what?”

“What?” his sleepy wife would always respond.

The result, the Coach would say, was nine children.

Larisa is the youngest of that brood. She loved school. “[It] was a safe place where people cared about me,” she says, “and I knew education was important.” She played school at home, and she wanted, at an early age, to become a teacher like the ones she adored.

Drugs were nonexistent in Larisa’s experience; she didn’t try them, and she doesn’t remember any of her siblings experimenting. There was alcohol in the house, but it was never overdone, and the kids weren’t tempted to try it until they reached an appropriate age. As siblings moved out, the family would reunite for ‘porch parties’ at her parents; everyone would come back, share some beer on the porch, and visit.

But money, with a family of 11, was always a concern. Her dad worked in sales, and her mother was a full-time homemaker. There was a time, Larisa’s siblings tell her, that food stamps helped feed the family. “We didn’t go to the doctor unless our lives depended on it,” Larisa says. “No dental visits unless you were writhing in pain.”

She remembers longing for ‘things’–the latest clothing or toys; her Christmas list was always long and wistful. “I don’t remember feeling like Santa had forgotten me,” she says. “He just didn’t bring what I wished for most of the time.”

The taut financial situation impressed her deeply. “To this day,” Larisa says, “thinking about how I will pay the bills, even with a very good job, gives me anxiety–makes me feel physically ill. From what I understand,” she adds, “some of my siblings feel the same way.”

Larisa went to the local branch of Ohio University after high school, transferring to the main campus in Athens, where her boyfriend, her high school sweetheart, was already enrolled. Having him there made it easier to figure things out. She changed her major several times, nurturing a dawning awareness that working in higher ed was what she wanted to do. She earned her bachelors in English and psychology, and she worked as a writer for a couple of years.

At 24, Larisa married that high school sweetheart (they have been married for 24 years), and she returned to school to earn a master’s degree. Two major events interrupted Larisa’s progress: the birth of her son and the death of her father. It would be ten years before she returned to complete her graduate work, transferring her credits to a college where she could complete the work online–an option that worked best for a working mom with three young children.

With her masters, Larisa realized her dream of working in higher ed, and she began to develop a clearer picture of where she’d like to go and what she’d like to achieve. Her graduate school mentor encouraged her to keep going; she enrolled in a doctoral cohort in 2010 and completed her doctorate in 2015. It was a tough 5-1/2  year struggle, she acknowledges, but very, very worth it–it was a struggle that led her to the position she now holds with the Ohio Department of Higher Education. The job entails a hefty commute and a good deal of state-wide travel, but it allows Larisa, too, to stay in this part of Ohio.

Why is that important? “That’s an easy answer,” says Larisa. “Family. My kids always ask if we can move to Florida, but my answer is always that I will not leave my mother. And into the future, I most likely will not move. Most of my siblings live in this county.

“We built a home on our family’s property, and my mother’s home is entrusted to me since she lives at a nursing home. So, we have about seven acres and two homes to care for. I’m hopeful to restore our family’s home into a bed and breakfast.”

Working in higher education, and working closely with partners in the K-12 realm, Larisa has seen the devastation that poverty brings to families. She encourages her own children to dream big, but to have a back-up plan.

“I know their dreams will likely take them to other states for jobs,” says Larisa. “That’s okay. That will give me an opportunity to visit new places for vacations. I’m excited to see all three of my children earn college degrees (and to take advantage of college courses while in high school).”

“I hope,” she says, “that they’ll be happy and secure with their careers and finances, so they don’t have to worry about money like I have.”

Mostly, though, Larisa wants her kids to be happy. “I want them to have healthy relationships,” she says, “and if they do marry, I hope they’ll marry someone they consider their best friend.”

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

Last week, I attended a community meeting centered on the heroin/fentanyl issue in this area. The room was filled with professionals from law enforcement, medicine, social work, government, the non-profit world, and education. Well-educated, articulate, impassioned, the group members hit issues head on; they shared progress and good news, failures, and goals.

Like Tracey, Missy, Ron, and Larisa, the folks at the meeting grew up, mostly, here in Appalachian Ohio. Some were poor; some had families with damaging dysfunction. Some were actively discouraged from pursuing an education.

And yet. there they were: gathered in a church basement, outstanding community leaders committed to making their communities better and safer,–committed to making their communities places their grandchildren will want to come back home to.

I think of the passion and energy people like Tracey, Missy, Ron, and Larisa expended to pursue education, find creative, meaningful work, and provide strong, solid support for the children they love. I think of the passion and energy of those professionals gathered to move things forward, to make a real and lasting positive difference. These are all folks who’d openly wear the ‘hillbilly’ mantle.

An elegy, the dictionary tells me, is a solemn poem–usually a lament for the dead. I think of the people I’ve met since I moved here. I think of the work ethic, intelligence, decency, and creativity they display. And I honor Vance’s book, and the attention it has turned to an area of the country that is often discounted.

But the people I’ve met in this beautiful, hilly country, are mostly surmounters. They’re dreamers who achieve. They should be known, not for their lamentable lots, but for their love of family, their connection to place, and for the energy they invest in making things better.

**********

*For more on JD Vance and Hillbilly Elegy, see http://www.jdvance.com/.

A Philosophy of Leftovers

He bent boyishly over the dish before him. Malony had fried spoonfuls of powdered egg to crisp little fritters, had added the sausages, disinterred from their coffins of sodden pastry, onion, parsley, and potato, and had made of the dish a work of art.
            Elizabeth Goudge, Pilgrim’s Inn

*******

I could almost live, I think, by a philosophy of leftovers.

*******

Thursday: 11:18 a.m., staring at a fridge full of little plastic containers.  A couple of boneless chicken tenders. A quarter cup of corn. Some green beans. A little turkey broth. A forlorn scoop of mashed potatoes.

And suddenly I realize I have everything I need to make chicken shepherd’s pie.

I spend a mad half hour slicing onion and carrots and crushing garlic, sautéing it all in butter and olive oil in a cast iron pan, tossing in the boneless chicken, now neatly chopped.  Two tablespoons of flour sprinkled over the steaming mix, stirred until they disappear; the broth, slowly added, simmers and thickens. I throw in the veggies, add a handful of frozen green peas, and wait until the whole mess bubbles up again.

Some sage and some rosemary. Black pepper. Sea salt. And it smells GOOD. I dollop on the potatoes, reconstituted by whisking in a little cream, and I put the pan in the oven.

By the time Mark comes home for lunch, the potato peaks are just browning. We pull thick white bowls from the cupboard and scoop ourselves steaming servings. We butter up slices of country French bread from Giacomo’s bakery, pour tall glasses of water, and we sit down to lunch. Between the two of us, we eat the entire chicken shepherd’s pie.

Mark heads back to work, and I scrub the skillet, then pull open the dishwasher to stash one more little tupperware container.  The top rack is full of plasticware, newly bereft of their once-sad contents.

Leftovers, I’m thinking, are maybe NOT such an awful thing.

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

I do admit to having inherited a sense of thrift, possibly squared. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they remembered the shame of standing in lines for whatever clothing–however ill-fitting or outmoded,–the charity people had to give away to unparented urchins. They remembered getting handouts of almost rotten food, of eating bread smeared with applesauce and counting it a rare fine treat. They remembered days when they wished for just the bread, and when they went to bed hungry and aching.

When we were growing up, there was always food, no matter how hard times got: there was bread in the bread box and cookies in the cookie jar, and a big pot, maybe, of something like hamburger gravy. We didn’t notice so much when the gravy portion was much greater than the meat part; we made deep wells in our abundant (and cheap) mashed potatoes, ate it all, and asked for more.

My mother’s family had emigrated from Scotland, from a bleak, cold northern shore, looking for a land of opportunity and plenty. Even before Depression days, they were frugal and cautious with their money and their goods. They knew the cold nip of having no blanket between themselves and the starving cold.

I carried that thrifty thinking in my bones. It made me reluctant to part with things. Isn’t there a way, I’d think, to re-use that, to make it good?

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

Oftentimes, there were ways. Limp celery, bendable carrots: washed and trimmed and roasted in a pot with chicken bones and a quartered onion, drizzled in olive oil, dotted with garlic–these became the basis for a rich simmered stock.

The stock was a scaffolding on which to construct a wonderful soup–add some chopped spinach and the leftover Italian sausage, sliced into coins; sprinkle in some ditalini; and a rarer fine variation of Italian wedding soup bubbled up.

Or I could crush the stale potato chips and use them to coat a chicken fillet, dipped first in milk and egg, then baked until it was crispy and golden brown. Or I could stir those crushed chips into potato chip cookies, evoking a wonderful sweet and salty taste.

Stale bread could become a hearty  breakfast bake, studded with the end of some savory cheese and the rest of the bacon, crumbled.

An infinite variety of meats and veggies, I discovered, could meet together to make a fine hash.

*****

‘Leftovers’ sounds so sad, so unwanted, and dishes like these–well, they can be triumphs of tastiness, ingenuity, and economy. Taking what’s on hand, prowling through the cookbooks, we morph and celebrate the disdained orts, making them into something greater, it seems, than the sum of their forlorn parts.

Perhaps we should call them something finer than ‘leftovers’. ‘Saved forwards,’ maybe?

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

But not everything, I realize, of course, is worth saving.

If there’s mold or icky spots, oh, then, I really need to chuck it.

If they didn’t eat it in its original form, I came to see, I shouldn’t try to hide it in a casserole. So no raisin bran was welcomed amidst the chocolate chips.

No meats or milk or creams of dubious age–unless it’s a cake recipe that calls for cream a little bit gone by.

Things we didn’t like the first time around will probably not taste better in round two.

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

A billboard tells me families in the United States throw out, literally, thousands of dollars worth of food each year.

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

Use what you’ve got: it is, I think, the basis for the locavore movement. If it’s grown in your backyard, in your town or your county, why import it from Brazil?

And if there are still-fresh, tasty ingredients in my refrigerator, why do I need to search further? Instead of planning shopping lists based on ingredients needed for recipes, maybe I should pick the recipes based on the ingredients I have on hand.

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

The seasons morph—the weather brightens. There’s more light. There’s more possibility. And maybe, this spring, I can shift my thinking, my shopping, my cooking, spinning my attitude, appreciating what’s already here.

Of Daring, Joy, and Grief: Mother’s Day

They have made arrangements to pick up his brother; they have quickly packed bags and sorted out treats for the little guy, who will be stuck in the car seat for a long, long ride. Now they are setting out on a long, sad journey.

They are going to spend the weekend with his mother, his sweet, funny, classy mother. She can tell a story like no one else; she can put together a tray of treats that prove irresistible to all comers. She dresses with verve and style; she is a gift-giver extraordinaire.

And a wonderful mom.

And a wonderful grandma. (And they have, all of them, waited so long for the miracle of this baby.)

But the news from the doctor this week was shocking; instead of being conquered (again) the cancer has spread,–spread quickly to organs and bones, and time and its quality are uneasily unknown now.

So they trek, the three young grownups, the one little guy, to see a very special mom on a Mother’s Day they fear will be her last.

**********

It ain’t always a Hallmark card, this holiday–this whole Mother’s Day thing.

*********

So there is a mother struggling with her child’s diagnosis, still reeling from the visits with the therapist and the school counselors. She can’t bring herself, quite yet, to share this with anyone. She is not quite ready to take all those dreams and flush them,–trade them in for a whole new set of expectations. Grief and guilt (Did I do this? Is it my genes?  Is this MY FAULT?) tear at her, and she shrinks from her husband’s hugs. And she cries when she finds a homemade card with an awkward lopsided picture and labored printing: MOM.

So there is a wife whose husband’s mom is recently gone; her red-eyed children miss their grandma. It is a hard holiday to celebrate with a loss so raw.

So there is a mother, aging and alone, who wonders if anyone will call or visit.

So there is another mother, separated from her son by miles and illness–HIS illness. She waits to hear about the progress of the therapy. This illness is insidious, but right now, they can entertain hope.

So there is a young woman with empty arms. She feels like she is the only person who remembers the baby she lost to miscarriage six months ago. She is tired of the advice to move on, try again. She needs to grieve the first loss.

So there is a mom, newly sober, who is at the foot of the mountainous fight to get her children back. She will not see them this Mother’s Day. She has no idea how long it will take until she can see them every day–or if she has the stamina for the long slog ahead.

And there are grandmas being moms again to another generation, and aunties raising siblings’ kids, and there are moms who have been gifted with an adopted miracle. There are stepmoms and step-grandmoms. There are men who fill the mother’s role, and there are caring friends who regularly step in to mentor.

We talk about motherhood and apple pie, but pictures of ‘mom’ can be very, very different.

**********

And there are lucky mothers who will stay in bed and be served clumsy breakfasts on wobbling trays this Mother’s Day–toast too dark, too light, or too buttery; bowls of cereal whose milk slops over the edge. A dandelion in an olive oil bottle. A Snickers bar, maybe, on the side.

The moms will eat those funny breakfasts with gusto, and maybe laugh about it later with the dad, hungrily sneaking handsful of Doritos out of sight of their happy kids, who are so satisfied with their ultimate surprise.

There are mothers who will have all their progeny around them at church, proud grandmas surrounded by two generations of shining smiling faces.

There will be festive dinners served at home around big, crowded tables, or at fancy restaurants so Mama doesn’t have to cook.

There will be flowers and sweets and books and jewelry; there will be little chins sunk into Gran’s arm as she reads a heart-felt card.

There will be joy. There SHOULD be joy.

*********

There should be joy because it’s a daring thing, this agreeing to be a mother–a gamble with thousands of unforeseeable outcomes.

The kid could shine, fill all the world’s definitions of successful, grow up and meet a loving, faithful mate, have children and be happy.

The kid could stumble, fall, and cause serious worry; then that kid, drawing on all that good stuff inside, could right herself and move on, wiser and stronger and ready to cope.

The kid could be disabled. (And what if other children hurt or mock her? And what if he never has a friend?)

The kid, after a perfectly normal, happy childhood, could have a mental illness.

The kid  could discover he has the disease of addiction.

The kid could wind up hating the mama. (What if I do everything so wrong?)

The kid…oh, my God: the kid could die.

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

And I could die, die while that tender, forming person still needs me. I could die before my work is done.

So MANY things could happen. How is it that we ever dare?

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

There are faces at the window, waiting sadly. There are faces turned to family, filled with light.  There are wise souls, wisdom earned by letting go of old expectations and building others. There is deep grief because what has been is so very good and so very, very difficult to watch recede.

It is Mother’s Day weekend, and there has been the daring, take-a-chance, I-know-I-am-up-to-this plunge: we will go forward, it says. We will go on. Even if the vision we move toward has nothing to do with a Hallmark family scene…well. We will forge ahead.

A prayer, a candle, a flower on an established grave: we celebrate the ones we’ve lost. A cake, a scarf, a bouquet, a pin: we cherish the time together. And if we wish that things were different, well then. Then it’s time to make a plan, take a step, emerge from the cocoon, work to fulfill the new, emerging vision. To, maybe, pray.

Our work may be lopsided and uneven. And it could be our job to bring our children’s hidden gifts to light. To demand that the rest of the world see and recognize those gifts. It could be our job to step back and let the story unfold without our interference. It may be our job to open our hands and, hardly able to watch, let them stumble on.

Our work may be that of helping to re-build. And, oh, it may be our work to grieve.

***********

Mother’s Day: a celebration of meaning and daring, of the will to go on, of a million different ways to do things right. And maybe, of a million ways to go back and do things over.

Whatever your scenario, may your celebration be rich and warm and filled with meaning. And, however far away–far in terms of feeling and heart and time on earth– may your loved ones live close in your heart.

The Beginning of the Long Goodbye

Greta
James and I came home from the college at almost two o’clock, and the dog was not downstairs. I found her snuggled into the extra blanket on my bed.

Mark had texted at noon, “Dog seems fine but I can’t get her to go downstairs.”

I lowered myself gently onto the bed next to Greta. Her head rested between her paws, and she rolled her eyes to look at me. Her tail thumped slowly. I stroked her silky head, gently rubbed her back, and I felt her little heart pelting frantically against her rib-cage. Her back legs were tucked beneath her.  She turned her head to lick my hand.

“Want to go downstairs, pup?” I asked her, and she sighed gently and laid her head back down between her paws.

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

We got Greta at the Animal Shelter a few months after our beloved Holmsie died. We missed that sweet presence so. The house seemed empty.

“Never again,” we’d said, grief tearing us. But one Sunday, the car turned in at the shelter, maybe of its own accord.

Just to look, we said.

All of the dogs were named for celebrities. In one kennel, Roseanne, big and fluffy, bounced and crashed, barking for attention. In the kennel right next to her, Greta huddled in the farthest chain link corner, tiny, shivering, wanting to be alone. She was brown and black and white–there was a beagle among those terrier forebears–and her eyes, like Holmsie’s, looked as if they’d been outlined in kohl.

“Look at this,” I said, and Mark and Jim turned away from frolicking puppies and crouched with me by Greta’s cage.  She inched over; she licked our hands through the chain link. A volunteer appeared.

“She’s never done that before,” she said. “This is the first time she’s shown an interest in anyone.  Would you like to see her?”

Keys jingling, she went to let the little dog out of her pen.

“Yeah,” Mark said later, “they probably tell everyone that: oooh, she really responds to YOU!” But it didn’t matter: true or not, the imprinting was done. Greta was our dragon. She came home to stay about two weeks later, after a rigorous home visit and the requisite surgery.

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

I could count on Greta’s routine. When I got up in the morning, she got up, too, marching to the back door and waiting while I turned the coffee on. I’d mix her food while she ran into the backyard, took care of urgent business, then stood at the door quietly until I let her in.

She’d wolf her breakfast greedily, then trot back upstairs, snuggling into the still warm spot I’d vacated, nestling behind Mark’s knees. I’d shower and dress, and when I was done, she would follow me back downstairs. She’d curl up under the chair at the head of the dining room table, sighing in that little cave, while I wrote my morning pages. She was waiting,–hoping, I always thought, that there might be some sort of breakfast meat.

That happened every day, a regularity since we’d moved into this house. But then suddenly, recently, everything began to change.

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

We got Greta almost thirteen years ago, and the folks at the shelter weren’t sure how old she was. One vet guessed seven months. Another thought she was much older than that, maybe as much as two years old.

What the shelter people knew was how she’d arrived: a projectile heaved over the ten foot fence by someone who burst out of a running pickup truck, threw the dog, and left. A male volunteer, new to the work, ran to get her. When she wouldn’t budge, he slipped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she whimpered, across sixty feet of gravel yard.

By the time someone ran out to intervene, her head was permanently turned away. And she definitely did not want to deal with men.

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

This spring, Greta started reacting to storms very differently. She had never liked thunder, but usually we could tuck her up next to us, talking to her soothingly, and she would settle down. But now she could not be comforted. She shivered violently. She panted. She followed me from room to room, tight at my heels.

Soon, thunder didn’t have to roll to bring on this response. A hard soaking rain was enough to send the little dog into hours of frantic shaking.

We tried a thunder shirt; she tolerated it, but it didn’t quell the tremors or the panting. The vet prescribed a pill, which seemed to work. But once the shaking started, we could not get the little dog to open her mouth and swallow the tablet.

We tried a blue gel, squirted between cheek and gum. She squirmed and struggled. She had a blue grin for days afterward.

Then she started rousing us every night, storm or no storm. I would startle awake, the little dog’s face pushed up next to mine. As soon as she knew I was up, she’d pace over to Mark’s side of the bed, and wake him, too. She panted, paced, and shook, until finally we got her settled between us in the warm bed, shivering into slumber.

Two hours later, her snout would be next to my face, jolting me awake.

I’d read somewhere that, in elderly humans, urinary tract infections produced symptoms that looked like dementia. Maybe dogs are like that, too, I thought. Maybe this is all Greta’s kidneys talking. I brought a sample in and had it tested. The dog’s kidneys were fine.

The vet prescribed different medications–some zonked Greta out completely during the day; she refused to eat or sleep, but by nighttime, the panting would resume. One pill made her nasty and snappish, not unknown behavior for a dog who didn’t much like visitors, but never before had she bared her teeth at us.

We were frazzled from lack of sleep; we were concerned for the little dog’s health. The vet did a complete physical and finally prescribed Prozac.

When she came in to talk with me after the battery of test results were in, the kind, compassionate vet sat down on her bench and sighed.

“Physically, it all checks out,” she said, and she paused. “This is all,” she said carefully, “consistent with what we sometimes see in elder dogs: early signs of canine dementia.”

Greta pushed her head beneath my knees and shivered.

Oh my, I thought. I took the dog, and her big bottle of Prozac, home.

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

Greta circled us warily when she first moved in; we could see her tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for…yelling? Violence? We didn’t know. When we reached to pet her, she flinched.

She followed me throughout the house, avoiding the boyos.

She dragged her food dish underneath the kitchen table. She would only eat when no one else was in the room. She did not want to be combed. She would tolerate only a certain amount of petting. She was wary, on guard, waiting.

Then one day, I took her out into the side yard with me. I was weeding, kneeling on a little cement walkway. It was late spring; there was a warm sun. The air was pleasant and the concrete radiated sun-baked warmth. The dog sat, alert and watching for a few minutes, then she lowered herself to the cement warmth. In a few minutes, she had surrendered; she was sprawled and sleeping–sleeping deeply and heavily–the kind of sleep one is drawn into, the kind of sleep that, like seawater, closes over your head when exhaustion has reached its very peak.

I swear that, when she woke up from that deep bout of sleeping, she was different. I swear that, after that, Greta knew she was home.

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

The Prozac helped the dog make it through the night; she would wake us only once, and then she’d hop up into the bed, circle and sigh, and settle down for the rest of the night. And so we could sleep too, a very good thing.

But the changes didn’t stop. She was slowing down, and now we saw–the loving time-filters peeled away,–the pure white muzzle, the cloudy eyes. The toes bent and twisted by arthritis. Greta sighed when she heaved herself up after a long rest. She didn’t always run to get her dish when dinner was served. The mail would fall through the slot–an occasion that had always brought her, barking and challenging, right out of a full, deep sleep. But now she’d perk her head up for a moment, consider, and sigh herself back to snoozing.

I’m sure the mail carrier was relieved, but grief settled into our awareness.

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

We thought, in those early days of Greta, that if we just loved her enough, treated her kindly enough, that she would morph into the friendly, wonderful sort of dog her predecessor had been. We noticed enough to suspect former abuse. She tensed at men with facial hair, growled and threatened and ran to hide. She went into full alert-mode when sharing a couch with someone and that someone lifted the TV remote. We imagined the back story there.

It took her months to realize no one was going to steal her food.

And she did settle in. She would jump into our laps in the evening when we gathered to watch TV; she would nudge our hands to pet her.

We went for long walks. We would take her, on weekends, to an enclosed ball-field at a nearby park. We would unclip the leash and yell, “Go go go!!” She would explode into movement, streaking around the base paths, a tiny blur.  She would run and run and run.  But she always came back; never once did she attempt to break away, to get shet of her restraints. The safety of family seemed much more compelling than the lure of freedom.

But she never opened up to other people. I remember my friend Kim, a true dog-whisperer, working with her gently, coaxing, narrowing the gap between them, until finally it reached a point past comfort and Greta turned and growled at her.

Kim was startled. “Animals LIKE me,” she said. “I’ve never had an animal I couldn’t win over.”

Greta was the first, stubborn and untrusting.

I talked to the vet, who sighed. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s because of the abuse, and you can work, gently and patiently, and the dog might blossom, might accept new people. Sometimes, it’s just who the dog IS, a wary, suspicious little being. And you can do your best.

“And sometimes,” the doctor said slowly, “sometimes you’re dealing with the effects of abuse and neglect on a little creature who’s wary and shy to begin with. And then it’s really, really hard.”

She paused and looked at Greta, curled up under my bent legs, her back firmly to the doc who had poked and prodded her. “I think,” the vet said slowly, “I think, you’re dealing with both.”

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

I couldn’t talk the dog downstairs. Her tail thumped when I talked to her, but she didn’t budge. I hated to leave her upstairs alone (What if she DIES? a panicky little voice entreated in my mind), so I pulled out my cleaning tools and attacked the bathroom. I scrubbed and sprayed; I threw towels and rugs down the laundry chute. I swiffered the floor.

I could hear the dog sighing.

I opened the closet door to put the mop away, and I saw the vacuum. Ha, I thought. That will move her. I plugged the machine in, and I pulled it out into the hallway and turned it on. I pushed and pulled down the hall, getting closer, watching the dog from the corner of my eye.

I wrestled the vacuum into the bedroom. She opened her eyes but didn’t budge. I circled around the bed, giving her a clear escape route, but she stayed, immobile, a stubborn little lump. I finished cleaning, shut off the machine, emptied the dust bucket, and went downstairs to get my book. I snuggled in on the bed with the dog, reading, her silky head under my hand.

Soon we were both snoring gently, enjoying a mid-afternoon nap on a cool spring day.

She finally went downstairs while I was in the bathroom, and she waited for me at the bottom of the stairs. She went outside agreeably, and she ate half a bowl of food.

In the evening she curled up on the carpet while we watched Doc Martin, and she climbed the stairs willingly to go to bed. But we knew that we had turned a corner.

Something had changed, and a new era had arrived.

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

Some days, now, the dog stays upstairs long after I’ve started the coffee and poured my cereal. Today is a good day: today she came downstairs with me, trotted right to the back door, ate her breakfast greedily. She’s sleeping now, Greta is, in her special corner of the couch. She is interested when the mail arrives. She rouses herself to sigh at the boy when he comes down for breakfast.

But an ominous countdown has begun in the back of my mind. The changes happen quickly. Our little dog, loyal and skittish, anti-social and demanding, is failing. The tethers begin to slip.

The rhododendrons have come back strong this spring; the little rosebush is covered, already, with buds. The Whomping Oak in the backyard released, quite suddenly, its winter load of old dead leaves and burst immediately into green-leafed glory. The birds are raucous, and there are three bunnies that meet to munch on clover in our backyard early every morning.

It is a spring when new life pushes boisterously. It is a spring of  last days, too, a spring, we realize, a spring when we begin to say the long goodbye.

*******

Here’s one source on canine dementia: https://www.thespruce.com/senior-dementia-in-dogs-3385016

 

Today, I Am Mowing the Lawn (A Cautionary Tale)

Wednesday: soft blue skies, soft spring breezes, and I have this lovely, unexpected free span, mid-week–a haven of time created by distilling, of necessity, my weekly work schedule into three very long days. There are exactly 27 urgent things on my at-home to-do list, but right now, I am at the dining room table enjoying a glass of water and a surreptitious Reese’s cup–an energy booster, I tell myself righteously.

I need my energy: I am mowing the lawn.

I have finished the front yard–not so heavy a chore; I gave it a first mow last week and battled down the winter-high, meadowy grasses. I did, however, forget to do the little strip between the retaining wall and the street, and, this morning, it was a skinny, long, wild field of tall dandelions. I plowed them down, the bold yellow-topped ones and the ones already gone to fluffy, ball-shaped seed pods. As I mowed, the seeds flew up, borne on gossamer wing-blades, and they dispersed in all directions.  I hoped the neighbors weren’t watching me and the breeze sow the surrounding yards with dandelions. I hoped they weren’t cursing my name.

Yes, today I am mowing the lawn, and I am thinking that adage is true: I should remember to be careful what I wish for.

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

I grew up with four brothers, and my father would not let me mow the lawn. Yard-work was for boys. My brother Dennis was the designated hedge trimmer; he was meticulous and tidy and always pulled the rake out and scraped up the cuttings, putting them, when we were very young, into the burn pile, then bundling them into thick garbage bags when environmental thoughtfulness began to dawn. Michael and John were designated the resident lawn mowers, and I envied them.

“Can’t I mow the lawn?” I would wheedle, and my father would harrumph.

“Not today,” he’d mutter, or, “Let me think about it.”

In Dad-speak, that meant “NO.” I would sigh.

Behind him, I could see my mother, a small, satisfied smirk on her face. She was brandishing the heavy old iron in one hand. With her sneakered right foot, she pushed a bushel basket of rumpled shirts toward me.

I ironed the minimum number of items possible with the worst grace I could muster, and I longed to be allowed to go outside and mow.

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

I’m not sure why I couldn’t touch the mower. It wasn’t that my father did not allow me to operate big scary machines. When I was a teenager and longing to drive, my mother worked nights at a pharmacy. As she left the house with my father, just before five, she would say to him, “Be sure to take your daughter out driving.”

“YES!” I would echo, and Dad, Mom’s chauffeur, would usher her out the door, assuring her he’d see I got some driving time in. And when he came back, he’d toss me the keys and pick up the afternoon paper.

“Go pick up Liza [or Sandee or Debi , or Patty or Terri],” he’d say, “and drive around. No beer. And have the car back by 8:30 so I can pick your mother up.”

“Doesn’t the other driver have to be 18 when you’re on a permit?” my younger brother Sean would ask suspiciously.

“That,” my father would retort, “is a technicality.” And we were not the kind of family who let technicalities rule us.

And as I left the house, he’d call out a reminder: “Don’t drive by the drugstore!”

Despite my surreptitious drives around the Point–the beautiful lakefront park where young people gathered on soft summer nights–despite the ineffable coolness of my left arm hanging out the open driver’s side window with a lit Virginia Slims cigarette dangling from my fingers, I did not earn my official driver’s license until I was 21 and desperate to drive myself to work.

And still, by then, I hadn’t really mowed a lawn.

***********

Then came a series of upstairs apartments with no lawn-mowing involved or available, until, in my late twenties, I married Mark.

At the time, Mark and Matthew lived on a sprawling half-acre lot. We got married in the winter, but I immediately started my campaign.

“Will you teach me to mow the lawn this spring?” I begged my new husband. I really, really wanted to mow.

“Yes, Dad,” said Matthew, who really, really did NOT, “you really should teach Pammie to mow!”

Mark demurred, a little; he hemmed a little and hawed a little (but not, now I think back on it, very much at all). And that spring, I learned to fill the mower’s gas tank, to prime the pump and pull the draw-cord just so to set the little mower chugging. And then, off I went, walking the back forty, creating trim lawns out of winter-grown wildness.

And I was happy.

At first, Mark would grumble after Matt or I mowed.

“You PEOPLE,” he’d mutter, “can’t walk a straight line.” And he’d drag the mower back out and whack down  high little tufts of grass left behind in my backyard ramblings.  Hah, I thought: I’ll show you, and the next time I was totally meticulous. The yard looked like a manicured ball-field.

“Better,” Mark acknowledged. “You’re getting the hang of it.”

He muttered about “you people” in conjunction with trim techniques, too, and I began to concentrate on perfect edgings.

I got pretty good at mowing, I think. In fact, one night after work, I was pushing the little mower up and down that half acre in the evening sun, and Mark was sitting out on the  stoop, with a beer and the newspaper. When I drew close to the house, he waved me over. I shut down the mower.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I just want to tell you,” he said, “that you’re getting pretty good at this. I’m really happy with the way the yard looks these days.”

“Hey, THANKS,” I said, and I went back to my mowing, a warm little glow of satisfaction and appreciation lightening my step. Wasn’t it nice of Mark to take a break from drinking his beer and reading the evening news to tell me—I was halfway to the edge of the yard when I stopped and  thought, HEY. Wait a minute!

But by then, of course, it was too late. By then, I was a lawn-mowing woman.

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

Mowing, of course, is a task shared among us. We ALL mow the lawn these days, and if I have a little more time and a lot fewer grass and pollen-type allergies, well, that’s okay. I really don’t mind, usually, getting out for a nice strenuous push behind the mower.  These days our equipment is  a little more sophisticated, and there’s a kind of power-assist lever that makes the pushing much easier. And Mark runs out with the edge trimmer and neatens up all the rock-edged areas. It’s a synchronized sharing of the outdoor chores.

And it’s such a satisfying feeling–to walk behind that mower for 40 minutes, to transform the yard from a mess and a jungle into a neat and trim inviting space. There’s a message shared by a well-mowed yard–a message that someone LIVES here, that someone CARES here. After all these years, I still get that warm swell of satisfaction when the grass is cut and the world seems orderly. I want to sit outside, rest my feet, and feast my weary eyes.

So, the other night, having tamed the front yard into fresh-spring submission, I thought, “We should sit on the front steps, sip brewskis, and enjoy.” And I grabbed two Molson Canadians from the fridge, popped off their caps, and went searching for my husband.

When I finally found him, the irony did not escape me. He was in the basement, ironing a shirt.

Perfect Placement

“Pooh Bear has a spot, a log under a tree marked by a sign, that reads ‘Pooh’s Thoughtful Spot.’
 
“This is where Pooh would go to think. From this, a famous quote emerged, ‘This is a thoughtful spot to rest.'”

–April Giatt, “A Thoughtful Spot”, sholom.org

There were 14 of us around the table, talking about culture, talking about place. Our book of focus was JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. We all connect to the same small college. We are old and young, male and female, faculty and staff, retired, just starting out, and mid-career. And about half of us have our roots here, in this land, in this place, and in this culture.

The rest of us come, mostly, from northeastern United States and northern Ohio—places not so far away, maybe, but places that are different in shape and scope and in the way the wind smells after a soaking rain. One young instructor comes from a cityscape in new Jersey, and she is dedicated to understanding her Appalachian students.

She expected to deal with issues like excess partying and crazy costumes and disrespectful language…and she found, to her pleased surprise, that, those kind of issues are short in supply here. But she encountered other challenges, like the student who had to miss an important exam because her grandmother was in the hospital.

Her grandmother was not critically ill; it was a gall bladder operation.  No matter, the student told her professor, the family HAD to be there.

But…the young professor said. But…doesn’t your grandmother want you to pass this class—to do well in school? She must be so proud of you.

My grandmother, said the student, wants me at the hospital.

The people around the table who’d grown up in the area nodded and jumped in with their own stories. One talked of the edict, on a night that she had a very important meeting–a meeting, mind you, in which she had an organizational and a speaking role– to come sit vigil with the extended family for Aunt Aggie–who was 94, and had been slowly dying quite a while. Come and be there, the caller said, with 14 other family members, for the conference with the doctor. The person thus called upon is a smart and savvy woman, a polished professional who has made strong decisions and excelled at school and forged new pathways. And Aunt Aggie, mind you, was long past knowing or caring who was in the room with her.

So what did you do? the New Jersey refugee asked.

I told my mother, Aunt Aggie won’t know or care if I’m there, said our colleague. And my mother told me, Your Uncle Gary wants you there.

She looked at us and shrugged wryly.

So, she said, I went and sat vigil with Aunt Aggie.

Several people nodded.

It’s what we do here, they agreed.

They believe in the power and the value of family. They believe that you need celebration at birth, and support throughout your life.

They believe that, as long as you have family, there’s no reason for you to die alone.

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

There are those of us who leave, and there are those of us who stay: for all of us, there is the issue, the decision, of place. The places we choose shape us and hone us.

Our choice of place is an important part of who we are.

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

We lived for a while on the prairie in western Ohio, where Mark went to law school. We visited the campus the spring before he enrolled, exploring and observing; we watched students walking the sidewalks that intersected the manicured lawns. We gaped.

“Where are the piercings?” I asked. “Where’s the purple hair?”

I had worked at a SUNY campus where many of the students majored in music or art; they were dramatic and flamboyant young people with studded lips and noses. They wore vintage fabrics draped artfully over authentically tattered jeans.  Their hair color often changed to match their costume hues. Many students, both men and women, dark-lined their eyes, and their passionate conversations soared and crested.

On the campus that housed Mark’s law school, the students walked sedately. Young men wore Oxford shirts; some free spirits jauntily rolled their long sleeves up. We saw more khaki pants than jeans, and the young women, hair shining, often wore skirts.

They were polite and smiling; probably thinking anyone as old as we were must be faculty or administration, they all said respectful hellos when we passed.

Mark and I exchanged looks. “Toto,” we agreed, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Twice, faced with unexpected detours on the back roads of Ohio, I was rescued by polite young men in pickup trucks who insisted that they’d lead me back to civilization. One drove seven miles out of his way to get me onto the main road, and then turned his truck–which was pulling a trailer full of hay–around in a driveway, waved and sped off before I could even stop to thank him.

It’s how these boys were taught to behave. Or, as friends with strong roots here say, “It’s how we do things here.”

The people are nice where I came from, but I don’t see that seven mile detour happening. Place has a lot to do with how we act and interact.

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

There’s a writer I like, Sharyn McCrumb, who writes books about North Carolina Appalachian folks–folks who are deeply rooted in the hills and the hollers of her fictional county. And she touches on, in her writing, the massive exodus of the Scots and the Irish from their lands, and their flight to the United States.

There’s a strand of green mineral, McCrumb says, that undergirds Scotland and Ireland. The same mineral strand runs below the hills of Appalachia. The author believes that back in the days of Pangaea, the Celtic lands connected to Appalachia. Then some catastrophic cracking separated the mass into two continents. But when the Scots Irish came to America and looked for a place to settle, the hills of Appalachia, formed and shaped by the same geology as the hills they left behind, spoke ‘home’ to them.

“Yep,” I can imagine them saying, “This here. This is the place.”

Transient, forced to leave their birth-lands, they settled in places that looked and felt and smelled like home. And protected–or cut off, depending on your view–from outside influence, they retained many of the customs and courtesies of the lands they’d fled. In fact, the year we first moved to this area, a troupe presented Shakespeare in the park in Columbus, Ohio–presented the play in Appalachian dialect. The language, the director maintained, was the closest living language left to Elizabethan English. Nurtured and protected in those hills and hollows, it  survived when other dialects were flattened out and homogenized by proximity and media.

Some of those hollows are still pretty well insulated from modern intrusions. There are students here who go home to houses where the long arm of the Internet still does not reach–or whose “highspeed” Internet is dial-up.

If your place does not plug into modern society’s media arteries, that, too, defines you.

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

We understand that ‘click’ of connection, Mark and I do, with land that feels like home. We enjoyed the people and the long vistas and the opportunities afforded by our prairie years, but there were days when the cold wind blew in, relentless, from the west, and I could look out miles and miles and miles to try to see where it was coming from–a flat unbroken plain of view.

We grew up, both us, in western New York, on the coast of Lake Erie, where gentle foothills swell into the Allegheny Mountains. Those rolling hills shaped and formed us, and we found we missed them. (Once, then, I made Mark drive us to a nearby town called Mount Victory, so we could see the mount. We found, sadly, that the highest point in town was the railway overpass; there was no hill to climb.)

When we first visited Knox County, Ohio, where we’d live after Mark graduated, we felt an immediate connection. The hills rolled and gentled.

“This feels,” Mark said, “like home.”

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

If one lives in the United States, one comes from migratory stock. One’s ancestors may have chosen to relocate, or they may have been forcibly relocated. But relocate they did. The mythos of the country is a legend of migration–of westward expansion, of independent cusses who had to up and move when the land got crowded, when things like stores and schools and churches moved in.

My friend Wendy, who grew up in New England,–where, of course, they famously farm for rocks,–comes to visit and she marvels at the rich and gently rolling land. New Englanders must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven, she says, when they came upon this fertile land. No wonder this place called to them.

People choose their places by geography or opportunity, by job and by marriage.  Some put down long roots and really merge, and generations come to know and appreciate the same spaces.  Others are transplants; their roots stay closer to the surface. Survivors, they know that they may have to pull up those shallow roots and move on again.

There are benefits and sacrifices to whatever choice is made.

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

I am thinking about place because of the revelations that emerge in discussing Hillbilly Elegy, and some of the mysteries of this place, and some of the mysteries of these practices, are explained.

I am thinking about place as one I know contemplates a difficult choice between two wonderful jobs–one that would take him away from the home he and his family have adopted and grown to love, but that would also move him closer to his roots.

I am thinking about place because a friend is willingly exiled by a family emergency; she misses the geography and the comfort and the refuge of home.

I am thinking of place as the reality of time rubs against the needs of an adult son with disabilities; he will need to access services after his father and I are gone. Where, we ponder, is the best place for us, ultimately, to live?

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

The places we live work to shape us; the choices we make help define us. We choose this place because…it feels like home. It gives us room. It offers work. It has the goods, the services, the people, the proximity, that fill our need. Or–we choose this place because our family is here. Because our roots go deep, and we will not pull them up.

We choose because this is the sight we want to see every morning when we wake up and take our mug of steaming coffee onto the back stoop; this is the vista we need to start our every day.

The choice we make reflects what is most important to us at the time of choosing. We may make that choice many times in a lifetime. Staying will teach us many things. Upping roots and going will give us chances to learn others.

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

And those who go and those who stay blend and meld and create cultures–and those cultures slowly change and shift, enriched–not often impoverished–by the influence of people, of media, of industry and tourism and the winds that blow across the lake, the plain, the mountain peak. We may be tiny pebbles dropped into a large still pond, but the dropping makes a ripple. We change the culture. The place exerts its pressure onto us.

There is not, I don’t think, a WRONG place to live–unless the place we’ve chosen sucks our souls dry or presents us with choices we cannot bear to make. But our places absolutely shape our beings.

We all, like Pooh Bear, need to find our place. And we need to be able to look at the place we’ve chosen, to sigh, and to and say, “This is a thoughtful place to rest.”

A Good Friday Ledger

Easter

The bricks and cement of the back patio are slicked and wet when I run the kitchen garbage out, ducking into the carport to wrestle with the recalcitrant trash can, which is always unwilling to surrender its lid. The app on my phone did not predict rain–clouds with periods of sun, it promised–but rain seems fitting.

It is Good Friday, and steady somber weather feels just right.

“The pubs are closed in Ireland today!” Mark said this morning, looking up from the early paper. “They can’t buy alcohol!”

He seemed shocked. (I feel the Irish ancestors rising up in dudgeon. “Tell that boy,” they demand testily, ” we could easily forego a drop on this most serious of sacred days.”)

The alcohol ban seems fitting to me, Good Friday being a day of fast and abstinence. Although—I remember a daring Good Friday when my friends and I went to a hometown bar and tasted our first Manhattans and Rob Roys. And ordered up cheeseburgers to go with them, flagrantly flying in the face of tradition, proud rebels of spirits and cuisine. The drinks were unimpressive–I don’t think I’ve ever tried either concoction again,–and the burgers cold and uninspiring. (So that was meaningless and uneventful–real rebellion should inspire some sort of thoughtful, lasting transformation. That silly mini-binge night: huh. It didn’t change a thing.)

Coffee, in my family canon, is okay on Good Friday–it’s a day when I still do not eat meat, nor do I nosh between meals, but I drink coffee all day long today without a twinge of conscience. This morning I dump the too-dark syrupy dregs of my morning pot and set up fresh water for the next pot of decaffeinated brew.

I pull the duster and the vacuum from the back closet. This is a good day to clean, a good day to clear surfaces and suck up the dust and grit of the week, to organize clutter. The sacrifice of Good Friday demands austerity. The celebration of Easter is best painted on a clean slate.

I wick away the cobwebs and, to the crabby little dog’s dismay, I fire up the vacuum. She flees, staying a room away from its high-pitched whooshing noise. I curl the excess cord over my arm; I push forward and I pull back, and the rhythmic motions release tamped thoughts. Sadness flows, and sense of loss.

Last Monday, deep into planning a workshop on holding effective meetings–the irony of planning a meeting to talk about meetings bouncing in front of my awareness like a silly balloon–I felt the raw, insistent blatting of my cell phone. An electric jolt coursed. I knew before I picked up the phone that the text would tell me Kim had died. She was ready; she was at peace with knowing the end was near. She was suffering. This was a blessed Lenten release. And yet: the sadness and the loss were immediate and very real.

And this is the season of new life–of religious festivals of death and rebirth. My mother died a Lenten death, too, and she was buried from an Easter church. There were flowers and banners with butterflies-emerged, and we sang about eagles’ wings in the glowing of the Paschal candle. Symbols of resurrection everywhere: great comfort for my father.

A celebration for Kim might be a different kind of thing, I think, held in an outdoor ‘scape where grass pushes into woods. There would be wine and poetry; the singing might be softer and more yearning. Scarves would float and billow in honor of the lost one. There might, in fact, be drumming, pagan and pulsing, thrumming from those woods. Kim would like to hear some Wendell Berry recited well; she’d be lulled and transported by some authentic rhythm and blues.

And Spring nature itself proclaims the message–what was dead is bursting into life; what was dormant is transformed. Liturgical, ecological: truth interpreted whatever way the listeners need to hear. A death, a release, requires celebration.

On Good Friday, though, I recognize the loss and let the sadness stay.

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

I line up vases and pretty, thick-walled jars. When the rain stops, I’ll go and harvest daffodils and the waxy white flowers, drooping bells like giant lilies of the valley, that have blossomed in the sunlight behind the house. I’ll check to see if there are blooms on the stalky unkempt lilac bush neglected in the farthest corner of the yard. I’ll trim and sort and arrange, and carry flowery offerings to brighten all the common rooms. I’ll bring the promise nature makes inside to my dark corners.

On a basement shelf, I find a box; it’s labelled “Easter Stuff.” Some scant ceramics nestle inside: two bunnies, a little egg-shaped house, a pink-faced Easter lamb. I let them share a sunny table top, punctuated by candles, awaiting the arrival of blooms.

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

I shake the crumbs from the toaster into the sink; I remove the little trays hidden beneath and wash them sparkling clean. I completely clear the countertops and wipe all crumbs away. I fill the sink with steaming water, dollop in some cleaner, and plunge my damp mop in. I am mopping when the dog erupts, and the mail slides through the slot.

While the floor dries, I read my letter of acknowledgement from my pension system. More paperwork is coming, it tells me, but my retirement is on track. (The letter also offers helpful advice, like, “It’s important to let your employer know that you have plans to retire.” Aha. I make a note.)

Retirement will not mean, for me, an end to work, but it will bring great changes to the acts and facts of my working life. Another portent of new life coming, arrived on this mindful day.

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

I open the refrigerator to pull out salad dressing and celery to mix my tuna salad for lunch, and I smile at the turkey breast defrosting on the bottom shelf. We’re having a family mini-rebellion this year: Away with the Easter ham! We’ll have us some turkey instead!

So Sunday, we’ll chop veggies and sauté them into stuffing, mixing in the rich broth we made from roasted chicken bones last night. We’ll mash steaming potatoes with cheese and a touch of garlic, whisk the gravy, pour whole cranberries in their tangy sauce into Grandma’s old glass dish.

We will dine as if it is Thanksgiving, and maybe Thanksgiving is an undercurrent of this season:


Thank you for the safe end to winter.

Thank you for the joy of new growth.

Hams are good; they’re lovely, in fact. But this year, we’ll eat turkey.

**********

There will be treats, too, of course. One day last week, James and I did a Granville run and stopped at our favorite chocolatier. We bought three scoops of special treats–English toffee, sea salt caramels, salted caramel turtles,–and had the lady wrap them up in bright Easter papers. We hid them in a pot on a way-high shelf, so we’d forget and let them be until triumphant Easter morning.

We bought a frozen custard cake, just the right size for three appreciators. It is tumbled high with chocolate chunks.

We will have much for which to thank our Easter bunny.

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

This afternoon, I’ll steal the time to read a new book* about the poet Robert Lowell, who studied at Kenyon College, not so very far from here. Lowell was a genius; Lowell was bipolar, and his periodic bouts of mania would whisk away his right mind and replace it with a wrong one. Every time the mania hit, he’d turn away from his wife and to some young and inappropriate lover. His tongue would leap with cutting, harsh words he couldn’t control, and he would hurt and shame his friends. He would stalk and drink and dance the night hours away–sleeping be damned!–until the whole thing got so bad the police would arrive to take him away.

Once he made them sit at his kitchen table and listen to a  poem before he went off willingly to his next institutionalization.

And then would come the pain of stabilizing, the long time of healing, until his right mind returned. And always he’d both embrace the return of life and burn with shame for all he’d done. A quirk of Lowell’s illness was a perfect memory of everything he’d done when he was out of control.

Lowell was a man who understood Good Friday, with its grim and unforgiving sacrifice. He was a man who knew that new life follows darkness.

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

I sit at the dining room table, and I watch, though the bay window, white petals floating from the tree that’s just outside. They stain the once-mowed grass–the lawn that needs mowing again tomorrow. They float to earth, making way for the leaves pushing themselves into the light.

The rain has stopped; the clouds are lightening, and here and there the sun cracks through.

The messages of loss and growth abound. It is Good Friday. I move a ceramic bunny closer to the brass candlestick, and I go to eat my lunch.

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

*Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire; A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. Kay Redfield Jamison. 2017; Alfred A. Knopf.

The Artist’s Walk

We pull ourselves up, grabbing gleaming railings buffed by years of hands sliding over their glossy surfaces, to the fourth floor of the old Masonic building.  Heart pounding, legs quivering, I stop to get my breath, to let a family—long-tressed tiny mama, dad with a fuzzy knit hat and a baby papoosed on his chest, dancing toddler daughter in blue jeans and lavender nylon tutu—scooch around me.

The old building, with its grand architecture, elaborate woodwork, intricately tiled floors, is a warren of art studios. On the first Friday of every month, the artists put out brownies and lemonade, white wine and home-baked Parmesan crackers, craft beer and crudités. They sweep up the detritus that’s left from making art; they display their work on rickety tables covered with jewel-toned cloths. And they throw open their doors to a cool-eyed crowd. They wave and beckon, hoping the public will appreciate and understand.

I wander down the hallway after the boyos; at the very far end, in a small, bright room, a slender young woman stands rigidly next to a table full of tiny paintings. I say hello and she takes a breath, and then she is unleashed.

She tells me she works in paint and crayon, ink and oil. She does multi-media art and photography. She is celebrating her one year anniversary of having this studio with a buy two, get one free sale.

She looks at me, hopeful.

I ask her about her favorite medium, and I pick up a pen and ink drawing of the Dark Side album cover. I show it to Jim, who, at age 27, has just discovered Pink Floyd. (“Oh, by the way,” he will ask me, once or twice a day, apropos of something random, “which one’s Pink?”)

I mention Jim’s interest to the artist, and she lights up, swiveling, still in that tightly-held posture, to face him. “Favorite song?” she demands, and Jim is thoughtful. He tells her about the four albums he has bought and downloaded in the last year; he has favorite tunes on each. He loves an opening here–but not the rest of that song,–and a cover there.

I leave them discussing “Comfortably Numb,” (“My dad wants that played at his funeral,” Jim confides to the artist-girl) and wander next door, where Mark is looking at some large photographic canvases. There are shots of soaring planes in magenta clouds and gleaming red sports cars on rain-glazed Parisian streets. There is one of Janis Joplin floating above the ground next to a pink RV. Behind her, the moon is tethered to the ground with what look like attenuated swing-set supports. Acrylic and multi-media, read the tags.

This room is bigger, evening sun shining through massive windows with ancient, rippling glass, and many artists share the space. Amazing wooden sculptures interrupt the photographic realism. They sweep and swerve and they beg me to touch their gleaming surfaces, as smooth and lovely as those railings that help us heave ourselves upstairs. Polished by elbow grease, though, these works are–not patina-ed by time.

We circle the room, the walls lined with prints and girded by sculptures; the sweeping floor punctuated by installations. I circle around one and find, behind a wall of paintings, an exhibit of chain mail. There are gloves and the beginning of a vest; there are tiny samples  of linked metal that show how one begins. There is a stack of flyers advertising the artist’s specialty bracelet–chain mail linked by a polished silver puzzle piece. He urges people to wear them in support of families affected by autism.

“How about that?” I say, showing Mark,–and Jim, who has joined us. The artist, a gentle young man in a fuzzy toque, with baggy jeans and sleeves so long I can just see his black-tinged fingertips, breaks away from a conversation and wanders over. He tells me that someone from the autism society suggested the project to him. He liked the idea.

How many should I make? he asked his mentor, and that person said, I don’t know. Twenty?

So he made twenty, and they sold within two days.

I need to make more, he says.

I told him we’d be interested in knowing when he had more bracelets. Autism, I say, is a topic of close importance to my family.

He looks at me, fiercely making eye contact. To MINE, too, he says.

He gives me his card, and we wander on, down the stairs, past the three men by the doorway, playing folk guitars and singing “The House of the Rising Sun” .

We cross an alley and a parking lot and we go into another studio, shared by two women named Susan who do collage and fabric art and experiment with paint and printing and weaving found objects into their work. Their studio is upstairs; three men make music in a couched corner. Above and behind them soars a book lined loft, reached by ladder-like stairs. Slouchy, comfortable chairs angle into the sun. I want to sneak back and spend an afternoon, reading in the sun amidst amazing art.

At the back of the studio, one of the artists offers us a tour of the loft apartments which have just been vacated. We walk on reclaimed wood floors, surrounded by soaring brick walls, and windows that reach from floor to 16-foot ceilings. Sleek open spaces. Wood and stone and metal.  Someone’s artistic urban vision come to life in a downtown Zanesville building.

We drive home by the still and mirrored river, and I ponder artistry and inspiration. I am reading a new book by Kay Redfield Jamison,  Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. It is subtitled, “A study of genius, mania, and character.” Lowell, who won the Pulitzer for his poetry, also spiraled between intensity and insanity, in and out of institutions, up from the depths, writing his way through despair and shame after manic episodes left him reeling.

I think of the intense young artists I met tonight. I think of an artist’s cooperative I visited in Chicago with my nephew Brian, a vibrant downtown space filled with the work of autistic adults. I think of Vincent Van Gogh and his mutilated ear.

Because where is that line, the one between genius and lunacy?

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Children are creators, uninhibited, dancing and singing, wielding wild crayons, declaiming to plush audiences. Cutting paper into baubles worthy of the Queen. Children land beautifully, unselfish-consciously, on the side of crazy-good creating.

But that doesn’t always–or often, maybe–stick. Something happens; the creativity fades and other passions flood in–the passion for achievement, for nurturing, for being responsible. This is not wrong or bad or ill-advised. But I remember going to visit ‘Auntie’ Mags, many years ago; she was in her nineties, in a home, and her hands encircled my wrists like the claws that blindly reach for gaudy treasures in those rip-off machines at the arcade.

She’d been an art teacher, Mags had, and a dancer. Once, she told me, she’d loved an artist; he had, she said, a chest as big and firm as a tropical beach, and as warm and tantalizing to rest on. She chortled at my twitch of shock.

An artist, she mused, remembering, and then she told me that a day came when she looked at him and didn’t see free-spirited creativity. She saw laziness instead. She burned, she said with the desire for motherhood and respectability, and not long after that, she met her love, a businessman who adored her bohemian charm. They had babies and they gave parties in their artfully appointed home. They traveled. He built her a studio over the garage.

It was an artful life, said Mags, but not an artist’s life. She had come to a day, way back there when she was a wild-eyed, dancing girl, when she had to decide which flame to fan. She never regretted her choice, but, she said, when you close that door…Oh, it stays so firmly shut.

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There’s a fine line, they say, between genius and insanity. Robert Lowell walked that razor’s edge, falling sometimes this way, sometimes that. Living on that terrifying ledge, he was able to make his art. His art enriched the world.

Mental illness does not guarantee artistry, and not all artists are mentally ill–I know firm-footed, completely grounded creators who produce work that makes one soar and dream and weep. But there is some open doorway there, in all creators, an access to a rooftop, maybe; it’s a vista reached by a hidden stairway not all of us can climb.

Maybe the fact of illness, for some people, unhooks the restraints that keep the rest of us tethered. Maybe there’s a moment of decision for every artist–a pivotal point like the one Mags remembered so well: rooftop or kitchen? Phoenix or LeSabre?

And some, maybe, put away the brushes and the clay and craft a life instead–a life often filled with beautifully sculpted meals and well-plotted family adventures and rich fabrics and doors that open to a fascinating fleet of friends. Life as collage, perhaps, responsible and well-ordered, yes—but tinged around the edges with a vibrant searing hue.

And the others–well, they throw themselves into the fire and let genius, as Jo March’s sisters said of her, burn. And what they forge! The songs and sonnets, tales and tableaux, paintings and sculptures. Masterpieces. In between, of course, there are the false starts and the flops, the mis-steps and mistakes. The artists throw those things back into the fire. They continue on.

They emerge sometimes to get cool, to rest from the unrelenting heat. But then, the creative brave ones, they dive back in. They sacrifice, those artists do, giving up a certain security, foregoing some sorts of domesticity–they enslave themselves to art.

If they live next door to us (unmowed lawn, lights blazing late at night), we might call them lunatics. If they are separated from us by time or geography, we deem them geniuses, and we scrimp and save to buy their creations, or to visit the museums that showcase their work.

What makes a person an artist? What calls a person to create?

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I don’t know, but I know I need it. I need the spice and rhythm and richness that artistry releases into the world. I need the direct contact with jolting, flooding feeling, with a different kind of worldview, with a willingness to walk an unmarked path.

I don’t know what conjures up the artist in a person, but I walk the busy studios on First Friday, I see the intensity and eager displays, and I am grateful beyond gladness that there are those–in any and in every time–who give their lives to art.