It’s not every 22 year old woman who’s told that she looks like John Denver. This happened in the summer of 1974, the year Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and Nixon resigned. I had managed to get a job as a camp counselor in Colorado by rather overstating my experience with all sorts of things, including horse riding and navigation. Although this got me into some trouble, like being thrown off a headstrong horse after saddling up the calm ones for the campers, and temporarily losing 8 ten-year-olds in the forest at dusk, I didn’t cause any serious injury to me or others. I even managed to scare away a bear cub by throwing my tennis shoes at it, much to the awe of the on looking adolescent girls. But back to the resemblance to John Denver. I had light brown straight hair that was chin length with long bangs that flopped over round wire rimmed glasses and apparently a friendly easy going smile. I felt rather complimented by the remarks of the resemblance as I loved John Denver then and will still catch myself trying to sing his songs forty years later.
But still it was rather a shock to me when several days ago Rose saw a picture of John Denver and shouted, “Mom, he looks like you!” Oddly enough, I again felt complimented but this time it had to do with the age thing—could there be anything alike in the faces of a thirty-something male folksinger and a sixty-something (early sixties, by the way) woman? It made my heart warm to my child in a way that happens less often as the teenage years approach. And so we sat on the porch and I drank beer while she played John Denver songs on her ipad (actually Wayne’s ipad that he gave her as he never got the gist of how to use it). I asked Rose to play “Annie’s Song” and with the opening chords I was transported back to that summer of 1974. I had been given the not-so-desirable job of alpine camping with the youngest girls and we slept out in the open (this must have been before lawsuits as I also led a white water raft trip down a river with let’s just say no experience). Those were also the days before we worried about drinking the seemingly clean spring water, which in this case was a huge mistake. In the early hours of the third morning there, I woke up to a light tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see a little girl shivering in the chilly air. “I threw up in my sleeping bag. Can I get in yours?” There was no possible answer except yes and so she got in beside me and immediately fell asleep. I, however, could only think about how I’d used all the money I’d saved to buy that expensive North Face bag and what if she threw up again. But in one of those rare moments of knowing what to do, I got up just before dawn and set out walking up a trail, eventually coming across deer. The light was shining down behind them and it was a moment of pure joy—-I was young and strong (and looked like John Denver don’t forget) and the world was good with so many things yet to experience. And I remember too that while I stood alone on that path, I was hearing “Annie’s Song” in my head.
Sitting on the porch last night, thinking about that, a great sadness came over me, accepting my aging and how far I am from that person who was 22, walking on that mountain trail at dawn, with her whole life ahead of her.
I hope Helen feels the way I did that early morning in Colorado. She is now 18 and 16 years ago I brought her home from China, a scared little girl, in her own way tapping me on the shoulder and asking to crawl into my sleeping bag, a bag that I knew would never stay as clean again. This June I went with her to freshman orientation at K-State. After signing in (and noticing that the other parents looked way too young to have college aged kids) the students went off in one direction and family members were led to an auditorium where we got coffee and rolls and talks about children growing up and learning to make it on their own. Helen had been quite nervous about not knowing any other students and began texting me.
Helen: I’m in the college of business. See you at 11:15.
Ann: OK I ALREADY SPILLED MY COFFEE AND FAILED THE TEXTING SURVEY (note: also have trouble getting the all caps turned off)
Helen: Lolol I threw my coffee away
Ann: WAS IT THAT BAD?
Helen: I finished almost all of it. I have to carry a bunch of stuff. The big nose guy is talking. Did you have to watch the students do a skit?
Ann: No skits only lectures (note: managed to turn off all caps)
Helen: Sucks ____ (note: not very nice word here)
Helen: I think I should return my books.
Helen: They said I could go on amazon and get it super cheap
Ann: OK you scared me I thought you were going to say you already wanted to drop out
Helen: No its actually going pretty well
Ann: GOOD (note: all caps on purpose this time)
John Denver died in a private plane crash at the age of 53. I’ve already lived nine years longer than that and have had a pretty incredible life, with few regrets. But that doesn’t keep me from grieving what is lost. What I didn’t tell Helen in our texting was that when I sat in that auditorium by myself on orientation day, my eyes got all teary, and I don’t think it was because of the spilled coffee. I sometimes want that little toddler from China back, just like I sometimes want to be 22 again and walking in the forest at dawn, the world so open to me. But for now, I need to cherish Rose’s desire to sit with me on the porch, Helen’s wish that I help her on moving day. These are things still not to be taken lightly.
To read more about the adoption and raising of Rose and Helen, see my book “Spiders from Heaven” at the link above.
Two weeks ago, on Friday the Thirteenth, I woke up and thought I had a brain tumor. Not everyone would come to this conclusion because her left eye wouldn’t blink, but I did. What else but some ugly mass pressing against my eye socket could cause this? Which only gave me a few months to live, leaving my children motherless. But then again, maybe a little internet research was in order before I checked out completely. I found five possible conditions, including a benign tumor and another I knew a little about—Bell’s Palsy, “a paralysis or weakness of the muscles on one side of your face”. Other symptoms…..numbness……..didn’t have that…….wait……it suddenly felt like I’d just had a filling on the left side of my mouth. What the heck—aside from a brain tumor (albeit benign) I now had a clear case of hypochondria.
A quick look in the mirror, however, left me no longer worried about my mind but if I could live with facial disfigurement. One side of my mouth did nothing when I smiled—it just sat there, along with an eyebrow that wouldn’t lift, half a forehead that didn’t wrinkle (always a silver lining to any cloud, they say) and that darn non-blinking eye. Indeed, I had Bell’s Palsy.
Fortunately it’s a mild case with complete recovery expected. And I’m getting quite a bit of sympathy (terribly under-rated), even from Helen. She has been driving me on errands and when I ran my cart over a clerk’s foot at Home Depot, she called me her “blind and gimpy mom”, but in a nice way. And here is a good place to put into writing that she even promised to support me in my old age for “18 years like you supported me”. Though I am embarrassed to admit that I got a little greedy and suggested that 22 was a more correct figure as there were four years of college ahead.
And I wasn’t the only one she took care of this month. We have a slightly feral tomcat, Timmy, who had an injured foot. He is also known as “Roof Kitty” as he usually is too timid to come down for dinner and we have to throw his food up on the roof. Helen managed to catch him and get him to the vet to be fixed (in more ways than one). And in the hope that we could tame him, she made the downstairs bathroom his recovery care center. And though he did get to the point where he liked to be petted, he never felt safe enough to leave the window sill, except to use his private litter box and eat his rather generous meals. When she finally let him loose he took off running and didn’t return. It all was very sad—did he trust us so little now that he would never come back?
But then, several days later, we had a Timmy sighting in the hay bales and the next day he was on the roof, waiting for food. That was 8 days ago, when my mouth started to feel less numb. That was the day when I noticed that there were poppies and bachelor buttons ready to bloom in my new flower bed under the decorated tree stump. That was a good day.
Life truly turns on a dime. One night you go to bed and your face is normal (well, sort of) and the next morning you wake up with an eye that won’t blink and a smile that is way too crooked to be charming. And depending on the direction of the spin, all this turning can be magical or horrifying. Your cat is injured, you get him well, he runs away. You have cancer, now it’s in remission, now it’s back. Your child is on drugs, no she’s not, yes she is. Your husband loves you, he loves you not, he……now it’s my head that’s spinning. And there’s not much to do about it, except try and learn from each turn. I can only hope to have more empathy for anyone facing permanent disfigurement. To be thankful that I didn’t wake up to discover a real brain tumor or a lump in my breast. To remind myself that my almost 18 year old is (usually) a great kid.
Mary Oliver ends her poem “The Summer Day” with these lines:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The dime will continue to turn and drop, turn and drop. But today I will sit by my tree stump and admire the opening blooms of flowers that have had this month’s both brutal winds and plentiful rains. I will look in the mirror and appreciate the way my mouth is starting to go up on both sides. And when I throw Timmy his food up on the roof, I will tell him how very glad I am to see him.
Helen knows me pretty well after all these years. Yesterday she said, “You’d be happy if you had a little piece of land with Jack and just puttered around gardening all day, wouldn’t you?” When I nodded (well, really, what could be better, unless Jack didn’t wander off), she just shook her head with that, “It takes all kinds” look.
If you’ve been reading my blog since last July, you will remember that I can take great pleasure in an abundance and variety of weeds in what’s supposed to be a vegetable garden, but this year I have turned over a new leaf—-huh, unplanned pun. I have three raised beds that Wayne built last fall. I should mention here that this more than makes up for him “accidentally” mowing over flowers newly transplanted into areas not exactly designated for such use. His exact words upon my horror were, “Oh, sorry, I thought I saw some flowers in front of the mower.”
But back to the veggie beds. After much research with many contradictory suggestions, I went with the “lasagna” approach, which is alternating layers of “browns” (carbon sources) and “greens” (nitrogen sources) found in things around the home, like kitchen compost, dry leaves, and herbivorous animal manure—Jack, time to change your diet. I liked this idea as it was easily adapted to mean throw anything that will more or less decompose and is organic into the beds. Rose and I also got some worms at a bait shop and I felt quite happy saving them from fishing hooks, tossing them into the soft earth while saying, “Free Willie”.
So all is going well and I even escaped loss during the very late cold we had, except for some blacked basil and pepper leaves—growing up in Kansas, I knew better than to trust the “average” last frost date. But there is a problem with the cats. They like to lie in the lettuce. Sitting I can sort of take, but in the photo above, one of the twins (I can never remember which is which, Carmel or J.J.) is obviously eying out a good napping spot in the lettuce bed, just beyond the sprouting sweet pea pods. And when cats lie down, they may not get up for quite a while.
Last year, in my garden that gave visitors a sense of superiority, I let it all go, as in animals and bugs and weeds could have at it. But not this year. I didn’t do all this to have my lettuce squashed (and the puns just seem to keep coming) by cats. There is a point where that line of being able to let it go is crossed.
Several years back it got bad where I worked. Things happened that were just wrong and when I got upset, some people told me to “quit thinking about it and focus on other things” , to “let it go”. But I didn’t, I couldn’t. And as a result, I became the enemy (along with others of the same mind) to those I had questioned, the problem that needed to be gotten rid of. I don’t work there anymore and I’ve never, ever regretted that I stood my ground. It was one of those times when I couldn’t just lie in the lettuce.
So that’s my new saying—“Lying in the Lettuce”. It means that something is too much or too important to forget about and you need to get up from the vegetable bed (or in the current case, do something to make the cats get up). And if you can somehow make the stretch from wilted lettuce to tired legs, then think of my favorite hero, Rosa Parks, who decided there was no lying in the lettuce or sitting in a back seat on that day in 1955.
The truth be told, I likely won’t worry too much about where the cats nap. Unlike last year, there’s plenty of “gourmet green variety” to share with all, whatever the purpose. It’s about what I don’t want to become, while puttering around in my garden. I don’t want to become so complacent that I forget about the line that needs to be drawn in the dirt, whether it’s the dirt in my happy worm mix or the dirt out in the world. It’s about knowing when to let it go and when to take a stand. And that’s something I want to remember on this Memorial Day, 2014. So to celebrate, I’m going to pick some fresh greens for lunch. It really is a shame that Jack won’t eat lettuce.
It’s not very often I have a whole morning set aside to write a new blog (rather overdue). For this I had two possibilities: one on originality in art and the other about hanging plastic eggs on a tree stump—-hadn’t decided yet on which one.
The morning even began with extra time. I didn’t have to drive Rose the 25 minutes into school as she was home sick. And I firmly believe in the unwritten parents’ rule that sick children can lie on the couch and watch TV all day, as long as they keep the volume down. I also wasn’t walking the dogs as I felt Rose needed the company and besides, how much more winter weather could one take? And so I began, after two cups of tea and a lovely breakfast of a bagel with peanut butter and some fresh strawberries on the side, in high spirits:
9:05 Realize that another cup of tea could help thinking power. Add several chocolate kisses that Rose found in Helen’s Valentine’s bag from two months ago. Hide empty bag so Helen won’t notice.
9:12 Sit down at computer and remember that I need to print off an email about paying for a book review (Spiders from Heaven sales not really stellar, but hope springs eternal).
9:13 Search K-State Webmail for needed email about Kirkus Reviews. K-State not responding. Go to Gmail while waiting and see two new notices from Facebook–someone commented on my comment and someone else liked my comment.
9:26 Go back to Webmail—still loading. Get out and get back on. Loads this time but no email about review. Under my breath curse Webmail’s new format for hiding things in stupid manner.
9:33 Wonder if this particular email could be in Gmail. Find it. Decide to move it to “Writing” folder but delete by mistake. Curse again (in soft voice at least) and look up in trash. Not there, so search and find back in “writing”. Don’t understand but print out anyway.
9:47 Start to look for manila folder to put printed email in and figure it’s a good time to heat up tea. Realize I need my glasses to search for folder but don’t know where they are. Start to look with no luck. Feel another cursing episode coming on (this time not in quiet voice) so try and delay it by deep breathing and telling myself to “let it go”. Miraculously find glasses not so cleverly hidden behind computer. Find folder and put paper into it.
10:11 Sit back down and think about a good title for either blog topic then wonder if the two ideas could be combined with something catchy for the first line like “There is no originality in hanging eggs from tree stumps”. Know needs more work.
10:22 Feel blood sugar is a little low so take a necessary break. Remember that I promised Rose I would try out the Pampered Chef Microwave Chip Maker (bought at her youth group fundraiser) and figure I could at least read the directions now.
10:23 Decide I should try out the gadget, as it sounds like a cinch to do. Get out potatoes and slice and blot and salt and put them on black rubber trays and into microwave—away we go. Three minutes to start with and then 30 second internals until “desired crispness is reached”. Twelve minutes later with no crispness. Reread directions and realize my slices are three times the suggested width. Guess that’s why the “highly recommended” Simple Slicer (for best results use setting 1)would have been helpful.
11:04 Start to dig in almost overflowing kitchen trash for name of woman who sold me device so I can call and see if she offers tech help. Know I don’t really want to put my hand in trash and have bright idea to search for her email and find phone number. Or, even better, google “What to do if the The Pampered Chef Microwave Chip Maker chips aren’t crisp”.
11:10 Find an amazing number of sites to go to, including several youtube demonstrations, but are of little help, as one won’t load and the other shows perfect potato chips in three and a half minutes (man of course used the Simple Slicer, set on 1). Another site suggests many options, including using only russet potatoes, leaving the skin on, and lots of trial and error.
11:36 Get grocery list and add russet potatoes. Remember that Helen said we’re almost out of ketchup but was sure we had a bottle in the pantry. Go and look, see none, and add that to list. Suddenly realize there is nothing planned for dinner…..maybe a pasta dish. More pantry searching.
11:42 Head back to computer with great determination to write something about art and eggs. Hear the sound of a toilet flushing and see Rose beside me, talking excitedly about how the new toilet paper is “decorated” and she thinks it’s “beautimous”. Wonder if I have forgotten that I bought decorated toilet paper and if this is another example of my recent memory losses. See Rose running back with one white square to show me–has no colored designs but is indeed quite lovely with an angular raised design.
11:44 Am reminded of how nice it is to get excited about little things. And how often Rose used to say things like, “Spaghetti for dinner? This is the best day of my life!” Then remember something about this in my book and look it up:
December 17, 2008
Jerrie—it was great to get your update and hear you are doing well with your health, your business, and your two sweet boys! To think that we all still haven’t met Ian’s little brother. And thanks for your concern about the weather here. Here’s a recent related story. While trying to get the girls to school one morning in the middle of a blizzard, the car broke down. So there we sat, by the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck, as it got colder and colder (no, the motor wouldn’t even turn over at that point). Rose was staying warm with a blanket covering her and she started to have fun drawing pictures on the windows, which were quickly frosting up on the inside. She looked at me and said, quite sincerely, “This is the best day of my life!” Ah…it reminded me of a favorite scene from Northern Exposure (Did you use to watch that?) The rich guy and the café owner were remembering a time when they had to spend a night stranded along a trail in the mountains. It was freezing cold and they ended up huddling inside the carcass of a dead moose. After more details of this harrowing experience, one turns to the other and says, “Yes, it just doesn’t get any better than that!” The adventure continues….Ann
12:00 Think I’ll let this new blog percolate on the back burner some more. There might even be something besides originality in art or plastic eggs on tree stumps that I want to write about. In the meantime, I’ll join the dogs and Rose on the couch (although one dog is going to have to get off to let me on). We need to decide what we can have for lunch since we’re not having potato chips done to the desired crispness. And maybe we can practice her lines in the class play (now an understudy for the LEADING ROLE). We might even talk about the loveliness of decorated toilet paper. You just don’t know what’s going to be the best day of your life.
Skunks seem to be very much out and about recently and right now I am referring to the furry ones. Once it’s dark, they love to eat any remaining food of the outdoor cats. And as you likely know, skunks of any form are generally best left along, but the other night I couldn’t help but get involved.
The dogs were putting up the kind of fuss they do when there is a cat fight (mainly between Tommy and Mr. Tom) and so I went out the side door to investigate. Coming from the front of the house was a noise I’d never heard before, something shrill and almost birdlike. The frigid air (O.K. a little nervousness as well) took me back inside where I could peer out the front door. And there on the porch, along with small piles of dry food and cans of “Sea Captain’s Choice”, now empty and frozen solid to the floor, were two skunks going at it, tooth and claw. I grabbed a spray bottle of water which happened to be handy (a tool used to attempt restoration of Rose’s limp curls), stuck my arm out the door, and commenced to spray the two wrestling creatures. Although they seemed not to mind the wetness at all, which Helen kept pointing out, I continued anyway, my arm advancing dangerously farther and farther out. At some point, Helen found my continued attempts in the face of obvious failure more irritating than funny and ran to get a broom, which she handed to me (yet another job intended for mothers, I guess). With my hand yet even farther out, I banged the handle next to the skunks, who finally separated. The one who seemed to be losing the battle casually wandered off, as though he’d just been shooting the breeze with a friend, while Mr. Winner went back to eating. I banged again until he scurried off, leaving the bystander cats, who had taken quite an interest in the whole affair, to also wander off.
I knew that one or both skunks would be back at some point, but that was O.K. After all, if it’s cold enough for the cans to freeze to the porch floor, than it must be pretty miserable to be hungry as well. My empathy for anything feeling the bitter weather increased the first winter I lived in the country, when we had “The Big Ice Storm of ‘07”. We had no heat or water for over a week and I stayed most of the time here, taking care of the animals, while Wayne took the girls. At first it seemed like an adventure and there was even a photo in the Manhattan Mercury of Rose and Helen roasting marshmallows over Wayne’s wood burning stove, using the light from a cell phone to see. But it was less fun as the days wore on and I felt a deep cold that wouldn’t go away, along with an increasing weariness (not to mention flu and bronchitis). Most friends in town got power back sooner and asked if I wanted to use their washing machines, not realizing that I had been too cold and tired to change my clothes more than once the whole time.
Eventually, as my house sunk to 38 degrees, I found a store that had generators and two days later, power was restored. Soon after that, I got an email asking for money to buy blankets for the orphanages in China, a place also suffering from a harsher than normal winter. Sitting in front of my computer, I didn’t just feel sympathy, I felt those children’s cold in a way I couldn’t have before the ice storm. It goes to show that our power of imagination can only go so far, and then it takes experience to begin to understand. So here I am, feeding whatever comes along during these frigid days and nights.
The morning after the skunk fight, I went out to find one can dented and full of teeth marks, likely demolished by one of the skunks, searching for the last bit of nourishment. Even though it was still so cold that the cat’s diluted milk solidified in the bowl shortly after I put it out, the sun was shining and I noticed how the scattered cat cans glistened. And that brought back another memory of the ice storm. It was on day five and I was upstairs checking that the bathroom pipes weren’t frozen when I looked out the window.
At eye level
tree branches broken from the ice storm
hanging by shreds of bark
turned inside out
now overdue to leave
and in the voice
of a million tiny suns
to our prairie
December 18, 2007
The cold is long overdue to leave. But in the meantime, while you are feeding hungry creatures, notice how those signs of perseverance glisten in the sun.
Rose was a munchkin last week. She sang three songs with the other munchkins and said, “It’s just so nice to meet you!” And she found out that in the theater world, “There is a lot of drama backstage.” And need I say that she shone on stage?
This was a production put on by a traveling youth company that comes to Manhattan every January. They (only two young women) come in on a Monday and leave the following Sunday, with five days of rehearsals and three performances in between. And it starts with an audition.
I brought Rose into the Arts Center, where 123 kids, from kindergarten through 12th grade, sat on the floor. Rose had just had her hair permed and wondered if she might be cast as Toto with dark curly locks. She did not want to be a munchkin as that seemed more suitable for the little kids, but as it turned out the youngest were flowers, blossoms spouting out of their green hoods.
One of the issues of living 25 minutes out of town is that I’m left with these odd blocks of time on my hands and so decided to stay and watch the audition. Besides, I was curious about how two people could possible pick roles in such a short time. I had heard that there were costumes for about 65 children which meant that many would leave disappointed. I thought about Rose’s chances—50/50? Well, that would be for someone not so dramatic, not so into being on stage, not so eager to have a part, not so….I decided to be conservative and go with 80/20 on her side. But what was this anyway, one little play and so what if she didn’t get in? I don’t think of myself as that ambitious for my children. For example, while my friends greet Helen with questions on what research she is doing about colleges and majors, I tell her she doesn’t even have to get a degree if she ends up doing what she wants (oh, and not asking me for money anymore).
The auditions were interesting. A line was given, for some reason usually about ice cream, as “I love ice cream!” and “May I please have some ice cream!” with each child saying the sentence in turn. Although Rose was enthusiastic and clear, so were most of the others and I started to think we were back to 50/50—-no, but maybe more like 60/40. But, again, it was just a little play.
And then the roles were announced, with the chosen ones called to come down to the front. First the flowers, then monkeys….I could see no rhyme or reason to who got picked and who didn’t. Next came the announcement of the group that looked to be Rose’s age range—-the famous and darling munchkins (quite suddenly this role had become the most important player of the story). And I started to feel something I didn’t expect. I felt very anxious and even a little angry. What if they didn’t pick Rose? I thought of all the things I’d want to say but knew I wouldn’t. Crazy things like “How could you possibly not see the raw talent in this girl?” and “Who do think you are not choosing this child?” But her name was called and as she stood up beaming, my heart slowed down and I looked around, hoping my emotions hadn’t shown. Only later, talking to some other mothers, did I find out that I wasn’t alone in this reaction. One woman even said that as she listened to the names being called her, her palms got sweaty.
My mother would have agreed that Rose shone. She would have told her that and more than once. A year ago today she passed away. She left many things behind. Stacks of old prints that she never got framed and many that she did. Photo albums of Helen and her playing together, down on their hands and knees when Helen was 2 and she was 84. The belief that a day wasn’t complete if you didn’t make someone smile. This included grumpy neighbors and snappy sales clerks along with all who came to visit. But top on the list of who she wanted to see smile were her two children, my brother and me. She rejoiced in what worked for us, whether it was a job in North Queensland, Australia or in Topeka, Kansas. Whether it was baseball or art. She said my Christmas card poem was the best ever and she said it every year. She told me it was O.K. if my young children slept with me and what does Dr. Phil know anyway? And she was the one who said I should take a nap after our Sunday dinners at her house as “you must need a little rest”.
The night before she died, I was exhausted, having had only a few hours of sleep after the call at 3 a.m. that she had been taken to the hospital with pneumonia. She quickly rallied, tough even at “almost 99”, and had gone from critical to stable condition, seeming most concerned that those in the room had gotten something for lunch. As I stood there I willed myself to believe that she would survive this. And I remember quite clearly what I said later, at home, as I went to bed. I said, “If only I could sleep until 8”. The next morning a call woke me at 8:05, telling me my mother had just passed away minutes before.
I guess it’s O.K. that I had that reaction at the audition. It’s what a mother does. It’s making sure your son has a favorite food to eat. It’s letting your daughter have a little rest. It’s wanting more than anything to see your child get a part in the play. And nothing on this earth can replace that.
It was 6:45 a.m. and I was working on the “spoil the dogs and cats routine” when Rose wandered down the stairs and into the kitchen. She looked around rather blurry eyed and said, “I want one.” I was stumped—-one dog biscuit, one can of half eaten cat food? “One what?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she responded and sat down on the floor next to the heat register.
Ever since that morning last week, I have been pondering over this strange exchange. I felt much the same way at Penney’s recently. I had gotten one of those coupons in the mail—spend 25 dollars and get 10 dollars off. Since everything in Penney’s is always on sale anyway, I could probably buy 40 dollars’ worth of things for 15 dollars—what a deal! And so with a little extra time in town, my car just seemed to direct itself to the mall parking lot. I wandered the aisles and picked up socks for Rose for her stocking and some fleecy pajama bottoms to be wrapped and put under the tree. But I hadn’t reached my 25 dollar minimum so I kept looking, thinking I might even find something for my own stocking (something Santa forgets to fill, except the year that Helen put in a scrap of paper with the words “a lump of coal” written on it). But there came a point when I realized something. It wasn’t just that we didn’t really need anything but that I didn’t know what I wanted or what Rose wanted. And so I put the socks and fleecy bottoms back where they belonged and left the store.
At the age of 34, I had one of those lightbulb moments when I knew that the difficult part of something was less the doing than the figuring out what you really wanted. I was leaving Australia and traveling home via Africa and possibly Europe. As the deadline to buy the airline tickets got closer, I became more and more anxious about what my plan should be. I had three options and the longest one was the trickiest, as it caused me to be in South Africa for four weeks without a place to stay while waiting to meet a teacher friend in Switzerland. But when I asked myself what I really wanted to do, I knew it was this longer and more complicated trip, in spite of my concerns. And that’s what I did. Only days after I arrived in Cape Town, I was invited to live and work during those four weeks with a woman teaching English to children who were not allowed to attend school because their Black African parents were not legal workers (this was in the days of apartheid). I will never forget those children and their eagerness to learn. It was very clear that they knew what they wanted. They wanted to be able to go to school.
When I got home from the mall, I did something I knew I wanted. I bought shares of goats from Heifer International in honor of people on my Christmas list. I do this every year, not because I should but because I want to. I love to see the cards when they arrive and to decide who to give them to. I like to think about the little girl who will receive the animal and care for it as carefully as a loved pet. How she will drink the milk and sell the extra for money that will give her the books and uniform to allow her to go to school.
Several days after the Penney’s experience, I spent a Sunday afternoon with Rose. We ate at a new café in town and stopped at the library. We found ourselves in the mall at the end of our outing, as I had to return some earrings that Helen thought she needed for her winter formal and then didn’t use (“My hair covers my ears now, so what’s the point?”). And there we were, in Claire’s with another deal—buy two pairs of earrings and get one pair free. I wasn’t being a complete sucker as Rose needed one pair with better quality metal for her recently pierced ears to heal well. So we found those and that left two pairs to get (one free, remember). “What do you want,” I asked her. She looked at me with quite a determined face and said, “I want us to have matching dangly bells that we can wear together for Christmas.” There was no hesitation, no doubt this time. And so we found some, red and silver bells with plenty of jingle which Rose does not want to wear to school, for as she put it, “I think it would be irritating to others in class.” We will wear them when we go to holiday outings, a nice reminder of our afternoon together.
I know there’s another little girl somewhere who knows what she wants. It’s much more basic than matching dangling earrings. She wants to go to school. And she wants a goat so this can happen. And I want to help her get one. It’s important to know what you want. Once you’ve gotten that far, you’re more than halfway there.
I have a rug now hanging on the wall in my dining room. It’s full of birds and a little magic as well. You see, I bought it in Mexico on The Day of the Dead.
San Miguel de Allende seems made for magic—the narrow cobblestone streets where only the Hispanic women would dare to wear high heels, the door knockers shaped as delicate hands that seem to reach out and grab you, the sunsets over the cathedral towers and distant hills (even better seen from a rooftop while drinking margaritas)—-all of this seems otherworldly. But I was there during the holiday that truly goes beyond this world, where there is a belief that the souls of those passed over come back to revisit those still on earth—El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. The images are spooky, from the skulls made from sugar (some topped with sombreros which sadly didn’t make it home intact in my suitcase) to the dressed up skeleton figures in storefronts and the ghoulish painted faces of the people on the street, but the day is strangely not about the horror of death as much as an acceptance of it as part of life. Altars are set out by the front entrances of home with photos of ancestors, flowers and objects special to those now gone.
Our group made such an altar. A table was set up with levels and covered in cloth. Marigolds were put in vases or laid on the floor under the altar, for the goal is not to see how long they can survive but to enjoy their ephemeral beauty. We had brought photos from home of family and friends, parents and grandparents, and in some cases husbands. I had one of my mother and father on their wedding day, standing next to each other and looking so young, with their mothers, my grandmothers, beside them. I put it in a purple frame that Helen made in pre-school for a Mother’s Day gift. And when we stood at dusk and lit the candles, it did seem that the spirits were there. It seems to be a thing that happens in Mexico. There was something different in the air. A man and his son, strangers to us, stopped and stood in front of our altar, paying their respects. I thought about these people in the photos, also strangers to me, but loved by the new friends standing beside me. And the magic didn’t come just from the objects before us. It came from being in a place that believed in the magic. A place where families spend the whole night by their ancestors’ graves. It is a magic that comes from somewhere deep within.
And I miss that. I miss the magic of Mexico. A few days ago, a damp and chilly November morning, I took the dogs on the wooded trail behind our house. Being the poor animal trainer that I am, we started off as though we were in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race with me being the sled. But once the sniffing and territory marking began (them, not me), I had time to look around. The path was carpeted with the fallen yellow leaves from trees that lined the dry creek bed. With the cloud cover, a soft light was catching the edges of other falling leaves. I realized that I never walk in that woods without feeling lucky to have such a place. The dogs found things of interest ahead and as I walked along I felt something different in the air. I was alone but not alone. I saw my mother walking to a nearby garage sale on just such a fall day, eager to buy small presents for all of us. I saw my dad crossing the street with me when I was six, dressed in plaid flannel and corduroy pants, to play on the swings in the park. I saw my Grandma Rieder going to get eggs from the hen house to make rice pudding, a special treat I requested on my visits. And there was my Grandmother Carter, coming from the kitchen to her bedroom, where she would let her granddaughter try on all her costume jewelry. They were all there, walking the path with me.
I traveled to Mexico for a week long art workshop and I came home with much more than I went with. As I look at the rug now, I can still see the faded photo pinned to the stall of the man who sold it to me. A black and white picture of an older man working at a loom. “Yes, it is my father,” he told me. “He taught me how to make these rugs.”
I could say build the altar and they will come, as the Mexicans believe on their glorious Day of the Dead. But it doesn’t take an altar. The magic can happen in the decorated doorways of San Miguel, or in a small woods in Kansas. It’s there when you need it, waiting to be invited in.
Here’s a link to a website of Rebecca Brooks, the woman who organized this trip to Mexico, and who holds much magic herself. http://corazon.typepad.com/recuerda_mi_corazon/2014/01/postcards-from-paradise-stitching-up-the-sky-.html
Sometimes you just need a good story. Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, defines a good story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it”. But the character has to be likeable or who wants to read about her? And the story has to be meaningful as well.
The other day one of our cats, Noel, got up on the roof and couldn’t get down, or at least she pretended she couldn’t and she’s so fat I believed her. I called out to Rose who was sitting on the couch playing a computer game, an activity she does all too often. She looked up from the screen, thought for just a moment, then came running out to where I was staring up at a round black ball of fur pathetically mewing. We tried all kinds of methods that involved step stools and tree branches and food and scratched arms and hands. “Wait until Wayne comes,” I finally told her. “He can bring his tall ladder and it will be easier.” Rose, at that time still up in a tree next to the house, looked at me with quiet determination and said, “No, this is my job.” Fortunately I had just finished Miller’s book and so didn’t argue. She needed a good story and she persisted until Noel was safely down.
I wrote a story for The Sun Magazine when I was 39 that they chose not to publish, much to my disappointment. It was for a column where readers write on a subject and some of the others that got published, well…..just my personal opinion, but…. The topic was “Doing Good” and I found it recently during one of my decluttering attempts. I think it has the elements of a good story and just hope that Donald Miller would agree:
It is late June and I sit on my shaded front porch for some relief from the afternoon heat. I glance through the local newspaper with little interest until I see a photo on the last page of section C. A large boar, on the way to a slaughterhouse in Chicago, has escaped and an animal control officer and a truck driver are trying to recapture him. One has him by the tail, the other by a rope around the neck. “Ham on the Lam” is the title under the photo, but I am much more haunted than amused. With his mouth open in an expression of rage and agony, and his front feet lifted off the ground, the boar seems to know where he is headed and is fighting desperately for this life. And it seems wrong that the scales are so weighted against him, with ropes and trucks and slaughterhouses.
It makes me remember my childhood game of making up new episodes of Bonanza, with me as “Annie” the little sister. I was a character so full of fun and spirit and mischief that folks would just shake their heads and say, “That Ben Cartwright has his hands full with that little lady.”
One of my favorite episodes was about a mean rancher who captured a herd of wild horses and made them stay in a crowded corral, unable to run and play. After careful planning, I snuck out one night, past Hoss’s snoring, past Pa’s bedroom, down the huge wooden stairway and out to the barn. There I saddled my trusty little pinto pony and away we rode. With the fringe on my buckskin jacket mimicking my pony’s mane and tail, it seemed that we were almost flying over the sagebrush as we headed for the evil corral and trouble. After petting and calming each wild horse, I unlatched the gate, then watched as they galloped off over the hills in the moonlight.
Of course I was later discovered and given lots of threats of punishment from all sides. But in the end, in the final scene of the story, Pa is telling Adam and Hoss and Little Joe that “it sure is something that it took a little girl to do good and I wish I’d had the courage to do the same.”
Everything seemed so clear in those stories I made up. The ponies were my friends, the mean rancher my enemy, and in the end, courage and kindness and doing the right thing were always rewarded. I can still find comfort in the simple values of my Annie Cartwright episodes, for at 39, the black and white edges of doing good and bad fade and weave together like the different vines on my back fence.
This summer, as the homegrown tomatoes ripen, I will buy my bacon for BLT’s, ham for cold macaroni salad. Along with the animal control officer and the truck driver, I will be the pig’s enemy. But how I wish the caption on this photo were different. How I wish instead of “It took hours to recapture the massive pig,” it read “A young girl on a fast pinto pony rode up out of nowhere and cut the rope, then watched as the boar ran off, to escape through the city and off over the hills.”
At 61, I still want to be that cowgirl, courageous and strong, riding her pinto pony across the prairie. I do have a brown felt hat and red boots and I’ve written a children’s book about that little girl that I plan to publish one day (let’s hope for better luck this time). Maybe it will encourage other little girls to act on what they believe. And I’m not so sure anymore that those edges of doing good and bad are that unclear—I have begun again to see them in more distinct patterns of black and white.
To my surprise, Rose never told her story about rescuing Noel. I know what Donald Miller would say. He’d say she didn’t really need to tell the story because she lived the story. And he’d say (well, he did say it and you should read his book) that a good life is like a good story. It starts with a character who wants something and has to overcome conflict to get it. It’s a life that’s not that comfortable or easy. It takes getting off the couch and moving with a purpose. And the purpose needs to be meaningful. Something like letting wild horse run free. Something like getting a cat off the roof. Something you believe to be the right thing to do.
I thought one of our cats, Stripes, had died on the road Saturday night. He is my favorite outdoor cat, though I don’t tell that to the other seven. We raised him from a surprise litter, calling him Emily until we realized we had our gender wrong. There’s a picture in my book of Rose holding him as a kitten, the markings on his face giving him the nickname”Pigface”. He follows me around the yard while I garden, wanting me to pick him up, not even caring if the hose gets him a little wet.
A knock on the door from a neighbor late at night in the country is seldom good. “There’s a cat on the road…a gray and white one….he isn’t moving. I think it’s one of yours.” And so it seemed to be Stripes, with only a flashlight to tell, the coloring and marking right, the open blank eyes giving him a strange look. My friend Jenell was there. She lifted the body I had wrapped in a towel and we carried him back, put him in a cooler with ice. That night I tried to imagine burying him, thinking about how the towel I had grabbed up was blue and white striped, a fitting burial cover.
I woke up not wanting to feed the cats, not wanting to think about the one missing. But when I stepped out the door there was Stripes, waiting with the others for breakfast. A very miracle, as Rose would say. Then I remembered another neighbor, how she had recently adopted a stray that had a very similar look. I left her a message and later that morning there was a knock on the door, another knock I dreaded answering. She lifted the cooler lid and pulled back the towel, and said indeed it was Tommy, her cat. She had brought a small flower with her and laid it on him, saying how she’d grown so fond of him in such a short time, how her young son had included a photo of him in a poster about their family, how she had a vet appointment for him just this next Tuesday. And why did he find her, only to be taken away so soon? And why was it so hard? Thinking back now, it all seemed like a scene in a detective show where the parents come to the morgue. How much they want to say, “No, that’s not our son.”
Even when you know the time is right, when a person or animal you love is ready to go, you are saying, “No, not yet, not now, give me more time.” It is a selfish wish, but one that is so very human. One of the last things I took from my mom’s home was her sewing basket. She had very bad veins in her legs and would take a break every afternoon to”put up my feet”, often reaching for the sewing basket kept by the couch, using this time to do some mending. I associate that sewing box and mending with a peacefulness, a time of rest. I took it out this past week, planning to sort the half used spools of thread, the iron-on patches for jeans, the hooks to mend bras. One night I pulled it close and put my feet on it. It felt good. It now sits in front of my den chair, ready for mending or, much more likely in my case, a spell of “putting my feet up”. It is a kind of unexpected gift. I have had others:
Strange those gifts
the dead give us.
I was driving to Kansas City
for my aunt’s funeral,
the cause of death
a tumor blocking her air passage.
Though a bitterly cold day,
the sun was shining,
with traffic freely moving on I-70,
finally clear of construction
of restricted flow.
I listened to
NPR’s Morning Edition,
no one to interrupt me,
the whole car to myself,
the whole prairie to myself.
I remember thinking,
this is heavenly.
January 29, 2004 (Kansas Day)
By last night I was weary from the weekend, drained from the cat thought to be dead and the one that was. I don’t know why things are so hard, but there are gifts to be found. Gifts of prairie skies and places of support for weary feet and minds. Gifts from the other side. I hope my neighbor can find one soon. I know that she is looking.