Several days ago Rose asked how soon before Valentine’s Day. “I guess we’ll spend it alone,” she sighed, looking at me with the same half serious/half joking way she uses when she says she likes to touch my wrinkles. I sat there thinking that she still had a few days to find someone in those hormone-filled halls of seventh grade, but I doubted that the free website Plenty of Fish was going to offer up much for me. My romantic experiences for this day in mid-February peaked at 16 and have been downhill since then.
I had two boyfriends at the same time that year, not that I admitted it, even to myself, and definitely not to them. My justification was that one was a boyfriend and the other just a friend and if the boy who was a friend didn’t realize that, then who was I to have to say it in so many words? It was all going well, the boyfriend taking me to football games and school dances, while the friend was driving me (dare I say here that he was older and had his own car?) to Sunday evening youth group while taking lots and lots of photos of me, telling me how beautiful and great I was….. I can see that you’re starting to think less of me now, but I was sixteen—sixteen!
And then Valentine’s Day came along. My boyfriend, a box of chocolates in hand, got a friend to drive us to my house. My mother opened the door and smiled like a prince had arrived (I seldom had a boyfriend that she didn’t like more than I did) but seemed oddly flustered. Come to find out, she had rushed to hide the dozen red and pink rose buds that my just-a-friend had sent. I spent the evening finding excuses to walk back and forth in front of the table where these two offerings were proudly displayed. Although the chocolates were from my “real” boyfriend, what I remember most clearly is how beautiful those rosebuds were, how lovely that combination of pink and red and green. And, no, in terms of romance for February 14th, it never again got as good as that.
Recently I was sorting through the boxes brought back from my mother’s house after her passing, now just over two years. Some were filled with things I had kept. I found a grade school valentine “mailbag”, the construction paper yellow and faded, my name written in cursive on part of a paper doily. Among the cards inside was one that had this:
DEAR ANN Yor are my girlfriend. I think you look good in those red pants that you war on Monday but I am not sure. Art liks you too. Love DOUGLAS
I guess maybe there was an earlier time that I managed to have two guys at once, but I have no memory of Douglas or Art, just a memory of carefully cutting out those red hearts to glue onto that extra-large paper envelope, a memory of that wonderfully innocent anticipation of what I would later find inside.
My mother had kept almost every card she ever received, as I discovered while digging through more boxes. There were Valentines from sisters, nieces and nephews, my brother and me, my father who loved to pick the ones that might be called sappy, yet I know he meant every word. In those many cards one caught my eye. It was an especially beautiful one, full of pink roses, some in full bloom, some still small buds. Then I remembered how my mother gave it to Rose, telling her to send it to someone special, but I had forgotten who she finally mailed it to. Inside, under a big lopsided heart, was written:
Dear grandma thank you
for the card did you
have a grat New Year?
I have made a display of some of these cards, and as I did all those years ago, I take great pleasure in looking at the offering in pinks and reds and greens. And I will not be alone on Valentines’ Day. I will send out my own cards, designed from an encaustic painting I did, a bird sitting on a branch among bright berries. I expect to receive some as well—from three friends who never fail to remember how much I like this day, my daughters (I’d better start dropping those necessary not-so-subtle hints), a cousin who always calls me Annie, perhaps even an e-card from an old boyfriend.
“Be My Valentine” may be a trite expression for an over commercialized day with a card designed for everyone. But there’s something of real value underneath those words, and the idea that it can be said to anyone holds a great truth. Love is not limited to some romantic idea. In fact, it’s not meant to be limited at all.
This is a photo of:
- A Christmas treat Helen made for college friends gone terribly wrong (the treat, not the friends).
- An attempt by Ann at a new mixed media art form.
- A model of an animal cell for Rose’s Life Science class.
I have a friend who used to make her Christmas letters like this—multiple choice questions that highlighted the year. A typical one went something like this:
Bill and Cindy and I took a trip to Detroit in May because
- Cindy wanted to spend time with her cousins and she thinks their neighbor boy is cute.
- Bill had a conference on mosquito reproduction and led a panel discussion on mating practices.
- We got really cheap airline tickets.
She only did this for two years and I miss them. They were funny and it was a nice variation to the usual Christmas form letter. These letters, typed on decorated paper with photos and summaries of the past year’s events, have gotten a bad rap, but they make a lot of sense. Who can write about what’s been happening more than ten times without a dulling of the brain and a cramping of the hand? So I mostly enjoy the letters I get. But there are a few that, well, when they arrive in the mail I put them aside until I feel more stable (this could be hours or days). They are the letters that make me wonder where I went wrong in my own life. One such letter used to come from a high school classmate. There was the successful doting husband, a beautiful house with just refinished kitchen, a son and daughter who seemed to excel in everything from academics to sports to social life, and to top it off, family trips with sailing and skiing and….you get the idea. It’s not that I wanted her life (well, just a little), but it sounded like things were so great, so easy for her. Then came a year when the letter didn’t arrive and months later I found out why. One Saturday morning her teenage son went out to their garage and shot himself in the head.
The answer to the multiple choice about the photo above is “c”. It’s what Rose will take to school on Monday and I just hope the hardboiled egg won’t be smelly by then. But it only shows part of the story. It doesn’t show the “I give up!” (Rose this time, not me) or the fighting over the computer to try and find one picture that lists the same cell-parts as on the worksheet. And it doesn’t show the fun bits either, where we were waiting for the orange Jello to get just right to stick in the green beans and red sprinkles and crunched up tissue paper. Or the way Rose wanted me to know where the endoplasmic reticulum went in relation to the nucleus.
We have a choice about what we include in our holiday letters, and we also have a choice whether to remind ourselves that there is more in the letters we receive than what the words and pictures show. It’s important to understand that the parts often not revealed are what we all have in common—the moments of joy from simple things and the times of great sorrow. The humanity and vulnerability we all share. When we ask what’s the real point of all we do during the holidays, the get-togethers and presents and cards and letters, I believe this should be part of the answer—simply to try and understand each other better. And you can make that into a multiple choice question on next year’s letter if you like.
I don’t have a microwave, or more correctly, the huge one someone gave me six years ago no longer works. When it first stopped I didn’t believe it and kept pushing the start button. But then I remembered that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. So there it sits, taking up space under the picture Helen and Rose made me last Valentine’s Day. It’s a stretched canvas with their hand prints in bright colors and a list of 10 things they love about me. I must say I like number seven the best: “We love that you adoted us”. The misspelling somehow turns the Pinterest crafty idea into something real from my daughters. And speaking of real gets me back to the microwave. Call me old (I don’t really mean that) but microwaves just don’t seem right to me. There’s something alien about them and they don’t keep things hot as long, and if you haven’t noticed this, then you’re in some kind of major modern denial.
It’s almost Thanksgiving and along with “my children and animals are alive” I’ve decided to be thankful that my microwave isn’t working. My mother never owned one. It was the same with a clothes dryer. Even when they became affordable she hung things outside or when bitterly cold down in the basement, claiming that going up and down the stairs kept her young. Hanging out the clothes was often my job when I was young and it was a chore I ranked way above the Saturday morning dusting. I liked putting things in groups—underwear, linen, shorts, blouses, and so on (my idea, not her rule). I liked planning ahead so I would run out of line and pins exactly when I had everything hung. And I liked to count how many tea towels and pillow cases I could overlap…..huh…I don’t remember if obsessive compulsive was a term back then. Of course, there were no microwaves or computers or cell phones—but we did have cars and I wish Rose would stop asking me that. Later, when it seemed that almost every American household did have a microwave, my mother still didn’t want one. There was a day when I understood where she was coming from:
Sometimes I forget
to put the butter out.
Too hard to spread
on toast for breakfast,
it can go for a quick melt
in my microwave.
My mother doesn’t have
“Never had one,
never want one.”
And sometimes she forgets
to put the butter out.
She takes a
blue and white saucer
and puts three thin pats on it,
cut from the hard stick,
then gently places
the saucer on top
of her just-poured cup of tea.
The steam slowly
softens the butter,
though not as slowly
as one might think.
And then my mother sits down,
carefully butters her bread,
adds her favorite jam
(homemade black raspberry),
and with tea
sweetened to perfection
( a tablespoon of honey),
quietly eats it.
She proudly showed me her technique
for butter softening one morning,
and together we had toast and tea.
Since then my microwave
My microwave hasn’t been so idle lately, prior to the breakdown (it, not me). There was always frozen meat that I forgot to put out the night before and horrible, horrible stuff that Helen insisted on eating for breakfast and then my tea to warm up.
Thanksgiving is in six days and when Helen gets home for her break she will no doubt complain about the non-working microwave and quote the price she paid for the one now in her dorm room. I, however, am doing just fine. If I forget to thaw out the meat then we go vegetarian. Rose, my good eater, can handle that I don’t buy the junkie stuff, and I reheat my tea by using a little metal saucepan on the stove. I did have to learn to put on the timer so I won’t need to turn around 10 miles from home to make sure the house isn’t on fire. And as for the butter on the Thanksgiving dinner rolls, I will likely take it out for softening around the time I run to change the hand towel in the downstairs bathroom. But if not, I’ll get a bowl of hot water and put some pats on top. It will seem quite quaint to my children (not the term they typically use to describe my behavior) but I can imagine a time when they might talk about it with fondness, just as not having a microwave reminds me of a morning of toast and tea with my mother. And I just decided to add that memory to what I’m thankful for.
Rose is learning how to sew on buttons in school. If you’re even close to my age, you’re wondering why this skill isn’t known by the age of 12. I had sewn on hundreds of buttons by then, including those teeny, tiny ones that for Barbie doll clothes. My mother got me started by giving me projects like burst buttons on my father’s shirts, first showing me the steps from how to thread a needle to…..huh…let’s just get past the part about why my daughter can’t do it yet. But at least I could give her a reason to practice at home last night. We had been looking at Halloween costumes in Marshalls and I might have been a little too eager to be done because I ripped off a button trying to get a glittery gold cape from the hanger. When Rose stated it was “the best costume ever” and she could wear Helen’s winter formal dress under it (I suggested she not mention this to her sister), I pocketed the button and checked out. It got reattached after three attempts and much frustration on Rose’s part and finally me saying, “Well, let me just do it if you’re going to get so upset about it.”
Later Rose pulled out a stack of school papers, including a yellow sheet labeled “Sewing on a Button Rubric”. I saw that she’d gotten 9 ½ out of ten, giving me hope that the cape experience was only due to adolescence grumpiness or knowing I’d do it for her in the end. I had almost deposited it with the rest of her school papers (to be sorted “later” which meant some time next summer) when a shock went through me. A rubric for sewing on buttons? Was this some kind of joke? Could it be one of those tricks to see if the parents really looked at their kids’ papers?
I wish I could say yes to that last question and then be so pleased that I had passed the good parenting test. But it was real—a rubric for sewing on buttons. To clarify, I’m not criticizing the teacher, who is no doubt following what’s expected of her and may be young enough to think this is perfectly normal. You get points from four to zero on things like “All stitches are neat and free of any loops. The needle consistently went in and out of the same holes”. My teacher in 7th grade home economics would have just looked over my shoulder and said, “You missed the hole. Try again!”
It seems that nothing can be taught now without it being assessed (and reassessed), often in the form of these crazy little boxes filled with text. I used to be the teacher trainer in an ESL program. One of my jobs was to observe new teachers and give them feedback. I would watch the class and take notes on what I thought worked and what didn’t work so well. Later we met to discuss it. We used our own words and I didn’t need to give numbers that placed her above or below her fellow workmates. The goal was to help make more effective teachers. But these days, following the national trend, observers in this program arrive with, you guessed it, a rubric. You can get a four, for example, if the lesson plan is “clear” and a three if the lesson plan is “obvious”. No, I’m not making this up.
When Rose was in the 4th grade, I wrote about something that happened in her classroom:
My younger daughter likes school but has problems with math, especially memorizing her times tables, and this fall that often seemed to her focus. A typical after-school-car-conversation went something like this:
A: How was school today?
A: What all did you do?
R: We had tacos for lunch.
A: Sounds good. How was math?
R: I’m terrible. I couldn’t do my 8’s.
Not the most inspiring conversation. But, recently the class has started on a board game version of the computer game The Oregon Trail. The class divides into families complete with b/w photos where they’re all looking quite sober and dressed in suitable 1800s attire. They draw cards to tell them the weather conditions and problems/successes they are having as they make their way westward. At the end of each daily session, the teacher switches off the lights, lowers the blinds, and turns on battery operated candles. All the “pioneers” then write in their journals.
Now our conversations go more like this:
A: So what happened today?
R: I had scarlet fever and three of our oxen died from drinking bad creek water.
A: Oh, no! How are you going to pull the wagon without the oxen??? (notice I wasn’t concerned about the illness—the teacher told me they keep everyone alive as long as possible).
R: Well….we still have one more ox and we bought another from the Smith family—because they were out of money. But we have 67 dollars left. Oh, and another family got bit by rattlesnakes and the next fort is soon but we’re hoping we don’t run out of flour before then.
There were never any rubrics for this but I suppose there could have been. For example, taking a spare axle along seemed to be essential. (Note: I couldn’t seem to get actual boxes into this post–maybe a sign?)
Spare axle work:
4 points–clearly showed the need to take along a spare axle
3 points–obviously showed the need to take along a spare axle
2 points–didn’t show any interest in a spare axle until stranded somewhere in western Nebraska
1 points–gave extra axle to that darn Smith family who never got anything right
n0 points–misspelled “axle” in journal
There were many other things she learned from this activity that never got boxed or numbered—-whether you can give or sell some of your flour to a family that used theirs up, while knowing you might be without before you get to the next fort, or taking on a stranger who’s lost his way, or figuring out what’s most important for the family to buy with limited funds—a dog or some extra rations (you know what I’d say—I remember Jack in Little House on the Prairie). And now that I look back at that axle rubric, I wonder if she might have learned more by getting stranded—the 2 point score. And isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about? Learning?
Rose is learning how to sew on buttons and I sincerely appreciate her teacher for that–it’s really a pretty basic skill and I have to say one we all should have. But I don’t need a rubric about it. I’ll test her out on the next button I pull off. And she doesn’t need a rubric either. She really, really doesn’t need any formal assessment on how well she can sew on a button. She just needs a teacher (may she be blessed with more patience than me on this matter) to show her how to do it and then help her practice until she gets better. Like sewing on a button, it’s a pretty basic concept and one we desperately need to remember.
Text message: I’m so glad I realized I was in the wrong room. I love my teacher. He speaks English and is white. Not being racist. I’m so happy.
I’m not going to say who sent me this except that she’s a freshman at K-State, used to live with me until very recently, and is NOT white. And let’s just call her Helen. She got in the wrong section of business calculus because she went with a friend the first day and stayed there two weeks before figuring out it wasn’t her class. That first teacher was a new graduate student from India. From the imitation Helen did of the young woman asking questions that no one answered (well, to give her some credit, it was 7:30 in the morning), I could tell that she was trying hard to be a good teacher but was up against a triple whammy—a strong accent, lack of teaching experience, and little knowledge of the way American college undergraduates think. And they certainly aren’t very patient with any teacher, let alone one with the accent thing going on.
I asked Helen if she was really glad that her teacher was white and she said it was a joke. I want to believe it was. She seems to take a lighthearted approach to her Chinese American status in a mainly white family (Rose helps move the percentage a little). She loves to tell me that “white chicks don’t tan” and I only wish that my reflective skin was the only thing I didn’t like about my legs. When she got comments from classmates at her rural high school, such as “How do you see when you smile?” she accepted that it wasn’t said in a mean spirited way. I, on the other hand, felt more offended and suggested she use her hands to open up her eyes super wide while saying, “So how do YOU see when you smile?” Quite a clever comeback, right? And so mature.
I grew up in Topeka, home of the historic “Brown vs. the Board of Education” with parents of differing views on non-whites.When a friend of my mother’s called to tell her I had been seen dancing with a black guy at the 9th grade party, she simply replied, “Really? That’s nice.” But when a boy of Asian descent came to the door to collect me on a date one year later, it was my father who rushed to ask my mother if she knew about this. He came by his prejudice rather honestly. His mother, a quarter Cherokee herself, told my brother that he “should stone any nigger that came into his classroom”. My father was horrified at that advice, though not likely as much as my mother. I can clearly remember one morning as I was heading out the door to school. My parents were discussing Rosa Parks. In one of the few times I ever heard her raise her voice, my mother, waving a newspaper in the air, asked, “Why should she have to sit in the back of the bus?” My father didn’t answer but he was surprised to see how much passion she had over this matter.
Always a southern gentleman, my father never acted anything but polite to that boyfriend he had rushed to inform my mother about, and never suggested that I shouldn’t go out with him. But I know he was relieved when the next guy at the door had paler skin. So when I announced that I was going to China to adopt a daughter, he looked stunned but said nothing. In fact, he continued to say nothing, refusing to mention it for the nine months that I waited to get her, something that hurt and angered me. My mother tried to excuse him—he was worried about me having enough money to take on a child and also, remember that he was in WWII when Japan was the enemy—and China, well, it’s also Asian. So I didn’t quite know what to expect when I arrived home with Helen, a child I thought was the most wonderful 20 month old in the whole world, an opinion my mother and brother seemed to immediately agree with.
I don’t remember when things changed. It’s been a long time since I showed up at their door with Helen dressed in a red and black checked dress that I still keep in the closet. And it’s been a long time since my father died, two years later. I just remember certain things. Like the way he called her “my sweet little girl”, the same thing he called me at that age. Like the way they would sit together on the front porch, not doing much, just hanging out together. Like my mother’s favorite story about the two of them. It was in the last months of his life, when his feet were so swollen they couldn’t fit in his shoes. We were at their house for Sunday dinner and when he and Helen didn’t show up at the table, my mother went searching, fearing he had fallen. She found him sitting in his chair, smiling down at a little girl who was so gently putting his feet into slippers.
I have to say I feel relieved that Helen can now understand her teacher in a class that will be difficult in the best of circumstances. And I see how it’s what she wants (at some point she also said that he’s rather cute). It certainly is easier to stay with what we’ve known, and what she’s known is mainly white teachers born in this country. But how sad for her if she does what some students do, avoiding classes with teachers whose names don’t sound “American”. I think about what my father would have lost if he hadn’t had Helen as part of his family. At some point in the civil rights movement, he came to agree with my mother about Rosa Parks, but he never spoke out with any of her passion. Later, he was forced to view it much more closely. It was then that this passion showed as he looked down on his “sweet little girl” from China.
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.