Heart

“Something strange and rather extraordinary . . .” my mind says. I was poised to avoid writing by trolling the internet, opened my computer, and poof – word processing program loaded.

I’ve been thinking about my grandma.

“Come out here.” My husband calls to me from the backyard. I’ve been huddled in the house avoiding . . . just avoiding.

“What?” I yell back from the door.

“You’ve got to come out and see this.” He calls back.

Everything is soggy, the patio stones shining damp from lingering mist. I give in to my curiosity, slip into my ugly blue rubber shoes, and shuffle out to meet my husband by the garden boxes that effuse last season’s dry bent stems like a tired sigh. “So . . .what?” I reply as I cock my head to look up at his face. He grins broadly and steps aside waving his arm like a magician revealing the trick. There below the crabapple tree the surprise bursts into view. He wraps a gentle arm around my shoulder, “I thought you would enjoy seeing this yourself.” The full, warm, squeezing-heart memories spill in and my eyes mist over. “Yes,” taking a deep breath, I absorb the moment, “grandma loved bleeding heart.” The flowers drip in glorious pink arcs over the feathery leaves.

0427201831

Just like comfort food for the mind, memories, especially those of certain special people calm all the turmoil around us. The memories of my mother’s mother do this for me. I can reach back in my mind, walk up to her front door and smell her tortillas greeting me even before I open it. Stepping in to her neat little living room, TV on a soap opera or 1950’s comedy or baseball (if grandpa was watching), the moist warmth of the air saturated with what was cooking just around the corner. I can hear her voice inviting me in for a “little taquito” – fresh tortilla filled with beans that have been simmering all day in a garlicy brine. I would always opt for a tortilla hot off the stove bathed in butter. I can’t describe the fluffy-soft goodness of her flour tortillas, a treat that I have never experienced elsewhere, and to my great sadness have never been able to replicate. I see her hands – they were small but strong, making tortillas; kneading little balls of masa (tortilla dough); “whack, whack” the sound of her rolling pin (made from the handle of a broomstick) forming each ball into a perfect circle; flip, flip, flip the dough circle tosses over each palm in a little dance before landing on the hot cast iron comal.

Sometimes my heart reaches out to the universe and calls to her, wanting to reach out and feel the strength from her hands. In their movement the rhythm of her struggles – through times of war and loss and uncertainty, and her ultimate success – holding her great-grandchildren in her lap.

Her voice parts the clouds and warms my heart – I can hear her chatter in Spanish, it was always so when she spoke to my grandpa or had rumors to share with my mom. The litany of Spanish and a single phrase that I could understand. “She wasn’t wearing a girdle!” tattling to my mother about what she saw at the Legion dance; it makes me laugh every time I think of it. Her way of saying just what was on her mind – something I inherited much to the chagrin of my loved ones.

Looking out over my yard, I rock in my garden swing and sense her presence near. My heart reaches out to her again and asks her opinion of what I’ve done.

“It’s very pretty mi hija.”

0427201832a

Away and Back Again

I’m sure there are thousands of quotations about change. I don’t know of any that would adequately embrace the current tumult. My mind keeps playing tunes ranging from “Ch, ch, ch, changes . . .” (David Bowie) to “It’s the end of the world as we know it . . .” (R.E.M.). BUT – really everything changed dramatically, for me at least, six years ago and that is why my voice in this blog went silent. Those changes put family first (as was appropriate) and left me, well, behind. Maybe I’ll speak to that time at some point, but now I need to move ahead and writing has always been my catalyst.

We walk outside, the sights and sounds are at once familiar and foreign. A strange invisible cloud makes every human encounter awkward. In my neighborhood, an arm-distance style friendly place, every human contact becomes even more distant. We smile and wave and weave away from each other while walking the dogs. We have to raise our voices to say “hello” over the fence and back away when the smallest toddle curiously toward us. Even on the clear sunny days (of which we tend to have notoriously few) it all feels very cloudy and sad. The dear lady next door, who recently endured the long illness and passing of her husband, doesn’t even venture outside. I want to have her over for dinner, want to let her talk about the person we didn’t even get to meet.

What seems like eons ago, I wrote about the “never” list. The upheaval of the recent weeks took even the option of staying up beyond the midnight hour to watch a hockey game off of my in-home pleasures. I wish I could say that we were making great strides in finding new ways to enjoy this family-together-socially-distant life, but although we finally unboxed and “Escape(d) the Titanic”; played cards and Scrabble; solved many Sudoku and cryptogram puzzles; and streamed several movies, it doesn’t feel joyful. The idea of being under a self-imposed house arrest is suffocating. It’s not the actual staying in, not the physical distance, because we really haven’t changed too much – it’s the IDEA that all of this is happening along with a miasma of unknowns economically, socially, politically churning outside of our home’s walls. There is building anxiety with each day that it will stay like this – or worse.

I don’t know for sure, but I sense that there are probably millions feeling this same gut-turning unease. We all want to have everything go “back” to what it was before the health epidemic and I think we all have the burgeoning dread that nothing will really ever feel normal again. Knowing also that so many have suffered loss of health and life despite shuttering our lives makes it all seem futile. The recent refrain of how we are all in this together – doesn’t feel together, it feels like trying to Super Glue a crystal vase, there are pieces that are forever lost.

There is a grieving that comes with life-altering change. I just have to work through this, as all of us are. So, I emote – working through it. Listening to “S.O.S” (The Glorious Sons) and “Captain Jack” (Billy Joel) helps release some of the frustration. Watching the goldfinches at my bird feeder helps brighten the dark places in my mind. Making a spicy-gooey plate of Mexican food and washing it back with a double margarita fills a physical void. Being (gratefully) able to hug my husband washes away the tension.

Thank you to the optimists, thank you to the people who are working so hard in health care and life-sustaining services, thank you to those who are out there trying to keep us looking forward. For you, for my loved ones, for my neighbors I will keep my chin up, write and march on. I’m going to go out in my nightclothes and fill my bird feeders – maybe I’ll take a gin and tonic with me.

Building Friends

I don’t remember exactly when Eldon became my friend. I do, however, remember the first time I saw him grabbing fistfuls of blackberries off of Grandmaw’s shrub in the backyard. He stood there smashing the fruits in his mouth, his faded overalls dangling off one shoulder, feet bare and hair straight up on his head. He jumped in surprise when I yelled. “Y’all get outta my grandmaw’s berries!” Really, I was thinking – get out of MY berries. It made me red-hot mad to see all those yummy fruits going down someone else’s throat. I came off the porch in time to see him run off over the hill blackberries in both fists.

It would be several weeks before I knew his name, and that came after church one Sunday. Leaving from Assembly of God Church was an exercise in frustration for us kids and eternal patience for our parents. The slow procession out was made excruciating by the old folks who normally sat in the front and always were excused first. Their conversations with each other and then with Pastor Norris made the entire line stop and start in hiccupped convulsions. Kids, with a fevered desire to get out in the sun, would dash in as the line began to move only to be stopped short within footsteps from where they left; such was the sudden calamity that I experienced. I found an open spot and ran for it only to find my face smothered by the backside of a rather large-skirted lady.

“Oh, honey, are you alright?” she turned and patted me on the head. I didn’t look up for fear of seeing Grandmaw’s face frowning back, not that I could have seen anything since my eyes were blurry from the knock. As my vision cleared a round cheeked face appeared from the outside of the big skirt. My mouth popped open in surprise. It was that berry swiping kid! I hardly recognized him, his clothes were pressed and clean, and his hair was pressed too, down and to the side. He smelled like Grandpaw’s hair tonic.

Little did I know of the talk taking place above my head until Grandmaw poked me in the back and said, “Mind your manners Dickie, say hello to Eldon.”

“Hhlow.” I sputtered. Eldon just stood there wide-eyed with his mouth open. I knew he was remembering me from the berry bush incident.

By the time we all made it out into the sun, the sting of the backside buffeting including my introduction to Eldon had gone away. The sunshine invited play and Eldon made the first move. “Ya want to see my baseball?” He pulled a shining white ball from the front pocket of his baggy trousers. I thought maybe this kid was not just a berry thief after all and eased up enough to give him a second chance. “Race ya,” I motioned with my head to the vacant lot by the church. We scurried over and played catch while the grown-ups talked.

From then on it seemed like Eldon became part of our family. He was my age and fun to have around, so it was no surprise that everywhere I went he went too. Jimmy and me would make a plan and it couldn’t possibly be complete without Eldon along. Well, mostly, Eldon had lots of good ideas. He was the one who figured out that the broken boards off of Miss Parson’s old fence would be great as bunks in the clubhouse AND he finally came up with the way to get them to stay nailed to the walls – even though we spent half the day picking ourselves and the boards up off of the floor. He also knew where to find the best branches for making really good slingshots.

Soon August was well along and the big kids were starting talk about school. Summer beat down with unbearable heat, Jimmy and me, bound by Grandpaw’s swimming rule needed another place to play. Eldon helped us find a great spot up on the mountain that we could walk to and have a rumpus in the cool shade of the timber. The “hiding spot” was a great place to have adventures. After chores we would band together and make our way up the mountain to play war. Hours were spent searching for and collecting little piles of acorns and other nuts for ammo. After a short time pelting each other with the booty, we would abandon our efforts to get home in time for supper. Sometimes we just gathered up the ammo and would have to high-tail it back home; returning the next day we’d find our ammo eaten up by squirrels and deer. We tried hiding the stacks under twigs and leaves, but it was no use.

“We need a ammo box.” Jimmy sighed after the third try.

“No, we need a hideout!” Eldon exclaimed.

While we set to collecting up our ammo, I imagined a glorious lair in the trees – something like Robin Hood. We could go up and down on rope ladders and swing down to attack our enemies below . . . My imagination was working overtime when Jimmy popped me between the eyes with a walnut. “C’mon, I’m hungry, we’ve gotta get home.”

We spent the next week finding big branches and trying to stack them up between trees for a suitable hideout. Our efforts kept falling down and there wasn’t enough water and dirt to make a good mud pack to stick it all together. It was decided that we would start collecting boards and nails and we would have to haul them up to the site. This was gonna take a while. Since time was at a premium, we also determined that we could salvage a big chunk of the day if we helped each other out with our chores. This was an agreement that nearly led to the demise of me and Eldon’s friendship – but that story is for another day.

Our salvage operation was very successful as by the time school started we had most of the makings of a good hideout. We’d made a few new friends in the meantime and they were really good at scavenging areas that Jimmy, Eldon, and me weren’t familiar with.  Sherm was best at finding nails and Red had a knack for bringing along rope. We worked feverishly every afternoon to gather up the necessary supplies and would spend Saturdays in our building endeavors. By the end of September we pounded in the last nail. Our hideout was complete, or so we thought. We all stood back in admiration. “So, how do ya get in?” Sherm questioned. In our hurry, we forgot to build a door! Thwack, thwack, thwack. Eldon got right on the solution. He took the claw-end of his hammer to the nails on the middle three boards. In no time at all the entrance was made.

We jostled for position to get through the door. I, being rather skinny, slid in first. Inside the hideout was dark, cool and peaceful. The earth was soft under my feet and the air smelled musty and rich, like mushrooms. We all sat inside just looking at each other for a few minutes. All of a sudden Jimmy hopped up and declared war on the rest of us. I was glad since my britches were starting to get wet from my seat on the ground. After a short time pelting nuts at each other, Jimmy jumped back on the idea of an ammo box. We took the wood that was cast off for the door and made a good size box that also made a really great bench seat inside the hideout. By the time we collected a few nuts and put them inside the dinner bell was ringing back home.

Early October brought the first heavy frost and the afternoons didn’t stretch out long enough to allow us back to the hideout on the weekdays. I longed for Saturday when we would run up to the hideout, adventure, stash our nut ammo and other treasure and drag back home giddy and exhausted from play. As the month began to wane, we all knew that we’d soon have to leave the hideout behind for the winter. Eldon came up with another great idea – a camp out. It took Jimmy and me a bit more effort to convince Grandmaw that we could manage ourselves late on the mountain. She allowed it only if we bundled up and agreed that my older sister and cousin would go fetch us up an hour after dark.

On the day of the camp out Jimmy poked me in the ribs before the sun was up. “C’mon, we gotta get our camp gear packed.” I jumped up and pulled on my thermals. I gathered up my gear and turned on Uncle Otto’s headlamp to check the battery. The excitement bubbled in my stomach and I had to eat one of the apples that I packed the night before. We were dashing through the kitchen when Grandmaw stopped us short. “I made you boys some sandwiches, they’re on the table.” I grabbed the grub, kissed Grandmaw on the cheek and raced out the door.

We met Eldon on the top of the hill. “Your light’s on,” he pointed to my head. I felt a sharp smack on the back of my noggin compliments of Jimmy.

“Rats.” Now I would have to conserve the battery until the walk back home.

The trek to the hideout was made a bit slower by the gear, but we were still the first to arrive. Sherm got there soon after and was showing us the Boy Scout kit he borrowed from his brother when Red finally came along.

“How long were you planning on staying?” Sherm asked Red – this was prompted by the enormous rucksack that Red had hauled up.

“I din’t want to get cold, or hungry, besides I brought this.” Red revealed a spread of chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows – enough to feed all of Miss Lambert’s second-grade class. I liked Red’s thinking.

The day seemed to fly by and I felt a bit heavy as we collected up firewood in the afternoon. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the hideout or the fun we’d had. Before the sun got low we had a good size fire in the pit and were poking marshmallows in. We each took a turn at spooking the others with scary stories. I really liked the one that Jimmy made about crazy Miss Parsons being a witch, but Eldon’s about the miner’s ghost was voted the best. Darkness blanketed the woods. Cold crept into my skin and I didn’t know if my shivers were from the frosty air or the stories that were told. We watched the fire dwindle to white-hot coals as we ate up the last of the graham crackers. I could hear my sister’s voice calling up from the hollow below. We rummaged around in the beam of Sherm’s Boy Scout flashlight to gather our gear.  No one said a word as we covered up and stamped out the last of the fire’s embers.

My gear felt extra heavy on the walk down the trail toward the government road. Sherm and Red left us at the junction. I didn’t have the heart to say goodbye, so I just waved at their shadowy figures as they trudged slowly away. Sis had had enough of our lollygagging and left us at the top of the hill where we were to bid Eldon goodnight. It was there that I realized something and I got to poke Jimmy in the back for a change. “Hey, we didn’t play war all day,” I smiled. I could tell that he didn’t understand by the way he looked at me; but Eldon knew, he smiled too. “See ya tomorrow?” He said.

“Yeah, tomorrow.” The load was lighter the rest of the way home as I carried along visions of the hideout ammo box and the treasure that waited inside.

Out of Hibernation

The sun has come out, briefly. Its light bounces rainbow colors off of the heavy frost that lingers at mid-morning. The snow has left all but the shadiest spots and green grass shoots cower flatly on the still cold ground. It’s not over – yet. Winter holds on as the temperature hovers around 30 degrees and a brisk wind shifts the shivering branches on the trees.
“It feels like Wyoming.” I converse with our mutt as we walk around the block. “Let’s get back home and warm up.” He seems to understand and agree since he doesn’t even look toward the long route we usually take.
I’ve come to enjoy winter less and less. I appreciate the change of season, understanding the need for winter’s sleep, but I can’t recall the last time I felt the childlike excitement in seeing the snowfall. Maybe I know my frosty foibles too well – the thump of pain and humiliation as I fall on the ice; the ache of joints and muscles from what seems like endless shovel loads of snow tossed off the walks and drive; most likely what dampens my enthusiasm is the inability to warm up after even the slightest chill – the cold sticks to my bones.
Winter walloped us this year. I can’t say that I blame him since he has been rather silent for a while. I hesitate to complain too much, relative to the winters I experienced in Wyoming, this has been only average, and fortunately, not nearly as cold. Reports from home have come in with ambient air temperatures way down to minus 20 and that is WITHOUT wind chill factored in! Old Man Winter knows how to consistently sock it to Wyoming.
Winter proves that you have to be strong to reside in Wyoming, physically and mentally. A new local friend spent a week hunting with my husband near Kemmerer in late September. When he returned he commented, “No-one is soft out there.” I agree, Wyoming people are tough and strong, but I’ve never encountered kinder hearts. I think that’s the only way that everyone stays warm.
For the past three months I’ve cowered from the winter like the grasses laying low. I cocooned myself in a blanket by the fireplace and stopped. Maybe it’s better said that I’ve been in hibernation, popping out rarely and only as needed. In that time I’ve allowed something worse than physical hibernation to transpire. The bout with winter turned into total mental stagnation – brain freeze. The imaginative production of words slowed down around Halloween, and finally froze up solid sometime in early December – frustrating.
But the sun has come out again. I am like a grumbling bear waking up, (still a bit foggy from the drowse.) Rubbing my eyes, seeing the light, I brace myself against the still sharp chill. I reach inside for the warm heart of the tough Wyoming girl to awaken. Like the daffodils beginning to reach up out of the soil I need to stretch up to the light. I see the trees have fuzzy buds – I know that West Virginia winter won’t go on much longer. I thaw the ice from my stored ideas and go out into the world of words again.

Autumn

My “winter” coat came out of the closet today; it hides in there the better part of the year since the weather here in Morgantown usually doesn’t require that kind of outerwear. My husband cringes when I wear it; he doesn’t like the color. I, however, love the granny-smith-apple color; it boosts my spirit. So part of me was happy to emancipate it from the closet. My other side was taunting, “You’re just giving in, it’s not winter – yet.”

In West Virginia the seasons roll languidly one into the other and I enjoy the passing. Like a stroll through a familiar field, I walk the hills and valleys of the seasons breathing the change in the air. Each breath from mid-September through November imbibes the soul with an accumulation of chill and damp and scent, the harbingers of nature’s frosty sleep to come.

Autumn has always been at the top of my list, even in Wyoming. The crisp morning air would give way to warm sun-drenched afternoons. The evenings would bring a welcome escape from the Wyoming wind and the chill would settle in again. Although the weather was lovely, the dreaded approach of a long and stern winter would create an anxious haste to gather wood and fell wild game before the first big snow. The seasons didn’t meld quietly into each other in Wyoming. The onset of winter was often more of a slap in the face. So a drawn-out Indian summer would unsettle my spirit to the point that I would crave the true onset of winter just to get it out of the way. Old Man Winter would pounce down in an attack of wind, cold, snow, and ice, usually in late October, and hold the landscape hostage until June. – Yes, really, it would typically last that long.

I have come to realize that life imitates nature. Maybe this is as it should be so that we can take the lessons from nature and weave them into our days before they get away. I hope to gracefully move through my autumn years with vibrant color and warmth then gently glide into the hush of winter. I certainly prefer the way winter settles over West Virginia with a sparkling accumulation of frost and occasional snow. Could I be so blessed to experience this kind of chilly-soft departure into the long winter sleep?

O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

The rain stopped just long enough for the family to gather in a tidy half-circle around the hole. The remnant parts of the age-old ceremony were completed with the punctuated thump of dropped handfuls of dirt. We solemnly turned and moved off in different directions and back into the rhythm of individual lives.

So the good-bye is performed over and over again.

Later, I expressed my sentiments to my beloved husband in my usual manner without any sense of decorum, “Don’t plant me up there when I die.” This, of course, was in reference to the local cemetery.

He responded with some indignation, “So, what am I SUPPOSE to do with you?”

“Just put me up by my dog.” This has been my patent request from the day my dear golden dog was buried on the mountain outside of Laramie. However, the U.S. Government would likely frown upon the practice of interring human remains on the same plot of land (no matter how remote.) I did suggest at one time that my cremains could be scattered there, my husband was not a fan of this idea; “But where will we go to visit you?” He is tethered to the idea of visiting a grave marker, flowers in hand, where he can pray and speak, in some way, to the deceased.

This sounds to me much more like an eternity of solitary confinement than spiritual peace. As I told my sister, “If I can actually hear you when I’m in the grave, then I have a lot more problems than being dead.” She swiftly commented, “You have never been a conventional person.”

It’s possible that what bothers me more is considering a stone on a hill the place of memory. Really, what is it that the marker conveys? A few sentimental words, a start and end date, maybe some ornamentation. Most of this depends on finances, and even the best memorials wear away in time. Are the stone and the grave the memory?

Much more, I believe, is all of the life that is signified by the little dash placed in between the dates. That line should be so much more. The line is where the life breathed, smiled, and giggled. The line is where the first words were spoken to the delight of “mama” and “dada”. That tiny line represents everything from an aversion to peas as a child to making pea soup as a poor college student. A tiny line is a life that touched other lives in home and church and school. That little line signifies a life that made new life, nurtured it, and then let it go. The line is uproarious laughter, silliness, sorrow, and tears. It is story after story from countless souls.

So, I don’t really think that a dash between two dates or even a single granite stone on a hill is enough to tell the story. The single location doesn’t account for dust in the pages of human history, but it contains a literary encyclopedia of a life to those whom it touched. What should be the memorial? Where is it kept?

The physical remains all weather away and eventually become something else, soil, a leaf, a goat . . . nature recycles. Remembrance is kept in word and song; this is where the memorial exists.

So when I go on, I want those who’ve known me to take a trek to where we made a memory together, linger there, breathe the air, reflect, and then write it down. If it was a good memory, share it in joy. If it was a hurtful memory, share it in truth and learning or burn it and leave it to be recycled into something beautiful.

Dream House

It all starts with a dream . . .

You or your spouse or both gather the fragments of ideas that when fashioned together build your dream home. In your mind’s eye you can see everything, the setting, the style, the garden and landscaping, even the color of the walls. So it begins, your quest for a dream home – if it could be, the term is tossed around as if any four walls could fulfill the definition. Off you roam, through the for sale listings, wandering the streets for “by owner” signs, searching for the place where you will plant your family and watch it grow.

In a very small rural town like Kemmerer, Wyoming the choices are nearly non-existent. Although the market at the time provided over a dozen properties for consideration, only half were of sufficient size and of these most were highly priced and needing improvements, the others (a couple) were true considerations. After an offer fell through, and other possibilities were looking less desirable, my husband phoned with the following news, “I have a house for us to look at while you’re here this weekend.”

“I thought we had seen everything.”

“This isn’t on the market, the bar owner here said he would like to sell his house outside of town. It has some land.” In the recesses of my mind I thought it odd . . .  it should have set off alarms and flashing lights. WARNING – your beer-buoyed husband is making deals with the local barkeeper. But in my anxiety over having a place to move our family to, I bit, “OK, I’ll look at it on Saturday when I get to town.”

The imagery that I produced for this “place in the country” developed during the four-hour drive to Kemmerer. As I approached town I could “see” the lovely sprawling brick ranch in the pines, or maybe a smart log home surrounded by golden aspen. I have to admit my heart sunk quite a bit when I finally approached the driveway of the dingy cedar-sided saltbox style house that jutted out of a sagebrush covered hill. “OK, maybe just well worn.” I thought. My husband had been waiting, chatting politely with Barkeep in the driveway. His warm smile and sparkling eyes were so missed that I’m sure I looked very happy and excited.

I didn’t get a word in before we were off on the grand tour. I followed in the rear through the back door into the garage, it was bursting with stuff – floor to ceiling, so much that I couldn’t see the walls, but I could smell the oil, grease, and dirt – all of the smells of mechanic work done at home. Up a step raggedly assembled from cinderblocks and two-by-fours to the kitchen door. We squeezed inside between the refrigerator and a too-close cabinet, over a muddy assortment of various sized shoes, and on to the 70’s patterned linoleum.

“Can you believe I have NEVER waxed this floor!?” the lady of the house chirped with pride.

My mind replied – Yes, I can. I kept my lips pressed together, terrified that I would actually blurt out the discourteous retort. She joined as we cruised from room to room, merrily chatting away every scuff and bruise evident in the house.

The tour ended in the master bedroom, where the four of us could barely negotiate our way around the furniture to peek into the bath. By this time my mind was screaming, “NO!” I attempted to move from the back of the room to follow my husband, who was now exiting at a lively pace. Chirpy cut me off at the pass, providing a soliloquy on the wonderfulness to be found in the home. I could feel the panic welling up inside as the men’s heavy footfalls counted down the stairs. Ten, nine, eight . . . I practically trampled over Chirpy getting out the door. Five, four, three . . . I had just topped the stairs when the men turned the corner into the living room. I knew, in my gut, I knew that if my husband shook Barkeep’s hand, the deal would be struck and there would be no turning back. I lunged into the living room, wild-eyed, stumbling, and stopped sharply to be rocked back at the scene.

Sure enough, they were shaking hands – my husband was closing the deal.