Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Real Thing -- at 70

It's the evidence of my birthday feat. Yup, I did it. My daughters stood to the side to "spot" me for safety's sake, and my son took the picture. He calls it Mom at 70.

Other things I did at my birthday party:

This is a happy grandma playing ball and dress-up with grandbabies.

Life is good.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sun Rising in the West -- Valentine's Day

The big secret is that on Valentine's Day here in South Jersey the sun comes up in the west! It comes into the south window and bounces off the woodwork and west-looking windows of the livingroom, filling the room with morning light. This is a definite harbinger of warm good things.

Another secret is that on this day the sun at about eight o'clock AM makes the shadows of the two mailboxes reach exactly the middle of the road. I am looking at evidence at this very moment. The trees and shrubs are still shrugging close to themselves with the cold, but there is summertime boldly confronting everything out there. I see the shadow of a very small bird on a limb against the neighbor's porch wall. That bird knows what I know (or actually, I just learned what he already did know) about the sun on this day.

Another secret is that I did my 70th birthday performance just last Saturday at the home of my son and his wife in Seattle. A few days early, granted, since my birthday is still about a week away, but I wanted photo evidence. I have not yet received the digital pix my son took, but I have a hint, included here at the top of the page.

Visiting my grown children and my grandchildren, grown and little, is like a rejuvenation and rehabilitation retreat. It is not that I am resting while I am there. It is more that I am actively gathering up as if there is no tomorrow every scrap of information and sweetness that is there and stuffing it into a cache like rare treasure to be taken out slowly over a long period of time to be re-savored. Some of these pearls are irretrievable except in such a cache. Thank goodness for the digital revolution which lets me take a series of shots of my daughter-in-law feeding something green to her nearly nine month old daughter. It should be noted that this hefty grandbaby has been called, during this chubby, molar-getting, drooly/smiley period "Square-face SpongePants." She has a remarkably cheeky face (and has since she was born) and the largest of blue eyes. Smiling she is the Gerber Baby of old. When she is watching with all her might, her face relaxes and, well, this is she last summer.

I am told that she is endowed with her maternal grandpa's cheeks (which are normal looking now) and I know she is endowed with her Dad's startling blue eye-color in huge eyes from her mama's family tree, but never before seen in other than brown! We have yet to really know about hair. It may be reddish, like mine, but there is really still too little of it to tell much. She is a peek-a-boo expert and also loves horsie riding on people's laps. Her favorite word is Da.

And my two and a half year old quarterback has just recently taken his mother, his grandma, and his baby sister on a tour of the Seattle Aquarium where he totally occupied the space with exhibits of his own. He kissed visiting babies of his sister's ilk on the head while guiding others, adult and youthful, to the SHARK! and the STURGEON! He patiently stalked a pigeon up and down stairs, a ramp and then up the stairs again. That was one of his favorite exhibits. He also found Nemo, his film favorite, and Nemo's buddies, conveniently displayed in a case together.

The exhibit curators were as taken with him as he was with the waterfalls, the anemones ("It's pokey, Mommom, feel it!") and starfish and otters. They loved it when he crowed "COOOOOL" about everything. Obviously they recognized a budding oceanographer in this little blond kid with the energy of a blast furnace and a mind absorbent as a blotter.
I was there for a week, and could go on and on as grandmothers are wont to do. I could tell about swings and baseball games, football games in which the quarterback wears only a helmet, small stowaways in my bed, and also the cold shoulder given when it was time to say goodbye.

Is it any wonder I turned upside down a week before my birthday? Life is wonderful, though fleeting. I plan to watch next year for the sun rising in the west. Plenty of sunshine there, as far as I'm concerned. Plenty here too.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Standing on My Head

A family friend used to brag about how her grandmother stood on her head for a minute on her seventieth birthday. I absolutely intend to do that in about four weeks when I am seventy. I’ve been planning on it since I heard about my friend’s grandmother back when I was a teenager!

Getting to be seventy is probably more of a milestone in my mind than any of my other significant birthdays. At sixteen I just wanted my driver’s license. At twenty one I had already had my first drink. At forty I was not over the hill, but just at my prime. At sixty five I’d been retired for a year already. But seventy seems old. My dad was already dead at seventy. My mom died at 77. This is a serious sort of thing to think about.

My face tells me more than my mind does about this matter. Who is that pruney person who looks at me from the mirror, anyway? Not the sprite that prances around in my sense of self, making far flung plans to do amazing things with her life. The person I see in the mirror as I brush my teeth is just an old lady who has not yet brushed her hair and doesn’t plan to right away.

The children are encouraging me to use Skype to instant message back and forth between here in New Jersey and my smallest three-year-old and one-year-old grandchildren there in Seattle. I like a lot about the idea and have downloaded some free software. I still need to buy a webcam and find a headset with a mike to use. But that is not the only hold-up.

What worries me the most is how I look! Most of the time I spend (and it is a lot) at the computer I am in my bathrobe and have not recently brushed my hair. Makeup? Never, unless there is a shopping trip near at hand. Will I scare the living daylights out of my grandchildren?

What I will end up doing is testing the waters ahead of time, and arranging the lighting behind the camera at the most flattering angle and to shine on the side of my face that is not so wrinkley. My left lower jaw is missing two teeth so that cheek is caving in. Sounds so unattractive, but that’s just the way it is at a few weeks shy of seventy years old.

One good thing is that I will visit the grandchildren in a few weeks. I figure that by the time I leave the kids and I, filled up with the mirth of songs and stories and baseball games in the rec room, will have provided good groundwork for an ongoing correspondence.

So when I get back home to New Jersey, I will get out the guitar and get in front of my webcam to continue singing the old songs and talking about the world they live in, and they will hear and see the fun of it rather than the slightly worn person delivering the music. We will be able to chatter without shyness, and they will know me well for the next visit later this year.

The best part of the plan is that I will make a special date with them for my birthday where they will witness the amazing feat their seventy-year old grandmother will do in front of the web cam!! They will have bragging rights until THEY are seventy! So there!
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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Longer Days

The Fog, copyright SGH

It's good to live in the Middle Atlantic coastal area. We get bright sunny days in winter, even though it is that white winter sun one sees in the Vermeer interiors, slanting palely through the window.

Here, we have constructed a wind-break so we can actually sit out behind our house on cold winter days and sun ourselves! And now that we are past the winter solstice, the sun is making good progress back up into the overhead sky from nearly below the horizon where it was a few weeks ago.

Even better than the longer days here, with more hours of sunlight and better moods, are the longer days in Seattle where I used to live and my children and grandchildren still live.

Once I did an art show called "Puget Sound Moods." It was part of a small exhibition for the opening of a tall, handsome new building for a business in Issaquah WA. I chose gouache paintings I had done during cold months and mounted them in dun colored mats and framed them in sort of pickled greenish-grey frames, which matched the colors of wintertime western Washington State.

North of Shilshoal, copyright SGH

One thing I loved about living there, was that people don't usually remark about the dreary weather. What they do remark about, at the supermarket or at work, is when there is a precious "beautiful day"; it's really wonderful --healthy --to hear positive words wafting about you as you do your day.

People there don't stay inside "because of the dreadful weather." They go out in it. They typically don't bother with umbrellas, but nearly everyone wears a raincoat for any cool day's outerwear, just as an everyday coat.

My young children (as doubtless now do their young children) were apt go out in wet weather hatless and almost certainly without boots. Normal. I remember soccer games on the back yard where muddy little boys slid and made infuriatingly long glistening tracks in my lawn. On their way in to the kitchen to slake voracious appetites, they would shed their shirts and pants in the carport. And...they would put them back on and go out again!

Once the neighborhood boys set up a long strip of black visquine plastic sheeting that ran from the top to the bottom of the sloped back yard and spent a rainy day sliding happily down it like a water slide. They used the hose to make the sliding more fun.

In Issaquah, where we lived, the "rain" in the moist shadow of Tiger Mountain is more like mist that just sifts down like manna. It's really not at all unpleasant. But there is a lack of light, and it is longer and more pronounced than we have here in the lower latitudes; in December, at the bottom of the year, it gets dark at about four pm and doesn't get light until about 10 am the next day. That is DARK.

Some time in March, Puget Sound yawns and wakes from its deepest moodiness. The bulbs by then are studding the landscape like easter eggs and some of the early flowering trees are pinking up.

By the end of July, there will be a stretch that folks keep sort of quiet about, lest too many people flock in from other states. It's the stretch between late July and the end of September when there is nothing but glittering brilliance that glitters over the waters of the Sound and the pretty lakes. Mount Rainier sits proudly to the southeast and pretends that it has always been there.

Dozens of people tell you every day how beautiful the weather is and how lucky a person is to live in the Pacific Northwest. And you agree.

Fishboats, copyright SGH
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Friday, January 11, 2008

The Moon a Cradle

Peter with my cat and my two doggies about ten years ago when I lived in the Seattle area.

Yesterday, January 10th, 2008, is the day my old friend Peter died while visiting one of his grown children in St. Martin's, Virgin Islands. The three children had come together by his bedside at the hospital and were "joking about old remembrances" when they noticed he was very still. His son tells me in this morning's email that he is sure that his dad heard them there, though he was no longer able to respond. It sounds like a good way to move into the next life to me.

I walked the two doggies out under the January moon this evening. It had been a dramatically stormy day here in New Jersey, with those brownish black skies crowding in and then dumping violent buckets of rain first on the southwest side of the house, and then later on the northeast. But this evening the storm had passed, and I saw the crescent moon bright in the sky, curved like a cradle, rocking to the left. I imagined that Peter might be up there having a look at the earth and his many many friends from a different perspective. I imagined he might be having a great deal of joy, free from the ninety four year old body and the illnesses that had been sapping his vitality for the past few years.

He leaves behind amazing memories in the minds of a wide swath of people who knew him in so many lands and circumstances. There are people in India, and Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia, as well as in England, France, Canada and both coasts of the U.S. Many of these folks have turned up over the years while Peter was living in my house in the Seattle area-- a sort of surrogate family member, somewhere between a father and a brother, perhaps. He shared his friends as he shared himself with them, always the gracious and dignified gentleman, bowing slightly in his English manner, and often putting his hands together in the Indian manner of greeting.

I like to think that the moon would gently cradle a man who has left a large but gentle imprint on the earth's history.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Doorways : Addendum #1

The Spicy Tiger Mountain House

There were some 500 doorways on my rural mail delivery route in the Cascade foothills east of Seattle. About sixty percent of the homes were up or down some steep driveway. Most were in a high-end community of large properties with spacious and distinctly architectured homes tucked into the tall firs. The doorways in that area tended to be at the least gracious and distinguished looking, and included some that were downright palatial looking.

Not far away on the same mountain were horse acres and even trailers parked up bumpy roads among the tall firs and alders.

There was only one house on my route that I actually took photos of, and I called it my Spicy Tiger Mountain House.

gouache, SGH, copyright 1994

It sat on a knoll at the top of a hill and through its miscellaneously placed "eyes" looked south toward Mt. Rainier. Miscellaneous is a good word for almost everything about this house, including its purposes. There was nothing that looked particularly designed about the place -- it said in every way "I have grown up around my people."

There were two or three sheep inside the wire fence to the right of the dirt driveway, and banty chickens clucking about, quite unafraid of my mail truck jostling up to the back door. There were tricycles and go-cars and buckets in the dirt and there were an unknown number of goats scampering about behind the house in another wired-in area.

I usually did not see the occupants--usually I was not on a signing-for-delivery mission -- just there to park a package by the back door and get on with my mail duties. But even so, the evidence of the people gave out an aura of joy -- real joy of living! It was just so humanly attractive and alive!

I did get to know the folks that lived there -- writer/scientist folks with deep interests in education and biology. They were an energetic couple with young children and while I served them, they bought the place from the folks they had been renting it from.

They made some changes. Their changes were not for beautification, but more as a handshake with nature. There was acreage on the downhill slope west of their house that was nearly terminally overrun with blackberries. These plants get a death-grip on the glacial moraine of the Cascade foothills, and given space, they will fill it with viscious, thorny snarls of foliage and delicious black-druped fruit that is delectible to eat, but daunting to harvest. The family fenced in this forbidding acreage with barbed wire and let their goats loose in it. Starting at the outside periphery, the blackberry patch gradually receded, week by week, until there were only the alders and firs left in that field, and a bunch of frolicking goats. The goats were a crop, I found. They were for sale to ecology-minded buyers.

They divided the sheepfold to house a couple of pretty cows. The colorful chickens multiplied and the tricycles became two-wheelers with training wheels. I grew more and more fond of the spirit of that house.

Here is a watercolor of the back step of that place. The door, I knew, led into a large windowed porch full of neat farming and gardening and cooking stuff, and then led into a house full of books and computers and cooking odors and happy sounds.

watercolor, SGH copyright 1994

The fact that I selected THIS doorway to paint tells me as much about myself as it tells me about the family that lives there. Why am I drawn particularly to a doorway akimbo with a sagging screen on a flapping screen door? Why did I like the odd boards propped up and the warping of the porch. Why was that hat such a delight, shyly revealing itself from behind the humble house-face?

I think I am drawn to the evidence of a life in progress. I think that's what I like about it, and about that family. I like that the people didn't choose to hide behind a grand fa├žade with a big brass kick plate and heavy door latch and a doorbell that played Westminster chimes. I like that the family were there in essence before you even knocked, and that they were busy being happy in their life without worrying about what the mail-lady might think.

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Sunday, January 6, 2008


copyright S.G.H. 2001

copyright S.G.H. 2001

I have decided that if windows are “the eyes of the house”, then the doorway is the mouth. It is the doorways that tell the tale, because doorways are the way in and the way out.


Viviers, an ancient town on the Rhone River, was, for me the central experience of my nineteen day tour of France a few years ago. We spent a few days in Nice, then scooted east to Avignon, backed up to Arles and then our barge slid up the Rhone to a quay east of Dijon before we debarked and rode off toward Paris. I saw a lot that moved me in that excursion, but the thing that riveted my attention more than anything else was the way the old narrow streets of little towns wound around, their center troughs now paved over, their buildings hanging over the slabs and cobbles like stuccoed pastel stacks of books or birds of prey or maybe attentive nannies.

Viviers is a very small town grown up around a locks on the Rhone. The ancient stone house I chose to sketch had an owner who spied me sitting on the pavement against a bare pollarded tree with my gouache palatte and brushes. He ambled over and we managed with his and my language limitations to communicate that he had for many decades been the locks keeper of the town and that one could still see the flood marks from two serious floods over the sixty or so years he had lived there. He showed me that the doorways were set purposely high from the street, and I have many photos of those narrow streets with strange doors some seven or eight feet up on the sides of houses – no steps to them at all!

I treasure the signature of the locks keeper on my sketch. He was very pleased to put it there, I could see, though I wonder if he wanted the sketch. I would not have given him it for a lot of money.

I suppose the interaction with people was my favorite part of my trip to France. I found, against my expectations, that these folks in April were not weary of tourists at all, and that they were interested in a strange middle-aged woman with paints who tried very hard to dredge up enough classroom French to ask them difficult questions. Often the painting was turned over and a sketch or diagram would help along with the conversation. Often as not, the people I talked to were children – not as shy as adults, and very curious and animated.

But the pictures I brought back were of back streets— alleys—narrow ones embedded with small clues and plenty of puzzles. The things I could surmise from a walk down a crooked street became allegorical as my adventure went on, and even more so after I came back to my U.S.A. life and looked over the pictures, color and black and white, that I took in Arles, Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Lyon, -- such places.

I have decided that if windows are “the eyes of the house”, then the doorway is the "mouth." It is the doorways that tell the tale, because doorways are the way in and the way out.

There were streets that seemed to have no doorways at all. And the streets were such that a corner of a house might block off a person’s view of what was ahead. The uneven street would be leading to some sort of new thing which was waiting—and it could turn out to be a thoroughfare or a sturdy wall forcing one to turn suddenly to the right or left and move further into the mystery.

There were streets with a lot of steps leading up to doorways—many of them very welcoming looking, with pretty curtains, and maybe a cat looking out. The ones with gardens, or potted plants were so like the “tourist pictures” I had often seen in magazines, but there were also very non-committal ones with solid painted wood doors and just a knocker.

Which is more interesting? Is it the door with the old lace curtains and the cat, or is it the door with peeling paint and a burnished brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand? And why were there no people coming in and out the doors? Maybe they were now down at the town’s small square where there were seven or ten stands with vegetables and fruit. I found out that those markets open late in the morning, but close at noon and don’t open again until later in the afternoon, if at all. At least in April. One must hustle to get to the market during the open hours.

Outside the stone wall of my lock-keeper’s house where I had set up my sketching project, I attracted a lively swarm of little boys who came on bikes and told me mischievous lies about the town (“…c’est mon bateau, oui, madame! C’est ma maison, aussi!”), and asked me how close Seattle was to New York City, and how many floors were in the skyscrapers there. I have some valued video of that bunch, the rascals. They were so delighted when I told them I was onto their lies. They got on their bikes and raced away laughing. They came from behind some door or other in the town I had just explored, but who knew where or when. I had seen no one come in or out, nor evidence of children or their bikes.

Right now the doorways to my own house here in the U.S.A. are telling folks something as well.

I suspect our very tidy neighbors are curious as to what in the world hides behind the front door, with its eroded concrete steps and screen porch with the slightly saggy roof and a stack of plywood, plexiglas sheets, and old chairs piled up high. There’s a sign on it saying “Deliveries to the side door.”

The side door is also a puzzlement, I am certain. The post lady no doubt really wonders from delivery to delivery what to expect there, what with piles of two-by-fours halfway across the entryway, and a pile of topsoil sacks stacked up against the other side. In summer there is a snarl of clematis, cucumber vines, and even melons climbing the wire strung up over the little roof there, and a bumper crop of unruly tomatoes tumbling out of the narrow southern facing garden. She has had us sign things by that door, so I suppose she has seen in and knows that the previous owner installed a toilet at the top of the steps for an ailing relative who couldn’t use the upstairs potty. What an odd house! What odd people she must think we are!

And the back door is a story of its own. When we came there was a ramp for that same ailing person’s use, but now we have it dragged to the side with plans for its future. Sitting on it, jutting out toward our back woods, are lined-up plastic tubs of tools and supplies and also our recycle bin and the winter wood chopping paraphernalia. And on the concrete at the base of the astro-green-carpeted steps is the evidence of much wood splitting. There is a blizzard of stuff spread maybe twenty feet in all directions from the back door, all pending the completion of a fine deck and patio area. We can "see" the finished product, but of course no one else can.

A neighbor came delicately into this work zone in the dark a couple of weeks ago to give us a little Christmas treat. I saw her coming because I was walking the dogs out back, and I was terrified she would fall in the dark. “Be careful, it’s a mine field out there,” I said. She backed up and I met her in the driveway.

I do not need to wonder what she thought. Her house is letter perfect—nearly sterilely so—and so is she, all spruced up with her hair just so and surrounded with a serious “cologne zone.” If she was appalled, it’s really not a tragedy. We don’t really like to be too close to that neighbor anyway – her husband is a drunk starting at sometime in mid-morning each day and is not too easy to hobnob with. He tends to “lurk” and “mouth-off” if we give him any indication of neighborliness.

I think the state of our own doorways has a lot to do with where we are in life, my doppleganger and I. We, after having separately lived fairly challenging lives of some 70 years, are currently being hermits and we must like it that way. We like not being interrupted or embarrassed, and we both like to make things and do things. And we snooze between spurts of vigorously doing what we want to. Is the clutter in front of our doors like a sort of Berlin Wall to keep the business of The Outside separate from the business of The Inside? Yep. I think so.

It does bother me some. I am really quite a “people person” and I like spontaneity and surprise (like rounding the blind corner of a Viviers street.) I am basically extroverted and friendly, and in my pre-doppleganger life I had a swarm of people moving freely in and out of my daily world. So I am bothered by the message our doors give to others.

On the other hand, I have always jealously guarded my solitude. I have always kept a certain space between my social activities and my quietness. Aloneness is anything but an enemy for me, and there have been many passages in my life where I was swamped with the continual buzz of many people living lives in my space. In the long run I was not really able to find solitude frequently or long enough, and I developed a big deficit in that area.

So I think I have unconsciously weighed the matter and decided to allow the doorways to be obstructed just now. It makes a space, sanctioned and guarded by my doppleganger, for me to be alone. I venture out cheerfully now and then, to chatter with supermarket people, or on golden trips, to visit with my children and grandchildren. Then I am content to tunnel back into my quiet place with the familiar clutter and ongoing works.

In my guarded space are photos and paintings-in-progress of narrow streets with choices. One can go up or down, or through, or turn around. One can just stand still for a while and decide. Meanwhile, one can think what it means – this door halfway up the wall of a house with no steps. Are there steps inside that are put out when you need to use the door? Probably. I hope so.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Old Friends

They usually crop up at Christmas Card time, the old friends. It must have been at least twenty years ago that I weeded out my voluminous list of people to send cards to. I used to hand print, or otherwise construct, my Christmas cards, which really involved making at least twice as many as would eventually go out in the mail. Given the nature of printing, especially when it is a matter of printing more than one color on the paper, the artist has to allow for a lot of duds – splotches, fingerprints, smears, bulls-eyes (when a grain of something on the paper interferes with the occlusion of ink to print surface), and the many occurrences of off-register (when a subsequent printing of one color on another doesn’t get where it’s supposed to – remember the Sunday Funnies RotoComics where the red of Blondie’s lips would end up on her forehead ?)
Then postage. Three cents is one thing, but …when you have two hundred works of art to send out, current postage rates get to be a factor.

The easy ones to purge from the Christmas Card List are the ones that have imprinted signatures and no note at all. Even if it’s your relative, it’s clear that a phone call will work much better. And there are the business associates who politely fill your box with glitzy generic cards – usually large and heavy and with gold lined envelopes – easy to drop those. You can get a ten dollar box of generics yourself and send them out personally after the associate has sent you theirs if you really think you should.

What is amazing and helpful is that once you start NOT sending a card to so-and-so, he magically drops you from his list, and so everyone is conscience-free about the matter! Everyone seems to be waiting for the other person to start stopping!

These days the cards (handmade or, usually, not) I send out are limited to people who are too dear to lose, are too far away to visit, and who are not people I talk to once a year on the phone. Also the ones who will not answer because they are too old, too ill, or even a few who just don’t like to write letters. These are the people who learned early that I write letters to them when I want to communicate – not just when it’s de rigueur because of the season. And the near relatives.

Likely as not the cards I send out are are hand typed into the computer, it seems, unless the person is not a computer person, in which case I send a pretty card with a little note written messily in my homely handwriting. By far, the most personal ones are the computerized ones, with pictures of real life and confessions of the year past. These sorts of things can be shared with the ones still remaining on my list.

I have heard back from lots of the folks who read my letter this season, and it is wonderful to hear about their lives and cares and news. Like reading a catch-up synopsis of the “soaps” in a way – updates from last episode. And it is reassuring to find out that my old friends, like me, are getting a little older, and a little more relaxed about such things as are de rigueur. Thank goodness age mellows a person!

My friends in Indiana will have their 50th wedding anniversary this coming year and I am invited to a secret party being designed by her youngest daughter in Baltimore. The daughter asks that old friends participate in making a memory book to present to her parents. I have got, somewhere, a huge file of letters spanning some thirty or forty years during which I have known these folks, and corresponded with them. They traveled in 1973 from our Pennsylvania town to Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, and then to Guam and then to Elkhart, IN over this time, being missionaries, parents and grandparents, and earnest people with great senses of humor and big hearts. I think I will bind all these letters into a booklet and send it to Baltimore. They will maybe re-read it all, but I know they would be happy to have it. They will not want to share all of it, especially with the kids who grew up over that span and whose struggles are documented there, woman to woman, between the “girl friends. "

My friend in Wisconsin is, for the third time, rebuilding her life. She is near some of her kids and grandkids, and with others sprinkled around the US. She sends me an email with bird feeders, gardens, lovely babies, and pictures of horseback riding. There is only one picture of her in the mix, looking at least 25 pounds heftier than I remember her, sitting very smilingly on a horse in the CA hillsides. She looks happy, and I am glad to see she is not grieving terribly about her weight. Her former husband was a real rat and ran her through the wringer about weight and everything else while, without conscience, dallying with other females. She is still deciding about her current “significant other.” I am guessing she will take a long time deciding. I hope so, actually. (“…so,tune in next time—same time, same station...”)

My friend in West Virginia always is sad around this time of year, possibly because it is dark and cold and her tall house in the hills is heated with a wood stove and she misses the deer that have been taken from the herd that she has fed all year on her hundred acres or so. She suffered a frontal lobe aneurism some twenty years ago and survived extensive brain surgery. She tells me she is thinking she has just made another leap through to more cognition. She will celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas, still coming up. It’s a little brighter then, I am thinking, and the sun shines a little more each day. This woman is like a person from another planet – where her unique dreams and determination and something like magic have outdrawn and overcome any reasonable, conventional expectations and won some sort of spiritual war! She still intends to save all the feral cats in her town and also to go to Paraguay where she is still intent on saving the natives in the area where she was born (to Mennonite Russian missionaries) some sixty years ago. There is no stopping the spirit of this woman. She will for years to come reverberate in many lives without having raised her voice! And she is really quite limited, suffering fugues and seizures still, and is not even supposed to fly. She disregards all this. She has her goals and she is not accepting no for an answer.

My old post office friend in Washington State is about to have surgery – she put it off when her husband got sick and then died. This woman is such a surprise in my life—she was a sort of cartoonish person – very tall with a receding chin and painted on eyes, eyebrows and lips, and hair that could radically different in style and color from week to week. Lots of silver rings, and several earrings in each ear. Her teeth were obviously totally false, but that did not keep her from smiling broadly. She approached, towering blondly over me and greeted me very warmly when I first went to work at the post office, and I didn’t take her seriously, really, because she was so – well...surface!

As it turned out, she was the wisest and most kindly and good of all the folks I met there. She turned out to be compassionate, and loving. No one cared as much what came out of her mouth, and no one was more constant as a friend. No one went to as many weddings and funerals of people in her world, and no one was more attentive to her children or grandchildren. She came up in a very poor family and suffered not only from having poor-folks’ clothing at school, and being too tall, and not very pretty, but also from being “knocked up” as a teen, giving up a baby for adoption, and all the shame that goes with that scenario played out in the 50’s. This lady learned how to be rich, and she ended up marrying herself a husband who adored her and provided her with a secure and comfortable life. Now she is counting her blessings, and I am sure she will bless a lot of folks even as she undergoes shoulder surgery. I think I will make her a funny card. She still has the cardboard leg I made for her years ago when she had a knee replacement, that all the post office people signed. I am hoping she will have a shoulder signed by me this time.

I did not hear from my ailing friend in the nursing home. She finds it more and more difficult to write, and I call her now and again and find her somehow chugging along, despite a poorly recovering hip replacement (after a fall), her failing body wracked by Cerebral Palsy, and the maddening limitations of a wheelchair. But she still keeps going. I will visit her when I next go to Seattle. It’s hard to talk on the phone now—her voice has always been difficult to understand, but she has since lost more teeth and it’s increasingly hard to make out what she says. I just ask her to repeat, as she has taught me to do. We go back a long way – to the 60’s.

I didn’t hear from my sister-in-law who for reasons I don’t know is really unwelcoming to any communications. She has not yet let me know where my brother was buried. She may still have his ashes on her mantelpiece—I don’t know. There was something wrong for a long time with my brother and her that I don’t understand. And my cousin on my father’s side is keeping her distance. The sister-in-law and she have been pretty close for a long time. I think there’s a connection in the chilliness. I think they may have thought there was some reason to “take my brother’s side.”

Never mind. I’ll still send my sister-in-law and my cousin cards next year. Kin, you know. Just a thread. Better than nothing.

Soon I will collect the cards from the mantel. I guess there are about twenty five there, from mostly relatives. Pretty. Some have pictures on them that are heartwarming. I will keep them together over the year and at the ready for next year’s Christmas Card List. But I’ll likely not look at them then. I will easily remember by heart which ones to send to, because they are the old friends, the kin, the kids, -- the folks that matter at any time of year, and they don’t need a list to reside on.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Magic Stuff in the Woods

Well, I finally got my wish for this Christmas: a magical Christmas Tree in the woods. It has been a few weeks in the works, with the requisite drawn-up plan, and lots of back and forth about the merits (or not) of my design, which included a hanging octopus sort of thing crocheted out of rough twine with five "legs" done so that the length could be optional, by uncrocheting a foot or two of the ends which were temporarily tied off in bows. It took some days of the ladder sitting up against the tree at the entrance of the "glade" where there was to be a loop over the overhanging branch with the crocheted thing hanging down, and then the electric cord would be separately secured with the lights arranged to hang rather loosely fastened to each of the legs but not all the way to the ground. Then the legs were to be attached to the joints of five laths arranged and tied in a pentagon shape sort of offset around the tree trunk. The pentagon could be stabilized on the ground with bricks.

After summit meetings for a week or two, the Tree now stands out there under the branch above the planned branch, but with all its other original design features manifestly there, and the debut last night was just great! I got good reviews from my doppleganger, and grand plans evolved for growing the tree each year until it is so tall and bright it will be a looked-for tradition for all of Newfield NJ!!

It's so good to have someone who "gets it" about the magic of such frivolous inventions, especially if it is an otherwise pragmatic scientist type.

We woke up this morning with the usual murmurings about fragments of dreams and such, and then got on the subject of Wunks, heaven knows how. That led to the Squidgicum Squees, and me trying to remember more of the James Whitcomb Riley poem I used to get the giggles about with my little brother. I looked up the poem on Google, bless it, and here's the verse from that ever-so-folksy poem that I was remembering:

"…An' The Raggedy Man, he knows most rhymes,
An' tells 'em, ef I be good, sometimes:
Knows 'bout Giunts, an' Griffuns, an' Elves,
An' the Squidgicum-Squees 'at swallers the'rselves:
An', wite by the pump in our pasture-lot,
He showed me the hole 'at the Wunks is got,
'At lives 'way deep in the ground, an' can
Turn into me, er 'Lizabuth Ann
Er Ma, er Pa, er The Raggedy Man!
Ain't he a funny old Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!…"

You never know where such talk can lead! How can anything swaller itself? Where would the energy come from? What would happen to all the bones and tissue? No answer for those pragmatic questions.

It reminded me of those raincoats that you can fold up and put in their own pockets. I suggested to my physicist that maybe it was like a black hole that sort of consumes itself. My physicist wasn't buying it. He never "buys" anything at first go-round. Are all scientists like that? Maybe that is the nature of scientific thought: always ask the potent questions and find out the truth!

The nice thing about magic is that there doesn't have to be anything scientific about it -- it's just a delightful notion that may come or go like a dream or disappear in the daytime, like my Christmas Tree in the woods.

I walked all around the woods to see what our tree looked like to each of the neighbors whose back yards look into our woods. Actually that's nine neighbors. And you can also see it from the street, so that adds a few more, and then there are cars that pass by.

It's not a blazing show one sees. Just a lone twinkling tree standing in everyone's dark back yard peeking through tree trunks. Magic.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Bachelors Have Arrived

The paper calendar is not the only way to mark the passage of landmarks in a year. Today we noted as we gazed on waking that the big maple tree outside our bedroom window (we call our bedroom the tree house) was gamely putting forth healthy new buds on the bare branches. This in the teeth of a Nor'easter surrounding South Jersey and belting us with rain and puffs of strong wind. Winter has not really come in its worst -- it usually hits harder in January -- but these buds are insisting on making preparations for next spring. We will monitor their daily progress as the wakings progress one on another.

We watch, similarly, where on the old wallpaper the sun shines of a morning. Right now it's very low and only glimmers a short time into our window, and then ducks below the neighbor's garage to the south.

Remarking that with this Nor'easter we might see unusual birds blown into the neighborhood, we embarked on our day as usual. I sit at my desk at the front corner of the house and do a bunch of computer work (or play, depending on how you think of it), and keep an eye on the status of the quiet little street we live on. Lots of wet leaves and puddles this morning.

One harbinger we have been looking actively and expectantly for during the past month or so is the arrival of the "Bachelors" , and today, while I was tapping away on the computer, a big swarm of birds gathered on the porch and street-side leaf pile across the street. Yep, they were bobbing, and as I rose from my seat and got a better look at them, they did, indeed, have the red breasts and dapper silhouettes of the Bachelor Robins!

Two winters ago we watched in amazement as a huge flock of these all male young robins gobbled up, in about three day's effort, nearly every one of the red berries on our neighbor's very large holly tree -- a tree that is so tall it matches our big old maple! We did some research to figure out why these robins were not "south" (aren't robins supposed to migrate south for the winter?) and why they were all batched together in such numbers. They were raiding the tree like starlings! A new phenomenon for us.

Last winter we didn't see them, but the holly tree had not really totally recovered from the previous raid. But this fall we noticed that the tree was sporting a huge fresh harvest of red berries, and we wondered to each other whether the Bachelors had gotten wind of it.

Now...today....they are here. I hope they get occupied with our neighbor's tree and leave our newly rescued little female holly alone. As we were clearing out downed trees, I noticed that one large trunk had come down right against a young holly tree in the woods of our new bit of property out back. Once my scientist engineer had cleverly extricated the big dead trunk from around the poor bent holly, I noticed that this one had lovely red berries. It has begun to stand up straighter now that its burden is gone, but it always will be a crooked tree, and we will always love it like a rescued stray. And I will harvest holly tips with red berries from it, and it will enjoy being pruned a little.

So, the day of the Bachelors has arrived, and now we can see what comes next in the natural calendar. I notice that the winter pansies are looking robust, ready to shine above the snow later in the season, and the day lilies are mistakenly poking up green new leaves! That's ok. They will hunker down again, and try again in spring. We do have a lot of hungry little flittery friends at the bird feeder, but our cat is preferring to lie in front of the fire (we call it his TV) to watching the birds today. It's the bottom of the year. In a week, we can start climbing back up along with the sunshine on the wallpaper.

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