A couple years ago, my sister bought me an orchid for my birthday.
Allow me to explain why this is a loaded statement.
First I’d like to tell you about the orchid.
Then I’d like to tell you about me.
The orchid was lovely. It had three spaghetti-thin stems. On either side of the base of the plant were three long dark green leaves, rounded at the tip. The leaves grew only on the bottom. At the top of each stem dangled three of the most exquisite, delicate magenta-colored orchids, hanging down like earrings. The plant was rooted in some moss and nestled snugly into a flimsy plastic cup housed in a gray four-inch ceramic pot with bumps on the outside that looked like cardboard and three foam circles on the bottom to protect whatever surface it would call its new home.
The stems were clipped at the top and bottom to two (equally thin) wooden stakes. The clips had sunflowers on them. They were probably secured by a master gardener so engrossed in this infant plant she’d known since it was a sprout, she didn’t even turn her head to look as she reached into the cardboard box holding a gross of the clips she’d ordered from the wholesaler, ever so gently squeezing the plastic sunflowers and gingerly wrapping their tiny arms around the tender plant, praying the whole time its forever family would show the precious flower even half the love she’d shown it.
My sister shrugged and sighed a little as she handed the orchid to me. I got it at the grocery store, she said. She had one and it had done well. She’d gotten one for Mom, too. You just put two ice cubes in the pot once a week, she said. She seemed a little nervous giving it to me. Did she think I wouldn’t like it? Or did she think I wouldn’t take care of it? I took a deep breath, Okay, I said, I can do that.
But here’s the thing. . .
I kill house plants.
Through the years, I’ve tried to be a good plant mom. I’ve tried herb boxes on my kitchen counter, I’ve dug up rosemary from the garden hoping to overwinter it in the house, I had a prayer plant. They all dried up. (You’d think the last one would have survived, but apparently, I didn’t even have a prayer.) Either I overwatered, underwatered, or just plain forgot about them altogether. Why? My mom has had house plants for years. Isn’t this kind of thing supposed to be hereditary? It was agonizing. I so admire people with a gift for growing green things in the house. Plants add life to any room.
Don’t get me wrong. The pansies I plant in the boxes on the deck last from the first of spring until they’re covered with snow, and I can hold my own in the outdoor vegetable garden. I’ve grown mounds of marigolds and nutty amounts of nasturtiums. Outside. It’s easier out there because I’ve got God helping me. (Even those who don’t reference the Creator can still appreciate the fact that sun, rain, and soil are mighty helpful to the growing process.) Inside it’s a different story. (Oh, God hangs out with us in the house, too, but the onus of providing proper environmental conditions largely falls on the mortals.) Finally, I decided on a statement for my defense whenever we lost a plant under our roof. I said I could either feed the plants or feed the children. I could not do both.
Then my sister brings this vulnerable green thing into my house and leaves it with me to care for.
Maybe now that the kids are all adults and able to feed themselves I’ll have a little more attention to give this new arrival. So I get a piece of masking tape and a permanent marker. I write 2 ice cubes Sunday night on the tape and stick it to the ceramic pot. I leave it on the kitchen counter, far enough out of the way so it won’t get bumped or bruised, but not so far that it will be out of sight and out of mind. A place where the sun still reaches it, and I can keep an eye on it and keep an unspoken promise to my sister to keep it alive. It stayed picture perfect with those dangly jewel flowers hanging down for a good long while.
Then, one by one, the flowers dried up and fell off. The same thing happened to my mother’s plant. I don’t think I did anything wrong, she said on the phone one day, I gave it 2 ice cubes a week. I wonder why the flowers fell off. She was so heartbroken. I took a closer look at my own plant. My leaves are still green. They still look healthy, I said, Maybe we should just keep doing what we’re doing and see what happens. So I left it alone. Let it do its thing. Quietly it sat. It was still green so I knew it was still alive. It just didn’t seem to be thriving.
One day months later, I noticed leaf nubs about halfway up the sides of the stems. Was I seeing this right? I looked again. Yes! Multiple new leaves were forming. I got closer and really observed this bit of nature growing in my kitchen. Is this what it was like to be that master gardener? The joy over a single new leaf. The honor of being present for the miracle. The waiting. Could I actually succeed in growing this orchid? There’s so much to learn! I gave it an even closer look. There were thick whitish tendrils curling out of the back of the leaf stalk. And the way the leaves overlapped at the base. I’d never noticed that before. I called my son over to see. We both marveled at what was happening right under our noses.
Now it’s a month later. The leaves are bigger. There are more of them. They grow at ninety-degree angles out of the sides and curve around like crab claws. I can also see the tiniest magenta flower bud forming on the tip of one of the stems. The stems seem even longer now.
Although this is about pigs, my wife Cheri deserves a quick mention. Why? Because she’s good at naming things including the pig “Trevor,” who coincidently is my reason for revisiting some of the memorable pigs from my distant past.
Cheri has christened many living things around our place. Trees, fox-faced squirrels, the deer that graze on the low verge near the woods that border our property. Spiders too, of which there is great variety living both inside and outside our house. We get along fine with the indoor spiders whose philosophy, “live and let live,” we seem to share. There are occasional surprises though. For example; first thing in the morning before my initial fog clearing taste of caffeine, I’ll sometimes find a medium-size spider struggling up the smooth sides of the kitchen sink. Ordinarily, I’ll help the tiny creature out of his predicament with a piece of paper towel, careful to cause no injury, and remove him gently to the outdoors. Other times when I flick on the light in the darkened bedroom, I’ll find a four-inch beauty clinging to the wall. I guarantee that neither of us takes much pleasure in the discovery, though to my knowledge the big ones aren’t much bother…not likely to bite and certainly not poisonous. I did feel one race across my face in the wee hours when I rolled over in bed. I might have imagined the event, that the big guy was using my head for a short cut, but I doubt it.
Cheri named the large spider Claude the morning after he clawed over my drowsing kisser.
Though Cheri christened the pig Trevor, the neighbors began calling him “Tourist Attraction.” T.A. for short, because he’d attracted a mountain of attention over the past six months or so since he took up daytime residence with a herd of thoroughbreds on a nearby farm. Even here in horse country the site of blissful comingling of pig and horse is a rarity. Horses are generally afraid of pigs, as they are of anything novel in their environment. Only once did I see a horse chasing Trevor, which to my horror led other horses to join in. I blew the horn on my Prius a few times as I passed and yelled loud enough to get everyone’s attention. Trevor then sidled up to the fence for protection and his pursuers lost interest.
It used to be that feral hogs were very common in the neighborhood, especially in the area where Trevor now spends his days. At night we’d often catch a dozen or so small hogs in our headlights as we headed home. One night Cheri and our nephew yelled at me to stop when our truck was surrounded by a herd of little ones. Out they jumped in an attempt to wrangle one, but hogs are quicker than people and thankfully, the little critters avoided the short ride to our place in a pickup truck.
My respect for pigs began decades ago with the purchase of a fifteen-pound female weaner. Cute as a button the pink sausage was affectionate, curious and completely adorable. Her residence was a muddy spot just outside the rear barn door where, once upon a time, milk cows came and went. The critter, which someone other than Cheri named “Rosie,” seemed happy enough in her little home, though from time to time she’d make her way into our back yard through an opening in the fence.
In search of companionship she’d visit our two cats and whichever humans might have been around. At some point she learned to nose open the screen door to the kitchen, where often as not, humans would be making food or cleaning up. Once inside, she’d chatter away, clearly happy to have human company. Given pigs’ penchant for depositing manure and urine without much thought, we kept her indoor time to a minimum. Once, however, when the kitchen was especially crowded, a startling noise sent her spinning. A jet of pig urine shot straight from her behind onto the shins of the half dozen people who filled the room. Most of us hoisted ourselves onto the counter tops in hopes of avoiding her golden water works, but we all got a little wet.
Rosie’s most memorable foray occurred one Sunday afternoon in late summer when she decided to chase Amaryllis, our enormous but dignified house cat, around the backyard. Like all cats of a certain stature, Amaryllis had no interest in cavorting with a mud-splattered creature of lesser breeding. But Rosie wouldn’t be deterred. The resulting chase sent Amaryllis clamoring for safety underneath a Volkswagen bug parked in the driveway. Rosie followed, but quickly found her forward progress stopped when her head wedged under the rear axle. Her panicked screams sent me and a friend to the rescue, and with a yank on her hind legs we pulled her out from under. Bruised and battered, with scrapes on her snout and a small trickle of blood on her brow, she snorted in what seemed like a combination of confusion and embarrassment. I’m sure she was wondering how innocent fun could turn out so badly…so embarrassingly.
In defeat, Rosie slowly made her way back to the barn, stopping in front of the horse stall to chat briefly with Penny. Upon hearing the ruckus, the coffee-colored Appaloosa had stuck her head out of the barn to get a better look. For a minute or two, Rosie sat on her haunches in front of Penny’s stall looking up at the large and curious animal. There seemed to be a conversation going on. Something like this:
Rosie, her head bobbing, grunted “Mind if I sit for a minute?
“Sure,” said the tall horse as she struggled to focus on the battered creature lying a few feet in front of her stall door. “I heard your screams. What’s happening?”
“I was just out in the backyard enjoying a quiet Sunday. The sun is out. Cicadas are buzzing and the air is warm and sweet smelling.”
Penny responded, “Sounds like all’s right with the world. Right?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Rosie, “until I tried to interest Amaryllis in a little trot around the back yard.”
“Off he went, quicker than I figured an old cat ought to be moving. Zigging and zagging. I guess he was surprised I could keep up. So he went where he knew I couldn’t follow. You know I’m smarter than a cat but old Amaryllis outsmarted me this time.”
Rosie looked pained. Her anguished face covered with scrapes and a trickle of blood. The pink rims of her small eyes held back tears.
“Hrumph,” she finally said, then stood up slowly and walked slump-shouldered to the rear of the barn and the comfort of a soft wet spot in the mud where nothing could go wrong.
Penny quietly vocalized her sympathies. “Take care my friend,” as she watched Rosie disappear around the side of the barn.
We think Rosie recovered fully, but given the short life-span of pigs, she wasn’t with us but a few months longer.
A few years later near Blue Hill, Maine, I met two rambunctious twenty pound piglets the morning after they were adopted by my landlords John and Diane. The purchase, for which they weren’t prepared, was made after a few too many drinks served up by the owner of a sow and her large litter. It was well past midnight when the couple arrived home. Too late to fix up a pen, they figured the little fellas would be safe and secure in their crate in the back of the Suburban. With the car locked, John and Diane went to bed certain that all was well.
At the time I was a young fellow putting up sheet rock for the summer. It was a job that got me up and out of the house earlier than the rest: early enough to enjoy the dew laying heavily on the grass. Through my clouded windshield I noticed the Suburban’s back door wide open and an empty crate inside with its wire door ajar. I immediately reported it to the still snoozing couple.
Minutes later as I drove to work, I spotted several dark shapes about a quarter-mile ahead of me on a long straight stretch of highway. The two piglets trotted briskly across the road and off into some tangled undergrowth. With a quick u-turn, I headed home to recruit a pig posse. Back on the scene minutes later, we managed to capture one of the critters while the other ran into a denser part of the forest. Within half an hour we were back at the farm where we jailed the captured pig in a stout outbuilding used to store tools, paint and leftover pails of roofing tar. It wasn’t long after, maybe ten minutes or so, that we heard the still liberated pig calling to his mate from the thick woods at the edge of the driveway. Back and forth their conversation went.
“You OK?” said the pig that was still on the run.
“Yeah, they’ve got me locked in here with a lot of junk and nothing to eat. No way out that I can see.”
Once again, the pig posse went to work bashing its way through dense brush until we grabbed the second pig who we quickly reunited with his howling pal. I figured the two fellas, after a brief reunion, must have started planning their next move. In shock and admiration, we watched as the snout of one of the hogs appeared in the shed’s only window, the bottom of which was a good four feet off the floor. Not bad jumping for a creature that wasn’t more than a foot tall at the shoulder. Soon there were two pigs visible in the high window. Their snouts were baby-pig pink, then black after they’d overturned the five-gallon bucket of roofing tar which eventually coated every item in the shed including two chain saws, gas cans, and dozens of other containers filled with a variety of liquids.
It became a day of pig cleaning and sty building for John and Diane. Once completed the new digs were escape proof, which was good for the owners of course, but not so exciting for the pigs who, according to a pig historian, never again rode in the back of a Suburban.
As far as I know the two Maine pigs weren’t given names. I know if Cheri had been around, the situation would have been different. Not that it matters much because named and un-named pigs often share the same fate. When I think back, I do hope John and Diane made the rest of the pigs’ lives pleasant enough, which I think should be expected for any creature that will end up on your plate.
Happy New Year!! This is a time when we traditionally contemplate new beginnings. It’s a chance for us to cast off the mistakes and failures of the old year and try once more to get it right. Today of all days, with a whole year stretched out before us, anything is possible.
The members of the Little Town Writers Guild send greetings on this New Year’s Day along with our plans for getting it right in 2023. And, while we have written these pieces independently of one another, our ideas, as it turns out, are uncannily similar. See if you can connect the dots and find a message that works for you.
From Gail Ouimet
New Years is a great time for taking stock of another year of living on this magical earth. I challenge myself with what to hold on to going forward and what to release, like wheat’s chaff to be carried off on the wind. I am blessed to have friends who do the same as we gather to celebrate the winter solstice. This practice will carry me to and through the New Year.
We take small pieces of scrap wood and write in marker what we are willing to give up or want to change; things like resentments, anger, self-doubts, old grudges, and bad habits. We build a fire and toss our stuff into the fire— symbolically releasing the things that hold us back from living a full, balanced life.
Then comes the good part. We choose colorful squares of cloth and write on them the things we want to work on, the things we want to bring into our lives—-the qualities that allow us to be shining lights in the world. We each make a flag of our cloths (that can be strung out). A personal prayer flag of sorts. I hang mine where I can see it and be reminded, often, of who I want to be in the New Year. It feels like a right and good way to start.
Last year was difficult. I was anxious for it to end. As if turning the page on the calendar will wash away twelve months of pain and heartache and make it all better. We know it won’t, but we still hope, don’t we? We crack a smile, pull on the party hat, and declare, “This will be a great year!” But just in case it’s full of more hard stuff, we vow we will be better. So we make New Year’s resolutions. Be more this. Be less that. Do more of this. Do way less of that. But I gotta tell ya, the very thought of that stresses me out. So a few years ago, I started choosing a word for the New Year instead. Last year I chose JOY.
Here’s where I sigh deeply and admit defeat. Not that there wasn’t joy to be had. I just wasn’t mature enough to find it in the murk. (That’s an essay for another time and place.) What I want to share with you today is this: I’ve decided to look at the lessons I learned from 2022 rather than try to make promises to myself for 2023. Whatever I’ve learned, I’ve already got, and no one can take away from me. So, let’s see. What are three lessons I learned last year?
1. Even when you lose something, you still have so much to give. 2. Even when things don’t go back to “normal,” you can adjust, and life can still be good. 3. “One day at a time” may be a cliché, but it’s the best way.
I hope you can also mine some lessons from 2022. And if that’s too challenging, hey, you can always write about it.
New Year’s Day is a date on the calendar where many make resolutions for the year ahead, yet few are resolute in carrying them to fruition. While I am not one who routinely partakes in this tradition, and instead reflects and tweaks behaviors often, a few months ago I realized a major flaw. My analysis was seriously lacking. My healthy lifestyle had a major fissure. Sure, my nutritional intake, daily exercise, my loving family, friends, and my passion for my profession, along with a strong spiritual belief system were all solid. I had a strong foundation. Yet amidst it all there was a weakness that needed to be strengthened. Like many, I enjoy a rather robust day of activities. But, I recognized I was not fully “present” each day and instead I was going through the motions.
The crack in the foundation revealed itself when a health scare provided the sobering wakeup call I needed. Scared, the life analysis began. The result: living vs. existing. The realization was numbing. All I could think about were the regrets with loved ones. I began to look at my days differently and planned accordingly so as to be present in life, and with no regrets.
The process of goal setting, changes, resolutions has taken on a new look for me, and while the daily self-reflection continues, when it comes to major changes, these are the questions I now consider.
Why is this important? Will it bring me joy? Will this bring me closer to living my life’s purpose? Will accomplishing this bring me closer to having no-regrets?
Life is a journey. Each moment is a new opportunity for each of us to make internal changes as we deem necessary. And, perhaps this year, as we look at our list of resolutions, we might check it twice, and consider the WHY, the JOY, the PURPOSE, and the pursuit of NO-REGRETS.
(By the way, looking more deeply into someone’s eyes, squeezing another a little tighter, and listening intently, are just a few suggestions to help us to be more present in our lives.)
This year the ball will drop on Times Square at exactly midnight. In our home there will be some kind of cheer. The sounds of glasses clinking, rattles rattling, and whistles whistling will muffle the beautiful words of well wishes whispered in our ears during effusive embraces. And everything will have a touch of normalcy and of hope. Deep down in all our hearts, normalcy and hope are familiar and give us a sense of security.
Is it nostalgia that makes us have that desire for the familiar, or is it, instead of nostalgia, a real need to go back to a more secure time? The answer for each of us is different. I am sure that the thousands of people who are presently trying to cross the border are nostalgic for a very distant past before their insecurity became intolerable. That nostalgia fuels them to risk their lives in hope for a future. They dream of the Shangri-La that we already take for granted. It is a warm bed, a plate of food at every mealtime, school for the children, a place to call home.
As for me, I feel nostalgic for the time when we knew that this country was heading in the right direction. Are we still progressing when we have no respect for everyone’s lives? We have most of the answers to make things right. So, today, I wish for a future where we can cheer and embrace on New Year’s Eve, certain that everyone has a safe place to sleep.
For a truly happy new year “forget yourself.” It’s a bit of wisdom, Irish Zen actually, I first heard about ten years ago when I stopped by Dingle, Ireland’s oldest art gallery. The shop, co-owned by Katherine Keough and her daughter, was located in a cozy courtyard across from Dick Mack’s Pub, a classic Irish watering hole. In her mid-seventies, Katherine was a beautiful fair-skinned woman with cheeks the color of ripening peaches. When telling stories, her facial features seemed to dance with delight as she spun one pleasing anecdote after another. As she spoke, her lithe fingers crocheted decorative pieces destined for a high-end Manhattan clothing store. It was fine work that she accomplished without the aid of eyeglasses: a remarkable feat for a woman of a certain age.
“Forget yourself,” came up as she described how, as a young woman, she needed prodding to move out front from the safety of the back room to greet customers at the fancy dress shop where she had been working. When she resisted the move, her boss, who would have none of it, told her “Forget yourself.” You might think it means the same as “don’t worry about it,” and you’d be wrong. Forget yourself, is more Zen-like. As the story goes, that’s all the advice she needed to begin to take charge of what would become a very successful life. So, for 2023, I’m going to take that advice, and urge you to do the same. Forget yourself and Happy New Year.
Weekend before Thanksgiving 2022. I decide to undertake the final lawn mowing of the year. Swatches of long grass are begging for a trim, plus the mower will shred the last of the interloper leaves littering the yard. The temperature rises into the low fifties, warm enough for the mower’s oil to flow properly, cool enough so I shouldn’t get overheated. A few wild tugs and the machine coughs on.
Normally, I love lawn mowing. As the blade whirs, so does my mind. This outdoor activity fuels creative thoughts, ideas for writing pieces I’m working on or the formation of mental vignettes for future stories. But today, thoughts of the crises pummeling my family this fall beat down all other brain activity. The mowing itself doesn’t help. The dry lawn and pockets of subsurface frozen soil makes for bumpy passes back and forth. My hands clench the handle as I navigate over a particularly choppy area. And now I’m headed for the tire ruts. Deep channels, made by masons driving their truck across the yard, who promised they’d return to fill them in, but never did. I lean into a full body push and rush forward, up and over, up and then a tire getting caught in the deep channel, backing up and trying again. A replication of how I’ve emotionally navigated the past few months. It’s so tempting to turn off the mower and let the yard sit in a shaggy state over the winter. To turn my back on what needs to be done, go into early self-hibernation. However, sense of responsibility and care for my land takes over. I shoulder on. Just like I’ve done all season.
As the mower eases onto to the flat, open stretch between the house and garage, I see it. Sheltered by tufts of defiant grass is a dandelion. A single flower in full bloom! The closer my passes bring me to it, the brighter its yellow petals glow. Normally a weed, today this plant is the most beautiful thing in the yard. No way can I bring myself to mow it down. As I steer the mower around it, an old adage pops into mind. Bloom where you are planted.
Bloom where you are planted, my lips mouth the words. This thought roars to life louder than the mower’s motor. Against all odds, this plant is flowering, happily soaking up the warmth and energy of the sun, focusing its energies on living life to the fullest in spite of the packed soil, recent frosts and looming winter. This single bloom is not only thriving itself. It hands over to me a smile, a sense of wonder and hope. I realize I haven’t bloomed at all in recent months. My energies so stuck in ruts filled with stress and worry, it’s all I can do to get through each workday. In the evenings and on weekends, I bury myself under a lap blanket in front of the T.V. to try to escape the bad stuff going on around me. Wishing I lived life of characters in the movies I watch, in the places where they reside.
But what if I try to fill in, as best I can, life’s ruts and focus on the good things in each day? Pass on goodness and cheer to those around me. Embrace my life no matter how bumpy the ride. What if I bloom where I’M planted? Add a glow to each day as the dandelion just did for me.
As I finish the rest of the lawn, ideas as to how to brighten the lives of loved ones and my own whir though my mind faster than the mower blade. I’m a bud starting to emerge, pushing through the frozen, packed down soil of life. I feel the flow of renewed living ready to burst forth.
For this Year of 2023, I’m determined to blossom year-round. To take on all adversities with a positive attitude. Push hard through them. Embrace the sunniness in each day and reflect it onto others. To think, all it took was a single dandelion, in full bloom, in a Connecticut yard, in late November, to change my life. I smile, imagining what my lawn will look like when the rest of the dandelions there bloom. I’ll be sure to raise the height of my lawn mower so I don’t cut them all down!
One thing I have discovered about writing over the years is this—the act of writing is best idea generator there is. When I write, I often surprise myself with insights I didn’t know I had—things I never would have thought of had I not sat down to write about something else.
My latest revelation came when I was writing the annual letter that gets tucked in my holiday cards. A little bit of family news quickly gave way to musings about the pandemic and how we are different now because of it. Then came this paragraph:
The one certainty in all of this is that while the world was hibernating, time forged on. And while we really can’t make up for lost time, we can use whatever resources we have to make to most of the time to come. The new year is daring us to take it on and make it count.
And there it was. The dare. Not to become someone new—someone smarter or thinner or famous or rich—but to be aware of what we have in us and around us right now and to use those gifts to live our best lives in the new year. Something that at first sounded to me like a cheesy cliché blossomed into a bona fide revelation.
So, instead of making resolutions about how much I need to change myself only to have them all tumble into a heap before January’s out, I’m taking up the dare. The goal is to create a 2023 with meaning and memories that have shape and heft. Really, every year (every day!) has plenty—colors and flavors and beautiful things to savor and enjoy—but I’ve been too clutter-headed to see them, too wrapped up in what I don’t have and what I can’t do to appreciate what’s there all the time. I’ve overlooked many memorable moments and personal successes by not perceiving their value.
So here’s the thing. Every moment has potential and I have the power to notice it unlock it whenever I want. Who knew?
The pandemic, even as it wanes, pinches me often, reminding me to be present wherever I am, to make the most of the time I have whatever I’m doing, to be on the lookout for opportunities to contribute to the place where I live, to look, to listen, to be aware, to be appreciative. So that’s what I’m going to do—make time count now, while I’ve got it. It is, after all, marching on, whether I’ve got my act together or not.
I’ll use my writing to help me. It is, after all, what reveals to me things I didn’t know I knew. Like, all of the above.
You can do this, too. Be present. Be open to the beauty in your world. Understand, appreciate and use your gifts—just as they are. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions or the perfect moment or the perfect you because, really, there is no such thing. Find your best ways to make your new year count.
Christmastime never fails to transport me to the house of my childhood in Colombia, my family, our traditions, and especially, my mother. Even now, so many years after my mother’s death, I cannot help but admire the heroic effort she made to create in her children’s mind a beautiful and safe idea of the meaning of this holiday. The intense memories have caused me, her oldest child, to think about the contradictory ways she influenced my upbringing. At the time, however, I was much too young to grasp the immensity of her problems.
In Colombia, on the 24th of December at midnight, it is still the tradition, despite the strong American influence in Latin America, that it is Baby Jesus, and not Santa Claus, who brings gifts to the children. Christmas trees are merely for decoration. Baby Jesus delivers the presents at midnight at the foot of each child’s bed. The idea of Santa entering through the chimney would not work anyway. Houses in Colombia don’t have chimneys. And until the abnormally old age of nine or ten, I still believed in the Baby Jesus.
The innocence of childhood could be measured by our belief in Santa Claus in America, or in the Baby Jesus, in Colombia. That innocence is fragile. Some families preserve it for as long as they can. That is, until a know-it-all friend at school tells you the reality that destroys the magic. In my case, I would have preferred to learn it from a classmate. I learned it from my own mother. It hurt a lot. I was too young and naïve to understand that my mother needed me to grow up very fast. My father was no longer her lovely companion but a stranger. He provided for all of us but was usually absent. He had someone else, and my mother was all alone. With many children, she didn’t have time for friends. Her pride didn’t let her confide with her siblings who, being single, could not have advised her on such matters anyway.
“What would you like for Christmas?” my mother asked me casually one day. I knew this to be an important question that required a prompt, definite answer. When you are the oldest of six (the seventh came a year or so later), there is no time for hesitation. You have only one chance to state what you really want.
“A Monopoly game,” I said, firmly. There was nothing else I desired. My siblings were given surprises. They were too young to express what they really wanted. I had learned through the years that Baby Jesus was very methodic. He had to go to so many houses, and perform miracles for so many children, that the only opportunity you had was to request aloud what you wanted when your mother asked you. Nobody had told me this. I had figured it out on my own.
As I had said it, I was confident that I would get it. It had worked in the past. It had to do with the fact that you had to say the words. Then, when you woke up on Christmas day, sleeping on the row of mattresses shared by you and your cousins and siblings on that special day, you would find at your feet what you had requested. Or else you would receive a surprise if you had not asked for something aloud. That was the mystery — and the trick to get what you wanted. Baby Jesus couldn’t get into your head. There was something magic that occurred when you expressed your desire with words that people could hear.
Monopoly was not the newest game. I had played it a few times. But I wanted to have my own. I wanted to be the one saying, “Let’s play some Monopoly.” My cousin Graciela usually won. She was the one who always invited us to play. She was the one who owned the Monopoly game.
Days later, after I had made my request to Baby Jesus, I went shopping with my mother. She bought things like dolls with long hair or cars that ran when you wound them up. I didn’t dare ask why she was buying them or for whom. I sensed there was something weird that I should not question. I hung around adults and was used to not asking questions about what they did or said.
A couple of weeks later, I was playing hide-and-go-seek at our house with one of my sisters and her friend. I was supposed to be hiding. I stepped into a closet that I seldom had a reason to go into. I figured it was a good hiding place. No sooner had I entered it, when I saw some of the toys my mother had purchased with me, and a Monopoly game.
I was easily found that day because I never even closed the closet door. I was confused. I would never have dared to question my mother, however. She was sweet, but ready to punish us if we trespassed in any way.
Days passed. It was Christmas Eve. We had cousins over. We ate a midnight meal. After that, we were directed to spend the night, as usual for every Christmas Eve, in the large living room. I normally feared that room because it was dark, with its shutters always closed, and filled with dark shelves holding old books. But it was the largest room in the house. It accommodated several mattresses in a row where all of us, my siblings, and cousins, slept after a night full of fun games and great food. The next day, when the first one of us woke up, all of us also sat up knowing that, at our feet, we would find a gift from Baby Jesus.
That morning I was thrilled to find a brand-new Monopoly game. I opened it and discovered how it was packaged: the community chest and chance cards, the money, the board, the houses and hotels, and everything else. It was all new to me. I was overjoyed. I coerced some cousins to play with me in exchange for playing with their new toys.
It was not until the following year that the Monopoly game in the closet, and my siblings playing with the toys we had purchased, became relevant. That December, still believing in Baby Jesus, I again accompanied my mother to do her shopping. Without any preamble, she said, “Last year we bought you the Monopoly game you wanted so badly. What would you like for us to buy you this year?”
My heart dropped. I had refused to believe a rumor I had heard that Baby Jesus didn’t bring your gifts at Christmas. That it was your parents. I sighed angrily at the momentous realization. But I played it cool. At my age, I should have known. But I had always believed what adults told me.
With the wisdom of age, I ultimately understood what my mother was doing, and I am glad I didn’t complain at the time. She had lost her husband’s affections to another woman at the time she gave birth to her fourth child. She carried the brutal load of pretending to be a happy wife, when her husband was not even around to help her choose their children’s gifts. From the moment she let me know who the real Baby Jesus was, she started to ease me into being her confidant. For many years I was the person to whom she told secrets that she needed to tell somebody, but that I mostly wish I had never heard. Even late in life, when she no longer remembered most things, my name was the one that resonated in the hallways of the nursing home. How I wish now I had been less naïve and more mature to ease her pain when she needed me the most!
It’s the most miserable Christmas Eve ever. Bren and me are racing each other for the toilet, either puking or blowing our brains out our butts or both. I was the one who puked in the sink while I was pooping. Mom was not at all happy about that. So I didn’t tell her that Bren had been pooping in the tub at the same time. It was just liquid and a drain’s a drain and it was all just water anyways so we just rinsed it all down.
I promised Bren I wouldn’t tell on him and he promised not to tell Mom I wouldn’t get off the can so he could go. It’s not like we haven’t peed in front of each other before in the woods. Mom doesn’t know about that and Dec says what happens in the woods is nobody’s never mind.
I can’t remember ever feeling this sick. I never throw up and this is the first time I ever had diarrhea. We eat so many raw veggies and fruit that we all just go real regular and easy. It’s funny that there’s so many of us here but we never seem to get in each other ‘s way. I just know this is the first time I couldn’t get off the toilet and Bren just couldn’t wait. We haven’t eaten all day. Mom keeps forcing us to drink ginger ale and plain tea with honey, but even that just comes shooting out one end or the other. I’d feel like crying but all my extra liquid is dried up. It’s Christmas Eve after all but I’m too sick to even feel sorry for myself.
It’s the first time I saw the Christmas tree get all the way decorated.
Usually we just hang one ornament on the tree and go to bed. But me and Bren have been racing each other back and forth to the bathroom all day and night with no room to think of anything else. Which is a real bummer ‘cuz this year we made cookie ornaments—little cookie wreaths and candy canes and they’re hanging all over the tree. Normally we’d be trying to snitch a cookie or two but now even looking at the tree send us flying to the can again. Bootsie, our dog, is real interested in the tree but even he knows to stay out of our way.
No one else is sick. I don’t know why Bren and me are the only sick ones. I don’t think we were extra bad. I mean Bren almost never breaks the rules and I almost never get caught plus most of the time it’s just easier to do what the grown-ups want. I don’t really believe in the whole God punishes you warning. I figure there’s just too many people for anyone to keep track of ”who’s naughty or nice.” I guess that means I finally don’t believe in Santa Claus. I mean, I’m nine, for crying out loud. I’ve been wobbly on the whole idea of Santa for the last couple of years, but if I give up on Santa that means I only have my parents. Seems like this year seals the deal since I saw Mom and Dad put the presents under the tree.
Both me and Bren still have really high temperatures, over 101. But
Mom and Dad are gonna leave us to babysit while they go to Midnight
Mass. Dec is gonna babysit for our cousins who live around the block so Aunt Lily and Uncle Charlie can go with Mom and Dad. Dec just has to sleep on their couch or watch Lawrence Welk or whatever. It’s a white Christmas so they’re all gonna walk the few blocks to church. It sounds nice but I wish they would stay home. I just feel like we’re too sick to leave alone. But I just keep quiet and they leave.
At first it seems like they took the sick with them when they left. Bren and I both felt better. So we decided to take a chance and sneak a cookie each. We were careful to take them from the back of the tree. Big mistake. One bite and the pukes came roaring back so fast that Bren crashed into me in his rush to get to the toilet. That sent me careening right into the tree which came smashing down right smack on top of me. Then Bootsie went wild gobbling all the cookies and pulverizing ornaments while the water from the tree stand soaked all the presents. All Bren and I care about is puking ourselves bone dry.
Then I try to pull presents out of the water and Bren puts Bootsie out just in time for him to leave a huge dump on the front step. Then we’re crying and trying to stand the tree up but we’re too weak and then Mom and Dad are home. They take one look around, broken ornaments, soggy presents, and forget the cookies. They’re just soggy crumbs and doggie slobber. Dad has doggie poo on his boots and he’s furious and Mom is laughing helplessly.
Dec just reaches in his pocket and whispers, “Hey Brigid, I got you a present.” I look up hopefully and reach out my hand.
My son, who lives on the West Coast, just called to tell me he’ll be coming home for Thanksgiving. It’s the first week in November. Initially I’m thrilled. After three years, we’ll finally celebrate a holiday together, in person. Then panic drops in. I work full time and watch my grandchildren part-time. Will there be time to deep clean the house? What will I serve for the feast, which, by the way, will be on Black Friday since Nate will arrive home Thanksgiving evening? When will there be time for all the food prep? I dart here and there between the kitchen and my notepad on the dining room table, checking cupboards to see what canned and dry goods I already have, starting a grocery list and comparing what I need against the week’s food flier sales. Yes, I know some purchases are best made closer to when Nate arrives home, but things like the stuffing, pumpkin bread and pie, these I can make and freeze ahead of time. It’s hard to sit still. I’m multitasking thoughts to access all that needs to be done, something I do when there are last minute changes in plans.
Pie … My mind shifts gears. Where is my pie pan? Nowadays, I only make a pie around the holidays so the pan must be tucked away in the corner cupboard. On my knees, I partially dive into the shelfless, vast space. Ah, there it is, under the extra boxes of tall kitchen bags and rolls of paper towels. Actually, both pie pans are there. Duplicates. My mother gave me one of hers the first year I was married. I ended up with the second after she died, ten years later, before Nate was even born. I’ve owned other pie pans at one time or another but ended up donating them to Goodwill. Mom’s are a sturdy stainless steel and sport a “drip lip” around the top edge which helps catch oozing fruit pie fillings when baking. Why bake pies in anything else?
I pull out one of the pans and hold it in front of me to check and see if it needs to be washed. However, instead of inspecting for dust, I find myself gazing at my fractured reflection in the knife-scratched bottom. So many cuts, straight lines, dividing up the hazy image of my face. Similar to my thoughts right now, hundreds of them going this way and that. My vision blurs as my mind detours and roughly calculates how old the first knife scratch made must be. If Mom received these pans when she married Dad, it’d be a least sixty-seven years old. With a finger, I trace the indentation of one of the fine scratches. Is it one of the first lines etched into the pan or one of the more recent? This particular line looks like a fresher cut in the metal, more so than the rest. I feel like I’m moving across the life line in one’s palm. My thoughts shift, decelerate as I think about the last time I made a pie.
It was a pumpkin pie, made when Nate and I celebrated Thanksgiving 2020 virtually. Through his then-employer, he had a Zoom account so we didn’t worry about time constraints. For Thanksgiving dinner, we each cooked, ahead of time, slightly scaled-down versions of what would have been the in-person feast, had COVID-19 not squashed Nate’s New England travel plans. And so when we first “met,” face-to-monitors, we ate Thanksgiving our dinners together.
After the meal, at Nate’s request, I conducted a virtual baking lesson. My son wanted to learn how to make pumpkin pie. A dessert I only made once for him, for a Thanksgiving many years earlier. At that time, I substituted soy milk for cow’s milk because of his severe dairy allergy. Nate liked the pie. I could barely swallow a spoonful. Not even the extra spices or an added glop of molasses masked the soy. For the 2020 pie, Nate opted to try coconut milk.
Careful planning went into my preparing for this lesson. Getting the ingredient list and a copy of the recipe to Nate weeks before, roasting and pureeing pumpkin and clearing enough kitchen counter space for the demonstration. When we were ready to begin, I propped my laptop up on an inverted roasting pan on the counter so Nate could view what I was doing. Starting with instructions for making the crust, I first launched into a mini-lecture on the importance of using ice cold water and not overmixing the ingredients which would make the dough elastic-like rather than flaky. Then came the actual crust making. I quickly measured out the flour and margarine, then deftly cut through them with my pastry cutter.
“Slow down, Mom, you’re getting way ahead of me! I’m still measuring out the flour!” Nate sounded frustrated. “Please, this is not only about making pumpkin pie, it’s also doing something enjoyable together with you! We have all afternoon and evening; there is no need to rush!”
“Oh, OK. Sorry.” I pulled up a chair and plunked down while Nate finished measuring out his flour then next tried to figure out what pastry blender alternatives he had in his apartment. While he did this, I said very little, chastising myself internally for going so fast. Nearly all Thanksgiving preparations in my adult years, including this one, were conducted at “blur speed.” Juggling working full-time, long commutes and daily family chores along with pulling together a massive food spread taking place mid-week required multitasking and efficiency. Enjoyable? When did I last find enjoyment preparing for Thanksgiving? Growing up, although we never hosted Thanksgiving at our house, Mom engaged in lots of food preparation for the family gatherings held in Massachusetts. She loved doing this and it was fun. None of it felt rushed, not even the labor-intensive pumpkin pie-making for which Mom welcomed any and all help.
“Mom, you’re awfully quiet. Are you OK?” Nate interrupted my musings. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Just thinking about making pumpkin pies with my mom,” I told him. “And how much I fun I had helping her. Pie-making was a two-day endeavor back then. A few days before the holiday, Mom would bring out our Halloween Jack O’ Lantern which was preserved in our unheated pantry. I got to wear one of her full-frontal aprons with the big pockets. We spread newspaper on the kitchen table and pulled out the large, wooden cutting board. Then Mom cut the grinning-faced squash into large chunks with a carving knife, making sure to remove any moldy areas. Since our paring knife was dull, I was allowed to use it to cut the rind away from the flesh and reduce the pieces down into smaller chunks. Mom didn’t roast the pumpkin like I now do. She boiled it until soft in water in her tall stock pot. While we worked and later as the pumpkin softened in the pot, Mom and I talked about all sorts of things—school, my paper route and what I might want for Christmas. If I had an upcoming French vocab quiz, she’d test me on my list of words. I loved it when she’d tell a story or two about her childhood growing up on a truck farm or working as a 4-H camp counselor. After the pumpkin was cooked, Mom drained off the water and then we took turns enthusiastically pounding it to a pulp with the potato masher, usually singing a song together. The mushy pumpkin was then set in a fine strainer over a bowl to drain overnight. Then the following night I mixed together the filling ingredients while Mom made the pie crust.”
“So even back then you made pumpkin pies from pumpkins you cooked yourselves?” Nate asked.
“Yes, the Thanksgiving ones. At Christmas time we used canned pumpkin because the Halloween pumpkin was all used up by then.”
“I wish I had known your mother,” Nate commented. “I like it when you tell stories about what she did and liked.”
“Mom found enjoyment in the smallest things like housework, cooking and being a stay-at home mom. I think, in part, that’s why she rarely rushed. And why it took forever for some things to get done, like packing and later unpacking when we took those Massachusetts trips. Mom was all doing things with others, probably because of growing up with five sisters and they all were expected to pitch in helping around the house. You know, she’d be happy that I’m showing you how to make a pumpkin pie. And even more thrilled we are doing this together. Thanks for stopping me, Nate. I lost sight that togetherness is a main ingredient in this pie making. Now, grab a fork and we’ll start bringing the flour, margarine, lemon juice and water together. Then we’ll switch to using our hands.”
From that point on in the pie lesson, it was if my mother was added to the mix. Rolling out the crust dough on the floured cutting boards, folding it lightly into quarters to transfer it to our pie plates to avoid holes forming due to stretching/lifting and finally unfolding it and fitting it to the pie pan.
“Mom always flattened down the edges of the pie crust around the rim with a fork, I think because her single pie crust recipe, rolled out thin, barely covered the bottom and sides of the pan. I don’t have that issue with the crust recipe I use. However, the filling I make more than fills the pie pan so I work the rim of the crust upwards so it holds in more filling, like this. And then, like my mom, if there is still extra filling, I put it in custard cups and bake them the same time as the pie.”
As we next worked on the filling. Nate and I synced into a slow, easy rhythm, adding of each ingredient at the same time to our large bowls. We found ourselves laughing about the messiness in pouring out a generous tablespoonful of molasses then trying to clean up the sticky bottles. And scrambled to locate all the spices in our cabinets.
“It smells so good,” Nate remarked.
“Wait until the pie is in the oven,” I tell him. “I’ve not yet found a scented candle that can match the aroma of a baking pumpkin pie!”
My brain jolts back to the present as I think that the making of those pies and finishing our time together with each eating a slice was the highlight of that Thanksgiving. And now this year another line will be etched into this pan. I want it to be one of thankfulness, enjoyment and laugher, not one with memories of non-stop frenzy. Nate isn’t going to be upset if I don’t get everything done. He’ll be tired from his travels and time change but will still want to help with some of the food preparation. I glance at the pie pan in my hand. That’s it! We’ll make the pumpkin pie together, in-person this time. One pie, this year made with coconut milk! As a warmth moves through me, I find myself humming. Humming the song Mom and I usually sang when mashing the cooked pumpkin.
I would never consider taking down a healthy tree. If it’s there, it’s there. If I don’t like it, I learn to live with it. Most of the time. The Flowering Pear tree, ornamental, invasive and one of nature’s dirty tricks, is an exception.
Like the other just-for-show trees on our property, this one was planted by the previous owners and was a tall, hearty, strapping adolescent when we moved in. Its summertime self, tall, tear-shaped, densely-leafed, seemed perfect for its spot next to the patio off the south-facing back of the house. The full sun that shone there was just what this tree craved. In turn, it provided ceaseless shade over the patio which made sitting there on a summer afternoon quite pleasant.
Win-win. Or so it would seem.
We moved into the house in the fall and by then, the worm had turned.
It seems that the flowering pear actually produces fruit. It is a sorry excuse for fruit that bears no resemblance to an actual pear. It’s more like a small crabapple—or a big berry. It turns brown and shriveled and then falls on the ground where it squishes underfoot, gets caught in the treads of your sneakers and smears on your floors.
Our tree, in its heyday, produced hundreds of them—and every year, it seemed, the spiteful thing started dropping them just a little earlier and kept at it just a little longer. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep the area clear. Then, to antagonize me further, it would let go of its leaves all at once, making a mess the enormity of which I could not bear. It got to the point where there was so much debris from this one tree on the patio that my erstwhile lovely sitting area was unusable. Walking through would muck up my shoes and actual sitting was a threat to clothing and skin alike. Not to mention the uncannily inevitable bonk on the head from falling “fruit.” Somehow, I never escaped this—almost as if the tree had me in its sights.
And the drop-fest was constant so there was no point in raking or sweeping—unless you like incessant raking and sweeping in which case this is the tree for you.
But memory is a funny thing. After the fall was past and the mess was cleaned up—or better, covered by a fresh coat of new snow—things didn’t seem so bad. The tree, now stripped of all of its ammunition, had a dignity of sorts to it. It stood tall against the elements and seemed to grow stronger and more resolute with each snowstorm. Leafless, fruitless, gray against the white winter landscape, it held its own in its dormancy. Winter, I decided, was when I liked it the best. It almost made me sorry that it had to end.
Because as badly as it behaved in the fall, it was nothing compared to what it did to me in the spring.
In the spring, our tree’s growth was vigorous and when its buds broke out into a profusion of white flowers up and down its two-story height, it was quite a sight. I would almost say beautiful—to look at anyway. If all you had to do was to look at it. But that’s not all you had to do.
You also had to smell it.
Once, on vacation, a raccoon died under the porch of our lake-front rental house. It’s decomposing corpse was the worst thing I had ever smelled.
Or so I thought.
These beautiful flowers smelled like the rotting flesh of a thousand dead, rancid, breath-stopping, vomit-inducing raccoons—and the dead horse they came in on. And, in a “good” year with little rain and no wind, they could cling to the branches, stinking up the world, for a solid two weeks.
Obviously, the previous owners who planted this tree didn’t think this one through. Or maybe it was the reason they moved.
We lived with this tree for seventeen years. And for seventeen springs and seventeen autumns all I did was bitch like crazy about how much I hated it. But in between those times, it was different. Its summer shade was delicious on a hot day and its stalwart resistance to the elements in the winter was impressive—almost regal. So when one of those fast-moving, mid-summer, late day, pop-up, thunder/hail/baby twister type of storms spun it around, cracked it vertically down the middle and left half of it sprawled its full length across the lawn, I had mixed feelings.
I should have been thrilled. Get the tree guy to come and finish the deed. Or, even better, get me a chain saw and I’ll take the rest of this sucker down myself!
Instead, we evened off the side of the broken trunk so that water couldn’t collect there, tarred it over so that it could heal and hoped for the best.
It did all right for a few years more, mucking up my autumns and stinking up my springs, until it didn’t anymore and we called the tree guy to bring it down with dignity.
To this day, I can’t understand why I wasn’t ecstatic.
The very next day, October 28, we had a blizzard—a real nor’easter. Freakishly early and shockingly destructive. It knocked out power and brought down trees, most of which still had their leaves, all over the place. We figured that the pear tree, had it still been standing, wouldn’t have been for long and might very well have taken out the back of our house on its way down.
So things worked out.
The flowering pear tree, I’ve decided, is a tree best experienced at a distance. I will enjoy them in other people’s yards, where I can appreciate their beauty and where their stench and their detritus can’t reach me.
In its place in my yard, I have planted a small bed of flowers—tulips in the spring and marigolds in the summer. I planted marigolds because they seem to like the soil and grow well in that spot. People tell me that marigolds stink.
Some people believe that after you’ve done anything for ten years, you can be considered an expert. I look back on all the things I’ve been doing for at least ten years and wonder if I am an expert at any of them. I guess that depends on how you measure expertise. Am I an expert at making meatloaf? Yes, I make a mean meatloaf. Proof of this lies in the fact that my family requests my meatloaf and then promptly devours it. Am I an expert at folding fitted sheets? Yup. My linen closet is tidy, with no sheets bulging out like frosting on a smashed cupcake. Then I consider the more important areas in my life than domestic chores. Am I an expert driver? Daughter? Mother? Wife? (Insert emoji with the hand on its chin.)
My husband and I just celebrated our anniversary. We went out to dinner. When my husband told the waitress we’ve been married for 28 years, she said wow and smiled and asked us our secret. I had to think for a minute. By then she was busy with another table. I wonder if she was actually expecting a response or if she’d meant it as a rhetorical question. But it didn’t matter. I was going to respond anyway, since I don’t like to leave important questions hanging in the air like that. Patience, I said. Of course at that point, she was out of earshot. My husband used his deeper baritone to relay my answer, which I have to suppose was our answer since he didn’t look at me quizzically or challenge me on it.
It was a good answer, and maybe the key to a long marriage can be summed up in one word. But life is complicated, often downright messy. I don’t want to be trite when I answer such a weighty question. After 28 years, I know full well there’s no such thing as a perfect marriage. I don’t know that anyone could ever hope to be a marriage expert. The most we can hope for is pretty good. So I’ll consider our marriage through that lens. Are we pretty good? I guess that depends on how you measure proficiency in a marriage. There are many aspects that make up a relationship, but since three is a magic number, I’ll look at three areas in our marriage–arguments, devotion, and respect– and see how we fare.
Arguments. Although it must have happened at some point while I was growing up, I don’t recall my parents arguing. Maybe they did this in private. I kind of wish they had argued in front of me and my sister so we could see how it’s done. Maybe even modeled it for us. I wish I could say my husband and I argue well, but we don’t argue a lot. (We need more practice?) That’s not to say we don’t disagree. At this point, we just have our own way of resolving conflict. When we realize we disagree and things start to get heated, one of us invariably goes quiet and walks away. We will usually revisit the issue once we’ve both cooled down. Admittedly, this may take some time, but we’ve got time. Which brings me to the second aspect: devotion.
Although things aren’t always sunshine and roses, one thing we always agree on, no matter how difficult things become, is we are committed to each other. We made the decision to stay together years ago. We sealed it with a promise at the altar 28 years ago, and we’ve been making the same choice every day since. That may sound saccharine, but it’s the truth.
That covers arguments and devotion. Which brings me to my last point–respect. Early on in our marriage, it came to light that I was disparaging my husband when I was around my friends. At the time, I thought it was the most natural thing in the world. After all, they do it on television all the time. Obviously, he was hurt. I never show you disrespect when I talk to people. I always tell them how wonderful you are and how lucky I am, he said. I felt so small I almost disappeared. I apologized profusely and vowed to never do it again. Did I succeed? Well, I’m much better than I was. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s my goal: progress. Not perfection. Won’t happen anyway. If I can wake up each day and vow to try a little harder to be a little kinder to my husband, well, that ought to do us just fine.
It’s easier to judge a good meatloaf than a good marriage. The former consists of ground beef, onions, an egg, and some Italian bread crumbs. You can’t really goof it up. The latter, on the other hand, is made up of flesh and blood, and, the slipperiest factor of all–feelings. With those ingredients, there’s a slim chance of getting anything right!We have a coffee mug I bought a few years ago. It has a picture of Peanuts character, Peppermint Patty, on it. She’s sitting at a school desk holding a paper and looking most likely at the wah-wah-speaking teacher with a dumb-founded look on her face. The quote reads, “The more I study, the more I realize how little I know!” This seems to fit my feelings around this subject of marriage (and human nature in general) more closely than the perspective in my first paragraph. Just when I think I have something figured out, something new pops up. Can you imagine if we could all be experts at marriage after ten years? Nah, me neither.
When our ages creep up into the sixties, many of us make valiant efforts to go through our beloved belongings in an attempt to downsize. At least this is what we tell others. I’m beginning to think this is just a guise. How many would confess we are hunting for and then ditching those items from our pasts we’ve never admitted, not even to our loved ones, we’ve kept. My childhood teddy bear, is an example of one such item, a stuffed animal hidden in a shoebox, whose body is worn down to an arid-looking landscape with sparse, sagebrush-like nubs of what once were fur. I know, even I get creeped out just looking at it. The reality is, rarely do we have practical reasons for hanging onto such things, including Teddy.
Stepping back and considering this, I admit this also the case with my chicken pillow. I figure seven-eighths of my reasoning for not throwing this out falls under the emotional attachment category. Only one-eighth of my reasoning is a rational one; it’s a darn comfortable pillow. I almost tossed it ten years ago when I purchased a brand-new pillow for the first time. Ever. However, for whatever reasons, I am thankful I kept it. Hidden, yes, but did not part with it. And due to a recent event, likely will not. Ever. Here’s why my chicken pillow will stay with me until the end.
I’m not the best person to be around after 10 p.m. Don’t give me instructions after that time unless you write them down and leave them where I’ll see them in the morning. Don’t pick a fight with me that late. Although I try not to go to bed mad, after that time I’m in no mood to try and work things out. I need to wait until I’ve had a good sleep and my 6 a.m. cup of tea; then we can talk. My journal entries are never written at bedtime; they’d never portray the happy, even-keel person I basically am. Nor would they likely portray, in a good light, anyone I write about. And, when I’m ready to pack it in for the day, it’s NOT the best time for me to make decisions. Like the ones I am trying to make right now. Where the heck am I going to sleep tonight? And on what?!
And now, upon hearing the scritchings and scratchings in the second story knee wall space above my living room chair at 10:03 p.m., my first reaction is to consider how quickly I can pack an overnight bag and drive to my daughter’s. However, I’m exhausted, plus don’t want to wake her, so I consider other options. Maybe if I bang on the living room ceiling with something soft, the critter will rush out of the house. The dust mop! I grab this cleaning aid and start thumping on the ceiling with the padded end. The noises stop as dust balls and ceiling paint chips rain down. Three minutes later, the noises start up again. Not overhead this time, but further away from the opening in the side of the house. Deeper into my abode, not closer to vacating it.
Knowing the identity of the intruder fuels my anxiety. Two weeks ago, “Joe,” the wildlife pest control person, confirmed only a raccoon could’ve moved aside the metal slats of the vent in the second story wall, making an opening large enough to enter the space behind the sheet rocked walls the length of the south side of the house. He tacked a screen over the hole but didn’t secure the bottom, the idea being if something was still inside when I left for vacation that it could push up the bottom of the screen to get outside. He also wanted to see if something was actively still using the space. If something was already out, would it try to go back in? When I returned home a week later, my “vacation calm” evaporated as soon as I spied the flipped-up screen. And now, three nights later, there is no doubt. The hole is active.
I wander around trying to figure out sleep accommodations for the night. There’s no way I’m going to sleep in my upstairs bedroom. The room’s windows open out over the one-story addition roof. On hot nights like this, I sleep with them open along with a fan running. The compromised vent is four feet from the bedroom windows. What if the raccoon tried to tear a window screen and enter my room?!! No way am I going to sleep up there!
I have an inflatable mattress, but my back bothered me for days after last sleeping on it. I see the twin bed mattress in the “Far Bedroom.” This room, stuffed with boxes and furniture, became the storage room after the upstairs rooms were finally renovated.The mattress is piled waist high with winter clothes and bags and bins of quilting fabric and projects. This room is like one ginormous dust bunny; I can’t sleep in here, as the dusty piles, cobwebs and flattened 1970’s bright blue shag rug would bring on a sinus infection like no other. I ponder my dilemma. Even if I could maneuver the mattress out of this room, where would I put it? Not in the living room or adjoining dining room, no way.
I start pacing. Tired and stressed, I finally collapse in a chair at the dining room table and stare at the day’s unfinished crossword puzzle. Then, right above me, I hear actual footsteps. Good Lord, the coon has to be between the floor joists, moving in the space between the upstairs floor and dining room ceiling! I grab the mop again and thwack the ceiling. Thump, thump! More dust bunnies coming down. My tears start to come down as well.
I’m desperate. I flee to the Far Bedroom and start moving the items off of the mattress. Finally, I’m down to the last things on it, an old fleece, a way too cheery beach towel and a pillow. My chicken feather pillow! So this was where I stashed it. This was made by Grandma Nimtz, one of four given to my parents as wedding presents. A head rest I slept on from childhood all the way through my marriage until I moved into the bedroom upstairs after my husband had passed on. I put the pillow aside. It takes a number of grunts and pulls to finally turn the mattress up on its long end. Stumbling backwards, I’m able to slide it out of the room then through the series of rooms in the back of the house. My destination is the room next to the kitchen.
The “Breakfast Nook,” as it was once called, is now also a storage space. Pretty much just furniture that came from my dad’s estate rests in here. Unlike the Far Bedroom, I keep this small room fairly dust-free. And it has a walkway so one can get from the kitchen to the Middle Bathroom. A wide walkway. There’s enough room for the mattress. It’ll have to do. I fit the mattress into the space and open the window next to it, letting in the concert performed by crickets and katydids. With this window open and the doors at either end of the Breakfast Nook shut, I’m pretty sure I won’t hear any inside critter activity. I should be able to sleep.
I grab a thick foam pad and twin sheet set and make up the mattress. And grab the two pillows off of my upstairs bed. I’m more than ready to sleep. Or so I think. The padded mattress feels fine for my back and arthritic knees. But the pillows… The twin mattress is much firmer than my pliable, who knows how old, mattress on the bed upstairs. After trying both pillows, as is my usual habit, then just one, it feels like I’m dealing with the pillow version of The Princess and the Pea. What do I have to do to get a decent night’s sleep?! For a brief moment, I consider sleeping reclined in my car’s front seat.
Then, I remember the chicken pillow. I could try that. I do have an extra hypoallergenic cover and, thankfully, know where it is. I get up, locate the cover and then pull it over the blue ticking holding the sterilized feathers. As was my habit for years, when changing pillowcases on this, I check for feathers, which from time to time can escape through the stretched stitching. Mainly white ones sneak out but once in a while there’s a golden brown one. I also check for the chicken bone trapped inside. I was pretty grossed out as a kid when I first discovered it. But, after multiple times of feeling it through the thick fabric, I deduced it was the long half of a wishbone–making this a good luck pillow. I don’t see any feathers tonight and cannot locate the bone. I zipper up the cover and pull on a cotton pillowcase.
The minute my head hits the chicken pillow comfort washes over me. Tonight, I don’t even need to shake the pillow to redistribute the feathers; my head weighted down on it slightly displaces them. The chicken feather version of memory foam. Not only is the feel comforting; soon my thoughts are also soothed. Visions of raccoons fade out of the picture as I sink into memories of the summer nights of my childhood, in the bedroom I shared with my sister. The ritual of fluffing up the chicken pillow and making sure the bone was pushed to one corner so I wouldn’t sleep on it. The night noises of crickets and katydids clamoring into the room through the two open windows, just as they are doing now. As I start to doze off, I swear I hear the gurgling brook alongside my family’s Bethel home. Nature’s version of telling a bedtime story.
Soon I am sound asleep. The most solid sleep I’ve had in weeks, maybe even months. I don’t even wake up to rearrange the pillow, as is my normal habit at least once during the night; the chicken pillow is comfortable just as is.
The next morning, I call the wildlife pest control facility. No, Joe cannot come today, the earliest opening he has is in 8 days. I’m am not happy about this and ask that if anything opens up sooner to please let me know. I continue to spend nights in The Breakfast Nook. Night after night of solid sleeps. When Joe finally shows up, he puts a “one way door” over the vent opening so if there’s anything still in the wall, it can get out.
“I’m pretty sure you had a family of coons in there,” he informs me. “But the young’uns should be old enough by now to make their way out if any are still in there.” The one-way door needs to be left up for a few days. After that the vent opening can be secured. I plan on sleeping in the Breakfast Nook three more days.
Ten days have passed and I’m still sleeping on chicken pillow and the padded mattress on the floor. What if one of the young coons couldn’t get out and the mother coon returns for it? This is highly unlikely because I’ve just arranged for the trees to be trimmed back from the house so as to eliminate access to the roof. The real reason I’m still camped out in the Breakfast Nook is I hate the thought of giving up the good night’s sleep.
But it’s now September. Not too long before the days and nights cool down, signaling the furnace to come to life just as the crickets and katydids fade out. Before this happens, I promise myself a new mattress for the bed upstairs. I’m also convinced that the only pillow, that will do from now on, is the chicken pillow. There’s not one reason I can come up with now for giving it up. Teddy, yes. If I ever locate that shoebox, Teddy will be quick to go. But the chicken pillow, honestly, encased in a zippered protective case and covered in one of Grandma’s embroidered pillowcases, who will ever know this is a chicken pillow? Hidden in plain sight! No one will ever find it because I don’t know of anyone, after a loved one dies, who has kept the deceased’s pillow. Ever.