Last year, a neighbor gave me a sock full of birdseed. She loved
her birds, and I would too. Was I at this point in my life? Apparently I am. I
placed the sock in one of our ficus trees within view of the dinner table and
we’d watch in awe as tiny birds in a dozen jewel tones would arrive momentarily
in view to have a snack.
One sock became two. During the hot summer months, I also
filled up a large automatic dog watering station near the feeders too. Soon,
birds were dipping into the water to cool down and have a drink between bites
to eat. It was all delightful.
At Christmas, my mother in law gave me a new feeder. It’s a
small metal box with a chain you hang from foliage. Inside, you place a square
of greasy suet. This attracts larger birds, who are mostly shades of brown but have
the same voracious appetites as their younger, more colorful finch cousins.
Recently, my husband moved the feeders from the ficus tree
to outside the kitchen window. The socks hang from a series of black metal
hooks that are pushed deep into the earth below the window. The suet box hangs
behind them from the branches of a climbing pyracantha, which is in full bloom
with thousands of bright red berries.
All of this to say, I look forward to sticking my hands in a
sink of warm, soapy water after dinner and listening to the birds outside of my
kitchen window. We had no idea so many varieties lived in our neighborhood. It
is a simple joy.
I’ve also become the woman who has a jar of homemade jam or
chutney in her purse to give away. I’m not sure how or when this happened, but
as I write this, I realize I handed out five jars yesterday, including to our
favorite bartender at the sushi restaurant last night. I’ve given him enough
jam, the transaction didn’t seem strange to anyone, including my shy husband who’d
rather we just not make conversation with
This time of life is comfortable and peaceful. Our family is
healthy, we are enjoying our work, we have extra time to spend traveling and
seeing friends and making tiny jars of jam with whatever fruit is in season. And
the birds continue to fill the feeders.
I grew up in a home where the garage shelves were heavy with pickles, beets, and jam. Our vegetable patch in the backyard always needed weeding. Come January, we’d climb the citrus trees. We had one small peach tree in the corner of the yard that would produce every few years. And every few years, my dad would stand over that little tree and rub his hands together, anticipating pie and crumble. We loved the good peach years.
I grew up in a home where Mom sewed my clothing. I went to elementary school in culottes and jumpers. My Girl Scout badges were sewn on my sash promptly and properly. Holes in jeans were mended. Pants were let out. I begged my mom for store-bought clothing. I wanted to be like all the other kids, in bold name brands that were so popular in the 80s and 90s.
I grew up in a home where we spent the summers riding our bikes to the library. I couldn’t wait for the summer reading program. There were goals and stickers, and those poor librarians probably had small flasks of something strong for when they saw me coming in the door.
I grew up in a home where things were not perfect, but they were so, so much better than what my parents experienced. It’s remarkable to look back on childhood with adult eyes and see the sacrifices made for our wellbeing. Of course, as children, we had no idea how hard our parents were working, how desperately they wanted time to themselves, how much of their young lives they spent watching us live the childhoods they wanted.
I grew up in a home where we were told every day that we could be whatever we wanted, that we were loved, that we were safe.
And I grew up to be a brat. I was a brat to my parents and my brother. I wanted to have and be more. I wanted the things that I thought would make life better, easier, cooler. This unhappiness followed me like a dark shadow for too long.
Today, I have a home where the garage shelves are heavy with pickles. I’m learning to sew clothing, and consider frugality a virtue. I’m a frequent flyer at our library. And I’m trying to build a place where my stepchildren know they are always loved, they can be anything they want to be, and they are safe. They also loved handmade gifts, waffles before a day on the beach, and prefer to buy their clothes second-hand.
This is the legacy of Rex and Karel. May we all be so lucky.
My cousin Cale was given this quilt after my grandparents died. It wasn’t one my grandmother used; it was kept on display on a high plant shelf above the kitchen. Cale’s puppy didn’t show such deference and sooner than later the hand-stitched heirloom was in pieces.
Cale, abashed, asked me if I could do anything to fix it. “It’s just so soft.”
It was soft. The fabric had been used for a generation before being tucked on a shelf, and I didn’t blame him for wanting to use it, or for his puppy not knowing better. Accidents happen and Grandma Maxine would have been the first to smile at her grandson wanting the quilt to live on.
It took a bit of cutting away tiny stitches…
and a bit of creative patching…
I cut away three of the four corners and patched them with new fabric, and backed the quilt with flannel. This beauty will live on for yet another generation.
Spring is in full bloom in the desert. Snowbirds have flown home, school children are antsy for summer, yellow palo verde blossoms are in the air. Baseball training grounds are empty, stale popcorn in the seats and dreams of the World Series carried forward to a new year.
As the temperature climbs, the garden grows. Bright green pea shoots reach for the tomato trellis, stretching their arms inches per day. Pale coral squash blossoms open and close to the beat of the sun. Tiny white flowers will transform into peppers, and yellow ones into tomatoes. The basil multiplies. The citrus sag under the weight of fragrant new life and the heat of the day.
In this season of life, as friends turn 40 and 50 and 60, I watch with curiosity as relationships strengthen, and others dissolve. Babies are born. Parents and spouses die. Marriages come and go. I wake in the night worried about friends, worried about worry, restless with the state of the world. I carry their heartache with me, wondering how I am so fortunate.
Casseroles baked, letters mailed, cookies delivered on platters with hugs that may not be wanted but are needed. I am thankful for what we can do. As sure as the weather changes, I am reassured that we need each other.
Last weekend, while wandering Miami, Arizona after a lovely walk through Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a girlfriend and I stumbled upon a community demonstration for hydroponic gardening. We were “just in time for the tour!” Elvin Fant was leading several others through an old building downtown that was once owned by the copper mines.
Gardening in Miami, and its neighbor towns in the Copper Corridor southeast of Phoenix, is a dangerous proposition. Once a booming mining community, today the towns are littered with tailing pools and other remnants of the industry. The smelter smokestack was removed just last year in neighboring Superior. Commemorative t-shirts are available at the Circle K for $20.
That Circle K is one of the largest convenience stores I’ve ever been in. They don’t just sell the typical sodas and gas, but also a counter for hot sandwiches. The Copper Corridor is a food desert. The largest grocery is Wal-Mart, and that’s 25 miles away.
Elvin discovered that the Safeway next to Wal-Mart was closing, and the owners planned to leave the 27,000 square food building vacant. The retiree, who still owns a local mechanic shop in town, found this infuriating. How could they leave that space vacant and where was everyone going to get their food?
The Vietnam veteran did some research and discovered hydroponic gardening. Within a year, he met with hydroponic researchers at the University of Arizona, secured an intern to write grants and help with planting and research, and secured two vacant buildings in town. Today, he’s growing food for his community and evangelizing to all who will listen about how easy it is to grow your own food when the earth is poisoned. He has more than 60 volunteers who help, and several local restaurants buying his produce.
They’ve also created a classroom and have regular community discussions and demonstrations about growing food.
He’s growing food in both locations, selling worm farms to neighbors, and has organized a community garden that feeds the local food bank. The man is a local hero. I felt so fortunate to spend some time with him, hear his excitement at watching this work grown, and amazed at how quickly he was able to get his idea off of the ground.
Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays. My late Grandmother Maxine would have us to her home in Tucson for a simple meal after church, and we’d all enjoy chocolate. She loved chocolate, and it was her annual sacrifice for Lent.
I think of her often, how she’s molded who I am today, and how I wish I was more like her. She rarely complained. She rarely missed church. Her family was always her first priority. She was a child of the Great Depression, and this made her a practical, frugal adult. Our Christmas cookies often came in recycled cottage cheese containers, for example. She felt no shame in this.
That said, she loved beautiful things, for which she also felt no shame. She loved American Indian jewelry. I was lucky to inherit several pieces when she died; I still get choked up when I wear them. I wore one of her necklaces when we were married, and always wear a piece of her jewelry for important book events.
This week, as the world watched Notre Dame catch fire, I thought of her. My grandparents traveled to Europe on vacation in their late 70s. Her heart would have broken to see a place of worship in flames, especially during Holy Week. However, I think her spirits would have been lifted, as mine were, to see Parisians fill the streets to sing hymns in response.
My grandparents also spent many years living in Louisiana, and knowing my practical, ever-loving grandmother — her charity would have gone to the Baptist churches burned by an arsonist earlier this month. I can see her writing that check to meet her budget –$12, or $18, or whatever she could give.
I miss her dearly. When I sit in silence, I feel her presence, nudging me back toward church, pushing me toward closer relationships with my cousins, giving me the eye when I put the cottage cheese container in the recycling bin.
How lucky I have been to have these strong, faithful women in my life. As we celebrate Easter this weekend, I am thankful for them. It was, after all, a strong and faithful woman who told everyone of the resurrection.
There are things we are not meant to understand. I
tell Gracie this, but she continues to wonder, to bother me for answers,
yipping in my ears late at night.
For one, I do not know why after we leave that
terrible place, the one where they mop at our ears and use the zoom-zoom on our
backs, that we can once again see. It’s a semi-annual miracle. I also do not
understand why each day, my sight becomes a bit more clouded, my eyes a bit
stickier, until the day arrives when I cannot see at all. I must use my nose to
get around the house, otherwise I run head first into things.
It is about this time when I find comfort in
rubbing my face on the couch. It makes my itchy eyes feel better and for a
second: the darkness parts and I get a glimpse of the light and can see! I try
not to rub on the couch when Big Lady is home. It makes her angry. She yells
about how much she loves the couch and how dirty we are. When she picks me up
to tell me not to do that again, I give her the
eyes. Then she smiles and laughs and gives me a tiny kiss on the nose.
Sucker. Works every time.
She doesn’t pick up Gracie. My sister’s fat, and
she was dropped on her head as a baby, making her both dumb as a rock and
hesitant to be lifted. I, however, as the alpha female of the house, am lithe
like… Not a cat, exactly. I’d never lower my standards to suggest I’m anything
like one of those arrogant, in-the-house-pooping bastards. I mean, how can you
feign such royalty and also be trained to shit in a box?
No, I’m lithe like a ballerina. I dance around the
house, hopping from cushion to cushion when Big Lady isn’t looking. I jump,
sailing through the air, to catch birds in the backyard. I bend gracefully,
spreading myself across the warm bricks on the patio to catch a few rays during
my afternoon naps.
Gracie? She snores on her back inside on the “dog
bed,” moving her little legs like she’s running some sort of race. Trust me,
that bitch has never run a race. The only time that one likes to move is to
scoop up carrots or “cookies” and pats from the Big Lady.
Can we talk about the cookies for a second? I wish
someone would tell Big Lady just to call them what they are: dehydrated apples.
We know cookies. We know how to lurk
in the corners of the kitchen when actual cookies are being created, how to be
on the ready for any morsel that falls to the floor. When our brother Nelson
lived here, he used to be able to push the tray of cookies off the counter when
Big Lady wasn’t looking, knocking a few on the floor. If we moved fast, we
feasted on real, delicious cookies before she got them away from us.
I don’t know where he lives now, but I hope
there’s a lot of cookies. And walks. That dummy loved to be led around by his
neck through the neighborhood. Me? Not a chance. I’ll pee on the fire hydrant
in the yard as any self-respecting alpha does. This is my house, my hydrant, my
Big Lady—you canine hayseeds. Pee in my yard all you want. I will cover your
scent with my preeminence.
Our wolf ancestors would never be cajoled inside a
house, and yet somehow the humans have forgotten we have killer blood. There
Big Lady stands, holding open the door, bribing us to come inside with the
promise of cookies. Gracie falls for it every time, running as fast as her butt
will allow toward yet another dead apple.
I take my time. It’s always nice to remind Big
Lady of my reign.
When I was born, my British grandmother, fondly known as Gramma J, was just 45. She was a young mother, as was my mother. By 50, she’d have three grandchildren and one on the way.
Gramma J is still alive in body, but her spirit has long since left this world. She suffered a stroke many years ago and has acute dementia. She lived independently, with the help of an aide, until recently. Gramma J has smoked since she was a teen, and Arizona’s recent record-breaking winter drove her smoking habits indoors. This was problematic for many reasons, namely that as someone with both dementia and a nicotine habit, she could easily burn the house down.
Her children decided it was time to find her a place in a memory care center where she’d be cared for. Gramma J and her late husband lived in their home for more than 20 years. It was a place where my brother and I loved to spend weekends. We’d play in our Grandfather Leonard’s workshop, chase the neighbor’s farm animals, and raid the pantry for full-size chocolate bars and whatever the Schwan’s man delivered recently.
Their house was decorated when my Gram was at the peak of her accounting career in the early 90s. The off-white leather couch, hutch full of cut crystal figurines, and cocktail carts spoke to their lives as adults with grown children. When we visited, my mom used to warn us not to touch anything. We didn’t want to be inside anyway.
Two weeks ago, my mom came to Arizona to both see my grandmother, and to empty her home of its belongings. We went through closets of clothing she hadn’t worn in decades. There were polyester suits, silk scarves, and heels, a stark contrast to the comfortable cotton sweatpants and slippers she lives in today. Leonard’s workshop sat dusty and empty, with a stack of wood still piled in the corner. Every inch and tchotchke reminded me of her, down to the Union Jack magnet on the fridge.
There is so much to say about going through her home and having to decide what to keep, sell, donate, or give away to neighbors. My mother wanted items she’d made for her mother — calico quilts faded from heavy use, and oil paintings she’d done in high school that still hung on the walls.
Eventually an estate company and a dumpster company were called to manage the minutiae that we didn’t know what to do with. Would someone want her towels? Surprisingly, yes. And the pantry full of old Corningware–dishes she’d used to serve us English peas, her favorite, for years? They’d sell too.
I knew what I wanted. It was the same thing I wanted when my Grandmother Maxine similarly developed Alzheimer’s and went into a care facility. Stubbornly, foolishly, and with all my heart, I wanted my grandmother back.
With Gramma J, I want to be 8 years old again, driving around in her pink 1976 Thunderbird to Tower Plaza before she married Leonard. We’d spend these weekends like two single gals out on the town. She’d let me stay up and watch whatever I wanted on TV while we ate pizza. For being a woman who never weighed more than 100 pounds, she always had the best ice cream in her freezer.
I want to go to Target with her on my birthday, when she’d let me load the cart with new school clothes and always sign our cards, “xoxo, Gramma.” I want her to take us swimming at one of the apartments she lived in before marrying Leonard. She’d sit on the deck, her capris pulled up to dip her toes, and we’d splash and scream until our eyes burned from the chlorine and her cigarette smoke.
While I’ll remember her for happy memories, when Gramma J was fully here, she was a complicated, stubborn, and generous woman. What she was incapable of giving to her children, she tried to make up for with my brother and me. It often left my mom scratching her head to see her emotionally constipated mum telling us how much she loved us.
Gramma’s mom abandoned her three children and husband when my grandmother was in elementary school. Her father, my great-grandfather, struggled. This single act profoundly influenced my grandmother’s life. I think Gramma lived worried that unexpectedly she’d wake up one morning and her children would be gone, just like her mother. Why she was able to put this worry aside when it came to loving her grandchildren decades later, I’ll never know. These are the things you don’t see as a kid, but come into ugly focus when you look back with adult understanding.
When we pulled away from her house for the last time, the car was loaded with the quilts and paintings. My mom cried quietly in the passenger seat. I took a spoon from Gramma’s collection, a bottle of tequila from the cocktail cart, and the Union Jack magnet.
What I am actually taking away from my grandmother’s life is this: our decisions influence generations. Our selfishness, kindness, or generosity may change the lives of those we’ll never meet.
Hold your children’s hands and tell them how much you really love them.
Driving into work this morning, I thought about how the happiness and satisfaction of relationships depends on balance. Imaging each person on a seesaw, the best relationships work when the emotion desired in the center is actually centered.
He doesn’t love you more than you love him, for example. When the love sits in the center, balanced, you are both working to put the other person first. No one is selfish. No one is a martyr.
For other relationships, this center point is time. I have several where I want more time than the other person is willing to give. I want more attention. I’m on my end of the seesaw, flailing, waving my arms, asking for more. The other person is swinging along through life busy with their own thoughts and obligations.
The contrary is also true. Everyone has had the relationship (be it family or friend) where the person wants more than you can give. It may be time or attention or even pity.
The dramatic friend. The friend who always thinks the world is ending. The friend who needs you to babysit her kids so she can go to a party you aren’t invited to. No thanks.
The best friendships are those where you both go through life on your end of things and when do you have time for each other, everything slides into place naturally. There is no grief or guilt for not having spoken sooner. You’re too happy to be together now.
This year, I’m interested in two points of personal growth: being more disciplined and present. I am guilty of not listening to my husband when he is telling me about his day. I’ve spent all day waiting to get back to him, and yet too often I find myself playing on my phone when he is finally standing in front of me, waving his hands for attention. (Metaphorically, of course. My husband is the least needy person I’ve ever met.)
Yesterday, unexpectedly, I had to put Nelson down. He’d been sick for a while with an uncommon autoimmune disease. Sunday, he was chasing me around the house trying to eat the tortilla chips off my plate, in his normal, annoying way. Monday as I left for work, I gave him a treat and kissed him goodbye—all the while thinking we had years before us. When I returned late afternoon, he couldn’t stand.
That quickly, life had changed forever.
I spent Monday night with him on his bed, spoon-feeding him water. He could no longer lift his head and was having a hard time breathing. This dog, who the week before was still going on walks, and the day before was begging me for baby carrots in front of the fridge.
You get to a place like this and language fails you. Bereft? Distraught? Completely lost? What I felt was failure, and like my heart was going to stop beating. I knew he was in serious trouble and pain.
Oh, sweet Jesus, the pain. I could see it on his face and it made every bit of me hurt. I scooped him into my arms and took him to the vet as soon as they opened Tuesday morning. Our long-time vet, and a childhood friend of mine, took one look at Nelson and knew. He didn’t want to tell me that it was Nelson’s time. He had tears in his eyes as I openly sobbed in the exam room. The options were few and only one would bring Nelson less pain.
How could this be happening?
Too soon, I was sitting on the floor, cradling him. He looked into my eyes and I told him how much I loved him, how much he would be missed. Stroking his face, I tried to stay as calm as I could.
And then, he was gone.
I held him to my chest and wailed.
I don’t have well crafted word to express how terrible I feel, or to describe the loss. Nelson was in so many ways my child. The moment I met him, I knew we were family. He gave me more than 7 years of love and companionship. This morning, I came downstairs for the first time to see his bed empty. Right now, the house feels haunted. I keep expecting to hear the tick of his nails on the floor, to hear the soft grunt that meant “please lift me on the couch,” or the “meep!” noise he made when he was happy to see me. I am profoundly sad.
His passing has made me see that love is a game of tag. I loved him because I have been well loved. He loved me in return, and this made me more loving. I hope I’ve passed that on to others, and I know his presence—his long eyelashes, and curious personality—gave others joy.
Thank you Willie Nelson Mandela for being the best friend I could have ever asked for. I will love you always.