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.
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.
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.
On this trip into the Grand Canyon, we took the South Kaibab trail from the South Rim. It is the shorter route to Phantom Ranch at 7.4 miles, but it is considerably steeper. We hadn’t ever taken this path before, and it happened to be an extraordinarily windy day. There were parts of the trail that were terrifying.
Of course, it is still the Grand Canyon. Every turn, each 15 minutes with different light on the rock, makes the view new and breathtaking. (Or, we were just breathing really hard from all the hiking. Either way, you end up light-headed and in awe.)
Look at that crazed, happy man. Have I mentioned how much he loves hiking? (I love it too, but I give him a hard time that when we visited Mexico City, it didn’t hurt to look at art. Or eat good food.)
Top of the trail. Look how innocent and clean we are. Four hours later, we pulled into Phantom Ranch.
I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating: this lodge is a magical, wonderful oasis at the bottom of the canyon. If you get the chance to stay there—and the process is a complicated lottery because of the limited space—do it! The meals are simple, served family style in the lodge at picnic tables. The cabins have bunk beds that are comfortable and clean. The showers are hot. The rest is fantastic. Plus, you can imagine how interesting the people are who come to sit for a minute, either to stay or just to get a snack from the canteen.
We met people from all walks of life. The runners—just stopping to refill their water bladders before heading to another rim. Those on horseback, many of whom looked like extras from City Slickers, especially when they dismounted and tried to walk post-ride. And then there were those like us, who hiked down to hang out for a couple days. We sat at the picnic tables outside, eating apples and sipping lemonade and making up the back stories of the hikers who just arrived.
My niece loves to play games as much as I do. We played more hands of Rummy and Trash than I can count. We sent postcards (via mule!), ate Oreos by the sleeve, and told silly stories. We also woke up early Saturday morning to watch a meteor shower, stars shooting across inky black heavens—quite the way to bring in my 38th year.
We took the longer Bright Angel trail on the way out, about 10 miles of winding switch backs. The last mile, after you can see the edge of the Canyon but you are still not quite there, is the longest 15 minutes of your life. It could be the tourists toddling by, downward, with their ice cream cones and cups of coffee. It could be how good those tourists smell, and the realization you likely smell like a raccoon. It could also be how heavy your feet feel after 10 miles of up, up, up.
The bar in the Bright Angel Lodge has soft chairs, cold wine, average guacamole, and air conditioning. It is glorious.
It was another wonderful adventure with this crazy family of mine.
I’m having a hard time coming up with thoughtful things to say around here these days. I regularly ask myself why I love writing a blog. And the answer is always the same: Doogie Howser.
Who doesn’t remember Doogie sitting down at his incredibly technologically advanced computer at the end of each episode to come up with the witty moral of the day? I loved that show so very much and was insanely jealous of Wanda.
So, Doogie. Basically, I like the idea of having a place where I can drop off all the thoughts I have about my passions. Right now: yoga, the desert, helping refugees in the Middle East, fall knitting, cooking and meal planning, my family, and of course: Nelson. Always, Nelson.
They say the blog is a dying art. And that may be generous. Most of the super huge blogs I’ve read over time are slowly retreating. (Dooce, Kottke, et al) I hope I’m newly invigorated to write here and to continue to cherish the community it has created.
Lots of stories and photos to share, but we at africankelli.com are having a few technical issues. Mainly, the blog and Flickr are fighting and I can’t figure out how to get them to JUST GET ALONG ALREADY.
As such, hang tight. The nerds are on the case.
If we don’t chat before — wishing all my American buddies the best 4th ever.
My friend Robyn recently released a book chronicling her quest to knit 10,000 hats for those in need. Newborns, the homeless, veterans — anyone with a cold noggin who could use an act of kindness. The memoir tells a bit of her story, and what led her to such a large creative endeavor.
Of course this is right up my alley. Robyn and I have been supporting each other’s blogs for nearly a decade. She is a doll, and so much goodness should come her way.
I’ve seen the book and it is a beauty, not surprisingly. So — if you are interested in supporting a crafty, lovely woman whose passion is helping others, please consider picking up her new book. It is nearly as fantastic as she is.
Five out of five bananas, absoloodle. Congrats Robyn!