Music To My Ears

For most of my life (coming up on 63 years), I’ve fallen asleep to the sound of a cat’s purr.

There’s been all sorts. The barely-there purr, so faint you have to strain to listen. The gusty burr of an Evenrude outboard badly in need of tuning. The staccato fracture. The snore. The one that ends in a cheery little “chirrup” at the end of each exhalation.

All different, just like those cats who shared their lives with me and lullabye’d me to sleep each night. Most chose to sleep beside my pillow or, after I was married, between our pillows. Some preferred between my feet or knees. Curie liked to spoon, a warm presence whose loss I felt markedly when she died. Tuna wanted to be under the covers. Gypsy preferred to wrap her entire body around my head like a furry hat and, by increments, gently nudge me off the pillow. Ruby now does something similar, laying beside my head rather than around it, but determined to put her body right up against my mouth. Most nights, we settle on me turning over so she can cuddle against the back of my neck.

And always the purr. I can fall asleep to that much easier than I can to the relatively quiet noise of my husband’s CPAP. The purr being levied directly into my ear is definitely louder, but there’s a comfort to it that no machine noise can achieve.

(From top to bottom, left to right: Gil; Arlo;; Indy (top); Duncan; Serendipity, Charles, and Cornelius; Renfield (top); Nell Gwyn; Butch; Barnabas; Frisky (top); Punkin Puss; Callie; Tinkerbelle; Ripley; Yeti; Curie (top); Gypsy; Tuna; and Ruby. (Not shown: Josette, Aristede, and the lovely old man cat we had for only one night, who died courtesy of an inept veterinarian)

“Books are stooooopid!”

IMG_3117a

Me and the beloved

Thus spaketh my beloved five-year-old granddaughter, preparing to pitch a hissy fit because I refuses to watch a vulgar and moronic video with her before bedtime, and instead had suggested I read with her.

It was late, and I was tired. (She’s a night owl, and I’m not.) Without thinking, I bent down and got right in her face. Keeping my voice low and nonthreatening, I replied, “You just said that to the wrong person, kid, because I write books.”

Her eyes darted from side-to-side. “Oh.”

Oh, indeed, Snooks.

Beloved’s mother, my own beloved daughter, loves books, but admits that her reading time has been curtailed to those few minutes before she falls asleep at night. Who can blame her? She’s the full-time mom to a rambunctious five-year-old with the sleep schedule of a vampire.

“I need to read more in front of her,” she says, and I believe she means to try. It’s a good point. Kids emulate what they see their parents do, and if Beloved sees her mother enjoying books, well, she might, too.

Beloved’s dad, on the other hand, is no fan of books. That’s not to say he doesn’t like the written word, merely that he prefers to read from a screen rather than a printed page. To each their own, so long as they’re reading, but I feel a pang under my heart for several reasons when he denigrates physical books, particularly in Beloved’s hearing.

See, a love of books is something I’d hoped to bring to this growing relationship between me and my granddaughter. Not just a love of words, which would be nice, too, of course, but also an appreciation of physical books; to enjoy their smell, their weight, and the texture of their pages. I want for her to experience the deep contentment of settling into a favorite chair or into bed with a new or much-loved book, something “snuggleable.” I want to engage her imagination. Yes, please! I dream of talking about her favorite scenes and how she sees them in her mind’s eye, how they compare with my own. I want to share favorite passages, and even argue over the merits of a story.

I send her books, but it’s hard to convey the love from several hundred miles away. And, sure, yes, she can read and imagine and share with glowing words printed on a hard screen. And yet…

And yet.

Those who don’t cuddle with books can’t, or won’t, understand. I’m a dinosaur in this age of electronics, but a proud one that maintains there’s value in the page-printed word. And I’ll likely be clutching one of those most beloved books when the asteroid hits and wipes us all away again.

 

Growing Pains

clown-238527_640

Image by RyanMcGuire from Pixabay

I remember watching my mother put on lipstick.

This was back in the day when most ladies wore lipstick as regularly as underwear. It was part of their getting ready for the day, a social ritual no matter whether they were going to the office, to buy groceries, or tackle six loads of laundry. Without it, they felt naked, and Mom was no different. She never became particularly proficient in applying makeup, and never wore much more than lipstick, powder, maybe a bit of mascara or rouge, but she managed.

She had an array of lipstick cases. Some were fancy, metallic; whorled and scrolled and filigreed, and likely purchased in a department store. Some were plain, utilitarian, serviceable and unremarkable as a bullet casing. The majority, however, were tiny white plastic tubes about half the length of her index finger, perhaps as big around as a pencil; samples she’d been given by the local Avon lady. Mom would stand at the bathroom mirror, carefully apply crimson color in her lips–first top, then bottom–and press them around a bit of tissue in a kiss to blot the excess.

In our family, Mom was the Tissue Queen. She carried at least half-a-ton in every purse she owned (and she had at least a half-dozen in service at any given time) because you never knew when you might need one in a public restroom devoid of toilet paper. These tissues carried a perpetual smell, an unidentifiable odor reminiscent of funeral homes, toilet bowl cleanser, or cheap perfume. I don’t know if that fragrance was applied at the factory in some misbegotten belief that it smelled good, or if it was something the tissues picked up from the interior of Mom’s pocketbook, but I recoiled with a snarl of literally stomach-turning revulsion whenever she drew one forth, especially when she spit on it and tried to scrub a bit of smutch from my face.

Ugh. It still makes me shudder.

As she grew older, Mom’s tissues migrated. She still carried a flock in her purse, but now they appeared elsewhere, usually inside the waistband of her pants or tucked inside the cuff of her shirt or sweater. When she came to live with us, it became protocol to search for tissues gone astray before putting her clothing in the washer. (There’s nothing quite so much fun as pulling wet clothes from the machine only to find them liberally dotted with shreds of disintegrating paper.) After Mom died, I found tissues everywhere–tucked in pockets, poked up sleeves, placed between the pages of a book, and rolled in her sock drawer. Who knows what her brain was telling her to do by then?

These days, whenever one of us forgets about a tissue and it suicides in the washer, I smile, take it as a sign, and say, “Hi, Mom.” I like to think she smiles back.

 

The Shadow Years

IMG_0814It’s hard on the heart, watching a pet grow old, but it’s not like I haven’t been here before.

When I was a kid growing up across the span of the late 50’s-70’s, we lived in a rural area where the general consensus was to let one’s pets roam free. I understand now how irresponsible that is, but back then it was everyone did. I don’t remember any of our pets coming home with injuries from fights, but someone shot my first dog, Yogi, a reality I didn’t discover until a misplaced remark from my sister decades later.

Mostly our animals died under car tires. We didn’t live in a densely vehicular area, so it’s always been a bit of a wonder to me that so many perished that way. On one occasion, my best friend at the time (the same David I wrote about the other day) confided to me that my cat had been sitting on the side of the road and he’d seen the driver purposely swerve to hit it. If that’s true (and I have no reason to disbelieve David), I hope that person had a truly shitty life. (Let’s face it; anyone who would do that was probably already having a shitty life.)

In later years, I learned to keep my pets indoors, even the cats. That’s worked well to extend their longevity, but it’s meant we get to watch the slow creep of years steal bits of them away, like watching one’s parents age.

It’s not fun.

Our dog Holly is an 11 1/2 year old Australian shepherd, truly one of the world’s best dogs. (Yeah, I know. We all say that, and it’s true every time.) Shortly before her ninth birthday, she began having seizures and was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy. Those first few seizures took more out of Ed and I–emotionally speaking–than they did her, I think. They’re not fun to watch, not even after we understood that she had no idea it was happening. We’ve learned the routine of those spells–the pedaling gyration of her limbs, the gaping mouth and barred teeth, the arched back. Jesus, it looks painful, although I’ve been assured by several vets that it’s not. We’ve learned to dispense rectal Valium if the episode exceeds two minutes. We sit by her until she lurches out of it, on her feet, pacingpacingpacing, falling down, running into walls. We do what we can to keep her from hurting herself. Get her outside to defecate (she’ll pee while in seizure, but so far has never voided). Because she’s ravenous afterward, we give her something to eat to replace all those calories burned by the seizure. (Note: Never feed by hand. She can’t differentiate between food and flesh, and those snapping, frenzied gulps hurt.) It takes about an hour before she settles down and sleeps.

Each episode steals away bits of her. She forgets commands. Her sense of hearing goes wonky, and she’ll look away from us when we call, seeking us in the opposite direction even though we’re usually within eyesight.

Her vision is poor to begin with. She lost the use of her left eye when she was eight months old (an ill-considered golf shot by her previous owner coupled with a ball fixated puppy. Don’t curse him; he still feels guilty). Her right eye has cataracts. Her hearing wavers, sometimes good, other times not. Her sleep is often scarily deep (something a vet tech mentioned after an overnight stay for pancreatitis, another gift age has bestowed on her). She snores; the only cute part in any of this.

And now she’s taken to wandering in the night, a disturbing echo of my mother’s dementia-induced meanderings when she lived with us. Not every night, but often enough, I wake repeatedly to the click-click of toenails on the wood floor. Sometimes, she just needs to go out. (Another gift of age: the tiny bladder needing to be relieved in the middle of the night.)

She drinks a lot, and is always hungry. This could be side-effects of the many medications she’s on (phenobarbital and potassium bromide for epilepsy; gabapentin and metacam for arthritis pain; ursodiol and an over-the-counter antacid for pancreatitis; another one, whose name I can’t recall, to keep her from leaking urine), but could also be indicative of a larger issue. She’s losing more hair than usual (no bald spots, but I groom her nearly every day and come away with a pile of hair). She’s tired, not surprising in an 11 year old dog. She pants a lot. Could it be liver or kidney disease, maybe Cushing’s? A trip to the vet is likely in order.

And in the end, of course, it’ll make little difference. We’ll do what we can for her–that’s the bargain we struck when she came to live with us, that we would take the best care of her that we’re able–but in the end time will take her. Then we’ll shoulder the larger responsibility of sharing our lives with her, and let her go, what our friend Jenny (who I still think of as our vet although distance (and Holly’s issues) have made it necessary to find another) calls letting her rest.

And, oh, won’t that be hard?

2017-12-10 07.46.45

Holly in the good old days, with her boyfriend Randy, who taught her how to play

Where is Grandma’s smile?

IMG_3129

My maternal grandmother, Geneva Lucy Shorey Crandall Sherman Burton

I can’t remember ever seeing my grandmother smile.  This studio portrait, taken God knows when, is the closest she comes to it.

As a child, I didn’t understand her lack of smiles and (I confess) took it personally. (I was an emotional, empathetic, introvert; of course I took it personally.) I now believe Life knocked the smiles out of her.

She was born November 1894 in Oakfield, Maine, way up in The County (Aroostook to the unenlightened). Grover Cleveland was President. Coca Cola was sold in bottles for the first time. Twelve thousand NYC tailors struck against sweatshop conditions. Norman Rockwell, Jack Benny, Bessie Smith, and Dashiell Hammett were also born that year.

Geneva was the youngest of five children (all “useless” daughters, God forbid) born to William and Minnie Shorey. Described by my mother as “the meanest woman that ever lived,” Minnie often locked her in a dark closet. William had a prodigious temper (the source, I believe, if what’s come to be known as the “Crandall Temper”). One one occasion, a neighbor returned a borrowed wagon broken. When William discovered it, he hacked at the wagon with an ax until he brought on a heart attack and fell over stone-dead.

IMG_3132

Minnie and William flank Napoleon Bonaparte Crandall (I’m not joking).

Look at these faces. Even given the era, and the need to hold very still for this portrait, they’re exceedingly grim. Can you imagine growing up in that household? Can you imagine what their childhoods must have been like?

(My mother’s family had a propensity for historically-derived names. “Uncle Bony,” as he was called, had a brother named George Washington Crandall. I’ve also discovered William Wallace Crandall, James Madison Crandall, and others. My husband believes if we search long enough, we’ll discover a Jesus Christ Crandall. Oh, and let’s not forget the unfortunately named “Weighty Marie.”)

It’s impossible for me to imagine Geneva as a child … as a young school teacher … or as a bride. She married Abel Crandall in either 1912, 1913, or 1915. (There’s documentation listing each of those dates.) Their children arrived in 1916, 1917, 1919, 1922, and my mother in 1923. (Roundabout five months after the birth of their first child, Abel was named in a paternity suit filed by a neighbor’s wife. The child, a daughter, was raised by the family into which she was born, and he never bore any responsibility for her, but this must have been a real treat for Geneva. Incidentally, this tidbit of news only came to light in 2019.)

In October 1923, Abel’s appendix ruptured. He died three weeks before my mother was born. So here’s Geneva: four children ranging in age from seven years to 15 months, 8 1/2 months pregnant, her husband dead, the Great Depression looming. And her mother refuses to help her.

For nine years, my grandmother did what she could to survive, taking in laundry, mending clothes, and selling eggs. Her fresh-churned butter was said to be the best in the area. She baked bread and became proficient at “Poverty Stew,” a watery mix of salt pork, onions or carrots when she could get them, a single potato diced fine.

In April 1932, Geneva married Abel’s best friend, Paul Sherman, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. (In the 1930 census, she’s listed as “servant.”) Their son Paul, Jr. arrived five months later. Make of that what you will. Two years later, Paul Sherman died of tuberculosis. In the 1940 census, she’s listed as “head of household” with four of her six children living with her. My mother, as the only girl at home, shouldered much of the domestic burden and her mother’s rancor, and married badly at 18 to escape. (Geneva was lenient with her boy, not so much with her girls, an unfortunate trend that continued throughout her life. Mom died at the age of 92 without ever hearing her mother say “I love you.”)

So it went. In 1957, Geneva married a third time, to Walter Burton (the man I knew as my grandfather), for whom she’d also kept house. And buried him in 1977.  So is it any wonder there were precious few smiles to go around?

And yet, Geneva had her pleasures, chief among them her involvement in her church, visits with old and dear friends, and most particularly, her youngest son’s three boys who lived next door and on whom she doted. Her preferential treatment put a crick in the nose of the rest of us grandkids, but we got over it.

Maybe.

IMG_3131

Geneva and her kids (l to r): Paul, Darrell, William, Virginia (my mom), Goldie, and Jean.

IMG_3130

And some of the grandkids: Paul, Patric, and Eric in back; Darrell, me, and Sterling in front.

Serendipity

little-meYesterday I wrote about the house I grew up in and I mentioned a childhood friend, David Micklas. While working on that piece, I went online to do a bit of research to see if I could find out something about the old house.

I didn’t find what I was looking for, but in the course of my search I discovered an obituary for David’s mother, Theresa. It saddened me because she was a nice woman who (unlike her husband) tolerated her son having a girl for a best friend. In some ways, she was a second mother to me, and I always felt welcome in her home.

Finding this obituary right on the heels of having mentioned David for the first time in, well, forever, felt like a tap on the shoulder from Theresa because contained within the heartfelt tribute was mention of her three sons (Tom, Bob, Dave), their families, and where they live.

A further bit of searching brought me David’s street address. Last night I sat down and penned a letter to my old friend, reaching out through better than…well, I’m guessing here, but I think it’s been close to 50 years since we last spoke. I acknowledged that this would be a surprise (hopefully not an unpleasant one), and offered my condolences on his mother’s death. I briefly caught him up on my life, but mostly I wrote to let him know that he was on my mind and remembered most fondly, that I cherished our time together as friends.

I’m curious to see if I’ll get a response, and if so what sort. Stay tuned.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

IMG_3121

Circa early 50s

So begins the gothic novel Rebecca, written in 1938 by Dame Daphne du Maurier. My own version might begin, “Last night I dreamt of the house in Clifton Park.”

The old farmhouse on Plant Road wasn’t much to look at when my parents purchased it, the barn and garage across the road, and the surrounding acreage in the early 1950s for what was then the princely sum of ten thousand dollars. The house was old even then; how old, I don’t know although certainly in excess of one hundred years. A covered porch ran across the front in the years before I was born, ultimately torn down and a raised cement slab erected in its place. (I think Mom had some ideas of a patio, but that’s as far as it ever got and I don’t remember us using it for much of anything.) Dad and a friend, George Carley, built the chimney and fireplace that adorned the west end of the living room and became a central hub in winter, the place where we huddled on the coldest of nights.

An immense sycamore grew just outside the kitchen window, a tree so large that it took at least three adults, arms extended, to circle its trunk. It grew much too close to the house and its root system eventually invaded the foundation, slowing tearing the structure apart and precipitating my parents’ move to Saratoga. Dad hung first a tire and then a wooden-seated swing on a limb and I spent hours spinning myself to fall-down dizziness. (Mom hated the tree, with its propensity for shedding bark everywhere, but I loved it, and used the bark like parchment, scrawling messages.)

Each season in that house brings its memories: wet springs when the meadow would flood and the frogs appear; baking summers playing outdoors while Mom listened to her beloved Yankees on the radio; autumns of leaf piles made only for jumping; winters sailing down the hill out back in a metal saucer, the bottom of which Mom had polished with Pledge. (I think she harbored a secret desire to kill me; she once used Pledge on my metal slide, too. I shot down it so fast–and off the end, clearing several feet–that it scared me to tears.) I remember nights playing outdoors beyond sunset, rolling down the hill in the long grass and catching fireflies in a jar.

IMG_3122I best remember the house at Christmas, when I draped my pajamas over the hearth screen to warm before putting them on and Mom hung the cards we received against the brickwork. The fireplace had a raised marble hearthstone custom made for sitting, where I placed Santa’s plate of cookies and mug of hot chocolate on Christmas Eve. (Much later, Dad installed a matching mantelpiece that Mom festooned with garland.) The walls were an ugly pale gray/brown wallboard that Dad eventually replaced with the warm, golden glow of knotty pine. Mom was forever rearranging the furniture, so the Christmas tree might end up anywhere, so long as it wasn’t too near the fire. The windows were hung with red cellophane wreaths with electric candles, and a two-candle art deco piece I still own (which my husband is  rewiring so I can use it).

IMG_3124

That horrible wallboard

This was the house of my growing up; the house I was brought to after being born at Albany Medical Center in 1957; the house I learned to crawl in, then walk, then run. The house where I learned to ride a bike and enjoyed the pride of having my training wheels removed. The house where dogs and cats sprawled (and my mother once–under protest–housed a few gerbils overnight.) From there I set forth in late October to trick-or-treat with my then best friend, David Micklas, returning with plastic sacks bursting with swag. From there we set out together on bike adventures, or to roam the woods, play baseball or play pretend. On one memorable occasion we beat his older brothers, Tom and Bob, at war, ambushing poor Bob from inside a culvert that ran beneath the road, then ruthlessly hunting Tom with our plastic guns. This was home from kindergarten through high school graduation, and beyond. I married my first husband in that living room, and played with my first and second generation of nieces and nephews.

IMG_3128

Dad’s knotty pine

The house is gone now, torn down to make way for a Stewart’s. (For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, it’s a chain of convenience stores.) The sycamore is still there, grand in its old age and, I hope, protected. (If the house was old, the tree is far older.) There’s a poignancy to visiting the old place in dreams, walking through those rooms. I see them so clearly, though its been well over 40 years. Each has its echo, a sound I will always hear.

 

IMG_3127

Circa 1970s

When It’s Best to Say No

img_0567I consider myself a pretty friendly person. I’m the sort who, when meeting someone new, prefers to view them as a potential friend than a possible enemy. I welcome strangers to my table and find nothing awkward in telling people to “scootch up” and make room for another chair. Being an introvert I can’t say I enjoy crowds, but put me one-on-one with someone and I’ll at least try to hold up my end of the conversation.

Several months back, maybe as much as a year, I met this woman I’ll call “Jill” while walking with Holly on the Airline Trail. I’d seen her before; we’d make eye contact, nod, maybe say hello. Occasionally, she’d stop to admire Holly and give her a pat. Little by little, we came to know each other a bit, exchanged names, that sort of thing. Eventually, we shared phone numbers with an idea toward meeting to walk or bike, both of us eager for company. Jill was recently retired (she was a college phys ed teacher), outdoorsy like me, and loved animals as I do. We both had “issues” with our birth families and step-children which we shared and laughed over. I really felt that I was making a friend.

Then it happened.

See, Jill has some fairly significant health issues, particularly with her spine. One day, as we walked, she mentioned some difficulty she was experiencing and I suggested she look into equine therapy. I worked at a therapeutic riding facility for several years and I’ve remained enamored of the field and the good–sometimes the miracles–that occur between horses and riders. It’s pretty astonishing stuff.

To my horror, Jill hunched over like a crone and began to do a sideways crab-walk, her fingers curled into claws. “I don’t want to ride with a bunch of retards,” she said.

I blurted, “JILL!” She laughed, like it was the biggest joke in the world. And me? I was speechless. I couldn’t find the words to convey my disappointment in her…and in me for not speaking up. Something inside told me she wouldn’t care, anyway, that she’d make some excuse or brush it off as a joke (sort of like that TSA employee who recently flicked the braids of a Native woman and said, “Giddy-up!”), and I let that “something side” keep me mum.

But it’s never left my mind, and I haven’t seen Jill since. Granted, she has some weird sort of schedule and it seemed to always be me making the overtures to meet-up, but I’ve maintained radio silence. Recently, she sent me a text indicating she’d like to get together. I didn’t respond because I was headed out of town for several days. Now that I’m back, I’m not sure I’ll respond in any case.

That “friendliness gene” in me says to give her a second chance, to get together and explain that if we’re to be friends, she needs to understand how badly her words upset me. Maybe I’ll learn that it was a foolish moment, words uttered and regretted instantly (although she gave no indication of that; rather the contrary). We’ve all said things we regret, all made first impressions we wish we could erase, all dreamed of do-overs. On the other hand, if that cruel remark is a clear indication of who Jill truly is (and based on some of her other comments, I have no reason to think otherwise), she’s not the sort of person I can consider a friend.

This is not a question of ideology; of me thinking I’m better than someone else or wanting only friends who mirror my beliefs. I love intelligent discourse when both parties believe differently, and I can “agree to disagree” when need be. (Case in point, I have a cousin who refutes evolution. I don’t agree with him, but I still love him.) Maybe this thing with Jill hit me so hard because I’ve worked with those riders and gotten to know them as they struggle with their disabilities. I met some who others might classify as “vegetables” and come to understand their beautiful and subtle way of communication. And I have family members, people I respect and love, who battle similar challenges every day. Would Jill decline to ride with them?

I suspect so, and it makes me wonder what sort of teacher she was given her inability to accept and embrace those with challenges. Were her own athletes so physically perfect? Should people look down at her because of the issues with her spine? Perhaps her own unhappiness with her back is the source of her bitter remark, a realization that occurs to me only now. Perhaps a text is in order, and invitation to coffee and conversation.

We shall see.

Book Launch Announcement

Elephants Final Cover.indd

For some reason, this shows up as green. The actual cover is in shades of blue.

I’m beyond delighted to post information on the first of what I hope will be many bookstore visits as ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd takes its first steps into the world.

March 4 – BOOK LAUNCH at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, 7:30 pm.

March 5 – An as yet TBD event, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the zoo.

March 6 – Roundabout Books in Bend, OR, 6 pm.

March 7 – Sunriver Books in Sunriver, OR, 5 pm.

I’m looking forward to meeting all those people out there who love elephants! See you soon!