An Early Memory

Grimms Fairy Tales.jpg

The anniversary of my mom’s death is in early April, so I’ve been thinking of her even more than normal. I might have been two or three; this might be my earliest memory of her, of us:

I am nestled into the left corner of my mother’s lap. Her arm supports me and holds open a big book of fairy tales. Her right arm curves around and flips the pages. Occasionally, the bottom of her chin taps gently on the top of my head. Right where the fontanel once pulsed. Her chest breathes me in and out. In and out. We are in a circle, a breathing circle.

            Is she reading the “The Goose Girl?” Even though the horse’s head is cut off and bloody, even though it is mounted hideously on a wall? Outside our breathing circle, the cabin thrums. In the center of the two-room log cabin that my mom and her five siblings grew up in is a large barrel stove. It emanates heat and the gloves and boots spread around it breathe wool, old leather, pine pitch, and hard work. The walls had been papered that spring with salvaged cardboard boxes, a flimsy insulation against a Montana winter. Above her head near the corner is a small window, laced with ice that clings to the edges of the pane. The red heat of the stove has little effect in the corners of the small log cabin.

            Mom is seated in the deep well of an old armchair, upholstered in a thick maroon velvet. Years later I would wonder how that Victorian-inspired chair found its way to this small shack on my Reservation. But there we are. Mom might be twenty-four years old, with the second of three children in her arms, breathing, magic, possibilities, and hidden strength—in and out. In and out.

 *********

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Because I am now retired, I have the time to do what I want. And I find that what I love doing more than anything is reading. (Somehow, I am newly surprised by this.) I average about 5 books a month: nonfiction, murder mysteries, science fiction, best sellers, memoirs, books about writing, poetry, an occasional self-help book. I read real books that I’ve bought, books from the library, and books on Kindle. I also listen to audible books when I clean house. (But not when I am outside; when I’m in the outdoors, I listen to the outdoors.) I have more balance in my life when I have a story going on in my head.

Mom is one of my great loves, and she gave me another of my great loves. Lucky me.

 

 

Once More to the Vet

“I can’t believe I’m doing this again,” I say to Karen, the office manager at my vet’s office. I can hear the weariness in my voice, and it worries me. She must hear it, too. It’s not the check I’m signing that gives me pause; it’s the responsibility.

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“She’s so precious,” she says. “Look at her coat; she’s got this chinchilla thing going on. If you don’t want to keep her, I’ll take her.”

“Really?” I ask. I’m so grateful that I’ve been given an out, but I wonder at how many cats Karen must have. How often does she make these offers?

My last fur child died 18 months ago, and I’d vowed not to get another cat or dog for some time. I don’t want an anchor. We have big trips to take.

I think of the last 7 months of my last cat’s life. Charlie was a longshoreman of a feline who sauntered onto my porch the winter of 2009. Millie, my sweet smooth collie, was sick and wouldn’t last long. I figured Charlie had been sent to help me through the latest loss. So, when he laid claim to me, my husband, and our house, we politely acquiesced. He was a grand 17-pound cat, patrolling our house, attacking dogs who got too nosey, cornering the occasional raccoon who had the temerity to enter his territory. He ruled us and all who came into our home like the benevolent monarch that he was. But those last 7 months were tough. He had renal failure and we had to give him subcutaneous injections of saline.  I did not want to go through that whole cycle of life again: Buddy, Elsie, Millie, Macie, Charlie--a whole parade of animals whose lives I've shared. And in some cases whose lives I helped to end.

But then. As I’m driving down East Avenue, minding my own damn business, I saw a small streak of black run across the street in front of me. It disappeared into the shrubbery of a narrow median.  Even though I was going to be late for an appointment, I made a U-turn, ran across the street, and plucked the 1.5-pound kitty from the shrub where she’d burrowed and attached herself like a silky limpet.

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She’d made a mad dash from an apartment complex’s parking lot, and I figured she was either a feral or had been dumped by someone. No missing black kitties appeared on “Next Door.”

So, of course, there was nothing to do but take her to the vet.

You know the rest of this story.

My Montana Points of Light

It hurts me in a deep way, somewhere in the upper left-hand corner of my heart that people in my home state of Montana cheered when the idea of “points of lights” was mocked. It’s a simple enough metaphor, one that resonates with most people, and doesn’t require a lot of explanation.  It’s a metaphor for service, aid, assistance--for helping others when they are down, when a darkness has descended.

This idea of looking for lights and being a light reminds of me Mr. Rogers’ advice. He told his young and old viewers that when something bad happens, “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.”

                            Sun Dogs

                            Sun Dogs

It feels like a great darkness has descended in this country. The latest reports of what is being done to people seeking refuge on the southern border seems too vicious, too inhumane to be true.  But they are. These brave folks come with practically nothing because they’ve escaped violence and destruction. The accounts of what these people have been and are being subjected to in this country shocks me. I have a hard time believing this is actually happening. Here and now—not in some distant time. But it is true. I move through the days slightly nauseous and often on the verge of tears.  I send donations to credible organizations and pray a lot. I attend protests and share information with others. And I feel sick and nauseous most of the time.

This morning the only thing I can think to do is to follow Mr. Rogers advice.

Montana Lights:

o   When my brother Charlie had cancer, the people in the Jocko Valley in western Montana, had a roping competition for him. They charged entrance fees and did other things to raise money. One of the organizers brought him $14,000 in cash. A big light.

o   My dad was a handyman of sorts. He could jury rig most anything and was called upon to help all the time. And he did. A steady light.

o   At the top of the hill once occupied by my grandmother and grandfather, my Aunt Lolita now lives. She has the stories of our family tucked away in her heart. She’s always ready to bake biscuits, or pies, or make a healthy meal for anyone in need.  A joyful light.

Lolita serving at Brown Building function.

Lolita serving at Brown Building function.

o   When I was a kid and a teenager, my uncle Sarge was one of the many people I could call if I needed help. If my car broke down, if I needed a ride home after a ball game, if I was frightened that summer I worked on the reservation lookouts. A sure light.

o   My cousin Boo is a great walker, a great listener, a wonderful writer, a deep thinker—and always ready with a joke.  A life-long light.

o   My niece AJ is in the process of becoming a therapist. She works with adolescents in group homes. She teaches them the basics of living on their own, and she acts as role model to them, showing them a positive way to be. She’s a role model to me as well. An incandescent light.

o   My nephew Seth sees what is good and fun and exciting where ever he goes. He notices; he is astonished; and he says something about it. A bright white light.

I’m happy to report that I could go on and on—a long string of illumination in my beloved Montana. And the truth about those folks at the Great Falls rally is that every single one of them has helped a neighbor. They've pulled someone out of the ditch during a snow storm; they've charged a stranger's dead car battery; they've given generously at silent auctions and fund raisers for neighbors who have fallen on hard times. They've helped each other. People in the Big Sky Country have big hearts.

But this shadow of the darkness spreading across our country seems to be deepening. But I know that there are lights and helpers everywhere. There will always be helpers.

It is our job to support those helpers and amplify what they are doing. Maybe we can be helpers too. How can we serve, aid, assist? We can’t let this dark, malignant darkness extinguish our light.

A Morning Report

I'm staying with my brother Charlie on his 300+ acre ranch. He was up  with the roosters and gone before I rolled out of bed. He left early because he is “working out.” When Charlie says he "works out," it means he's packs his tools, loads his truck and heads to someone else's place where he builds fences, digs holes for septic tanks, welds gates, and does all manner of back breaking work. 

Charlie & Rudy take a break.

Charlie & Rudy take a break.

He's 62 years-old, has two artificial hips, a colostomy bag--the result of colon cancer--and runs his ranch all on his own. Oh, sure he has Rudy, a sharp-eyed, fleet of foot red Border Collie, but no hired man to help. Don't get me wrong: Rudy is invaluable. Last winter, while my brother was feeding his 150 head of cattle, he slipped and fell on the icy ground, and the hungry Herefords crowded around him. Rudy was there in a flash, keeping those bovines at bay until Charlie could get up, untrampled. Rudy has light colored, almost hazel eyes, eyes that would be perfect for a therapist, and even when he's loving me up, he's got an ear cocked for his master.  At a mumbled word or a hand signal, he's off to do Charlie's bidding. Rudy goes everywhere with Charlie--to town and the bank, the range, the hay field, and to his outside jobs. They are a package deal.

Charlie "works out" for cash because he has big bills to pay each month: the power bill, the water bill, the cost of fertilizer, parts for his massive John Deere tractors, and he has to keep the 300-gallon gas tank filled up. He doesn't pay attention to politics, but he watches the price of gas especially during the summer haying season because an increase will impact him all year long. And not just his "bottom line," but his body. Higher production costs means the need to "work out" more.

There is a check on the table from table from the Missoula Livestock Exchange. He sold 9 head of cattle on the 17th of May, 69 cents per pound. Normally, he doesn't sell cattle until the fall. Cattle are his cash crop and that's where he gets the money for the massive machinery that allows him to keep his part of the Jocko Valley green and lush. The lush grass is tended meticulously, grows, and gets converted to dry hay, which feeds the hungry cattle, which he sells to feedlots in Nebraska, which garners him checks--which keeps the whole thing going and going.

Long ago, I decided I would not work in the fields. The unrelenting labor destroys your body. But when I do come home, I cook, clean, and do his laundry.  Yesterday for supper, I fried four medium-sized elk steaks, made potato salad, and steamed broccoli. We ate most of the elk, but he saved a goodly amount for Rudy. This morning I rummaged around in one (yes, he has more than one) of his full-sized chest freezers and took out a chicken. He raises chickens, which he butchers and freezes. I'll roast it with our mom's cornmeal stuffing. There is leftover potato salad from yesterday. When a man does hard, physical labor for 12-14 hours a day, the cook doesn't have to worry about having too many starches.

I'm having two fresh eggs for breakfast this morning. I'm sipping coffee and watching the clouds descend over McCloud Peak. Light rain is on the way. There is a red-tail hawk perched on the power pole by the barn, waiting for a negligent gopher to dash out of his hole and try to cover too much ground. The magpies, black and white flashes, patrol the corral, and the red-winged black birds trill and sway on the tops of tall grasses and bull thistles.

And that's the morning report from Arlee.

Loveage

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Even though it is April, the hills around Livermore are draped in dozens of shades of green We’ve had record rain and snowfall this year, ending a four-year drought, but most Californians know that this is just a respite from future and probably more intense dry spells.

On this day, the temps will be in the mid-70s, and I am in shorts, carefully dodging all the happy green poison oak that carpets the areas around the trails. I wonder briefly if I will have a reaction today. Even when I had a dog who cavorted carelessly around and through the poison oak, and I had to lift her into the car at the end of hikes, I never broke out. Surely, her coat was covered in that toxic oil.  I reach out and knock the trunk of an oak tree. I hope my luck holds.

Pat, my husband, has a long history of immunity to poison oak. Back when he was a forest firefighter, he was put at the head of the crew that cleared the poison oak. He sawed it down, grabbed it and piled it up, and breathed in the smoke, filled with that particularly nasty oil. And while some of his comrades were hospitalized because of its impact on their lungs, he was invincible to the stuff.

We amble, look at the blue sky, stop to take photos, talk in a random fashion. First, we talk about our planned hike next year on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I worry that we won’t make it. Pat has a hip that will one day need to be replaced, and I doubt that without surgery it will not carry him 10-15 miles a day for days and days on end.  All the skiing he’d done the past three years is wearing it out. Of course, we talk about Mai--my student who fell on hard times and moved in with us—how she makes us laugh, how she has grown, how she has done so well these past four years, how quiet our house has been since she went to college.

We are delighted when we smell the wild cilantro, and we bend over, carefully moving the Miner’s Lettuce and other leaves looking for these small plants that produce such a strong smell. I bite into anything that looks likely.  Pat shakes his head, thinking that my approach is insane. We find wild carrots, and a plant whose name I don’t know, but I recall my grandmother pointing it out as something good to chew on for menstrual cramps. Yes, and we finally find the cilantro. It is smaller than the herb found in grocery stores, but its taste is much more powerful. Pat pinches a leaf between his fingers, but I bite into it; the smell conjures up memories of the soups that Mai makes when the weather is cold.

According to sites on the internet, cilantro, which is the Spanish name for coriander, is not a native to California. It belongs to a family of plants that apiaceous, which include celery, carrots, and something called loveage. My big Webster dictionary tells me that loveage is a “European apiaceous herb, cultivated in gardens.”

I wonder at this name. How did it come to be called this? So close to that human emotion–in one form or another-that consumes and drives most of our lives.

Loveage seems like it should be how much love has one accumulated in a life, the amount of banked good will—you know love + baggage. Or maybe it should be the formal version of  “lovin.” In my family, we will often scoop up a small child and cuddle her to us and say, “I’ve got to get some lovin from this kid.” Those kids will squirm and protest, but we all know they are loving that lovin’.

 

Scott Peck, the author of the well-known book A Road Less Traveled, says that love is not an emotion; love is an action. He tells a story of a man at bar, regaling other folks who have bellied up to cold drinks with stories of his children, telling his inebriated audience how much he loves his family. Peck says nope, that’s not love. Love would be that man being with his family, helping with homework, cooking a meal, teaching a child how to change a tire, or listening to the rambling stories of his children. Those are actions that show love.

Loveage hiding in Miner's Lettuce.

Loveage hiding in Miner's Lettuce.

The loveage herb has green leaves, yellow flowers, and seeds with a big flavor. One small leaf can flavor an entire dish.

 

Here we are in our retirement planning all sorts of adventures, all the things we didn’t do the past three decades when we were in the belly of a beast, consumed by our work.  Research is pretty clear that the people who experience the most well-being in their later years are the folks who have a purpose in their life, who are surrounded by a loving community, who have lives with meaning. And of course, meaning is often tangled up with other people. Have we cultivated enough of a garden? Do we have enough loveage stored up to carry us the rest of the way?

I reach out and knock on a nearby tree trunk, hoping our luck holds.