Home

I’m back from my first trip in a year and a half. It was nice enough to be out and about again that even the plane rides seemed nice. My fellow travelers may have felt the same since everyone was pleasant, which is not the first word I would have used for people in airports and planes the last time I flew.

I started to say that I’m home from my trip, but I was home where I was, too. Partly because I was staying in my own house, but also because I got to see two of my kids, and because I got to see good friends, and because I was in a place that has always felt like home to me, even the first time I went.

My family was not big on refrigerator magnets, but a few funny ones given as gifts accumulated over the years, mostly about wine, cats, or grammar. I think that one of them was the Robert Frost quote “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” which may have been something my sister gave my parents, but my whole memory of this may be off. Regardless, it’s how I would describe my parents’ home after I left to go to college. I moved back there for a few weeks after I left school and before I found a job with housing, but aside from a couple of holidays during college (after my first year I lived in apartments, not dorm rooms, so I didn’t have to move out during winter and summer breaks), and staying there sometimes when my father was sick and then dying, I didn’t go back to stay. I lived close enough to visit for a meal, but far enough to make that inconvenient to do often.

I would also, as I just did, describe it as “my parents’ home.” Partly because where they lived by the time I moved back to the general area where I grew up was not a place I ever lived with them, and partly because, well, it wasn’t my home. At that time in my life, in my early twenties, I lived in a house on the farm where I worked, and had parents and a sister who lived in houses in the city where I grew up less than two hours away, but I didn’t have a heart home. My high school friends were mostly no longer living in the area. I had just left college, and my friends there. I pretty well ran away from that place and those people in an effort to get away from the inside of my head, which inconveniently came along with me. An excellent idea for me then would have been therapy, but that wasn’t even on my radar. A few years later I would find it was much less difficult to tell my mother that I had a girlfriend than to tell her I had a therapist.

Where I live now is very much home. Though it is a place that was once also home for my kids, I know they all have their own places they call home now, and this house is that awkward combination of “mom’s house” and “that place where I lived through everything I had to live through as a teenager” and whatever else our dwellings from the past come to mean to us. It’s hard to go back to a place where the very smells and sounds seem to suck you back into playing a role that never really fit and that you don’t have to play in your adult life. I love it when my kids visit, but I think even more I love to go see them in their current lives where they are their current selves.

It’s thirty years later than when I had a homeless heart, and now I have a heart home made up of a lot of parts. Rose, our kids. Dogs, horses, cats. Places that I love. Myself. That’s probably the biggest change from my early twenties: whevever I go, there I am has a whole different meaning now. If I don’t carry my home on my back, I carry it in my heart, and I can make the shelter I need out of the tools I have available wherever I am.

Bridges

How do you get from here to there?
Are your bridges sturdy, patchwork, washed out?
What do you do when the roof caves in?
Or when it looks like it might?
When you have to blast your own entry or exit?


When the road ahead is rocky?
When you can’t see what’s around the next bend?


Here’s the thing: it’s all beautiful.
Even – maybe especially – the mess.

Roots

We have a redbud tree with a tiny nub where its main trunk once grew straight up towards the sky. This redbud is in a spot on our property where we buried one of our cats, and despite my many attempts to grow her a memorial plant, everything I have put on her grave has died. The redbud, which is not directly on her grave but very close by, looked like it would be the next victim. But though the main trunk did die off about two feet above the ground, there were some skinny little twigs that slowly took over and grew upwards. The tree gets hit by our strong northwest winds, even more so since we took down the disintegrating locust trees that sort of blocked some of the wind sometimes (but that also flung branches down on the redbuds sometimes), and the way it has grown makes it look like it’s being bent by a strong wind even when the air is still.

I haven’t counted the trees we have planted in a while, but there are over twenty of them. Some of them have had uneventful lives, growing straight and strong and healthy. Others, like the redbud, have suffered one way and another, sometimes with known causes and sometimes unknown. The eleven year old maple tree that marks one of the horse graves has a split trunk because what was the main trunk got bitten off by one of the other horses when the tree was still tiny. There are two young tulip poplars we planted in the same season. One of them is about four times the size of the other because the little one’s leaves kept getting eaten by something that didn’t seem to find the other one tasty, despite the two trees being only about thirty feet apart. Our two Bradford pears did what Bradford pears do, and split beyond saving in two separate storms, though the second one to die continues to stage Night of the Living Bradford Pear and sends up little zombie shoots despite all kinds of discouragement. Some of our strongest trees are the volunteers – the trees that seeded themselves from another tree on our property and chose where they wanted to grow.

It used to be that when I had to answer family medical history questions at a doctor’s office, I said that except for my grandfather who died of a heart attack at 55, everyone was pretty healthy. We are not a talking people, my family – at least not about personal topics – so it took a couple decades of collecting and extrapolating information before I realized there probably isn’t room on the forms to list all the things. In addition to my grandfather’s heart attack, there is high blood pressure and high cholesterol and thyroid disfunction. There is quite a bit of depression, probably two suicides, a lot of alcholism. There is some range on the autism spectrum. There are at least six different cancers. I’m never sure how helpful it is for me to know these things. Some of them don’t affect me, some I can stave off or manage, but some of them just are or will be.

My father used to say that he didn’t understand depression. His suggestion for a cure was “Just decide to be happy, and be happy.” Of course, he also said that he didn’t understand drug use because he “just got high on life” – and sometimes he said it with his daily beer or vodka and tonic in one hand, a bottle of wine open in the dining room to breathe so it could be consumed with dinner, and a liquor cabinet full of options for his after dinner nightcap. He was a man of contradictions, with a sidecar of denial. Once, when talking to my then sober grandmother (my father remained convinced that both my grandmother and my aunt went to AA meetings because they were lonely and it was a way to make friends), he said “We don’t drink” and my mother looked up from her newspaper and said “The hell we don’t!” which I thought was considerably more accurate.

I’d be hard pressed to describe my father as happy – the emotions he displayed tended more towards anger than joy – but he was curious, continually interested in life, and I think he was content. Knowing what I do know of his childhood, I would say he was a bit like my redbud tree and grew strong in the directions he could with what he had to work with. I am a child born of his seeds and blown by his often stormy winds, and like many of my trees, I have chosen where I want to put down my roots and I have grown as I will. My brain is not a good guide for my emotions – if my brain had its way, I wouldn’t have any emotions at all, so deciding how to feel is not in my life plan. But feeling what I feel and growing because of it, in spite of it, or when necessary around it – that is something I can keep doing.

Time Lapse

A couple of days ago I set up my wildlife camera next to the bird feeders to record who all showed up over the course of a day. I’ve only been paying attention to birds in any kind of focused way for the past two years, and I would not call myself an avid birder. My interest in them started when I decided I wanted to take a bird photograph every day for a 100 days of fill-in-the-creative-endeavor project, and while I still enjoy trying to get decent photos of them, I’m not that committed to that either. I follow a local online birding group and I see a lot of amazing photos there, and a lot of people excitedly adding to their life lists (the poor painted bunting who showed up in the DC suburbs seemed to have more photographers than all the current and former British royal family combined). I admire the enthusiasm but I don’t fully understand it. I do get pretty excited when I see a bird I’ve never seen and can actually identify, but maybe next year I’ll forget and get just as excited again.

I had the bird feeder camera set up for about ten hours to try to catch multiple feeding cycles. Most of the 1,354 photos are just that – repeat cycles of the same visitors, including a cardinal couple, a red bellied woodpecker couple, a blue jay, a mockingbird (it could be more than one – they come one at a time and I can’t tell them apart), a bluebird or two, a few brown headed cowbirds, a vast parade of house finches (with an occasional purple finch to remind me I am terrible at finch identification), goldfinches, little chipping sparrows, and one very fat and sassy squirrel. The photos I like best are the ones that make me laugh: the squirrel moving from one feeder to another, several bird blurs coming and going at once, a goldfinch in the middle of a 180 as he realized he didn’t want to mess with the mockingbird and he could come back later.

It turns out to be watching the regular birds doing regular bird things that interests me most. An eastern kingbird in his little tuxedo perched on the fence looking so refined, and then full-on assaulting a robin, appearing to say “I said GOOD DAY, sir!” to the back end of the departing robin. The way the female cardinal always shows up first, whether at the feeder or a tree, and then is joined by her mate – in contrast to the red bellied woodpeckers, who take entirely separate turns at the feeders, and always the male first. Many of the birds I’m seeing now I saw all winter. I’ve been watching the male goldfinches shift from a dull sort of olive color in winter to their bright yellow breeding plumage. The chickadees who buzz impatiently at me from the nearby sugar maple while I fill the feeders may well be the same ones who have been buzzing at me all winter, though their red breasted nuthatch and pine warbler associates who were bold enough to perch right on the stands while I added seed seem to have moved on.

The green herons have made their first spring appearance. They are following their usual pattern: first I see one flying north from the reservoir next door, perhaps to one of the other nearby ponds. Then I start seeing them flying over our property to or from the water – that’s the phase we are in now. Soon those flights will include carrying sticks to build their highly hypothetical looking nests, which I believe are constructed of eleven twigs and some wishful thinking, but they always do the trick. Last year when they built a nest in the weeping cherry right outside our bedroom window and I found one of the eggs after it hatched, I was amazed how small it was, and that it didn’t just slip right through the twigs. Green heron baby watch may be my favorite season, and it’s coming soon.

The barn swallows returned in April, as they always do. The consistency of birds is another thing I love, and barn swallows seem to be among the most punctual. We have had barn swallow mud nests in all of our run-in sheds for years, but I haven’t seen any evidence they are inhabited. I don’t know if swallows reuse nests; they may just be out and about doing their swallow activities all day. Far and away my favorite thing about mowing is having the swallows fly low and fast around me, eating the bugs that are scared up by the tractor. It’s a little wet to mow right now, but I had to mow the dog yard so as to not lose the actual dogs in the tall grass, and I had swallow companions the whole time. They were one of the first birds I paid attention to, in my early twenties when I didn’t have attention for much but the fact that I seemed to be losing my mind. Luckily I was working on a 95 acre farm at the time and there was a lot of mowing to do. I sat on the tractor for hours, sifting through depression and trauma and confusion and grief, all of which lightened with the swoop and swish of the barn swallows. For me, barn swallows are the dolphins of the air. They always make me smile, with their tiny rust colored breasts and bright eyes and sparkling wings filling my heart and reminding me to look up.

In the two years since I started my current bird journey I have also had bouts of depression and trauma and confusion and grief and feeling like I’m losing my mind. Most of it has been less extreme than in my early twenties – life in general was just more extreme when I was in my early twenties. But some things have gotten bigger, or harder, and the grief keeps adding up.

As with my early barn swallows, all the birds I watch now help me through that grief, and all the other worries large and small. We have raptors here as well as song birds, so I get frequent reminders from the birds (or the remains of the birds) that nature can be brutal, but I also get the beauty. I get the ebb and flow of bird migrations, the transient joy of the exotic visitors passing through, the birds who stay, the birds who return again and again, the birds who build their improbable nests and raise their babies against slim odds to start the cycle all over again.

Horse of a Different Color

I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.

For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.

Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?

Also: none of this is about horses.

Pasture Walk

I have, once again, been in a mood for the past two weeks. I thought about taking up the negativity challenge my cousin sent me a few years back when there were too many gratitude and positivity chain posts sweeping Facebook. The gist of the negativity challenge is that you name ten things that get on your nerves, the pettier the better. It is quite fun and even a little cathartic, but the problem right now is that the things that are getting on my nerves aren’t petty. The other problem is that when so many people are getting on my nerves with big things, it’s probably a pretty good sign that I have some work to do in those areas myself, and I don’t feeeeeeeeel like it. So there.

I had two different writing exercises assigned in this same two week time frame. One was a praise poem, and I got one of the projected five stanzas done because the only thing I felt like praising was coffee. I tried to move from coffee to other things in the kitchen that I wanted to praise, but I stalled out at:

“I give thanks for the dogs that lie under my feet
Tripping me as I gather ingredients.”

Looking back, even the coffee stanza is a little disgruntled.

The other exercise worked a little better, since it did not require me to be actively grateful, but just to think about something I do regularly that I take pleasure in. Here it is, in hopes that anyone else who has been having the same kind of April I’ve been having may feel better for a little walk through the pasture:

This is a walk I do every day, but not a walk from any particular day. It’s a walk that I do in all seasons, but for today I will walk in the fall, with its background music of geese muttering on the pond next door, the leaves on the trees changed or fallen, the still-green grass eaten down to a haze interspersed with patches of bare dirt.

I’m walking through a field, on my way from one pair of horses to the other, a fence on my left, a small hill on my right, a bucket of grain in one hand. The field, like all the fields around it, is a minefield of primarily horse manure, but also that of fox, goose, skunk, and any other creature who takes this path when I’m not on it. A lot of my looking is down.

My downcast eyes start to steer me around a pile of horse manure, but then I stop, and stoop. This pile is covered with something that from above it looks like a convention of tiny parasols. Each one is open and translucently striped, and I pull my cell phone out of my pocket to take pictures, which is the main reason I have a cell phone. I stare at it in paralyzed horror on the rare occasions it rings, but it is silent now as I crouch down to photograph the last signs of the fairy party.

The sun is up but not high enough to clear the trees in front of me, so the rays pierce the scantily clad limbs only to get caught and fractured by the chilly morning fog. The parallel lines of the fence boards are periodically connected by spider webs, which with all due respect to Charlotte have much more beauty in their rainbow sparkling dew concentricity than any words. I stop again, angling so that the web is clearly visible against the backdrop of the ground, and the light reflects off the dew droplets but does not shine directly into the lens. I’m interrupted by an indignant whuffing and the sound of fifteen hundred equine pounds landing from an impatient but balletic leap. I pause by the big bay body after I tip his breakfast into his bowl, trying to catch his whorls of hair in the dawn light but he steps his hind feet away, muzzle still firmly planted in his food. I settle for the silhouette of his withers, back, and croup against the fog: sunrise over Mount Finn.

On these morning walks, I feel compelled to try to record these sights as I see them. If I succeed, they will look not like what they are, but like what they feel like to me, a city child transplanted into these country fields more than half my life ago, starting my days on my knees in the wet grass amid nameless scat, trying to capture the view from behind my eyes.

Ancestry

A few years ago, some time after I did DNA testing to find out my dogs’ breeds, I sent in my own DNA sample (to a different site) to find out my own breeding. The only surprise was that there were no surprises: I am exactly as advertised on both sides of my lineage. I put up a family tree with roughly four names in it and then forgot about it.

Last September I got a message from someone who appears to be related to me, with some pretty detailed information about my maternal grandmother’s immediate relations. I ignored it for several months, because once upon a time when I was in junior high I answered the phone and the man on the other end asked to speak to Darcy (my sister) and I told him she was away at college and he asked if she was staying in Charlottesville (which was where she was) for the summer, and then he asked if my mother Dorrie was still working at the Renwick, and he asked after my father John and how the real estate business was at Chatel Real Estate, and then he said “Do you fuck?” so I have forty-odd years of trust issues with strangers who know a lot of details about my family.

But eventually I decided that not every stranger with a lot of details about my family is a creep, even on the internet, so I responded, and I’ve been having a lovely conversation with – hang on a minute while I go look up first and second vs once- or twice-removed cousins again – my second cousin, who has a much better knowledge of our family and also a much better memory for those things than I have. I know almost all of the names but have forgotten most of the relationships, and somehow it slipped my mind that all of my great aunts and uncles with names like Toddy and Kitty and Sweedie and Appie and Nanie had more regular given names, and that even some of the names that didn’t sound like nicknames were (Pete’s given name was Nathaniel, for instance). As someone who has a name that isn’t a nickname but sounds like one, I appreciate this.

My sister Darcy was the one who would have known all of these family facts. I would have loved to hear a conversation between her and this particular cousin, tracing our family back who knows how many generations. I can’t hold up my end of the conversation very well but I am enjoying it, and I feel a little like I am talking to my sister again.

For this and many reasons, I’ve been thinking about my grandmother (Dutch or Dutchie, born Frances) and the stories I wish I could hear again and listen to differently this time, and the things I’d like to ask her. Thinking about that also got me thinking about my mother, my father, my aunt, my sister – the people whose stories I can no longer listen to. I think of the questions I wish I could ask them, or that I wish I had thought to ask them. In my family, most of these people did not tell a lot of stories or answer a lot of direct questions, so some of this wishful thinking includes wishing that they had been different people, or that I had been a different person, or that we had been a different family.

In the absence of a do-over with any of my family members, I’ll do my best to pay attention to the ones that remain when they have something they want to tell me. It may not matter much in the grand scheme of things if anyone is left who knows that Gene was the third brother or that every one of my relations named Frances chose to go by their middle name, but it makes me feel better to try to be one of those people. If it meant enough to someone I loved for them to tell it to me, then it can be one of the ways I remember them and love them still.

Late Bloomer

It’s spring, it’s sunny, it’s warm, and in the words of Stuart Smalley, I’m shoulding all over myself. This is the time of year I’ve been waiting for, right? The weather I’ve been waiting for, the time to shed off the winter blahs, the time to do all the things. This I know: I don’t feel like it. I don’t even feel like writing, but here I am. I am taking two writing classes right now and haven’t written anything I like for either one of them. I don’t like the pieces we are using as models, and I like the pieces I’m writing from the models even less. I did just take a look at the next assignment for one of the classes and the instructor began her analysis of the piece by saying “I’m not sure we’ve ever studied a narrative technique revolving around bad-temperedness” and I thought: FINALLY! Something I can get behind.

The only thing I have felt like doing is baking cake, but even cake did not go as planned this weekend. I had a custard disaster, in which I was first reminded of the important lesson “don’t multi-task when the custard is on the burner” (chai flavored scrambled egg) and then that it’s important to know the right amount of gelatin to use (chai flavored egg soup) and then that you don’t try to reheat the watery custard if you’ve already put gelatin in it (I’m not really sure what to call the result: hot chai flavored egg soup with bits of rubber cement?). Fortunately the custard was a non-critical element. I tasted all the other elements individually so I’m fairly sure they will work out together. It’s a dirty chai layer cake, so it’s coffee and chai cake, white chocolate coffee ganache, nameless coffee crunchy bits, and coffee and chai buttercream. That has to be good, or at least edible. Maybe I’ll try it out for breakfast.

I’m not really sure what to do when baking therapy, writing therapy, walking therapy, horse therapy, and even dog therapy aren’t working. The cat has her own ideas which mostly involve attacking my legs as I walk by, so I haven’t tried snuggling her (a dangerous proposition on our best days, which most certainly neither of us is having right now). I don’t feel like gardening, and anyway it’s mostly too early for that here. Debris from last year is still sheltering this year’s beneficial critters, and it’s far too early to plant most new plants. I could be digging holes for trees, but I haven’t bought the trees yet, and in my experience it’s best to wait or you just have a yard full of holes.

The full impact of the past year is still sinking in. I haven’t seen two of my kids since January of last year, and the third who lives only one state away I’ve only seen maybe four times. I am pining for them all. I complain about traveling for work but I also miss it. I don’t care for the big city but I even miss going to New York. I have been saying for years that all of my line of work can be done remotely, and I have been mostly working from home for many years, but it turns out that going to an office never and seeing zero people in person is actually too much of a good thing. I miss live music. I miss having a regular level of anxiety about regular anxiety-producing things.

I spent some time this morning walking around my property being irritated at the trees and their cheerful busyness. If I stand still by the willow or the weeping cherry I can watch the leaves and flowers unfurl, and instead of giving me hope, this annoys me. The sweet gum is suddenly popping leaves all over, and most of the maples – autumn blaze, hedge, sugar – are putting out their early pollen-makers. Good for the bees, not so good for me. Only the crimson king maple and I seem to be on the same page. I know it is healthy and that it will leaf out, and I’m sure it’s getting busy somewhere inside its bark, but for right now on the surface it is doing exactly nothing. This is my kind of tree.

For now, I will keep reminding myself that our frost-free date isn’t for five or six more weeks, and maybe I’ll stay hunkered down until it’s time for my annual mid-May ritual of planting way too many tomatoes. Some of us are productive in April, and some of us are still dormant, and that’s ok.

And Then There Were Two

I have a collection of partially written blog posts that I may or may not get around to finishing. It seems that instead of taking notes these days I sometimes start a blog – maybe with a photo, or a title, or a sentence, or a paragraph, on the theory that I will remember later what I wanted to say. There’s one that only has a title – Layers – which I hope was going to be about more than cake, but maybe cake is enough. There’s one called Cat Dog which has two photos of my first dog when she assigned herself to be the parent of the then brand new kitten, Pigwidgeon, but the only sentence in it is about my mother, who was far more cat than dog. Maybe it was going to be about being a dog child raised by a cat mom, though for the first forty or so years of my life I would have said I was a cat person. There’s one called Eggs, which begins with this paragraph: “I’ve been thinking about eggs. Actually I’ve been eating a lot of eggs, and noticing that every time I crack open an egg, I think of my mother. Not in a symbolic, mother-daughter, mysteries of the feminine kind of way, either. In particular, I think of cracking, and then beating, what felt like thousands of eggs, during the Meringue Years.” A few sentences later, it ends in the middle of a word (“Quite possibl” is where I stopped, having used up my day’s quota of not only words but letters, I guess).

Many of my partial posts started with something from my childhood, and those shards of childhood memory are on my mind a lot lately, as are my parents and my two older sisters. I have very few memories of events of any significance from before I was ten, but I can perfectly describe the dented stock pot we used to make both pasta and fudge (not at the same time). I can tell you about the time when the crabs (aka dinner) escaped under the kitchen stove, though the fact of it is all I remember, and not the method of escape or rescue, if “rescue” is a word that can apply when the rescued end up in a pot of boiling water. I can tell you general facts about each person. For example, my father used olive oil as tanning lotion, and we used to have to keep him out of the kitchen while making spaghetti sauce so he wouldn’t sneak in and add so much hot pepper that no one else would be able to eat it, and he often made oblique requests (“A beer would be nice”), and it was next to impossible to tell when he was joking.

As the youngest of three sisters spanning a seven year age difference, I probably have the vaguest memories of the times we were all together. My oldest sister had the most and the clearest memories, partly by virtue of being the oldest, but mostly because she had perfect recall of all names, dates, events, and relationships, plus every fact she ever read or learned. She would always be the person I would ask for birthdates, who was married to whom, how we were related to someone, or when a particular vacation or trip to the circus took place. I’m always interested in the things family members remember differently, or don’t remember at all. She seemed to remember everything, and I don’t think any of us would ever have questioned her. I have a collection of photo albums in my basement from my aunt and my grandmother, and no one to ask who is in them.

My maternal grandfather died before I was born, and my maternal grandmother when I was in college. My paternal grandfather was not a part of my father’s life, and I was never close to his mother and stepfather, both of whom also died when I was in college or soon after. My uncle died when I was in high school, my mother when I was in my late 30s, and my father and my aunt died within two weeks of each other seven years after that. One day my sisters and I and our three cousins were the kids, and the next day we were the older generation. It’s the normal order of things, but it happened all at once and before any of us had really thought to prepare for that particular fact. I think it’s safe to say the last thing I expected then was that one of us – my oldest sister – would die five years later. I’m still not sure I believe it.

I spoke to my sister – I still want to specify which one, though it’s just the two of us now – yesterday. I used to envy how close my mother and my aunt were as adults. For a lot of years my sisters and I got secondhand information about each other through our parents, which works kind of like social media where you can keep up with someone’s life without actually making an effort to communicate with them. There’s a lot to a sister relationship: the years we lived in the same house, the years we fought, the years we were best friends, the years we didn’t speak, the places our lives connect and the places they don’t at all, the things we know about each other that no one else knows, and the things we will never know about each other. My mother and my aunt got closer after my uncle’s death, and still more after my grandmother’s death. It never really occurred to me that their closeness might in part have been because they were all the family each other had left, the only two people still there to hold on to – or argue about – the memories.

Postcards from Terra Firma

The ash tree is known in some mythological traditions as the world tree, the tree of life, the tree that spans between worlds. I chose our lone ash tree over fifteen years ago without knowing anything about the tree from either an arboricultural or mythological perspective. I liked it for its straight trunk and symmetrical branches. In our first two waves of planting trees here, we chose trees for practical reasons. We chose them for their crown shapes: some spreading, some rounded, some upright. We chose them for their growth rates: near the barn and the horse pastures we wanted fast growers to produce shade, so we planted London planes and tulip poplars. Near the house we wanted less shade, so we chose ironwood, crimson king maple, ornamental plum. Some we just find pretty, like the weeping cherry and the redbuds. We planted the ash for my mother two days after she died, and it has grown untouched by ash borers for over fifteen years, spanning the world where I am, the world where she is, the world where I remember us, and the world where I picture us together.

Birds are a constant presence, their specific populations shifting with the seasons and the birds’ own whims. Birds that are just passing through, birds that come for the summer, birds that stay for the winter. When we first moved here, there were few I recognized: robins, bluebirds, starlings, grackles. Every small brown bird was a sparrow, every red bird a cardinal, every raptor a red tailed hawk. The year my sister died, I took up bird photography. I went through bird crushes, stalking and trying to capture closer and clearer shots of the Coopers hawk pair, the female cardinal, the nest of Dr. Seussian green heron babies. I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dying, and then I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dead. I can differentiate a goldfinch from a pine warbler from a yellow-breasted chat, even if I can’t quite yet parse grief from anger from loss.

Ice storms are a part of winter every year, though between winters I manage to forget about them and am surprised anew each time. They embody the exact intersection of destruction and beauty, dropping tree limbs on fences, downing whole trees across our driveway, cutting off power and rendering driving impossible even if we could find a way out. As I make my careful way around to inspect the damage, I carry a camera to try to capture the magic of the sun sparking rainbows through the ice encasing every twig of the ironwood tree, the icicle stalactites growing downward from the barn eaves, the jewel-bright dogwood berries glowing red through ice teardrops. We mourn the fallen Bradford pear even as we plan what to plant in its place: a tree both sturdier and more flexible to weather the inevitable storms.

Blinking one by one into the dusk, shining brightly in the black of late night, hiding behind cloud cover, stars both visible and invisible fill my nights. Shooting stars, not stars at all, grace my late and early outings with the dogs just often enough to keep me, like the dogs, looking up for the intermittent reward. I have traveled to places where I can see the Milky Way, where the stars are so numerously visible they form a web of light, but here at home they remain individual points even on the clearest night. I can pick out a few constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper, the Pleiades. I am less certain of Taurus, but in true Taurus fashion I will confidently point out where it is. I have lived in this spot for more than a third of my life, lucky enough to have my views both day and night unchanged in twenty years. When my father was dying I returned to the city where I grew up, spending nights in his spare room lit by the orange glow of the streetlamps, unable to comprehend how to sleep with no true darkness to delineate night from day, with no stars to remind me: Look up! Look up.

The trees on the front and back edges of our property are trees that were here before us. A stand of tall white pines whose needles have made their own ecosystem at the entrance to the property, a ridgeline of locusts that shed their limbs more readily than their leaves, mulberries on the edge of the back woods, their berries drawing birds and squirrels to their branches and white tailed deer and foxes to the fallen fruit below. The rest of the trees, the trees closer to the house and barn, we planted ourselves, sweating and swearing our way through digging holes in our rocky soil. There is the weeping cherry I can no longer wrap my arms all the way around, shading the living room window. The plane trees that tower over the barn. The oak and maple trees that mark the graves of the four horses who moved here with us – each of those trees a seedling the year we buried each horse, the smallest tree now fifteen feet tall. I am particularly drawn to the trees in winter, their skeletons visible to the world. Bare branches cast shadows on the snow like visible roots that ground us here, or split around the solid line of the trunk shadow like the branching of veins and arteries around an aorta, carrying blood to and from the heart and lungs of this place.

Wineberry plants grow thick along the edge of the back woods, and they spring up anywhere else we let them. Canes bend to the ground to bury and root their tips in their ongoing crawl towards the sunny pastures. A welcome invasive, they feed us when we remember it’s the right time of year to pick them, and otherwise they feed the wild creatures. Wineberries look like raspberries lit from within, their drupelets smaller, brighter and more translucent than even a raspberry from the farmers’ market stands. When my mother stayed with us after her second to last hospital visit, her appetite dulled by cancer and drugs and depression, I tried to create small plates of things she loved to tempt her to eat. A quarter of a bagel, smoothly cream cheesed and covered with a thin layer of lox plated with a small fruit salad: bright red wineberries with blueberries, a few slices of banana, two-toned green kiwi. A small dish of yogurt bejeweled with wineberries. “Too pretty,” my mother declared, “not to eat.”