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.”

Roll Call

I doubt I could name five people in any of my classes from kindergarten through fourth grade, but I can tell you with certainty that once when I was about ten and we were visiting my grandmother, I went on a trail ride on a gelding named Gilbert while my sister rode a mare named Lucille. In fact, I have seen photos of even my fifth grade class and thought “Who ARE these people?” but I can look at ancient instamatic photos from the barn where I learned to ride and immediately identify the horses, whether I ever rode them or not: Parfait, Cherokee, Teddy, Ajax, Bits and Pieces, Hombre. I can fall asleep by listing the names of ponies from that first barn: Ace, Pickle, Tia Maria, Janice, Little Fat Pony, or horses from the next barn we moved to: Sea Dew, Splash, Confetti, Orion, Four on the Floor, and the chestnut Me Not trio (Catch Me Not, Kiss Me Not, Touch Me Not), or horses from camp: a big dapple gray gelding named Strictly, a sweet flea bitten gray mare named Nasha, and one of the most strikingly unattractive bay geldings I have ever seen whose name was Handsome. When I applied for my first job after college, as soon as I heard the woman’s voice on the phone I knew that she had been a boarder at the farm where I had worked before college. I had no recollection of her name but I knew her horse’s name was Happy, that his favorite snack was bananas, and which blankets he wore at what temperatures.

Horses from my past are sharing a lot of space in my heart right now, and none more than our own horses who moved to this property with us and who are buried here. It’s technically still winter but the early bulbs are pushing up their greenery and in some cases their flowers have started blooming, and there are crocuses, snowdrops, Carolina bluebells, or daffodils marking each horse’s grave. They each have a tree, too. We’ve planted a lot of trees here, but the horses’ trees all volunteered and grew from seedlings, marking the time as well as the horse.

When you drive up our driveway, you pass Wy’s grave. We buried him the year we moved here, not long after we finished the fence and barn and were able to bring the horses home. Wy was the third horse I bought and the last horse I sold, though he made his way back to me in the end. I was told by a dressage clinician who knew me hardly at all that I should not buy him because he would never make my dreams come true. There were a lot of reasons to argue that I had no business buying him, not the least of which was that I had neither the cash nor the income to do so, but the nature of my dreams and how this big bay horse fit into them was not even on the list. It’s been over twenty years since I got him back and I only just realized that the way that happened was in part because I had a dream that Wy told me to come get him, and when I woke up, I did just that.

Some people have stories about their lost love. Maybe it’s someone they let get away and only realized later they shouldn’t have. Maybe it’s someone they lost too soon. Mine is Trappe. I never intended to buy her – I was just planning a training lease where I would ride and train the horse until I sold her, and her owner and I would split the proceeds. It was not love at first sight, but it didn’t take too long to dawn on me that I’d been looking for this horse my whole life and I’d be a fool to let her go. There are no missed opportunities in our story. I didn’t let her get away. Technically speaking she didn’t die too soon – 24 isn’t young for a thoroughbred, and she survived an astonishing number of potentially fatal things (including colic, botulism, and lightning) in her lifetime. I just miss her. I’ve never had a horse partnership as deep as the one I had with her again, and I know that’s partly because I’ve never let myself get quite so close. A little more than half way through my time with Trappe I completely changed my approach to horses and I spent some time wanting to apologize to all of the horses, and especially her. A wise horseman friend said “You’ve got to let that go – your horses let it go a long time ago,” and while I know that’s true, I always kind of wanted a do-over with Trappe. For her sake, is what I thought, and while that is true, it’s also true that I’d like to have those (or any) nineteen years with her all over again.

Punkin was Rose’s baby, but she was mine in some ways, too. She was not the first young horse I started, but she was the first young horse I started and then got to keep working with long term. She was a master of energy conservation: always willing to do what we asked, always figuring out how to do it with the absolute minimum effort. At a log across the trail she would balance on her hind end while she chose her route – we could never accuse her of refusing – and then when she saw her spot she would hop gently to the other side and carry on up the trail. She was alternately grumpy and sweet with the other horses, but with humans she was sweetness itself. Punkin was the first horse we buried inside one of the pastures, and we never say “Punkin’s grave,” we just say things like “Niño and Tabby are napping by Punkin.” We do that with all the horses, come to think of it, but I particularly like to think of Punkin still out watching over her brother and her cousin.

Cookie was the very definition of motherhood. She made beautiful babies, passing on all of her best traits, and though she spent her first four years in a field with no human contact, she taught those babies to trust humans. She also taught our human babies to trust horses, and when she thought they needed it, she taught them lessons. I spent one fall “teaching” her how to canter (pro tip: horses know how to canter already), and I marvel at her patience as we (ok, I) learned just how small a cue was needed to get a nice lopey canter, instead of the leap-into-zoom I had been instigating. I’m not a fan of mass backyard breeding of horses, but if ever there was a horse I wish I had a whole herd from, it’s Cookie. She has a fountain of pink roses covering her grave. I’ve read that pink roses symbolize gratitude, grace, and joy, and that seems just about perfect. She was Rose’s heart horse the way Trappe was mine, and we each buried a big chunk of our hearts with those mares.

Trappe, Cookie, Punkin and Wy were our foundation horses, not in the breeding sense that horse people usually mean by that term – Cookie was the only one we ever bred – but these four horses were the foundation of us. Trappe and Cookie were how Rose and I met. Wy and Punkin were the horses we were learning our way with as we learned our way with each other in the first year of our relationship. We didn’t all stay together straight through, but we came back together when it mattered, and we grew and grew older together. From the horses we learned how to listen, how to learn, and maybe most important and most difficult, how to let go. I miss them and I feel their presence in equal measure, but not always at the same time. Today, this week, this month, I just miss them.

Praise the Dog

Praise the dog, the open heart
The welcome glee, the body wag
Praise soft fur, the sweeping tail
The puppy breath, the velvet ear
Praise the interrupting paw
The focused stare, the sit upon
Praise belly rub, the whisker kiss
The murmured sigh, the snuggle in
Praise joyful play, unfettered run
The dreaming sleep, the stolen snack
Praise hunter’s deafness, herder’s speed
The warning growl, commanding bark
Praise the sharing of the couch
The yours is mine, the mine is mine –

Praise hunger. Praise demands.
Praise the journey that we share.
Praise the knowing where we are.
Praise the time that’s always now.
Praise the loving, praise the loved.
Praise the carefree, praise the wild.

Praise the dog who brings me home.
Praise the dog who brings me home.

Harbingers

The tundra swans are here! This is our sixth year seeing them, and while I don’t know what caused them to add us to their migration path 15 years into our time here, I am always grateful. Uncharacteristically, they showed up during a period of bad weather this year. I have long suspected they know just how good they look against a bright blue sky, and in fact they seem put out by the gloomy, wet weather we’ve been having. Normally during their time here, they go to other bodies of water during the day and return to our reservoir at night, but they have mostly spent the rainy weekend grumbling along the edge of the ice on the reservoir and not flying at all.

We have enormous numbers of Canada geese who inhabit the reservoir year-round, and they are not fans of the swans, who are the only birds I know that make the geese look small. The first year or two the swans came here, the geese would circle and circle over the reservoir, sometimes returning to one of their daytime ponds for the night, and sometimes landing as far from the swans as possible. They spent the nights they were here grumbling about the tourists, while the swans made their own odd calls that I can best describe as what it would have sounded like if Mr. Rochester had also had mad geese locked in his attic. This year, as almost always, it was their voices that tipped me off to their arrival. They came after dark on Friday night, and when I took the dogs out for last pee, they all stopped in their tracks and looked at me like “What the hell, mom?” which seems a reasonable response to unexpected swans. The geese seem resigned now, but it will likely be a few more days before we see them actively mingling with the swans. It’s warming up and the ice is melting, which means more water space for everyone to keep to their own species.

The swans come by during the first half of March each year, but what they find when they arrive varies quite a bit. If the winter has been mild, or if it has warmed up already, the whole reservoir will be water. If it’s been a cold winter or if the cold is lingering later, most of it may be ice. They seem unfazed either way, sometimes gathering on the ice and sometimes paddling serenely through the water, no matter the temperature. The ground at this time of year is almost always terrible. This year we have had more snow than we have had for a few years, and it’s lingering in both slushy and icy swaths. The horse pastures are a muddy, manure-filled mess, and (as is true every year) look like they will never recover. Mud is the unifying theme – sucking off our boots, changing the colors of the horses, coming in the house on the dogs, making everything we can see a drab brown – not that different than the colors of the Canada goose, come to think of it. It matches my mood almost exactly.

My excitement about the swans is a mixture of the beauty of their bright white plumage in the sea of mud, the novelty of these very short-term visitors, and the indication that spring really is coming. The swans usually arrive before the first crocus blooms. The snowdrops are just getting started, so the crocuses and the Carolina bluebells won’t be far behind. I confess I don’t think very much about the first sign of the change of any season except winter into spring. Spring into summer just seems to happen. Summer into fall is heralded by the first change of leaf color – usually the deceptive beauty of a bright red poison ivy vine climbing a tree I should avoid – followed quickly by sadness and a sense of time passing too fast. Fall into winter is only rarely a snowy event around here, but snow is what I think of when I think of winter. This year the snow didn’t come until February, but it feels like it’s been snowing for all 17 weeks that February feels like it has lasted. It took very little time to go from “I can’t wait for it to snow!” to “Is it EVER going to stop snowing?” I had not realized quite how much of the magic of a good snowstorm is the shutting down of all regular activities. When so many regular activities are already shut down, it’s hard to notice much of a difference. Plus there’s no such thing as a snow day from work when everyone is already working from home.

My normal eagerness for signs of spring has an added frantic edge to it this year. I long for warmer weather, for green pastures instead of brown, for fresh vegetables from the garden, for sun on my skin. I also long for travel, for seeing and hugging my kids, for new experiences, for live music. I hate crowds, but right now I would dearly love the shared experience of singing along with a stadium full of people to songs we all know and love. I feel like this winter has lasted a full year, and like it’s never going to end. I’m not a believer that “back to normal” is a thing, partly because I’m not really a believer in “normal,” but also because I sincerely hope we have all learned some things about what we can keep doing and what we really have to change. In the midst of this ongoing and season-spanning year of the unknown, I’m grateful to the swans for reminding me that the seasons really do keep changing and that some things – good things, beautiful things – remain the same.