A Very Gorey Christmas

I’ve been trying for some time now to write the story of the Christmas Bat because a friend wants to hear it. The same friend also wants twelve layer Russian honey cake, but she lives on the other side of an ocean so I can’t make that happen right now. The main reason I’ve been unable so far to give her the story she wants is that I’m too tied up with what I want: for my friend to not have cancer, for there to be more than a tiny chance that we will ever get to meet in person, for my heart to not be so full of grief from all the other people I’ve loved who have died of cancer that I freeze just a little when I am faced with another potential death.

The accumulation of grief is a tricky thing. In between losses I feel like I’m doing ok, I’m processing the grief, I’m mourning and honoring the people. But then I’m faced with another loss, and I realize the grief that was sitting next to me is now something I’m treading water in and it’s getting harder to catch my breath, partly because instead of breathing all I want to do is scream. My accumulated griefs include friends with terrible diagnoses, and friends whose parents or siblings or spouses or children or friends have died are or are dying. They also include a lot of anger on behalf of the people I’ve loved who have died. Anger that they had to go through it – each member of my family who has died of cancer has had a different kind of cancer and they are all fucking terrible – and anger that I have lost them. I know this is a wave of feeling and even though it feels like a tidal wave it will become manageable again, but today I’m having a hard time writing about anything else.

But. If a friend asks me for a thing that is in fact the very least I can do, and it is also all I can do, then damn it, I’m going to do it.

The Christmas Bat is now on top of his 33rd Christmas tree. Last year he got a break only because we took a break from having a tree. We did not have Christmas trees in my childhood, but we had neighbors who got theirs every Christmas Eve from a cut-your-own tree farm in northern Virginia and who let us tag along for the tree selection and tree decorating. I haven’t strung cranberries and popcorn since those trees, but I still think Christmas Eve is a good time to get a tree. I am the only member of my family on this bandwagon, however, so we always get ours earlier, and this year I was the one pushing to get the tree before Thanksgiving. Rose and I have both moved off of our early Christmas tree positions – she spent several years asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to use a star or an angel as the tree topper, but this year while we decorated our tree that I brought home nearly a month before Christmas, she was the one who put the bat in his place on the top of the tree.

For many years my mother managed a museum shop. They sold the usual kinds of things you would expect in a museum gift shop – things related to current or past exhibits, like books about Maria Martinez pottery, or honey and bee pins from the Utah: The Beehive State exibit, or postcards of the paintings in the Grand Salon upstairs. But because of my mother, they also had a wonderful collection of eclectic children’s books which had no relevance to anything ever seeen or exhibited in the gallery. The King Who Rained was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school, as was A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me, but my very favorites were the Edward Gorey books.

My mother gave me Amphigorey, the first of the Gorey anthologies, when I was in middle school, and I began memorizing Gorey stories. My best friend from 7th grade and I recited them gleefully and often, and when she moved to the other side of the country we traded lines from The Gashleycrumb Tinies or The Object Lesson back and forth on the many envelopes we sent each other containing 20-page letters and cassette tapes. Not mix tapes, but just tapes of us talking in our ongoing conversation when long distance was still charged by the minute and we were too young to have jobs to pay the phone bills.

Gorey came with me to college in the form of a book of small posters of his work (also from the museum shop) which I cut out and used to paper my dorm room wall. After the dorm they followed me from one room to another for years, growing ever tattier around the edges from all the thumbtack holes.

As far as I know, the Christmas Bat is the only one of his kind. He came into being in the museum shop one Christmas season in the 80’s. In addition to all the books, my mother also stocked the shop with Gorey bean bag creatures, especially the cats in their little striped shirts, and the bats with their red eyes. She dressed one of the Gorey bats for the season in a tiny knit Christmas hat, a miniature brass horn, and a bright red tassel, and placed him by the cash register. When the season was over she gave him to me. I put him on top of my first Christmas tree and he has held that place ever since.

I know I have found a kindred soul when I find someone else who grew up on Gorey stories. The Wuggly Ump may not be a soothing bedtime story (“How uninviting are its claws! How even more so are its jaws!”) but anyone who knows it – or any other Gorey story – by heart likely has a dark sense of humor I will recognize. I have a book that my mother gave me for my 17th birthday, inscribed with a quote from Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest. She wrote “To Tessa, who came seventeen years ago and to this day has shown know intention of going away.” I still find this perfect, if maybe a little hard to explain as a birthday sentiment.

When my most favorite aunt was dying and we said our goodbyes, we first said “I love you” and the major things we wanted each other to know. She then drew a shaky breath (she was less than 24 hours from dying of lung cancer) and said “It was already Thursday,” so of course I said “but his Lordship’s artificial limb could not be found” and she said “Therefore, having directed the servants to fill the baths” and I said “He seized the tongs and set out at once for the lake, where the Throbblefoot Spectre still loitered in a distraught manner.” I kissed her, said “I love you” one more time, and we said goodbye. Quoting Edward Gorey at each other may not be how everyone says goodbye to a favorite relative, but what my aunt called “the quoting gene” runs strong in our family.

Like most of my stories, the story of the Christmas Bat is wrapped up in a lot of other stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are sad, some of them involve death, and some of them involve life and friendship. I’m breathing a little better now, but damn it, I want my life and my friends’ lives to have so much less of the sad and the death, and so much more of the funny and the life and the friendship.

Tall, Dark and Handsome

I’m sure there’s a joke to be had about how I like my male horses – tall, dark and handsome, yes, but also – gelded? troubled? – but what I do know is that the geldings I have picked as riding horses tend to have a lot in common. The three I have chosen have been bay with strong black points, similar height, and with no interest in the job they were trained to do before I met them.

Soldier was a thoroughbred trained to foxhunt. I got him as a lease-to-sell project, with the intent of training him as an event horse. As it turned out, a horse who will run and jump with a group of other horses does not necessarily have any interest in jumping when he is alone on a cross country course, and a horse who has only ever seen natural fences on the hunt course may not have any idea what to do with painted jumps in an arena. His approach to a stadium jumping course went something like this: gallop towards the first fence, screech to a halt, take off from all four feet at once, land on all four feet on the other side, bolt to the next fence and repeat. After it became clear he would never be an eventer at even the lowest level (Super Chicken, they call it locally, or Ever Green), his owner sent him back out on a foxhunt with an interested buyer who Soldier promptly dumped and nearly put in the hospital. He eventually found his way to a great home with a woman who wanted mostly to do dressage and trail ride.

Wy came along about 5 years after Soldier. His full name was Wy’East, the native name of Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon where his breeder was from. He had been bred and trained to be a dressage horse (his breeder had dreams of him taking her to the Olympics) but was deemed neither sound nor sane enough for that job. That put him squarely in my equine specialty of what a friend once dubbed “the lame and the insane.” His first owner was my dressage instructor at the time she had him up for sale. When I rode him for the first time in a lesson with her I wound up on the ground pretty quickly, as his riders often did. I don’t remember landing, but I do remember getting up and saying “You son of a bitch, get back here” as I went to get him from the other side of the indoor arena. His owner, used to people sitting on the ground and crying after coming off him, agreed to sell him to me on a payment plan.

I had no designs on Wy as a dressage horse, and I let him show me what he was interested in, which was mostly trail riding, though he also loved jumping tiny fences as if they were Puissance walls. With the pressure off he got a lot saner, but he didn’t get any sounder, and I still had vague ideas at that time about having a horse I could compete in some discipline. I decided that he might be happier in a home where all the person wanted to do was trail ride, so I sold him to a nice man who wanted just that.

Several years after I sold Wy, and several farms after the last one where he had lived with us, we were house hunting again, looking for a place for us and our three mares. We were thinking about a house that had the right amount of land, but the land was mostly wooded. While we investigated how much it would cost to turn woods into pasture, we looked at barns where we might keep the horses in the interim.

There was a good sized boarding farm close to the woodland house. We arranged to visit, and the owner – something of a cowboy in the middle of hunter/jumper, eventer, and foxhunter territory – showed us around while we told him about our mares. I was explaining about my slutty thoroughbred mare Trappe, and telling stories on her mare-in-heat behavior, when I said “Of course, that was when we still had Wy.” The cowboy said “You had a horse named Wy? We have a horse here named Wy.” I said “Is it ‘Y’ as in the letter Y, or ‘Why’ as in ‘Why Did I Buy This Horse?'” He said he didn’t know; the owner just called him Wy, or sometimes Beast. Even though Wy’s most common nickname when I had him was Wy Beast, I still didn’t make the connection. “He’s a big, bay Hanoverian gelding,” said the cowboy as he pointed behind me. This finally sunk in, and I turned around and saw my horse looking at me over the fence of his paddock. I ran over to him and he buried his big head in my chest.

Wy had come to this farm through two different owners after he got sick while with the guy I sold him to. The diagnosis by the time I saw him was possibly EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), but no one was really sure. Some kind of degenerative neurological condition, definitely. He was not rideable, and his owner was trying to decide what to do next. I wasn’t sure what to do next either. I did nothing for about two weeks, and then one Sunday I woke up and said to Rose, “I had a dream about Wy last night and he told me to come get him. I want to go back to the farm to see him.” When we got to the farm I told the cowboy about my dream, and he looked at me like I was a little nuts, which I had expected. I said “I know it sounds weird” and he interrupted me and said “No, I don’t think it’s weird at all – it’s just that his owner just had the vet out yesterday and he said there’s nothing else they can do and she was asking if I knew how to reach you to talk about having you take him back.”

Wy came home to us and the three mares he had lived with before, though at a different farm. When we first put him out in the field with them, he spent a couple of days with a look on his face like “I had the weirdest dream – but here we all are together so I guess it really was a dream.” The mares – especially the slutty thoroughbred – were thrilled to have him back. We didn’t buy the woodland house, but we did buy the house where we live now. By that time we had acquired one more filly and we also had a foal on the way. They all lived at our vet’s farm for a few months while we put in fence and a barn here, and then they came home.

Less than two months after we brought the horses home, Wy had gone downhill enough that we had to put him down. He couldn’t reliably stand up without his knees buckling, and he walked like an old drunk man. With Trappe standing close at all times and trying to prop him up, I was worried that I would come home to find them both on the ground with her squashed beneath him. Our vet, who hadn’t seen Wy since he came home to us, took one look and said “You know you don’t have a choice about this, right?” which, true or not, was what I needed to hear. We buried Wy near the barn, and everyone that drives onto our property drives by his grave. A year after we buried him, an acorn sprouted in the middle of his grave, and that oak tree is now about 30 feet tall.

Wy left a lot of legacies. One of them is one of our family mantras: “Don’t pick up the reins.” It took me until the second time I came off of him to realize how he got people off so consistently. He would wait until his rider had a good hold of the reins, and then he would duck his giant head down between his knees and pull the rider off balance, and then he’d throw in a buck with a twist and off the rider would pop. The thing was, he always had something a little off in his back and hind end, and his buck really was not that athletic. I discovered that if, when he put his head down, I let go of the reins, he could buck all he wanted and it would not unseat me. It was that rein yank that created the problem. It became something Rose and I would say any time anyone verbally tried to knock us off balance in an argument – don’t pick up the reins and you won’t find yourself getting into a fight.

Finn is a legacy of Wy’s. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much they look alike, or that Finn was another horse that someone tried to turn in to a dressage horse when he neither understood what was being asked of him nor was he interested in it. I don’t know that I would have brought Finn home if I hadn’t known Wy, and I don’t think I would have listened to him as much as I have when he tells me what he does and does not want to do and what he can and can’t handle. I still needed some reminders, like the first time I asked Finn to trot and he said “I can’t” and I mistook that for “I need some encouragement” rather than “I really can’t do that right now.” I said “Come on, you can do it!” and then I was up in the air looking down at his back, and then I was on the ground with him looking down at me with a look that said “I told you I can’t and I really meant it.” I got up, dropped my pants to get the sand out of my underwear, pulled myself together, and got back on with a different attitude. Finn is the Truth Serum Horse in his own right, but I know how to listen to him because of Wy.

Wy’s biggest legacy for me is to pay attention and to trust my gut. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we went to look at one house so that we’d meet the realtor who took us to see another house that was the reason we went to look at the barn where I found the horse and was able to bring him home. Life doesn’t always run in straight lines, but I find that if I just keep moving forward – and if I don’t pick up the reins to try to control something I have no business trying to control in the first place – I end up where I need to be.

Getting to Know You

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It was love at almost first sight.

Scout, still a puppy himself, was not convinced when we came home in the middle of the night with an eleven week old ball of fluff and put it in a crate in HIS house. I imagine if he could have, he would have said what my sister reportedly said when my parents brought me home from the hospital wrapped in her blankie which my father had grabbed on the way out the door: “What is THAT in my blanket?”

Scout spent some time barking an alarm, and some more time grumbling, but it was late, so eventually he slept.

The next morning quickly became Christmas in early May, as the possibilities of having a younger brother began to dawn on Scout. They have been best friends ever since.

Dog best friends means a lot of playing and a lot of loving, but it doesn’t mean no fighting. Scout is more than twice Boo’s size, and a full year older, but they take turns being the bully in their own way. Scout loves to chase anything he is (or isn’t) allowed to chase, and when he is thwarted from his preferred target (No, you can’t chase the horses. No, you can’t run after those deer.) he turns his attention to Boo. 110 pounds of intense dog running at you at top speed is an intimidating proposition, and Boo knows how to make himself as small as possible to prevent an actual attack.

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The flip side of this bullying usually happens when Scout gets the giant dog zoomies. Boo is also very fast but his legs are much shorter, and he gets frustrated and annoyed when he is left behind. He is a herder, though, and he knows how to cut corners. When he catches up to Scout he throws himself against Scout’s side until he rolls him over (though there is some evidence that Scout throws himself to the ground).  In either case, it often ends with a lot of hackles raised and one of us having to separate the dogs until everyone cools down. 

We manage a lot of things about our dogs to maintain the peace. We feed them all separately, in closed kennels. We have a dog yard and an auxiliary dog yard, so if they are not playing well together outside we can separate them and they can still be outside in a safe space. The auxiliary dog yard is also farther away from the horses, so we have somewhere to put Scout to avoid having the horses ramp up his stress. The dogs are not allowed on “our” furniture, and though they have sofas of their own in the basement, we keep an eye out for anyone who is guarding a sofa, or a toy, or one of us. We also keep an eye out for when they are peacefully sharing space, and we give out lots of treats for good behavior.

Even with all of that, they can and do find things to disagree about. Sometimes it’s just that something that’s fun for one dog isn’t fun for the other, or something that was fun at first isn’t fun any more. I understand all of this. It works the same way for the humans in the house, whether there are five of us or, as now, just two. And not all of us have someone around to separate us when our hackles go up about something and we start picking on each other.

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This year has been a tough one for relationships. Most externally imposed boundaries have been eliminated. We don’t have travel, or going to an office, or even going shopping as artificially enforced time apart. It can be hard to find things to talk about when we’ve spent all day on top of each other and we already know everything the other person did. Especially this year, a lot of the things to talk about from the outside world are scary or irritating or contentious. Just like the dogs, it’s easy for one of us to get sick of something the other one is doing, or for one of us to get irritated at something else and then take it out on the closest person.

I once read a novel about a marriage counseling service that sent a linguist to live with a struggling couple on the theory that the root of their problems was in the words they used to speak to each other. I don’t disagree with this (and it was a great premise for a book), but I wouldn’t mind having a good dog trainer in the house on some days. Not for the dogs – for us.

Rose and I have been together for 27 years, and we know by now that in every relationship there will be times you and your dearly beloved will drive each other completely crazy. Mostly we can laugh about it, and we are also good at finding activities we enjoy doing together. I feel like this year has made us better at both things. Sometimes, though, it would be nice to have someone else to read the warning signs for us, and put us in separate yards. Or better yet, someone else to note when things are going well, and to offer us a cookie. 

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Fill-in-the-blank Thanksgiving

I’m looking forward to an uneventful Thanksgiving this year. Thanksgiving was our main holiday when I was a kid. Christmas was exciting for the gifts (which Santa left on our dining room table, since we had no tree), and we had a meal for each holiday – roast beef for Christmas, ham for Easter – but it was usually just my parents and us three sisters. I get to make up my own stories about why, since I didn’t ask when my parents were alive and now there’s no one to ask. I assume it had to do with religious holidays being a loaded topic in a family of mixed religious background where no one in fact practiced any religion. Plus both my parents came from small families, and neither of my parents much enjoyed spending time with their own (or each others’) parents.

My mother worked at one of the Smithsonian galleries from the time I was in first grade, and the Smithsonian is open every day of the year but Christmas. This was something my mother often objected to – “The Smithsonian is an American institution so if it is going to be closed on just one day per year it should be an American holiday like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, and not a religious holiday like Christmas” – but I don’t recall her actually objecting to working on the day. Maybe because when she did, my father had to do most of the holiday cooking.

We had very traditional foods when we were all still living at home. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, canned cranberry jelly, Pepperidge Farm bread stuffing from a bag. Probably green beans – it seems the vegetables have not stayed in my mind. Something green, for sure. Not sweet potatoes; I think I was in my twenties before I ever tasted a sweet potato. My favorite things to do to prepare the meal were making the roux for the gravy and ricing the potatoes for the mashed potatoes with the already ancient potato ricer which lives on in my kitchen today, discolored metal, chipped orange paint on the handles and all.

We were more likely to have friends of my parents over for Thanksgiving than other holidays. At some point when I was not much older than ten, we started having all holidays with my father’s friend Stan, after his wife died in her early forties. The holidays I remember more specifically tended to involve Stanley (I wrote about one of my favorite Stanley Thanksgivings in The Pack – it was Rose’s first holiday with my family and I’m still amazed she didn’t run screaming into the night).

We also started to drift from the more traditional elements of the Thanksgiving meal. My oldest sister married a vegetarian, my middle sister moved to the other side of the country and then to the other side of the ocean, Rose and I started to develop our own traditions at our own house. A fairly common Thanksgiving meal at my parents’ house became a chicken, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce from Boston Market, several tofu and vegetable options from a Chinese restaurant, and pumpkin pie made by my brother-in-law.

Rose and I have gone back and forth with the traditions. More often than not, we have made the traditional meal, though not always on the traditional day. Our kids often had the actual Thanksgiving meal with their father’s family, and then we’d have our celebration with them on Friday or Saturday. Rose makes the world’s best stuffing, and I think any of us would be just as happy eating only that. One year we were all fed up with holidays and we ordered Thai food from a local restaurant. The restaurant was closed on the holiday but the owner insisted that the spring rolls would not be good the next day. He and his wife came in on Thanksgiving just to make our food despite our best efforts to talk them out of it.

By the time both of my sisters and I were doing our own Thanksgiving things, my parents started going to my mother’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. It was during these events that the individual years began to earn names. There was the Ten Cat Thanksgiving, when my aunt was fostering seven tiny kittens in her jacuzzi tub, in addition to her regular three full grown cats. There was the Appendicitis Thanksgiving, when my cousin’s husband had to have an emergency appendectomy. We unwittingly continued this tradition three years ago with the Home from the Hospital Thanksgiving, when my middle son (then 29) had a stroke four days before the holiday, and thankfully recovered brilliantly and was released on Thanksgiving day.

So yes, I’m looking forward to an uneventful day. I know it will be the Pandemic Thanksgiving just by definition, but I’m hoping for a low drama day. It will just be me and Rose. Our kids are now doing their own things, too, though in a normal year we would see at least one of them. We are going to have a scaled down traditional meal. Well, at least the turkey will be scaled down to a breast. I look forward to doing something called spatchcocking it, which sounds far more entertaining than it is. Rose will, I sincerely hope, make enough stuffing for the whole family. And if we need a little excitement, maybe I will cook another spaghetti squash whole. The Exploding Squash Thanksgiving has kind of a nice ring to it.

Home Comforts

Fans and contestants of the Great British Bake Off seemed equally horrified by this week’s technical challenge, Sussex Pond Pudding, but I was delighted. I’ve never eaten it and there’s a good chance I never will, but I will always remember my introduction to it via the late, great, Laurie Colwin in her wonderful book Home Cooking.

Laurie includes Sussex Pond Pudding (as Suffolk Pond Pudding) in her chapter called Kitchen Horrors. It has very few ingredients – a suet pastry crust, a whole lemon, sugar, and butter. She uses this particular recipe to show that a kitchen horror can be in the eye of the beholder. She was thrilled with it – she described the interior as “lemon-scented buttery toffee,” but the friends she was visiting for dinner were less thrilled. Her host said “This tastes like lemon-flavored bacon fat,” while her hostess said “I’m sure it tastes wonderful. I mean, in England.” Judging from the Bake Off constestants and viewers, I’m not sure the English would agree.

My mother introduced me to Laurie Colwin, first with Home Cooking and later with her novels and short stories, as she introduced me to so many authors and books. Reading was our main family activity all through my childhood, and my mother gave us books for just about every gift-giving occasion. When we were kids, she always seemed to know the kind of books we would each like. She would never have given me Ballet Shoes, or given Darcy All Creatures Great and Small, but we had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on two walls in the living room of the house we grew up in, and plenty of books if we wanted to branch out of our regular interests.

We moved to a different house when I was sixteen and both my sisters had gone off to college. It was a house my father had owned and rented out for many years: a townhouse converted into seven efficiency apartments, so it was me and my parents and two cats rattling around on four floors with seven kitchens and seven bathrooms. The apartment we used as the living room also had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – as did the apartment my parents moved to after that, as does the house Rose and I live in now, come to think of it. Even after having to dispose of dozens of boxes of books after my father’s death, I am still horrified when I hear people suggest downsizing their book collections.

At some point my mother’s book gifts changed from books she thought I would like in a general way to her using books like I used mix tapes. Books that told me she saw something about me that I hadn’t found the words to tell her. Books that told me things about her that she didn’t have the words to say. Books that told me she understood me, or that helped me understand her. I can only remember one time where the message went completely awry – a book about a woman whose son came out to her, and her journey from all the very wrong things she said at first to becoming an activist. It was hard for me to hear past the son’s pain to realize that she was probably trying to tell me the mother’s side of the story. It wouldn’t be till my own child came out to me that I realized all the completely wrong things to say come out of fear for your child, and out of wanting your child’s life to be easier.

The last two years I lived in my parents’ house, my senior year in high school and the year I took off before college, I wasn’t home very much. When I came home late in the evening, usually my father was in the living room, watching TV, reading, listening to music, falling asleep in his chair, or once, memorably, doing a midnight dance with an invisible partner, clad in his ratty old brown terry bathrobe, as light on his feet as Gene Kelly. My mother was usually in bed reading, and as I climbed up to the apartment on the top floor that served as my bedroom, I would look in to say goodnight to each of them.

Sometimes I would sit on the edge of the bed and my mother would read to me from whatever book she was reading at the time. I still hear whole chapters from Sue Hubbell’s A Country Year in my mother’s voice. I think it was a book that really touched something in her, and it would become the same for me a few years later when I left college feeling like the wheels were coming off my mind. Two books from my mother, A Country Year and Mary Morris’ Nothing to Declare, helped me put the puzzle pieces back together in something resembling order.

It was also in this post-college time that my mother began giving me cookbooks. Some classics from her own kitchen: The Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, The Silver Palate. Some funny and useful: The I Hate to Cook Book, good for the days I just didn’t feel like it but still needed to eat. And some that are wonderful books for reading about food, and that also contain some good (and some odd) recipes: Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and John Thorne’s Simple Things.

I have always both cooked and read for comfort. I don’t really understand people who just read a book once, and I have many books that I have read the covers off of. Home Cooking and Simple Things have stood up to my many readings, though both are a bit food-splattered from being too close to the mixing bowl while I made something from their pages. I will always draw comfort from rereading certain favorite childhood books – A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Red Sky at Morning, Dandelion Wine. But nothing will ever quite soothe me like reading Laurie Colwin’s words about the good (curried broccoli soup, lemon rice pudding), the bad (starry gazy pie made with squid, scrambled eggs with mace), and the weird (Sussex pond pudding), hearing my mother’s voice repeating the words, with the soft sounds of music and my father’s dancing feet drifting up from the floor below.

Dream On

I have a very active dream life. Some dreams I remember as if they really happened to me, and some I wake up from feeling like I lived a whole lifetime during the dream but I don’t remember any of the details. When I was too young to be worrying about such things – maybe nine or ten – I used to worry either that I would wake up and find that I was still an infant and my whole life so far had been a dream, or that I was alive only in someone else’s dream and when they woke up I would die, or disappear.

I don’t have recurring dreams, but I do dream of recurring places. There is one house that is my grandmother’s house, though it is nothing like her house or any other house I’ve been to. There’s another house that is my aunt’s, though it is also not like anywhere she lived or that I have been. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either my grandmother or my aunt in their dream house; I just know where I am when I am there. There are several recurring farms, though those tend to be at least loosely based on farms where I worked in the past.

A few nights ago, I almost had a dream about my mother. I was driving to have dinner with her, though I did not get that far from my house before I woke up. I have friends whose mothers have died who have dreams about them with some regularity, or they have something special happen every year on their mother’s birthday. Though I am torn between thinking dreams or signs from dead loved ones are just that – something from them – or things my mind makes up to make me feel better, I am always a little envious of these friends. I think it’s possible I have had dreams that featured my mother in the past fifteen years, but I can’t say that I have had a dream that feels like any kind of message.

My first experience with death and my first experience of dreams like this involved my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died when I was in college. Several years after her death, I dreamed that I was with my family at the beach – my parents, my sisters, and my grandmother. Everyone else was distracted but I was watching my grandmother swim. I was worried that she was getting knocked down by the waves, but she looked back at me and dove into a wave, and I saw her mermaid tail flash as she swam out to sea. My family was furious at me because I was supposed to be watching her and they all thought she drowned. I was trying to explain that she was fine, she had just turned into a mermaid, when I woke up crying.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other. Eight years ago and twelve days, to be precise, for my aunt, and eight years less two days for my father. I have had one dream about my father in those eight years. He appeared at some kind of gathering or party I was attending, and he was completely silent (a good way to tell he was dead – we have that in common). He pointed at himself, and then he pointed at me, and then he pointed to a mirror. He did not say, but I clearly understood: if you want to see me, just look at yourself. I am always there. I found this both comforting and disturbing, as I have always found my similarities to him.

I have had two dreams about my aunt since she died. The first one was very soon after she died. She called me on the phone, and I started crying when I heard her voice, and she asked why I was crying. I told her it was because I was sad that she was dead, and she laughed and said “You can talk to me any time you want! Just pick up the phone.” This is partly literally true – at least I can hear her voice, because I still have a message from a few weeks before she died. I also do always feel like she is nearby, though I also miss her tremendously. In the other dream I had about her, two of her closest friends were driving an enormous SUV unlike anything either of them would actually drive, one in the driver’s seat and one riding shotgun, and my aunt was looking between them from the back seat. I exclaimed “Becca! Becca is in the back seat!” and they said “Of course she is, honey.”

I’m not surprised that my mother has been on my mind recently, in election season. It used to drive me crazy that she was the most neutral person I ever met. When I was upset about something and I wanted her to take my side, I very much did not want to hear about how the situation might look to the other person. My father used say “There are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle,” but he only believed this if they were two other people. If he was one of the sides, there was only one true side to the story, and it was his. Most of the time I can see that there are two sides, or rather, most of the time I don’t see in terms of sides. But when I do see sides, and when I take a side, there’s not much chance of moving me off my position, or even making me hear or see anything else.

I’ve been thinking that my mother has been on my mind because I could use her perspective, and because now is a time when I would find it really helpful to hear about the other side. But the more I write, the more I realize it’s been a really long and anxiety-ridden and exhausting year, and I just want my mom.

Signal Lights

Dia de los Muertos is not a thing I knew about until I read about it in a Barbara Kingsolver book in my 20s. Over the years, as beloved animals and people died, Rose and I began to celebrate it as our main fall holiday. I’ve never been much of a Halloween person – I think I wore my last costume when I was ten. But I like the process of connecting with the dead, and of deliberately remembering them and celebrating their lives.

When we started our Dia de los Muertos traditions, we did the candle-in-a-brown-paper-bag version of luminaria. I love the way they look, but even stabilized and weighted with sand, they are a bit of a hazard in windy weather (which we almost always have at this time of year), and they are a fiasco in the rain. A few years ago, Rose started making ceramic luminaria, and we keep adding to the collection. We have over twenty of them now, and they make a beatiful display whether we put them at individual graves, group them by species, or line them all up around the edge of the patio. We have photos of each animal and human, and we take a moment to remember something about each of them as we light their candle.

I’ve heard a lot of people this year saying that the only reason they are glad their father, mother, sister, brother is dead is that they don’t want them to see the shitshow that our goverment, society, or political process have become. I get this. For me, it’s the newspaper industry. My parents met when they were both working at the Washington Post in the 1950s, and I can’t imagine what they would have to say about so-called news stories that involve quotes taken entirely from Twitter. My father has been dead for eight years, and he still had plenty of occasion to say “This isn’t NEWS!” in response to much of what he read in the papers or saw on TV.

When I think about it, though – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot with the election coming up tomorrow – I believe they had a long view that we don’t have. My grandparents were born before World War I. Both of my parents were born and raised around the Depression. My father fought in World War II when he was a teenager. Both of my parents were journalists during the McCarthy era, and during the Cold War, and my father stayed on at the Post into the Vietnam War years. I don’t doubt that they’d see a lot of what is going on now as a shitshow, but I wonder if they might not see it as the End Times so many of us feel are looming over our heads.

In the absence of my parents, or for that matter any of my elder relatives, I have gotten a lot of my perspective in the last four years from my colleagues in different countries. I was in Nairobi during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. When we stumbled into the office that Wednesday after staying up all night watching election returns, dazed and incoherent with disbelief, our Kenyan colleagues told us to get over it (that’s a direct quote), which still seems like pretty decent advice. They reminded us that it’s not everywhere that gets to protest the results of an election, or to know that there will be another one in a set number of years. They have a sign in their lunch area that says “What you take for granted, someone else is praying for” and I try to remember that.

We’ll be lighting our luminaria again this evening, and looking through our photos, and remembering. I’ll take a little time to think about what I take for granted, and I’ll take a little time to think about what I pray for, and I’ll hope for just a little bit of perspective.

Boundaries

I haven’t seen many of my friends or family for most of this year, and I’m feeling hug-deprived. I am also one of those people who is only half jokingly saying “Let’s keep on wearing masks and not shaking hands and staying six feet away from each other forever!” There’s nothing I mind about not being crowded while in line in a store, or about not having near-strangers say “Are you a hugger?” and not wait for an answer before they move in and grab me while saying “I’M a hugger!”

I don’t come from a hugging family. We would hug when seeing each other after a long absence, but not so much on a day to day basis. My father was prone to patting us awkwardly on the head, arm, or foot in a way that makes me understand why animals flinch away from some human versions of touch, although inexplicably cats were always drawn to him. Perhaps because he did not ever try to pat them, even when they jumped on his lap. I have said that I sometimes think I get on with animals as well as I do because my mother was like a very well read and articulate cat, which come to think of it may also explain why she was drawn to my father. My mother and I hugged much more in my adult life than in my childhood – but I think this is true of all my immediate family, and probably because as adults we almost always see each other after a long absence.

When I was twelve, I started a new school with a lingering hippie reputation and I discovered there is a whole population of people who hug. It took a little getting used to but I not only got used to it, I learned to positively enjoy having friends to hug.

Lucky me, pandemic or no, I have animals that I get to touch. On the two extremes I have the dogs (huggers all, except for when they are not) and the cat (“touch me and you will bleed” is her default mood). In the middle are the horses.

I’ve been benignly neglecting the horses, along with most other things, for most of this year. A couple of weeks ago, Tabby cut her leg – nothing dire but bad enough to warrant stitches and two weeks of bandaging. As long as I was changing the bandage every two days, I also took the grooming box out with the medical supplies. Since I had to tend to Tabby’s leg, I figured at least I could offer grooming and see if she was interested, and then as long as I was out there I figured I could check in with the geldings too.

Grooming gloves are my favorite grooming tool. I can use them as curries and also for a massage. I can feel more of what’s going on with the horse’s body, whether I’m feeling for bumps or scabs, or feeling for where they stiffen, flinch, or lean in. The horses prefer them too. They seem to appreciate my ability to feel what I’m doing instead of having a chunk of stiff rubber or wood between my hands and them. Go figure. I have a very clear memory from a lot of years ago of watching a friend groom her horse while telling us how much he hated being groomed. She was talking to us the whole time she groomed him, focusing on her human visitors while scrubbing vigorously all over her horse’s body with one of the hardest and biggest curry combs I have ever seen. If I were the horse, I would have kicked her.

That said, I have done my share of oblivious grooming over the years. I get into a groove of what I have to do, and forget to pay attention to what I am doing and to how the horse is reacting to it. Whether my “have to do” is about getting tack on the horse so I can go for a ride, or about needing to groom the whole horse because that’s how it’s done, it causes me to stop listening to the actual horse in front of me.

Horses don’t touch each other all that much. They stand near each other, and they do something we call mutual grooming that doesn’t look anything like what we call “grooming” when we do it to a horse. And yes, I do realize that in referring to what the horses do I said “mutual” and in referring to what humans do I said “do it to.” Horses will ask each other for the scratching they want, and they will move around to get the right spot scratched, and they will leave when they are done or if the other horse is scratching too hard or not enough or in the wrong place.

Our current horses all have different feelings about being groomed. Niño generally loves it. He loves to be touched, and he really leans into anything we do with him. Even so, he has days and places he wants to be left alone.

Finn’s approach has always been to position the part that is itchy or that he wants to have massaged directly in front of me. For a very long time, I would try to insist that he stand still and let me go through my grooming routine that starts on the left side at the top of his neck, works all the way to his tail, and then repeats on the other side, finishing with his head. After a while I started to not worry so much if he moved around or what order I groomed him in, but I was still adamant that I touch all the parts. It’s only in the last year or two that I just let him tell me what he wants and leave it at that. I can visually check for cuts and bumps, and if I need to check something particular he’s fine with that. But if he tells me he has one itchy spot on his right shoulder, and another on his left hip, and then he walks away, ok.

Tabby is hot and cold. She has places she likes us to really scrub or massage, and she has places she’d prefer we not touch, and she has days she just wants to be left alone. I get this. All of it.

It would be easy to attribute their different approaches to grooming to breed, or gender. Horse people love to generalize about breeds, though our small herd goes almost completely against breed stereotypes. As for gender, there’s an often repeated saying in the horse world: you tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, but you negotiate with a mare. I don’t so much find this to hold true, either. Horses, like people, and dogs, and cats, and pretty much every other species I can think of, are individuals. They also have moods, and different levels of stiffness or pain on any given day, and they don’t react the same way to all people, or even to the same person on different days. I can guarantee that while I may go out on any old day and approach Finn with my ideas about what Finn is like and how Finn reacts, he’s busy tuning in to what is in his environment that day, at that moment, which includes me and my mood. Any horse being approached by a human with a grooming box and a lot of intensity – “I’m a groomer!” – may take the option to walk away, if given the choice.

I may not have to deal with unwanted hugs right now, but I also don’t get to have the wanted ones. What I do get to do is work on paying attention to the signals I’m getting from and giving to my animals who are, as always, my best teachers. Other people may have their pandemic bods, or their pandemic crafts, or their pandemic home improvements. I’m working on my pandemic boundaries. I’m sure the horses won’t mind.

Strong Medicine

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Last week was a long and stressy week. I’m anxious about everything right now. Last week more than some other weeks, each additional thing just added another layer with no time to level out or come down from the last thing. I probably should have realized it would be an anxious week when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday because I hadn’t taken the trash down to the road the night before and I might miss the trash pickup. Mind you, the trash pick up has been happening between 10 a.m. and noon for the last twenty years, and also I don’t actually care if we get the trash picked up every week.

I was anxious about work meetings, whether I had prepared enough, whether my presentations were good enough (hint: I don’t care about powerpoint presentations even more than I don’t care about trash pick up), whether after the next board meeting I might find my job had been deemed unnecessary.

I was anxious about Tabby’s leg wound, whether it was not healing well, whether I was bandaging it too loose or too tight, whether it was getting too wet in the five minutes of rain we had one night, whether the bandage would somehow come unwound and scare both Tabby and Niño into running through the fence and I would find them hogtied together somewhere in the back woods in the morning.

As I said, a stressy week, with periods of escalating craziness.

My most relaxing activity, always (except for when they fight), is to hang out with the dogs. So we spent a lot of time outside in the dog yard, generally with two dogs in one yard and the third dog in the other to avoid any possible fights. As always, I spent a lot of that time taking pictures of them. Also as always, sometimes the pictures were good and because even the worst ones – especially the worst ones – made me laugh. Laughter has been in short supply this year. It’s fair to say that one of the things I miss the most about people – about being around people at all during the pandemic restrictions, and also about specific people I haven’t seen in a long time, and people I will never see again – is laughing with them.

Ask me for a memory of most of my family members who are gone and the first one I think of will involve laughing. The kind of laughing at nothing that you can explain in a way that sounds funny, but in the middle of it you can’t stop and the harder you try the more you laugh. Laughing with my sister over the letters we wrote to our grandmother when we were really little and barely knew how to write. Laughing with my mother in a Thai restaurant over a silly poem until we genuinely thought they were going to ask us to leave. Laughing with my aunt over actually funny movies (the first time I saw Young Frankenstein was with her) and over movies that were so terrible we couldn’t stop laughing (The Abyss). Laughing at my father laughing so hard at his own joke that he could barely get the punchline out.

It’s hard to make clear why those moments were so funny. It’s probably just as hard to make clear why the photo of Boo at the top of this post made me laugh that hard, even if I zoom in closer.

Let me try to illustrate with a little story.

Last summer, which now feels like ten years ago, we were in Colorado and I had the chance to meet our son’s girlfriend for the first time. We planned a dinner for an evening after the kids got off work. Rose and I had bought some edibles the first day we were in town, because, hey, Colorado! And we were on vacation! And going to a music festival later in the week! We had the genius idea to try them out the very same afternoon of the dinner.

They were gummies, and we decided to each have one instead of splitting one, which sounded reasonable because they are really tiny. It turns out that even in the case of tiny gummies it’s really important to understand a) potency, b) your own personal (lack of) tolerance, and c) that some things have changed a lot since you were in college.

Also it turns out when you consume edibles it takes a lot longer than when you smoke for the effects to kick in, but oh joy, they also last a lot longer. Rose’s reaction to this was to get comprehensively ill and lock herself in the bathroom for either 30 minutes or 6 hours, it’s hard for me to say because I maybe lost my sense of time altogether.

In the middle of all this – Rose locked in the downstairs bathroom, me frantically googling “How do I counteract too much THC,” the girlfriend arrived. Now remember, we were supposed to go out to dinner. Dinner was very much out of the question, but saying this and explaining why was beyond my powers of reasoning or speech just then. I spent some time making getting-to-know-you conversation (I think) in the kitchen while Rose (who had already met the girlfriend) remained in the bathroom, with me periodically going downstairs to check on her and then going back to the kitchen and trying to act normal. Finally, Rose and I had a panicked conference through the bathroom door and decided we had to come clean. “We” being me because she was not coming out of the bathroom any time soon.

I went back upstairs and said something like “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this but we can’t go out to dinner tonight because we made a rookie Colorado mistake” and our son said “Oh no, altitude sickness?” and I thought – yes! Altitude sickness! It’s a total out, plus they will feel sorry for us! But what came out of my mouth instead was “Um, no. We had an error in judgement with some edibles.” Fortunately, the girlfriend thought this was really funny, and showed me a hilarious video called “What to Do if You’re Too High on Weed” which made me laugh in that laughing entirely too hard way. I can say that I’ve watched it again since then, and it really is funny. Probably more funny if you’ve ever had the experience, which I can’t actually recommend.

Now that I think of it, there’s some pretty good advice in that video for anxious times in general, starting with “You may feel like you’ve gone permanently insane, or like you’re dead. Here’s the good news: you’re alive, and your sanity is probably intact.” Some practical actions include breathing fresh air, staying hydrated, watching silly tv, and calling a trusted friend (“Talking things through can do wonders, and remind you that you’re a person, and not just a cloud of terrifying thoughts”).

If you haven’t guessed by now, that photo of Boo is a near exact replica of my face that evening, I’m sure of it. I’ll take my laughter where I can get it these days, and it’s nice to know the dogs will never mind when I look at pictures of them and laugh so hard I start to wheeze. I may not always remember how to relax, but they do.

Eavesdropping

This week we moved from culling clothing to a full on cleaning and clearing assault on areas of the house where things have piled up for too many years. I’m writing now at my newly uncovered desk, having thrown the antique mostly empty tube of toothpaste in the trash, and otherwise gone through the exercise of throw away, give away, put away that goes with this kind of tidying.

One thing I have kept is every notepad or index card or paper scrap that I found that has a quote on it. Some of them are inspirational scribbles, like a quote from Anne Lamott I jotted down that says “I also know that we don’t live long. And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.” She’s right, even though I sometimes forget to dance for far too long at a stretch.

Many of these quotes are from eavesdropping. I don’t exactly do it on purpose, but it’s almost impossible not to overhear people in restaurants, airports, or pretty much any other public place, and once I hear one thing that gets my attention I start to listen harder. Sometimes I write them down because I think they will fit in a story (if hypothetically I start writing fiction one day) – like the guy I overheard in an airport security line who said “The last five years of my addiction I pretty much stopped watching everything but porn. Then I got sober and got out of the habit of watching any TV.” I still don’t know if the person he was talking to was someone he knew, or if he just had different ideas than I do about getting-to-know-you conversation topics.

I have one mystery note that just says “No one ever needs a ferret” and one that says “I’m surprised your phone still works with pictures like that on it.” There’s one I do remember – I was in a parking lot at a medical center, headed in for an MRI or an x-ray or a mammogram, and I overheard a woman saying to her daughter “You listen to me, Olivia” and the little girl said “I listen to mySELF.” Never change, Olivia.

In another overheard snippet from a medical appointment, this time at the dentist, a young boy was vocalizing how we all feel about being at the dentist and his mother said through gritted teeth “Listen – when we leave here I am taking you home, you are having a cheese sandwich, and you are going to bed” as if that were some type of punishment. I wanted to poke my head in the door and ask if I could come too. Cheese sandwich and early bed sounds like a cure for most ills.

There’s one that sounds like my mother but isn’t; it was an older woman in a local cafe, saying to her companion “I don’t like sticks and twigs tea. I like black tea.” At the time – and again now – this reminded me of my mother (and I have this written down somewhere that I haven’t tidied yet) when she told me that my father wanted her to go to his herbologist for something to do with her cancer or the side effects of her cancer treatment, and she said “I’m NOT going to the parsley doctor.”

I have an index card with something my father once told me about his friend Mary. She was an older friend from his office, and after she retired he used to pick her up on weekends and take her out driving – something he also did with us as kids that we all couldn’t wait to stop doing, but I trust he and Mary enjoyed their rides. Once when my parents and Rose and I were headed home from dinner, my father missed seeing a car coming when he turned out of the mall parking lot. As we all braced for the impact that somehow the other driver avoided, my mother yelled “Jesus, John!” A few minutes later when I asked him to slow down (in the dark on the curvy road that I knew well but he did not), he had had enough of driving criticism and said “Mary drives with me for hours every Saturday and SHE never complains about my driving” and my mother replied “Mary is old and ready for death!” None of that is written down (well, I guess it is now), but what I do have on a card is what my father said to me about Mary’s childhood: “She lived with an older aunt who was bludgeoned to death – BEFORE it was fashionable.”

It’s the things like Mary’s older aunt and the parsley doctor that make me miss my parents the most. Things that no one else will every say quite they way they would. I used to keep letters and cards, and at some point I got rid of most of them – one of the few clearing out decisions I sometimes regret. I did find two cards yesterday, one from my mother which includes a Garrison Keillor limerick that goes:

There was a young teacher named Deedee
Who went home and said to her sweetie
I’m worn out and wobbly,
So pour me a chablis
And don’t be emotionally needy.

The other card is from both my parents for a birthday I had sometime in the middle of my 30s – there’s no date, and it’s a lovely print of multicolored painted horses and a full moon, which I would have loved in a period from roughly birth to the present, so no clues there. My father’s birthday note, one of the few he wrote himself instead of just writing “Daddy” at the end of my mother’s message, says “Happy Birthday, Tessa. But then I think of you every day, so it’s Happy Birthday every day.” My mother’s note says “Tessa – asset backwards, forwards, and every other whichway, too.”

In one of my more insufferable childhood moods, when I first learned both what an asset was and that my name spelled backwards was an actual word, I believe I used to use it as a shield against sisterly teasing – something along the lines of “our parents think I’m an asset and that’s why they chose my name.” (“so there” is understood) Of course this was probably around the same time my sisters were doing a crossword puzzle and looking for a three-letter word for “self esteem,” which when your big sister says alound sounds like “self a-steam” to a young child. My suggestion was “hot,” and today I understand why they laughed so hard.

All I really planned to do was clear out my desk. It took longer than I thought, partly because there was even more stuff than I realized piled up here, but partly because I had to stop and read all the notes. I ended up with a lot more company than I expected, and now I’m surrounded by my parents, my sisters, Olivia, and the ferret people. Maybe I’ll go make a cup of sticks and twigs tea, and sit with them all for a bit.