Quiet

I woke up this morning to the sound of gunshots, or possibly firecrackers – I’m not much of a weapons expert. My limited experience using guns is target shooting with a .22 rifle at camp, using air rifles at the arcade, and once shooting a shotgun towards a sick fox that was hanging around the barn where I worked and I believe he died of surprise. There was a lot wrong with him, I could see when I went to dispose of the body, but I couldn’t swear that shot pellets were on the list. While I took the dogs out this morning before breakfast, the rapid fire that woke me up changed to what I think of as my neighbor’s cannon, though it’s probably a standard hunting gun and it’s probably some kind of hunting season here now that fall has arrived. I heard a weird gronking noise and thought “Goose? No. Maybe something injured?” and then looked down towards the misty reservoir in time to see a disgruntled great blue heron flying off to look for a quieter spot for his morning fishing.

Life in the country is only quiet compared to life in the city. There’s a lot less human-made noise here, but between a large year round population of Canada geese on the reservoir next door and the rotating seasonal chorus of mockingbirds and crows, crickets and cicadas, peepers and tree frogs, migrating swans, barking foxes – well, it’s rarely what I would call quiet. It’s the human sounds that tend to irk me the most, although I admit to days I want to yell back at the geese. I count my neighbor’s dog, who I also want to yell back at, among the human sounds. We don’t live in sight of any roads, but we can hear when someone is driving too fast on our road, and if there’s a loud vehicle on one of the bigger, farther away roads, we can hear it. We can also hear a steady background hum of traffic on the bigger roads during what passes for rush hour here.

There’s something notable about the kind of quiet that happens when one of the regular human sounds lessens or stops. Last year during the height of the covid restrictions, the absence of traffic sounds was noticeable, and it was something of a novelty to be able to walk down the driveway and across the road to get our mail without ever seeing a car. We moved here in 2001, and I didn’t realize how quickly we had acclimated to the planes flying in and out of the local airport until they stopped completely that September. That local airport is now regional, and there are a few more planes than there used to be, but I mostly only notice them when they are particularly loud, either because they are flying lower than usual or more directly over our property than usual; particularly unusual, as happens each October when there’s an airshow that I forget about every year until a B17 bomber flies over my house; or when they go suddenly quiet in mid-air, which I hope only happens during lessons when someone is learning to come out of a stall.

Having grown up in the city, I hardly notice sirens unless they are close or many, but certain sirens make our dogs start up their chorus, with Scout holding the steady melody in either a tenor or soprano range, depending on his mood, Boo chiming in with the baritone harmony, and Quinn doing some kind of coloratura soprano jazz scat that only he understands. The dogs respond similarly to certain trains, though not all trains. I usually don’t hear the trains unless I have the windows open – the nearest track is over a mile away – but there are some evening trains that do not inspire the dogs, and a 5:15 a.m. train that always does (though it does not always go through on time, so I can’t use that particular song as an alarm clock).

It’s an unusual kind of quiet inside the house these days because Rose is in Colorado, visiting our oldest and youngest children and getting some much needed Colorado time, and probably also some much needed away time. When we first moved here, we were both working jobs in actual offices away from the house. A few years later, we both started working from home, but in jobs or consulting positions that had us traveling a week at a time multiple times a year. My last work trip was a two week stint in the second half of February 2020, and since then of course we have both been home. Rose went out to visit the kids (and Colorado) last summer also, but aside from a few days where I did the same this past May, and a couple of short trips Rose has taken with one of her sisters, we’ve both just been here. All the time. Right now it’s just me, and this weekend I’ve noticed how much more quiet the quiet gets when you know the person that’s gone can’t even try to communicate with you because Rose is camping in the cell-signal-free mountains. It’s odd, because it’s not as if we talk every day when we are not in the same place, but we probably do communicate daily in some way – text, facebook comments, instagram messages – or maybe it’s just knowing that we can. This quiet is different.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my father, and my brother-in-law, and my friend Elaine’s husband Mark, each in their resoundingly quiet homes after their spouse died. One of the very few conversations I can remember having with my father in my lifetime that had any emotional content was when he told me that he still talked to my mother – out loud – after she died, and that he felt it was just as real a conversation as when she had been physically present. Of course, having known both of my parents, I can take that cynically or I can take it with empathy. In this case, I choose empathy. The quiet that falls after someone who has been sharing your life and home for decades is suddenly gone forever must be deafening.

None of my beloved people who have died were living in the same house as me when they died, so their absence for me is a different kind of silence – the kind when there’s no longer anyone there to answer the phone. My animals, though – I’m sure that’s one of the reasons their deaths hit as hard as they do. They are a daily presence, and they leave a gaping hole. And I do talk to them, though not necessarily out loud. I especially still talk to the horses. We have buried five horses here, and I find reason to talk to each of them sometimes as I make my daily rounds. As with my living horses, I’m learning to be quieter in my conversations. The living horses let me know when I’m making improvements. The are reminding me now that when I don’t have anyone who responds with speech when I talk to them (except Quinn, but only when it involves putting his dinner bowl down, or going out to play), I’m quieter in general, and they prefer that. I’m sure Rose will be grateful if I can keep it up when she returns; quiet is not an adjective anyone would use to describe me. I haven’t even been listening to music, so I’m in a fairly constant state of listening to nothing but the sounds of what – and who – is here right now, and the quiet of what – and who – is not.

Perspective

Looking through my recent photographs, I see that I’ve been trying to see from different perspectives this summer. Lots of looking up through things, looking at the back of things, extreme close ups. Views from the perspective of what the thing I’m photographing is looking at, or would be looking at if it had eyes. I’m tired of my own point of view. I’m tired, period. Tired of all the things. My approach to work looks like my high school approach to term papers: wait until the last possible minute for no good reason and then cram in everything I need to do that felt overwhelming but turns out not to be hard at all, except for the adrenaline rush of the almost-missed deadline. I am getting chores done – all humans and animals are fed and reasonably cleaned up after, bills are paid. I listen to podcasts sometimes, but that’s basically a chore, and I spend much of my podcast-listening time composing rebuttals to whatever the person I’m supposed to be inspired by said that annoyed me.

What I’m not getting done is non-chores. What do we call that – fun? Creativity? Relaxation? I’m not listening to music. I’m not writing. I don’t even want to read. I mean, not really, because that’s crazy talk, but I’ve been rereading rather than reading new books. Which is fine, and something I always do somewhat, but for at least the last six months if not a year, I have read hardly any new books, which is unusual. Unusual isn’t a strong enough word. I did read a new book this week (thank you, Laura Lippman, for always being able to keep my attention), and in it the writer who is the main character is talking to his editor, who says that if he ever sees certain words in the writer’s manuscript he will know it’s a secret message to alert him that the writer is in trouble. In his case it was words like limn, or saying good things about Wuthering Heights. In my case, “I don’t want to read” is pretty close to that kind of cry for help.

Not that I am being held hostage, other than the way we all still feel one degree or another of stuck at home these days, and the fact that I can’t seem to make myself stop looking at social media even while declaring how much I hate it (and I do, increasingly, hate it). There are things I haven’t done for a year and a half that I don’t miss at all (any form of public transit), and there are things I have very mixed feelings about not doing (work travel), and things I have been grateful for (not having to respond to invitations to – well, anything).

Now that I think of it, this one book that held my attention is, in many ways, about perspective. As I was reading it, I thought “This doesn’t sound like Laura Lippman.” Then I noticed she was writing in third person, but a very close third that had made me think for a while it was first person, so basically she’s writing in third person but more or less from inside her main character’s point of view. But then I realized that maybe it’s another character’s view of the main character’s point of view. And then someone else came into the picture. It sounds needlessly complicated, but it reminds me of how things are right now (or maybe always). Most things that are being presented as objective are anything but. Perspectives are skewed but no one wants to look at any other perspective, or at their own bias. My way of dealing with that seems to be to decrease my intake even more, and now I’m basically hibernating. Or estivating, as I once heard it called when it’s a summer time rest, and even if that’s not a real thing I still like the word, and the idea that there may be a name for it in every season.

What I miss most isn’t even a thing, it’s a feeling: joy. Being around my dogs brings me something like joy, but it’s closer to peace. Same with the horses. I don’t know what people do who don’t have animals in their lives. Animal perspective is the best perspective, if I’m looking for other views: views of time (always now), of what matters (staying alive, dinner, belly rubs, ear scritches), of staying home (the pack is together!).

Last week Rose and I decided to make a getaway. We went to the beach for the first time in we actually can’t remember when. Four years? Six? We were only away for a few days, and mostly we sat and relaxed. On the second day, we took advantage of staying with an Airbnb host who does boat tours, and we went out with him for a sunset boat ride. If I can’t remember the last year I went to the beach, I can’t even recall the last decade in which I was on a boat. We were staying on a creek that connects to the Chesapeake Bay, and in order to get where he wanted to take us – to a disappearing island that is used by many kinds of birds as a nighttime resting spot, and in time for sunset – our host had to put the hammer down. I can’t promise Marie Kondo that anything in my closet will ever spark joy, but speeding along the water in a place where we could not see the shore in any direction, with the wind and water spray all around us – well, that not only sparked joy, it lit the whole damn fire.

Our last day we went back to the ocean. In addition to seeing an endless stream of my beloved pelicans, we also saw a big pod of dolphins, complete with little dolphin babies doing leaps and flips. But mostly we alternated swimming and sitting, as one does at the beach. I love how the beach – any beach – is so full of memories. General memories, specific memories, pleasant and not so pleasant memories – somehow all of them are good memories now. The smell of olive oil, which my father used as tanning lotion. Playing in the sand and the water with my sisters. Diving off my father’s hands into a wave. The disorientation of misjudging a wave and getting tumbled upside down and raked by sand. Singing and practicing cartwheels and handstands, both in and out of the water. Holding hands with my daughter to run and dive into the cold waves. Relaxing on the quietest beach I have ever been to with Rose, while we caught up on lost sleep after the first six months of our first adorable but exhausting puppy.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I’ve never been to, it brings up memories of every beach I HAVE ever been to, every friend and family member I have spent beach time with, every boardwalk and arcade and cold wave and sand castle and morning donut and afternoon pizza slice, every sand dollar and conch shell and dolphin leap and pelican dive.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I have been to a million times, it’s a brand new beach every trip, every day. No matter what kind of dredging and jetty building and sea grass planting and sand importing we humans try to do, the sea and the weather will have their way with the coastline, which changes every day – sometimes large, and sometimes small, but always changes.

The thing about the beach is the thing about life. It’s always familiar and full of memories, at the same time it’s always new and changing and completely out of my control. The joy, though – the joy is always there, when I am ready to reach for it again.

Berry Season

The blueberries are ripening already, which seems early to me – they started before it was even officially summer. Fruit in the garden is still something of a mystery to me even after twenty years of blueberries, a period of strawberries, and a yearly wild crop of wineberries.

Planting the vegetable garden was an annual event in my childhood. Compared to my current several acres of land, our yard in the city was a postage stamp, but when my father had the back porch stairs redone as a spiral staircase that didn’t extend as far into the yard as the previous straight stairway, it was like we had a whole farm back there. We would drive out to Serio’s, a garden center way out in the country past Rockville (in Olney, which now more or less a suburb of DC), and my parents would buy seeds and plants and Miracle Gro. When my oldest sister was in junior high, so I was six or seven, she went with her dance class to Syracuse and I spent some time puzzling over where they would be dancing and, more to the point since they were going for several days, where they could sleep at the garden center.

My clearest memory of the garden planting is of my mother mixing up the magic blue liquid to sprinkle on the tomato plants. At one point my parents planted strawberries, but I don’t remember them lasting for long. When the house next door changed hands, the new neighbors replaced the chain link fence with a taller wooden privacy fence and perhaps it shaded the strawberry patch too much – my vague memory is they were planted right up against the fence. I doubt I was sorry to see them go, as I was not much of a berry eater as a child. Berries had seeds, which went against my fondness for single-textured foods. Blueberries also fell in the same category as cherry tomatoes: there was always the possibility that a fine looking exterior housed a fruit that had gone bad from the inside and was just waiting to detonate when you bit into it.

Blackberries were my first berry love. I still associate them with late July and early August, the North Carolina mountains, and camp overnights. The camp I went to from the summer after sixth grade through almost all of high school was my favorite place. The blackberries were not a huge part of my time there, but we sometimes went out on overnights, my favorites being when we rode the horses out to the big pastures up the hill, turned the horses out, and slept under the stars. I have no memory of tents, and I do have memories of being woken up by being rained on, so I think all we took was sleeping bags, flashlights, and food. Food for any kind of camp trip was the most basic kid sustenance: white bread, peanut butter and jelly, bologna and American cheese and yellow mustard, KoolAid. For overnights we also took Bisquick, and we managed something I believe we called doughboys: a moldable preparation of the Bisquick surrounding blackberries we had just picked from the wooded edges of the pastures, all wrapped around a stick and cooked over the fire like a s’more. Like s’mores, there was always a chance your doughboy would fall into the flames, but it was worth the effort, even with the potential for charred bits and the need to pick stick splinters out of your breakfast. We have a few blackberry plants here now. They don’t bear much fruit these days, and the few berries that are getting started now won’t be ready for some time, but a single glorious berry can still send me right back to those summer mornings.

One of our first garden beds when we moved here had blueberries on two sides, asparagus in the middle, and strawberries in the front and crawling under everything else. I was particularly astonished by the strawberries each time they bore fruit, as I still think of strawberries as a thing you can only buy at the grocery store. Even farmers market strawberries don’t seem like the kind of thing just anybody should be able to grow at home, but grow them we did. That bed has always gotten a little wild, and over the years, the asparagus and strawberries died out. We have mock strawberries in that bed and pretty much everywhere else on our property. They look pretty but I’ve never tried to taste one. I find it suspicious that I never see any of our plentiful wildlife eating the mock strawberries, though they were certainly fond enough of taking bites out of our cultivated strawberries. If I ever see any true wild strawberries I will be delighted to try them, but I think I’ll stick to admiring the mocks with my eyes.

For the first twenty years we lived here I called the berries out back wild raspberries, and I suppose technically they are, but I learned last year that they are known as wineberries. They are even prettier than the mock strawberries, and I know for sure they are not only edible but delicious. Like any kind of raspberry they are delicate. When I pick them I always want a large flat pan so I won’t squash any, but I always take a standard bowl or bag instead. I don’t serve them in any way where their form matters, but they are so lovely I just want to treat them gently.

The blueberries, though. Our original blueberries have continued to grow, and we have added more bushes as other things have died out and made room in that bed.

My first experience enjoying blueberries – outside of reading Blueberries for Sal – was at my great-half-uncle’s house in New Hampshire. Going to visit Uncle Richard with our maternal grandmother (my grandfather was Richard’s half brother) was a bit of a rite of passage for me and my sisters in our high school years. Each of us in turn made the trip, flying to Boston and then taking the bus to Meredith or Concord where Uncle Richard would pick us up. Time in New Hampshire mostly consisted of reading, swimming, and hiking to the lake. Blueberry picking was always on the agenda: wild high bush blueberries, small and the perfect mix of sweet and tart. Uncle Richard taught me to make blueberry pie, which I love but have hardly ever made outside of his house. Grocery store berries were just never the same, and with our own berries I have made blueberry cakes, blueberry muffins, blueberry scones, blueberry smoothies, but not very often blueberry pie. I can’t say never, but I used fancier recipes than Uncle Richard’s oleo crust and just plain blueberries dusted with flour and sugar.

Richard was a relative I met in my mid-teens and saw for the last time when I was in my mid-twenties, though he lived a lot of years beyond that. My connection with him was mainly through my grandmother, who died when I was twenty, and then my aunt, who died five years before Richard. He was born in 1923, he was in the army in the 1940s, and he taught high school for forty years. We all long suspected he was gay, but it wasn’t till he was eighty that he had his first out relationship with a man, who remained his partner for the last seventeen years of his life.

Berry season is also Pride season. I’m not a big Pride celebrator myself, but it is a time of year when I think about how much things have changed in my lifetime – even in the nearly thirty years of my relationship with Rose – and I think about how unfathomable being out and partnered and content was for someone like Richard for most of his life, and how glad I am that he still got to have all of that in his lifetime. The years I saw him actively were the years of my own coming out – in fact, it was to his house in New Hampshire that I retreated when I thought I was losing my mind, before I realized that actually, I was just gay. We didn’t talk about it any more than we talked about his orientation or relationships, but somehow I knew where to go to feel ok for a little while. I’m making blueberry tarts today, not blueberry pie, and I’m sure Richard would understand why I am toasting him today with blueberries, love, and gratitude.

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.

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.

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.

Valentine

I spent yesterday making mini key lime pie layer cakes, not because it was Valentine’s Day but because it is a three day weekend and I wanted lots of time for all the components and construction of these cakes which have been occupying my mind for the last month. Rose spent time installing a new shade for the deck door – one that, unlike the old one, is opaque, so that Scout can’t see the shapes of the cat or the horses through the translucent shade and therefore is less likely to launch himself at the door. Both projects have been in a state of “we’ll get to this soon,” so there was a gift-ish element of clearing the floor and table space that have been housing boxes and tools and ingredients in ready mode for some weeks. But mostly, it was just any old weekend day.

I’d say this is what Valentine’s looks like after more than 25 years, but it’s what Valentine’s has always looked like for us. We used to exchange cards, and sometimes we go out to dinner. Once I received beautiful tropical flowers at my office on February 13th with no card, and when my coworkers asked who they were from I said “I hope they are from Rose!” because it was so unlike us I thought maybe they had been misdelivered.

I met Rose at the farm where she kept her horse. I was there for an evening riding lesson. She was talking to one of the other students in my class by one of the barns, and the friend introduced us by saying “This is Rose – she’s Michael’s sister-in-law.” I was confused by this, since Linda – the woman whose family ran the farm and who taught the lessons – was married to a Michael, and I thought “Wouldn’t it be easier to say ‘Rose is Linda’s sister’?” It turned out there was another Michael, who was taking a husband class – not a class in how to be a husband, I mean, but a riding class for husbands of boarders and students at the farm. I was moderately disappointed to learn that the sister-in-law part happened because Rose was married to this Michael’s brother. So ours was not a love story that started right away.

Our riding instructor decided that a good way for us all to get out to horse shows the next spring was to buddy up with another rider with a horse at the same level so that we could have someone to show with. I remembered that Rose’s mare was, like my mare, somewhere down at the pre-green level of total beginner, and I asked for her phone number. Before I could call her, she drove up one day when I was at the farm. As she got out of her car I said “Just the woman I’ve been looking for!”

We did take our mares to shows together, and over the next three years we talked on the phone (a LOT), and we drove to the Eastern Shore to look at horses with Rose’s sister. We became friends. Friends through my last non-relationship with a guy I wasn’t quite dating, friends through starting a business together, friends through the end of Rose’s marriage, friends through buying more horses, friends through both of us realizing that something more was going on between us.

I can remember with great clarity a lot of individual moments from the whole history of our relationship: some romantic, some contentious, some funny, some heartbreaking. I couldn’t pull out a solid memory of a single Valentine’s Day (except the last time we went out to Valentine’s dinner – we came from two different places and managed to show up wearing matching outfits, right down to the shoes), but this morning I took the trash down the icy driveway, and while I’m writing this, Rose is filling the water troughs. Sometimes the best love language is to do the thing that needs to be done that the other person doesn’t feel like doing.

I don’t want to make too much of a cake metaphor, but I’m going to anyway. This particular cake has a lot of layers, and each one of them is made up of something different. It requires a lot more preparation and a lot more following of someone else’s directions than I care for. Making each component well is as critical as fitting them all together. Taking the time to make sure the whole thing holds together is a final step that’s well worth doing. And in the end, it’s both beautiful and delicious. Well, you get the idea.

Relationships are hard, and complicated. This doesn’t have anything to do with cake; it’s just true. Sometimes we forget to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes we remember to let it slide when each of us is at our absolute worst. After a lot of years, most of the relationship is in the day to day. Sometimes we remind me of the dogs, and the way they reach out with a paw to us or each other, just to make sure we’re still near. One thing I can still say: just the woman I was looking for.

Terra Firma

Rose doesn’t love it when people ask how we chose our farm name and I say it was bestowed upon us by a drunk man at a party, but it’s true, and I do kind of love the way it came about.

The barn we were running at the time of the party was our first farm together and our only boarding barn. Our then dressage instructor had been leasing the farm for several years, boarding horses and teaching lessons, but she had bought her own place. Rose and I decided to go into business together – this was before we were together together – and lease the farm ourselves.

The name of the farm under our dressage instructor was Centerline, and while fitting for a dressage barn, it was also her business name and was traveling to her new home with her. Not to mention that, inherited boarders aside, we were not all that interested in running a dressage barn. The farm was on the border of two counties, and there was a lot about it that was held together with duct tape and baling twine – or in the case of the fences, multiflora rose bushes and wishful thinking. We settled on the name Borderline Farm, which I thought brought just the right amount of snark to the dressage clientele, and which exactly none of them found at all funny.

Things only got more dressagey after that, as not only did we have the dressage instructor who used to lease the barn coming back weekly to teach lessons to her clients who were now our boarders, we brought in another dressage instructor and several of his clients to board as well. He was a well thought of rider from a well known local dressage program, and also young and very handsome, and he had quite a following of older women with expensive horses that mostly he, not they, rode. Let’s just say if I had set out to attract boarders who I will loosely call “my people,” these would not have been they, but there were stalls to be filled and bills to be paid.

The young dressage instructor threw a Christmas party for his clients, and Rose and I were invited and attended. We were by then together together, and not just running the business together. We all took the excuse of being away from the barn for once to wear something other than our barn clothes. I had on an actual dress and, as I recall, eye make-up. Near the start of the party another woman and I started to introduce ourselves before we realized that a) she was one of our boarders and b) we had known each other longer than probably anyone else in the room. Horse people in party clothes are often unrecognizable.

There were people there that we truly did not know, however, in the cases where a boarder had brought her husband along. It was one of these husbands who had been talking to me and Rose for some time, when suddenly he pointed to me and said, I thought, “Tara.” I sighed and pointed to myself and said “Tessa,” because the two most common names people confuse my name with are Tara and Teresa. He shook his head harder than I thought wise for so drunk a person and pointed again, saying “No, Terra. You’re Terra — ” and then, pointing to Rose, “and she’s Firma.” I still don’t know where that came from – it was a complete non sequitur even by drunk party talk standards – but it had something to do with that talking to us was a very different experience than he had found talking to anyone else in the room. Whatever his level of drunkenness or his skill at observation, he had hit on something we instantly recognized as true for us.

We moved on from that farm to lease another farm, and changed our business name to Terra Firma Farm. It has remained so through several other moves until we landed here, at the property we bought and which has become our true terra firma. The drunk dressage husband at the party was right, though – the two of us together are our own, and each other’s, terra firma.

Nothing has reminded me of that so much as the past year when it’s been just us and the animals here. I got to thinking over the weekend about an intention word – I’m not a big fan of resolutions, but I like the idea of picking a word as an intention for the year. Unfortunately last year my word was “pause,” something I would like to learn to do more, but then the so-called normal world came screeching to halt and I got a little nervous about the power of manifesting intent.

The word that popped into my head for this year was “faith,” and I still think it’s a good one – not like religious faith, but more like faith in the workings of the world, faith in other people, and – particularly challenging for me sometimes – faith in myself. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a terra firma kind of year. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. As Anne Lamott, and probably many others, said, the opposite of doubt isn’t certainty, it’s faith. Last year was a year filled with doubt, and a distinct lack of solid ground. May this year be filled with faith in my own terra firma, faith in my ability to be terra firma for my loved ones, faith in my ability to manifest more terra firma in the world. Not such a bad thing to reach for in the new year.