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.

Mix Tapes

We’ve been in a clearing out mood recently. I know a lot of people are, though I can’t say it’s particularly pandemic-related for us. For several years we’ve been talking about putting sticky notes on all of our belongings that say either “going to Colorado” or “not going to Colorado.” The specific location, or even the fact of a move, is not the point as much as is the question: if we wouldn’t move it somewhere new, why are we keeping it here?

The kids are all pretty settled in their adult lives away from here, and if their old belongings don’t have sentimental value for them, maybe we don’t need to keep hanging on to them. I mean, we’re the parents, so some things will always have sentimental value for us that they don’t have for the kids, but do we really need multiple boxes and backpacks of never-gone-through end of school year stuff from elementary and middle school?

Most of the things we have accumulated are ours, and not the kids’, however. Here at my writing desk I have a smattering of books, gifts, hobbies, and outdated technology that I simply haven’t organized, put away, or gotten rid of. In immediate reach of my left hand is: a collar tag for Cody, the box his clay footprint came back in from the crematorium earlier this year, two Liberian lappa fabric bracelets, three cables for computer peripherals I can’t identify, a horsemanship journal I started at a clinic in Colorado in 2004, several blank greeting cards for various occasions, a letter from the census bureau about how to electronically complete the census (which I did back in the spring), a Zentangle drawing book, a bandana, a mostly empty tube of toothpaste, a folder from Scout’s allergy vet with instructions I only needed last January, a computer mouse I haven’t been able to find for months, and a mix tape (literally a cassette tape) I received for my, let’s see, maybe 20th birthday. This is in a space roughly ten by twenty inches on the edge of my desk. Small wonder the whole house, not to mention the barn, the garage, and assorted outbuildings, feels a bit overwhelming. Also small wonder my go-to approach is to just get rid of everything.

When I moved from Vermont, where I went to college, back to my parents’ apartment, and then two weeks later to the farm in Maryland where I started a job, I packed everything I owned into my 1964 VW Bug, including the travel crate containing my three cats. Among the things I brought with me was a box of I don’t know what, because I moved it from the car to the room I slept in at my parents’ place (or maybe I left it in the car; either thing sounds plausible) to the closet at my house on the farm. When I moved from there three years later, having never opened the box, I just threw it away on the theory that things unexplored and unused were unneeded. I still have the desire to close my eyes and get rid of things.

When I look is when I start to have trouble. Not with some things – I got rid of easily half my clothes, probably more, without a thought, and I went through every item. In Deep Creek by the splendid Pam Houston, an author who makes me want write more and who also makes me want to give up writing entirely because she appears to have already had most of the thoughts in my head and has written about them better than I could, her description of identifying what she wants to pack in case of fire evacuation includes this: “I face my closet and can’t find one single stick of clothing I care whether or not I own.” A much less dramatic reason in my case, but a perfect description of my feeling about clothes.

The mix tape on my desk, though. It’s nowhere near a cassette player – in fact, the only cassette player in the house is currently in a pile of deconstructed stereo we haven’t made up our minds about yet. I think I pulled it out because I wanted to accurately cite the title (The Whinin’, Cheatin’, Drinkin’, Cussin’, Lyin’, Cryin, Dyin’ Birthday Tape), or maybe I was looking for one of the song names (my introduction to country music, in case the title didn’t give that away). I got rid of most of my cassettes – the store-bought ones, or the ones I made of albums I can easily get in another form – earlier this year. But I still have a box of mix tapes, and a few whole albums taped for me by someone else, in the basement, and I keep walking past it and thinking “I’ll decide about those later.”

I haven’t listened to any of those tapes for years, but just looking at the handwriting on them is enough to bring back memories. Some of them are tapes I made. In college in the midst of a pre-coming-out panicked depression, I made a tape with the title Trouble, Trouble, Trouble with every song I could think of about being troubled, having the blues, and just general misery, on the theory that if I wallowed in it for long enough I would eventually realize I was wallowing and snap out of it. Fact: I have never listened to that tape without starting to laugh, even if it’s not till the middle of side two. There’s one called Since My Phone Still Ain’t Ringing, I Assume it Still Ain’t You, which I made about, if not exactly for, someone I sort of dated in my early 20s. There’s a Yaz tape made for me by my best friend my senior year of high school, and a Robert Earl Keen Jr tape made for me by my sister. There is a tape that when Rose listened to it the first time made her say she felt like she was reading my diary, made for me by someone I’ve never met but a mutual friend thought we’d have the same taste in music and she was more right than she knew.

There’s a whole section of tapes Rose and I made for each other when we first became friends and then when we first got involved. It’s a bit of a musical time capsule – both in terms of what music was out at the time and in terms of the phases of our relationship (Songs for Louise from Thelma is still among my favorites). As I type this, Rose is listening to a playlist that has this vibe in the kitchen (I hear Melissa Etheridge, and a paragraph or two ago, Don Henley). I’ve thought about taking the mix tapes and remaking them as playlists, but there’s something about the handwriting that stirs my heart in unexpected ways.

I can make a playlist now without even listening to the songs. In the mix tape days, there was a lot of planning. Ordering and reording of songs on paper before I started taping. Deciding which songs revealed too much, or didn’t say it quite right, or felt like they came from somewhere in the most honest part of me. Stacks of vinyl, other tapes, and eventually CDs to pull songs from. Writing out the song list – include the artists with the song names? Write on the factory insert or make my own? The point of it all, of course, was in trying to show someone else what was in my heart. The opening chords of any one of those songs can sneak up on me and make me cry, or make my heart swell, before the words even start, remembering how I felt the first time I listened to one of those tapes Rose made for me. Would I save them in a fire? Hard to say. Would I move them to Colorado? You know, I think I would.

Writing, or Not

Current Mood

Almost three months ago I decided I was going to post a blog every Monday. I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks that I had a schedule, and since then I have told just a few friends, and my writing group. The down side of announcing a schedule for writing is that I then have to actually write according to the schedule and sometimes I don’t feel like (it’s ok if you read those last few words in a super whiny tone – you wouldn’t be wrong).

I mean to write, but I end up reading. It’s a lot like the detours I take looking up a word in the dictionary.  On the way to my word, I see another that is stranger or more interesting or otherwise more attractive or eye-catching.  On days when I have more restraint I mark that page with a finger and come back to it after visiting the spelling or definition or synonym of the word I was after.  Sometimes I wind up with my entire hand in the dictionary, each finger marking a different page.  I may then return to the word or words that caught my eye, or perhaps something else will have jumped off the page of the original word – another word, or in the case of my favorite American Heritage Dictionary, a usage note.  Any of these may – likely will – lead to other words until whatever drove me to pick up the dictionary in the first place has been completely lost.  This process is rarely derailed by the presence of another person, usually the person who asked me for the definition of the first word that I did not know precisely.  If I can I will pull them along with me through the dictionary maze, but I am not easily deterred.  Even when they throw their hands up and leave the room I will happily continue my wordly wanderings.

In high school my favorite parties involved the game Fictionary.  I believe this has grown to some kind of board game now, but to us it involved paper, pens, and a dictionary.  One person would look up a word that none of the others knew – no easy task in this group – and the others would each write down a definition they thought likely or that at least sounded plausible.  The holder of the dictionary would then read all the definitions out loud (including the actual one which was also written on a sheet of paper to disguise it) and the other players would cast their votes as to which was the real definition.  Points were given for guessing correctly, but more points went to those who wrote the incorrect definitions that were selected as real, and still more points to the word-chooser when no one guessed correctly. My shining Fictionary moment was when I made up a definition that was chosen by every other player. I don’t remember the word, or the definition, but i remember the feeling.

Given my love of Fictionary you’d think I’d have a better poker face than I do, but I don’t have one at all. I am best at keeping a straight face while saying something patently absurd, a skill I likely learned from my father who reportedly once convincingly informed a colleague at the newspaper that she should clean her typewriter with peanut butter. It helps if the fakery does not involve words, as in the time my son asked during dinner where the cat was, and I just looked at him with wide eyes for a minute, and then looked at the platter of flank steak in the middle of the table, and then I looked back at my son. He didn’t exactly believe me, but I freaked him out a little, and I was pleased. I am not all that good at misdirection when anything personal is on the line. Ask me why I’m treating my writing deadline like a term paper deadline – the kind where you stay up all night the night before because you did nothing all semester – and I will probably turn red and stammer.

Like my dictionary detours, when I start to write I often have a quote from some other writer in my head.  I go get the book to look it up for review or to quote it accurately.  On my way to the quote I may fall into a page more compelling and from there to another.  I may go right to my quote and instead of writing it down I just keep reading.  Depending on the book, the author may quote another whose book I must go get, or this may lead me to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations which is the like dictionary all over again. Months may go by if any of this leads to an internet search, which will usually lead to the purchase and subsequent reading of more books.  Meanwhile I have yet to put pen to paper but I still consider this part of my writing process.

With all that in mind, it’s probably not such a bad idea to have a day by which I need to get something on paper (so to speak). Like too many other things in life, it’s easier for me to commit to a thing when I’ve committed to someone else than when I’ve committed to myself, which seems backwards but I know I’m not alone in this. I’m pretty sure the three people I’ve told I’m writing weekly will not come after me with pitchforks for my weekly dose of whatever this is, but damn it, I’m going to come up with something. This week, this is it. Put your pitchforks down, friends.

It’s Not the Fall

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When I was nineteen I broke my left foot. A few days after I got the cast on I went out to dinner with my parents and my sister Rachel. We pulled up in front of the restaurant, where my father’s uncanny parking karma once again provided him with a parking space directly in front of our destination, no mean feat in Washington DC.

There was a small section of sidewalk in between our car and the restaurant’s outside tables, all of which were filled. I was in the front seat because of my cast, and as I turned to lever myself out of my seat, one hand on each side of the door frame, my sister shut the back door. On my fingers. Through gritted teeth I said politely, “Rachel, open the door” and she said “Why?” “My HAND is in the DOOR. Rachel, OPEN the door.”

Rachel, my mother and my father all grabbed for the door handle. The door, naturally, was locked. Rachel reached past me to tug on the lock. My father said, “It’s not closed all the way. We need to close it the rest of the way in order to unlock it.” Rachel, my mother and I all said “NO!” Both Rachel and my father were trying to pull the lock up, my father inside the car and Rachel reaching in through the open front door. As far as I could tell through the swimming pinpoints of light in my vision, they were primarily getting in each other’s way.

My mother was outside the car saying “Oh my god! Oh my god!” and I remained in the front seat, cast on the sidewalk, hand in the door, alternately saying “Rachel, open the door” and “Mother, shut UP.” The diners were clearly thinking that they had no idea that the outside tables of Chez Gaulois came with entertainment, when my father thought to press the central unlock button.

The lock popped up, Rachel opened the door, my mother stopped saying “Oh my god,” and I completed my delayed exit from the car. Rachel handed me my crutches and we filed into the restaurant and to our table. I put the fingers of my right hand into my glass of ice water. Rachel said “I kept waiting for the sexy Nissan computer voice to say “Your hand is in the door. Please remove your hand from the door,” and we all laughed.

For years my mother and I would tell this story as an archetypal event in our family: a few moments of high drama difficult to differentiate from slapstick comedy, ending quickly with no lasting bad effects for anyone. Bad things that happened just weren’t that bad, and they were usually funny, at least in retrospect.

When my mother told me she had breast cancer two days before she went into the hospital for a mastectomy, it seemed like the beginning of one of those family stories. She had known for a while but she did not want to worry me. She told me that she had not told my sister Rachel, who was living in England. She did not mention whether or not she told my oldest sister Darcy, who lived nearby.

I called Rachel and she caught the first flight home, which caused my mother to be furious at me. My family is filled with unspoken rules about who can tell what to whom. In many cases people simply forget to share information, but we all assume that there was a reason so we continue to not talk about it once we find out from some other source. I knew perfectly well that when my mother told me she had not told Rachel, that was her way of telling me not to tell her either, but I chose to ignore this.

When I arrived at the hospital after the surgery, my mother would hardly speak to me. My father was already there with Rachel. My father, worried about my mother but not wanting to admit it, put his energy into treating Rachel as if she was visiting royalty that had never been to Washington before, apparently forgetting the first eighteen years of her life. The three of us stood at the foot of my mother’s bed bickering while she rolled her eyes at us.

By the end of the week we all retreated to our corners of England, Maryland and DC with relief. My mother was in the hospital for four days. She had three subsequent chemotherapy treatments, from which she did not get sick nor did she lose her hair, and then she was fine for years. In general, it seemed to be more fodder for the Pagones family way of having a crisis.

Seven years later when I called my mother to tell her that my chimney had been struck by lightening and chunks of it had fallen through my sunroom roof, my mother told me that “the cancer is back.” I questioned her as much as I could before she made some excuse to get off the phone. She did give me permission to speak to her doctor who told me that my mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes and to bone, in addition to the breast tissue itself. It began to dawn on me that this was not going to be funny even in retrospect.

Over the next two years my mother’s symptoms continued to increase along with the frequency and strength of her chemo and radiation treatments. She developed neuropathy in both feet and legs, making it difficult for her two walk. She got a walker – a sturdy teal tripod one with white wall tires – and dubbed it The Batmobile (“because I’m an old bat”). She developed a new method of doing laundry that involved putting the dirty laundry in a bag, throwing it down each flight of stairs (three in total), following it by scooting down the steps on her rear, and then making my father carry the clean laundry back upstairs.

She wound up back in the hospital briefly after she fell and couldn’t get back up her own, and my father with his own tricky knees wasn’t all that much help. When she got home I asked if they had thought of moving somewhere with fewer steps. My mother thought for a moment and then said “Perhaps the terrorists will get us first.”

After another fall, my mother is in the hospital again, for the last time. I walk into the hospital lobby past the gift shop, remembering the first time I visited her here, before that first mastectomy, and stopped to buy her the least tacky stuffed cat I could find in the shop. It was a light grey tabby with green eyes, with a lavender ribbon sewn to its neck and tied in a bow. There are no animals without accessories sold in this hospital, but at least this one was not wearing clothes. This time I walk straight to the elevator and ride up to the fifth floor.

“What the hell?” is the first thing I say, as I see her right arm on top of the covers, not just bruised but fully black and blue from wrist to elbow.

“Oh!” my mother says, with a half-laugh. “I got up to use the pot last night,” as she gestures to the toilet chair between her bed and the wall, “and I fell.”

“Did you land on your arm? Is it broken?”

“No, but it took two nurses and a strapping young man to pull me out and get me back into the bed.”

I don’t know whether to begin by hunting down the nurses and the strapping young man and beating them with a stick or by calling all of my mother’s various doctors until someone tells me the exact scientific reason why she has bruised like that and so quickly, so I sit down in the chair at the foot of her bed and look at her.

After a moment I move to the foot of her bed, picking her feet up and placing them in my lap as I sit down. Her feet have been tingling for over a year now and I hold them in my hands, thinking of a book I read years ago in which a southern grandmother rubbed an old woman’s sore back and then rubbed her hands on the wooden bed post, saying that the wood was from nature and could absorb the pain. I look around the hospital room but everything is made of metal or plastic.

“How is the tingling?”

“The knees are bad,” my mother replies.

This is new. I slide my hands up her calves to her knees, the way I would keep my hands steadily on a horse’s leg so as not to startle it. Her skin feels dry but soft, and fragile, like moth wings. There are no muscles under this skin. The wonder isn’t that she fell, but that she got up at all.

Year of the Rat

Pig and Maya

This photo of my first dog and my now sole cat turned up in my facebook memories today. I brought the kitten home from the lab on my last day at work there nine years ago, driving away with the two lives I could save. When I first brought Pigwidgeon home, I put her in a crate in the hay stall in the barn, partly because she had been found in a hay barn and I thought it might feel familiar, and partly to buy myself a little time to break Rose into the idea that I had brought home yet another kitten. Maya disappeared that afternoon and did not come back no matter how much I called her. When I finally tracked her down, she was in the barn lying next to the kitten’s crate, claiming her new charge.

I’ve been thinking all day about animal acquisitions – the various dogs, cats, horses, and rodents that I have had over the years, and how they came into my life. My clearest memory of a pet introduction from my childhood is the rats. In 1972, the Chinese Year of the Rat, some friends of my parents came for dinner one night bearing two young rats for us to keep as pets. In my memory, the wife waited till after dinner and then pulled the rats – surprise! – out of her purse. Of course we had no cage, so that night we put them in a doll house from which they promptly escaped, but were retrieved before they went far. My oldest sister Darcy named them Cindy and Jennifer.

As Cindy and Jennifer grew up, Jennifer developed what we feared was a tumor. My mother called a friend who was a doctor (in retrospect I realize he was a PhD, not an MD, but he did work at the NIH) to ask his advice, and he suggested some brandy on a sugar cube. It didn’t do much to cure the tumor, but after Cindy gave birth to her first litter of babies it dawned on all of us that it was less tumor and more testes that Jennifer had developed. Jennifer remained Jennifer throughout her long life.

Darcy carefully chronicled the Ratti family generations in her perfect script in the back of a book called The Five Little Peppers, much the way I gather some families keep their own lineage in the family bible. According to The Five Little Peppers, Cindy’s formal name was Sindin. The first litter included Brown Sugar and Milky Way Bar. As time went on and rats added up, we had Lemonsadio, and Stale Bread Pudding, and Demitri Capeltiodis. There were rats named Linda and Richard Richard, so named for some married neighbors because when Linda got exasperated with Richard (which was often), she would say “Richard, Richard.”

The Five Little Peppers does not contain the detailed begats, though I’m sure Darcy would have remembered exactly which rat was the mother of which others (the fathers were a less certain thing). Darcy remembered the order and names of the 13 children in our mother’s mother’s family. She could identify who was who in every photo in every photo album, and what relation they were to us. She could recite family stories from our great-grandparents’ generation as if she had been there. She remembered every birthday.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other, seven years after my mother’s death and nearly thirty years after my uncle’s death. I had a conversation with one of my cousins then about how odd it was to suddenly be the oldest generation in our family. At the time it did not occur to me that we would do anything but keep growing older as the older generation. But then last year, Darcy died.

I still have The Five Little Peppers, and when I think about the the Ratti names, I think about Darcy’s particular brand of creativity. She was the inventor of many of our childhood games. There was a game called Ghosties that my cousins and I can’t remember except that it involved being outside in the evening in our pajamas, and something to do with the streetlamp in front of our house. There was a game I remember nothing at all about but it was called Fall in the Toilet Orphanage and possibly that’s all I need to know. There was a game called Grand Championship that must have taken all day. First, the three of us sisters gathered all of our dolls and stuffed animals at the top of the stairs. Then, one by one, we slid them down the banister to the first floor. Anyone who fell off part way down had to come back up until they could make it all the way down on the banister. Since not all the dolls and animals were a convenient size or shape for banister-sliding, this part alone took quite a while. Once all the dolls and animals were gathered in three piles in the living room, two sisters would take one doll or animal each, stand at opposite ends of the living room, and simultaneously toss the dolls or animals to the opposite sister. They would do this back and forth until one of the dolls or animals fell, and that doll or animal would be out of the game. The third sister would come in with a doll or animal and play against the doll or animal who won the previous round. This would go on until there was only one doll or animal who had not been dropped, and that would be the Grand Champion. Not the sister, mind you, but the doll or animal.

When I think about Darcy I will always think about ballet. She was a dancer from at least the time I was born. I don’t even know how old she was when she started putting on annual performances of The Nutcracker in our basement – certainly no older than 11 or 12. Darcy choreographed, directed, cast, made costumes and sets for, and of course starred in, these productions. She was Dr. Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King, which created interesting staging for the big sword fight when only one of them could be on stage at a time, but she made it work. She was always in one or more of the dances in the second act. There was one boy in the neighborhood who she was able to persuade to participate for a couple of years, and he played Fritz in the first act. There were always two Claras – Clara in the first act, and Clara in the second act. I still think of them as two distinct characters. Clara in the first act had a dancing role, and got to wear the pink party dress. This role rotated between my sister Rachel and her friends. In the early ballets I got stuck with Clara in the second act, in which I had to wear a nightgown and sit in a chair and watch the other dancers. Later I got to be a Candy Cane, which is still my favorite music and dance in every version of the ballet I have seen, but I never was Clara in the first act. Somewhere, however, there is a photo of me taken from behind, as I looked into a mirror to adjust my extremely home made aluminum foil crown. I am roughly 4 in this photo. You can see my face in the mirror and the look of delight on my face (I’m a princess! I’m wearing a beautiful crown!) tells all you need to know about the magic Darcy managed to create.

Some days I want to think about the complexities of relationships and families and memories, but today I just want a little magic.

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Dog Days

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My pandemic “don’t feel like it” has been compounded exponentially by weather-related “don’t feel like it.” It is HOT. And dry. I know not that many months ago I was cursing the clouds and the rain, but I would give a lot for a rainy day or three right about now. This morning there were just enough clouds while the sun was rising that I was able to get the horses tended to without also sizzling in the sun, but now the sun is out and making up for lost time.

The list of things I don’t feel like doing is long. I don’t feel like cooking, or working, or writing. I don’t feel like weeding, or picking vegetables. I don’t feel like vacuuming or dusting, though to be fair that was true before the heat and the pandemic. Also true of working out, which it probably goes without saying that I don’t feel like. It’s just as well in some ways that it is dry, because I don’t feel like mowing or weed-eating and if it were wet and this hot I might be living in a jungle by now.

I don’t feel like walking the dogs or even touching the horses. Luckily, the dogs don’t feel like walking either, nor do the horses want to be touched. I offered the horses a nice cool hosing, but all they want is cold water in their trough, the shade of their shed, and to be left alone. I know how they feel.

The dogs and I have been on our own in the house for nearly a month now. We have a routine, because we all like routines, but lately more and more of our routine involves lying on the sofa, or the floor. I think they have the right idea with the cool basement floor, or the kitchen tile by the air conditioning vents. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s only a matter of time till I find myself splayed out on the concrete with the rest of my pack.

When the pandemic stay-at-home orders began, my social media feeds were full of suggestions for what to do with all our free time. I spent the first month being puzzled by this, and much of the time since then being annoyed by it. I’ve been working from home for sixteen years. I am not a social person. I have the same number of animals I had before the pandemic. Basically, nothing has changed in my day to day routine. I have no more or less free time than I had before. I do not have the time or the inclination to take up new hobbies, start a new workout routine, meditate, or begin any other form of self improvement. I almost want to ask who HAS been doing any of these things (outside of talking about it on social media), but really that’s just one more thing I don’t want to spend time paying attention to.

Now, with Rose away, I have one more layer of what-I-could-be-doing-but-I’m-not. If you have been in a house with someone else, or more than one someone else, since the pandemic began, do you think there are things you would do if it was just you in the house? If you had all the alone time you haven’t had for the last several months? I’m not sure where I thought more time might appear in my day, but once again it did not. I do all the same things I was doing before, only now I do all of them by myself. I probably talk to the dogs even more than I did before.

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Most of the time, the dogs tell me to chill out. Occasionally, they tell me to take them outside, but they usually remember why that was a bad idea as soon as they get there. If we are out early enough, Quinn can sometimes talk Boo into a game of zoomies, but not very often. Scout is emphatically not interested, and who can blame him? He and I are in no mood to run as fast as we can. Or at all.

Dogs have no need for self-improvement projects. They think they are just fine as they are, and I have to say I agree. One of the very nicest things about dogs is that they think we are just fine as we are too. We are at our best when we calm down enough from all the human things to just sit on the sofa, with maybe some popcorn we are willing to share. That is enough.

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Biscuits

biscuits

I have made biscuits – proper southern baking powder biscuits, not drop biscuits – exactly twice in my life. When I was in college I invited some friends over for dinner, and agreed to make biscuits to go along with the pot roast or whatever the main part of the meal was. I only remember the biscuits, though I don’t remember what recipe I followed. Since this was back in the days when cookbooks were our only option, it was most likely from The Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer, two old faithfuls from my mother’s kitchen. Not that my mother ever baked biscuits, but there were many other useful recipes and equivalents (for the student who tended to not have ingredients and therefore was always trying to figure out what she could substitute) in both books.

The biscuits did not, shall we say, turn out well. Because I don’t remember the recipe I can’t say if I followed it exactly, but they did not rise or expand in any way as biscuits are supposed to do. They went in the oven looking like white flat disks and they came out of the oven looking like brown flat disks. They did not quite make it to the texture of a cracker – it was something closer to quarter inch plywood. For reasons that escape me now, I did not throw them in the trash but instead hid the tray of biscuit coins in the laundry room, which (student housing being what it is) was more of a laundry closet, and also immediately adjacent to the kitchen and right outside the bathroom. “Hid” may not be quite the word I’m looking for here.

My guests dug happily enough into the meal and did not ask about any missing elements – that is, until after we finished eating when one of them asked if I had decided against the biscuits. I confessed that I had tried and failed, and we pulled the pan out of the laundry to inspect – and laugh at – my inedible results. When I think of those biscuits I think of a book I loved as a child in which the main character makes biscuits for her parents, pounding out some of her teenage frustrations on the dough. When her mother sees that she has baked biscuits she says with some surprise that their daughter has become domesticated. Her father, however, while chewing on a mouthful of tough biscuit, says something like “Tamed, maybe. Domesticated, not quite.”

This book, and this character, were part of a long line of books I read and loved about girls who were tomboys or loners in one way or another. Girls who were not skilled at – or interested in – the girly things that other girls enjoyed. My oldest sister was always a fan of dolls, and dreamed of nothing more than being a mother. She planned to have four children when she grew up: two girls and two boys, and she had their names picked out by the time she was ten. I had stuffed animals, not dolls. When I thought about being a grown-up, I always pictured myself alone.

I chalked up biscuits as one more frilly skill that I did not have. Some people, I reasoned, are bread people, and some people are pastry people. I am bread people. I’m not sure why biscuits go in the pastry category, or even if they do for anyone but me. Fiddly things that require a delicate touch that I obviously lack, was my point.

Yesterday I decided to get over my thirty year fear of biscuits. I’ve learned a lot about baking since I was in my early twenties, and I’ve made things that are a lot more fiddly than a biscuit and had them come out well. I did some internet research, found a recipe that looked like it had all the right ingredients and steps, followed the recipe exactly, and half an hour later I had a pan full of perfectly risen, flaky, delicious biscuits. The main thing I had to do was stop thinking I couldn’t make them. The second thing I had to do was make them. It was that simple, and it – well, the second part, anyway – was that easy. Stopping thinking I couldn’t make them was what took the thirty years. Making them took the thirty minutes.

I am eating my biscuits alone, not because I have in fact grown up to live alone but because Rose is away visiting our oldest and youngest children. The youngest child is now eight years older than I was when I had my original biscuit disaster. July is anniversary time for me and Rose. We have quite a few anniversaries, but I don’t know the dates of them all. We have the day we met – and though that was one of the very few, if not only, times in my life that I can remember the exact moment I met someone, I don’t remember the date.

We have the date of our first horse show together, which we sometimes count as our anniversary though we didn’t actually get together until over two years later. We met through horses, and paired up to show together because our horses were at the same level (level zero, I think it’s called – they were both complete novices). We actually had two shows that first weekend, and it was the weekend daylight savings began, so 6 a.m. on the Sunday of the second show was an hour earlier than 6 a.m. on the day of the first show on Saturday. I called Rose and when she answered I said “Rose? Why aren’t you here?” She said “It’s not 6 a.m.” and I said “You’re right. It’s 6:15.” We do still wish each other a happy anniversary on daylight savings, even though the date keeps moving.

We have the anniversary of our first official date, and the anniversary of when we moved in together, and the anniversary of when we moved in together again after we split up for a few months. The anniversaries that I know the exact dates of, both in July, are the anniversary of our commitment ceremony after we had been together for twelve years (our hairdresser asked “Are you sure, though?”), and the anniversary of our courthouse wedding after we had been together for twenty years (I mean, why not get married for your twenty year anniversary?).

Despite the improvements in my biscuit-making over the years, I think Rose would agree that “domesticated” may still not be the best word to describe me, and I’m not too sure about “tamed,” either. This winter will be thirty years since we first met. If someone asked me to create a metaphor for marriage, I’m not sure “biscuit-making” would be at the top of my list. But when I think about the process for me, maybe it’s not too far off. It’s simple to do it, but it’s easy to do it wrong, and you need to find that balance between stopping believing you can’t, and just doing it.

 

Everyday Magic

Magic hosta

Many years ago, the bagpiper we hired for Rose’s father’s memorial service looked around our property and said “This is the kind of place where if you are sitting down, you should be doing something.” I’m flying solo here for a few weeks and I am reminded of that every day, as I try to keep up with all the things that two of us usually do.

It’s hard for me to see this property on a macro level sometimes. If I look at once at all the things that need to be done, I just want to go lie down in the basement with the dogs. Especially when it’s over 90 degrees every day. The thing about having horses is that there’s no option about whether to go outside and do the chores, regardless of the level of heat or cold. Once I get out there and start doing things, I don’t have time to think about whether or not I feel like doing the things, I just do them, whether it’s weeding or mowing in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter, or feeding, moving hay, or mucking in all weather. With the exception of weed-eating, which I can’t pause while doing or I know I just won’t start up again, while I’m doing chores I keep one eye out for the small bits of magic that remind me why I love this place so much.

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I take a lot of photos of the things that catch my attention while I’m doing chores. I usually have my cell phone with me because it fits in my pocket. As often as I wish I had my binoculars or my actual camera with me, I don’t like trying to wrangle horse feed buckets with things clanking around my neck, and I am almost guaranteed to get hay or water in some key part that should not have hay or water in it. I used to buy my cell phones based on call quality, but now I buy them based on camera quality and as a bonus, it makes phone calls. I assume. Making phone calls is by far the least used activity on my cell phone.Magic Spiderweb

Every so often, like yesterday, I look around at the trees. When we moved here twenty years ago, the only trees were evergreens that bordered the property on three sides. There was no landscaping; there was just grass growing right up to the edge of the house, and one azalea bush near the front door. The first things we had done when we moved in were to have fence put in for the horses, and to have the barn built. The first thing we did ourselves was to plant trees. The ground is quite rocky here, and digging holes for trees is no easy task, but it’s extremely satisfying. I am routinely amazed that we planted all of these trees, some of which tower over the house or the barn, and some of which my hands no longer meet around when I hug them (because of course I hug my trees).

The trees are almost all different – there are very few varieties we planted multiples of – and in addition to looking different, they seem to attract different birds. The mockingbirds like to sing from the top of the dawn redwood, and they nest in the Alberta spruce. There are hummingbirds in the Crimson King maple, grey catbirds in the yews, brown thrashers in the Autumn Blaze maple, and bluebirds in the willow. The hawks and crows battle it out in the tall pines. The sycamores hold house finches and seemingly endless varieties of sparrows. This year, for reasons I do not understand but I’m not about to question, the green herons have decided to nest in the weeping cherry tree right outside our bedroom window.

Magic Tree

I grew up in the city, and it’s taken me a lot of years to progress past thinking every red bird is a cardinal, every brown bird is a sparrow, and every yellow bird is a goldfinch. I don’t reliably wear my glasses and I think my eyesight is better than it is, so my experience of birds is often a flash of color or movement. If they sit still and I can get a good look, I can now identify many of them. Sometimes they kindly stay put long enough for me to go get the binoculars from the house, and identify a yellow warbler, a scarlet tanager, or last month my first ever pair of cedar waxwings. The things that don’t move also catch my eye, and give me time to get them in focus: frost on the fence boards, spiderwebs shimmering with dew, raindrops on the hosta leaves, and a far more varied and beautiful range of fungus on the horse manure than you might expect.

If I am sitting still, it is true that I should be doing something. Often that something is paying attention. The weeds on the fence lines can wait for another day, but the spiderwebs and the dewdrops and the horse manure fairy garden are transient. The real shame would come if I didn’t take the time to notice them.

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Ashes

Rays of Cody

I picked up Cody’s ashes from the vet’s office last week. They came in a carved wood box, almost a puzzle box – the bottom slides out to open it, and the top and sides are solid. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure that out. Inside the box is a blue velvet bag, and inside that are the ashes.

We now have two of these boxes. We have five horses and six cats buried here, but when Maya, our first German Shepherd, died it was in the middle of a very cold winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a hole for her. Six years later we still haven’t buried or scattered her ashes. She’s been hanging out in the house with us, sometimes in the room with the other dogs, and currently in the sunroom near where I write and where we have a nice view of the reservoir.

With a precedent of one cremated dog, and with me unable to face digging a hole to bury Cody in (or more to the point, unable to face putting Cody in a hole), we had him cremated also. He is in the kitchen area, right next to where he lived the last few weeks of his life. The room we have always called the random room became both Cody’s special den and the hospice ward. He had two dog beds there, and in March we added a memory foam mattress topper to cover the rug, and a plaid quilt to cover the mattress topper. Depending on his state of health and the state of his intestines, we added a layer of waterproof pads between the quilt and the mattress topper, but when he was feeling better he tended to dig them up.

Maya was our first dog, and we had her for about two and a half years before we got Cody to keep her company. They were friends in their way, though not a way that involved snuggling or overt closeness. Cody, only a year and a half when he came to us, taught Maya to play, though she tended to do so with a look on her face that said “Is this fun? It feels like it might be fighting. How do I tell?” Her favorite game was to wait till I threw Cody’s tennis ball (his nickname back then was Fetches Twice As Fast) and then she would get into the path of the speeding cattle dog and try to clothesline him. Her second favorite was to stay out where I threw his ball and grab it first, and then destroy it.

Now that Cody and Maya are together again, we will probably bury their ashes together, most likely alongside a tree or two we will plant in the dog yard. It wouldn’t hurt the younger three dogs to keep absorbing lessons from the original duo.

In contrast to the carved boxes that the dog ashes came back in, my parents’ ashes came in brown plastic boxes. There was probably an upgrade available for human ashes that I don’t remember. My father made that choice for my mother. My oldest sister and I made the choice for my father, but all I remember after viewing his body in the funeral home is fighting off giggles as we listened to the funeral director solemnly tell us that after the cremation “your loved one will be returned,” which seemed like a feat beyond what I would expect of a crematorium.

When my father gave me my mother’s ashes, he had augmented her brown plastic box with a blue and white checked Bath & Body Works bag. When I first brought her ashes home, the bag and box sat in the garage for several weeks until Rose said she couldn’t stand to see my mother’s ashes sitting out there like trash. I moved them to a bag I gave my mother that she never got to use – a black cotton backpack embroidered with brightly colored elephants – and placed it next to my desk for several months.

I was uneasy with my mother’s ashes in the house, and when we eventually scattered them in several different places I was squeamish when handling them, though I am not by nature a squeamish person. I don’t feel the same about Cody’s ashes. I sometimes want to run my hands through them, or smell them. I kissed his forehead good night almost every night for fourteen years and I miss him in a very tactile way.

When my grandmother died, she was cremated and we buried her ashes – presumably in an urn, though I don’t think I saw it – alongside her husband in a cemetery. It all happened at what I consider normal funeral speed. She died, and within a few days we all flew into town, had a graveside service, and a burial. “Normal” is the term I use for “rules everyone except my family seems to know,” though over the years I have realized that anyone who thinks they know the rules has what Anne Lamott calls tiny control issues.

For my parents we tried to guess what they would have liked, which is partly how my mother’s ashes wound up in so many places: under a tree we planted for her at our house in Maryland, in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in her sister’s garden in Virginia, and in Squam Lake, in New Hampshire. Eventually my father remembered that she had once said she’d like her ashes to go in Rock Creek Park, but by then they were all in other places she had loved, so in the end it was my father’s ashes that went into Rock Creek.

My aunt is the only person I knew who gave explicit directions about what to do with her ashes. She also gave explicit directions about what music to play at her memorial service, how to disperse her belongings, and was generally the only person I know who completely acknowledged and talked about the fact that she was dying.

Cody gave me no instructions. In life, he believed that as long as there were treats, the thing mattered, and if there no treats, it did not. When I think about scattering or burying his ashes, I can get caught up in human details – the proper ceremony, the meaningful music, the perfect words, the right tree to plant. Maybe a better way is the dog way. If Cody were here, and found something interesting on the ground, I know what he would do. If you see me out in the dog yard, scattering ashes and rolling around in them, you’ll know why. And of course, I’ll make sure there will be treats.

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