Watering the Horses

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About four weeks ago while watering the horses at feeding time, I dragged the hose to the end of its length to reach far enough to water Guinness. I stood there for about ten minutes, spraying him down. After a while it dawned on me that I didn’t need to wait for it to soak down to his roots, and if in fact it soaked all the way down to him that was quite a bit farther than it needed to go to water the grass seed I had just finished spreading on his grave.

We now have more horses below ground (five) on this property than above (three). Each of them has a grave site planted and tended slightly different from all the others. Three of them are outside of the pastures, and one is in a fenced area within a pasture. All of them are planted in flowers of different kinds, and each has a tree that volunteered on their grave, or somewhere else on our property that we transplanted. Those trees range in height from Cookie’s five foot maple (4 years ago) to Wy’s twenty-plus foot oak (18 years ago).

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Guinness was a horse’s horse, and he was Finn’s other half. We decided we wanted them to stay together, and for Guinness to be part of the horse landscape. So for the first time, we just covered a grave with grass seed and chopped hay to give it a chance to stay in one place and grow. For several days, the biggest challenge for the seed was that Finn kept rolling on Guinness. I don’t know if he liked the feel of the chopped hay, the fact that we were watering it so it was a nice cool spot, or if he just wanted to be close to his buddy. We will plant Guinness a shade tree in the fall, outside the fence so Finn can’t eat it.

Twice a day in the summer heat, we water the horses. They have hundred gallon troughs, but we don’t fill them all the way because that way we can keep adding a little water to keep it cool for them. We also offer to hose them off, so when they want, they get the sweat showered off. After doing the living horses, I dragged the hose to Guinness. We were in a bit of a drought – hard to believe, now that we’ve been getting flooded out for the past two weeks – and Guinness is buried at the top of the hill in the back field he shared (and still does) with Finn. That spot has the best view on the farm, but it is a lot of hoses away from the nearest water source.

F and G BW

My family does not run to grave sites. My grandmother was cremated, and buried in a graveyard next to my grandfather who died long before I was born. But after that, all bets were off.

My father gave me custody of my mother’s ashes, with instructions to scatter them by the tree we planted for her on my property. I did that with some of her ashes, but before she died she told me that she would be sad if she never got back to New Hampshire, or to Rehoboth beach. She didn’t, so I got her both places posthumously. I took some of her ashes to Rehoboth, and scattered them in the ocean. My aunt buried some of her ashes in her garden in Virginia, and sent some to my uncle in New Hampshire, where he paddled them out to the middle of Squam Lake and scattered them in her favorite childhood place. It was only much later that my father remembered she had told him she wanted her ashes spread in Rock Creek Park, though as her best friend recalled it, what she actually said was “Fling ’em off the Calvert Street bridge,” which seems more likely.

It was my father’s ashes that we scattered in Rock Creek Park, in the end, in the creek itself. There’s something vaguely furtive about scattering ashes in public places, be it the ocean or Rock Creek, but probably no one would in fact arrest you for it. Still, it’s hard to be solemn and ceremonial while looking over your shoulder as if you’re handing off the money to the drug dealer and hoping no one notices.

My aunt was scattered in a few places, too. The day of her memorial service we scattered some of her ashes in her beloved Blue Ridge mountains, in one of the prettiest spots I know. I believe some went up to New England, and some were scattered in a memorial garden at a wildlife sanctuary in Virginia – a certain blessing to the animals there.

I wouldn’t want anyone stuck in a graveyard, and I certainly don’t want to end up in one myself, but I’m starting to understand their purpose. We have planted trees on our property in memory of people and animals who have died since we moved here. We celebrate our own version of Dia de los Muertos each November. Sometimes we clean up the memorial (human) and grave (animal) sites, and plant flowers, and sometimes we just light luminaria for each of them, but it’s a ceremony we hold dear.

Standing over Guinness’ grave twice each day, watering the grass seed and letting my mind wander, was a meditative exercise for me. It was also a transition time. I know there are sudden deaths, but with most of my animals and all of my relatives, dying has been a process, with a lot of activity and attention needed over a fairly long span of time. With Guinness, for example, he was sick for about six weeks. We tried everything we could think of to diagnose and treat him. Like any sick room, our feed shed was full of supplements and medicines when he died. I checked him, treated him, and tried to get him to eat four to six times a day, all the while watching him fade away. Throwing away the useless prescriptions is something I’ve done a few too many times now, but I’m sure I will do it again. Watering his grave was a way for me to keep tending to him while also gradually letting him go.

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Ruby

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We said goodbye to Ruby, our 18 year old truck, this week.

 

Ruby drove us and two of our horses out to Colorado one summer, 14 years back. We drove 3,200 miles round trip, blew out two tires on the horse trailer and needed new brakes on the truck by the time we got home, but she got us there and back. Still one of the biggest adventures of our lives.

On day 3 of the trip home, after the second trailer tire replacement, in the western Maryland mountains in heavy fog and light rain, we were not sure we were going to make it. One of our main cds that trip (remember cds?) was Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, and one of our two favorite songs on that cd was When It Don’t Come Easy. I don’t know how many times we listened to it that night.

Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
Everywhere the waters getting rough
Your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight

Ruby moved us to our current home. We were in a rental that we loved and wanted to buy, but the owners did not want to sell. When we found this place, Ruby sat in the parking lot of the title company at settlement, hitched to our horse trailer loaded with all the stuff we didn’t want the movers to move, waiting to take us to our new house, which has now been our home for almost all of those 18 years.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

She hauled our horses to horse shows, clinics, trail rides, the horse hospital, and best of all, home from the horse hospital. She hauled loads of everything we needed her to haul: hay, wood pellets, horse feed, stone, sand, lumber, boxes and boxes of books from my dad’s apartment after he died.

She carried our family on vacations from the mountains to the ocean.

She was the favorite vehicle of every dog we have had.

She carried our kids from ages 9, 11, and 15 to 27, 29 and 33, and moved them into and out of dorms, apartments, and houses.

I don’t know nothing except change will come
Year after year what we do is undone
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home

In those 18 years, we have said goodbye to all four of our parents, my favorite aunt, three friends and mentors, six cats, four horses, and one dog.

We’ve had more jobs than I even want to think about.

You’re out there walking down a highway
And all of the signs got blown away
Sometimes you wonder if you’re walking in the wrong direction

During those 18 years Rose and I nearly split up, and then later, got married. In fact, during those 18 years, it went from being unthinkable to possible to law, that we could get married.

Those 18 years have seen our children start and end relationships, become engaged and unengaged, get married. We drove Ruby to our middle child’s wedding, come to think of it.

So many things that I had before
That don’t matter to me now
Tonight I cry for the love that I’ve lost
And the love I’ve never found
When the last bird falls
And the last siren sounds
Someone will say what’s been said before
Its only love we were looking for

Ruby was hard on brakes, but she never broke down, refused to start, or left us anywhere. She didn’t have a lot of oomph towing up hills, and her gas mileage ran to gallons per mile, but she went everywhere we asked her to go.

She still has a lot of miles ahead of her, and she has gone to a friend, so it’s almost like she’s staying in the family. But not quite. Our new truck has got everything we want and need, but it doesn’t have 18 years of memories. Farewell, Ruby, and thanks for taking us to where we needed to be.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

(quoted lyrics by Patty Griffin, When It Don’t Come Easy)

Things My Mother Kept

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Things My Mother Kept

On the floor of the entryway
To my parents’ apartment,
A Bath & Body Works bag.
My father gestured to it, saying
“There’s your mother”
As we walked by.
The brown plastic box of ashes
Fit as if it were made for the
Blue and white checked paper bag
With convenient carrying handles.

On her dresser,
A melamine plate I made for her.
Remember the Make-a-Plate kits?
We spent one first grade class
Preparing for Mother’s Day
Drawing and coloring earnestly
Green-roofed house, purple door
Bright yellow sun, black cat
The year, for some reason. 1974.

On her bathroom counter,
My earliest ceramic art.
Sushi plates before their time
A rectangle with mama and baby fish
A square with baby fish alone
Each and every scale rendered.
Anatomically improbable
And hydrodynamically challenged
But drawn with painstaking care.

In her closet,
A sweater I bought in high school
From the Tweeds catalog.
Cropped cotton cardigan, aubergine
Sleeves too long, as always, for me.
I used to raid her closet
Secretly, I thought
Not knowing, or forgetting,
That she raided mine right back.

In her locking desk drawer,
Plexiglass pendants
Made by an artist I had known
With his wife as family friends.
I once asked my mother
Why we never saw them any more
And she said, ever oracular,
“Life is short. Things happen.”

In the bottom of a wine cabinet
In the dining room
In a compartment I never knew existed,
The plexiglass chess set he made for her
Which I’m sure she told my father
She had thrown away.
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Partner Yoga

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I am a romantic. I believe that love at first sight and soulmates are real things. I like sappy love songs, country music, chick flicks, and stories with happy endings.

I’m also a realist, and I think relationships are just hard. I also think that staying with anyone, no matter how much you love them, takes a lot of damn work. Some days it seems like every single thing you can think of to say or do is the exact wrong thing. In fact, it’s hard to believe there are so many wrong things.

Recently Rose and I decided to try a partner yoga class. I hate the idea of partner yoga. Even more than regular yoga, it seems like a setup for complete disaster. It also seems like a great metaphor for why relationships are so hard. Most yoga poses are hard enough for me by myself, and adding the pressure of not throwing someone else off balance, or dropping them, just seems like too much. Not to mention getting dropped or knocked over by the other person.

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Sometimes when I am extremely resistant to an idea, it is because I should avoid that thing for a lot of good reasons. Sometimes, however, I fight it because it’s exactly what I need and I just don’t feel like working that hard, or working on that part of myself.

About half way through the class, our instructor had us all get back to back with our partners and prepare to go into half moon. Of the many yoga poses I dislike, half moon is high on my list. My standing leg gets tired , my hip on my lifted leg hurts, I don’t ever feel balanced, my bottom hand can’t reach the ground, my top shoulder hurts… It’s a pretty long list of gripes. So sure, let’s add the layer of doing that back to back with another person with their own list of physical complaints. I see no way that could go wrong. Such a good test of a nearly 25 year relationship.

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Getting into a yoga pose with another person turns out to take less think and more feel. That’s probably true of yoga in general, but left to my own devices my brain starts thinking what Anne Lamott calls its thinky thoughts. It also takes a fair amount of laughter, which fixes anything that feel doesn’t.

What I expected was awkwardness, pain, falling down, and irritation. What I felt was Rose’s back pressing against mine, and when I reached with my raised leg I had hers to search for to help extend the pose, and when I stretched my arm up and back I felt only gentle contact with her hand. What I got – and gave – was support.

Grace. You just never know where it’s going to turn up.

 

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Grieving Through My Earrings

My earring collection caught my eye today when I was sorting laundry. It’s pretty extensive, and it’s also pretty. A particular pair of gold squares with asymetrical silver cross pieces and blue stones struck me. Like most of my earrings they were a gift, and while trying to remember when my mother gave me those earrings (they look like something she would have chosen), I realized they were in fact a gift from my spouse, the most recent earrings she has given me in our twenty four years together.

I first got my ears pierced with my best friend when I was eleven years old. Her mother took us to a jewelry store where they used the combination piercer/earring inserter that sounds just like a hole punch you’d use on paper. When I was eighteen, my older sister decided she finally wanted to get her ears pierced and I went along for moral support. That jewelry store was having a “buy two, get one free” piercing sale, and my sister only wanted the conventional two earrings, one per ear, so I used the free one to get a second hole in my left ear. A few years later at college, I got a third hole in my left ear from a friend in my apartment one night. I had one of my old pointy starter earrings, and he had ice and a history of piercing his own ears (I think he was up to 17 holes total by then), so he iced me up and stuck the earring through my earlobe. I remain intrigued by the fact that that is the only one of my 4 earring holes that has never had been infected.

For my whole life I have never been fashionable, knowledgeable about fashion, or really even dimly aware of what’s fashionable. I lean towards jeans and t-shirts, or very plain colors. A lot of black. A lot of blue. A lot of sage (to the point that my spouse once gently took a shirt out of my hands in a store and, hanging it back on the rack, said “I think we have enough sage”). I have always tended to match pieces by color and not so much by print. I might get away with wearing a paisley shirt with a similarly toned flowered skirt now – I am 50, and I could call it “power clashing” – but when I was in the sixth grade that outfit was not a winner among my peers.

What I have always done is accessorize interestingly with earrings. I may be wearing jeans and a plain sage shirt, but if you add in dangly purple-shading-to-pink titanium flamingos, you stand out just enough. I have a pair of broccoli earrings that my mother gave me during a period when mostly what I wanted to eat was broccoli, and I used to wear them almost as often as I ate the broccoli. My earrings are weird, beautiful, and funny, and sometimes all three at once. For decades now I have worn only tiny diamonds with gold posts in my two auxiliary holes, but my two original piercings have displayed the full variety of my earring collection.

Earrings are a great fall-back gift idea for anyone with pierced ears. I have been given many earrings over the years. There’s a wonderful book called Love, Loss, and What I Wore that is a memoir told through the outfits that the author wore for different events in her life. For me, earrings tell a story like that, only more to do with the people who gave me the earrings. One of my many inaccurate beliefs about relationships used to be that if someone knew how to pick earrings for me, it showed we were meant to be together. Lapses like that aside, earrings and memories of the friends who gave them to me are inextricably linked. And I have had no more prolific giver-of-earrings than my mother.

It is twelve years since my mother died. For the first few years after her death I rotated between a pair of subtly unmatched diamonds she once gave me that were made from two rings inherited from family members, and the first pair of earrings I bought for myself after she died. I had had the diamonds for close to twenty years, and somehow lost one of them. Perhaps down the shower drain; I never knew. I was upset, but not as much as I expected. It seemed somehow logical that the time for those earrings was past. Since then I have rarely worn earrings, aside from my two tiny auxiliary diamonds in my left ear, which never come out. My ears started to get infected when I did put on earrings, and I just drifted into not bothering.

Late this past summer I bought myself another pair of tiny diamonds with gold posts. I now wear them, along with my other two, all the time, day and night. Every so often I check to see if they are there, but mostly I don’t think about them. I viewed this as my first step toward becoming a wearer of earrings again. A way to reaccustom my ears, and my heart, to the idea.

That was several months ago, and today, my earring collection caught my eye. It is dusty, and many of the earrings are tarnished, but the gold and silver and blue of the earrings from my spouse shone an invitation. I think that after twelve years I am ready to go through them all again, deciding which to keep, cleaning and shining and sitting with the memories as I go.groovy

Young Pup

My dogs have come into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine, though mine too, as I have acquired them over the course of many years). My first dog was somewhere between two and three when we got her. Our current old dog was a year and a half. I thought he was quite grown up but he was a year younger then than our youngest dog is now, and I think our youngest dog is still a puppy. The youngest dog was a mere eleven weeks when he arrived.

As I have said before, I am not a dog person. I came to dogs later in life, and I hope I have evolved over time into a better dog owner. I was used to cats and a particular level of self sufficiency and independence. Dogs can be self sufficient and independent too, but it’s pretty irresponsible to let them just roam. I knew that in theory, but when my first dog would disappear from the yard for hours on end I didn’t worry about it nearly as much as I should have – enough to stop it from happening again, for instance.

Her wandering led to some amusing stories. The time, for instance, that she came home and had clearly been swimming in the neighbor’s pool one hot summer day. Or the fish filets she used to bring home and eat in the yard. I never did figure out if she was going through someone’s trash or if she was stealing someone’s dinner they had set out to defrost on the deck rail. And then there was the time I had a feeling she had headed to the road so I was walking down the driveway when a car pulled in, the back door opened, and my dog got out.

All of these are a lot like stories from my own younger days: they are funny to relate now, but as a grown up and as a parent, I am mildly horrified even at my own stories. I know some of my children’s stories, and I’m sure there are others they will tell me at some point in the distant future, and others they will never let me know about.

This week is the two year anniversary of the arrival of the youngest dog. Dogs, at least my dogs, seem to be the opposite of children in photograph quantity. Anyone who is a youngest child is familiar with the albums of photos of their siblings, especially the oldest, and the dearth of photos chronicling their own milestones. I have probably one roll of film (remember rolls of film?) of my current old dog in his first two years with us, and approximately 753,000 digital photos of the youngest one. Part of that is due to available technology, and part of it represents the different level of attention I give my dogs now.

This week is also the week my oldest child is moving away from home. My kids also came into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine – unlike the dogs I got all three kids at once). My youngest is now four years older than I was when I first met them. I suppose at this point saying “I’m not a dog person” is a lot like saying “I’m not a mother.” I may not have started out envisioning a life full of dogs and kids, but sometimes you get what you expect and sometimes you get lucky.

There have been a lot of milestones for my kids since the beginning of the dog years. Graduations, engagements, break-ups, marriage, first job, first more-grown-up-than-mine job, house purchases, house sale. They have all moved out of the house. One has moved out of the state. Two have moved back into the house. The oldest is now moving far away.

They get older and they do their own thing and they express themselves and their independence in their own ways. With each new step, I cheer them on and I’m excited for the next chapter in their lives and a part of me thinks “it’s about time” and gives them a little shove out of the nest.

But then there’s this other part. The part that sees the U-Haul my oldest child has rented to move 1,700 miles away sitting in the driveway as he begins to load up his stuff. The part of me that flashes back instantly to the first time I met him, when he was seven years old, telling me in great detail about his math homework, with his bowl haircut and his fashion sense and his extensive vocabulary. It’s the same part of me that spoke at my middle child’s wedding, when all I could remember was him at age three, fearlessly throwing himself at everything life put in his path, but wearing a helmet and knee and elbow pads just in case, because you never know when you might need a little protection. It’s the same part of me that sees my youngest child being more adult than I feel like I will ever be in her job and relationship and living space decisions and yet I hear her deep toddler voice chanting “Hode you mommy hode you mommy hode you mommy” when she wanted to be picked up and carried.

No matter how old or young they are when they take these big steps in their lives, no matter how ready they are, no matter how ready I am, I’m not ready. I still look at the adults they are and see the kids they were and I want to reach out past the U-Haul and snatch them back and make the time I wanted to go faster go just a little more slowly.

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The Pack

 

12987170_10156904329045165_5451335982654072746_nWe have three dogs. I’m sure there are things that can be said about them based on birth order now that they are all in one household. We made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of learning on the oldest. The middle one is precocious and self-activating in the particular way of middle children. The youngest is spoiled but does not take advantage of it (much), and tries harder to please and to be noticed than the other two do. He likes to always be touching one of his dogs or humans, whether for comfort or to make sure we know he’s there, I’m not sure.I am also the youngest of three, so I may relate to him a little more than is good for me.

I have seen no evidence that our dogs fight with each other when we are not with them. I’m sure our kids also get along better when they laugh at us together in our absence then when they are with us and keeping an eye on who gets how much attention. Birth order behaviors and sibling rivalries and alliances aside, there is no getting around the fact that as long as parents are there they have a huge impact on the family dynamic, and for better or worse it changes when they are not.

Our human children are also three in number. They like to say we have replaced them, now that we have three dogs. This is a conversation they have had amongst themselves that at least one has reported back to us. I know the kinds of conversations my sisters and I have had about our parents, and I don’t have a lot of illusions that our kids sit around saying “you know what I love most about our parents?” They tell stories about when we’ve annoyed them, or infuriated them, or, if we are lucky, made them laugh.

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If our animals could talk I’m pretty sure all their stories about us would begin “Remember the time they thought it would be a good idea to…?” Come to think of it, our kids’ stories might start out just like that too. I wonder sometimes which stories they do tell when we are not around, and if those will be the same stories they will tell when we are gone.

The story I tell most often is about Rose’s first Thanksgiving with my family. The guests included my parents, my oldest sister, her husband, their three kids, me, Rose, and my father’s friend Stan. Stan was one of those family friends who has always been around, and since his wife died very young he had spent just about every holiday or birthday celebration with us.

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I don’t know if Stan was born a curmudgeon or if he had curmudgeonliness thrust upon him, but the level of it increased dramatically over the years. He and my father loved to debate loudly on the few points on which they agreed, and and on the many, many points on which they disagreed. They agreed about the state of the world (decaying), the state of politics (deplorable), the state of the newspaper industry (deteriorating). They did not agree on Stan’s feeling that life was generally being ruined by women: his woman boss was making his job miserable, movies were being destroyed by woman directors, and it was only a matter of time before woman politicians would bring about the downfall of society as he knew it.

My mother called me before Thanksgiving to give me a list of things not to talk about in an effort not to set Stanley off. On the list were (it was the early ’90’s) the movie The Piano (woman director), his job (woman boss), John and Lorena Bobbitt (woman run amok), the Bobbitt-inspired New Yorker cartoon where the nice looking elderly lady says to her nice looking elderly husband across the breakfast table “Pass the cream or I’ll cut off your penis,” and presumably (though not explicitly) the fact that I was bringing my girlfriend home for Thanksgiving.

Dinner was uneventful until my oldest sister excused her kids from the table. We had managed to avoid any untoward topics and we all enjoyed the customary combination of traditional Thanksgiving foods and tofu from a local Chinese takeout. My mother sat back and surveyed the table, and then said pleasantly to the room at large “Pass the cranberry sauce or I’ll cut off your penis.”

We all roared. Well, most of us. Stanley turned instantly red and sputtered “I suppose you all think that’s VERY FUNNY!”

My father turned just as red and yelled back “What, do you think we’re all assholes, Stan? There are seven people at the table! Six of them are laughing! WHO’S THE ASSHOLE, STAN?”

My mother looked at us all, a pleased smile on her lips.

I can only hope to provide stories to my own kids that get half the longevity that one has had for me. If I had only one story to tell about my family for the rest of my life, that would be the one I would tell. I told it to my sister who was not there that night, twelve years later as we sat around the same dining room table in my parents’ apartment. When I went to see my mother in the hospital bed in her bedroom, she wanted to know what had made us all laugh so hard, so I told it to her as well, and we laughed all over again.

The next morning she went into hospice. She died four days later, the windows open to the night air and the scent of cherry blossoms from the garden planted by other people’s children in memory of their parents who died there too.

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