Monday, March 30, 2015

Mind Your Manners

Good God, what have I done?

I stared down at the tabby cat lying stretched out on the pink fleece pillow.  On one side was my six-year-old daughter, Kim, her blonde curls sharing the pearly fluff.  On the other side was Megan, barely four.  They were at that age where so much is at stake.

They needed to learn to share.  They needed to learn to say "please" and "thank you." They needed to learn to brush their teeth and flush the toilet and put away their toys. And they needed to understand that, if you had a cute little kitten, it would grow into an independent cat that still needed to be given food and water every day. And that the kitty litter had to be changed. And that you needed to make sure your pet was safe from harm.

I was trying -- oh God, was I trying -- to be the good mother and teach these precious bundles that had been entrusted to me how to be good, responsible people.

That is why, when I saw the striped cat wounded at the side of the road barely a quarter of a mile from our house, I slammed on the brakes, hopped out of the car and frantically scooped up the mewling bundle. This cat was our responsibility and it was looking like we had failed in our ultimate task to keep her safe. 

We had gone to Second Chance Animal Shelter just six months before and picked her out from among all the rest. She had such a dainty way of grooming her face with her so-soft paws that we would name her "Miss Priss." The girls adored her and took great joy in picking out toys for her: a feather on a string, a neon plastic ball with a bell and a toy mouse that looked so real at first I'd thought it was a freeze-dried version of the real deal.

Seeing that wounded little wad of striped fur tore at my heart. I momentarily wanted to ignore what I was seeing but I was not capable of that any more than I was capable of writing an opera or running for president. It would set a horrible example. Besides, Kim and Megan were not blind, they too had seen their precious pet in distress.

We sat in the kitchen coddling and cuddling Miss Priss, wiping the dirt from her fur since she was too weak to do her own grooming.  Drops of water were administered with an eye dropper and a flake of tuna was placed on her tongue.  By very dint of their affection, it seemed, the girls were willing that cat back to drowsy health again.

But, as I went to the kitchen sink to rinse out my coffee cup, I was greeted with a "thunk" and a "meow" that made me realize what I had just done: Perched on the ledge outside my kitchen window window sat a hale and hearty Miss Priss her round, amber eyes seeming to mock me.

My head whip-lashed from the scene on the window sill to the scene on the floor inside. Still the skeptic, I ran to the jumbled mess of kids and kitten and lifted the eyelid of my feline patient. A deep sea-green orb stared back -- something I had not noticed in my haste to be a shade-tree veterinarian. Worse yet, the faux patient (no, make that faux pet) had snug between his (yes, his) hind legs a pair of fur-covered balls the size of shelled peas.

BALLS? Now what the hell was I supposed to do?

My impostor pet must have been one of the dozens of barn cats from the farm just down the road.  Now, mind you, we had chosen to rescue a cat from the animal shelter thereby opting for a less in-bred member of the feline species. But our Miss Priss very well could have come from that very same farm so similar were they.  Nonetheless, I would return the male version of Miss Priss to the farmer's wife, an elderly, taciturn, old-school Vermonter. I could begin  to guess what her reaction would be but I could not keep this interloper -- even though I had rescued him -- as you can plainly see one cat was already threatening to be nearly one to many.

When wakefulness stirred the bundle of curls, fur and fleece, I knelt down and stroked with equal affection each member of the pack. I murmured softly to each: "This ... is ... not ... Miss ... Priss." With sleep still hanging thready about the girls, I went on to explain that we would take the cat to its rightful owner Maggie down at the farm.

If I live to be 100 I'll never forget the look on that wiry old woman's face when we arrived at her door with a still-lethargic half-grown tabby cat cradled in a pink fleece pillow. I suspect she'd seen hundreds of cats come and go -- and more than she could count squashed on the road that runs past the farmhouse. While she valued her cats for their ability to keep the grain bins and root cellar rodent-free, she was not given to sentimentality about them. She believed that the fittest would survive without her intervention. I suspect she thought I was nuts.

As I babbled my story, she was silent. She either didn't know what to say or knew exactly what she wanted to say but couldn't bring herself to say it in front of the children. Finally, her lip curled in an indefinable way -- neither smile nor smirk -- and she took the cat-laden pillow from my hands with no more than a nod and a barely audible "Ayup."

As I hastened to get back in the van and away from this awkward encounter, Megan began pulling at my pant leg.

"Mommy, Mommy," she whined.

"What, Megan? WHAT?"

"Mommy, she wasn't very polite. She didn't even say: 'Thank you'."

His Bark is Worse Than His Bite
Thanksgiving for Dummies

Monday, March 16, 2015


Cary was a simple woman. She often marveled at the needs of her contemporaries that seemed to crave so very much to create the illusion that they were happy -- fancy clothes, long cruises and big houses.  They needed pools and bragging rights, art ownership and club membership. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with these things; she simply did want them or need them to define her.

If she wanted a day of unbridled contentment, Cary would cruise the thrift and consignment shops within a 50-mile radius of her modest home.  Often she went with a friend.  But just as often she went alone, seeking out a treasure of low-end but lovely vintage jewelry.  She knew that she often overlooked other treasures as she poked among the beads and tangled chains of other people’s cast-offs so lately she had been schooling herself to rattle among the coat hangers for a pretty jacket or look on the shelves for a pleasing candle holder or vase for the flowers she grew in her garden.  She rarely found anything she wanted.  Often she came home with a desire to clean out her own congested cupboards and closets, to shed possessions instead of acquiring more.

She would frequently see something that reminded her of a friend or relative, living or dead.  And she treasured these little trips into the psyche of the things that please.  She believed utterly in the messages she found; a ceramic owl, a hummingbird pin, a ruby glass cardinal, a crystal angel -- each calling up a private and personal memory, a bit of wisdom or humor.  She was reassured that her friends, past and present were with her even though she may be alone.  These forays were almost spiritual, and they refreshed her in ways that were hard to explain to her family and friends.

Thus it was a startling thing that she found -- crammed in the back of a dusty shelf in a hole-in-the-wall consignment shop.  While owls and angels are a common motif, a dog sled motif was decidedly rare.  But there it was, tagged with a pasteboard ticket on a string looped around the neck of a carved soapstone musher. It was damaged -- one could see one dog’s muzzle was chipped, and the leading edge of the sled was rough with a broken spot.   The tag read “as is.”

Cary knew immediately that this strange sculpture, imperfect as it was, was destined to go home with her.  She knew mushers.  And it just so happened that, at the moment, she was following the Iditarod, that iconic race through the Alaskan wilderness that was in its final grueling days.  She was privy to some of their challenges and knew of their courage and, sometimes, their heartbreak.  Like the little soapstone statue she held in her hands, sometimes they were hurt in the journey but still basically intact. Her mind drifted back almost 30 years to memories of her friend, Jason.  He was a hardscrabble boy whose love of dog-powered sports started when he hooked up his mongrel, Bo, to his toboggan to gather maple sap in the waning days of Vermont winters. Back then, his knowledge of the word “mush” was solely of the gluey mash that he ate day after day for his morning repast.  Now the word “mush” meant that the snow hooks that anchored his wooden sled to the ground were being released and the yipping, yowling pack of his beloved Siberian Huskies could hit the trail.

After all these years, Jason was training for the CopperBasin 300, a qualifying race for Iditarod dreamers. Cary knew, because of him, that this was a unique sport – really more of a lifestyle -- that it was ancient and elemental; a man and dogs mutually dependent. The whole purity of the endeavor was an anachronism in an era of social media, smart phones and beyond.  What were her musher friends telling her now with this treasure showing up so unexpectedly in her hands at very end of the Iditarod? Why had they appeared on this dusty shelf in the form of a tiny soapstone trinket for her to find?

She pondered the message of perseverance in the face of heartbreak, of work and dreams and elemental connections as she climbed into her dusty car to head to the next thrift shop. But she knew that anything else from here on out would not compare to the tissue-wrapped treasure now in her purse. 

The gods had already spoken for this day.  

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Friday, March 13, 2015

In the Still of the Night

The noise was like distant cracks of thunder, full of electricity. Boom, hiss. Boom, hiss. And again.  Each charge of noise intruded on my always troubled sleep.

My eyelids fluttered, seeking the light.  But there was no light. Boom, hiss. One more crack of noise that was, in fact, the house's electrical circuits in distress. Then it was totally dark.

I waited, utterly still, not wanting to accept the fact that the power was really and truly out. I listened to the howl of the wind as it tore through the tops of the bare oaks and maples that surround the house and climb the slopes of the gentle hills of our mountain hollow.

It was an eerie sound, unlike any other.  Not wolf or coyote,-not a train rushing through the intersection of a small isolated town, it was distant but felt immediate, demanding.  It had already claimed my power, my control over my environment.

I do not like the dark. Don't get me wrong, I am not afraid of it.  I do not think that gremlins will come leaping out of the closets or Freddie Fingernail from “Nightmare on Elm Street” will slink up the stairs.  The dark only makes me aware of the illusion I harbor of having control of my surroundings.  Even now, if I reach for the flashlight on my bedside stand, will I knock over the glass of water sitting there?  Will I see the cat or will she trip me up so I crash into the inert lamp and injure one or the other of us?

Tonight there is not a single bit of ambient light.  No moon shines through scudding clouds over the mountaintops.  It is too far from dawn to have the weak shards of light leak under the blinds and around the curtains.  I am not accustomed to the dark. 

Ever since 9/11 no matter how tired I am, when my head hits the pillow I am wide awake.  I no longer pretend that sleep will come and I always have the television on, the volume turned down so it croons and whispers its inane banter into my tired brain, my reading light on over my shoulder and my glasses hugging my brow.  A book rests on my chest ready to read if sleep continues to elude me. 
I resist the mini-death of sleep, afraid not of the dark, but of being "in the dark," of missing something -- anything -- that happens while I am temporarily absent.  I strive to understand but cannot decipher the working of our government no matter how much I read or scan the 24/7 always-on TV news.  I can only read enough to send a pinpoint of light into my awareness of the scary world of fabricating authors and sexual predators.  Steroid use and Judas gospels make me feel stupid and duped.  Hidden paintings in walls and hidden agendas are mysteries and shrouded in the dark recesses of the psyche, not in the darkness of my house. I have about given up thinking that staying awake with the light on will somehow enlighten me.

Thus it is, oddly, not the dark but the silence that is profoundly disturbing.  At first I was glad that the wind had died down but with its death came the silence.  Recently a minor commercial was being filmed at our store and the videographer made us unplug the deli cases, mute the clapper on our cowbell at the door and quiet the fan on the French fry machine; white noise, the background of my existence.  At home, it is the hum of the refrigerator, the buzz of the bulbs in the grow lamps over our house plants.  It is the water pump turning on, the furnace kicking in, the dryer tumbling -- and all the other noises that I cannot name or even identify.  But they are always there.  And now they are not.

Gradually, like feeling your pulse thrumming in your ears in a way that makes you perceive it as a sound, I hear the tick tock of a battery-operated clock that, if there were light, I would be able to see from my place in bed.  I had not known that it made any noise at all.  It was a complete surprise.  If I stay this way long enough, what else will I hear?

There ...  a soft footstep.  Who's there?

Ah, it is only my cat and she scares the bee-geebers out of me as she leaps from the dark onto my chest with a resounding thump.  I cannot tell if it is actually noise or only a tactile sensation so powerful that it feels like sound.

As she settles into the crook of my arm, she begins to purr. I had no idea that her purr was so loud.  If the electricity stays off long enough what other things will I learn? Will there be revelations uncomplicated by the spoken or written word? Will mysteries be solved?  And do I want solutions? Or, like the pursuit of happiness, do I want only the intellectual pleasure of questioning the elusive and complicated?

My cat's internal motor is welcome and gradually relaxes my over-active brain that by now has travelled to all the strange and lonely and exhausting places that only darkness and silence can access

When I awake, the weak morning light is streaming in the window. I have slept in spite of myself.  The power is back on and the house is alive with a cacophony of tiny noises. I have survived my brief visit to the twilight zone of darkness and silence and I have no desire to visit it again anytime soon.

It is too early in the day, too early in the season but my longing for the outdoors and the spring garden is almost physical, a thirst. Like Voltaire's Candide, mysteries are solved there where the process is simple and knowable and uncomplicated by the search for answers in light and sound. Or in the absence of it.

(This blog post is partially my personal experience and partially culled from several conversations I've had about how the frequent power outages in our area effect us.)

Recent Posts:
His Bark Is Worse Than His Bite
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Saturday, March 7, 2015

His Bark Is Worse than His Bite

Cobb was a bit of an enigma.  He started showing up at our little country store about two years ago and, in spite of my best efforts to figure him out, he gave away next to nothing about himself.  He was either house-sitting, free-loading or in the witness protection program up in the one of the houses hidden in the twists and turns of the Batten kill valley or its attending hills and hollows.

Once or twice a week he would slouch in, his tall, banana-shaped body crabbing across the worn floorboards to pick up a Foster’s oilcan of beer and a 99-cent bag of Fritos.

If I said: “Nice day out today,” he would respond: “I guess.”  If I asked: “How are you today?” he would respond: OK.” In winter, he accessorized his meager jacket with a length of colored scarf the likes of which is usually seen at Big Ten football games. In summer, he wore a stained Red Sox baseball cap backward. He could have been an old young man or a young old man with either fading blond or fledgling gray streaking his hair, which hung limp around his lean face. His mouth was straight as a pin, muscles never twitching in a smile or even a frown.  He did not complain or grouse. He did not joke or comment, even on the weather or the roads. He was just … bland.

Now, it is no secret that “bland” is disturbing to me.  I want people to share their joys and sorrows and jokes.  I want the challenge of a good political spar and I rejoice in people who are passionate about what they do -- it can be collecting four-leaf clovers, shoeing horses, or raising kids.  It can be teaching or preaching. It can be running or spinning. It can be baking or golfing or basket weaving. But please show me some emotion! Though I sometimes get impatient with “drama,” I would take that any day over gray ennui.  I felt sorry for Cobb who seemed so humorless and passionless.

One quiet evening in the valley I was behind the counter with our night help when Cobb came in. A pretty young lady was at the counter with four cans of dog food.  She was trying to decide the merits of Taste of The Wild vs. Wellness vs. the cheaper Alpo and a generic brand. She was taking up time asking the kinds of questions only she could answer: “How much do I want to spend?”  Cobb stood motionless for a while waiting his turn. Then he spoke.

“I was fed kibble when I was a kid,” he said.

I was momentarily ecstatic -- he was finally interacting!

But, what followed was as unpredictable as the winds that rise out of nowhere and race down the valley.

“Here,” he said, “feel my jaw.”

What his jaw had to do with being fed kibble I did not even stop to process. Not being touch-averse, I reached out my hand to touch the rock-hard clenched jaw.

As soon as my fingers grazed the three-day stubble, he let out a loud and long feral bark that fell somewhere between Siberian Huskies lining up at the start of the Iditarod and a Bullmastiff going after a poacher. Cobb’s formerly bland face broke into laugh lines, changing his countenance to one of a mischievous elf, his eyes sparkling with the fun of having so surprised us. Three startled females momentarily blanched and then laughed the kind of laugh you crave on a quiet day, laughing heartily that we had been the butt of such a joke and amazed at who had launched it like a bomb into our midst.
Cobb paid his modest tab and exited the front door, still chuckling.

“Been doing that since I was 10,” he said shaking his head on the way out. “Gets ‘em every time.”

He was not humorless!  He had just been weighted down by a life that remained hidden and private but still retained a spark and I was overjoyed that he shared it with us on a quiet night in a no longer quiet valley. That feral bark echoed in our minds as we went about our tasks -- and contemplating how we could foist Cobb’s joke on others. But we agreed that it was the context that made the humor so we enjoyed it for what it was.

In the days that followed, I looked with different eyes upon Cobb’s banana shape crabbing toward the beer cooler. His pin-straight mouth now seemed to be curled in a smile as he recalled his joke on us. I smiled back but did not press for what he could not or would not give.

I was content with his gift of surprise and laughter.  

(Note: There's more than a "seed" of truth to this particular tale -- but it's still fictionalized.)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Under the Water, Over the Dam -- and Into the Blogosphere

A lot of water has gone under the bridge -- and over the dam -- in tumbling, rushing, whitewater splashes and waves since I my first post here back in early November. And, since I never introduced myself then, I feel I should do so now so that you know, as the waters calm, who I am and why I am blogging.

My husband died in December, a month to the day after I had my first blogging lesson from number two son (not number two in affection or importance but in birth order). He knew then, as he always has, the importance of having a project -- especially one involving words and stories. He is a teacher, writer and encourager of the first order. However, in the waves of medical jargon, fear and grief, the blog, the blog post and any lessons that came with it were all but forgotten.

These days, folks come into our store -- an old-fashioned Vermont country store --  and tell me that they are so sorry I lost my husband. It’s as if he were a three-year-old hiding among the dress racks at JC Penney or Target and would emerge grinning after I had been appropriately terrified. Well, after three months, it is dawning on me that he is not going to reappear -- I have indeed lost him. Oh, to be sure he is here in a thousand little ways (reminding me to fasten my seat belt, close the draft on the wood stove or fix a hot toddy for a cold snowy night). But his living presence is gone, not to be experienced again on this earthy plane. So, I am left to my own devices after 52 years, and one of my biggest devices has always been to tell stories. So now I return to what is known and leave the many unknowns to be revealed in the fullness of time.

Several years ago, I self- published a slim volume called “Wayside Country Stories.” I have since been writing stories for another volume, but I am not sure I have the time (after all, that first book took me until I was 62) or energy left to publish again. Enter son number two; with his brain rushing and words tumbling, he explained how a blog can create an audience, how I can tell my stories bit-by-bit as they occur. I can even use TBT (Throwback Thursday) to revisit the stories I have previously published. I hear his words today, as I did several months ago, and now I am hearing: “Wow … let the blogging begin!  Let the stories flow! I have a project!” Perhaps this is not the typical blog as it is less a diary or forum on a particular topic but more of a slim on-line book of simple stories. And certainly there will not be daily postings.

These stories will bear a different slant than those in my original volume. Those tales were fact (though the names had been changed to protect the innocent); these will be mostly reality-based fiction. Every single one has its seed in something that really happened.  But from that seed I grew a plant -- sometimes a whole forest -- of fiction to create what I hope will be an entertaining, enlightening or funny tale. Some are a little long for a single post so I will be breaking them into two or three parts.
I hope you enjoy reading my therapy and my love of stories as much as I enjoy the writing!

-- Nancy