Red fox

A frosty Monday morning. I’m sitting at the table by the picture window, feeling sleepy, sipping coffee, eating toast—the weekday morning ritual. The slight bitterness of coffee, the sweet honey on the toast. I’m waking slowly, glancing at the online newspaper and alternately checking what’s happening in the yard. I put bird feeders up last week and birds are swooping in, nibbling, swooping away again.

The world is brown and green and grey. I look for beauty in the bare branches against the sky, which is gradually getting light. I’m brought out of my half awake revery by the sight of a red fox emerging from the trees at the back of the yard and trotting across the yard, pausing periodically to look toward the house—does it hear me moving or is it simply checking out the bird activity? Its coat is thick and glossy, tail bushy. It disappears into the trees again and I begin my day.

Fiction on Friday

I have a lot of snippets of fiction stashed in my computer or in notebooks–beginnings of stories or simply stand alones where I’ve played with voice or character. So, from time to time I’ll post a short piece. For today, meet Gladys–a woman of a certain age.

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A morning when I sleep until 6 is a luxury for me. 4, 4:30, 5–I’m awake so why not just get up and get going? What do I do so early? Well, there’s always something to do isn’t there? I sometimes hear people talk about being bored. Just the other day, in fact, I was in the checkout line at Stop and Shop and this woman behind me was talking on her phone–one of those little flippy things– my niece wants me to get one–for safety she says.

Anyway, there I was, using my time in line to try to remember the lines of a poem I’d memorized earlier–I do that to keep my brain agile–so I’m running the lines in my mind but I keep getting distracted by this one way chatter about nothing. What brand of tomato soup she was buying, what she’d done over the weekend or hadn’t done and how boring it all was. Well, I thought, you just lack imagination. No excuse to ever be bored.

This morning I got up at 4:30. It was just starting to get light so I made my tea and sat on the back porch watching the sun come up. I can just see it off to the right through some trees–not as nice as watching it come up over the ocean–oh that’s a treat–but still it’s nice to punctuate the day with a sunrise.

There were lots of birds around. I took a class once to learn bird calls but I got them all mixed up so I just listen and don’t worry about who’s saying what to whom. It’s all just mating anyway isn’t it? Hey chickie chickie look at me!

I made a little breakfast–a piece of toast–and then I went for a walk–a slow walk these days–just around the block but I’ve got to keep the joints moving. My niece worries about me. “Gladys,” she says, “someday you’re going to go out for that morning walk and it will be dark and you’ll fall and then what?”  So I’m supposed to stay inside for the remainder of my days? I don’t think so. If I fall and break a hip, so be it.

At 6 I went to Susan’s place down the road to have my hair done. Every Thursday she fits me in early like that before her family gets up and gets her going. Susan does it nice–simple, not a lot of goop–just the way I like it. Course the hair is getting kinda thin these days–if I live to be a really old lady I’ll be bald! Imagine that!

By 7 I was at the diner for a real breakfast with my friends Hannah and Marie–the biddy’s breakfast we call it. Twice a week. The waitress knows our orders–a poached egg for me and more tea. We like her because she treats us like friends not wrinkled up babies.

There’s a lot I still want to do. My great niece is learning to play the guitar and I thought that looks like fun, playing an instrument. But not the guitar. I want something peppier.

I thought maybe the accordion but that would be too big–I’ve shrunk you know–happens when you get older–all your body parts just start to shrivel up. I went to the music store down on Spruce Street and asked to try an accordion on for size. Ha! Should have seen the look on that fellow’s face. “This is for you?” Well, who else?

But soon as I put those straps over my shoulders I knew it would be too big. “Don’t you have something smaller?” I asked. So he showed me something called a concertina–just the ticket–but it sure does cost a lot.

I let my niece know that if she’s looking for a birthday present for me, well maybe my birthday could come a little early and everyone could chip in. She thinks I’m nuts. I think I’m a good role model. That’s what I tell her. You’re middle aged now, I say, but pay attention–old age is just around the corner.

“Can you bring winter slaws?”

“Can you bring winter slaws again?” Sure I said, slaws it is. Food assignments for the annual Thanksgiving get together have gone out. For over 30 years a group of friends has gathered at Beth’s house for Thanksgiving. In the beginning it was a group of young adults, then children arrived, and grandparents joined in, and then parents became grandparents themselves. One year there were four generations present.

In recent years it’s an older, smaller gathering—10 of us rather than 25—as adult children have established their own family Thanksgiving rituals and there have been a couple of deaths and illness that makes travel difficult for some. But still there will be hugs and catching up and laughter and some sadness as we toast those who are absent. And food—lots of good food.

The hostess provides the turkey, which she buys from a local farmer. Applesauce, made with apples from her trees. She also bakes pies—pumpkin, walnut, apple. One couple brings the winter squash dish—fragrant with ginger. Someone else is on mashed potato and gravy duty.

Winter slaws have been my assignment for several years, ever since the year I was assigned “salad” and made a citrusy, cabbagy slaw in addition to the standard mixed greens. For many years my assignment was green beans and I’d spend a couple of hours on Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy’s parade and prepping green beans.

This year I’ll do a lot of the slaw prep the night before—the slicing and dicing—so that all I need to do on the day is make the dressing and mix it all up.

One recipe I got from a friend—I think she clipped it out of the paper—cabbage and nuts and dried fruit with a lemony dressing. The other recipe I got from one of my favorite food blogs, Cookie and Kate. Its base is sliced up Brussel sprouts (and thanks to Trader Joe’s shredded sprouts all I have to do is open a bag or two), mixed with nuts and dried fruit and a honey mustard dressing. Both are light and tangy and a perfect complement to some of the heavier fare of Thanksgiving.

This is one of my favorite holidays, with its good companionship (and good food). And I know how fortunate I am to have an abundance of both. We had our monthly staff meeting at work last week—over 30 of us sitting in a circle. We always begin with a structured greeting of some sort and this month we went around the circle, greeting our neighbor and saying something we were thankful for. The room filled with gratitude for family, health, the basics of shelter and food, safe neighborhoods that we live in, meaningful work we do. I echoed all of that and added that I was grateful for the continuity of long term friendships.

November musing

“Are you embracing the time change?” a friend asked me teasingly when we turned the clocks back. Well, embracing is probably too strong a word but I am working on letting go of grumpiness. I find it so easy as the dark season approaches to sink into complaint, to moan about the early darkness and the cold temperatures to come, the snow, the ice. 

I’m trying to center down into the moment. To find small quiet islands to rest on when things feel tumultuous, serendipitous moments. I was driving to work the other morning–an overcast day and a sleepy brain that was skittering around through a litany of “things to do” and “things to fret about.” It was a typical November landscape with trees mostly bare except for oaks with their browned leaves when all of a sudden I noticed on a hillside one bright yellow-leafed tree and for that moment I was just…there, not planning, not fretting, just noticing. 

Although I’m not religious I sometimes stand in awe, feel a need to praise. Here’s a poem by Barbara Crooker that speaks to that need:

Murmuration

Cold morning, November, taking a walk,
when suddenly, up ahead, the trees unleave,
and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense
river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves
over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered
with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings,
their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/
reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb-
struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moly.
And then, they’re gone.

Frost and dark mornings

I woke early this morning—5:15—and lay in bed for a while with the cat curled up on my stomach, the heavy weight of her both comforting and painful. Life’s like that, right? Comfort and pain, beauty and loss. This season inspires such thoughts–the flame of leaves with winter quickly following.

We’ve had two hard frosts and all the annuals are now dead. I have one last rapidly fading bouquet sitting in a vase on my table. Mornings are dark—that seemed to happen suddenly—one moment I was still being wakened early by daylight and then wham, it’s dark until almost 7.

Winter rhythms. It’s not winter yet of course, in spite of snow flurries a few days ago. We still have days of mild weather to come, walks in the sun, leaf raking and yard clean-up, and there’s still some daylight when I get home from work but I can feel myself pulling in, settling onto the couch in the evenings, sipping my hot milk.

My eye just fell on the painting on the living room wall, Pleasant Valley in the fall, brilliant leaves and a purply sky, fields turning brown. It’s that time of year. Mid-afternoon on Saturday a friend and I drove up into the hills to our favorite orchard, our chatting interrupted by oohs and aahs as we noticed a particularly brilliant tree. Later I got my camera out and wandered around the yard snapping pictures of the last flowers in anticipation of the frost.

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Dahlia destined for a vase

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Late Stella d’Oro

Summer and blueberries

This has been a busy couple of weeks and my writing energy is all going into a project at work, which will be coming to a pause point this week. So, for now, a picture of blueberries from the garden, the first this year on my slow to ripen bush. image

At the end of the birthday week

It was a busy week last week on both work and social fronts—hence, a short post. My birthday was this past Tuesday. The celebrations stretched over several days. The festivities began with brunch out with a few friends on Sunday. Then on the day itself, I had dinner at a friend’s house, out on her deck looking out at the shade garden. The centerpiece of the meal was a beautiful big salad, perfect for a hot night. And then on to a concert by the Lorelei Ensemble. And today it’s off to another event (the Rock Voices Endless Summer concert) with a friend. So, a heartfelt thank you to all my friends for their birthday tending.

Birthdays. Someone at work asked if I had big plans for my birthday. This was before the various meals and concerts had gelled into plans. I shrugged and said this wasn’t a big deal birthday, not one of the landmark 0 or 5 birthdays. But when I think about it that’s such a strange concept, marking the decades or half decades with bigger celebrations. Every birthday–every day, really–is a cause for celebration. So, at the end of this “not a big deal” birthday week, I pause and rest for a moment in gratitude. This poem by Stanley Kunitz reflects my thoughts.

The Round
By Stanley KunitzIMG_0045

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my noteboook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
“Light splashed…”

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

The prompt said to write from a place of vulnerability

Although it was hard to get started writing I knew that I needed to write about aging because at this stage of my life, vulnerability has to do with aging. I still stand tall. I’m still strong enough to do what I need to do (although not as much as I used to do). My mind is reasonably agile. I manage a complex job with grace most of the time. My stamina isn’t as good as it used to be but I get through the days OK. But in my mid-60s I’m aware of the vulnerability of age.

I don’t want people to think of me as old. Is this ageist? Probably. Or is it a realistic recognition of how society views older people–as frail, as weak, as not really quite a person? In the grocery store check out line, at the post office, at work, I make sure that my posture is good, that I stride with ease and confidence even if my knee and hip hurt, I speak quickly and assertively.

I may have white hair (I have had silver hair since I was in my 30s) and wrinkles but…don’t make assumptions about me. I get snarky when someone I don’t know calls me “honey” or “dear.” In another part of the country it might be just the way people speak but here in New England I hear it as a patronizing tone used with “seniors.” Ugh.

I broke my ankle a few years ago. It healed well. No lingering effects. Except–there’s a heightened sense of physical vulnerability–a desire to hold the railing when I go up and down stairs, a mild anxiety when there is no railing. I look more closely at the ground when I walk; I move more slowly through the world.

In England, there are road signs signaling, I think, that an older person lives nearby and might be crossing the road–on the sign is an image of 2 bent, hunched figures with canes. Really?? I push that image away. Not me. Not me. But someday it might be me.

Work out, I tell myself. Get in the pool! Go for a walk! All good advice. And I square my shoulders, take a deep breath, and step out into the world.

In the summer of 1993

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Mom at Memorial Day picnic circa 1960.

My mother died 22 years ago on Memorial Day weekend. She was in her mid-80s and living in a suburb of Cincinnati, in the home she and dad had bought more than 30 years earlier. She’d lived there alone for ten years since dad died–with a home health aide, good neighbors, and Meals on Wheels she was able to stay in her home until close to the end. But then a sudden health crisis led to a hospital admission and then a nursing home and that was it. One of her neighbors called to let me know mom was in the hospital. My sister B and I got to Cincinnati as soon as we could—me from New England and B from her home overseas.

Our cousin P had come to see mom and he went to the nursing home early on Memorial Day while B and I went to the suburban town’s parade. This small southern Ohio town had at one point been the winter home of a circus. To commemorate that heritage there was an elephant in the parade that year–that’s another story—but it’s an image that sticks with me from that day, standing in the shade on a leafy Ohio street watching an elephant amble along.

B and I spent the afternoon and evening at the nursing home. Mom was drifting in and out of awareness–when she was awake she was sharp and present. We worked away at the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle–B and I would be trying to figure out clues, thinking mom was asleep, and all of a sudden she’d call out a possible—and often correct—answer. We finally went home mid-evening, wondering if we should stay overnight but concerned we’d disturb mom who seemed to want us to go–and she died that night.

For the next two weeks, B and I settled her affairs and cleared out the house, slogging our way through hard decisions and easy ones: What should we sell? What should we give away and to whom? What would we each take with us? I took a fragile lamp that had been in the family for a long time because it would be more likely to make it to New England in one piece than overseas. I also took the old and worn armchair that mom and dad had bought shortly after they were married. B took artwork and books and family papers.

By the end of two weeks the house was empty. B and her husband headed home and I stayed one more night to do a final sweep through the house and close it up, ready for a Realtor to show and sell. On my final morning there, I bagged up some trash, called on the neighbors to say good-by and thank-you, and then paused in the living room.

With all the curtains pulled, the house was dim and cool. I sat on the hearth and looked down the hall toward the bedrooms at the end. Such an ordinary suburban house but it was the first and only house they’d owned (previous houses had all been rentals). It had been their—our—home for over thirty years.

I felt peaceful in that moment after harried and hurried days. I had a strong sense of presence–of the air shifting near me, of gentle weight on my shoulders, as though mom and dad were standing on either side of me, leaning in.