Monday, December 4, 2017

"Clippity clop, clippity clop"

I have no real memory of my first time aboard the back of a horse. It seems there was always a horse somewhere to ride, from my earliest days. Whether it had springs that made noise when you rocked or took another quarter to go another round, or those dirty ponies at the fair and at birthday parties that wore small western saddles and were tied to a pole that led the ponies all in a row, to finally being put on top of a real horse there is no clear line in my memory. There is only the fact that I loved each and every time I had the chance to even imagine that I was aboard a horse, and I imagined, a lot.

I have been waiting for several years to share my love of riding horses with my grandchildren. They needed to be big enough and it had to be the right horse, or pony. When the oldest one came along we still had a very geriatric stallion pony, Tony, and we put her on him to walk a bit. It was too early for her so it was obvious it would have to wait. Until a few weekends ago, the three grand kids have only enjoyed going to the barn and “helping” by giving handfuls of hay to the horses at feeding time. They have stayed in the aisle of the barn, only going into the stalls with me being a buffer between them and four hooves. They have briefly touched a leg or handed a carrot them but until this weekend, that was the sum of their view of being around horses, from the ground looking up. They have looked up into the large eyes and have smelled their breath, and gone back to get more handfuls of hay to feed them.

I was very lucky that, having been born with horse-itis, I had a grandfather who had a real horse on his farm and on our yearly summer visit to his farm in Tennessee,  my brothers and I were tossed like sacks up onto old Lady’s back and got our picture made. I was usually in the back of the three aboard, with my brother Wilson taking the reins. The mare was a saint, looking back, I kicked and wiggled and did what I could to make the girl move, but she did as she was told by my grandfather, and we did not fall off.

The one exception to her sainthood came when, once on our visit to the farm, my middle brother, David, was being a jerk to me. He had a stick and was running around trying to whip me on the legs. I remember the sting and wondering why he would want to hurt me and find that funny.  He was told not to by whatever attending adult was around, but to avail. Then it came time for David’s turn to sit in the saddle with old Lady.

There have been many “ aha moments” that I have experienced or have seen with horses through the many decades of being around them but this may well have been my first. My brother was hoisted up into the saddle, with the strong advice to leave the stick behind, and like I said, he was already being a jerk. My grandfather gave him the reins and David was to walk Lady around the big barn. He got about halfway around when we heard a hurrying of hooves combined with some plaintive screams imploring the help of my grandfather. David had, unwisely, used his stick to goad the mare, and, this is where it gets weird to me, she wheeled and took off with him, running straight back to my grandfather. My brother hollered until the mare came to a stop right in front of my grandfather. My grandfather said nothing but helped my blanched brother to the ground. He then picked me up and placed me in the saddle and together we walked around the barn, him leading a now, totally relaxed mare with a young child aboard.

What I felt at that moment was pure awe. That mare had reacted to my brother’s rude behavior, I think not only to her, but to me as well. I felt that there was an understanding that it was not ok to swat me on the legs anymore than it was ok to swat her, and so this placid beast had run away with the little jerk. She didn’t try to hurt him, but scare him she did. And then, when it was my turn to ride her, all I felt from her was safety. She had assessed the situation and dealt with it. He never rode her again but I spent many summer vacations at the farm riding old Lady, later with no help from my grandfather, and that mare was always an angel, because I treated her like she was one.

So until this weekend, my grandchildren have seen my horses only through gates and fences, and have only ridden the stuffed toy that, years back, we had gotten for the oldest one. If you pinched the ears a recording of a little song played, “I’m a little pony, clippity clop, clippity clop. Such a pretty pony, etc” and they would rock in time with the music. Mostly out grown now the toy pony sits unused by the front door. But, recently a new small mare has come to live with us for a while to help out her busy owner. I had ridden her before and felt hopeful that she was relatively safe for the kids.

I put my daughter’s old lead line saddle on this mare, Cleo, and put the strawberry shortcake helmet on our oldest 5 year old granddaughter and led them around the barn yard. I looked at the mare’s eyes and they told me of her life as a lesson horse, a safe one, one to trust with beginners and noisy children. Hers eyes spoke volumes to me in that moment of an understanding that crosses species barriers, that she carried a special package, and she walked carefully and calmly. Round and round the yard we walked and I was asked for more. Then it was time for the next child, our 2yr old granddaughter.

With the helmet traded, we put her up in the saddle. Her face was tight and concerned and she held the front of the little saddle firmly and I led the mare off at a walk. That was the moment a
light bulb moment happened for her. Suddenly, her face changed from deep concern, to  relaxing, then to beaming. She smiled as we walked and began to sing the “Clippity, clop , such a pretty pony” song as we walked. She had made the connection between what had to have been a pretty abstract idea, to sit on a stuffed toy, to finally seeing that those big horses behind gates were to be ridden. It was amazing seeing this on her face, and, to see the quiet in the mare’s eyes, was total affirmation to me as to why I still have horses.

Horses have supplied me with so many “moments” through my life and each is etched in my memory, easily found and savored, again. They have been moments of recognition, or understanding and connection with the horse,  a line opened to a portal to somewhere else. Horses have given me moments of pure magic, and seeing the look on my granddaughter’s face was proof to me that she too, had experienced her own “moment” too.

 While it is true that the years and bumps have taken more of a toll than I had hoped for or wanted, but they came with these bits of glory and glee that are unlike anything else that has happened in my life. Horses are all about focusing on the moment and maybe that's why they are such good therapy sources. Perhaps its from having a connection with the mythical beast of a horse, the sensory experiences of living in their world for a while, enjoying the beauty of the animal and its spirit, and just being, in a transcendence of time. These kids may never take to riding as I have in my life, but i had hoped to share a little of this feeling with the grand kids and little Cleo helped me on that one. Hopefully there will be more.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Tree Toppers

Some twenty three or four years ago, we sited our house, quite like a dog circling to find the right spot to lie down. We snuggled the house up to a group of oaks on one side and to a line of trees that define the higher ground from the swamp below our house. For years the have stood guard over out house keeping it cool and shady, and have buffered us from winter winds.

We built the house well out from the drip lines and root boundaries of these giants, but in the passage of time their expansion and growth had led them to hover over the house, some of them leaning in earnest over the roof, their limbs grown long and thin in a desperate reach to cover the roof. Some of them that were growing as a group were not balanced in growth and had limbs only on one side of their trunks, leaning as if in one good puff of wind from the wrong direction, they would land on the house for certain. It was time for some trimming and serious pruning.

 We called a fellow named Nick who we had used years before to down a single dead tree behind the
house. He had no truck with a bucket but used a technique I had never seen up close and in person, using long ropes and things that strapped to his legs that had large spikes that he stuck into the tree that let him climb up into the tops of the trees. He would cut a section and the guys below would carefully and, with great calculation from Nick, belay the weight of the limb gently to the ground and place it where they wanted it to land. After all the limbs had been cut, he felled the huge tree dropping it precisely where he wanted it to fall. He barely spoke english and communication was limited, but his skill level was magical and obvious.

He showed up with a larger crew on a recent morning, as the job was to be more involved than dealing with just one tree. The first tree to go was a small unidentifiable thing in back of the house that had dead limbs hanging over the screened porch area. Then it was onto the huge dead oak at the end of the porch which had been dead for some time and its only use was as scaffolding for an enormous vine of poison ivy. The giant tree had begun shedding its enormous dead limbs to the ground below and had, thankfully, dropped them away from the house and not on anyone's head. It was a time bomb of potential danger standing there and so it was time for it, and poison ivy, to go.

Nick put his saw against the front of the tree on the side he intended to let it fall and made a flat line not quite half the diameter of the tree. It was a huge tree and took time for this cut. The next cut was above the first at a forty five degree angle to the first and cut down to the first cut. Nick then knocked the cut wedge of wood out like a piece of pie. Next was the fall cut. Nick went to the back of the tree and began a slow and deliberate cut, a flat one , and soon the balance in the old tree shifted and the giant tree began a slow moaning and cracking. In a freeze frame slow motion the tree began its fall, perfectly and in the exact direction where he had intended. It is memorable to be near something so large as a tree being felled, feeling the mass and the change of its balance in of the beginning of the fall, and be close enough to it to feel the power if its impact. After  the slow motion fall, followed by a ground shaking thud, it lay in an eerie stillness.

With no mourning time for the old tree, Nick’s crew instantly began cutting the huge log into pieces that could be moved more easily. Working in carefully choreographed movements, their chain saws spit out saw dust into piles that seemed like pools of the blood of the tree. The smell of the dust began to fill the air and was sweet and acrid.

Next the attention focused on the high limbs that were covering our roof and posing the most danger for the house. Now the long ropes came out, the small rope to be the lead line to get the heavy ropes into the tops of the trees, the strap on spikes for climbing, the climbing harnesses, and more and more long lengths of ropes. Nick and another fellow, Randy, suited up in the climbing harnesses and they stood surveying the project before them. There was an energy that permeated the two climbers, and their crew, as they prepared. Both adrenaline and giddiness ran freely.

Our roof line is maybe 36ft high and the climbers had to get above that by almost that much again to get access to the limbs that were highest up. With thick ropes hanging off their belts,  Nick and Randy began their climbs up, chainsaws hanging by one of the many carabiners snapped to their belts. The climbing rope attached to their harness was belayed by one guy at the base of the tree, and the climbers wore a strap to their belt which went around the tree so they could push their backs into that for balance and stability and to help them climb.

As mentioned, there were many ropes to be used. The first was a string with a weight tied to it which was slingshotted to a fork high above the work to be done. Once over that, a larger rope was attached to the string and the larger rope up and over. There was a rope for belaying the weight of the cut pieces down to the ground and another rope which directed the limb where to come down. It was exacting work as our house could've been wrecked in one tiny mistake, and there was no room for error for anyone.

 The crew was a tight one and all were very attentive to help get the job of the nanosecond done. They all had an extra peripheral vision and when an extra hand was needed on the ropes or whatever the situation, someone picked up on it and  came quickly to help. It was dangerous work, extremely dangerous. Combine lots of chainsaws, descending chunks of heavy wood, and extreme heights and that makes for a volatile situation, and all antennas were up.

The craft of taking down a tree where things will be damaged if you simply let it fall, requires a deep understanding of physics and the possession of raw, sheer courage. Each limb that hung over the house had to be taken down by sections and the section farthest out from the tree held the most potential for disaster, for the house but also for the climber.

At one point while taking a break, but still high up in the tree, Randy requested one of the crew go
over to his truck and get a cigarette out and light it and send it up to him. The crew hand did as told and somehow looped the lit cig to one of the dangling ropes. With casualness and calm, standing out on a limb, some 40 plus ft off the ground, Randy pulled it up and smoked while he contemplated his approach to the next task.

Nicks english was much better this time and, at one point, I sat with him and we watched Randy work on a tree with the guys manning the ropes below him using just the right tension to let down the very heavy and cumbersome lengths of limbs, swinging their descent to make them fall where they wanted. Nick explained that you cannot push the wood. You have to listen and feel when it right to add tension or, when to let off.  He had an obvious reverence for the trees and the wood. A true master of his craft, he had been in trees for about thirty years or so and I listened to him coach the guys on how to handle the ropes to better effect.

Randy, also a master at this craft, said his father had been a climber and sent him up his first tree when he was 16. He was now 62 getting ready to turn 63 soon, if the trees don't let him down. He had learned the craft out west where the trees there are taller and very flexible, and bend long distances back and forth when the branches are let down. One wrong release of the dropping rope and the recoil can send the climber on a wicked ride way above the ground. Randy got to ride one bronc when the top of the tree he was in had to come down and there was nothing left to belay the top down with. Clinging like a squirrel he rode it out, and then looked down with a grin.

 After a day watching these guys work, we pulled up the movie “Sometimes a Great Notion” the other night and watched it again. It was a 70’s movie from a book written by Ken Kesey about a family in Oregon that ran a logging operation, topping and felling huge trees, pushing them eventually into the river and then floated them in tied together groups to the mill. The cast was strong, Fonda, Paul Newman, Lee Remick, Micheal Sarrazin, and others all playing a strong willed clan who will not cave into the unions or to the towns folk who want to have the Stamper clan join them in their strike against the union. The scenes of them working the chainsaws and pulling the logs up steep hills, the felling of the huge trees were great, but the scene where Newman’s character climbs a several hundred foot high tree with a climbing harness and the spike leggings, dragging a chainsaw with him to the top is amazing. He has to cut and drop many limbs to get to the top and then at the point where the tree it too thin, he tops it. He makes the cut and the top begins its long way down. And just like I had watched Randy’s tree do, the tree reacts to the push and swings back and forth, Newman’s character hanging on and riding the bronco of the recoil. After his tree top bronc ride he climbs on top of the tall stump and sits looking out over the tops of the trees and the mountains, totally relaxed sitting on top of the world, his world.

What I got to watch in person was a stunning example of amazing skills and amazing bravery. They kept the humor going at all times to keep it light but, always, were watching for possible safety issues. Both Randy and Nick said they didn’t know of any young guys who were learning this job and and when they hang up their harnesses for the last time, they will take with them a whole lot of knowledge, and, for at least around here, tree topping will become a lost art. They should sell tickets to get to watch them and a reality show is not a bad idea. Both of these men were intensely proud of the work they did, as well they should be. I was amazed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Full Cup

In my early youth, weekday mornings began with the arrival of our maid, Mary. Arriving dressed in her own personal clothes, she would step into the storage room off the carport where the lawnmower and other tools were kept. There was a small toilet in there for her, and any other “help” to use when needed, and maybe a small sink. My brothers and I were told not to use it, and I got the drift that the help was not to use facilities inside, for any reason. Mary would dutifully, then change into the white uniform that my mother insisted be worn while at work. Once properly dressed as a maid, she would come in the back door to begin our day with breakfast.

 I don’t remember when Mary began working for mom. She was just there from my beginning of awareness. She was dark chocolate, quite short and round, and was the best hug giver ever. Mary would always envelope me into her arms and into the folds of that soft, white dress, with such love and warmth, and smile, and let me know that life was fine no matter what. She gave me unconditional love and never once missed giving me a small gift for my birthday or Christmas, which I am sure was not easy on her meager income from my mother. I only knew I was happy every day to see her, and adored her. I still have a tiny tea cup she gave me once, and I keep my tiny pieces of jewelry in it to keep them safe. It is amazing it has survived the years, and that I didn’t break it, my kids didn’t break it, and it has remained a lovely reminder of this sweet woman for so long. Sadly I can find no photos of Mary and the features of her face have faded from my memory. I do, though, remember the warmth of her incredible smile, and her hugs.

 At some point I overheard my parents say that she was married to a man named Joseph, who I never met or saw, and I found humor in the “Mary and Joseph” thing but kept my mouth shut. I never knew whether she had children, never knew where she lived, how she felt on any given day, whether her life was good or bad, or what she thought about being a black woman in the 60’s in Montgomery, Alabama. I was oblivious to this information as a preschooler, to me Mary came and Mary went. It never occurred to me that she had a life after leaving our house every day. It was later, as I got a bit older, that I began to notice the oddities of this arrangement, and the whole white folks and black folks thing around the segregation but, especially the separation. Mary did what she was told, cleaned the house, took care of us when we were sick when mom was at a meeting or playing golf, led me on numerous picnics to the ditch behind Bear school where black berries grew, and always showed me a genuine love. And yet, I sensed this strange relationship was not balanced but it seemed wrong to question the status quo. I  did ask her once why she ate her lunch alone in the kitchen instead of at the table with me and my brothers, and got a downcast mumble of some sort about her not wanting to disturb us. I quickly got the idea that this was one of those questions that I was not supposed to ask, and I was embarrassed for having asked, and for having embarrassed her.   

There were other “colored” people who came to the house to work; there was Dave who had one arm, soft chewing gum always stuck behind his ear, and who somehow pushed the lawn mower and trimmed the shrubs despite his odds, after Mary there was Martha, a younger black woman who lacked the compassion yet of Mary, but who amused me on ballet day by picking me up and bouncing me into my pink tights, and Dave Barlow the go to guy who got projects done for dad that were beyond yard guy things and who grew the largest tomatoes I have ever seen. His secret for his giants went with him to his grave which is a real tragedy. I never saw Dave Barlow not wearing his faded overalls and his dapper straw hat. Dave was a craftsman in his younger years and when he became an elderly man he delegated his son well on the projects dad would assign.

Later dad picked up the uses of Horace and Albert, mix masters and master bartenders for my
parents’ parties and numerous trips to Tuscaloosa for football games. I didn’t know until later that these men both held several jobs to make their lives work, again it didn’t occur to me to ask, and I had learned way back not to ask some types of questions. Both of them worked at the Country Club in the bar or waiting tables, so I saw them there, but I was surprised to find out that Albert taught high school English full time instead of just being a black man in a uniform. Both of these men were quick with a smile and deadly quick with refills. I miss them both.

And then there was Francis. Francis was the one who raised me from the time I was in third grade until very late in my high school years. She taught me how to drive, how to behave, how to cook southern stuff, and was there at the house when my parents took long trips. When we moved to the lake for the summer months, she moved with us and stayed in a very tiny house that had washing machine, dryer, and a bed pushed up against the wall. I do know that she had a husband named James and a daughter named Martha though I rarely saw them. James left Francis one day quite to her surprise, left to go to Detroit to make them some money. After he left she moved to the projects, where her car was regularly vandalized and her safety was always in question. Francis was devastated by his leaving her and figured never to see him again, but about fifteen years after he left, he did return and with a good sum of money. Soon after that, he died, and Francis bought a small house and retired on the money he had left her.


I have had the good fortune to have been raised and helped and loved by some very good people. The situation of their being employees of my mom or dad has not diminished the value of their friendships, love, and tutelage to me. If these folks whose lives have run concurrently with mine had not been hired by my parents, we probably never would have met and it would have been my loss. Growing up as a white girl in the South it has been complicated to learn the questions not to ask, and then wonder silently, why not ask? The boundaries, the not spoken taboos, what we call each other, what water fountain can one drink from or not, and yet, these relationships I had were real and dear to me. There a lot of questions that should have been asked and more are still out there. From back in my days with Mary, things have gone through great changes in the south and in this country, and yet with this new era of hate and violence I am saddened and confused at how such a gulf can occur when we have come so far  and wonder where will it end and how. But it must.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Sway Back Mare

Thirty years ago, or so, I found myself on the ground, on my back, looking up. I did not get there on purpose nor by choice, but rather at the cost of a cheap bridle and a young mare who had been sent off to be broken to ride, but who apparently wasn’t. This was obvious now from my current prone position on the hard packed October clay that I had been riding her on. I soon learned that my head had landed in a pillow of a fire ant mound. My hair was full of the little critters, my face was covered with them too, and I felt like a human sparkler. I got up and swatted them off as best as I could, then tried to asses the damage from the fall. Adrenalin was doing its job and hiding most of the damage that I would learn about later, so I hobbled off to find that **** mare who had just thrown me to the moon. My plan was revenge, of course, maybe.

The mare had been away for two months, taken to a fellow who was supposed to have turned a young mare into a nice green, but safe ride. He hadn’t. The mare first bucked my husband off on the maiden voyage upon her return. The next day I set out to reprimand this uncool behavior, and with the misguided aid of a cheaply made “schooling bridle” I had recently purchased, I got on her and put a leg on her, a leg meaning, I was putting pressure on her to get a response. On a trained and broke horse this generally means to move away from the leg. On a horse who is not broke this usually evokes, first the feel of sitting on a blow fish where the horse puffs up their girth area and lifts the saddle, then there comes the release. The cork pops and the animal below you leaves the ground, tucks its head, and does its best to toss you to the farthest location away from the saddle. My plan had been to have gotten to the puffer fish part and then to circumvent the next part, to raise one rein and thwart the coming buck with a bit of teeth rearranging with the bridle.

Things were going to plan up until the part where she set out to get her head down for that upcoming buck and I set back on my right rein to counter. With great surprise and amazement the rein broke and for the briefest of moments, I thought, uh oh. The mare  paused, assessing the upper hand she had just gotten, then really got her head down, free at last,  and I was slung like a frisbe, which leads us back to the beginning.

I am allergic to ant bites. So this was a problem. The fact, too, that when I went to do the proverbial, “get back up on the horse” thing, I couldn’t, literally. My left knee would not lift to get to the stirrup, and my lower back was really beginning to hurt. I, rather painfully, managed to squeeze my custom Dehner boots off, and drove myself to the doc in a box to deal with an on coming allergic reaction to all of the ant bites.  

After they had dealt with my allergy thing, I asked for an X-ray for my back which was now in spasms of intense pain. I soon learned that in that unceremonious dismount that day I broke spinal processes on L 3 and 4, was hospitalized for a week in solid bed rest, and off the horse for months, while I wore a very charming corset from just under my breast to my butt. The horse did finally get broke and my back did heal sort of, but it took a while, and that's for another story.

Fast forward to a few years back, I was in the motions of feeding the horses, letting them into their respective stalls one at a time, when my phone rang. Instead of returning the call later, as I should have, I got distracted, answered it, and found myself suddenly flung to the ground by a horse who had gotten trapped by another horse, her alpha, and running over me was her only way not to get killed by the other horse. Again my body, especially lower parts, hips and knees, were damaged in ways that have just begun to fully manifest themselves…

At a recent  visit with my chiropractor who has been working on me for years trying to keep my shoulder in line, my pelvis from rotating and moving around pulling muscles in strange directions, I mentioned that usually her work stays in place for several weeks but now was not. She asked how long and I replied a day, maybe. On her advice then, I had a consult with guy who had done previous rehab on my shoulder after  its surgery many moons ago. It too was a horse related injury, but again a different story. I asked him for maybe some specific exercises to counter my bones that keep moving around and hurting. I was having pain in my hip and figured it was the culprit. He said X-rays first, and sent me to a spine specialist for pictures that would tell us what was going on. Pictures showed my hip was fine but that L4 and L 5 were barely speaking to each other. L4 was sliding forward across the top of L5 out of alignment, and pressing nerves. I seemed that I had become a proverbial sway back mare. Surgery was mentioned as a fix, but I said therapy first in attempt to avoid the knife.

When I was a kid and first heard the term, sway back, there was something humorous about the term. Seems like there was a tv show on where there was an ancient white mare who’s back was swooped down from withers to its hip, and hung like a hammock. I can’t remember the story, but her condition was the funny part of the show. It never occurred to me that her condition might have been hurting the poor horse. I can empathize now, and there is no humor.

 Some horses, especially brood mares who have carried foals,  can develop the shape early to some degree. My old mare Limerick at one point gotten a bit of a sway and I needed to present her to some judges for better registration ranks for her foals. So for several weeks I put her on a lunge line and over and over I sent her across cavaletti poles, (think major crunches) making her pick her feet up and lift her belly up as she trotted over them. The time spent worked and she returned to her pre pregnant figure and achieved her status for the breeding designation.

I am learning, slowly, that injuries are cumulative, often irreversible, and can be life changers in mere seconds. They relate to each other and feed on the imbalances they produce, until, one day, the news becomes rather bleak. The combined effects of these old injuries, plus a change in saddle this past year that would not allow me to sit in the posture I had been used to but tipped my pelvis forward instead of backwards, and a laxing up on regular exercise like riding our road bikes, has come together to put me where I am now. So instead of me trotting over poles to cure my sway, I have been going to rehab twice a week for three weeks now to be put through the tortures of the dungeon. It is all about the posture, the standing with tone. It is the willing by choice that your muscles work to hold yourself up. I can’t make those traumatic injuries of old go away, but I can and am making their effects, and my recent lack of keeping more fit, better. My pain has subsided and I feel better than I have in a long time. I hate exercise, but it does work, darn it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Miriam's Table

When I was a kid, my father’s parents lived in a charming old neighborhood, not too far from us, in a charming white frame house, that unlike our boring brick ranch, was two story and was old and rich with character. Even then I knew that the walls and floors held stories that were long forgotten, but this house had been lived in, and had been, and was currently, loved. In my grandparent’s occupation of this wonderful space, there was a particular  happy place for me, and that was my grandmother’s kitchen.

In hind sight, it was tiny, but to me then it was perfectly sized. A back door led to the back yard where the wooden swing in the giant oak tree lulled me to quiet many an hour with my zen master grandfather giving an occasional push to “keep the cat from dying”. A window over the sink was always bright, overlooking a white double bowled porcelain sink. Flanking the window were quarter rounded open shelves that held clear bottles filled with colored water, that exploded with color that filled the room when the sunlight hit them directly. There was a dispenser for waxed paper, aluminum foil, and paper towels that hung on the wall by the back door that had a copper flap colored in a rich patina that hid the coils of wrap until needed. There was a door to the glassed in porch, where most of the time the grown ups hung out there, a step down from the kitchen height. Another door led to a weirdly placed hallway that led to the downstairs bedroom and bath, making it possible to discreetly  by pass the dining room on the other side of the wall. There was barely room for the refrigerator and oven but they were snugly there and supplied many a wonderful meal at my grandmother’s hand, and the refrigerator always, mysteriously held copious jars of green olives which I snacked on freely. I didn’t make the martini connection with the grown ups until much later. I just liked the brine and the crunch. Placed up against the plaster wall, in the tightest of spaces was my favorite part of the room though, it was Miriam’s table.

Miriam and Bibb, my grandparents lived what seemed to me to be an idealistic life in that white
frame house. Theirs was a life of ritual and pattern, at least on my visits spending weekends with them. My grandmother would rise and begin the breakfast thing, coffee brewing first and then the smell of bacon or sausages would rouse me from my slumber. My grandfather, Bibb, would rise and go the bathroom sink, where in his sleeveless t-shirt, would run the water until it got hot, and then shave, slowly and deliberately while I watched in fascination sitting on the edge of the tub behind him. After his shave and after wiping the remains of shaving cream and whatever blood marks from stray nicks from the razor off, he would put on a crisp white cotton shirt, long sleeve always, weather not a factor, put on a tie, and then we went to see what Miriam had cooked for us. We sat at her table as she served our plates.

It was the sound of her table that I remember so fondly and so well. The sound of fiesta ware plates placed upon the cool surface of that marble slab that was the top of her table, was so etched in my brain that I hear it now. We ate eggs, usually fried, sometimes scrambled, and there were always grits, grits that were slowly cooked, and Miriam always added milk to keep the constancy as she wanted and to make them creamier. Toast or biscuits with butter and honey rounded out the fare. I usually got a small glass of milk or juice and the sound of those upon that slab rang in a purity of the moment. It was my happy moment to be there, in my happiest of places.

Bibb would read the morning newspaper after he was done, still sipping warm coffee, and would rattle the pages as he turned them, their coarse pages also leaving their signature sounds as they moved across the edge of the marble. He sat at the end closest to the wall, near the door to the weird hallway, with the plaster wall to his left. I sat in the broad side of the table and watched miriam’s back as she worked to finish our meal and then once done, she sat to my right at the other end closest to the sink.

 The plaster wall was my first gallery and as I sat there I got to examine and reexamine my primitive first drawings, always of horses. Bibb would tape each drawing I did right up on that wall and make such a big fuss that I made sure another drawing came along soon. It was sitting at that gray marble table that made such an impact on my life, that I only recently have begun to understand the significance and influence.

Fast forward some decades later, many, and I began a search to find a material to redo the surfaces of my kitchen counter tops, which were woefully out of date and showing serious wear and tear. I began my prowl through show room after showroom of polished slabs of dazzling granites and crisp quartz samples. I had an idea of what I wanted and I was not seeing it anywhere. I told a salesman that I thought I wanted marble and was steered away from that preposterous idea because he said it was fragile and stainable, and would succumb to lemons or limes being cut on it. Over and over I heard this same mantra. They pointed me to quartz samples that they said would hold up forever and the samples looked like synthetic sparkly stuff designed to mimic the marble that I had in my head, but it just wasn’t getting it for me.

 Finally, a long time friend, Bil, who was newly hired at one of the stone dealerships listened to me remembering my grandmothers table and called me after I had left his shop one day and told me this. He said that he thought I should get the marble I wanted and forget the naysayers and their worry about blemishes. He said that if my memory of my grandmother’s table was that strong then perhaps my granddaughters will have similar memories of their grandmother’s table, if I went with the marble.  That was the deciding point then and there. We rode to Birmingham where there is a huge warehouse of stone slabs from all over the world, of exotic rocks and pieces of fossils kept in time in these layers of stone. I asked if they had any Carrera and tucked over in the far end of the building they did.

Carrera was the stone of Miriam’s table, and it was also the surface for most vanities, covers floors and walls in banks, and was widely used back in the day as a surface because there was a lot of it in Carrera, Italy and there still is. It's price reflected its abundance then, and still does. I picked out a slab and it was perfect. It looked just like Miriam’s breakfast table.

Last Monday the guys came and took out the twenty year old Formica and installed on the island, the center of my kitchen, a lovely white slab of cool marble. This beautiful piece of stone has graceful veins of gray that look like shadows dancing under a winter tree. I had chosen and marked the direction that I wanted them to flow before it was cut and now it lays in a swoon across the counter. It is organic and it is alive, and the first thing anyone does who sees it, is run their hands slows over its surface, feeling it like a breath. It is alive with a familiar sound as plates slide across it and glasses are rested on it. Once again I am back on the broad side of a beautiful stone where my cooktop is nestled. As I have cooked suppers this week, I have revisited Miriam’s table many times and enjoyed the memories. Last night the kids and grandkids came out for dinner and we gave it a good work out and breaking in. I don't know if they will remember, or even notice this white slab that takes me to my childhood in a blink, but I hope that in some way it will become part of their memories of time they spent out here at the farm, and of us, Uno and Mema.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Spring is....

Some days are special. Spring, is special, its just that some days of spring are more so than others. Last week I began to write, but never finished, about getting into the garden to plant some of the Angel Trumpets I had ordered. That day had been as spectacular as a fine spring day can be, blue, clear, and a perfect temperature. The sun felt good, enveloping and soothing,  and so equally did the feel of the warm dirt in my hands as I pushed the new baby plants into their new homes. The surrounding cacophony of bird calls telling the urgency of the underway nesting season, all blended together in that background noise kind of way that makes me feel happy every year when the time comes, and says spring is here, and another winter has gone bye bye..

 Some Red Shoulder Hawks in particular, were making a lot of noise pretty close by to where I was planting and I caught an occasional glance of one flying from tree to tree down below the house in the swamp, presumedly, searching for frogs. It was the next day or so that we were cooking our weekend breakfast outside on the patio when we heard one, close by, and I just happened to see one jump and glide down from an oak tree less than fifty feet from our house. Simultaneously another one flew up and silently landed in the pile of what we had previously thought to be a squirrel nest, a very smallish gathering of twigs loosely gathered together in the crotch of this very tall old oak.

There is no telling exactly how long they have been sitting on eggs, cause we just didn’t happen to look up the day they moved in, but we have heard them close by for quite some time, so maybe hatching will be soon. I have heard the changing of the guard when they shift up who sits on the eggs and who hunts for the next hours. We have set up the spotting scope and seen feathers of the sitting parent to be fluffed by the wind. I have also seen a sharp eye cast my way when I looked thru the scope. It s amazing how they know they are being watched.

Years ago now, college days, we rented a small house on a farm a few miles from town. It was close to a creek and watery places and it too was perfect for Red Shoulder habitat. We searched for a pair that we had seen repeatedly flying into the woods behind our house and finally found the nest, this one a much more respectable one in size, in a nice stout pine.

My husband, who had learned falconry while in the army and had flown Hawks and Falcons before, thought this would be a great photography project and also a potential opportunity to take an eyass for me to train. So we rented scaffolding pieces to get us up there, well not exactly us, more like him, and began a march up and down the rather steep hill behind the house, carrying one piece at a time.  It was somewhere like sixteen or twenty large and heavy pieces that we trudged up there and erected to get to the height of the nest. Remember we were in college then. The birds seemed oblivious and nonplussed by our actions and hatched and raised those chicks and Mark photographed them frequently.

Eventually we did trap one of the young birds after they had flown the nest and had learned to hunt a bit for themselves,  and it became my first hawk to train. I had watched Mark fly and train several birds before and he walked me through the process of the training with this bird. Once manned, it flew well to the creance, or tether line, to my outstretched glove but once on loose flying I lost the bird over its preference to frogs than the beef liver morsels I offered in return for it returning to my glove. The birds remained on the edge of the woods by our little house for the summer hunting the snakes and frogs that flourished in the warm water puddles that stayed in the pasture’s low areas. The Red Shoulder Hawk is a lovely bird but not the best candidate for a hunting bird, unless you like frogs and snakes too, which I don't care for so it was okay that the bird left me. It was a good lesson though, and I learned a lot and got a lot of material to do paintings of this bird.

But about that other part of spring…those kind of days that aren't so wonderful. The days that the oak trees begin to break open all of their flowers and spray volumes and volumes of yellow dust into the air, yes those, are the ones that are special. For some reason everything that flowers, be it tree, shrub, or whatever are doing so at a level I have never seen but this week’s pollen explosion was crazy.

With the oak flowers opening the pollen began to drift, gently falling into every crevasse, onto every surface, and just hanging in suspension in the air making it look like the atmosphere was a sickly green soup. For the beginning of the week l was ok, and in fact had flippantly remarked how that stuff never bothered me, allergy wise, and then, on Tuesday afternoon I began to cough at the tickle that felt like a small moth in the back of my throat. By that evening my throat was raw and on fire from coughing, but the next morning was the bomb.

I woke to sinus invasion from hell. The next forty eight hours I spent in a fetal horizontal position in delirious semi sleep trying to avoid the pain of moving my head at all. My sinuses were pressing and ached, but the rods of steel that ran thru my skull were throbbing. One rod ran from just the top of my face thru my face to the back of my skull just at the base of it. The other rod ran side to side thru my temples. I lay there in a semi coma with visual hallucinations teasing me about my reality, and the sound track of the music from the play Cabaret running thru that. I wondered when it would end and how.

 Two days are gone that I will never see again, and just from light and fluffy  tree dust. I am better, thankfully, but still have sniffles and occasional coughs, and best, the steel rods are smaller. A nice rain last night washed the pollen from the air and off the leaves and the air was clean again, albeit a few days too late for me. Today is another cleaner air day and it is beautiful  and back into the garden I will head to plant more stuff, after I wipe off tables and chairs, sweep the porches, and hose down the carport of the vile yellow stuff.

And that’s spring.    

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Under Seige


Our farm, our house, and our lives have been under siege now for seven, very long weeks, and time is still counting. Since the last week of September, a steady stream of trucks bringing workers to address various issues of twenty year old buildings and their long and much needed upkeep, have arrived each weekday in the early morning with their ladders, saws, and hammers. Beginning at the crack of dawn they have buzzed, banged, and hammered the days away, fixing this and that, until the late afternoon when their tail lights have drifted down the driveway, leaving an eerie, and temporary, silence in their wake.

We began in late September with the barn. A twenty year old roof that had suffered under numerous hail attacks and the effects of time, was torn off and replaced with new shingles. The whole structure was pressure washed inside and out, displacing unknown numbers of spiders who had called the rafters home for decades. Long tubes of dried mud from the industrious dirt daubers that had lined the walls were washed away in sickly streaks of yellow and orange. Rotten wood was replaced and the whole barn got a fresh coat of new paint and once again it was a nice space to walk into. Hercules could not have done a better job if this barn had been added to Eurystheus’s to do list.

During this time when focus was on the barn, I fenced the horses away from their stalls and paddock to keep them out of the way and out of trouble. For weeks they stood in shock and in utter amazement at the goings on around their world. Kitty, my older and alpha mare, continually pawed at the gate in her furious disapproval of the situation and at the shunning they were getting. In doing so, she eventually dug up the buried hot wire for the fencing and managed to shock herself by hitting the exposed wire. Adding this insult to her malady resulted in some momentary, and very theatrical head tossing and airs above the ground. We reburied the wire and, after all work was done and stray nails picked up, finally reopened the gates. My herd is happy again.

The house project has been a bit more of a challenge to live with however. Remodeling always begins with demolition and demolition always means there is going to be a mess, and its magnitude is the big unknown. There is also the issue of there being no privacy in remodeling while living in a changing house. We have lived for years in a fish bowl out here in the country with no curtains, because, there weren’t any close by neighbors to see us, but now, having had a constant parade of tile layers, carpenters, painters, and their helpers in and out of the house, has often left me wishing for a very large sized invisibility cloak.

Simply leaving the house/farm while work is being done has simply not been an option. There are so many unknowns when the sheetrock comes off the wall, or the floor gets ripped up.  There are just so many decisions that are made before the project begins, but there are even more that get made as it progresses, and these are the ones that have required my input, my executive decision. So for 99% of the time of our siege, I have stayed here in the house or, in the barn for very short breaks, directing this and correcting that. The 1% of the time, when I thought all decisions were made for the moment, I left for a quick lunch. When I got back, I found that one tile had been laid that was just not right, and stood out and not in a good way. So now I wait for that to be corrected, and it will be, but, my bad on leaving too soon.

Fortunately, during the process of remodeling, it can, thankfully, have its lighter moments.  In the removal of our old fiberglass shower unit we found that behind it, nestled sweetly in the fiberglass insulation, was the currently uninhabited home of some Mickys and Minnies. It looked as though they had been in residence for some time judging by complexity of the burrowed tunnels in the fluffy pink insulation, and also by a large amount of crunched up acorns that lay on the subfloor that used to be under the shower floor. The real surprise was though, alongside these empty nut shells were ketchup packets with obvious bite marks where the mice had opened the packages. Our guess was that these house mouses had been dipping their acorns in the ketchup for a little extra flavor. Maybe they were tiny chefs? Our house is set under a canopy of large oaks and so finding the stashed acorns was not a total surprise, but ketchup packages? Where in the heck did they get them and how did they haul them all the way under the house and up the walls to their hideaway, and better yet, why?

The carpet is being ripped up today and is being replaced with new. Twenty years of history peeled like an onion, every cat and dog who left their mark, every spilled blob of paint, and every uh-oh is being erased and their attached memories will soon be forgotten and there will be a certain poignancy in their fading away. Each of their marks told a story, the stories of my children’s youth and how they lived in this space they called their rooms. With time I hope that these remodeled rooms will be filled with new memories that will be added to the fabric of this house, only cleaner I hope and will perhaps last well until I leave this house for the last time.

To live in any house is a responsibility. It is important to take care of it and to be a good steward for the next person who will share the running history with these walls and floors, living under the shade of this roof. Twenty years ago when we built this house we built with a strong emphasis on the bones and regrettably needed to use some lesser quality finish materials and details as place cards. We have had to wait until now to finish the details like I had wanted to do then, and I am glad to have this chance to do it. I designed this house, and feel it is part of my legacy, and not a tiny one, to me. I had wanted to leave this house in better shape than it had been in for a while, and so now in its closing moments of remodeling for this project, this process has been worth the pain. There is certainly more left to do. There always will be. The process is continual, but after twenty years of waiting, we have made a good start.

I was not surprised at the stress levels it would raise doing all of this, and it certainly has, but we were not new to remodeling and were resigned to its inconveniences. The details that needed attention, the corrections, the changes, the dust, the roaming through the house to find a bathroom that still worked, and the intrusion into our lives has been rough.  For the most part though, I have survived. And I know too, that when I watch those last tail lights heading back to town for the last time, I will be ready for a serious massage, a very large and very cold martini or two, a very quiet house, and in no, particular order.