A Milestone Birthday, They Decided

Christian and Great-Grandma

Some months ago, younger son who lives in Florida said, “This is your 75th? That’s a milestone.” I agreed. It certainly was or is, as the case may be. I preferred not to think about it. Mostly, I didn’t know HOW to think about it. I mean, I’m still active, still working out, still writing, still being me. What made 75 seem like such a big deal? i.e. I preferred not to think about it once I’d done some math and realized 80 is only five years away and 85 and 90, etc etc. But since my life plan goes to 104, I decided this was only one more.

Not so, as it turned out, to my family. Especially my husband, who in concert with children and behind my back, decided otherwise.

First was a booze cruise around Weatherby Lake, north of Kansas City, on the Friday evening before my Tuesday birthday. Our friends, Venessa and Justin, have a house a couple of blocks from the lake and a pontoon boat. Cliff fixed about twenty crab cakes and off we went for an evening on the lake. Along with two thermos (what’s the plural of thermos? thermoses??) of gin and tonic. Not any gin, mind you, rather Hendricks Gin which is amazing if you’ve never tried it. And since it’s a pontoon boat, music and dancing on the forward deck. We had a blast. And drove home in the deep dead of night, around 1 :30 a.m.

On Tuesday, which was my rightful birthday, I was coming down the stairs in my nightgown when 6’4″ son who lives in Florida walked in the door! “Happy Birthday, Ma!” he said. And grinned. He fills a lot of space. Elder son who lives here in Kansas City is a little over 6′ but that extra 4″ fills a lot of space. So, on my birthday, two sons got busy fixing things. First it was a trip to Home Depot. I forget what all they came home with, but stuff, and began fixing. First it was the sink disposal unit that had become increasingly cantankerous. That took them awhile. While they were at it, they changed the under sink water filters. And tossed some stuff that needed tossing. I can’t remember what all they did on their fixing rampage. But stuff. Like old houses always need. Including a new ceiling fan and overhead light in the living room. Fortunately, older son once made his living as an electrician and is very careful around electricity. But whatever they did required several trips to Home Depot.

Two nights later, younger son left in the evening to go see a friend from when he lived here in KC, he said. Okay, I said. He came back about an hour later with grandson/granddaughter/great-grandson, who live in San Diego. I didn’t know they were coming either. We shuffled and moved things and set up beds in both offices and it was a very full house. The “boys” kept fixing things and I played with two-year-old great-grandson, Christian. He laughs a lot. And I baked cookies – about 6 dozen chocolate chip and ditto with oatmeal cookies, and went to the park and let Christian run and laughed and watched television and ate whatever it was my husband cooked each night.

Christian is a mix of three cultures: Korean, Filipino, Caucasian. When granddaughter, a year ago or so, said, “I can see the Korean and the Filipino, but I don’t see the White part,” I told her the White part is the crazy part. It appears I was correct. He and I did crazy together really well.

It was the most amazing birthday a Wife/Mom/Grandma/Great-Grandma could have. I soaked it in and was tired and sad when they left. The ceiling fan works great, by the way.

.

Enter Winter

A blogging friend, Rambling Rose, asked me to write a post on our debilitating winter storm. She wrote, “We in the tropics only hear about such weather on news channels.” Ah, to be so fortunate. Although I have lived in the tropics from time to time, I do not now. Now I live in the middle of the Continental United States which is prone to storms of magnitude and ferocity. This is what two days of a winter storm of magnitude and ferocity looks like.

It began on a Friday night. And actually, was quite beautiful. The forecast had said it would begin with light rain turning to ice. It did. The shiny streaks are the ice crystals, picking up light as they fall.

We brought in stacks of firewood and lighted a fire. Watched television, especially the weather channel, looked outside from time to time. The ice crystals finally turned to snowflakes but there was no wind so we went to bed.

We slept soundly under our feather comfort, sort of like Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the North Pole after the Christmas Eve run. We did hear a thump in the night and got up to see what it was. Between snow and dark, we couldn’t tell but the thump seemed to come from upstairs. Not a good sound. The last time we heard a thump in the house signaled a complete attic to basement rewire. The next morning was still and silent. It had snowed all night. No wind. Just snow and snow and snow.

In early light, at my upstairs window where I sit each morning, I discovered the thump. If you look at the bottom left corner, you will see a lump of snow sort of lying on something. That something turned out to be our window sill, pulled loose by the weight of the snow.

It kept lightly snowing. Two guys came by and offered to shovel our sidewalk for ten dollars. We said okay. Only the front bushes were so heavy with snow, they bowed over the sidewalk making any walking passage or shoveling impossible. So the guys shoveled a bit along the driveway and the front piece of sidewalk. As if that would make any difference.

Cliff took a photo of the back patio before he waded out  to measure: 12″ of snow. That’s a lot of snow.

The sky stayed cloudy and the snow stopped. So did the cable television and the electricity. We built another fire and turned on the gas stove to warm up the place. But first we had to remember how to light said stove since it has electric sparks that catch the gas. Ah, yes. Use a striker. It worked. We did not, however turn on the oven as we couldn’t figure out a way to do that without exploding the place.

But being a farmer’s daughter, I put pots of water on the stove top burners and kept them steaming. It helped a little. We managed to feed ourselves although I can’t remember what we ate. No doubt something simple. Cliff kept putting logs on the fire. I stayed wrapped in a blanket and slept in my clothes that night because I couldn’t face getting undressed.

This was the thump in the night. Snow had pulled wires loose and along with the wire, the window sill and the window covering around it. You can see in a previous photo how the willow was bending over wires from the weight of snow. Why anyone would attach a cable to a vinyl window covering is beyond me, but they had. And the weight of 12″ of snow on our graceful and beautiful willow had weighted them down. With the wires.

At some point Sunday mid-morning. electricity came back on and the furnace and the hot water. We, husband, son, and mom, took showers and went to a neighborhood diner for breakfast.

Monday, I began the task of calling insurance company and contractors. We’d also developed a leak in the upstairs ceiling, so son and I climbed into attic, spread out some big garbage bags and stationed pots and buckets under the leak.

The following days/weeks passed in a blur. An insurance adjuster called, said he’d be in the next day and would call to set up an appointment, but as he was in Wisconsin and a big storm passed through there after here, I don’t know if he came…or was perhaps sent out somewhere else. Many people had a lot more damage than we did. I called the cable folk and asked someone to come out and reattach the cable; called the electric folk and they put a “temporary” (whatever that means) re-connection to the electrical wires. Called the electric installers and they came out and gave an estimate for repairs.

You may remember the rambling post I made about having our entire house rewired. Well. One of the things pulled loose and damaged was the new tubing and weather cap around the new KCPL wire running into the new KCPL box. And if the weather cap leaked, the water could not only short out the KCPL box, but also the new panel in the basement. My son who knows these things, once being an electrician, went out and saran-wrapped the weather head back on the pipe, thus sealing the house against another catastrophe with wiring.  The company who installed the electricity gave me a $1500 estimate for full repairs and re-connection.

I also now have a contractor who will come out, replace the window ledge and repair the stucco, and the window company who will come out and re-wrap the window once the stucco is done. Downside: the stucco can’t be done until the weather warms up. And I’ve engaged a roofer who will come out and re-roof, but again, not until it’s warmer.

I have yet to see an adjuster. The insurance company calls from time to time, but there’s been so much damage to so many houses, not just in Kansas City, but across most of the Midwest, and especially after this latest storm which largely left us untouched, that I expect we may boggle along this way until spring.

The cable person re-attached the downed cable to a spot above the window, hopefully he found a stud, there must be sturdy studs in 1924 built houses, and maybe especially in 1924 built houses, and my son leaned out the top window with his trusty wire cutters and released the mesh wires (mesh wire holds the stucco in place) attached to said window ledge, so it dropped to the ground and is no longer banging against the house. And we, meaning my son using the chain saw and Cliff and me trundling cut up branches to the front curb, severely trimmed the damaged willow much to my sadness. I planted that willow as a baby 9 feet tall, and it now reaches some 35 or so feet. The bees love it in the spring when it buds. I will give it generous food stakes once the weather turns warm. One of my monarch butterfly bushes is damaged and another, in a trellis, is leaning on its side.

It’s Imbolc, the festival of light, midway between winter solstice and spring equinox. The sun returns (yes, Rose, I know you don’t see that rising and falling sun much where you live) and the groundhog, oddly enough, didn’t see its shadow this year. We pray for an early spring.

Light a few candles. It’s not been an easy winter for many. Rejoice in the light.

J.

My Least Favorite City (although you wouldn’t know it from the photos)

 

I’m staggering back to what passes for normal after a week in Las Vegas. As a rule, I love cities: the structures, people, old shops, twisting roads. I do not love Las Vegas. It’s miles and miles of sameness: same style of houses/same color of houses/gigantic, confusing, under-construction-everywhere freeways/and impossible to spot landmarks (all streets/houses/shopping areas look the same–thank goodness for Google maps!). However, our grandson was graduating from a grueling year of nursing school and flying back and forth to San Diego where home and wife and newly born son were, and we are proud of him.

Ergo. La La Las Vegas.

Cliff and I ran away from the family one night and went to The Eiffel Tower Restaurant in the Paris Casino. From the top of the Eiffel Tower, I can deal with the city. And when I’m graced with exquisite food, I’m even nicer.

The tower restaurant has floor to ceiling windows and Cliff reserved a window table across from the dancing waters of the Bellagio; the same dancing waters made famous in various movies, especially Oceans Eleven and twelve and thirteen. At any rate, we had a ringside seat to dancing waters without having to stand with throngs of people on the sidewalk.

And the meal was extraordinary. I chose Dover Sole and Cliff, Veal Medallions. We shared a spring greens salad, which, instead of being in a bowl, was heaped inside a ring of paper-thin slices of zucchini, and a final souffle desert. And champagne and a perfect Negroni. Oh. My. Goodness.

Here’s the video that drew us in – watch it all the way and you’ll learn from a master chef how to make a perfect Dover Sole. You’ll also get a better view of the restaurant in general.

The first shopping trip we made after coming home? Trader Joe’s for Dover Sole. I followed the Chef’s directions from the above video. Not quite the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, but just as good and quieter.

So, all in all, a lovely dinner which, along with a fine grandson graduating from a tough program with a 4.0 and an eleven month old great-grandson and his mamma and visiting with son and daughter-in-law, made Las Vegas worth while.

Maybe that’s also why I’m still recovering!

 

On Fire and Family, an essay

Here’s an essay from a collection of essays titled Kansas Chronicles which I mentioned in The Quest, a previous post, and which an international blogger friend, Rambling Rose, read. She asked about conservation and the farm I mentioned. Here ’tis. It’s a long form post, but I hope you will all get a larger understanding of the farm — about which I seem to write often as it turns out.

*******

   The roaring crash at my back spins me like an out-of-balance top as the old corn crib crumples, sparks spewing a halo of destruction.
“Come on!” I grab at my grandson’s wrist and pull him after me. At thirteen, he’s too young to battle this blaze. “If something happens to you, your dad’ll kill me!”
We sprint a wide curve around the dying corn crib, head for safety.
“See that field?” I point to the spring green of wheat across the fence line. “That won’t burn. Get out there!”
I run back to the prairie, panting, but the men are gone. I’d whirled from one crisis to the next since tallgrass flared beyond the corn crib. I glance at the March sun, slanting in from the southern sky. How long since we’d set the fire? I didn’t know. Now the corn crib sags into smoldering rage and a towering whirlwind marches west, flame tips flicking ash debris from its edges. Mute, I watch the Old Testament image of God’s saving guidance threaten destruction to any animal not fast enough to flee. Hawks circle. A vulture mounts the vortex, wheels, his dark wingtips limned in sun.
I should have known burning the corn crib was a dicey idea at the least—¬-a catastrophe at its worse. But it seemed a good idea. There were men, you see, whose opinion I respected: my son and nephew, both grown and practical men, and two neighbor farmers who understood things like farms and fires and prairie.
The morning began simply enough. My son, nephew, grandson, and I picked away at the old corn crib, testing the strength of rusty nails frozen in timber, dragging out bent pieces of tin, and debating how, exactly, we might dismember the building enough to push it into a backhoe dug trench—¬-a trench the cousins had begun to fill over the weekend with dead trees and old machinery bits. And then the neighbor brothers drove up, Gary and Dave, and suggested we just burn it down. Dry timber and left-over straw exploded into an inferno, sparks flew over treetops into prairie, and the spirit of the land, dormant for so many years, crackled into freedom.
“You wanted to burn the prairie. We got enough here to watch. I’d say let her go!” So yelled my farm neighbor, Dave.
“Jump on!” Gary said, motioning for my son Stephen to straddle the front of his four-wheeler, and Stephen jumped on—¬-two men on a headless horse to outrun a prairie fire.
Dave grabbed a handful of tallgrass, twisted it into a torch, and began dragging the fire off to the south. My nephew David, the fourth grown man in this, “we got enough here,” grabbed a shovel and followed.
Some instinct beyond my knowing had whipped four men into action while I stood stunned—¬-until the crash of the collapsing corn crib spurred me and I’d dragged my grandson to the safety of an open wheat field.
Sure, I’d set it up, called our wide, multitude of family home for Mom’s 85th birthday, pleaded for help before they all scattered—¬-and for three days, they’d hauled and cleaned on a farm that hadn’t seen much attention since Dad died ten years ago. But some other Master Plan added the themes of death and resurrection and spun them through a family’s legacy with the land.
The four oldest grandsons, grown men, claimed their patrimony on the legacy of memory. They remembered their grandfather, and the farm, alive and working, and they guided the younger ones on forays across the land. Then, like seed, the family scattered, leaving only Stephen and David to come to the farm today.
I feel useless; mostly I feel a fear knot in my chest. Prairie fires become their own force, dangerous and unpredictable. Twisting up a grass torch, I begin inching fire toward the north fence line.
So, Prometheus, was this how it all started, the good idea to set fire free? Fire as gift and curse, creator and destroyer. Was there some mitigating detail you forgot, some invisible silver cord to unite good with evil and keep destruction at bay? As it was, this fire, on this particular farm, stirred ancient echoes of a call I didn’t know I had sounded.
When we were growing up, Dad rarely burned. We mowed, plowed under the stubble, harrowed and disked. A youngster during the Dust Bowl days, he’d been one of the first to build a series of terraces across the land to control erosion; Dad was a careful man, so maybe burning felt too chancy.
I’d thought it romantic and exciting. Springtime smoke towers on the horizon flipped book pages on the winds of imagination: a nighttime’s menacing horizon; Zane Grey’s cowboys outrunning fire; settlers frantically plowing breaks around sod houses, fire storms herding buffalo for Native Americans.
This fire didn’t feel romantic.
Except fire is a natural part of the prairie’s evolution. Some 8,000 years ago, receding glaciers left the central plains rich in top-soil, grass, animals, and enough wide space for really spectacular storms. In those far-off days, lightening set fires, so the prairie hid its tubers and seeds beneath the surface, while grass roots ran twelve-feet deep. Burning rids the matted buildup and renews the land—¬-a symbiosis that allows each to live. But symbiosis needs to be done with care or you risk disaster: humans plus fire minus silver cord.
I hadn’t set a firebreak around the old corn crib; the sparks jumped, and wind wove the fire. With a little luck, the elements have come together of their own accord: fire, wind, earth, and enough men to guard against disaster.
When I was young, my solitary wanderings took me beyond the fields through the pastured woods. I became adept at listening for the crack of a twig, a rustle of leaves from some small animal’s hunting story. I’d hear a meadowlark mother scrabbling, crying pitifully, as she lured my feet from her nest. Perhaps five hundred years ago, as second daughter with little dowry, I’d have walked my life inside a convent’s stone walls and prayer and found my place and reason. There, then, the questions that fill all the silent spaces: Who am I? What defines me?
How is it that this farm, now owned by our far-flung family, defines me more than my accomplishments or my years in New York or Mexico or Hawaii or any of the other places I’ve lived? Most of us evolve from our story of origin, for good or ill, but why this farm, this family?
Below these burning grasses, burrowed into the black dirt, hides life that blooms with each spring’s rain. Maybe that’s what the farm, the family, cultivates: deep roots that allow me to bloom with each changing season.
While I ruminate on my own connection to the land, nephew David returns to check in, tell me Dave drove over to the west side. He asks if I’ve seen Stephen.
“No. I haven’t.” The knot tightens in my chest. I glance at the sun. It’s lower.
I don’t tell him how worried I am, how useless I feel, but I know my nephew as well as he knows me. We’re both worried. Stephen could be trapped anywhere – the tree stand, the plumb thicket.
“The fire jumped the draw—¬-started up the west side. That’s why Dave took off. I think I’ll go on down and see if I can find Steve,” David says.
“Okay. Thanks.”
I watch him go, turn back to the work I’ve been allotted, wonder at the uncountable hours I’ve spent in my head as I drove a tractor along a furrow, daydreaming stories. The same impulse arises now to distract myself.
The fire is fierce and I am afraid for my son.
A matted clump of tallgrass flares and I jump aside. Michael is picking a path down the waterway toward me.
“You okay, Grandma?” A frown etches his forehead—-the same kind of frown my sons make when I do something less than sensible.
“Yeah, Michael, I’m okay. You want to learn how to do this?”
He nods—¬-so brief I could have missed it if I didn’t know him. An only child, he’s well-protected, hasn’t yet learned risk. Yesterday when his parents left, he struggled in deciding whether to stay with me or leave with them.
“You’ll be okay. The wind’s behind us and these are the clean-up fires—¬-not so big. Look, turn this way.”
I shift my body so the wind blows at my back. Michael follows.
“Can you feel the wind on your neck?”
Michael nods.
“And the fire’s in front of you?”
He nods again.
“That means the fire will blow away from you toward the field already burned. You’re okay. Now watch what I do.”
The worried look disappears as he watches me twist a torch, light it from a burning clump, and drag it along the base of unburned grasses.
“See? Think you can do that?”
A one-shoulder shrug accompanies his nod.
“Yeah.” He walks beyond me. As his torch catches, he flinches and drops it. Tearing off another handful of grass, he repeats his actions. This time, the tallgrass flares.
I watch him inch the fire northward. With each spent torch, he creates another sentence in his own fire story.
“That’s pretty cool.” Soot, rather than frown, streaks his forehead.
I measure our progress—-about twenty yards from the north fence, I guess. I turn to survey the burned grass behind us. A Kansas homestead—-a quarter of a mile wide, north to south, and a mile long, east to west: one hundred and sixty acres—¬¬-this much is ours, down through five generations, down through roots running deep.
Chill catches in the sweat of my neck. The wind has shifted to the northeast—-a good sign, blowing the fire back from the north fence line and away from jumping into the neighbor’s pasture.
I grunt as I bend to resume working. My mother gives these same little grunts, both as she lands herself in a chair and as she gets up. On her, it’s charming; on me it sounds old.
“Grams!”
I look up. My nephew strides back along the fence line, a shovel riding his shoulder. The sun hangs a hand’s breadth from the horizon.
“Hey, Auntie!” he calls.
“Hey, David. Where’s Stephen?”
He chin-points in the direction he’d come. “They’re heading this way.”
He trades his shovel for my torch and begins pushing the burn north. I lean on the shovel, stretch my back. The fear knot relaxes.
Stephen tops the rise, walking along the fence line. He swings a length of wire with something burning at the end, lighting grass. Gary follows on his four-wheeler and Dave in his truck.
The sound of calves bawling for feeding time drifts across the fields; the evening call of wild turkey comes from the cedars in the east pasture. Stephen reaches the end of the fence line and turns to meet his cousin. Their fire lines meet at the tip of a V, smolder into ash.
Two men face the west and the burned off land, watch as the last strip of grass withers to smoke.
Michael and I walk over; Gary and Dave join us. We stand as farmers do at the end of a day, talking, reliving the story.
“You see how that wind shifted?” Dave said. He shakes his head. We grin.
“Couldn’t beat the timing,” Gary agrees.
Stephen demonstrates his bailing wire tool—¬-an old leather glove soaked in kerosene, wrapped in wire.
“I gave it to him when I drove around to the west side,” Dave says. “Saves your back.”
Night creeps into our quiet conversation and erases our shadows. Yard lights blink across the countryside. We linger, reluctant to leave, to break the spell that holds us.
But the world demands action: Michael and I to travel east to our Kansas City homes; Stephen and David to begin their drives west; Gary and Dave to evening chores. We nod farewell. We’d done our work and reclaimed the farm.
And the spirit that bound us in a ritual of fire stretches, sighs, flows back into the land.

The Multiplicity of Pilgrimages

And I also do believe that we have this possibility of doing a pilgrimage every single day. Because a pilgrimage implies in meeting different people, in talking to strangers, in paying attention to the omens, and basically being open to life. And we leave our home to go to work, to go to school, and we have every single day this possibility, this chance of discovering something new. So the pilgrimage is not for the privileged one who can go to Spain, and to France, and walk this 500 miles, but to people who are open to life. A pilgrimage, at the end of the day, is basically get rid of things that you are used to and try something new.       Paul Coehlo

A friend turned me on to a podcast interview with Coehlo. Too late to listen, I was able to read the transcript.

I’ve been on a pilgrimage to clean the house, well, the upstairs. Basically, that was my try something new part. My husband cleaned the downstairs a few days ago. He got the kitchen, me the bathrooms and the office and the writing room. He managed the work in one day; I’m on day two with the writing room still to go.

I could whine a little, say all the stuff on shelves and layers of saved pieces of paper on the desk and the bookcases were harder than the kitchen where things all have their place, but I won’t.

In many ways, cleaning the upstairs is a sort of pilgrimage. I cleaned windows and floors, washed and put away the extra fleece blanket I keep on my side of the bed for cold nights, hand washed the rabbit wool socks and retired them for the season.

While we’ve had a lot of rain and chilly days, the sun is now out and growing warm. As I cleaned the little office window, I saw the purple iris are blooming in the back garden. The purple iris are often a topic in my blog posts. There’s one here, and another here, but if you simply put iris in my blog’s search box, there’s several. Seeing them reminds me of the pilgrimage involved in going home.

The office shelves are full of photos. Some of my husband and me, and that takes me on a journey in time, remembering when that photo was taken; another I took of my sister when I lived in Hawaii. There’s a little blue Chinese teapot with gold dragons my son gave me one Christmas, and a small silver kaleidoscope he gave me another year. And books, mercy are there books.

On the top shelf are the art books from when I was going to be a sculptor, forty years ago. The History of Art. That’s a big one. Downstairs, I still have a bust I sculpted from clay, made a cast of, and poured in molten something or another. It’s not metal, but it is heavy. I call her my Bedouin Woman.

The office also holds Cliff’s pilgrimages. One corner shelf, defying easy dusting, is filled on one level with hockey pucks, including one signed by Patrick Roy, my favorite goalie, one year, years ago, when we were in Denver. Another shelf is full of baseballs from various stadiums where he’s watched games.

A spring-cleaned room is a destination one can rejoice in. Yes, yes, I still have the writing room, which, if you could see it, is a little scary. Talk about pieces of paper and books! I am not a tidy writer.

Four floor to ceiling bookcases, filled, mind you, cover one wall and wrap around one corner. Another corner holds a antique built in corner shelf with frilly cut sides (it came with the house) and is filled, mostly, with stones and tiny collections from the places I’ve traveled. Another corner shelf, matching with frilly cut sides, is filled with books and one ceramic lady whose wide skirt is open at the sides for flowers. I painted it, once, so long ago I don’t know when except childhood, and there’s layers of papers and old manuscripts.

I have left this writing room for last. It will feel like 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela by the time I’ve finished, and I will surely feel virtuous.

.

 

.