Contrary to most of the hype and hustle associated with the holiday season, for us it’s a slowing down time.
The yard is how the yard’s going to be until spring.
School semesters are ending.
The chimney sweep and the wood man paid visits.
And we grow quiet. Yes, there’s the occasional visit or party, and Friday night we’ll go see the Nutcracker Ballet, but we stay home a lot. We build fires. We sit on the sofa and watch lights twinkle. We light the Advent Candles at our evening meal.
There’s the downside of cold weather: my fingernails break off at the first cold snap; my shoulders hunch; I wear socks to bed. The fleece vest with pockets becomes my everyday garb. I’m cold all the time. The silk undershirts and silk under-socks come out of the bottom drawer. My birth date is exactly opposite Christmas Day and this is the bottom of the year for me; I wait for Solstice, or Sun Return as the ancients often called it.
In Mexico, a visit to Xochicalco showed me first hand the power of Solstices. It’s a pre-columbian site south of Mexico City where the ancients, it’s said, came from all over Mexico to coordinate their calendars once a year. Their observatory was a cave with a hole drilled in the top where the sun poured through at Summer Solstice and hit a precise mark on the stone floor. I’m glad I got to see it. Coordinating their calendars made trade much easier; and trade and communication kept everyone relatively peaceful until the Aztecs came along.
In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a solar calendar is engraved into Fajada Butte, dating back to the year 800. It’s a more sophisticated calendar tracking solar and lunar progressions. They used it for the same reasons: know when to plant as winter is unpredictable on the high desert; know when the festival days approached; know the timing of trade and travel. A scrabbling rocky path along the butte wall carried me to that calendar, a calendar the conquering Conquistadors had no use for. And so, it remains.
We’ve lost so much of what the ancients knew in their bodies.
Watching solar and lunar progressions began in my childhood. When you live on a High Plains farm on a rise with a view for ten miles in any direction, you learn to watch the seasons. I was cold all the time then, too, but cows still needed milking morning and night; chickens needed food or eggs gathered; animals needed hay and protection from the winds. I stationed myself near the gas stoves or the floor furnace grate whenever possible.
I’ve considered, from time to time, whether I might be part bear.
Following the movements of seasons seems natural to me. I layer the layers and keep pockets handy to warm my fingers. I slow down.
When someone asks me where I’m from, my stock answer “Tell me a year and I’ll tell you where I was,” works pretty well. In this case, the prompt was very specific: describe the house you lived in when you were twelve. But if someone were to say where did you live when you were thirty, for example, I’d have to add thirty years to my birth year and then I’d know where I was. That’s why tell me a year is more effective. I know where I was each year. Otherwise, I have to add. I just added. At thirty, I was living in Germany in Army family quarters.
However, twelve? That’s easy. By the time I was twelve, I was only on my fifth residence. By thirty? I’d have to make a list. We moved to the farm when I was nine so by the age of twelve, I’d stayed in one place for three years and would be there for another five.
In those years, the house we lived in was built in the late 1800s by Grandfather’s father. The farm, a hundred and sixty acres of original Kansas homestead, had only one owner before Grandfather’s father and that for only three years. Probably a Carpetbagger (did Kansas have Carpetbaggers?) who claimed it during the land rush and sold it at a profit. We still have the farm and the original land grant deed.
The high plains were built for spectacular storms, wide stretches of grass which often became prairie fires, high winds, and a lot of sky. The first grandfather, however, found the only hill in northern Marshall County and built his house there. Tornadoes rolled to the south and down a draw (a gully) or around the north side of the hill. Never over the top. Tornadoes, for all their fierceness, are lazy. We could see ten miles in all four directions which is about how far it is to the horizon, and storm days, Dad would stand at the back fence and watch. I only remember being herded into the cellar twice. I hated the cellar. Shelves lined both walls and the door opened from the ground like at Dorothy’s farm in The Wizard of Oz. An awful place where being sent to the cellar to get….well, whatever: a jar of canned meat, beets, beans, or potatoes from the sack at the floor made me imagine rattlesnakes at every step and giant spiders hanging from the rafters. Neither of which I ever saw. Hated the place nonetheless.
The house: no don’t imagine 1870s antebellum columns or colonnades of trees on each side of the road. Imagine tar paper, thick, scratchy, and pebbled, in a brown-to-look-like-wood siding. And the staircase? No wide sweeping curve up from the foyer floor, rather an enclosed narrow and steep flight of stairs that grew up the kitchen wall and made a sharp left turn three-quarters up. You could imagine the occasional spider or mouse if you like, but that’s a little creepy. As were the stairs. Did I mention steep? At the bottom the door opened onto the kitchen and at the top, opened into two bedrooms, one on the left and one on the right. Grandpa slept on the right up two steps off the top landing. We girls slept on the left. I guess that’s how it happened although I’m not sure how we got four girls in one bedroom. We probably fought a lot. But I’ll stick to house. Which makes me wonder how our bedroom over the kitchen ceiling was lower than Grandpa’s bedroom over the living room. Maybe the house had settled.
My older sister went into high school, however, when I was thirteen, and Dad built a separate room for her off Grandpa’s room in what was the old attic. He put up wall board and painted it blue. The room had one window that looked out over the yard and the lane leading down to the road. It’s the room I graduated to. Perfect for a teenager. A sanctuary. No one could go in without permission–my sister started that and hung a blanket across the door for privacy. When she moved to the attic room, there were only three of us in the bedroom with the gas heater for cold winter morning. In that room, we had to lie on the floor and look out little windows that tipped up to find out who was driving up the lane.
Downstairs, a big kitchen, a living room, a south porch perfect for sleeping on hot summer nights, and an east porch that served as a mud room and a separator room (a separator separates cream from milk) and a place to store milk buckets after they were washed and eggs we’d gather each morning and evening. The east porch is where we cleaned eggs – a task I never cherished – and stored five-buckle galoshes for trips to a muddy farmyard.
I don’t remember when Dad added the bathroom on the north side of the house. It may have been a few years earlier when his mother was ill and couldn’t go outside to the outhouse. She died before Dad and Mom married so I didn’t know her. But the outhouse was still usable if you were desperate. By the time I was twelve, I guess we were six kids since Mom and Dad had birthed another girl, so with five girls and one boy, desperation time could come at any time. Grandpa often used the outhouse. Probably just for a little peace of mind.
The south porch was my favorite room–well, not so much in the winter since it wasn’t insulated and winter put frost on the bed–white with windows that stretched around three walls. Maybe not antebellum but close.
I wish I had a photo I could attach, but all the photos are stored in big albums at another sister’s house. So instead, I’m attaching a view from the window on the west side of the Little House. We tore down the old house when Dad bought a new double wide for mother after we all left home. She was tired of living in an old house. I’d moved back from Germany and helped with some of that. I remember pounding plaster off lathe in the upstairs bedroom where I once slept so we could take the house apart board by board and save what was salvageable. After they set up the double wide, he built on a 21’x24′ extension room attached to the west side of the mobile home so there’s be a place to put us all when the six kids and their kids descended for one reason or another. That’s the building that’s still standing and we call The Little House. He built it out of the salvaged timber after digging a full basement just in case for some reason a tornado decided to come over the hill, and in one corner he built a fruit cupboard.
That’s the cupboard I had to clean the pack rat nests from if you’ve read earlier posts. Or maybe that’s in the memoir I’m writing. Words are getting mixed up from one deal to another.
Anyway, this summer we’re building an addition on the addition. An eight foot extension with a composting toilet and a shower and a corner kitchen inside the little room. We’ll have a year round house. Not that we’ll live in it all the time, but it’s there.
You see, you can go home again. It just takes some work to get there.
The sky casts a sheet-metal pall over the backyard this morning. We knew it would come, this first cold front of the season, but the sudden whirl surprised us, none the less.
A fan of yellow beside the neighbor’s house announces one tree’s leap into autumn.
The news says there’s a foot of snow in Harrison, Nebraska. Likely they weren’t quite ready for that even with a lifetime spent in the upper and unpredictable High Plains. Snow. In early October. A trace, maybe. Yeah, they could expect that. But a foot?
The cold crumpled my shoulders and a musty sigh, mourning my absence, escaped from the storage closet as I pulled out my red fleece shawl, its first morning in nearly eight months since spring came early and warm. A good friend, it comforts my shoulders during morning musings and waits across the chair back, arms wide and welcoming, whenever I return throughout the day.
Last week, we saw the first red splash of maple leaves, a bell-rung harbinger of fall. After a summer of drought, and scarce rain after, the vision signing the normal turn of earth and seasons felt comforting.
Just now, the wind lifts the top oak branches outside my window, a delicate lift like a ballerina’s plié, then drifts off to find some other, more willing tree to trouble. From my childhood’s memory, I hear Joe Kenney, the weatherman in Lincoln, Nebraska say “variable winds,” but I prefer ballerinas, dancing a minuet, played by a harpsichord.
We always know these changes are coming and yet, when they do, we are surprised, and lift our heads like school children, popping up, alarmed. Did we wait too long, too long?
I still have a backyard to clean, the garden needs putting to bed, and the last of the tomatoes picked. After the heat of summer, they picked up troubled heads, unwilling to leave all their promise unfulfilled, and put on more – handfuls of grape tomatoes that reached enough ripeness to use and some hard green tennis balls that may never ripen, even wrapped in newspaper, relegated to one more batch of fried green tomatoes. My son will be pleased.