Jilly D.

It’s a Date!

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on August 1, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 215          More than six months passed between the Twelve Night of Christmas and my 40th birthday in 1998. Sam didn’t woo me with wine, flowers or expensive jewelry. The look in his eye, the smile upon his lips, his hands touching mine; he gave me his heart. Sam’s idea of a gift involves “building,” or “making” or “doing”; not “buying” something for somebody.

For my 40th birthday he gave me something I had only dreamed about since I was a little girl: a dinner date with a boyfriend.  He had gotten to know me just well enough to know that it wasn’t dinner he was buying that night, it was a feminine fantasy he fulfilled.

“I want to take you out on a date for your birthday,” Sam told me a week in advance. “We’re going out for a prime rib dinner.”

This was my first real date. Not with Sam. With any guy. Not that I hadn’t hooked up with men, but this was an “official date”  in the sense that 1) he asked me 2) in advance 3) it wasn’t going to be “dutch,” 4) and I was expected to dress up and act like a lady. Dating had not been part of my social repertoire.

When I was in high school I recall the dread that filled my chest when my father would answer the phone in the evenings and it would be a call for me.

“Jill. Jill. Telephone is for you. It’s a BOY…..” my father would mockingly call out. A boy who missed class and needed notes or some dweeb who wanted the answers to tomorrow’s math homework or my gay friend, Mark, who spoke German nearly as well as I did comparing our comprehension of the short story assigned for discussion. The embarrassment my father could induce with that mocking tone in his voice still makes me cringe. Secretly I wished for what my dad wanted all along for me: a man to treat me like a lady.

I look forward to my birthday like a kid who has never grown up even now that I’m in my 50s. Sam’s gifts don’t come in a box. One year he built a dock at the other end of the pond. That same year he invited my sister and her family to spend the week. Witnessing Sam teach my nephew, Ben, how to fish at dusk is a memory gift.Ben waiting for a catch

Another birthday present was the addition to the southwest side of the cabin. It started out as a two-tiered porch. We grilled steaks there on July 16. He reminded me of the time we had laid in the grass there in the middle of the afternoon and made wild passionate love.

“Do you remember how hot it was? Must have 95 degrees and we weren’t in the shade,” he said grinning. “Remember how Charlie Fields showed up and caught us butt-naked?” he laughed.

“Your butt is the only one he saw,” I reminded him.

The two-tiered porch became a sunroom when he closed it in later that summer with windows he salvaged from the Trumansburg School renovations.

For my birthday presents, Sam schemes up some project to enrich our homestead life. He plans presents that keep on giving.

One year he transplanted blue corn flowers he’d found in the middle of the corn field. They bloomed through the fall and into December. Bright blue.  My favorite color

In 2005 Sam fulfilled another childhood fantasy: a surprise birthday party. When your birthday is in the middle of summer there are no classroom observations of your special day. I was lucky to get a bunch of cousins together with a cake for my childhood parties. My birthday never seemed special when it came around.

I never quite got over that until I hit my mid-40s and realized I didn’t care to have any more disappointments in the getting older category. I’d had years of practicing the “I don’t care” attitude and it had finally sunk deep into my soul. I really didn’t want to observe the “day” of being another year older anymore.

After a full day of picking beans and produce in the stifling heat for Farmer’s Market and then standing there for hours waiting on customers, I returned home exhausted. I felt older.

Sam wasn’t in the cabin. I walked toward the other end of the pond to find him and see if he’d started a fire to barbecue dinner. There at the pavilion was a big gathering with friends and family. Party decorations, balloons, flowers, catered dinner and a special birthday cake. I never suspected a thing and it was a wonderful 47th birthday. He made my day. I don’t need any more birthdays now.

Cannonball Run on harmonica: sounds of summer

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on August 1, 2014 at 3:28 am

AFCU Class Swenson & Cooper Work 20100521GHUncle Donald was beginning to show early stages of Alzheimers disease when I met him. I recognized some of the signs before others did. But I loved him so much immediately I couldn’t say anything to anyone they didn’t already know. Uncle Donald had a pea-shelling machine that would save me countless hours, I had heard from Sam and Tom during Charlie and Janet’s reception dinner. I stopped by their house in Mecklenburg to inquire.

“Oh, yes. Just bring them bushel of peas up here and we’ll do them up right.” Uncle Donald said. I returned within the half hour with two bushels of shell peas. Donald Warren had dragged his machine out of the garage and hooked it up with an extension cord. We set up operations in the driveway towards the back yard. He showed me how to use it, including the removal of cotter pins from the basket covering the wire mesh bin. Once we had filled the pea drawer, Uncle Donald called out for help. “Nori, it’s time for the running board.”

peasAunt Nori came out of the house with a plastic bucket. She walked to the side of the house and started unwinding the hose. Then she turned the faucet on, but the power head on the hose was still off. Nori aimed the sprayer at the wooden running board and shot it down wet in a hurry. Then she showed me the real magic to this process of cleaning peas. As she ran the peas down the board, all the chaff stuck to the board and the peas ran down clean into the bucket below.  Nori’s kitty kept tangling herself around her ankles. Every time Nori took a step that cat did a figure eight through and around her feet. Nori stopped to pick her up and held her nose close to her cheek.

Uncle Donald was already thrashing the next bunch of peas in the sheller. But he forgot that the drawer wasn’t there. Aunt Nori was still rolling peas from it. Peas were flying everywhere. I rushed over and pointed out the problem to him. He shut the machine off and started yelling at Nori. It was her fault. He was ready and she wasn’t. Soon enough Nori had that drawer back in the pea shelling machine and Donald was off and running it all over again.

I left half the shelled peas behind for the two of them to enjoy.

Uncle Donald found his way down to the farm a few days later. I wasn’t going to ask how he got there, since he hadn’t been driving for several years. I’d been playing around with a harmonica trying desperately to learn how to make my own music, instead of just consuming it. He pulled in and found me sitting on a big rock under the shade of the tree making noise.

Uncle Donald asked to borrow my mouth harp. He knocked it a couple time hard against his knee to get my spit out. Then he put the harmonica to his lips. He began to blow softly and the notes went up and down the scale. Then he set it down once more on his knee and tapped it. He put it to his mouth again and suddenly the familiar tune of “Cannonball Run” came flowing out of the little organ. When the tune was finished, Donald smiled so wide.

“Do it again, please,” I begged.

Donald picked it up again and played another foot stomping tune. “Red Wing is the name of that one,” he said.

“Keep going,” I said in rapture.

“No, I can’t. I don’t even know where that came from,” said Donald. I saw from the look of oblivion that he was telling the truth.

“Do another, please” I said to Uncle Donald. He looked at the harmonica as though it were a spatula and handed it back to me.

“No, thank you.” Uncle Donald turned to Sam and started talking about the carburetor of an Allis Chalmers tractor. I knew the moment had passed. I treasure that moment as one where I met Uncle Donald as himself.

From then on, it was a struggle with Uncle Donald. He became increasingly belligerent with Aunt Nori. Thomas moved back home for a while to help his mother keep track of Uncle Donald.

He’d always been the kind of farmer who would get up from a dining room table full of company and walk out the door and not say a word. He’d plow a field or fix that motor or replace mower blades or whatever the task he’d had in his mind. No matter that company could be sitting down to a meal to which he had personally invited them.

As the Alzheimers progressed, this personality quirk of his got dangerous. He’d be sitting in his chair in the living room with the dog on his lap watching television and the next minute he’d be gone out the front door without a sound. Down to the post office. He’d walk to the old grange, the cemetery, past the old general store and waterwheel.

“Things just don’t look the same anymore,” Donald said to me in the lobby of the Post Office one morning. Donald and Nori lived just one house away from the parking lot of the P.O. but he’d gotten lost.

Then one day at home Uncle Donald stubbed his toe bad. It got infected. He took a fall and the ambulance got him to the hospital. They say it was a stroke but it was a blessing.

Sam had a hard time attending the funeral. He mourned one of his fathers. Donald had taught him to farm, repair equipment, work hard, love one woman and be honest. While Charlie has always had a hard time showing Sam affection, Donald showed it openly towards Sam by treating his nephew as a son. There are still days when Sam talks about what Uncle Donald told him or taught him. Gospel, Donald spoke.

Donald gave me personal instructions in farming techniques unrelated to the tractors. He supervised the transplanting of tomatoes into the field, potato planting and hilling cucumber seeds in late spring.

“Here’s how to use a hoe,” Donald showed me. He didn’t say another word, just demonstrated a variety of techniques. He handed the hoe back to me. “Do it.”

I learned by watching him and trying to copy his actions. He didn’t explain the principals of leverage or the importance of a sharp edge. The swift and easy swing of the hoe’s head cuts through weeds and soil within an inch of the roots of the plant. I learned the technique of using a hoe to create a hill for squash and cucumber seeds without any words. He worked the hoe while I watched. I tried it. He did it again and he showed me what I hadn’t noticed the first time. I got the hang of it and learn to appreciate how sophisticated one could get with such a simple tool. Actions superseded the need for words. Sam is a lot like his Uncle Donald in this respect.

Learning from elders how marriage succeeds

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on July 31, 2014 at 1:21 am

557054-R1-19-20A_020In early July 1950 Charlie and Janet Warren were married. For their 50th wedding anniversary, Janet decided she would like to get married all over again.

To Chuck, of course.????????????

The Mecklenburg Methodist Church and the Grange building next door were reserved for the big event. Sam’s sister, Judy, made most of the arrangements for the big celebration. I helped decorate the Grange for the reception and arranged the flowers. Sam got his friend to lend him a limo so he could drive his parents to and from the big event in style. He even got a bottle of champagne and served them a celebratory drink on their way to the July 6, 2001 ceremony.

Four generations of family members and neighbors filled the pews of the church. The minister asked for the recipe to their success in matrimony.

“Patience,” Chuck said. “Honesty,” said Jan.  They were both right. But if Jan has said “patience” and Chuck had said “Honesty,” we’d all known they were liars.

At the big anniversary celebration I had the pleasure of meeting more Warren family members. Uncle Donald and Aunt Nori Warren lived about a mile and a half away in the hamlet of Mecklenburg. They’d sold the original Warren farm and moved into “town,” more than a dozen years ago.

Uncle Donald was Charlie’s eldest brother. Lyman Warren came in between the two. Lyman fought in the Bataan Death March and saw battles across the European theater, but he’s the quietest of the three brothers. I only know that about him from the rest of his relation. Donald farmed his father’s land; Grandpa Harry Warren passed the farm to the oldest son.

When Sam was growing up, Uncle Donald treated him like the son he never had. Then  Donald married a Finnish gal, Elnora, and adopted her two daughterss. Donald and Nori had Wendy, and then a son, Thomas. Even after Tommy was born, Uncle Donald still treated Sam like his son. Donald would ask Sam to drive tractor or plow or harrow or tend to the crops. Aunt Nori didn’t want her son to grow up to be something more than a farmer. She protected Tommy from Donald. If Uncle Donald wanted a field plowed and suggested Tom do it, why Aunt Nori would get up on the tractor herself and do it.

Tommy did learn one thing from his Pa. He learned how to whittle wood. Tom went into the military and served his country and came home to work as a wooden toymaker. Nori thinks now she may have made a mistake with Donald and Thomas. She let the both of them off too easy.

Aunt Nori gave me one piece of advice when I met Sam.

“Never learn how to drive the tractor,” Nori said. She had seen my photos of the tractors Sam had been restoring in the past couple years. She worried I glamorized this hard life too much.

I asked her why I shouldn’t learn to drive tractor.

“Honey, if you can drive tractor, there won’t be nothing he won’t expect you to do.”