Jilly D.

Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

My spinning wheel; a christmas gift from Sam

In Holidays, Pictures and memories, The Farm, Time and seasons on December 30, 2010 at 12:35 am

On Warren Pond Farm

It was our second Christmas together when Sam gave me two very important presents that changed my life.  One came in a very small box: a key to the door of Sam’s cabin. He asked me to move in and I agreed if he’d put in a flush toilet. I wanted an oak throne and he turned his cabin into my castle.

The second present came in a large box: an Ashford spinning wheel. He surprised and delighted me with this incredibly wonderful new toy. He never had to give me another Christmas present. This one made up for all past and future gift goofs he could make in my book. 

I don’t remember what I got him that year but it didn’t count as big as this spinning wheel. I forgave him for the first year’s gift of a Hostess fruitcake and almost felt bad that I had regifted it back to him that day.

Because I knit, I learned to love spinning wool. It took me several years before I could spin enough yarn of consistent quality to knit. When I sit down at my wheel I leave the world behind. It requires concentration to make the wheel spin and when you get going you dare not stop the magic.

When I was a child, I spent several summers visiting my mother’s relations in the back woods of northern Minnesota. My mother’s cousin Juanita made quite an impression on me at 10 years of age. Crippled with multiple sclerosis, Juanita used her good foot to push the pedal and spin the wheel round and round while her twisted fingers tugged the raw roving. The wheel seemed to pull the wool from her fingers as she played the fibers like a harpist strumming. Juanita became animated with the wheel and its percussion played her life’s music.

I learned to spin with lots of practice. My memory of Juanita keeps me humble. I am still learning. My first attempt was with a fleece given to me in a large black plastic bag. A friend homesteading in the Finger Lakes National Forest offered it to me free. It had been in her barn for a year or more.

Brown, black and cream colored Jacob’s wool fibers in their rawest form taught me about how to clean and wash wool before spinning it. Then I learned how to card the fibers by doing it until all the burdocks, dried leaves, stems, and other stuff were gone from the roving. I learned a lot from my initial efforts. I also learned not to take anything free that comes in a large black plastic bag that has been sitting in a barn for more than a year.

Try and try again. I read the how-to books and stared at the diagrams and images. I tried again. And again. Every day I sat down to practice. Some days I just pedaled the wheel to get a steady rhythm . Other days I pushed myself through the frustration and got a few yards of yarn onto the spindle. I kept at it even though the yarn twisted back onto itself. I adjusted the tension of the wheel. I got frustrated. I overcompensated and didn’t get enough twist so it looked almost the same going in as it did coming out: thick fuzzy roving.

I sought out an advanced spinner and took my wheel to her homestead in the Forest where two other novices joined us one Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter a decade ago. I discovered I had learned more than I thought about the process. Practice was the best way to keep improving.

Spinning and knitting and felting made me into a Fiberista. Great pleasure is taken from making something with my own hands. I am honored and humbled by these crafts which are centuries old and still serving their purpose today. My spinning wheel, lazy kate, carding paddles, niddy noddy, swift and ball-winder are wonderful gadgets; ancient in design.

Gandhi used his spinning wheel every day. He said if every Indian were to spin their own cotton into cloth there would be no need to purchase the ready-made garments imported from England made from cotton grown in India.

Sam Warren built a waterwheel ten feet in diameter that could make 3-phase electricity for the farm. He had two windmills that went round and round to make even more power. He kept us off the National Grid by installing lots of solar panels and we lived off the land and by the seasons. Sam said if every American were to produce their own electricity there would be no need to purchase energy which destroys the environment or undercuts our economy. Like Gandhi, Sam walked the line of self-reliance.  And so I spin.


Christmas this second year

In Holidays, Time and seasons on December 27, 2010 at 3:20 pm
holiday gifts

Judy and Wayne's tree ornaments from Marge

Christmas always meant too much to me. I had enjoyed the pageantry of the Sunday School Santa Lucia Festival of Lights and could hardly wait for Christmas Eve to arrive. Food was central to our family celebrations. The cookie production was enough to drive this child to distraction. My mother used to hide the Christmas cookies she baked in the bottom cabinet of the Grandfather’s clock. She hid the key during November and December. There were tins of goodies stashed in the recesses of the basement and out in the garage where we wouldn’t find them; or thought we wouldn’t.

At the age of 10 my mother found me one Christmas Eve morning at 4 a.m. ripping the wrapping paper off my new game board of Boobytrap. I was so eager for the holiday to arrive; I jumped it up a day. My mother sent me back to bed. I’m not sure I even believed in Santa anymore, but I knew my sister did and we wouldn’t get to open the presents for another 24 hours, at least.  My mother prayed for 27 hours.

When I was out on my own and far from home, I created my own Christmas traditions as a new kind of old fashioned single gal. I cooked myself a turkey, stuffing and all. I prepared the wild rice, the gravy, the mashed potatoes, the salad with mandarin oranges and candied almonds. I poured myself wine into a fine German green-stemmed wineglass and sipped the season as a gift to myself.  Every year I enjoyed a fresh Christmas tree with my own handcrafted ornaments and popcorn and cranberry strings. I had recreated my childhood joys without the stress and pressure of family to complicate things. It had been at least a decade since I’d spent Christmas with my family and then I met Sam Warren.

The first year I celebrated Christmas with Sam’s family, I called home to my parents.

“They did nothing on Christmas Eve,” I complained. We had always had boiled shrimp and steamed wild rice soup on Christmas Eve. Then the Christmas cookie plate appeared. Coffee and sweets before family swapped gifts under the lights of the tree. And we always attended a midnight carol service.

The Warrens weren’t like the Swensons. Family and food were not synonymous. Christmas Day was the last straw. Sam’s mother served lasagna.

“They aren’t even Italian,” I whined to my mother on a long distance phone call. “A tossed salad, lasagna, apple sauce and a couple pieces of garlic bread; this was Christmas dinner?” They didn’t know about lutefisk (salted cod) or lefse (potato flat bread). They had never heard of Swedish sausage. Where was I? I felt far from home.

They made me feel like family and soon enough it was home. The Warren family traditions grew on me. They weren’t about food, but family.

This Christmas, the second after Sam died, I didn’t think I could face the old routine again. Somehow I got through last year but I don’t remember a single thing about the holidays. Chalk it up to post-traumatic stress disorder. We forget the intensity of pain like labor pains involved in the miracle of birth.

I knew last year I had done everything as it had been done before; holding onto the remnants of our life together.  It didn’t work. I’ve had to let go of all that in the year between. Facing a reenactment of the Christmas holidays without Sam again seemed way too much this year.

No lasagna. Pizza and buffalo wings and munchies to graze on Friday night, Christmas Eve, at sister Judy’s. This is a new tradition started last year, Judy told me. She’s a smart sister. I hadn’t remembered she’d done this for Christmas Eve. I thought it had been on Sam’s birthday last year earlier in the month. But time plays tricks on your mind to shield you from the enormity of the now; when death is so fresh, so close.

This year after supper the Warrens exchanged their gifts around the Christmas tree in Judy and Wayne’s livingroom. Their son Jamie sits in the far corner of the living room. His sister Marti Jo is with child and sits on the floor in front of her new groom, Randy. Randy is on the end of the sofa, next to me in the middle. Marge is on my right; Wayne’s mother is next to Sam’s dad Charlie in the rocking chair. Sam’s daughter, Tricia, and her boyfriend Kip, are seated on chairs facing away from the desk against the wall. Wayne sits in his navy blue LazyBoy. On the floor under the tree three Warren women span four generations as they sit at our feet. Sam’s mom, his sister and great niece Jadyn. Jamie’s daughter is now 9 years old and Jadyn is a good reader.

Since Jadyn could first read, her Great Grandmother has involved her in reading the Christmas story aloud. First Jadyn reads a passage. She passes the book to her Grandma Judy and she reads a passage and then Jadyn passes the book to her Great Grandma Jan and she reads a passage until the miracle is revealed.  After the story recitation, Mother Warren leads the family prayer.

This is a family of love. Mother Warren explained to Jadyn that each and every present under the tree has been given in love. When you unwrap the gift you may forget where you got it from and it may even get broke or lost. But if you look for that empty box and folded up wrapping paper and ribbons you will still find inside of it all that love that was intended.

This is the day Scrooge turns into Santa Claus

In Holidays on December 24, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Sam's babies

Sam started his holiday shopping on Christmas Eve morning. Before noon he’d drive into Ithaca and go to Northside Liquor. About 10 years ago he realized that all his gift purchases could be found in this one single store.  He’d select 12 bottles of Finger Lakes wines and whoever came in our cabin door selected their present from the viniferous varieties.

Sam didn’t know squat about wine. He picked out the bottles based on their labels. If he thought it was an interesting design and under $15, he’d grab it. One year he grabbed a bottle of Vermouth and didn’t realize what it was until it was the last bottle left standing and no one wanted it.

One year he returned from his annual expedition with a funny story. Sam had arrived in town on that cold and snowy morning wearing his old raggedy Carharts, boots caked in mud and manure, work gloves with holes in them, his felted dirty welding hat with ear flaps and hadn’t bathed for a couple of weeks. He took his time wandering the aisles until his glasses unfogged. Then he took more time looking up and down all the rows and racks, trying to figure out what to buy.

He had his grocery cart full of wine bottles and saw the boxes just past the registers. He strolled over to get one and from out of nowhere appeared two big bouncers and a police officer. They had evidently cased him when he walked in the door. Took him for a bum.

I looked at him smiling at me. I couldn’t help but smile back but I felt so angry at these other men assuming the worst about him.

He laughed and continued his story. 

“I told those guys who I was. I’m Sam Warren. I own a farm in Mecklenburg. Nice to meet you. Merry Christmas!” He backed up his cart full of wine bottle with an empty carton and got in line.  He pulled out his wallet and paid with one of a dozen hundred dollar bills in his wallet. “I made sure that got on their security cameras too!”

I loved him. The world was sometimes so cruel to such a hardworking farmer. Mistaken for an Enfield bum. In the enlightened big city of Ithaca.

Then I drew him a very hot bath. The cookstove had gotten warm enough to put the stuffed turkey in and we had the afternoon together when friends and family would drop by to share our special glow.

Christmas Eve was the time when his Scrooge front fell down with family. The weeks preceding the holidays he refused to get into a Jilly dither about it. Didn’t hold much truck for him. He told me one of the best days on the road for a trucker was Christmas. Everyone is so nice and you get free meals at all the truck stops. He often told me about the Christmas Eve he was in Buffalo at the home terminal and the owner himself came over and called him by name to thank him for taking a load to Maine before Christmas morning.

Christmas Eve holds many memories, joys, and expectations for miracles. The miracle I pray for this year is that Sam returns to me alive and unscathed. Hey, if Jesus could die, be buried and come back to life, why not Sam? He, too, was a son of God. He wasn’t perfect; but he was perfect for me.

I’m so happy to have known such love. It’s the best gift I ever received. Thanks Sam.

As the cold strengthens, the days lengthen

In Grief, Holidays, Time and seasons on December 23, 2010 at 12:41 am
Sam in winter

Sam coming in from the cold from chores

Yesterday marked the shortest day of the year. With the arrival of winter comes a few minutes more of daylight each morning and afternoon. Small consolation.

I can hear Sam complaining about the cold temperatures and wicked winds we’ve had lately. Every time I walk in the door with the dogs here in my new cottage, I still hear his familiar refrain.

“Close the door. You’re letting all the heat out!” he’d say. With a fire going in the old cookstove and one in the Ben Franklin, Sam would have the temperature 80 degrees indoors by dinner time. It would take all day to get the fire going good and strong.

Reyes Syndrome is more common than you think. Sam sufffered from it since a young age, his mother told me. His extremities go numb; poor circulation. Cold weather made it worse. Even on the hottest days in summer if he jumped in the pond, his fingers and toes would turn blue very quickly. Feels like frostbite.

Sam wasn’t a complainer but he did grumble about the weather. He told me once that he was the luckiest man alive because the only thing he had to complain about what was the weather.

“Come here. Come over here, Jill,” Sam would say sometimes while I’d be cooking dinner or washing dishes. “Sit down here,” he’d say. “Do you realize the two of us have it made?”

Maybe it was my aprons that provoked his very serious declarations of contentment. He liked to talk while I was in the kitchen. Loved to watch me cut up vegetables. Mince fresh culinary herbs. I loved him back and we’d end up in each others arms; he gave tight bear hugs.

Sam taught me to be grateful for the gifts in our everyday life.

“How many people in the world do you think have ever done this?” Sam asked me many times. When we sat together in the pen with Sweet Pea, the white tail deer Sam domesticated from a fawn, he asked me. Grumpy, his first European Red Deer stag, got his antlers tangled into some wire and when Sam went into the pen and untangled him, he asked me. When he built a waterwheel himself from steel that turned true, he asked me. Bottlefeeding bison calves, Sam asked me.

Our everyday life was extraordinary and I have a lifetime of sweet memories to keep me warm this winter.  Each day longer to savor the season of old photographs, memories, my spinning wheel and knitting needles and Sam’s love.

The Fruitcake of Love

In Holidays on December 18, 2010 at 1:48 pm

The first Christmas together for sweethearts is always heart fluttering. Ours fluttered to a different drummer. 

In December 1998 I looked forward to presents under the tree like any big kid. I’d bought Sam a pair of new Carharts and was certain he’d be really impressed.

Sam never left the farm much and he never went shopping. He told me the first time he went into the City (of Ithaca) was when he was 12 years old. He never made more than a dozen trips a year into town. He’d spent too many years driving tractor trailer across America’s highways and had come home to stay put.

On Christmas Eve afternoon Sam drove three miles down to Valley Korners gas station and convenience store on Route 79. Miller’s Crossing is the intersection known as Enfield with the flashing yellow lights at the intersection with Halseyville Road. He filled the truck with gas, bought a twelve pack of Natural Light Beer, and did the rest of his gift shopping.

Christmas morning we exchanged gifts. When I opened up the plastic bag serving as festive wrapping paper, there was a Hostess fruit cake. That was it. I nearly hit him upside the head with it.

I put that fruit cake in the freezer. On Christmas Eve of December 1999 I wrapped that Hostess confection in pretty tissue paper and added a bow. I gladly handed that gift to him on Christmas morning and we laughed all day about it.

Sam hid that fruit cake in the back of the freezer for another year. Sure enough, it appeared under the tree in 2000 with my name on it from Sam. And so it went.

So I know it is really true what they say….

It’s not the gift but the thought that counts.

Fifteen months on the 15th of this month

In Anniversary and memorials on December 16, 2010 at 2:34 am

Today marks another anniversary. Another month has gone by. Fifteen months today. I lit a candle this morning and it burns into the darkness tonight.  I remember the 15th of October 2009 like yesterday; the first month without him. 

When Sam died I suddenly had to start making lists again. After almost a decade of living off-the-grid I had stopped making lists a few years ago. I knew what I had to do everyday and making a list was just a way of procrastinating. All that changed. Suddenly I didn’t know what I needed to do. And if  I didn’t write it down I couldn’t remember it.

Each day I made a list of what I had to get accomplished. I kept notes and phone numbers and records of everything because I felt so lost and out of control.  A one page list was all I could face each day. By the tenth day I realized I would soon have a pile of paper. As the end of 2009 approached I had a thick folder full of single sheets of paper as a record of my continuing existence on this earth. As the folder got thicker I felt each day as a weight upon me; preventing me from reuniting with Sam.

At fifteen months I am finally in a frame of mind that allows me some rest from desperately seeking his return. My to-do list is now longer than a single page. Everyone tells you to keep busy. I’m tired. I need help. I’d rather not be this busy. Too busy means there is no time to remember him. 

I loved him inside of me. Our bodies and souls melded into one. He loved me so deeply. Now he is always inside of me. Deep inside.

Flowers from Sam

In Signs from beyond on December 15, 2010 at 3:42 am

There I was in Wegmans picking up a few things to bake holiday cookies, bars, sweet breads and restock the dog training treats. I made it past the rolls, the muffins, the bagels; even past the deli counters. And then I came around the corner and the most beautiful yellow roses beckoned me. Amidst an entire display of roses after roses in every shade and hue, one bouquet of bright yellow ones called out. They glowed with sunlight even under the flourescent bulbs. I stood there admiring them.

“Buy them, Jill, from me,” I heard Sam whisper in my ear. For all the times he didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t; but wished he had. I knew they reminded him and me of the incredible yellow rosebush along the side of his parents’ garage. 

I wouldn’t think of it. Roses. In December. But I looked at the price tag. At $9.99 I put them in the shopping cart. The kind of bargain Sam loved.

Set upon the pine table Sam built, the flowers grace my new home. He lives on in my heart and his sweet nothings are everything to me.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home

In Holidays, Mourning on December 13, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Those who have lost a family member or spouse are allowed by our culture to grieve and mourn, but the old traditions of wearing black, armbands and veils passed away a generation ago. In my workshop at Hospicare in Ithaca on “Getting Through the Holiday,” we struggle to find ways to express our grief and respect and honor our loved one by making new traditions. In our discussions today I was reminded of how rare it is to meet someone there who has lost a friend. There is so little social space for the grief of friends in our culture.

Maybe a wake. Then it’s over for any sort of social or public acknowledgement of the loss of a friend.  I don’t hear from any of Sam’s friends anymore and it’s more difficult for Sam’s family to stay in touch now that I live on the other side of the lake instead of next door.

My own friends have come sailing back in a small fleet to keep me buoyed. Deep friendships that now I wonder how I will mourn their eventual loss. After thirty years of friendship we’ve all gotten considerably older, if not wiser. Those dear ones who know you and keep you in their hearts anyway; they have chosen you as a friend and you have chosen them to keep close.

Gail Caldwell wrote a book released this year that is a memoir of a friendship. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is her story of Caroline Knapp, their dogs, daily lives and mourning her loss to stage four lung cancer. Gail  Caldwell is a writer’s writer. Elegant in its telling, I reviewed it for my blog about books I like.  To read more….


Tsunami waves of sorrow

In Grief on December 10, 2010 at 3:49 am
Tsunami of Sorrow


Past few days the ghost of grief took hold of me and shook me down, again. It hits me and no matter how hard I try to think positively, my body is wrenched with physical pain and emotional torture. The worst of this storm seems to be over but I’m sure there’s still stormy weather yet to come this winter. Last year I hung on and just survived larger forces of nature. This year I will mourn and come to celebrate Sam’s life and all that he shared with me.

Time warps

In Anniversary and memorials on December 7, 2010 at 12:49 am

Happy Birthday

Today is Sam’s 59th birthday. Next year he’d have been 60. Born in 1951, Sam would turn 59 today. I’ve been obsessing about my mistake all day. I couldn’t figure it out. Overwhelming mental calculation for my grief rattled brain.

It seems like so long ago that I last saw him, slept with him, felt his breath, heard his voice. Fourteen months, three weeks and one day. And yet I relive his last day every day over and over again in my head as the backdrop to all other conscious thoughts; so it feels as though it were just yesterday.

Time plays tricks on me. I don’t know where the last year went. Not even sure what happened to this afternoon. It’s gone. Some moments stretch out so unbearably long that I am certain I can not endure one more second of discomfort. Brief interludes in public places where I run into someone I know who either doesn’t know Sam died or knows but doesn’t care are always in slow-motion; stretched out. But I always have more work than time. Time constricts and spins faster and faster when you are “busy.”

Stop the world; I want to slow down. I need to relax. Busy work just keeps my grief work at bay. And time warps the past. The longer he is gone, the more of him slips away from me. His smell. It’s gone. I spent days breathing in his jacket and wore his hats all last year. His voice. It’s only in my head now. Experiences turn into memories and slowly fade. I want to stall time from taking the vibrancy of our love and life together. 

So happy birthday to Sam. This year give him the gift of a memory. Remember him.