Jilly D.

Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Wreather Madness

In Holidays on December 14, 2013 at 6:42 pm

First snows and the virtual house arrest during hunting season makes me want to get up and out and do something. For several years in the late 1990s I made evergreen wreaths five days a week during the months of November and December.

Joel Podkaminer owns the Trumansburg Tree Farm and harvests Christmas trees to sell in New York City’s Green Markets. His wife, Tina, many years ago started the wreath-making from the scraps cuts from the harvested trees. Bouquets, garlands, swags. Tina has her own successful catering business (Word of Mouth in Trumansburg on Main Street). Joel hired seasonal wreath-makers to work in his heated garage at the bottom of a ravine on Taughannock Creek.

My first wreaths constructed in 1996 were iffy, but I got better as a buncher. Much better. In 1999 I worked on two wreaths that were eight feet in diameter; they hung on the World Trade Center plaza. Monday through Thursday we’d work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. making wreaths. We’d stack them outside the garage to keep them cool and moist. Our workshop sat along the deep gorge along the edge of the roaring creek.

The thrill of finishing another perfect wreath pushed me to work faster and harder. The oxygen rush of working with fresh greens made me a bit giggly and the days filled with laughter.

We worked in teams of two. I was a cutter and buncher and I worked with a crimper. My first year I cut for Susie Nash, a veteran wreath maker and scrappy pool-shooting dart-throwing beer-drinking redneck single mother of two sons by two fathers. I had a tough time keeping up with her but the results proved spectacular. In my first year we could make 30 wreaths a day. Susie worked hard but her mouth ran every minute.

The radio played holiday rock tunes. The intoxicating fragrances of pine, spruce, juniper, fir and arbor vitae made it a party. We put on our pine-tar covered aprons, grabbed a pair of cutting shears, donned our leather gloves, and made lush fresh evergreen wreaths. A different crew every year of women, young and old, looking to make some holiday cash. We’d bring our lunches and heat them on top of the wood stove. An electric percolator provided coffee for a warm-up break during the mid-morning.

By the fourth year Stephanie, cousin Tommy’s girlfriend, and I partnered and I cut and bunched and she crimped 50 wreaths a day without breaking into a sweat. We’d show up on Friday mornings and work a half day until noon or when we got paid when Joel showed up with the truck. He’d load up all the wreaths we’d made all week long and Joel would head down to New York City for the weekend markets.

It was the Friday before Christmas when I woke up at first light to a nice blizzard. It had snowed all night. Four inches. I figured we had today and maybe a day or two next week left to work making wreaths. I woke early and got the coffee on and walked the dogs. The snow was such that I knew I could get out the driveway. I hadn’t heard plows go by yet, but I started the truck to get it warmed up. Not much time left to get everything into Santa’s sleigh by noon today and down to New York City. Pay day.

The radio news said the snowstorm was bad but the expected blowing and drifting hadn’t started yet and wouldn’t until afternoon. I ventured out in boots and insulated Carhartts. I had no problem getting up the road although the plows hadn’t cleared Buck Hill Road yet. I crossed State Route 79 and picked up Stephanie at cousin Tommy’s trailer. She had packed her lunch and some holiday cookies for coffee break, just in case this was our last day.

“Really? Do you think he might not need us at all next week?” I asked Steph.

“Well. I don’t even know if he’s going to really need us today, but I want to get paid,” Stephanie said. I turned onto County Route 227 and could see the plow had been by. Route 96 would be clear and we could easily get into the Village.

It was so pretty. White. Four inches of dense wet snow. Just before the sunrise. No shadows. Only a winter stillness. No other traffic.

I parked the truck on Main Street. We slid down the hilly driveway down to the garage and noticed there was no fire started yet in the wood stove. The snow was still on the roof and the chimney was still. That meant nobody had put the coffee on yet either. We’d planned a cookie swap. Gotta have coffee.

We went inside the garage and looked around to see if there were a note left with instructions. Nothing. There were no lights on in the house. Surely Tina was still asleep. 6:50 a.m.

ZZZZZPppppp. ZZZZZZZZZZZppppPP. I rang the door bell. Mack, their dog, barked. Only once. He knew me. I didn’t hear anybody move inside. It was cold out here. Stephanie and I stood in the driveway a few minutes to see if anyone else was coming down the hill.

In bathrobe and slippers Tina appeared at the door and said Joel hadn’t come back from the last trip down to the city.

“He’s been selling all week and has plenty. He’s not coming back for the rest. He’ll pay you when he gets back on Monday. He promises. No work next week either. He’s got plenty of wreaths,” Tina said sadly. She looked apologetic, but cold. And not letting us inside to warm up.

Trudging up the slippery and steep hill, I confessed to Stephanie that I’m a dingbat. She got in my truck and put her seat belt on. She looked over at me, and smiled. She started to giggle. I started to giggle. The two of us nincompoops are out in this blizzard and we can’t stop laughing.

“I really wondered when you showed up early this morning whether you’d show up at all. I had a sandwich ready and the cookies, but I didn’t have my coat on. I didn’t think you were crazy enough to make it this far,” Stephanie said and started laughing all over again.

“It’s wreather madness! We are completely delusional. We aren’t Santa’s elves,” I exclaimed.

“Look in the back end, Jill. Wreather madness. Merry Christmas!” Stephanie said and I saw the half dozen gorgeous wreaths we’d made yesterday in the pickup’s bed of snow. Santa put them there.


Lost love letter found in book: mine

In Holidays, Pictures and memories, Signs from beyond, Time and seasons on February 22, 2012 at 4:04 am

My volunteer shift at the Caroline Community Library is the third and fourth Tuesday of every month. Housed in the new town hall building powered by solar energy, the library is a collection of popular reading materials largely donated by neighbors. My shelves have grown full of books and I decided to clear a few out this afternoon before I went into Slaterville.

Half an hour early, I unlocked the building, put out the OPEN flag, and emptied the book return bin. My plan was to look at the childrens’ books for inspiration on several new personal and professional projects. The Greg Mortenson book display sadly stood in the window ledge with a full quart jar of pennies and nobody quite sure where to send them.  I was glad to see information about a new group for mothers with children ages two and under would be meeting in our little library.

After checking books back in, I checked the volunteers notebook and saw a search was on for a missing book. I looked in all the logical places and didn’t find it. 

Earlier in the afternoon, I had filled a milk crate with an odd selection of titles to donate. The book about North Korea was disturbing and I wanted to share that disturbance. A couple odd cookbooks, back issues of LA’s literary mag, Slate, a couple memoirs, and a copy of Chicken Soup for Dog Lovers.

Threw in the last issue of Mother Earth News for the community magazine exchange shelf. Noticed there three back issues of Reminisce, a great mag for retro and vintage inspiration. Sat right down in the quiet space and skimmed through with an almost giddy sense of distraction. It was already 7 o’clock.

I unloaded my crate of book donations and noticed a piece of paper stuck inside the Chicken Soup for Dog Lovers book. I remembered Annie and Bird had given Sam the book for Christmas the year before he died. I pulled out the sheet of wide-ruled notebook paper folded in half.

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Twelve volts of solar power

Eleven years of passionate living

Ten feet of Lionel track track and an engine with a real whistle

Nine times checking on the wood fire each day

Eight puppy Dalmatians this year

Seven p.m. suppers served on time

Six chapters of material for our book

Five cords of wood

Four buffalo

Three deer and elk

Two windmills

and a waterwheel that doesn’t mind the snow.

Every day is like Christmas,

Bright, warm, full of surprises.

We eat like kings and live royally.

You might be Scrooge again this year

Like last year

But all I want for Christmas is YOU

(and a fruticake to save and regift next year)

I love you.”

My pencil scratchings on the paper began to blur as my eyes filled with tears. I didn’t know he had saved it. Why did I find it today? He’d never written me a love letter. He wasn’t a writer. Few words, all action. Somehow, though, he turned this trick on me today. I sensed his spirit as soon as I found it. He sent it back to me: love in a post script. He’d written it back to me. He’d gifted me some love and sunshine on another gloomy, grey flannel cloud day here in his Finger Lakes wake of my widowed life.

I left the copy of Chicken Soup for Dog Lovers at the library but I brought home my love letter to Sam I’d lost in that book.

Merry Christmas 2011

In Holidays on December 25, 2011 at 2:39 pm

This is my third Christmas without Sam. I don’t remember the first and the second year found me so blue I sought the support from a “how to survive the holidays” just get through the holidays. Then in my bleakest midwinter I broke my right wrist. It couldn’t get any worse, so it’s got to be better this Yuletide.

This year I gathered with Sam’s family on Christmas Eve afternoon at his sister Judy’s. It snowed overnight and at 7 a.m. the dogs and I made fresh prints in the first rays of Christmas sunshine. This morning I baked breakfast casserole and had a piece of my Danish Kringle; an almond flavored pastry I whipped together yesterday afternoon. UPS delivered wrapped gifts from Minnesota, and to my delight my niece Emma Kay sent me an exquisite bracelet she hand-beaded herself. And my nephew, Ben, a hand drawn self-portrait in a nice frame.

This third year I just let the holidays get ahead of me and stopped trying to be Mrs. Claus. Smile more, expect less.

It’s working for me. Enjoy this special times of memories and dreams. I took my holiday nostalgia by watching a classic film: an old black and white movie made in 1947 called “The Bells of St. Mary’s” starring Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby. At the school nativity pageant first graders performed their first grade comic version of the story of Joseph and Mary giving birth to baby Jesus in a manger. Instead of another carol by Bing, the sounds of children singing “Happy Birthday” Jesus Christ is the real showstopper.

Whose birthday is it?

Sam used to ask me that question every year as the rush of the holiday stressed me out. Scrooge he could play to the Santa frenzy.  The Hostess fruitcake he bought me that first year got frozen year after year as we gifted it back and forth between each other.

The only gift that matters is love. That’s the good news in the old story. Merry merry.

Smell the money, honey

In Holidays, Pictures and memories, Time and seasons on October 19, 2011 at 3:46 am

October smells like evergreens. When the long afternoon sun hits the woods and I walk through the pines and maples along Six Mile Creek, I suck in the scent of autumn. The corn stalks blew dry and brown in the past few weeks and everything rustles in the breeze.

Years ago I spent most of my Octobers and Novembers making Christmas wreaths for the Trumansburg Tree Farm. Tina Podkaminer started the wreath-making business from the scraps cut from the trees destined for New York City’s green markets. Her husband, Joel, continued to hire local women during the pre-holiday season for many years after Tina began her own successful catering business, called Word of Mouth. Hmmm. For many years she and her business partner, Katie Crumm, served our my yellow and green beans in season to distinguished Ithaca guests, including Toni Morrison, and private wedding ceremonies. Eggs from our chickens made up in some of their baked goodies makes me proud years later when they continue to buy local and produce quality cuisine.

The intoxicating fumes of fresh evergreens gives me a bad case of ‘wreather madness’ every year around this time. We had such fun, six or more of us at a time in the heated garage, singing along to the radio’s holiday sound track and cutting up evergreen boughs, bunching green bouquets, and crimping bunches of greens together into wreaths. It felt like working in Santa’s workshop.

I’d kept incredible notes and sketches of my work as a wreather. The various species of evergreens and their habitats and cutting instructions to highlight the beauty of these greens. My pride in this work astonished me. I worked diligentlyone day with my team of wreathers to produce a twelve-foot in diameter wreath of breathtaking beauty to hang on the World Trade Center. One of three. I can still remember how beautiful the juniper berries were in the mix of white pine, blue spruce, douglas, frasier…. An intoxicating mix of deciduous cuttings.

The best day of the week was Friday. Payday. We worked hard all week to build up a pile of wreaths in various sizes to take down to New York City on the Thursday night run. Friday morning we worked just as hard knowing the cold wet weather would keep our rounds of green fresh and fragrant.

Mrs. Burr had worked for Joel many years and enjoyed earning her gift monies for her friends and family. Married to a dairy farmer, she liked working so she could spend her own money on store-bought things.

“Did you ever notice the smell of cedar on your twenty-dollar bills, girls?” Mrs. Burr asked us one Friday mid-morning. “I’m serious.”

I looked at her. I looked at the rest of us around the L-shaped workbench where we stood cutting up branches into bunches and crimped them into place onto a metal ring. I started to smile. Sue burst out laughing. So did I.

“What? What?” Stephanie said. “Smell of cedar?”

“You better smell your money, honey,” said Mrs. Burr. “I think Joel keeps his money in a cedar chest. That’s what I think. ”

I looked around and we all started laughing, gut busting hard. Smell the money.

Funny thing is, I did smell my money that week. It didn’t smell like anything. I checked every week and never noticed any cedar scent.

Now Blue Spruce and Juniper have their own odors. The firs have real fragrance and the pines have distinct scents: green, white, red.

A bed of needles turns orange in October. A fragrance of memories. Do you smell money, honey? Cedar knows.

Labor Day Struggle

In Grief, Holidays, Mourning, Signs from beyond, Time and seasons on September 6, 2011 at 2:06 am

Labor Day. Rained hard all day long. Long face; can’t wipe it off. Feels like the sky weeps. My heart sinks. Another day without Sam; another shitty day. He’s not here to say what everybody’s thinking about this weather. If I had anybody to talk to, it would be his profane voice coming out of my mouth.

Not that the weather matters anymore to my survival. I don’t have to pick beans or corn or spend the days in the fields under the sun and in the heat. I don’t have to worry about the pond overflowing or the lane washing out. The wind can howl all it wants; no windmill tower is going to crash on top of my roof. I can throw my wet washed clothes in the dryer during a storm. I love laundry day and any day can be laundry day.

The weather still sets my mood even if it no longer dictates my daily schedule off-the-grid. The dark grey skies and steady downpour day and night is downright gloomy. No getting around that fact. And the doom descends around me as the day turns again to night. Some holiday.

The grump of grief came out to play. Like this gnome, I felt small and squashed. I shuffled through the simplest housework tasks.

Chit. Another day marked off the calendar. Damn depressing. But today I chalked it up to the weather; sang the blues.

Am I feeling sorry for myself? Yeah. Nobody else is going to. I won’t let them. But I need some sorry. Think I’ll eat some worms. A whole lot of my tears are for what I have had to go through to get to here and now. My wailing releases all that I have had to suffer for so long. The relentless raindrops pounding on the rooftop, I listen and weep with the sky.  

The dripping in syncopation with the rooftop beats makes my home a drum. Its steady tempo gives a heartbeat to my sorrow. Thunder and lightning are the rumblings of emotions and flashpoints of memories replayed in the darkness of day. Oh, let this date roll over.

Melodramatic? Mellow, yes, not yellow. I’m not afraid to admit how I feel in the face of another day without Sam. After two years, it still hurts: every damn waking moment. There is no drama; only a dullness about the drudgery of everydayness. And the point is?

Yes, the existentialist question arises in weather like this. Perhaps this storm is a segue between one scene and the next; a new chapter or a new trail. Or perhaps there really is no point.

Points are sharp and they can be weapons. Rain has no point. It splotches. Snow and ice have points in their crystal formations, but water is not pointed. Water certainly has its purposes, but what is the goal of water? What is water striving for? Water is just water. It is.

Grief is just grief. Morning greets mourning. There is no escaping it.

Working so hard for so long is my way out of my material suffering. Labor Day let me step away from my work and the grief grump grabbed hold of me. Grump took me by the neck. Its fingers tightened around my throat and left me grasping for my breath. Sobbing, I stopped hearing the rain.

When I got cried out, the sound of wetness all around cleansed me and I sensed a peaceful resignation to what is. What is and what will always be and what has always been. Water, earth, wind, sun, stone, fire. These are the elements that endure. Elements of power. What is missing? The power of love; the greatest element to the life force.

I know love’s brutal force and its tender graces; my love for Sam and his love for me. What we had together wasn’t perfect, but it sure was special. The spark, the passion, the deep connection we had is still there even though he is gone. It’s a continuing bond beyond time and space; our love is one of those powerful elements in the universe that endures.

So as day turns to dusk, I imagine us both weeping because we are apart from one another. The whole world and all the skies cry tonight. The fog gives form to Sam’s sorrow; elusive and ephemeral. Walking through the fields with the dogs, I look into the mist hoping to catch a glimpse of his ghost. No luck. Now I sit inside by the light with the dogs at my feet and wait for a sign; for my spirit to find solace. I listen to the quiet rain as night falls. The peace of sleep envelopes me until mourning.

Birthday Gifts of Memories

In Holidays, Mourning, Pictures and memories, Time and seasons on July 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm

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 in the past six months 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. My 40th birthday was an initiation into womanhood. A real romantic date.

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 didn’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.

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 16th. 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 schemed up some project to enrich our homestead life. He planned 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 fantasy: a surprise birthday party. When your birthday is in the middle of summer there are no classroom celebrations at school for 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. And any gifts pale in comparison to my memories.

The 4th of July and wild black raspberries

In Grief, Holidays, The Farm, Time and seasons on July 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Hamburgers, sausage with pepers and onions, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, fresh fruit salad, watermelon, chips and raw veggies with dips. Picnic today. An American tradition I decided to observe at the invitation of Sam’s sister, Judy. Driving out west State Route 79 I noticed so many little things have changed along the side of the highway. It’s been weeks since I took my old route “home.”  I started crying when I rounded the curve and down the hill to the left turn onto Buck Hill Road.

Heading south towards On Warren Pond Farm used to make my heart race. I would speed up so I could get back to Sam sooner. Today my tears rushed like a river and my heart sank deep down into the pit of my gut. I can’t go home anymore. Never thought this would be a hard day, the grief just snuck up on me.

Just one joy in walking with great niece Jadyn along the hedgerows and teaching her where the red and black raspberries are hidden along the hedgerows. Jadyn didn’t know there were black cherry trees in her yard. Not quite ripe, we tasted some. Not sure Jadyn will be back to pick those. Too sour.

Tiny fruit with big pits, the black cherries are my favorite fruit to forage. Stains of burgundy on my hands and mouth mark the wild pleasure.

I know this land like the back of my own hand. But now I am estranged and alienated from its terrain. Peeking down the field, the cabin gone and windmill down makes the barn and machine shed look bigger and different. The shimmering blue surface of the pond winked at me. I choked back the tears and Jadyn and I took the trail back to her Gramma Judy’s house.

The sun was hot, the grass was tall, the raspberry bushes pricked us again and again. The price of a berry.

Hawk by Mary Oliver

In Holidays, Mourning, Signs from beyond on April 24, 2011 at 3:30 pm


This morning

the hawk

rose up

out of the meadow’s brose

and swung over the lake —

it settled

on the small black dome

of a dead pine,

alert as an admiral,

its profile

distinguished with sideburns

the color of smoke,

and I said: remember

this is not something

of the red fire, this is

heaven’s fistful

of death and destruction,

and the hawk hooked

one exquisite foot

onto a last twig

to look deeper

into the yellow reeds

along the edges of the water

and I said: remember

the tree, the cave,

the white lilly of resurrection,

and that’s when it simply lifted

its golden feet and floated

into the wind, belly-first,

and then it cruised along the lake —

all the time its eyes fastened

harder than love on some

uninimportant rustling in the

yellow reeds — and then it

seemed to crouch high in the air, and then it

turned into a white blade, which fell.

Mary Oliver

pp. 34-35 in New and Selected Poems: Volume One (Beacon Press: Boston, 1992)

Let there be MORE Lefse

In Holidays, Pictures and memories, Time and seasons on January 14, 2011 at 6:01 pm

The Ithaca Post just published my story about lefse. Potatoes are my favorite food category.


My Epiphany: 14 years ago

In Anniversary and memorials, Holidays on January 6, 2011 at 3:11 am

My physician diagnosed me with a chronic condition of the connective tissue (fascia) and put me on a medical leave for fall semester 1997. I spent that autumn resting and reassessing how I would manage the pain and fatigue that was part of my everyday life and future prognosis. Thinking I’d never be able to dance again or swim for miles or hike the hills made me determined not to be defined by illness.

The day I got my diagnosis from my doctor I came home. I laid down on the floor. I stretched my legs longer another couple inches. I put my arms out to my sides. I sighed. Tears ran from the corners of my eyes onto the floor beneath my head.

I laid there. The tears kept coming. I didn’t sob. My breathing was calm. I breathed in. I breathed out.

My hair and ears got wet. I laid there on the floor and wept. Everything hurt. Now it hurt for a reason. I knew why. I found too little relief in that fact. The doc told me the diagnosis was not terminal; although I was going to have days when I wished it was. Pain and fatigue are the most debilitating symptoms.  For me, it was the morning fibro fog, loss of night vision, the butterfly rash, swelling of joints, and dysfunction of digestive organs. But the worst of it was the inability to follow my own train of thought suddenly in mid-sentence, the short term memory lapses, the wixing of mords and overall irritability. The brain farts finally had a reason.

 My bones sank deep into the floor and the tears of salty water poured from the corners of my eyes. I stared at the beautiful pine boards above and merged with their knots and grains and golden beams. The tears streamed down my temples, into my scalp, down my neck and onto the floor. I laid there.

And cried. I woke up the next morning; lying on the floor, on my back, with my eyelids sealed shut from the Sandman. I cleared the sleep from my face and dealt with it.

I walked the country roads near my rented house every day to give myself and my dog, Bob, some exercise. Even when I hurt like hell, it didn’t hurt any more exercising.  So I walked. I walked through the pain. The more I walked, the less it hurt. Putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward was its own reward.

One day while out walking I noticed a new barricade appeared across the end of an unpaved driveway on Buck Hill Road, around the corner. “No Trespassing” signs went up and a couple sawhorses blocked vehicular traffic from turning down this lane I had never even noticed before.

I was a news junkie and suspicious this could be where a Unabomber could be staked out and hiding. I lived alone with my ragamuffin mutt, Bob, as my sole source of protection. We kept our eyes open for suspicious activity. Nobody went in or out; the snow piled up in the long drive.

For Christmas 1997 I made plans to be alone. The stress of traveling to see family in Minnesota was too much if I wanted to return to work next semester. I prayed for a sign that life had more in store for me than working myself to death.

My gift to myself was to relax and recover with a private celebration. If I could feel good enough to open my heart, mind, and soul, perhaps I would discover the joy of the season.  

Christmas Eve Day I spent in the kitchen slowly preparing my favorite holiday meal. I cooked myself a traditional turkey dinner. As the turkey roasted, snow fell outside. I called my neighbor Nancy to see if I could ride along to the carol sing at the Cayutaville Methodist Church. We arrived at the white chapel in gentle snow flurries. Before we entered the service, I stopped dead in my tracks. I had been here before. I felt certain, but I knew different. No I hadn’t.  

Nancy and I slipped in the back and sat down in a pew on the aisle. Disoriented somewhat, I sensed a sign I was waiting for; but it passed without knowing what it was or meant.

The service began with the piano banging out the simple tune “Away in a Manger,” with the congregation singing along. I looked around the small sanctuary. Twelve rows of wooden pews, each sat four to six congregants on the right; and twelve rows on the left. I recognized many of the faces as neighbors, people I passed in the grocery, at the gas station, in the bank. The choir came up out of the congregation and stood up in front of the pulpit to sing. The collection plates were passed down the rows and across the aisles. “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” we sang.

The minister took the pulpit and preached an unusual sermon. “The pain of childbirth goes unnoticed in the gospel story,” the lady pastor began. Mary’s story of giving birth was the focus of this Christmas Eve.

“Can you imagine how it was for Mary? She’s pregnant. She’s traveling and there is no place for her to spend the night. The shame and humiliation of an unexplainable pregnancy, the discomfort of riding on a donkey, the exhaustion… Can you imagine?” she asked her parishioners.

 As I sat in the pew listening politely, my hands cramped up and they suddenly were so swollen I could hardly interweave my fingers together in prayer. My neck at the base of the spine pounded with pain. I swallowed my screams into the silent night. My ankles and knees felt swollen and achy. I couldn’t move without more discomfort. I wasn’t even sure I would even be able to get up from that pew.

“Labor pains remind us nothing good comes without struggle,” the minister said. My focus was on the pain and struggle. Nothing good.

I went home and crawled into bed and slept late into Christmas Day. Foraging leftovers and lingering in my flannels all day long, I felt worse not better. What kind of a sign is this?

Fascia gets inflamed and irritated. Fascia is what holds our organs in place inside our bodies and connects the skin to the bones and tendons. It’s the goo between our organs and skeleton and skin. When the fascia is chronically stressed the feeling is pain and fatigue and an overwhelming sense of not being able to keep it all together.

I spent the next week doing nothing. Wiped out, I slept, ate, stared out the window into the whiteness and fell back to sleep again. Snow kept falling and I couldn’t muster the strength to shovel the driveway. I didn’t need to go anywhere anyway.

My neighbors, Nancy and Jack McKittrick invited me over for New Year’s Eve since a blizzard was expected. Nancy called all the neighbors within walking distance over for a stay-at-home celebration. Around 8 p.m. I bundled up in my wool coat, hat, mittens and boots. Just breaking the drifted snow from the door to the road was hard work. Once I got out onto the road, the plows had gone by and I skated along in my boots on the icy sheen under the moonlight. I brought a bottle of wine and my Scrabble board.

Sam Warren stomped into the McKittrick’s house on New Year’s Eve. The orange snow pants, big snowmobile boots, hat with ear flaps and those smiling, twinkling blue eyes mesmerized me. Flirtatious and funny for 40 minutes, Sam left the neighborhood gathering by 10 p.m. He had a wood fire going in the cabin and goats to check on in the storm.  It wasn’t any Unabomber who lived down that lane; it was a sexy, wild, backwoodsman.

I waited all New Year’s Day 1998 for a sign that this was a sign. There wasn’t any.

My dog, Bob, and I strolled down the lane to find his cabin. We quickly discovered Sam wasn’t there when I riled his dachshund who would not stop barking. Bob and I scurried home.

Despite the “No Trespassing” signs, I continued to walk down the lane to his cabin by the pond. The unpaved road had a canopy of trees and winter stillness. Several times a day for the next three days I tried to create an opportunity to meet by walking down to his cabin by the pond.

I wrote him letters. Long letters. I tore them up.

The letters were really written for me, trying to clarify what I was feeling and what that might mean. After the third day of my obsession, I realized he wouldn’t be interested in a 10 page handwritten love note from a strange middle aged woman. Neither was I.

I wanted to see Sam. I had walked around the entire farm during daylight hours. This was the most beautiful place on planet Earth even in the midst of bitter winter. I knew enough about what I felt and what I wanted. I knocked on his front door in the middle of the afternoon on January 6, 1998.  

Today was the Twelfth Day of Christmas. When he didn’t answer the door, I tacked three condoms in an envelope with my phone number on his front door.

I waited all afternoon by the phone. It was 5:30 p.m. and getting dark fast.  I was desperate and crazy and more dangerous than the Unabomber. I had never done anything so bold before.


Sam’s version of how we met differs from mine. As he retells this story, he returned home to his cabin at dusk, found tacked to his front door an envelope containing three condoms and a phone number with a hand scribbled name; looked like Jim.

Bachelor farmers are pranksters and Sam figured he was made the fool by one or another friend named Jim. He called the phone number.

“Hi. This is Sam,” he said.

“Hi Sam. This is Jill” I replied. My heart was pounding so hard I was afraid he would hear it.

It was Jill. Jill. Not Jim. Jill. It took Sam a few seconds to comprehend. Sam had seen her last at the McKittrick’s house at their New Year’s Eve gathering. Six days ago.

Sam had been so busy restoring an antique tractor the past few days he hadn’t had time to think about their chance meeting. He knew she rented Bird and Annie’s house. She walked up and down the roads everyday with a scruffy old mutt. Sometimes she’d wave. And smile. Some high society college professor would never have anything to do with the likes of him, Sam thought.

“Hello? Sam? Would you like to come up and talk sometime?” My voice filled the dead silence.

 “Yes, but I need to let my dog out, have some supper and take a bath. I’ve been painting a tractor all day and I am covered in John Deere green,” he said.

“Great. I’ll see you around 8 p.m.”

 At 6 p.m. his pickup truck pulled into my driveway. He’d let his dog out and wondered if I didn’t have a tub he could take a bath in; if I wouldn’t mind making him dinner.

The rest is history.