Jilly D.

Archive for the ‘Pictures and memories’ Category

Fawn tames the wildness in us

In Off-The-Grid Memoir, Pictures and memories, Time and seasons on May 17, 2014 at 12:50 pm

205619-R1-12-13The end of May always marks the beginning of a new season in the wild. The baby ducks appear on the pond. So do the tiny new painted turtles. Nests of baby mice come to life in the hay fields. Skunks, raccoon, chipmunks, groundhogs and other mammals bear their young in the spring. Birds lay eggs and they crack open about now.

Cows, goats, sheep and pigs, too, have babies in the spring. This is the natural order of things in a habitat with four seasons. May is also when does deliver their fawns. We watched enough of them in the field tend to their young through the windows of the cabin.

One morning as we drank coffee we watched a couple dozen baby turkeys with three hens parade across the pond dike, not 10 feet away. We’ve watched our resident heron catch fish for breakfast. The antics of a mink, the slow crawl of a large painted turtle, the dance of morning songbirds in our pear tree, the prowl of a coyote, the scurry of a red fox, and the wild Whitetail deer who come daily for a morning drink from the pond provide us with daily entertainment at dawn.205619-R1-23-24

Most of the time the wild life stayed outside the windows. Sometimes the wildness was within. Other times it tamed the wildness in us.

Sam walked in the door and said, “Get a towel. Find the baby bottle. Where are the nipples? Make up some milk replacer. Boil water!”

In his arms Sam carried a newborn fawn. He gently set her down on the quilt on our bed. Slowly she stretched out her front legs in front of us. She bowed her head and then rose up onto all four wobbly legs. Plomp. She laid right back down. She curled up and put her head down; forming a tight circle.

Sammy Girl, the black Labrador, jumped onto the bed beside her. Sammy sat down and started to clean her up; licking her from head to tail. And that little tail wiggled with glee.sammy girl and sweet pea

I got the water on to boil while Sam supervised. Found a towel to wrap around her keeping her natural body heat tight to her. Retrieved the bottle and sterilized the nipples.

The recipe for milk replacer was easier to remember than how to get it just the right temperature. Every good feed store offers a variety of brands of powdered milk replacers for different kinds of baby animals. Raw Guernsey milk is one of the best milk replacers for cows, goats and sheep if you can’t milk the mother. You can’t legally sell raw cow’s milk anymore in New York State; although for many years our neighbors would let us slip in the barn and help ourselves. There was a money jar on the shelf and it was all based on a simple honor system which worked.

Goat’s milk is a suitable replace for most mammalian’s milk. None of our nanny goats had milk right then. If you want to have goat’s milk you’ve got to continue milking after the kids are weaned. We had lets our dry up that year.

Today Purina and Blue Seal are two of the leading producers of milk replacers; it’s just like powdered milk. If you can’t get raw Guernsey milk and you don’t have a milking goat you are stuck with the formula. Raw cow’s milk or goat’s milk can substitute or replace the mother’s milk for orphaned deer, rabbits, kittens, puppies or other small mammals.

One quart of boiling water to one cup of a powder.

Testing one, two, three on the inside of my wrist. Too hot, too warm. Perfect.

The fawn had lain in the middle of our driveway since dawn yesterday. Sam discovered her much earlier but kept the dogs away in hopes the mother doe would return. Memorial Day weekend we had planned a family reunion and picnic at the pond. Sam worried someone would hit the fawn driving down to the gathering.

766018-R1-00-1ADoes usually drop their fawns in tall grass fields. Born with spots, the fawns are naturally hidden as they resemble nothing more than sun dappling. At birth fawns have no scent. This natural defense protects them against predators: coyotes and dogs. But this natural defense is poor protection from the dangers of a farmer’s first cutting of hay.

The first four days after birth the fawn is relatively immobile. Fawns can rise to find their mother’s teat; however, they can’t stand long and can’t run. The fawn stays put while the mother doe forages away from her baby to keep it protected. She returns to the fawn discretely only to milk several times during the day. By the fourth day of life the fawn can jump and run faster than a jack rabbit.

100_1030When Sam brought this baby fawn into the cabin, he’d made a tough decision. If orphaned, the fawn wouldn’t live much longer without milk. If left in the driveway there was a greater risk she would die. If he brought her in and she wouldn’t take a bottle, she’d die too. He waited as long as he could before he moved her into the cabin.

Once I had the baby bottle ready with a clean nipple and filled with milk replacer, Sam coaxed the fawn nuzzling her nose with the sweet milk spilled wet upon the warm nipple.

“Come on, Sweet Pea,” I heard Sam say. Less than three tries at opening her lips and teeth and she was sucking hard.

Food in. Check off the number one concern. Getting the mother doe’s colostrum from the very first nursing is perhaps the most important indicator of a fawn’s success in life. Sweet Pea had clearly been fed at least once, but only once. Dehydrated and very hungry she took that bottle without any struggle.

Besides milk, the mother doe also performs diaper duty. Sammy Girl, our lab, became a surrogate mother to Sweet Pea in this respect. She couldn’t nurse the fawn, but she treated it like it was one of her own puppies.

The next step for Sweet Pea was to stand and urinate on her own. That’s really what the towel was for and thank goodness it was handy. It wasn’t long after she drank half a bottle full of milk replacer that she had to go. Sammy Girl made sure she defecated and the feces specimen strongly indicated the fawn had milked from the mother’s colostrum. The consistency and color of Cheese Whiz, her first bowel passed inspection and promised a good prognosis.

The Memorial Day family reunion picnic began. I headed over to the BBQ area at the pavilion at the other end of our pond.  Sam stayed a few minutes behind to keep an eye on Sweet Pea. When he left to check on our guests, he told Sammy Girl to watch over this precious baby. Sammy understood.

Less than two hours later our Sweet Pea was willing to taste a little more milk replacer. Every four to six hours after that Sweet Pea got bottle fed by Sam and Sammy Girl performed her maternal duties in the diaper department. At first I was amazed, disgusted and fascinated by this bizarre relationship between a dog and a deer and my dear.

Sammy Girl was Sam’s favorite dog. He spoiled her rotten. The first two years she was in his boot camp. As a female adult she was exceptionally friendly, loving and gentle. Every critter Sam brought in the cabin was treated with kindness and kisses by Sammy Girl. If Sam loved it, Sammy Girl did too. And so it was with Sweet Pea.


Wheelies on ice.

In Pictures and memories on February 22, 2013 at 3:52 am

Having learned to drive in Appleton, Wisconsin, I am a back-roads follow-the-plow kind of driver. Living now high on top of Buffalo Hill past the drifting areas across Snow farm, I navigate the eastern hills of Ithaca just fine. My mom really taught me the art of driving in this kind of weather.

The winter of 1975 had been wicked for high winds, icy patches on the road, white-out driving conditions. My mother’s white knuckled fears of me behind the wheel with my learner’s permit landed us in the school parking lot, just across the field from our driveway. I’d backed out of the garage without denting Dad’s mint green Lincoln Continental just fine.

Mom grew up on Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, where there are only three months a year that aren’t winter. So driving a car meant navigating winter road conditions. Some of her relation and some of our Appleton neighbors took to driving their cars out onto frozen lakes and rivers for ice fishing. Scared at the prospects of the family car in my adolescent hands, she suggested we practice in the ice-covered parking lot at school. Good idea.

Back then Driver’s Education was a mandated part of the state curriculum for public high schools and we had a driving course that included in-class instruction (lots of scary filmstrips about car crashes) and on-the-road supervised instruction. Three students and the teacher got into a Chevette equipped with both student and teacher foot and hand pedals. Each of us got a chance to drive through the obstacle course of plastic orange cones and practice parking and other maneuvers required to pass the state driver’s test. I knew I could do this. The in-class assignments were easy and I could pass the multiple choice test in my sleep.

Practical application in my parents’ car? An entirely different matter. Very little in the eye-hand coordination department, I had my mother worried about what would happen should I ever encounter any real slick ice; like every time I drove in winter. So I agreed with her for once and pulled into the parking lot at Appleton East High School and came to a stop with her in the passenger seat.

“Floor it. Give it everything you got.” Mom told me. She looked wild with fear. “Let’s do it. I want you to try to do a donut.” I knew what she meant. Really? You’re scaring me, mom. I floored it. Wheeeee. We both screamed and laughed as the heavy boat of this low-riding vehicle took off and the steering wheel spun of its own accord as my mittened hands lost control and let go. Peeling out at full throttle, I gave that Lincoln a gunning on the accelerator pedal and didn’t step off until we’d done a full 360.

“Do it again!” Mom seemed thrilled. My heart pounded in terror. This was scarier than learning how to skate on ice. “Come on. Do it again and when I say stop, put on the brakes.” I knew she was crazy.

I started slower this time and built up the speed across the diagonal of  the empty parking lot and then hit a patch of ice and let the car spin, again and again until it came to a stop on its own.

“Turn into it,” mom said. That seemed the opposite of what I’d been inclined to do if I could have done anything. “Turn the direction your wheels go until you catch control and then correct. Your tires will grab the road. You’ll feel it.” I wasn’t so sure. It felt reckless. “Do a donut again. You can do it.”

I looked around that open empty icy parking lot and the snow banks and the clear blue sky. I realized the worst that could happen here is I could spin out of control and hit a snowbank. She let me feel the power of 2,000 lbs of steel in my hands on a steering wheel I couldn’t manage on ice. And I felt how out of control skidding and sliding on ice presented itself as an experience. She helped it become familiar and real. To face this fear and work it through before such situations would arise every winter.

So as another winter storm crosses into Missouri with twenty inches of snow, I sit upon Buffalo Hill and contemplate the family stories. Skating on thin ice as both my mom and dad take up a honeymoon suite in room 405 at the Cox Medical Center in Branson tonight. Dad recovering quickly from pneumonia. Mom not so quickly recovering from everything as they sit out the storm and keep their kind nurses entertained with our family stories. Nobody should get in a car during this storm. We weather it by phone.

I try to turn into this. My dashboard to daily life spins out of control on this icy patch. Will I catch myself from falling? Will catching myself twist something worse? Do I fall into the snow and relax as I leave a snow angel imprint? Get traction, my tires grip the road to weary, and I resist the worst.

“What could you do in Branson?” my mother asked me. I knew the answer. Bingo palaces. Senior shuffle board? I couldn’t even apparently get there except by the most circuitous routes from Ithaca by air and it’s a 17.5 hour drive according to Google Maps. And I’m a loud mouthed New Yorker daughter who will piss off their nice doctors, nurses, therapists and caregivers they’ve come to know and love in the past two weeks. I got the picture. I’d only make matters worse.

“I love you,” dad said when he hung up tonight. He’d thought his roomie would want to talk with me but mom was having some kind of therapy and unable to talk; tomorrow. Call tomorrow.

“If only you knew how much I loved you,” mom said when she got the fresh cut flowers in her room last Friday. Like I had no idea. Sometimes too much. I knew the chaplain had been in her room just before I talked with her. I’d called during his visit and she asked me to phone back. When I did, she felt certain she’d soon be released, they could enjoy a few warm days and then drive home to Minnesota. Enough with the vacation already.

It’s wheelies on ice. Treacherous terrain. Caution. Prudence. All that stuff my mom tried to teach me. Face the fear. When things are out of your control, go into it instead of fighting against it. Burn rubber on ice.

Livid vivid: A photograph that lied

In Pictures and memories, Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 at 1:25 am

Windblown and sunbleached wild head of hair, full beard and straw colored mustache. A pale mint cotton oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up, weathered bluejeans and both hands grip the handrail on the front porch. Sam stares into the camera with a smirking ferocity.

Straw colored sleeveless jumper revealing tanned arms crossed in front, head turned towards him. Wisps of long auburn hair aloft in the hot breeze with a rosy cheek-pinching smile.

Those who gaze upon our image standing in front of our cabin stop and stare.

“You look so happy.”

I stare at that picture. Really? That everyone mistakes this moment as a golden memory just because someone caught it on camera confirms my belief that people see what they imagine and not necessarily what is there.

Hopping mad. Ready to scream, kick and fight.

The previous eight weeks I’d planted, hoed, watered, weeded, and tended 1,000 row feet of Wando peas. That doesn’t mean much too most folks but I knew Sam had more than a vague idea since he’d watched me sweat.

“Having fun yet?” he’d asked on numerous occasions when he’d found me in the pea patch working as hard and as fast as I could to insure a bounty crop for those who’d pay premium for old-fashioned shelling peas. The pea patch laid just west of the fenced pens and chute facility where the American Elk and European Deer couldn’t reach them.

That day Cody Mikalunas called to arrange a pickup of deer and elk to transport to his ranch. He’d arrived and Sam directed him to back his trailer through the pea patch. The jerk seemed to have made a point of driving on top of my precious plants instead of the dirt in the row between. Sam didn’t say anything about him killing my pea plants and the two men acted as though it didn’t matter. And I got mad.

I got madder when Cody asked to take our picture. I couldn’t look into the camera lens for fear I’d spit in Cody’s face. Instead I looked at Sam and put on the most sarcastic smile I could muster without crying.  Belittled by their manly man bullshit, I kept my mouth shut.   My inside rage seems self-evident by my body language in the photo. Why doesn’t anyone else see it? Yes, I loved Sam, but I was mad in that polaroid moment. I was mad at Sam for being a foil to Cody’s scam. Smile. Candid.

I got really mad when Cody sent us the 8X10 picture instead of paying us for the animals he’d bought.  Mad at myself that I’d so graciously offered them a supper where meat flew off the grill and the dogs had nothing to lick off the plates. Mad that I’d originally done the internet research to find their family farm in the Catskills, convinced Sam to take a day trip and visit their farm operation, and madder still that I hadn’t said anything or stood up to them taking advantage of us in so many ways that day.

This photo is one of several I see everyday to remind me of the good times and the bad. Our life wasn’t always pleasurable. It was joyful. Huge difference. All the complications of love, not just pleasure.

I don’t look happy in that photo. That’s Joy on my face.

It’s a “chuch,” Sue Ellen said.

In Pictures and memories on December 3, 2012 at 12:24 am

Sitting in front of the window, my cousin Sue Ellen and I sat arguing one afternoon. We were several months shy of four years old. Susie came to stay a few days while Aunty Har went to the hospital in Minneapolis to have a baby.

Harlene and Arlene married two of the Swenson brothers, Jim and Bob. My aunt Harlene and uncle Jim  and my mom and dad were my close extended family. Sue Ellen and I were 6 weeks apart. Sue’s birthday is in May. Mine is in July.

Sue would have a baby sister before I would. But my baby sister was going to be named Julie. Mom and Dad had told me so. But now Sue Ellen’s sister got my sister’s name because she came first. I had a problem with that.

I was supposed to be named Robert, after my dad. Once Arlene and Bob settled on Jill when I was born not a boy, they’d decided they wanted a Julie. Aunty Har delivered first. The day she left the hospital with Julie to come home, my mother would arrive .Mom had fallen down the stairs to the basement and her water broke. The nurses experienced some confusion over the Harlene and Arlene thing with both Mrs. Swensons talking about a baby girl Julie.

That afternoon while her mom was in labor, Sue and I looked out onto the corner intersection. The window seat provided a wonderful second story perspective on a tree-lined street adjacent to a city park in River Falls, Wisconsin. The building across the way had a spire. There was a song I’d learned in Sunday School that involved folding your hands interweaving fingers into a fist with your index fingers pointed upright to form a steeple and the thumbs the door to the chapel.  When you turned your elbows out and twist your fist inside out you see the people in the pews; the digits of my fingers. I knew it was a church. I told her so.

“That’s a church,” I said and pointed out the window.

“That’s a chuch,” Sue Ellen agreed. She couldn’t say the letter r. Her baby talk made me mad. Like I needed a reason.

“NO. It’s a church,” I said again.

“Yes, it’s a chuch.” Sue smiled at me and her freckles danced across her cheeks. She had darker brown hair than me and looked the spitting image of my aunty Har.

“No, say it. Say church.”

“It’s a chuuuuch,” Sue tried.


“It’s a chuuuuuuuuch,”





Cousins. Birthdays. Christmas. Backyards. Games and toys. Meals and memories. Backyard carnivals for Muscular Dystrophy and handfuls of coins collected to send Jerry Lewis. We watched Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan so we could see the Sunday night Disney movie. The Parent Trap. Herbie.

Playing the Dating Game, Prom Queen, Barbies, Slinky, sliding down those white carpeted stairs on our butts, rock polishing in the basement, Lucky Charms, Sugar Smacks, and Fruit Loops for breakfast. The troll dolls and lipsmackers, fishnet stockings and 45 records. Mom eventually let me stop wearing anklets and saddle shoes, but they still had to be Stride Rights. Sue and Julie got to wear penny loafers and Keds and thongs.

Sue and I went to different elementary schools. I graduated a safety guard from Lakeview. We would have eventually been classmates at the same high school, Robbinsdale, if my folks hadn’t moved to Wisconsin when I was in 9th grade. But cousins are always cousins. Whether you keep in touch as kids or not. Church is chuch.

So grateful for our renewed connection this October when Sue came to visit the Finger Lakes with her sister Julie and our cousin Sandy, I felt her healing touch of “chuch.”  Stories to keep and spires in the sky and the street view of wet sweet Maple leaves in oranges, yellows, reds, greens in a little town called River Falls. Or Ithaca, where it’s gorges. I just know when and where I feel home.

There’s a new place I’ll call home. Someplace where it feels as familiar as church with the stained glass windows in my kitchen; a personal sanctuary in Shindagin Hollow atop Buffalo Hill deep in the woods.  The Hills of Ithaca.

Memory day and family svensk legends

In Pictures and memories on May 28, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Meta Wolertz graduated from high school in 1918 with a major in office studies. Before she met Richard Swenson, Meta worked as a secretary in a legal office in downtown Minneapolis.

She was a popular career girl and her friends nicknamed her Tomato. Her best friend’s mother started it. As her daughter raced out the backdoor, she’d ask where she was going.

“To Meta’s.” Tomato’s.

“Girls back then weren’t expected to work once they got pregnant,” Meta used to start her story. “And they didn’t think it proper to see girls pregnant.” So management decided to implement a new policy to terminate soon-to-be-mothers.

“They made us stand facing the wall. If our toes and our nose could touch the wall, you kept your job. If your tummy touched, you were done. None of us girls lost our jobs. The only ones whose bellies bumped before nose and toes were the partners, those fat rich men.”

Dad told me this story about his mother only Sunday past. My memories of Grandma Swenson are tied up in watching her bake hardtack, make potato sausage with a meat grinder, teach my little hands to knit, and play croquette in the backyard. Every morning she read the Minneapolis-Star Tribune newspaper and worked the crossword over her weak coffee. She almost always finished the puzzle.

The inside of her dresser drawers pulled me into her intimate existence. Gardenia scented paper lined the bottoms. Inside her closet was the secret to sweetness. Soft carpeting and pretty dresses all hung in a row. It smelled grandma. She let us play with all her trinkets. Charms on her bracelet. Bells. Balls of yarn. Delicate china candy dishes filled with ribbon candy. She played phonograph records for us. Her garden bed full of Gloriosa Daisies and across the back alley, Emil and Iris Erickson, who let us in the back door for fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Grandma Swenson took me to my first movie. Sound of Music. She defined “my favorite things.”

We spent every Sunday with her after Grampa died in 1963. After the incredible melt-in-your-mouth beef roast dinner, the adults would play cards: Zioncheck Rummy for nickels. Dad would drive us home in the Impala station wagon. Mom in the front seat with Barb and me seat-belted in back. CBS Mystery Theater would play on WCCO riding home in the dark. Both of us would nod off.

In the theatre of my mind, I am 9 years old again and go to Lakeview Elementary School.

On Memorial Day morning I got up, dressed, teeth brushed and out the door to hop on my bike. Nobody cared about going to the parade but me and it was more fun alone. I rode 42nd Avenue through Robbinsdale across the Minneapolis City limits at Memorial Drive. Before the parade began I took my blue no-speed Schwinn under the canopy of Elms lining either side of the smooth pavement. I could ride all the way down to West Broadway and watch the parade from any spot along the route. The parade went on for miles. Past the furniture store. But I wanted to watch the cannons go off at the old flagpole for the Memorial Service and raced back north Memorial Drive to 42nd. Taps on the trumpet. Boom.

So how can it be my dad turns 80 years old in less than a month and I won’t be 53 much longer? Memory. What I wouldn’t give now for my dad to take us in the Impala station wagon for a drive by the Schlitz brewery to see the herd of tame fallow deer or down along the banks of the Mississippi River just below Lyndale for some of Joe’s fresh produce.

Dad told me another story about Great Uncle Put Haertel. He earned the nickname of Put because he often used this word as a command. Put that there. Put your tools away. Put attention on task. Put, put, put.

Uncle Put, like most of my family, had eaten lunch many times with Dad and Grampa at Mickey’s Diner across the street from Pearson & Swenson Furniture on West Broadway in North Minneapolis. Mickey wore a white short sleeved T-shirt that didn’t mask his Navy tattoo, and a white kitchen apron as he worked the short-order grill. Known for his hamburgers, the smell of fried onions and sizzling beef lured in all the Wimpies on North Broadway to Mickey’s for lunch. Nora, his waitress, always wore her hairnet over her mousy blonde hair, a brown and yellow checked uniform tunic with a brown Peter Pan collar and matching polyester pants with nurses’ white shoes. Stools at a lunch counter let you watch Mickey cook your hamburger.

When my dad’s dad died, Uncle Put stood in the receiving line at the funeral. As Grampa’s brother-in-law, Put shook everyone’s hands. Even Mickey and Nora came to the funeral. Dressed in church clothes, they honored his life and friendship; they’d served Grampa lunch more times than had Grandma. When Nora took hold of Put’s hand to offer her condolences, he didn’t recognize her.

“I’m Nora. From Mickey’s. The waitress?” she leaned over and whispered into his ear.

“Oh my god. I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” Put exclaimed.

Dad likes to tell funny family stories. I used to be so humiliated by my dad telling these family stories in public. The one about the dog with the rubber band sticking out its rear end is downright disgusting. I don’t even have to tell it and you know where it goes. This may explain why Scandinavian humor is rumored to be a myth. Son of Tomato. Svensk legends.

Those 70s Memories of Wisconsin: F**k Scott Walker

In Friends, Pictures and memories on March 5, 2012 at 3:44 am

I never got into watching the situation comedy of life in the 70s in Wisconsin, because I’d largely lived it and it wasn’t pretty. Streetscapes and soundtracks of those days haunted me this past week when I returned to the Badger State. Things are not the same.

Neenah sits along the Fox River and Lake Winnebago; the names of the streets and the curves in the roads are the same but the stores and scale of small town life have changed. The interior sense of place remains precious as reality pales. Retail sprawl crowds out the empty lot where the first Mars drive-thru served fast-food breakfast. The commercials demonstrated the convenience of drive-thru fast-food breakfast and inspired me and Sharon and Sandy and Joni to wear our flannels to the Mars on Richmond Street early one Saturday back in 1975.

Neenah is next to Menasha. Step-sister cities. One of the first years of the Otto Grunsky bike races, in the late 1970s, my friends Beth and Amy and I attended with Beth’s new boyfriend Geoff as the designated driver. They served corn on the cob you dipped in a vat of real butter. Amy polka danced with an intoxicated man wearing a Morris the Cat t-shirt spread thin across his polish beer belly. We all danced until we dropped from too much fun.

Madison is a city I first visited with Sharon Schwab senior year as we considered colleges. She introduced me to freshly baked bagels and a jewish housing and food cooperative in the heart of campus that altered my view of what higher education might mean.  Beth and I drove down to rent rollerskates and take to the streets for a day of sightseeing before I started college at Lawrence University.

I discovered the Ovens of Brittany had the best sticky buns from my best friend, Amy Anderson. One time I came to visit her in Appleton and she’d just returned home from a trip to Madison where she’d bought one for herself and had put it in the fridge hidden inside a bag. I woke up in the middle of the night starving and devoured that sticky bun when I discovered it. I’ve spent most of the rest of my life in search of the same delicious taste sensation. Amy about killed me the next morning when she discovered the empty bag. Them sticky buns are worth killing someone over. Really. Butter. Brown sugar, cinamon, vanilla, sweet rising wheat dough. To die for.

Bakery. You betcha. In Wisconsin, bakery goods are a way of life. Sure, I’d love a cup of coffee, if you’ve got something to go with it.Old times. I enjoyed remembering the way things used to be, but didn’t care much for how things were today. Appleton has a prison downtown and generates revenues by taking inmates from Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. Their families move into an old neighborhood where the homes have all been subdivided into tenement apartments.

On Friday I walked the Lakeside neighborhood of Madison with Amy and found this wonderful remnant of that 70s spirit. Scott Walker Douche poster

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.

Happy Birthday Sam Warren

In Anniversary and memorials, Pictures and memories on December 6, 2011 at 3:10 am

Born December 6, 1951, Sam Warren was one of a kind. He’d be 60 years old. Sam would have been ornery, irritable, crochety and downright nasty about getting that old. Miserable old coot, he’d cuss and mope about the big six-o.

From the day I met him, Sam was an old soul trapped inside a younger man’s form. While he never read Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, he lived their 19th century ideals.

Sam Warren

Sam in Summer

Sam hated getting older. To me, he’ll be forever 57.  His hair will never grey; long golden tendrils. The smile lines around his eyes and mouth remain soft and supple. His moustache and beard still strawberry blond. It’s his birthday and there’s no cake and ice cream party at his mom’s this year. I can’t buy him supper at the Glenwood Pines. He ordered the same thing every time we went there: Delmonico steak and shrimp, baked potato with butter, tossed salad with ranch dressing, and a Black Velvet and 7-Up. And please warm up the bread and bring extra butter.

He used to call his mother at the hour and minute of his birth from wherever he was on his birthdays. In the last 15 years of his life, he called from his phone sitting by the pond up to this parents’ house on Buck Hill Road.

Sam didn’t just call his mom on his birthday. He used to call her at any hour of the day or night; just every once in a while to check-in as his way of saying I love you. Now she misses his calls. And I miss listening to Sam talk on the phone. I’d stand there at the sink washing dishes and he’d call his mom to tell her some news. I’d turn around and he’d give me a big smile and those eyes twinkled with a wickedly happy glint.

Sam took me to the LeHigh Valley Restaurant for his last birthday. Prime Rib. He told me about coming there with his family when he was a child for New Year’s Eve. He didn’t come into Ithaca until he was 11 or 12 years old, he’d told me. In its day, the LeHigh Valley Restaurant was a pretty fancy place. Named after the train line first established here in the 1800s, this establishment closed just a few months after Sam died.

I close my eyes and remember the white table cloth. Sitting knee to knee at a table for two surrounded by people talking, eating, joking, singing. The linen napkins and white china and Sam’s freshly washed hair and clean shirt.  Relaxed and calm, he told me about the LeHigh Valley Bar and Restaurant and his image of it as a high society place to gather and celebrate. He liked that years earlier it was the nearest hotel and restaurant for those traveling by rail to Ithaca. And he liked that in his 20s he’d built the canal across the road, operating large equipment, and that he and the guys on a crew would stop in for lunch break . He had never taken me out to the LeHigh Valley before and he said it was a good birthday.

Happy Birthday Sam. It’s a good day to celebrate you.

Latkes for lunch

In Mourning, Pictures and memories on November 7, 2011 at 1:04 am

Friends made in the past year through a Sudden Loss support group came to my cottage for brunch today. Sunny and warm, the morning greeted the dogs and I in our usual manner outdoors at dawn. With the extra fall-back hour, I had the house cleaned and furniture moved to accommodate the big table for a meal.

Fried the bacon. Autumn Harvest pasture raised pork and naturally smoked without nitrates from Interlaken, NY. I’d made the Cortland apple sauce days earlier; cooking the apples whole skins on to put through the old Foley food mill. Peeled the six large organic Russet potatoes and finely minced a yellow onion.

The secret to making good latkes is to know your potatoes. These were wet ones. I shredded the potatoes with a hand grater sans knuckle dermis. Then I put the minced onion and potato shreds into a large white cotton dish towel and squeezed out the excess moisture. This batch proved so wet, I dumped the sopping mess into another dish towel and twisted strenuously as the potato water ran into the sink drain.

The potatoes and onions dumped into a large mixing bowl, I added a small amount of flour and  a tad of salt and baking powder. In a separate bowl, I whisked up a half dozen large farm fresh eggs from High Point Farm in Trumansburg. With a large spoon, I mixed the eggs into the pancake batter until fully blended.

Pouring some of the bacon fat onto the castiron griddle over two burners on the gas stove, I let the pan preheat. Then the pancakes went on.  And over Hazelnut coffee, the conversations about our personal journeys through grief resumed.

Dottie brought the sour cream. Lynn brought the Cornell Orchards’ apple cider. Suzanne brought home baked Annadame bread, and Laurie brought bright green fresh apples which we cut into wedges and shared. Snow Farm Creamery made some special smoked apple raw milk aged cheese I picked up at the Brookton Market that made it extra special in local flavor.

To recognize in our stories how much has changed since we met is to acknowledge the transformative power of sudden loss for me and others. None of us asked for our lives to be turned upside down and each of us felt passive before the force of changes which resulted from our loved one’s loss. Either changes continue to happen to you, or you can figure out how to follow your heart for directions to what you need, desire and dream about.

The friends I made through this support group organized by Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services and Hospicare of Ithaca share memories, questions, and concerns based on our history of sharing those stories. There are few who have the professional skills and compassion to actually assist  and I am grateful to Donna George and Ellen Abrams who facilitated our initial 8 week group sessions.

Many things change. Some changes we invite. Others land on our lap. Some things remain the same. Who you are. Who you are without this loved one who so defined you in loving relations.

You discover again who you are. Same old soul. Scarred. Sad. Still here for some reason.

Summer of ’77

In Pictures and memories on November 3, 2011 at 2:21 pm

The Mecan River Youth Conservation Camp in central Wisconsin hired me to work the summer of 1977, the year between my freshman and sophomore year of college. My major wasn’t biology but the job suited me like my favorite faded black t-shirt and Levi 501 jeans.

Aldo Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac, and the natural habitat and wildlife he observed came from this landscape. Required reading in junior year American English, I’d loved listening to Leopold’s voice as the words of wisdom popped off the page into my head. I jumped into this bubble of pretend to live Leopold’s legacy.

The Civilian Conservation Corps under Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Mecan River campsite and the Youth Conservation Corps kept this federal program running to put at-risk urban youth to work during summer months. The Wisconsin Youth Conservation Corps ceased to exist in 2003, but I remember that April afternoon in 1977 looking in the college Career Office for summer job opportunities. In the same moment of reading there was a gut sense of recognition; I wanted this gig.

What the job actually entailed proved to be advanced babysitting. Keeping track of urban high school girls and acting like drill sergeants during the day on environmental restoration state work projects did not require any literary appreciation of Aldo.

Each of us camp counselors had to drive a van or a school bus to take crews out on work locations. During the day, for example, we would rebuild trout stream habitat. We’d start by felling tamarack trees and stripping the bark off. Learning to use an ax, sharpening blades, handling saws, these weren’t skills most of these girls would use in their future, but the sense of accomplishment lasts a lifetime. Two to a log, I’d assign pairs to remove the bark as they sat on either end, like the tree was a teeter-totter. We’d lay the skinned poles end to end reshaping the creeks edges into tight curves. Hours of filling in behind the logs with rocks, then dirt, and finally grass seed built up the side of the bank. Twelve girls and I offered rainbow trout habitat for breeding. Working in the sun with our shirts off and bandanas around our brows to catch the sweat, we felt strong and good.

Crews came back into camp by 4 p.m. and participated in sports, “farts and craps” (arts and crafts), skit rehearsals, card and board games, and writing letters home. Mess hall served sumptuous healthy meals after morning and afternoon flag ceremonies. Girls spent two weeks at the camp. The weekends in between groups, counselors had free. The weekends the girls spent in camp, the counselors organized activities.

I signed up to take a busload of girls into the nearest town, Princeton, Wisconsin; a tiny outpost with a five-and-dime, an A & W, a bank, a public phone booth, and not much else of interest to teenage girls looking for thrills. Never having driven a school bus before, I took my lessons during the week from several other counselors who had already driven these big stick-shifting monster vehicles.

Saturday morning the campers climbed on board my big orange Bluebird and we set off for town. It proved a bumpy ride down the highway with boisterous sing-alongs. I’m headed for the A & W and requesting window service. These girls worked hard all week.

I pulled into Princeton and kept the bus in second gear. Then I coasted towards the big parking complex of the A & W rootbeer joint off to the right of the highway. I applied the brake and ever so gracefully came to a stop with the overhang roof of the building atop my big orange school bus.

That wasn’t the last of my driving lessons. One morning the camp director asked me to take the Farmall wagon into Portage and drop it off for repairs at the State Department of Natural Resources garage. He told me the brakes were going and be careful. So I was very careful.

I pulled into the back of the barns and found a row of vehicles parked along the edge of a lot across from four big bays of a garage with all the doors up and open. Slowly I pulled in between two other dark green state vehicles and came to a full stop. I got out of the car and walked towards the garage with the keys in my hand; proud of myself for accomplishing another dangerous driving mission.

Three guys across the lot came out of their work bays into the sunshine and started waving at me. I waved back.

“Hi. I’m delivering….”

Crash. Slide. Crash. Pop. Hiss.

“This vehicle from Mecan River,” I said.

Three guys started running right at me. One waved his red grease rag at me. I turned around to look behind me and saw tall pine trees 200 feet away swaying gently, but there was no breeze. Then I noticed the Farmall: gone.

I ran towards the empty parking space and then forward I followed tire tracks to a precipice. Down 100 feet below in the creek bed lay askew a very wrecked Farmall.

I didn’t get the job again the following summer. I didn’t even get to drive the schoolbus again.

The bonfires and stories of Indian lore, the legacy of Leopold, hearing the loon and seeing the wild blue heron and identifying the natural species, geological formations underfoot, recreating a wilderness space, transforming minds and bodies with good hard work, and swimming and bathing in the small gorges of springfed creeks: my Mecan River.