Childhood, Fathers Day

My North Star

When we were kids my Father took my siblings and I, along with our Mother, on many hikes. Some were through woods and pastures, and some were up mountains, and he called each one an adventure. Over the years, I went from fresh-faced, willing participant to sullen adolescent/early teenager, who forged way ahead or dawdled way back so I could feel like I was alone and free of the bonds of my family. Eventually, I became an absentee teenager-with-a-job and friends who were more interesting to me at the time, and I begged off as many of those outings as I could. I had other, more interesting adventures to attend to. 

Fast forward 18 years or so.By then I was a parent, with two adolescent boys and a lot more perspective. It was January when I not so casually suggested to my father that we take a hike in the White Mountains. Now, the one thing I never got to do was hike alone with Dad. The closest I came to expressing my desire was buying him a “50 Hikes in NH” book when I was a teenager, and pointing out the Lonesome Lake overnight hike and saying “That one looks nice.”  Unfortunately, he was not a mind reader and I was not the most communicative teenager, and so, when we did hike it, the whole family went and I was probably 50% sullen and I think the most communicative I got was writing to myself, in my journal. Dad was up for the challenge, and we decided to go up Mt. Lafayette in July, hike up ,stay at Greenleaf Hut, then take the Franconia Loop Ridge Trail, and the Bridal Veil Falls trail down on our way out. I remember Dad looking me in the eye and saying “You’ll have to make sure you’re in shape for it.” To which I replied “Oh don’t worry about me!” A flash of my teenage self emerged. How many times would Dad say “You guys are marshmallows!”when we lagged behind on the trails. I’d show him. 

I spent the whole spring that year riding my bike and running like a madwoman and dropped about 10 lbs just to prove I was no marshmallow and be ready for that hike. The day arrived and Dad picked me up and we drove to the trailhead parking lot. Being Dad, he had to go through my pack to ensure I wasn’t carrying anything unnecessary, to ease the weight I was carrying. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little irritated at this intrusion and what I perceived as his doubt about my fitness level, aka marshmallow quotient.

 He held up a can of Diet Pepsi. “You’ve got water, you don’t need this.” 

“The Pepsi STAYS.” I growled. Fortunately for both of us, he shrugged and put it back.

We were geared up  like twins; hiking boots, knee socks, shorts, tee shirts, bandanas around our heads, water bottles dangling from the packs. Up the trail we went. The day was magnificent. Down in the valleys it was hot and humid, up on the leafy green trails the trees shaded us,  sunlight poked in hear and there, dappling everything, and the air smelled mossy and clean. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but the silence was companionable. This part of the trail didn’t hold much of a view, but occasionally the trees would part and we could see the view across the way. Dad had me stop at one of these views, so he could take a photo of me. I got a little dizzy looking out, but it passed and I didn’t think much of it at the time. We arrived at the hut by late afternoon, and had time to sit at a picnic table and relax. Later on the crew made a hearty dinner of beef stew and put on a little skit for the guests. Dad and I wandered over to the guest book, where we looked up an entry we had made back in 1977, from a family hike. It was gratifying to write a new, updated entry and add our two names to the book. Later on, I laid awake in the communal bunk area where the women slept, listening to some of them snoring loudly.I wondered if Dad was asleep.  I was really excited for the next day, and the Ridge trail, and looked forward seeing the Falls on the way down. 

We started out after breakfast and headed to the beautiful Franconia Ridge Loop Trail. We stopped to look at the expanse of the trail before us. The ridge trail crosses three mountain peaks, and is about 8 miles long. On that beautiful clear July day, we could see the ridge in its entirety. The trail is a narrow, rocky area, that drops off on either side into a 3000 foot expanse of dark green mountainside. The sky was a brilliant blue without a single cloud and it went on forever. It was beautiful, and terrifying at the same time. I took a deep breath and followed Dad onto the trail. We picked our way over and around rocks, and I tried, I really did. I tried to breathe, and look at and appreciate the view. Each time I made the mistake of looking down off to the side of the trail, my heart raced a little faster and my head felt a little lighter. I said nothing to my father, who walked ahead of me, confident and straight backed. After a little while, I could barely speak. He would talk and I would give one word responses, all the while resisting the urge to freeze and curl up into a little puddle of melted marshmallow. Gradually, I was crawl-walking, bent way over and scrambling over rocks, hand over hand. I wanted to glue myself to the trail.

Dad stopped and asked “Are you ok?” 

“Um, no, not really. I’m afraid of heights!” I had to admit it. I am good at hiding a lot of fears, but my sheer will was no match for this one. I felt like a failure. Defeat leaked in tears from the corner of my eyes.

“Take my hand.” 

I looked up, and there in front of me was my Father’s hand. He was still facing forward, holding his arm behind him. 

“You can do it, I’ll help you.” 

I grabbed his hand for dear life, and this is how we traversed the 1.7 miles of narrow ridge trail between Mt. Lafayette and Little Haystack Mountain that day. Dad walking, holding my hand behind him, me clutching the hand and half crawling, half duckwalking across the ridge. The whole time I glued my eyes to our entwined hands, listening to the voice of my childhood, the one that always knew what to do and say to get me through any hardship. The hand that held mine as we skipped down my childhood sidewalks together, the hand that brushed my long hair in the evenings when I was 7 years old, the hand that squeezed mine the day my first son was born, and the hand that would always be there for me in years ahead, during good times and bad. 

When I finally was able to walk upright again, we finished the ridge trail and headed down the Falling Waters trail. Once again the trees embraced us in their shady arms, and the steep views were hidden from us. The trail was not for marshmallows; it was very rocky and steep. We were both silent as we focused on keeping our footing, balance and slowing the speed of our descent. Partway down, Dad slipped and fell on the rocks. Instantly, I was at his side, and this time it was me offering my hand, and lifting him up. He was uninjured,  a little embarrassed, but we both smiled. 

“I’m impressed with your fitness,” he said. “I’m having a hard time keeping up with you!” I glowed at the praise. 

We stopped to rest at one of the beautiful falls that run parallel to the trail. We took off our boots and socks, and sat on a rock, dangling our feet in a pool. The falls roared to the left of us. Surreptitiously, I reached into my pack and slipped out the Diet Pepsi. I wedged the can between two rocks in the ice cold water. After a while, I removed the can and popped the top. The bite of the soda on my parched tongue was something I can still feel today. I offered the can to Dad, he took a sip and closed his eyes. 

“Boy does this hit the spot!” He looked at me, brown eyes shining and smiled again. “Good thing you didn’t listen to me and brought it.”  I smiled and looked over the water. I could have stayed there forever.

We reached the car a few hours later, ravenously hungry. “Let’s get pizza, I know a place,” Dad said. We wolfed down a whole pizza before driving home. 

I had dreams of doing a hike like that once a year with Dad. But, life goes on and gets in the way. We never did another overnighter. In all honesty, I don’t think we could have recaptured the magic of those two days if we tried. And, we did go on to do many other things, as family does. I could write a hundred essays more about our hikes, walks, snowshoeing and skiing adventures that have happened since. And maybe I will one day. 

Until then, this one’s for you Dad. You are my North Star. Nobody in this world will ever fill your shoes. Thank you and happy Father’s Day!

Childhood

The Greatest Gift

When I was a kid in Catholic school, every year in late fall we were recruited to sell Christmas Seals to raise funds for the poor. As an incentive, there were trinkets we could win for certain levels of sales. The books of stickers each sold for a dollar. One year, the award for selling 5 books of seals was a beautiful plaque of Mary, holding the baby Jesus. This plaque was made of plastic, but It looked to me as if it were carved from a beautiful, dark piece of wood. Mary’s expression captivated me. Her head was tilted sideways and she was demurely looking at the baby she held in her arms. She looked simply ethereal to me. I felt the love of a mother for her child, emanating from that simple plastic object. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I had to give this to my mother for Christmas. 

Now, selling five dollars worth of Christmas seals in today’s world, I know, seems quite achievable. Nowadays, parents bring children’s fundraisers to work, and kids have family members to sell to. But, this was the year 1971, and the world was much different then, especially where I lived, in rural Upstate New York. We were the only non-farm family on a road where the nearest neighbor was a mile away in either direction. Our next door neighbors were literally, cows, hay and cornfields.  I went to school in the town of Little Falls, a 45 minute bus ride from home. The city kids in class could go door-to-door a couple blocks and meet their quota.  My options for sales were limited.  But I simply burned with the desire to achieve this, and took my share of the books with great hope in my tender, 10-year-old heart.

After school, while it was still light outside, I asked my Mom if I could go down to the neighboring farm and try to sell some Christmas Seals. I think at first she kind of hesitated. I imagine she didn’t want her daughter pestering the neighbors for money. I think our conversation probably went something like this.

Me: “Mom? Can I go down to Helmers and sell some Christmas Seals?”

Mom: “Oh, I don’t know…”

Me:“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE?!!”

Mom: “Let’s wait until your father gets home and ask him”

Me: (knowing my father was no pushover) “But, it will be dark by then, and I won’t be able to go!”

Mom: silence

Me: “Mom! It’s to help starving poor children!”

Mom: “Well… I guess so…”

Me: “Thanks, bye! I’ll be back before supper!” (Door slamming behind me)

(I have to take a minute here and thank my Mom for giving me some freedom at a crucial time in my life, and for putting up with my energetic “persistence” (pestering!) for all of my childhood, and beyond. Also, I haven’t changed much in in 48 years!)

I hit the road with high hopes and a fistful of stickers.

The Helmers had three children, all of whom attended the public schools, and so, I would have no competition for sales. Eddie was the eldest. He and I had a tenuous friendship, almost like a sibling rivalry at times. We once played a game of “My father could beat up your father” one hot summer day, when we were bored, and sitting on the concrete step outside my kitchen door. The game ended when he claimed his father, and their whole herd of cows could beat up my father, our dog, her six puppies and me, and I replied my father armed with our lawn mower would scare all the cows away and run down his father with said lawn mower.  Things got pretty ugly and he wound up going home. Luckily for me, Eddie was helping his dad milk cows, and so I got to sit down in Sarah Helmer’s kitchen enjoying some cookies and milk and pitching my Christmas Seals. Believe it or not, I was a very shy child who loved disappearing into books, hated getting called on in school, and blushed red as a beet when the spotlight landed on me. But,  I liked Sarah. She had a gentle manner and a very kind smile that crinkled the corners of her blue eyes. I put my glass of milk down, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and got down to business.

“For just one dollar a book, you can help starving children all over the world,” I explained. “You can put these pretty stamps on your Christmas Cards to decorate the envelopes and show your support at the same time!”

Mrs. Helmer stood up and walked to a flour canister on the kitchen counter. She opened it and removed a bill, then came back to the table. “How many books do you have to sell?”

“Five, ma’am.” I thought to myself, great, one down and just four to go!

Sarah smiled and placed a five dollar bill on the table in front of me. I realized, I didn’t have any change. Now what would I do? 

“I’ll take them all.” I could not believe my ears. A whole five dollars!

“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Helmer!” I handed her all five booklets, and clutched the bill. I couldn’t wait to get back to school with all my books sold at once! 

“You are quite welcome. Would you like another cookie? You can take it with you.” Clearly she could see my eagerness to run home with the loot. 

I could not believe my luck. In one fell swoop, my goal of getting the perfect Christmas gift for my mother was achieved. 

Now that I didn’t need to worry about making other sales, I pocketed the money and decided to take the long way home, through the fields and woods, instead of the road. I jumped over the ditch and took to the November cornfields, skipping past the dried chopped- off stalks, kicking clods of dirt with the toes of my sneakers as I went, watching the clods explode in dust clouds, left and right. I ducked under the barbed-wire fence bordering the cow pasture and cut through ancient apple trees to the other side, which bordered yet another cornfield, then, the edge of our property. I burst through the kitchen door, and my mother looked up from a crossword she was working at the kitchen table. “What took you so long? I was about to phone the Helmers to ask about you!” 

“I had cookies and milk.” I waited for her to ask the big question.

“I hope you didn’t overstay your welcome.”

“Nope! She wanted me to stay!” I was bursting with excitement.

Mom looked up and smiled. “So? How’d you do?”

“Mrs. Helmer bought them ALL!” I reached into my pocket to show Mom the five dollar bill. My joy turned to alarm. It wasn’t in my pocket!

“Mom! I lost it!”

“How’d you lose it?”

“I don’t know!” I wailed.

“Well, you have to retrace your steps, it must be on the side of the road. You can find it!”

My heart sank, as I recalled that fateful decision to take the long way home, through the acres of pasture. All the skipping, and zig-zagging I did. I would never find it. 

“Don’t worry, if you don’t find it, you can explain it to the nuns,” my mother said. 

I thought of the shame of telling Sister Regina, I lost the money for all of my Christmas Seals. And then, the heartbreak of losing out on the best Christmas gift for mom on top of it all. I couldn’t even tell her that. I felt tears burn the corners of my eyes, and a huge lump rose in my throat. 

“Mom, I have to go look for the money.” I was running out of daylight and the prospect of my father getting home from work and having to explain it all to him, and live the nightmare all over again. Even thought I knew he would understand, I still felt so ashamed to have been so careless and irresponsible with so much money.

“Okay, but do not stay out after dark.” My mom didn’t sound very hopeful. I put on my lucky coat, the one that looked like the color of fall leaves, my favorite, but also the one I tore open on the back, ducking under a barbed wire fence. I only got to wear it for playing now. I was convinced it camouflaged me when I tried to sneak up on animals. I needed all the help I could get to find this money.

There wasn’t much joy in retracing my steps to the Helmers. The sun was getting low, a cold wind came up, and my eyes hurt from trying to discern a bill from the tall grasses. Occasionally, I thought I could detect my footprints in the dirt next to the cornfield, but my hope was fading as quickly as the afternoon, by the time I approached the spot next to Helmer’s where I hopped over the ditch. Nothing. I walked the edge of the road to the Helmer’s driveway and realized, I was going to have to admit defeat and turn to go home.  I didn’t want to run into Eddie or any of the Helmers who would wonder what I was doing hanging around the farm so late in the day. I turned around to go home, straight up the road this time. I ruefully looked at the ditch wishing I hadn’t made such a stupid decision to go home that way, and that is when I saw it. Stuck in the tall grass at the top of the ditch, fluttering in a gentle breeze, was a five dollar bill! Could it be my eyes playing tricks on me? No! It was real as real could be as I snatched it lest the wind steal it from me. This time I kept the bill in my hand, and headed straight home up the road, flooded with relief and happiness. 

To this day, I wonder how on Earth I managed to find that five dollar bill. It was a tough lesson in persistence and personal accountability that I will never forget. I am grateful my mother allowed me the space to try to find the money, rather than swoop in to give me the money and fix the problem, which would have taught me nothing. The memory of my mother opening her gift that year is one of my most precious, even 48 years later. I’m sure my mother put two and two together, when she realized I earned the gift by selling Christmas seals. I’m sure that is one reason the plaque still hangs in my parents’ house in Maine, all these years later. 

Childhood, Fall, Summer, Writing

Reluctant Harvest

Under the threat of a hard frost, Farmer Jonny and I spent the last of today’s daylight after our day jobs bringing in what remained of our harvest. All of the remaining peppers – green, red and hots… jalapeño, habanero, cayenne, green and red bell. Thirty butternut squashes, my rosemary and some lavender. Several cantaloupes. They are oh so sweet this year! The old ears of corn we have left on the stalk to the coyotes… yes, coyotes love old, gone-by corn! Every year we learn something new from Mother Earth. She is a firm teacher, sometimes hard, but, eventually, forgiving.

It was a difficult work week for both of us, and I wasn’t feeling much like gardening in the waning pale sunlight, with a fall wind that smelled like the breath of winter buffeting our summer-spoiled bodies. In fact, I felt petulant as a child being ordered to do a chore by a strict parent. Only I was the parent. As the memes say, adulting is hard. But, as my beloved farmer and I trundled the squashes in a giant basket between us, up the hill and onto the back porch, the wind became exhilarating, the last of the workday’s ills fell away, and our true selves, partners, gardeners, lovers of this little slice of heaven on earth emerged, and together, we beat the killing frost before it could lay its skeleton hand on the fruits of our labor.

Childhood, Fall, Summer, Uncategorized, Writing

Comforts of Home

Today I had a rare day spent in the company of myself. After getting my cholesterol screening (12 hour fast) out of the way, the day was my oyster. I started the migration of my summer writing space from the back porch overlooking the field and barn, to my spare bedroom office with Aunt Mary’s desk and window overlooking the side yard. I brought in half of the plants, and promised the others they would soon follow. It’s cozier, and less of a daydreaming kind of space. Maybe that will be good for my writing.

Then I cleaned the stalls and lingered in the barn, to give the equine kids a good scratch, warm hug and fresh hay. I have not once turned on the television, or a radio. Even the birds are silent, except for the gorgeous hawk I disturbed this morning on my damp walk through the woods and fields next door. The silence of the woods was such a stark contrast to even just a little while ago, when a chorus of birds, crickets and distant lawnmowers serenaded in a buzz of the late summer’s mix tape. Today the silence was only pierced once by the cry of the hawk, and the gentle tap of raindrops as they dripped off the red and gold leaves of the maples and oaks bordering my property line.
Later, I broke my fast with a hearty tomato soup in which I mixed red lentils. What is it about tomato soup that brings me back to the comfort of childhood when my mother served steaming bowls of Campbell’s tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches on toasted white bread? The richness of the butter melted into the golden crisp surface of the bread, the tangy taste of the soup and melted cheese, that first bite when your teeth crunched through to the soft belly of the Wonder Bread. I still remember the cheerful blue and red balloons printed on the Wonder Bread wrapper peeking over the tops of my winter boots. Did all of our mothers use the bread bags to line our winter boots and keep out the dampness? Remember the smell of the plastic , wool and wet boots that emanated from the coat room in school as our winter coats, boots scarves, hats and gloves dried in front of the radiators? We were a community of children who walked to school, in any weather, and who (most of us) came home for lunch to our Mothers, who had a hot lunch waiting on a TV tray in the living room, our favorite tv show tuned (Kimba the White Lion was mine) I know the world was far from perfect, even then, but parts of it sure felt that way. Today was a beautiful escape from the real world where, fortunately, parts of it are still perfect enough for me.
And now I need a tissue, the rain seems to have gotten in my eyes.

Childhood, Uncategorized, Writing

My Other Biggest Fan

D14835AB-9C1A-4F7F-99F6-170AA648C87EWhen I was born, my dad was serving in the US Navy. One of my earliest memories is of my mom singing to me:
“Bell bottom trousers,
Coat of Navy Blue,
My Dad’s a sailor
And he loves me too.
When you get married
And have a family,
You’ll dress your kiddies in sailor’s dungarees!”

I think I will always be able to conjure up her beautiful voice and those sweet words until the day I die. Mom always claimed she cannot carry a tune, but I think she has the most mellifluous voice in the world. Every day, Mom would wake us up with her sweet greeting; “Rise and shine!” I was a grumpy, moody child. Never a morning person.I would grumble back from under the covers, “I’ll rise but I won’t shine!” I felt wickedly clever for saying that. To her eternal credit, It did not deter her from her daily greeting. Every night at bed she hugged and kissed us and tucked us in saying “Good Night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Always in the same cheerful tone. She could have had the worst day of her life, but would never let it show to us kids. Her love for her children was and still is unconditional, and as consistent as the sunrise.

My early years were spent in a small village in upstate New York. You could walk to school and I did; every day to Kindergarten then home to Mom and peanut butter sandwiches and milk on a TV tray in front of my favorite cartoons. Mom and I and my brother walked downtown and had milkshakes and ice cream sodas at the local lunch counter. Every day in summer I could play outside to my heart’s content and Mom was always there to run to for comfort, food, and hugs and kisses as needed. I had a pretty normal childhood spent running in and out of a slamming squeaky screen door and being told “in or out, one or the other!” We could spend hours buying penny candy and melted popsicles with nothing but a dime at the corner store all summer. I recall ice skating at the local park down the street in winter. Mom stuffed the toes of her own childhood skates with newspaper so I could wear them. We greased the blades with Vaseline and polished the leather with white shoe polish. I remember the pride I felt that I could fit into Mom’s skates.I imagined her laughing and skating with her friends, an image I took with me every time I circled around that iced-over lot at the end of the street. Those ice skates were more valuable to me than any brand new store bought pair of skates could ever have been.

I was never a girly girl who welcomed dresses and pink hair ribbons. If Mom had hoped for that kind of daughter, she sure hid it well. I was the kid who tore up her new winter coat sledding under a barbed wire fence and barely ducking in time to avoid getting clotheslined from it. My buster browns were permanently scuffed, my permed and set hairdos went frizzy, and my clothes never stayed clean very long. When we moved to the country, Mom was the one who set me free to roam the lush pastures and cool, green forests and creeks every single day. I would return home grass stained, sweaty and brown as shoe leather, and happy as a clam. If my dad nurtured my love for adventure and animals, my mom was the one who sent me out into that world, unfettered and free to live out those adventures and loves. I don’t think I ever realized her part in giving me my independence and letting me decide who I was, without judgement or restriction.

Just because she was cheerful and loving does not mean she was or is a pushover. My Dad always said my mother is the best judge of character he knows, and it is entirely true. Woe to those who hurt the ones she loves, and if Mom doesn’t like someone, which is rare, you know that person has a very serious character flaw.
When I was at the lowest point in my life, pregnant, a single mom to a two year old, alone and afraid, not knowing where I would live the very next day, I called her. I hadn’t told her much about my dilemma when she interrupted me with the two most beautiful words I have ever heard: “Come home.” She knew I would never ask. This allowed me to safely prepare for a new life with my two wonderful boys. It probably saved my life. She was a believer in tough love, to my eternal benefit, but she also knew when I truly needed her. No matter where I go, Mom is always home to me.

Mom has done so many things in her lifetime. She worked retail, at a local department store when I was in high school. Her sense of fashion and style sure helped me out, since I had no interest in such things. Thanks to her, I didn’t go to school looking like a bumpkin. I can still remember showing up at the breakfast table dressed for work, barely awake only to have her order me to remove my skirt or dress so she could properly iron it. “You are NOT going out looking like that.” And I wasn’t the most grateful teenager for all her attempts to make me presentable. She also was an aerobics instructor, and ran programs for the YWCA. She wrote grants and obtained funding that benefitted a lot of people. She hiked mountains – she and my dad took my sons to hike up Mount Washington when they were very young. She is an artist – she creates the most beautiful quilts I have ever seen! She is a merciless Scrabble player. All the grandkids know they can truly brag if they can beat their Grammy. Ultimately, I think it is her role as a Grandmother which she cherishes the most. She is the proudest, and most loving grandmother on the planet. Not many Grammies can boast that their teenage grandsons invite themselves to dinner and to play Scrabble. My boys did that, and to this day they travel the 5 hours up to Maine to spend time with their grandparents, as do all of their children and grandchildren.

We are so blessed to have you for our Matriarch, Mom. I love you a bushel and a peck. Happy Mother’s Day!