I love how, for the writer, writing can bring the past back to life. Today I rewrote the summer of 1971. Once again, I walked through dark green cornfields in Upstate New York, climbed the twisted boughs of apple trees, watched puffy white clouds lumber across a turgid sky, nudged by the heavy breath of mid summer. Fistfuls of juicy blackberries stained my fingers, dripped down my chin as I crammed the sweet, warm gems of the season into my mouth. Oh, to once again roam the sweet spot of childhood when summers stretch endlessly before you, ripe for adventure and offering a treasure trove of sensations: icy cold creeks to plunge dusty, bare feet into, where shiny darting minnows dare you to catch them in eager, cupped hands, the taste of ice-cold sweet watermelon slices and hot, buttery corn on the cob. Saturday morning cartoons shared with your little brother, the two of you tangled on the couch in a twist of spindly arms and legs, as you fought for your own space and argued half heartedly over Flipper or the Flintstones. Your Mom half listening and refereeing from her seat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and working a crossword. Ah, close your eyes and come with me, we will escape the icy grip of winter and leave this middle age behind! Just take my hand, and hear the sound of the screen door as it slams behind us. Feel the grass as we kick off our Keds and run heedlessly through the back yard, into the fields and the thickets beyond. The sun is warm, the wind is light and the corn fields are whispering our names!
SO I SAID TO MYSELF…..
Growing up, I remember my Dad would periodically burst into song or little sayings from time to time. We kids could recite a litany of those little gems and sometimes still do, as adults. In fact if I were to turn to my brother or sister today and sing “Far across the blue water!” The other one would respond “Oh, Lordy, Lordy!” And we would be the only ones who knew what the heck that was. We thought it was endearing and funny, especially since Dad was by nature very serious, and reserved. It gave us a glimpse into a much more playful side of him. I think every kid craves these glimpses into the personalities of the adults that surround them. These are happy little memories.
One of the things he would say was “So I said to myself – Self!” And that was it. We never knew what he said to himself, but it was a funny thing to amuse ourselves with, the thought of Dad talking to himself…
I hadn’t really thought of this little story in years. Until yesterday while sitting at my computer, working (or trying to) and just not feeling it. There are so many distractions and uncertainties in that area of my life right now – not worth going into at the moment. (Suffice it to say if there is such a thing as a three quarter of the way life crisis, I just may be having one! )I was working at home and so, there were no other humans around. My little Quaker parrot was happily reciting everything he knows how to say, over and over. It went something like this:
“Aw, pretty bird, Finn! Good Morning (10 times) Peekaboo! Hey baby! Night night! ‘Mokey! (Smokey is the dog’s name and Finn doesn’t do the S sound) This went on for a good 10 minutes. For some reason this evoked the memories of the one liners Dad would drift by and say. Then I had an inspiration. Good thing nobody was home except the animals.
So, I said to myself – “Self! Remember who you are! Strong, smart, capable and with super powers that have pulled you through harder times than these! Get back to your therapy – your pen (keyboard) and write. You’re good at it, you have been doing it since you could hold a pencil. Stop lamenting what you cannot change, but LIVE EVERY DAY as fully as you can. Keep showing up at work and giving it all you’ve got, because in this life, it’s all about how you show up EVERY day that makes a difference. Got it? Good, now get back to work and make me proud!”
Thanks, self, I needed that!
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.
For My Dad on his 78th birthday
When I was born, my father was serving on a Naval ship docked in Boston Harbor. A telegram announced my birth. He ran excitedly around the ship spreading the happy news to his shipmates. Finally, someone asked him “Is it a boy or a girl?” He stopped in his tracks and said, “I don’t know!” He was so excited he didn’t read the telegram completely. He had to return to retrieve it to find out he had a daughter.He was 20 years old.
I love this story, because it is really fun to picture a handsome, dark eyed smiling young sailor hopping with excitement at my arrival on this planet. I also love it because it truly didn’t matter to him which gender I was. He just loved me. He has always loved me for ME.
When I was small, he made up wonderful bedtime stories, starring ME, with a cast of animals in supporting roles. I was the rescuer of baby Robins who fell out of their nests, mending them with nothing more than mercurochrome and a band aid, and sending them back home to mama bird, with a dropper of water and a worm for the road. I couldn’t wait to hear what wonderful things I would do next. Dad would brush my long hair, and tell me I was Pocahontas , his Indian princess. He always had a white hanky handy to dry tears or daub at a scraped knee or elbow. These are some of my earliest memories.
Dad did what lots of Dads do; he stayed up late on Christmas Eve, putting together an elaborate cardboard house for us kids to inhabit on Christmas morning. Until one day in Summer, when my brother and I discovered if you collapsed the cardboard on the garage floor you could run and leap belly first and slide a long way. This is what poor Dad found us and the neighbor kids doing when he drove in the driveway from a long day’s work. All his hard labor flattened and trod upon by an army of kids, led by me. One day I spied Dad through my bedroom window when I should have been asleep one summer evening. He was walking a battered navy blue bicycle up the driveway and into the garage. On Christmas Day that year, I never connected the shiny, red two wheeler bike equipped with training wheels glistening under the sparkling Christmas tree with that junker he brought home that coincidentally, I never saw again. He pulled us in wagons, on sleds, gave us hundreds of piggy back rides. He once entertained us by chewing an entire pink bubble gum cigar and blowing a bubble as large as his head. We sat with our mouths hanging open in awe, until the bubble burst all over his face, getting stuck in his five o’clock shadow. Pink shreds fluttered from his eyebrows which were raised in arched black and pink caterpillars of disbelief and shock. There was gum in his hair, and on his earlobes. My brother and I burst into hilarious belly laughs that followed him as he ran for the bathroom and a warm wash cloth to clean the sticky mess off. He was a pretty good sport about it all. (We were never allowed to have a whole bubble gum cigar; we were “too little”. After that, we never really wanted to, either.)
He taught me how to read before I started school. I learned to love stories, a gift that has lasted a lifetime. How I loved going to the library, choosing a book, usually about animals, and proudly adding it to my book list every week. My love for reading got me into trouble when I started school. Very often, I finished my lessons early in class, so I could read my latest book choice under the desk. It often appeared I wasn’t paying attention when called upon in class. The truth was, I knew the material, but read the lessons faster than the others, and was deeply engrossed in my stories or daydreams and didn’t hear the question being asked. As a result, a nun accused me of cheating in second grade, when I got a 100% on a test. She was convinced I couldn’t possibly know the answers because I was always daydreaming. I was horrified to take home a paper sporting a giant red F. I tried to erase it in class, and Sister Regina snatched the paper back, and emblazoned it with a larger red F and a note home that my dad had to sign the failed paper. Dad read the note, while I looked down at my shoes in shame. He met my eyes. “Did you cheat?” He asked. I shook my head no. “I believe you,” he said. Three very powerful words. We went to the school and he assured that nun I was perfectly capable of passing that test on the spot, verbally if she would like proof that I did not cheat. I got my 100% and my dignity back. Dad has always believed in me.
Dad encouraged me to achieve. He quizzed me on what I wanted to be when I grew up. He talked at length about his dream of me going to college, ever since I can remember. This clearly meant the world to him, to give me this wonderful opportunity. I told him I wanted to be a Navy nurse. I wanted to “save the soldiers in Vietnam.” I thought they were “fighting the Germans” A little confused? Yes. No matter, Dad thought that was just swell.
Dad made everything an adventure. New places were to be explored and enjoyed. We hiked, we boated, we swam the Finger Lakes, and we roamed every corner of each place we lived. He encouraged me to love music, and to sing. I could belt out Patti Page’s “Cross Over the Bridge” like a nightclub singer at age 7. Although, I confess, I always confused the words “fickle past” with “pickerel bass” And I wondered why someone would go fishing and leave their “Pickerel Bass” behind them. Speaking of fishing, Dad also taught me how to fish, something I enjoy to this day. He even forgave me for using up all of his rubber worms, as I could practically hear the real worms screaming in pain as they writhed when put on hooks. I couldn’t bear it, and he understood. (However, for the record, it was my sister, not I, who lost his cherished “Red Eyed Warbler” lure. He forgave her too.)
It wasn’t all sunny days and fishing trips between us. We both have regrets; this I know, because we have since spent many wonderful hours snowshoeing in the woods of Maine, talking everything out amongst the tall pines of what we call The Enchanted Forest. I am so grateful I had the chance to mature enough to make things right between us! We had our share of differences and angst during my teenage years. I know I broke his heart many times. I quit college after a month. What a bitter disappointment that had to be. And how frightening it must have been for him to watch as I made bad choices and stuck with them long after I should have. There were periods of time I stayed isolated from family trying to figure things out for myself. He never abandoned me. When I needed help the most, he and my mother were always there. After my children were born, things began to change. I righted my ship, and eventually sailed back to home port. Dad was a wonderful role model for my boys. He took them hiking in the White Mountains, and he and my mother took them up Mount Washington. They spent summer days on the Maine shore. They played cutthroat games of Scrabble, (and still do) In Winter, Dad took them to the slopes and taught them how to ski. They went animal tracking in the woods, and identified leaves and plants. He was always there for them as much as he was for me. He taught them things a father would teach. He filled a great void in their lives.
Dad can get me through anything. If I close my eyes, I can feel his hand on my elbow at the graveside of my children’s father; his hand over mine as he got me across the Ridge trail in the White Mountains when my fear of heights had overtaken me and had me frozen in place. When asked, he shared his wise counsel when I had my own issues with the daunting task of parenting two very independent teens. I remember wondering just when he got so darned smart. He shined the light when I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
We always want to please our parents, even when we think we don’t. I will never forget that day in 1979 when I called home, crying, on a pay phone from college, after barely a month in, telling my family I planned to quit. I just wanted to go home. My father tried everything to convince me to stay. He was hurt, angry and probably extremely worried for my future. Nothing he could say would change my mind. So, he came and got me, and brought me home. And spent the next thirty years praying, hoping, watching, most likely at times, crying and worrying, sometimes celebrating and above all, loving me. The proudest moment of my life was the day I finally walked for my college diploma, at age 47. My boys were there, my husband, and my family. But the person I searched for first in the crowd was Dad. There were he and Mom, beaming, as if they always knew this day would come. They had more faith than I did.
What more can a person ask for in a father? Someone who from the start loves you for who you are, who always stood in the wings waiting to catch you, and who always, always is ready to celebrate you. My biggest fan. There is nobody on Earth who could do it better.
Happy, Happy birthday DAD. Thank you for loving me. And by the way you may have noticed I left out a certain story involving you, an umbrella, a herd of rogue cows and a school bus full of kids. This time.
The great race on Johnnycake Road was not my first or last encounter with my nemesis The Snake. In fact, we had a rather complicated history, the snake and I. Back at my old house, my next door neighbor, Billy Branson, once kept a pet “Garden” snake in a cardboard box filled with grass and twigs. Billy was a few years older than me, and teased me mercilessly. One eventful summer day, I got all suited up for the great outdoors dressed in my play clothes – jean shorts, a tee shirt and keds with no socks. Fortified with my Kellogg’s breakfast cereal and orange juice, I pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the concrete patio overlooking our backyard and the Branson’s backyard. Our driveway separated the two properties. Almost immediately, I heard Billy’s reedy voice float over from next door.
“Hey, Kimmy, c’mere” said Billy.
Immediately suspicious, I asked, “Why?”
“I wanna show you something.”
Hmm. Why was he being nice to me? Somehow, I knew that didn’t bode well.
“It’s something really neat.”
“I have to ask my Mom,” I stalled.
“Oh come on, it’s just right over here! What are you some baby that can’t walk across your driveway without asking Mommy?”
At seven years old, I was most definitely not a baby, and so that is how I found myself in the neighbors yard without my mother’s permission, following Billy into his garage. He led me to a corner and it took a minute for my eyes to get used to the dark after the blinding sunshine outside. The garage smells were overwhelming; aromas of musty motor oil mixed with dirt, old unwashed garbage can and rotting wood assailed my nostrils. I wrinkled my nose and longed for the fresh air of summer. This better be worth it, I thought.
Billy was bent over a cardboard soda carton box on a work table that might have once been his father’s. Broken tools littered the space, covered with thick dust and cobwebs. Nobody talked about Billy’s father, and when I asked my Mom where he was (because in my little bubble of the world everyone had a father)she just said he didn’t live there. When I pushed it she told me to stop being nosy and never talk about it to Billy, and she meant it. So, I didn’t. Billy motioned me over to the bench, which was about chest high to me. I looked into the box and recoiled. A skinny, greenish snake lay stretched out on clumps of grass. It’s eyes were sharp and shiny.
“He won’t hurt you,” said Billy gently. I raised my eyebrows at his conciliatory tone.
“Why are you being nice to me?”
“Maybe cuz you aren’t being a brat today.”
“I am NOT a brat!”
Somehow it felt better when he was being a little mean. I could trust that. I recovered my initial suspicion and repugnance and took a closer look. I had never seen a snake up close before. He looked so vulnerable in the box. But not afraid. He just looked back at us with similar curiosity, and perhaps, shared a little of my suspicion. A tiny forked tongue flicked in and out so quickly, you almost didn’t even see it. Billy stroked the snake’s head with the tip of his index finger.
“See, he likes to be petted.”
“Is he slimy?” I asked. “Because he looks so shiny, like his skin is wet.” I shuddered a little bit.
“No, he isn’t. Go ahead, pet him!”
I glanced up at Billy’s freckled face, looking for any hint of mischief glinting in his maple syrup colored eyes. To my surprise, they looked kind, in a good big brother kind of way. I always wanted to have a big brother, someone older and stronger who could teach me cool things and protect me from the world. Someone else to be the “responsible one” and “set a good example”. As the eldest child in my family, that mantle fell on my skinny shoulders, and I always felt like that got in the way of all my fun. It sure could put a damper on a kid’s daily decisions. I mean, who could have fun stomping in mud, or jumping out of trees if you had to worry about whether your little brother would get dirty or break his neck following you?
Billy’s mouth curved up in a friendly smile. “Go ahead, he said. I won’t let him hurt you.” That clinched it. I reached out to the snake’s head with my finger. He didn’t move a muscle, except for his flickering tongue. Very slowly, I held my breath, and touched his shiny, scaled head. It felt dry and very smooth.
“Wow,” I breathed.
“That’s great, Kimmy! I think he likes you.”
“Do ya think so?” Wow, I just touched a snake, I thought. Wow.
Billy’s eyes lit up. “Hey, do you wanna hold him?”
Whoa! Hold a snake? “I don’t know…”
Billy’s golden hair caught a ray of sunshine filtering through the dirty garage window. His face had a cherubic quality as he smiled down on me. “Don’t worry, I will show you how. It’s easy.”
Well, that did it. Just like a big brother, he was going to teach me something really cool. I could not believe how great this day was going, right off the bat. I watched closely as Billy gently lifted the snake out of the box. He showed me how to hold he snake behind it’s head in one hand, and drape the rest of the snake’s long body around the other hand. The snake’s green tail curled around his outspread fingers and he gently closed his hand around it. I was mesmerized. The snake seemed so calm, almost sweet. I was eager to try. Billy held the snake toward me, and I did everything exactly the way he showed me. Before long, the snake was in my hands.
“Wow! He’s really neat! I thought snakes were mean.” I whispered.
“Snakes are good! They eat mice, for example,”Billy explained all the virtues of the lowly snake to me.
“You are really good at holding snakes,” he said. A happy warmth spread through my chest at this praise. Billy never said anything nice to me before. I smiled up at him.
He smiled back with big brotherly pride.
“You know,” he said, and his smile got bigger. “You should go show your mother how you can hold a snake! She will be really surprised. Most girls could never even touch a snake, much less hold one!”
What a great idea! “Yeah!” I said.
“Go ahead,” said Billy. He followed me across the driveway and up the cement steps. He held the screen door for me and gave an encouraging wave as I went inside to the kitchen, where my Mom was washing dishes, her back to the door.
“Mom!” I shouted. “Mom!”
Mom turned around, wiping a dirty glass with glistening suds. “What? What is….” She stopped in mid sentence.
“Look what I can do!” I thrust the snake at my mother, waiting for her wonder and amazement at how talented I was.
She stared with a funny half smile on her face. Clearly she was speechless. She did not make a move away from the sink.
“See? I can hold a SNAKE! Billy showed me how!”
“That’s… that’s nice dear. “
“Do you want me to show you how?” I was brimming with a generous desire to share my newfound expertise with my mother. As far as I knew we would be the only two girls on Prospect Avenue who could hold a snake. I imagined her having coffee with her friend JoAnn. “Well you know what my daughter showed me how to do today?” The coffee spoons would stop tapping as my mother bragged to JoAnn. “Really?” JoAnn would drawl and her penciled on eyebrows would arch wide and high above her surprised eyes. “Wow.”
My mother’s voice broke into my daydream. “Now, why don’t you take the snake back outside and give it back to Billy.”
“Okay!” I happily skipped out of the kitchen and through the back door to the patio where Billy was waiting eagerly.
“Here’s your snake,” I handed him back.
“Well? What did your mother say?” He seemed a little less big brotherly. His golden smile was replaced with the typical smirk he wore when he was about to pick on me. He took the snake back.
“She said it was nice. She said she was PROUD of me.” A bit of a white lie, but I knew she thought it.
Billy frowned and stalked back to his garage. I started to follow. “Hey! What can we do now? Can we feed him? What’s his name, huh? You never said his name.”
Billy kept his back turned and bent down next to his mother’s garden and let the snake go. I watched the snake slither into the bushes and disappear.
“Hey!Why’d you do that?”
“You don’t name snakes, stupid,” he said. “That’s a dumb girl thing! Go home and play with your dollies.” He went inside his house and slammed the door on me, and all of my hopes and dreams for a new big brother.
I stood there for a little while, puzzling over the strange turn of events. I looked at the empty snake box in the empty garage. In our garage, my father’s lawnmower and tools were clean and neat, and waiting for him to come home and build us a fort, or mow the lawn. My father would smile and show us how to plant a tree, or pull us around the neighborhood in a red wagon he fixed up. Inside my house, my mother would always be there to witness my latest adventures, to bandage my scraped knees and console me when Billy’s teasing got too mean. She would tell me to ignore him and present me with bologna and cheese sandwiches at lunchtime, and insist I take a nap while she watched her soap operas. Billy’s mother worked and was not home during the day. I often thought he was lucky to be able to spend all day doing whatever he wanted with no adults around to tell him what to do. But I thought now, maybe that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
As if summoned by my thoughts, my own mother appeared at the screen door, wiping her hands. “Did you give that snake back to Billy?”
“Good, now come inside and wash your hands. Those creatures are dirty!”
I stood on the steps a minute longer.I thought I saw a curtain move behind a window next door.
“I’m coming!” I ran up the steps and let the screen door slam behind me.