In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

Pie

It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE?

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Night sounds

“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.”

-Jack London, The Call of the Wild

Wolves were domesticated 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.The earliest ancestors of the breed of dog known as Beagles today are thought to have been used as hunting dogs in Greece as early as the 5th century B.C. Beagles were imported to the United States from Europe in the early 1870’s.

Lilly, our miniature beagle, spends the bulk of her life doing one of three things. Sleeping, begging for treats, or staring out into the woods from the safety of her fenced yard at home. Often, as she gazes longingly out into the woods beyond the fence, I notice a far-away look in her eyes as if she is remembering on some cellular level the ancestors from which she came.

You could say that Lilly is highly domesticated. In fact, she is about as far removed from being a wolf as a dog can be. She is a spoiled, noisy, floppy-eared baby who is afraid of things like wood ticks and hates being wet or cold. Which is why, on Monday night at dusk when she took off into the woods up at the lake, my sister and I were more than a little concerned. Lilly spent the night out in the woods. By morning, her happy Roo! Roo! had been replaced by an urgent Help! Help! and so, we walked for miles through thick woods trying to find her. By afternoon, she had stopped making any noises at all and we worried that she had gotten herself into something she couldn’t get out of.  Like a trap. Or a bear’s mouth. We worried that perhaps she’d become the main course for a litter of hungry wolf pups. One’s imagination runs wild when a beagle near a swamp gets too quiet.

She must have just been taking an afternoon nap because by evening, she was once again sending out her beagle S.O.S. She’s lucky she ended up with humans who know how to follow their instincts when it comes to being in the woods. Humans who pay attention to where the sun is in the sky before they go into the woods and know how to use a compass. Ones who actually know what poison ivy looks like. The next morning, those humans listened and walked. Then listened and walked some more. An hour later, Lilly was rescued. In the thirty-six hours she was gone, the only things that had dined on her were a few wood ticks and a very hungry army of gnats.

She’s home now. In the evening, as she dreams, she whimpers and runs from whatever scary things she seems to be remembering. Things like wood ticks, gnats, and the night sounds in the woods her ancestors, the wolves, understood. She would have made a lousy wolf. I am beginning to wonder if she’s even very good at being a beagle, frankly.

Luckily for Lilly, her very human pack has some pretty good instincts, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eyes with which to see

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.

-John Leonard

We offer one another our “cheaters” to read menus these days.  After nearly fifty years of friendship from elementary school through emptied nests, it has finally come to this for all of us.  We are no longer girls, but moles. Or maybe we are bats.

Well, at least I am. I cannot wear my newest pair of bifocals to work on my laptop unless I want to rest my laptop on my chest.  My old pair of bifocals allows me put the computer on my lap where it belongs. Although I can see most other things more clearly with the new pair, I’m constantly searching for the older pair when it comes to working or writing. It gets worse. In order to drive in sunshine, I need to switch to a pair of old glasses I had tinted with lenses that are only supposed to darken in sunlight. The darn things don’t go back to clear until it is nearly time to go back outside which pretty much defeats the purpose of lenses that darken automatically if you ask me. I have to close one eye to read the time on the clock radio by the bed. Don’t ask me why that works. Without my bifocals, I can’t see a darn thing up close, but I can still see a turtle in the road a quarter of a mile ahead of me and pass the eye exam without any glasses when I get my license renewed. Go figure. All I know is that I took my eyes for granted until they went to pot.

I’m glad my old friends’ eyes aren’t any better than mine.  It allows us all to see each other and ourselves more gently than we ever did as girls or younger women. We take better care of each other now. Our scars and the laugh lines around our eyes tell our stories for us. The memories of who we were as girls are precious. Much of what we thought we knew for sure then has blurred with time. This is good. We were too sure for our own good anyway. That’s what we tell each other over dinner and glasses of wine.

It is good, at this age, to squint at menus and giggle like the school girls we were so long ago. To pass the cheaters across the table. To order more wine and linger over it just because we can. To be glad to share time with old friends.

Grateful, in the fifth decade of our lives, for the softened edges of our friendship.

 

Real news

He doesn’t know he’s a hummingbird.  At least, that’s what I think.

We have a pair of pileated woodpeckers who arrived in our woods a week ago. They are enormous. Imagine two black chihuahuas with wings and red mohawks.  I am fairly certain they are married because they sit in separate trees and squawk loudly at each other when they aren’t gorging themselves on my suet.

Most days, the one little hummer we have perches on top of the tall shepherd’s hook surveying his kingdom until one of them arrives to eat. Then, he moves to a nearby branch to watch. He seems particularly infatuated with Mrs. Woodpecker. He does not know that he doesn’t stand a chance with her.  It is clear that while she is often annoyed with her partner, she married for keeps.

In other news, we have a major tick problem around here. Lilly the beagle is a veritable tick magnet. She is also a bundle of nerves who not only checks herself for new ones but us, too, if we are sitting in the porch next to her. Her nose never lies. This is clearly why beagles are the breed used to sniff out drugs in airports and bedbugs in dormitories. The bad news is that while she is checking she is also doing a whole lot of snuffling. The good news? No ticks stay stuck long enough to be a problem for any of the mammals who live here.

I dodged crazy weather in the Twin Cities this morning as a line of severe storms came through. The sky turned eerily green and then it hailed mightily in several suburbs. On the morning news, one of the reporters advised any individuals stuck in their vehicles during the storm to make sure they were buckled in and as an added precaution, to wear any hockey masks or bike helmets they might have in their cars until the storm passed.

Only in Minnesota. Am I right?

It is June. Sweet, lovely, June. So far, at least here “up north” we have been lucky.  No high winds, buckets of hail, or pea-green skies. Just bickering woodpeckers, hummingbirds with big ideas, and a bumper crop of wood ticks.

But hey, if you have a hockey mask in the back seat of your car, leave it there.  It might come in handy. You can’t be too careful in June.

It must be true. I heard it on the news.

 

Last bird, first bird

One is the last. The other, the first.

We have two more newly minted high school grads in the family this week. Diplomas in hand, they are off to great, new adventures. We like graduations in this family. Next week, we will gather to honor and celebrate their achievements just like we have for the other ones who’ve reached the same milestone. They will do what high school grads do at open houses.  They’ll be polite and try to talk to their relatives when what they’d rather be doing is hanging with their friends.  We get it. Go on. Have fun with your friends. Soon, you will only see them during college breaks and eventually, those visits will probably become shorter and farther apart. That’s just what happens when you outgrow each other.

One chick is the last to leave the nest so her parents have seen this show twice before and know what’s ahead. They are happy for her and pretty pleased with themselves. The other one is the first bird to leave.  His parents are happy, too.  But they are just on the cusp of the stage of life when the house begins to empty out bit by bit and bird by bird.  We think we have all this time with children when they are small and then, in what seems like a flash, they are walking across that darn stage and launching into the vast unknown, wings flapping like crazy.  To those parents I say, “you’ll be fine.” And so will he.

In my generation, I was the first to graduate from high school and the first to go away to college. The generation before me, it was my aunt who was the first. Her parents were both high school graduates during a generation when that wasn’t a given. Back then, only those with the financial means to go even considered a college degree a possibility. My grandfather regretted not being able to go to college his whole life.  And so, in our family it was understood that while high school graduations were important and worthy of celebrating, it was what came after that truly mattered.

This is, in part, why it matters still, to these two new birds leaving the nest this week. They have taken for granted the fact that higher education was theirs for the taking because people who came before them that they know only from grainy photographs never did. Not for a single minute.  This shaped who they were. It has shaped the rest of us, too.

And so, when all of us with gray hair gather next week and eat too much food and make the new graduates stop long enough at the table just to say hello, there will also be a pair of happy ghosts standing off to the side smiling and listening to the laughter.

It is good to remember how we got here. Not take it for granted. Not for a minute.

Congratulations to Carolina Bather, Benilde-St.Margaret’s, Connor Ott, Graduate of Breck, and Lucas Ray, recent graduate of Purdue University.  Be proud, but humble. Be kind, but smart. Be happy, but safe. You are all loved more than you can possibly imagine by this wacky bunch of people you call your family.

And a rooster in an oak tree

There are some things that you just can’t un-see.  A  big rooster perched on a large branch of an oak tree is one of those things. Now, I’m no chicken expert, but I’m pretty sure that large oak trees next to highways in northern Minnesota are not normal resting places for boy chickens.

I have just shared everything I know about roosters in that first paragraph, in case you were wondering.

Through the years, I’ve seen a lot of things in trees. Bald eagles, smaller birds, raccoons, even a couple of woodchucks. Not all at the same time, thank goodness. Anyway, here’s what happened. I was cruising up 169 just north of Garrison when I spotted the bright red comb and large, plump, brown body about seventy-five feet off the ground. I didn’t dawn on me until I passed that what I’d seen was an honest-to-goodness rooster in an oak tree. I thought of going back to take a picture so people wouldn’t think I was just making stuff up. Then I decided that the only thing more ridiculous than seeing a rooster in an oak tree would be the image of a scrawny, gray-haired woman in a raincoat standing outside her tiny car on a rainy Sunday in May taking a cell phone picture of a rooster in an oak tree.

The rest of the way home, I thought about that darn rooster.  How had he gotten up there? What if he was stuck like a cat? Can roosters climb trees? Had he been raised by eagles and didn’t know he was a rooster? Was he bored with chickens and hoping to find a grouse hen to court?

So many questions with no answers.

Someone is going to tell me that it was a big woodpecker and not a rooster that I spied high in that tree. They will smile sadly and think I’ve finally gone ’round the bend or need to get my eyes checked. I just know it.

But here’s the deal.

When a woman of a certain age tells you she’s seen a rooster in an oak tree, you best believe her. And if you happen to be traveling to the Twin Cities on Highway 169, look for a big oak on the east side of the road right before you get to Lake Mille Lacs. I bet he’ll still be there acting like an eagle. Or maybe just trying to figure out how to get down.

Looking as regal as it is possible for any rooster in an oak tree to look.

Mother’s Day 2017

I loved them before I ever knew them.

Women who give birth to babies who look a little like them and a little like the father say that about the children they carry.  That they loved the child even before the child was born. That when the babies were placed on their chests after birth and they gazed into the baby’s eyes for the first time, they recognized the children as theirs.  I’ve been told this by more than one mother.

Even though they looked nothing like me, I recognized mine, too.  I looked at their faces in photographs sent from an adoption agency half a world away, and in that moment, everything, EVERYTHING finally made sense.  And I became a mother. Their mother.

Even after all these years, I still don’t know where I end and they begin.  When they are happy, I am happy.  When they hurt, I hurt more. They are my first thoughts every morning and my last bedtime prayer.  They do not yet understand this kind of love.  Someday they may, and it will probably humble and frighten them in the same ways that it has me. You think you know, but nothing prepares you for this kind of love.  It kind of drops you to your knees. Over and over. It drops you.

Mother’s Day is the day set aside to honor our mothers.  We visit or send flowers or make a phone call to wish our own mother a happy day.  It’s kind of commercial and pretty much expected in May.  Today, I am thinking about all of my friends who are missing their mothers. Women who tell me I am fortunate that I can still visit mine.  It’s true.

I am thinking about the women who yearn for that humbling, frightening, kind of love for a child, too.  Because I was one of those for a really long time before I became a mother through the miracle of adoption. I think of the two special mothers I never met who I share the day with. Women who trusted that the universe would be kind to the babies they brought into the world. A son. A daughter. Double blessings.

The ones we share who call me Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Bob-bob-bobbin’ along

I noticed all the earthworms frozen to the pavement when I went out to scrape the half-inch of ice off my windshield in the morning. Late April in Minnesota. Yuck. Just when you pack away the boots and strap on your sandals, you get slapped upside the head by Mother Nature again.

By noon, when I headed home, the highways were fine but the county roads were covered in slush. Adding to that headache was the fact that every darn robin in a fifty mile radius had decided that it was a good day to harvest worms. Every few feet, I came upon a flock hopping in slush up to their bellies in the middle of the road.I braked every time and avoided them all. I’m no dummy. It is bad karma to splat a robin in the springtime. Or at least it should be, if it isn’t.

I’d been to a retirement dinner for colleagues the night before. As far as I’m concerned, retirement dinners are like Irish Wakes without the whiskey. Everyone says nice things and shares funny stories about the person who is leaving. Some shed a tear or two. There are bad jokes about nursing homes.There should be a better way to honor coworkers than to tell them what they DON’T have to look forward to.

This year’s newly departed have joined the ranks of the Gold Watch brigade. They’ll fish and play golf and see their grand babies more. They will volunteer or finally write that novel. Maybe they’ll find a beach somewhere warm to migrate to. Fate and good genes matter in retirement. Several years ago, a dear friend and colleague who’d been asked to sing a song for another retiree finished it by announcing his own retirement effective immediately. There were gasps from those gathered at the Legion. What? No cake? No wake? Nope. Just one last song from a sixty year old still young enough to carry his own tune right out the door. He left on his terms, not ours. I admired him for it then, and still do.

And so, I’m hatching my own retirement plan for the future. When it’s my time to go, I will do it in the springtime. No fanfare or fond farewells. No jokes about nursing homes, either. I’ll just bob down the center line of the road of the rest of my life, come rain or come shine, like a robin. In anticipation of all the juicy possibilities there for the taking just around the bend.