In The Cellar With Dad

Yesterday, I wondered if we would have an autumn this year.  Today, almost suddenly, there is a shower of golden leaves outside my window.  They drift and saunter and lollygag; then the wind kicks up and they whirl and spin and drive to the ground.  It’s going to rain.  Rain!  After weeks of draught, a thousand gallons of city water for the roses, and ground so hard it takes a pick-axe to pull a weed, it’s raining. 

Dad told me last night, “This is just what we’ve been waiting for.”

Last week, Dad knocked on The Cellar door.  (I was writing.) 

“Come on in, Dad.  Sit a spell.”

“I ain’t gonna sit down unless you give me a drink.”

“Well, hold on.  I happen to have a little bourbon in this refrigerator.  Here it is.”

He chose a spot on the couch and put on his serious face.  “I wanted to talk to you about your roses.  Well, actually, there’s a few things.”

I nodded.  I poured myself one, too, and sat down in my desk chair and opened the bottom drawer and propped my feet.

“I think your soaker hose needs to be re-done and I know how to do it.   That little ditch needs to go all around the rose bed and the dirt needs to be piled up on top.  They do that all the time like where you see commercial landscaping.”

“You’re talking about a berm.”

“Is that what you call it?  Okay.  Berm.”

“Well, go to it.  Just don’t pile any dirt up around my roses.  That crown of the rose needs to be where I’ve planted it.  You know, it’s almost time to winterize those things.  I’ve got to read up again.”

“Okay, well, here’s my list.”  He counted on big thick fingers on a weathered palm.  Number one was his little finger.  “First, do that berm thing on the roses and re-do the soaker hose.  Then, that ground out front is hard as rock.  What happened is they dug that up and you planted it when it was wet.  It didn’t get a chance to lay there.  It’s got to be loosened up.  So I need to take up those small plants – leave the bushes alone – and put some loose, good dirt and peat moss and compost and work it in.  Then I can put those little plants back down.  And, third, I’m going to turn that ground for my garden.”

“Go to it.  Fine with me.  But you better not disturb my rose roots.  These roses have been the best I’ve ever had.”

He mocked me with his bitchy-woman voice.  “I’m not going to ruin your roses, Sis-Puss.”

He thought of something else.  “I can’t dig out front until it rains.  I’m going to rent that big garden tiller with the tines behind it from down at that rental place – $75 for four hours or $50 for three hours – and I can do the front and my garden while I’ve got it.”

 “Dad,” I said, “We can soak that ground down.  Water it good for two or three days and you’ll be able to dig.”

“Nooooooooo,” he said.  “No need to water except in an emergency.  We’ll just wait ‘til it rains.  You can go ahead and get the mulch, though.  Want me to go with you in the truck?”

“I don’t know exactly when I’m going yet,” I said.

“Well, you just get whatever you think, and I’ll spread it.  And I’ll unload it, too,” he said.

“Okay, I really do need to read up on winterizing roses.  I forget every year how to do it and have to read all over again.”

“What did we do last year?” he asked.

“Well, now, the rose bed wasn’t there.  We just planted those this spring.  And the ones we brought over from the other house were heeled in down there on the bank.  Remember, we brought all that stuff over in November and put them in the ground and strawed them in?”

Pause.  Sigh.  “Dad, we’ve been here a year,” I said.

“Mom and I’ll be here a year in November,” Dad said.

“I get to thinking that we – I mean, Dave and I – should have been further along by now.  And yet…”

Dad arched his eyebrows, shook his head, and rattled the ice in his glass.  “Ah, Sis, just think of all we’ve done!  Look around you, girl.”

“That’s just what I was about to say, Daddy.  When I think that I should have been able to get more done, I look at the roses and the corner gardens and even the front…“

“Our vegetables…those vines all over your porch rails…your roses…”

“Morning glories and moonflowers.  I think I’ll plant those again next year,” I said.

“Oh, it’s pretty.  Beautiful place.  I never thought it would be this way.”

“It’s changed.  A whole lot,” I said.

 “I like to think I’ve helped.”

“Yeah, you’ve done pretty good for an old fart,” I told him.  “Give me that glass.  Mom’s going to be looking for you.”

Mustn’t get too serious.


Happy Birthday Happy Birthday Happy Birthday

Pausing in the work of digging…

My dad turned eighty-one on September 25.  Last year, Dad celebrated his eightieth with my brother’s family in Fernley, Nevada.  Denny and Bev had gifted Mom and Dad with a train trip across country to celebrate with the “Western” family; they arrived home just in time to pack a few “last boxes” and make the move from the farm to The Compound on the ravine.  So this year, Dave and I had planned a brunch, complete with the “Eastern” grand-kids, great grand-kids, and maybe a couple of old friends.   After all, we’re also coming upon the one-year birthday of communal living on the ravine; maybe this could be one of those dual-purpose, or multi-tasking, events.

The brunch never happened.  September turned out to be a problem month for The Compound’s primary caregivers.  We traveled too much – first Mom and I went to the Southeastern Women of the ELCA convention in Marietta, Georgia, then Dave and I flew to Las Vegas for the big meeting of the Deloitte Partners, Principals, and Directors.  Those trips came on the heels of the trip to California in August, which was preceded by the trip to South Dakota in July.  With that many hole-ups in airplanes, hotels and strange places, it was bound to happen – we both came down with a nasty respiratory virus on the tail-end of the Las Vegas jaunt.  Really nasty.

The first day we really did anything after days of fever, coughing, and brain fog was Saturday, September 25.  Dave was salivating to grill a chicken with a half-can of beer up its rear; he had clipped the recipe from a Men’s Health magazine he read on the trip out.  I stirred up a quick recipe of baked beans and a small bowl of coleslaw.  Mom and Dad were thrilled that they would join us for late lunch-early dinner.  We hadn’t been together in days.

Dave, could you get me a cake mix and a can of frosting?  I want to make a cake for Dad.  

I got an early start and I practiced intervals – cook for fifteen minutes, couch for twenty, repeat, repeat, repeat.  The beans went in the oven, the lightly-dressed cabbage found its place in the refrigerator, and the two-layer yellow cake with fudge frosting looked lovely on the crystal stand.  Mom and Dad sipped summer drinks in the den while Dave tended the roasting fowl. 

Smells so good.

I had just said “I think we’ll be able to eat in about twenty minutes” when the phone rang. 

Jade.  Elder son.  “Heyyyyyyy, how you doing?”

“We’re coming along.  We’re cooking a chicken on the grill.”

“We’ve been up to have lunch with Jerry Wong today.”

“Did you go to eat Chinese food?”

“Of course.  Anjie says tell you she could hardly eat – People were in there with no underwear.” 


“Yeah, we actually went to the nicer one of the two Chinese restaurants and it was still awful.  Turned her stomach.” 

“Was this a man or a woman?”

“A  man.  Made her sick, you know, hanging out like that.”

“Oh dear lord.  Don’t tell me anything else.  We’re about to eat here in a few minutes.”

“I called Grandma and she didn’t answer.”

“That’s because they’re over here.  We’re having Grandpa’s birthday lunch.”

“That’s actually what I was calling about.  We want to stop by to bring Grandpa something for his birthday.”

“Well, come on.  You can eat with us – or if you don’t want to eat, you can have cake.  I baked him his favorite cake.”

Long pause.  “He’s going to have plenty of cake.”

“You’re bringing a cake?” 

“He told Anjie he wanted a yellow cake with chocolate frosting for his birthday and she told him she’d bake him one.”

“Well, bring it on!”

“And – well, there was some kind of mix-up with Jerry Wong.  When we called to ask him out to lunch, we told him that we’d have to leave by two because we needed to take Grandpa a cake.”

“Oh no.” 

“Yeah…so when we got there, he said, ‘Well, you don’t have to stop and get a cake for Grandpa because I got one.’”

“So you’re bringing a Walmart cake, too.”


I had set the table on the porch. 

Dave, this is about the best chicken I’ve ever eaten.  Oh, Diana, I’m so glad you made coleslaw.  No, we’re not going to eat but we’ll just sit out here on the porch with you and visit.  Yeah, maybe some cake – since you have plenty. 

We all dodged the hummingbirds whirring and chattering from one feeder to the other to the morning glory vines on the porch rails.  I forgot to bring out the ice cream I’d bought specifically for the birthday party but, hey,  I navigated the brain haze well enough to bring out dessert plates, forks, and napkins. 

“Okay, what are we going to do here?  We have yellow cake with homemade chocolate frosting – Oh I just love homemade frosting.  Mine’s not homemade; mine’s from a can.  Anjie, I can’t believe you made homemade frosting,” I said.

“First time, too.  I’m anxious to see if it was worth it.  I want a little of yours and a little of mine,” she said.

“I want some of both of them and don’t be too stingy,” Dad said.

“We don’t want to cut Jerry’s cake, do we?” I asked.

“Could put it in the freezer,” Anjie said.

“Didn’t you say you had a dinner at church tomorrow?” I asked.  “Maybe you could take it to share.”

“Now that’s what we’ll do,” Mom said.  Nobody asked Dad. 

Everybody had a little of both yellow cakes with chocolate frosting.  The men said they liked both of them and, to prove it, ate equal amounts of both.  Mom said Dad would eat the rest of both of them.  I asked Anjie if she didn’t think the homemade frosting was worth it, because I sure did.

She thought about her response, shrugged her shoulders, grinned, and said, “Yeah, it’s worth it.” 

“Definitely.”  Actually, I liked my cake better but her glossy dark frosting put my Pillsbury canned in its place.

Jade and Grandpa were engrossed in some sort of conversation about how churches can best support the community. 

Dave interrupted our cake talk to say, “Look at the fox.”

The young fox we’ve come to call Miss Prissy Fox eased around the compost bin and trotted to the garden on the opposite side of the back yard.  Miss Murphy Shih-tzu stuck her black nose through the white bottom rails of the porch to get a better look – but she didn’t bark.  Miss Prissy scratched the dirt in the garden and then made a dash for the center of the yard where she flopped in the grass and rolled for a minute, scratching first one side and then the other.  We all laughed out loud.  She sat up and made a lazy pass at scratching her left ear and then just looked around – at the yard, at the birds flying near the feeder, at us looking at her. 

“Well, she certainly seems very comfortable – not scared at all,” Anjie said.   “Jade, we better get going.”

Jade did not take the cue.  Instead, he returned to a previous statement.  “Grandpa, I think the United Methodists do a better job than any of the other churches at supporting Scouting.  Well, except for the Mormons.”  (Our Jade spent ten years in professional Boy Scout leadership.)

Anjie turned to me.  “How do you know it’s a female?  Or do you?”

“I don’t know.  Wouldn’t you think you could see his wee-wee if it’s a boy?”  I said.

Dave just shook his head. 

“And he’s not wearing underwear, either,” I added.

Anjie and I laughed and then she said, “Oh, God, that was just so gross.”

Several minutes later, all of us exhausted by Methodists, Mormons, Scouting, Habitat for Humanity, the Harlem Children’s Zone and Zuckerberg’s 100-million dollar donation to Newark City Schools, the party ended.  Dad collected big hugs from Jade and Anjie and told them how glad he was that they came to his birthday. 

Dave had just pushed the “Start” button on the first dishwasher load when Dad and Mom started down the hallway for home, each carrying a cane in one hand and a cake in the other.  Dad turned around. 

“This was the best birthday party I’ve ever had.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Shoot, yeah.  It would have to be – I got three cakes!”  Then he laughed out loud as he continued down the hall behind Mom.

“I’ll bring the other one over tomorrow morning,” I called after him.


With the Grillos

We’re away from the ravine again.  We’re staying somewhere very close to Santa Cruz, California.  Our friends, the Grillos, live in a fantasy place that they call Aptos Hills.  Somewhere close by is Aptos, a very fashionable and quaint little village and somewhere else are the Santa Cruz hills and even a little bit further down the road is the City of Santa Cruz.   There’s Capitola-by-the-Sea and Watsonville where there are lots of strawberries and a bunch of artichokes and then, on down and around the bay, there is Monterey. 

Dave and I love Aptos Hills.  The ocean is never far away.  The weather is moderate; almost anything pretty grows here without much effort, it seems.  The Farmers’ Markets are treasure-rows of fruits, vegetables, nuts, plants, honey, flowers and handmade items ranging from hand-woven wool to utility items like knives and dish drains.  Saturday morning we bought peaches, green peppers, and almonds.  We tasted the sauerkraut but decided to wait and buy a jar at a local market. 

The Grillo casa is nothing but beautiful, with a back yard full of apples, pears, berries, and lemons.  During the ten years our friends have owned the home, they’ve peformed miraculous upgrades and improvements.   The kitchen re-modeling included granite countertops and an etched-glass breakfast bar.  The living room/dining room makeover featured a massive handmade buffet and new neutrals in the living room – neutral except for, of course, the hydrangea-print chair, the one I always choose to sit my Southern bottom in. 

Every time we arrive for another visit, there’s something marvelously changed. This time, it was the grounds.  But what always makes our visits with the Grillos is not the weather, not the shopping, not the beach.  There are two things:  food and talk.  They’re the same two ingredients that make the Grillos’ visits with us in Tennessee, too.  Doesn’t matter who cooks, it’s always good.  Doesn’t matter what we talk about, it’s always better.

Food.  Just off the plane, Mrs. Grillo served up two hot soups, split-pea and chicken tortilla, both her specialties.  Our high school reunion in Pittsburg featured real Mexican stuff from the New Mecca Cafe, a well-known culinary treat in Pittsburg for over seventy-five years.  On Sunday, we ate hotdogs at the A’s game so Mrs. Grillo fed us grilled chicken salad – Not just any salad, but a big garlic-rubbed wooden bowl of greens, beets, purple onions, carrots, warm sliced chicken, crumbled bleu cheese and a finish of some old balsamic vinegar and good olive oil.   So far, on these weekdays, we’ve eaten at Phil’s Fish Market where the specialty is that pungent and brothy Italian seafood soup called cioppino, the famous Cliff House in San Francisco – where we loaded ourselves with sourdough and popovers, crab, and more fresh greens, and, yesterday, fish tacos at Olita’s on the Wharf in Santa Cruz.   For supper?  Fresh Bavarian sausages and locally-cured sauerkraut and corn-on-the-cob.

Let’s not forget breakfasts:  whole-wheat biscuits, eggs fresh from Glaum’s Egg Ranch, fruit salad, bacon, fried apples from the trees in the back (my Southern addition with lots of butter and sugar).  We cook – and we eat.  We should all be regular listeners to that NPR program “The Spendid Table.”  Lynne Rossetto Kasper always tags the introduction with “for people who like to eat.”   

Talk.   While we cook, and while we eat, we talk.  We even talk when we’re not cooking or eating.  Oh, we cover the usual for two couples with grandchildren.  Kids – four between them and three between us, grandkids – five and 3/4 for them and four for us with some great possibilities for more, jobs – Alex is a research physicist on the ATLAS project headquarted in Cern (you know, the Large Hadron Collider – think “Angels and Demons”), no jobs – Dave and Jean are really retired from real jobs, retirement, “going to retire” (I’ve “retired” several times), the 60’s (“if you remember the 60’s, you weren’t really there), a touch on the 50’s (Dave saw Buddy Holly and all the rest in Hot Springs, South Dakota),  home repairs and renovations completed, repairs that need to be done, repairs here vs. there, new landscaping, garden projects that need to be done, plants that grow here vs. there, laundry – and new laundry appliances, travel, weather.  But we cover some BIG topics, too – public schools vs. charter schools, mathematics (J’s job was a math coach for elementary teachers), the operations and theory of that collider at Cern (Dave and I don’t have a clue), immigration (there are some differences between California and Tennessee), home sales (we have a beautiful one for a reasonable price if you’re looking), the tax code (Dave=the Deloitte tax partner), government and politics, Obama, The Gubernator, the New Orleans Chief of Police (who was ours until N.O. stole him away). 

Just now, and just for a few minutes, here’s how the thread ran:

You know the thing that’s different about your hummingbirds?  So who votes for eggs?  I don’t like that all that sheetrock dust is flying around in their dining room.  They light on the feeder and drink for a long while – I mean, at least one of them does.  These apples are really good.  No, that wasn’t real Mecca food.  Maybe I’ll just fry up some apples and put whipped cream on them.  Ours never light for long.  Did you know that Willia WAS at the reunion?  Maybe it’s because the perch gets too hot.  Yeah, the brown sugar and cinnamon helped.  Walnuts, too.  Lots of fog. Yeah.  I really don’t know what they expect Obama to do if they won’t do it with him.   We really need to eat some lunch before the play.  I heard something dripping and thought your roof was leaking.  Well, even the Liberals are being bad.  There are so many flowers I’m surprised they’re at the feeder.  I just hated Nixon.  They’re disappointed.   You voted for George McGovern? -That surprises me.  We still have a bunch of that tortilla soup.  I’ve acquired a bit of sympathy for Nixon.  Her laptop weighs a ton.  I don’t think he’s been any worse than most of the rest.  Are we going to pick apples today?  Did you take your morning pills?  Next time you need to go Mac.  I need a sympathy card.  These things are two days old and taste pretty good.  I smell fish.  It’s because of the sugar.  Well, yeah, there was Reagan selling arms…    No, I’m talking about the popovers.  There’s no fish.  A guy can’t be President without some distance from reality.  That’s a native mint plant.  I have these other cards, too.  See my little oak tree?  Can we stop at Surf City? We’re out of coffee at home.  You should see Alex’s email.  You can’t call it the SuperCollider; that was in Texas.  Because I like to hold a book in my hands.  Why not olive oil?  You’ll smell fish when I heat up that leftover cioppino.  He didn’t want her to tell about the illegal substances.  I’m going to go download all those pictures.  I don’t know why it’s drooping – I watered it.  Did you call your mother?  Why wouldn’t you be cheered up looking at that every morning?  New dishtowels – these are wet.  No, I was not talking about cooking.  How do you know how firm it is if you can’t see the sleep number?  Why were you taking a picture of Alex’s foot?  She said she saw the fox yesterday.

Friends.  Friends with a lot of history.

None of it has to be coherent; it still makes perfectly good sense.

Being away…

Custer High School, Class of 1960.  The 50th reunion (Dave’s) coincided with Gold Discovery Days in Custer, South Dakota, July 23 and 24.  Now, Gold Discovery Days equal a big deal for this town of 1800 and all the high school classes schedule their reunions for this same weekend. 

It turns out there wasn’t much gold in them thar Black Hills, but the celebration continues.  The Class of 1945 rode in the parade in Model T’s; let’s see, that would make most of the members at least 83 years old – and there were at least ten of them.

We left Nashville and the ravine on Thursday, the 22nd.  We dropped off Murphy at Miss Kitty’s Bed and Bath – Murphy, the little black and white girl Shih-tzu who has taken so well to having a set of grandparents just “through the skybridge.”  She usually goes to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s every morning after breakfast and her morning walk.  They listen for her bark at the door and run (well, maybe walk fast) to let her in.  She drinks fresh water that Grandma puts out and then, with a big sigh, lies down at Grandpa’s feet in the den for a morning nap. 

Murphy loves Miss Kitty’s; what’s not to love?  No dogs over twenty inches tall, they take them out four times a day for play time, and a caretaker spends the night.  They even get birthday parties if their boarding happens to coincide.  So we just say that she’s “going on vacation, too” and  she romps down the hallway to find her ward and her room.   Mom and Dad don’t mind our vacations but they’re not crazy about Murphy’s. 

The South Dakota trip was a fast one, just four days and three nights.  Amazing what you can pack into a short time and space:  Mt. Rushmore, the sixty-year old unfinished Crazy Horse monument, the Needles, Custer State Park, the Gold Pan Saloon (swinging doors, sawdust floors), the Buglin Bull Restaurant and Sports Bar (on the other side of the main street, Mt. Rushmore Road), Fort Gordon,  the car show, Cattleman’s Family Dining, a “Frontier Photo,” almost two thousand buffalo, a dozen deer, five antelope, five or six hundred wild donkeys, twelve fields of wildflowers, and the Gold Discovery Days Parade with a couple hundred small children chasing after candy or dodging water balloons (both standards thrown from floats). 

We did not miss Nashville and we did not really miss the ravine; we were having too much fun sopping up the South Dakota weather –  85 in the daytime, down to 60 or lower after the sunset.  When we landed in Nashville at 7:30 on Sunday night, it was 95.  Ninety-five.  By the time we pulled in the driveway, Mom and Dad were both in bed.  We’d pick Murphy up on Monday after her hairdresser appointment. 

“Hi, we’re home!” I called as I walked through Mom’s back door. 

“Yeah, how was your trip?” she gave a perfunctory response.

Dad interrupted with “Yeah, when is Murphy coming home?” 


Tying up vines…

We have this big ramp on the northeast side of the main house that leads to the covered porch.  It’s a good-looking structure with white rails just like the porch’s and big painted concrete pillars for support that grow taller as the driveway descends a hill. 

A good place to plant some oak-leaf hydrangeas was the first thought, the first time I saw the ramp.  That was last August 1st, and at some point before April 30th I must have decided that morning-glories around the columnar posts are just the thing while we wait for the climbing roses I planted to spread and reach. Dublin Bay, a rich fragrant red,  two of them, one for each of the tallest posts. Oh yeah, there are a couple of pots of green things – vinca and monkey grass – and there’s a cucumber plant. 

Dad and I were having a cocktail the other evening, the standard time for our discussion of flowers, weeds, planter boxes, tomatoes, and my gardening skills. 

“Sis-Puss” (his old, old name for me), “You better do something about those vines over there under your ramp.  They’re all over the place.”

“Yeah, I guess I should tie them up.  Do you have any twine?”

I calculated, predicted, was confident of, Dad’s response:  “Sis, I’ll just go over there and tie them up for you if you’ll be happy with the way I do it.”  And I would reply:  “Oh, Dad, thank you… thank you… I don’t care how you do it.” 

The real reply was,  “Grass-twine.  It’s on my shop table just inside the door of the garage.  Plenty of it.”

So this morning, I staked lengths of Dad’s  grass-twine into the ground, wound it around those ivory concrete posts and tied it to the ramp rails.  Then I carefully pulled morning-glories away from the thriving roses and commanded them to “stick!” to the string and forever leave the roses alone.  At least for the last hour (I just checked), the morning-glories have proved to be obedient; it’s too early to suggest they might be well-trained. 

But now all that cleanup left bare mulched ground that begs for more plants.  Lucky – Mom and I sowed zinnia seeds in some planters this spring and either Mom and I or the zinnias have been overzealous.  I’ll just move some of those to the ground in-between the posts. 

The roses are ready to climb but they’re going to need some help before they can reach the posts.  I need trellises.  Not very tall ones, nor wide either, but I definitely need trellises.  And some more monkey grass would rrrrrreally fill in under the ramp…  That cucumber has blossoms!

Growing morning-glories under the ramp, just like moving the whole blessed lot of us to the ravine, has its surprises.

On the 7th day of moving…

Looking back to Moving Day 7  – from Month 9 after The Move.   

October 21, 2009  I’m already at that point where there’s a certain amount of joy over a broken glass…it means I don’t have to find a place to put it! We have more total space at this new “house” (hereinafter referred to as “compound”) than at Beech Tree Lane, but it’s all in such different places. NONE of the additional square footage is in the kitchen cabinets – in either of the THREE kitchens.Well, actually, the kitchen in the “apartment” doesn’t count because Mom and Dad will fill those cabinets on November 4. But there is a full kitchen in my new digs in the efficiency apartment (to be called “the studio”) in the walkout basement. I get six hundred square feet of office, kitchen, bath and laundry room. How did I wind up with the laundry room, anyway? But about that kitchen down there…There’s only one small cabinet, but there’s this nook where bunches of shelves can hold the overflow from the upstairs kitchen. Here’s my strategy: whatever won’t fit in the upstairs kitchen, I’ll take to the studio kitchen shelves. Mom keeps talking about throwing this big garage sale party in the spring, when we both know what we need here, and what we don’t. I figure I’ll shelve all these extras until April and then I’ll survey the shelves for dust. Whatever has a measurable five months of covering goes in the garage sale!Jameson and Carly, the two local grand-rugrats, are coming for their first sleep-over Friday night. We’ll go down to the studio and I’ll pop in some DVD’s on heavy equipment, or cooking, or whales – all very popular with J & C. Jameson will watch and provide play-by-play while Carly hands me stuff for the shelves.This morning I looked out the picture window to the back yard; that’s become my first-thing habit already. The porch (or is it a deck?) is finished on Mom and Dad’s apartment. I’m imagining Mom watering geraniums and petunias and begonias. I can just see Daddy making a slow but determined descent to his garden.This is all worth it.

Month 8, Day 22   After The Move – Everything has been so much more than I expected.  Larger.  Smaller.  Harder.  Faster.  Easier.  Better.  Dirtier.  Happier.  Busier.  Prettier.  And, today – Hotter.  More.  More of everything. 

The shelves in the basement – which has now been named “The Cellar” – are still full, but they’re junkier and my anal-but-oh-so-helpful-and-appreciated friend and I are about to clean them up.  No garage sale, though.  The extras will be offered to the kids and their rejects will go to ThriftSmart.  After all, ThriftSmart sales fund The Belize Project and Mercy Children’s Clinic. 

Most of my books are now on the shelf in The Cellar but that only happened recently and now I need one more bookcase.  Ah,  Two good-sized bookshelves for $25 – I’ll pick those up on Friday from sweet Jill.  It sure is handy to have Dad’s pickup truck onsite. 

Mom sold her Nissan Sentra before Christmas.  She doesn’t plan to drive again.  She can – but she wants to quit while she can.  Ah, – The first looker bought it.  I think she cleared about $3000, just the investment needed to finance the construction of a library for Dad.  Our neighbor is a builder and while he was in-between jobs, he and his contractor brother enclosed a large area around the lift on the ground level of the apartment.  Dad’s brother, my Uncle Frank, came to help with some finishing and painting, granddaughter-in-law Vicky assembled seventeen WalMart bookcases, and Mom hung pictures and certificates on the walls.  Dad painted the concrete floor and rolled out colorful area rugs.  We hooked up his computer about a month ago.  Dad can ride the lift directly down to his library and while he’s hidden away down there, Mom plays her piano, reads, or naps with Murphy, our little Shih-tzu. 

Murphy.  She’s become the “granddog supreme.”  She never misses a day tearing down the hall and barking to be let in to the apartment, a habit that is a delight to Mom and Dad.  Murphy refuses to be alone now, so if Dave and I leave home she goes to Grandma’s.  She also believes that Grandma and Grandpa can better soothe her during a thunderstorm, so at the smallest clap of thunder, Murphy is sitting under Grandpa’s feet.  If it gets really bad, Grandpa holds her in his lap. 

Jameson and Carly love the new place.  They’re attached to The Cellar and to the rain sprinkler in the back yard.  They also keep up with our resident family of red foxes; we calculate that there are at least sixteen that reside in the ravine.  This spring, we ooh-ed and ah-ed over two litters of babies; their moms would bring them up to sun every afternoon.  Of course, we also watch DVD’s down here in The Cellar; we like Scooby-Doo and have just discovered the movie “Coraline;” Mom and Dad put the hiatus on “FatBoy and ChumChum.”  (No sense of humor.)  Just a few weeks after the move, we discovered “the secret playground” at the local elementary school, so we make frequent trips where Grammy sits on a lovely green bench and cheers on the sliding and monkey-barring.  We keep special treats in The Cellar kitchen and Jameson cheerfully re-stocks the refrigerator from the supply of Diet Coke, Capri Sun, and spring water that we keep in the garage.  We even cook hotdogs down here. 

But, then, the grounds… The grounds are the biggest “more.”  We have barnwood flowerboxes from the farm surrounding the patio with pansies, petunias, cosmos, zinnias – and lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, carrots and a walnut tree.  There’s a thriving rose garden of Imagine, Deep Secret, Jude the Obscure, Distant Thunder, and Lemon Spice – all own-root English roses.  We’ve transplanted crape myrtle volunteers from the old gardens, along with irises, daylilies, more roses, yarrow, barberries, spirea, dianthus… and more.  We found a used white arbor on Craigslist, where else,  to define the entrance to a corner garden and we built a curvy brick path to the foxes’ entrance to the ravine on neighbor Don’s property.  How could we help but name it the “foxpath” after seeing the white-tips trotting down the winding path?   There’s more to be done; this particular “more” will never end.

And the porch on the old folks’ apartment?  (Oh, don’t cull me for calling them “the old folks;” they started it.)   That porch is full of ferns, geraniums, cacti – and windchimes.  I watch Mom water the pots strategically placed on top of the porch rails; then she leans wayyyyyy over to drop some nourishment to pots of hyacinth beans climbing the support posts and cypress vines covering the rails.  I watch Dad descend the stairs most mornings, walking stick in hand, straw hat shading his eyes, his back straight as a country preacher.  He waters the boxes and pots on the ground and then he retires to his library.   He’s teaching a Sunday school class during the month of July, so he needs to prepare.

More.  Better.  Lovelier. 

This is worth it.

Don’t go in the ravine…

“And don’t walk around on the bank behind that line of irises.  The ground is soft and it’ll throw you.  You’ll wind up twenty feet straight down in the ravine and I’m not sure how we’d get you back up.”  Dad’s given me that warning three times now.

Yesterday I asked him,  “So I guess you know this from personal experience?” 

“Yeah, I didn’t think I was ever going to climb back up.  And right now’s not a good time to go in the ravine, anyway.  The snakes are out.”

“You’ve seen snakes?”

“Nope, but I know they’re out.  They like this hot weather.” 

It’s too darn hot…. too darn hot…  That’s from Kiss Me, Kate, isn’t it?  Yeah, well, over here on the ravine, it’s too hot for kissing Kate or anybody else and it’s defnitely too darn hot for gardening.  I was going out at 6 a.m. this morning – I didn’t.  I was going to come in at 9:00 – I didn’t.  By noon I’d dug up about fifty iris tubers and planted four barberries and weeded out about twenty clumps of crabgrass.  Spent?  Oh yeah, I was.  And hot.

I was downstairs early so I should have gone on out there but I was watching a big black dog chase a fox – stupid dog.  The fox was having a teasing good time.  Back and forth across the back yard they sprinted with the fox taking a confusing occasional detour into the ravine on one end and back out on the other.  Blackie’s ears went straight up – Huh? he said.  What’s this?  And finally, he could stand no more; he plunged down into the ravine beside the compost bin, one of the favorite foxtrots. 

Fox came back up and sat down in front of the roses and leisurely scratched himself.  Now – I’m not saying that something got Blackie down there at the bottom of the ravine, but I never saw him come back out.  Not a good time to go in the ravine.

So I didn’t get outside until I thought perhaps Act III of the drama had ended but then, I didn’t have a script in front of me to make sure.  My plan was only to plant the barberries, two red and two green, and to weed a sizeable patch of the back corner garden, the one that has the foxpath to the ravine on Don’s property.  (Don is our bachelor neighbor.  We think of him as the Don of the neighborhood.  He sees all, knows all.  And he grows some wicked tomatoes.)

“Good morning, Miss Diana.”  Don made me jump.  I didn’t see him digging around in his lettuce and onions.  “What are you doing this morning?  Garden’s looking good…”

“Well, I spend most of my time on it just pondering.  Then I spend the rest of my time wondering why I don’t get more done.  Guess I’m going to dig dirt today.  Lettuce looking good, Don.”

“Get you some of it.  Onions almost ready, too.  What are you digging on?”

“Going to plant these little bushes.  Then I think I’ll move a couple of those irises over here by the daylilies.”

Dad and I heeled in a thirty-foot line of irises on the ravine bank last fall when we moved in.  They’ve needed weeding, or moving, or both, so I determined to start transplanting a few at a time, here and there.  Sure enough, the first ones I dug up had some root damage.  It was a quick thought – as opposed to my usual meandering ponder.   Uh-oh, I better dig all these things up and clean them up and get them moved before I lose the whole bunch of them.

I dug.  I wiped my face with an old damask napkin.  I dug.  I sprayed myself every few minutes with the garden hose.  I pulled grass and vine out of the roots.   I dug.  Too darn hot.  I checked my cellphone; yep, still in its plastic ziplock bag.  (I lost the last one to garden sweat.)  I dug.  I separated the tubers.   I got the whole row of irises dug up, cleaned up, separated.  And I only threatened a plunge into the ravine twice. 

The first time I was rescued by an unwitting muscadine twined into a tight thick pad on a felled tree.  The other time I grabbed the edge of the compost bin and pulled and crawled back up.  That ground was soft and it threw me.  Snakes are out.  Big black dog is down in the ravine.  How would I ever get back up?

I went to see Dad after lunch.  He said he’d been outside but didn’t get any work done.  “Too hot to do much outside,” he said.  I told him I dug up the irises. 

“You did?  You better be careful walking on the bank behind where those irises were.  That ground is soft and it’ll throw you.”

“Yeah, well, guess what I saw this morning…. that big black dog was chasing a fox across the back yard….”  I went on to recount the story.

Dad thought for a minute.  “Well, I’m not saying something ate him up down there in the ravine, but you never saw him come back up, and I never saw him come back up…”

Just sayin’.


Moving…it started this way

This is what is commonly called “backstory.”  Or maybe it’s just a flashback.
August 20, 2009  –  Dave and I are going to move. Not far away but to somewhere completely different from the upper-middle affluence of Brentwood. We’ve been in dialogue for some time with my nearing-80-year-old parents. It’s time for them to leave the farm; there will come a time shortly when they will no longer be able to drive themselves around Chestnut Mound, Dillard’s Creek and Dickens Hollow (say “holler” and you’ll talk like the rest of us…).
Dad retired from the Granville United Methodist Church on Father’s Day this year – but he didn’t quit work. He had already contracted as a substitute teacher at the high school in Carthage. Mom, on the other hand, maintains her position as a bookkeeper at D. T. McCall’s and works four and a half days per week.
So we thought we had some time to look around; we thought we could “stage” this two-story, steep-staired Brentwood home and get it on the market, oh, maybe February. We even rented a storage unit and started moving “extras” out of the house. (You know, of course, “staging” means you have to have an almost empty house save for a few items to show that someone could live in it: I don’t get it, but I’ll do it.)
And when Cry-Leike put the sign in the front yard, we’d start looking for a new home where none of us had to haul creaky bones up a set of steps to bed and where Grandmama and Grandpapa would be “separate but accessible.” We talked about buying a house with enough land to develop a good-sized modular home in the back, maybe even enclose a passageway. None of us wanted to be under any foot, no matter whatever size socks or age of whichever feet. We did not talk too much about finding the new home first, before Mom and Dad quit work, before Di and Dave might sell the house.
God is such a trickster… I mean, “Trickster.” With Her usual supply of surprise, She laid a house in the path in front of us when we got lost on the way home from ThriftSmart. No kidding. My goddaughter, Andie, and I took donations to this ecumenically-run church shop. Andie being home from Ithaca College without a job, she was more than willing to work a few hours a week for us packing up and sorting books, pictures, and the good crystal.
When we left ThriftSmart, both ends of Nolensville Road were blocked by street repairs so we took a turn up Northcrest, a street I’d never driven. After wandering and backtracking and seeing a familiar landmark at the end of one street, we were on our way home when Andie said, “Dinanah, I think I saw a house for sale back there – with an apartment.”
“Really?” I asked. I hadn’t seen it. “Maybe we should turn around and check it out.”
“So where’s the apartment?” I asked.
“There, over that garage.”
How could I have missed it? Huge. It was huge. The house was pretty, but the landscaping unloved and lonely. The sign said nothing about an apartment.
“Maybe the apartment isn’t for sale,” I said. “Let’s just write down this realtor’s number and I’ll call her tonight.”

Blackberries…it’s summer, so hot

It’s so hot on the ravine – really hot.  Mom and I decided that it’s just too hot to garden.  Well, Mom doesn’t garden; Daddy gardens.  That doesn’t stop her from deciding things like that. 

Last week, we went to Murfreesboro, about 30 miles away, to pick up a new arbor for the gardens.  Mom loves a little road trip; she often quotes Dad’s dad to describe herself and her sisters-in-law, “Want to go?  Any of these girls are ready when there’s a go on hand!” 

“Will we have lunch while we’re out?” she asked. 

“I suppose so.”

“Well, I’d like to find a new pair of black capris.”

“Okay, we’ll go to Kohl’s.”

“And have lunch?”

“Yes, we’ll have lunch.”

The arbor was out on a country road in a subdivision of new homes.  It made me smile, the lengths some gardener-homeowners had taken to make the homes look established, and older.  My seller had installed trellises and arbors and little ponds.  It didn’t all “hang together,” but the effort was appreciable and the arbor I was purchasing had been replaced by a taller and thicker model.  The gracious owner helped me load my new garden addition into the pickup truck and we tied it down and headed back down the rural road.

“Mom, look,” I said.  “Queen Anne’s lace.  Are those blue things what you’d call chickory?”

“We always called that wild bachelor buttons.  Oh look, there’s a lot of black-eyed susans, too.  We should get some.”

So I stopped by the road and parked the truck and pulled up wildflowers to tuck into the bank of the ravine, not knowing if we could keep them alive but imagining a bank full of white, blue, gold, and yellow next year. 

“I had some foxglove I dug up on the Chestnut Mound Road last year but I don’t think any of it is left now,” Mom offered as I pulled back onto the road, just glad to be back in the air conditioning of the Nissan.  “I guess I miss the wildflowers up there at the farm.”

Suddenly I felt the heat of the Smith County farmland and the sun on the hills and the shade of the box elder tree.   I knew what she missed…

“Blackberries, Mom.  Do you think there’ll be many blackberries this year?”  And I remembered a letter I wrote to Mom years ago.  It was more of a poem, and too sentimental, and Mom doesn’t go for the overly sappy – and I wound up giving it to her for Mother’s Day.

March, 1987

Dear Mom,

Today I opened a fresh jar of blackberry jam.  The sticker you put on the lid read “BB Jam 1985.”  I chose one perfect berry resting just on the top, and when the spoon left it on my waiting tongue, I thought of you.

The yellow in my kitchen becomes hot sunshine on summer hills.  I breathe in the smell of cedar trees, rocks, jimsom-weed, Queen Anne’s lace, and the barn at the heart of the hollow below.  Coil oil, warmed by the sun, drifts to my face from my ankles and wrists.  Some grandma or grandpa, from a long time ago, told us it would ward off ticks and chiggers.

I feel my hand reach into the bending briars, my long-sleeved shirt snagging in the intended protection.  My eyes follow rounded fingers, pinky in air, plucking one, two, three berries and then cupping them to my palm until it’s full enough to deposit them gently into the waiting lard bucket swinging from my arm.  I pause to peer inside to see if I have yet covered the boom and I hear you say, “Come on, Sis, we have to get at least two gallons.  Are you looking out for snakes?”

I glance to the ground in quick response as we move from briar to briar, and I see my Pa’s overalls tucked into oversized boots.  I take on patch after patch, collecting purple-black stains on my fingers, rips in my shirt, pricks to my skin – and chiggers. 

And every year, you tell me that it takes a cup of sugar for every cup of berries to make really good jam… that some people use pectin but we’ve never needed any…and that this winter when there’s a snow on the ground, won’t WE be glad we picked these old blackberries.

Mama, when I am old and you are gone and I miss you, I will search for a jar of your blackberry jam.  I will find that perfect berry resting on the top, and while my mouth – and eyes – water, I will think only of you and warm sunshine on summer hills.



Weedeating, Cardiologists, Dreams…

Living with aging parents requires a bit of patience, especially for the aging parents.

Mom and I are going to see Dr. Scovill today – He’s the cardiologist, been around for several years and we’ve loved him through bypass, stents, and check-ups.  When Mom and Dad still lived on the farm in Smith County, they would come to our house one afternoon about three to spend the night before her appointment.  We’d have a nice dinner together, the two of them retiring early to the big bedroom with the king-sized bed.  If Mom forgot her earplugs, she knew Dave would have some extras.  At home, Mom would tuck Dad in across the hall in his own bedroom.  We provided a similar sleeping arrangement but one time Dad got sick in the night and Mom didn’t hear him, so she finished the tenure on Beech Tree Lane one one side of the big bed avoiding Dad’s snoring. 

She and I would keep the appointment the next day while Dave babysat Grandpa while Grandpa read whatever new book I’d summoned up to keep him occupied.  That was when Dave still called him Grandpa.  Now that we live next door to each other, Dave calls him Ernie. 

After an hour or two at St. Thomas, depending on whether it was ultra-sound day or not, we’d leave for lunch just down West End toward town at PF Chang, Mom’s favorite.  She’d order something with chicken and I’d have my usual eggplant with ground chicken.  We’d laugh about how we were always later to the appointment than we had intended because we never knew which door to go in and we’d assure each other that Dave and Grandpa were just fine and didn’t want to come to lunch with us, anyway – “That’s what he said.”  Now that we live next door to each other, we don’t go to lunch after; we don’t even get lost any more. 

Dad mowed and trimmed our three-quarter acres yesterday.   I suppose it’s “three-quarters of an acre minus the two houses.”  He brought the John Deere from the farm when they moved here in November.  Good thing, because Dave is still mowing over at the other house that has yet to sell and there’s no way either Dad or Dave could walk this property the once-a-week it takes to keep it under control.  Dad misses spots; the white clover heads pop up with defiance.  His trimming is erratic. 

“Mom, we have to get Dad to stop chewing up the bushes and vines on the ravine,” I told her at breakfast Wednesday.  When I have “something to talk to Mom and Dad about,” I pop over in the morning.  Now, sometimes I just go.  For some reason, I can’t keep a half-gallon of skim milk without half of it spoiling while Mom buys by the gallon and never loses any of it.  Do you think maybe a gallon just keeps longer than a half-gallon, I asked.  Maybe so, she answered, And you know I always have milk so you can always get some here.

“What’d that old fool do now?” she laughed. 

I stopped in the middle of my granola.  “He’s waving the Weedeater way up in the air trying to trim the vines – He’s gonna hurt himself that way.  And then he tries to trim the bushes with it – you know, the wild bushes – and now they look like a goat has been chewing on them.  He needs to leave them alone.”

“Oh, I know.  He gets strung out with that Weedeater.  I’ve told him before – but I’ll talk to him.” 

I’ve learned to talk behind Daddy’s back.  For a few months, I plotted and planned any conversation that could be considered negative, or criticism, and I never felt good about any of them.  That’s because Dad is so sensitive that he needs some sort of “filter” for my talk.  I finally realized that Mom has been “filtering” for Dad for 65 years.  I’m only 60…  So now I tell Mom and she tells Dad and he asks me and … actually, he just continues to do things the way he wants.  If it’s that important to me, I try maybe three times.  I have a few successes I could note…

Daddy is so much less sensitive if Mom tells him something like “Put the damn Weedeater down.” 

Last night I dreamed that Mom died.  Dr. Scovill helped her die – at her request.  The next morning, she appeared in my bedroom.  She was young and thin with a pixie cut of thick, dark auburn hair.  She was wiggling into a pair of my pantihose. 

“Mom, what are you doing?”  My only surprise was the pantihose.  She always hated pantihose.

“Oh, just getting dressed for the day.” 

“Did you know you’re in my bedroom?”

“Oh, yes, I am, aren’t I?  – Okay, I’ll just go next door and see Daddy.  Come on over – I just bought a gallon of milk.”

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