Murphy bit my nose.

I knew it was coming someday, and it was my own fault. She was already in bed, curled up, occupying the space that would hold my feet if that little Punkin’ wasn’t there. I bent down at the foot of the bed to kiss her on the head and she didn’t feel me coming. Bless her, she can’t see, hear nor smell very well,  but most of the time she senses me present. She didn’t hurt me and didn’t growl. It was as close as she could get to biting without biting.

We’ll celebrate Murphy’s fourteenth birthday April 22.

2018-02-17 14.46.21

Jameson Blair Graham, the oldest grandson, will turn fourteen on May 17.  Our little black and white fuzzball Murphy Sweet Punkin’ has been plagued with medical problems, including an autoimmune disease, and has already lived past the average age of demise for a Shih-tzu. In contrast, Jameson is leaned in and fast approaching adulthood. He’s left all pre-teen notions behind and is a bonafide, full-fledged teenager.  He still loves his young cousin, and they think he’s wonderful. He’ll be driving on a learner’s permit in a little over a year.

Yeah, we know what’s coming, and we know it’s coming soon.

We bought a lift chair for Dad yesterday. It is a pretty chair, just the right size for his space, chocolate brown faux suede. LIFT chairDad turns eighty-nine in September. He’s fallen several times since Christmas, the time when his scleroderma started acting out as if on a mission. Some days, he’s needed help to get out of his old favorite recliner–or actually any chair he sits in. His legs won’t hold him up without his Rollator, and several times a day, he can’t even move his feet holding to the walker.

After Sunday Dinner this week, Dave and I made the decision to set the table at the apartment from now on. Mom always writes Sunday Dinner with the two capitals, I think because it’s one of their favorite times at our house.  We set the table with the good silverware and glasses, and we always use cloth napkins–unless we’re eating pasta with red sauce or pork barbecue. Dad was too weak to eat Sunday. It was exhausting to walk those one hundred steps or so to the table, impossible for him to navigate to a chair in the den, and futile to think he could get out of his at-my-house favorite, an old red chenille recliner.

Murphy loved Old Red in her younger years. It’s been a long time since she could jump on and off a chair.Murphy3

Monday morning, he was in the bedroom trying to play Merle Haggard on his new boombox (generously donated on Sunday afternoon by fellow book-clubber Susan) when he fell, punching out the cane back of his sturdy wooden chair. I hurried next door when Mom called. Dave was away from home, but I knew I could call on neighbor Don to help me get him up if necessary.  I found Dad on all fours, trying to crawl across the bedroom to the bathroom. He knew he needed to clean up and change some clothes. With Mom’s help, I convinced him to get his chest against his punched-out chair. It took three tries, but I got him up–and he helped. His voice was so weak I could barely hear him.

Once in the bathroom, he cleaned up as much as he could, holding himself upright by pressing against the clothes dryer. I “polished him off” and then scrubbed down the place, paying particular attention to the washer and dryer that acted as his props. I was reminded to find Mom a dryer since hers quit that very morning.  Later that afternoon, I bought a new dryer at Lowe’s and drove a few miles to Franklin to pick up my newly repaired sewing machine.

The dryer arrived on Tuesday morning.

We moved Dad’s old leather recliner downstairs to his study, a place nobody goes anymore except to water overwintering plants. We got another wooden armchair for Dad’s bedroom and started looking for a sturdy chair for the den, one that might be described as “easy in, easy out.”  Then we put Old Red up for sale, even though it really was the most comfortable seat in the house. It doesn’t match the den colors anyway.

So we’re prepared. We know what’s coming, but we don’t know how soon.

 

TomTom is gone.

I have grieved but not nearly as much as my dad. He made friends with the little grey and white kitten the first time TomTom crawled up the bank from the ravine. Dad was working outside and talked to his new friend every day until the cat was no longer afraid of him. Tom might have been six months old, or maybe just four. 2016-05-05-18-15-04

While Dad strolled around the Compound on his morning walk, Tom followed. Every chance he got, he rubbed Dad’s legs, sometimes winding between them to almost trip him. Dad learned to shake him loose. Tom didn’t mind.

One day I asked Dad if he had seen the tomcat that morning.

“Is he a tomcat?” he asked.

“Yes, he is.”

“You can tell?”

“Yes, I see some things that indicate to me that he is definitely a male.”

Dad named him TomTom, one of his favorite names for cats. He bought a little sherpa-lined bed and stuffed it into a protected spot on the apartment porch. Mom included Meow Mix on her grocery list.

TomTom chose Dave next. One morning, after he took the recycling cans to the street, Dave announced that Tom had let him pet him. I’ll admit I was a bit jealous.

“Well,” I said to Dad, “if that cat is going to stay around, I guess we better take him in for shots. And we need to have him neutered.”

I found a good community clinic with reasonable prices and told Dad I would give him Tom’s veterinary visit for his birthday. He was pleased. Tom wasn’t.

I borrowed a hard crate from a friend and set it outside–“so Tom can get used to seeing it.” Tom took off and didn’t appear until three days later when I returned the crate to the garage. We decided Tom had seen a cat-carrier, probably up close, at least once in his lifetime–and wasn’t fond of the experience.

My hairdresser told me she favored a soft-sided case, that it was easy to sort of “stuff the cat in and zip it up fast.” I started to purchase one, but my daughter-in-law said she’d loan me theirs. I figured I’d give Tom’s reluctance a couple weeks to subside.

He wouldn’t sleep in his little bed on Mom and Dad’s porch, so we moved it to the main house’s porch beside the den. He still wouldn’t use the bed, but he curled up almost every night on one of the wicker chair cushions. During the day, he’d walk or sit with Dad, stroll in the gardens, and nap in the sunlight on the bank or in the shade of one of the porches. He drank from a birdbath that I always filled with fresh water. He hunted up and down the ravine, the old home place he returned to at some point every day.

I started a morning-treat ritual with Tom, and he grew to like me. I gave him a small piece of meat or fish, and when I had no leftovers, I pulled out a small container of purchased cat food that I always kept on hand. After the appetizer, he climbed the steps to the apartment steps and finished off his bowl of Meow Mix.

Tom loved to aggravate our little Shih-tzu Murphy by meowing at her through the glass door of the den. She was always willing to growl, yap, and fuss at him. When Dave took her out for her bedtime walk, Tom either followed them down the street, Murphy barking and pulling at her leash until Dave had to pick her up and carry her away from the cat. Or if TomTom was already sleepy, he’d maybe open one eye from the middle of his warm, curled-up self and totally ignore that silly dog.

About the third week into our newly-cemented relationship, Tom began to walk into The Cellar when I’d open the door. He’d make one loop around the small kitchen area and then he was ready to get back outside. He also let me pick him up. He wouldn’t stay long, and he wiggled, but he didn’t really fight it, and he never scratched me.

I figured he was ready for the trip to the vet.  Easy-peasy this time.

I never got him there.

The last time we saw TomTom was right before the New Year, a couple of weeks after I’d sent out the Christmas newsletter where I included this photo of Tom sitting on a rock in the rose garden. It was also just about the same time that the neighborhood coyote sightings began. First, a woman posted that she’d seen a three-legged coyote. Next, another neighbor spotted one. One family came upon three in their back yard.

I put a Missing Cat notice on our neighborhood website. Several friends and neighbors told me, “He’s just tom-catting around. He’ll be back, and when you get him fixed, he’ll stop that.” In my heart, I knew he wouldn’t be found, wouldn’t be back. In my heart, I knew if TomTom could make it home, he would. He wouldn’t give up his morning ritual, he wouldn’t want to sleep anywhere else but the wicker chair, and he would never choose some other entertainment over tormenting Murphy.

It took me several days of missing Tom to put the pieces together, maybe because I didn’t want to. Actually, Dad said it first. “The coyotes got my TomTom.”

My post is still up on the NextDoor website. Last week, a sweet neighbor replied with a list of places to post notices for a lost animal. I wrote that I thought the coyotes got Tom. She replied she was sorry, and that she’d still look for him.

This morning, Dave spotted a coyote between two birch trees on the edge of our ravine. He said it wasn’t the three-legged one, so that meant there are at least two. I told him about the three seen together in the back yard a couple streets over. He hadn’t seen that post.

So here’s what I wrote on my Missing Cat thread this morning:  “I’m going to take this post down tomorrow morning. A coyote was in our back yard just now. Everybody, watch your animals.”

 

 

 

 

If you don’t like the weather today…

We’re pressure-washing the porch rails today. Last Sunday we might have used the pressure washer to de-ice the driveways.

January 24. Cabin fever, ah, yes. This sickness will make a girl jump up on the tables at the local Pizza Hut and cut loose a wild frug. I didn’t have cabin fever last week, but I do remember it from my winters in Montana.  We don’t usually get a socked-in amount of snow here in Nashville, but last weekend, oh boy! I loved it–just like I’ve loved the sunshine and warm temperatures this week.

But there are some people on the other side of that opinion. Okay, go ahead, all you weather-haters. “Snowed in!” Yell it–like Edwin Starr singing “War!” back in 1970.

SNOWED IN! Huh, yeah, Good God, y’all, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Now hear my opinion. Here’s what snowed in is good for:

JCSleddingSledding. Christmas gifts for the local grands were four-foot $10 plastic sleds (I’m sure they were made in China). The boys got blue and Carly got hot pink. We put the sleds on the porch instead of under the tree. Our Christmas this year sported 70-degree temperatures. Jaxton ran around yelling, “Come, look! I got a swed! I got a swed!” (He’s three.)196

Jameson and Carly took on the hill above their front yard. Jameson’s blue wonder eventually cracked when he hit a bump.

Reading. I confess I haven’t done much reading during these snow days, but if I could stay awake in the afternoons, I could knock a few off my list. Instead of reading, I’ve been….

Napping. Oh, how cozy it is to bundle up on the sofa. If you have cats, gather them around you. We only have an outside cat and he’s not quite tame enough to cuddle. However, he has enjoyed curling up in the rocker on the porch.

Movies. Or binge-watching a series. I finished the first season of The #1 Ladies Detective Agency at no charge and was disappointed to see that Season 2 was not On Demand. I guess I’ll have to rent or buy. This HBO production is based on Alexander McCall Smith’s books about a female sleuth in Botswana. Don’t expect a lot of violence and kinky sex, just culture, scenery, and sweetness (except for, uh, the mambas.)

Projects. I am famous for having almost as many projects stacked up as I do book titles, but today, I have two less! I painted a picture frame. I’m trying to take a page from one of my daughters-in-law and get all the frames in the house one color.

This is Mom’s grandmother, Ada Shoemake. 2016-01-24 14.54.30She was a hoss of a tiny woman, revered by both sides of my mother and father’s family. She looks so much better in black.

And these are the Pizza Hut chairs I 2016-01-24 14.53.44painted and upholstered for The Cellar. Bought these two years ago for $10 each, or was it $5?

Cleaning. (I was led to this topic by the mention of “projects.”) We are fortunate around the Compound to have bi-weekly housekeeping help for the regular stuff, but there is always something deeper that needs attention. I cleaned off three-quarters of my desk, does that count? Wait, wait, I also dusted the shelves beside the TV in The Cellar. Wow. By the time I make my way around the other book “wall,” the ones I just cleaned will be ready for another swipe.

Eating. Soups, for sure. Chili, beef stew, New England clam chowder, vegetable soup. There’s always something on the stove. And then everybody gathers around one table, sort of like Blue Blood’s Reagan family at Sunday night supper. (Or maybe they spread out on chairs, couches, blankets, and pillows in front of the TV.)

Birdwatching. The cardinals adore the snow. They are all over the branches and at the feeders. 2016-01-24 07.06.45This morning, I trained my eye on a red-headed woodpecker working his way up a tall elm rooted in The Ravine. My peripheral view included chickadees, more redbirds, purple finches, house wrens, and…a robin! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a robin in the snow.

Get outside. Walk in the snow. I recommend you wear boots. We don’t buy a lot of snow boots here in the South, but if you have boots for rain, they’ll work. Or if you have everyday boots that you don’t mind pushing through the powder (hard powder by now), use those. I surveyed the ravine while out with Murphy.2016-01-22 15.51.26

Always have your camera handy–or your phone, and don’t forget to take the dog with you. 2016-01-22 15.33.59Murphy loves the snow. She digs in with her face and plows.

Help a neighbor–or be helped. A post by Heather Corum Powell on our neighborhood Facebook page on Friday reminded me. “If anyone on Hilson has chocolate chips, I’ll make the cookies!” She got the chips, made the cookies, and then started delivery for those too far away to walk to get them. Since Dave and I are, ahem, watching the sugar, we asked her if she could take them to a single mom, or maybe a senior who can’t get out. Frankly, I didn’t feel that good being so altruistic and I’m a bit jealous of some old codger grinning over my cookies, if you know what I mean. <Sigh.> At least I know I did the right thing.

About that soup. If you’re like me, you always have an extra bowl (or pot, in my case) of soup. Since my neighbors have already foundered on my multiple pots of turkey soup this year, I haven’t reached out with the grub. Now I’m reminded that I need to.

The “be-helped” part. I’ve been a single mother in my past, and fortunate enough to know enough willing helpers to write at least fifty different stories. Every once in a while, I think of some of these people, and I write a note, but not nearly as often as I should. (Maybe some note-writing would be good during this in-house episode.)

If I were without Dave, I would not be able to drive the van up the driveway hill. I know that any one of the five closest neighbors would heed my call. First I’d try Saleh because he wants to help the most. Then Don–He’s the most vocal about my soup. Then I’d go for Steve. Maybe I should try Steve first. He’s from Upstate NY. Then Patrick or Chris since they’re younger, and therefore braver, than the rest.

Neighbors have volunteered all kinds of help on our Facebook page, not to mention the most helpful posts about street conditions from those who’ve been out. (See, there is some good in Facebook.) I feel inadequate to help. Dave did shovel all around the house, paths in both driveways, the ramp, and around the back doors, but I wouldn’t allow him to try the same thing for another house.  We have become the older ones. Note I did not say “elderly.”

My dad is always saying, “Let me do what I can, and then help me.” I think we should translate that to “I’ll do what I can, and then, if I need help, I’ll ask for it.” My second goal would be to always think of something we could do for somebody. I think I’m about to put on another pot of soup.

Sure hope Dave gets the porch rails blasted and they dry enough for me to caulk and paint tomorrow. This good weather is only going to last three days, they say. That means on Tuesday or Wednesday, I’ll be looking for things to do inside–and there may not be any snow to play in!

Mary Oliver First SnowSo here’s something to do that requires nothing but attention: Poetry. Yes, I know that is reading, but it’s almost, well, not–at least for me. I am fond of Mary Oliver (who isn’t?) so I’ve taken out all of her books that I have on a shelf and I carry them with me, upstairs and down. Here is just a little bit of a poem that stayed with me from last weekend.

Look it up. Read the whole thing. First Snow. You’ll be ready for it next time you get snowed in.

 

 

I’m no poet.

Some days I’m not sure I’m even a writer.  Writers are like that.

But Monday I took a small carton of blackberries to my friend and she wrote on a social media post: “Yum. Home grown blackberries with a little cream and raw sugar. Thank you, my sweet fruit fairy…”

Along with the blackberries, I shared a little ditty with her. She is a poet, a real one, but the fruit fairy was unashamed.

 

His Best Thing

 

I think blackberries are my dad’s best thing. Better than best, maybe best-est. Perhaps most best.

His briar patch is a twenty-foot arbor on the southwest side of our house.

He built it the spring after we all moved to the new place.

It might be a pergola, or maybe a trellis, but he named it Arbor and it stuck,

The propping place for fruit-heavy branches and gravity-driven berries on tender vine tips.

 

He stretched galvanized two by four-inch farm fence through its middle and across its top,

Secured in spaces on four-by-fours,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.

 

He offers them one non-negotiable itinerary–up and out–

And they don’t mind going there,

But old habits of reach and arch point them groundward.

They see by his wire that all they’ll get is a proper path built for their own good.

They repent, and bow to the farmer’s convenience.

 

I collect at the bottom. Think I don’t know what they say about low-hanging fruit?

I’ll always pick it first, unimpressed by gossip.

Sometimes, easy-does-it hides big treasures.

Besides, they contradicted themselves when they said

“Don’t step into a briar where a snake might lurk to strike.”

Once I saw one in my dad’s blackberries.

Skinny grass-green Flash tripped over my flip-flop, made me laugh.

 

To fill my basket takes six passes.

Once each side that-away looking down,

One this-away looking up (which makes four).

Two more trips, one each direction,

Flat-footing a rusted vintage chair, non-wobbly against a thick post.

I figured the top gatherings shouldn’t count for more than two passes,

Although–The twenty-steps afoot do require two moves of the ladder for each side,

Six mounts and dismounts, too.

 

If I wanted, I could count as trips the shorter jaunts between the makeshift scaffolding.

I could. The truth is these are my berries now.

I decide—to pluck or to leave,

Jam or jelly, canned or frozen, cobbler or double-crust, fresh or later.

Are they sweet this year? I take the largest one, let the taste linger.

No, my berries are tart, not at all like my dad’s, nothing to remind me of him.

 

Some say to stand on a rusty chair instead of a stepstool is to welcome a fall.

Sometimes, often, I think they’re right.

Picking across the top takes practice and balance,

And vision adapted to a peripheral gaze across a close horizon.

Within my reach waits a sturdy brace,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.

 

 

What we do for love…

Mama usually calls maybe once a day. Today she called four times. Her knee replacement surgery is next Monday. She’s concerned about her wardrobe, the low potassium diet her urologist has recommended, and the three weeks she’ll spend in post-operative re-habilitation.

2013-11-28 10.58.28“Your father doesn’t want me to go to re-hab for three weeks,” she says. “He says we can do everything I need right here.”

“Well, he’s wrong, and Dr. Shell wants you to go to re-hab,” I say. Dr. Shell is her orthopedic surgeon.

“I know. I want to go to re-hab, too. I need to do it.”

“You just want to know he’s going to be okay without you?” I ask.

“Oh, he’ll be fine,” she says, waving it off. “He just doesn’t want to be here alone.”

Mom and Dad married at fifteen and seventeen. I don’t think they’ve been apart any longer than a five-day stretch. To use the psychological term, they are “enmeshed”. In day-to-day operating language, their very breaths are one. Each needs the other to survive.

The anniversary of their first date is Groundhog Day, when Dad walked Mom home from church. He was most perturbed this year that he could not find the dark-chocolate-covered cherries that he always gives Mom for that special occasion. I promised him I would find some. I’ll look tomorrow.

I wonder what will happen when the first of them goes. From my current perspective, we pray for Dad to depart before Mom. Yes, it is true that my life, and Dave’s, would be easier, but we also think Mom would be able to take alone-ness better than Dad. Mom is more adaptable, more able to make something drinkable from bitter fruit, more likely to roll it around until she can squeeze out a juice she can swallow.

Dad says, “Your mom always sees the best in everything. I see the problems.”

Even now, she relishes a lunch outing, while Dad would rather heat up canned cream-of-chicken soup. Mom is the one who, even with painful knees, is most willing to perch on the front passenger seat of the Sienna to take to the road.

“Mom,” I tell her, “We’ll see that he eats and takes his medicine and doesn’t work too hard. We’ll bring him to visit any time he wants. I could even bring him over there first thing in the morning and he could stay all day. He could play his guitar, and talk to the other residents.”

“Oh, Lord.” She changes the subject. “Can you put buttons on that wrap-around robe?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that, well, uh, I’ll do that…before you go to the hospital. Did you try on your new moccasins?”

“Yes, they feel great.”

“Are you able to slip your feet into them?”

“Oh, yeah,” she answers.

“Without bending over to pull them on, I mean?”

“I think so.”

“Tomorrow you can show me.”

“Okay. Hey, I need to add a couple of things to my grocery list. I need three apples, some cherries, carrots, and a cucumber–just one. I see I can eat all those.”

“Dave’s doing your shopping. I’ll let him know.”

“Oh, he’s going to the store for me? How come he decided to do it?”

“We bargained. He said he’d do the shopping run if I gather all the things he’s asked for in order to do the taxes. I just hope he gets the right things.”

“He’ll do fine. Just tell him to call me if he has questions. He doesn’t mind calling. If your daddy went with this list, he’d get at least half of it wrong. He wants to do it, but he’s really not good at it.”

“Did you start taking your Bumex again?” I ask. “You start that again today, and then….”

She interrupts me. “…and then I stop it again after Saturday before the surgery.”

“Right. And the….”

“The spirolactone, too. I stop that after Saturday, too. I sure wish I could drink orange juice. I’m going to miss that.” She hastens to add, “But don’t worry, I’m going to do everything he told me to do. Are they going to let me wear Depends?”

“Oh, I think for the surgery, you might be au naturel, but the nurse at the education session said they want you to wear your own clothes as soon as possible. I bet you’ll put on an outfit the day after surgery.”

“Can you put a little makeup bag in your purse?”

“Sure.”

“You want to watch Gunsmoke?” she asks.

I hesitate. “Just for a few minutes. I might not make it to the end. I have to get over there and get some work done.”

“Well, I just don’t know what I’d do without you,” she says, pointing the remote at the TV.

“I don’t know…I don’t know what I’d do without you, either,” I answer.

My friend Inez Torres Davis posted on Facebook a few days ago: My mother loves to do jigsaw puzzles. I do not. Or, I will put it this way: I do not MIND doing them so much if the picture on the box is helpful and I have nothing else that needs to get done. This puzzle we are doing? The picture does not help one bit and it was clearly designed by a sadist! I do jigsaw puzzles with my mother because I can sit close to her. I love jigsaw puzzles.

Inez, I know exactly what you mean.

Always We Begin Again–Happy 2014

I jumped from my chair when something hit the window beside my desk. A cardinal…on the pavement of the patio. And as quickly as my feet brushed the floor, a Cooper’s hawk snagged the wounded redbird and took to the sky. I breathed jagged ins and outs. My heart sped.
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“This is nature,” I told myself. But it’s the piece of nature that I do not love. It’s been several days now, and I still semi-shudder at the thought of that few seconds.
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I have watched the hawks swoop upon the back yard for months. What I expected was that one of the doves who gleans the leavings from the feeders would be swept away, one of these birds that my bird-hunting Uncle Hugh Lee would never fire upon. “The dove is the Bird of Peace,” he said. “You don’t kill a Bird of Peace.”

The first year on the ravine, we installed birdfeeders to mimic the layout of the yard at our former home. When our expected yellow finches did not arrive, we changed the seed and the feeders, and greedy blackbirds descended in flocks. We learned that blackbirds do not like safflower seeds, but everybody else does, so we changed the menu again and welcomed cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, purple finches, and all the common varieties of wrens and sparrows. Doves gathered under the feeders to clean up. For three years, we had Lonesome. Who knows what happened to his partner, maybe a hawk. And now, who knows what happened to Lonesome. The doves now congregate in even numbers.

So much of our life here has been tied to the animals. The first two years, there was the skulk of foxes in the ravine. Lots of foxes, including two litters of pups, three in one and five in the other. One of the yearlings nested under the ramp to the porch on the side of the house, always taking leave before the humans might interfere. We watched them dig for moles and bury food for future meals.They caught pieces of hotdogs in mid-air that the neighbor tossed to them in the summer dusk. We noticed that, while they were off the ground, they were snapping up fireflies. When we returned to The Compound following some evening outing, the headlights caught the eyes of little heads peeking up over the ravine banks. It seemed that they’d been waiting up for us.

The raccoons showed themselves almost immediately. There were three kits that trailed after a waddly-wooly mama when she came to the yard to scout for food leavings, and then a hulking old fellow, biggest raccoon I’d ever seen, completely silver, that we did not see again after that first year. One evening, Dave and I watched a raccoon scale one of the tall trees, probably fifty feet, to rest in a crook between two of the top branches. We figured he was a young one.

The feral calico cat came the first year. We are such creative and original thinkers that we named her Kitty. We watched her stand off a fox one afternoon between our yard and the neighbor’s. She crouched to the ground and backed the vixen up with a threatening feline crawl, until the foxy lady acknowledged Kitty’s superiority by turning white-tipped tail to run. Kitty and I became so close that sometimes she would allow me within fifteen feet of her, then she was gone. No, I mean really gone–for two years. One spring morning, I heard her calling for breakfast from beneath my bathroom window, sitting kitty-pretty as if we’d had tea the afternoon before. She hung around for a year after our Welcome Back and then something caught her, or caught her eye, the something probably akin to a better living arrangement.

We found companionship living on the banks of this old gulch that we call The Ravine. My eighty-something-year-old dad, Grandpa, frequented the ravine by propping a tall ladder’s base against a big tree. He said if he missed a rung on the way down, he’d just slide.
“What about the trip back up?” I asked.
“I hold on with both hands,” he said.
Grandpa dug through the tangles of brush and vine to judiciously remove the deadliest tree-chokers. We laid out something of a feeding station so that we could better watch the comings and goings of our new friends. Grandpa and Grandma keep the blinds wide open in their upstairs den so that they don’t miss the squirrels’ antics in the tall trees on the west side.

One season brought a doe and two spotted fawns. They bedded down in the across-the-street neighbors’ back yard. When Mama left, the twins stayed, mowing down roses, morning glories, and turnip greens. And then they were gone, we guessed to join the protected herd two miles away at the agricultural center.

The community of foxes scattered. After a few weeks, we saw sarcoptic mange on the few young males remaining. It’s the same mange that dogs get. We read up on the disease, especially in foxes, and bought injectible Ivermectin to shoot into treats. It was a long shot, according to all the literature, but we tried to save them.

Once the foxes were gone, rabbits appeared. One little bunny hopped around on the porch just in time for Easter.

Last spring, we watched a fat old mama raccoon stagger across the back yard at 6:00 A.M. like a drunk coming off an all-nighter. She climbed the steps to Grandpa and Grandma’s apartment, hopped onto the rail nearest the wall, shinnied up the porch column, and disappeared. We’d suspected squirrels in their attic space and had already called a carpenter to further seal in the eaves on the porch. We never thought about a nesting raccoon. Before Trevor, our construction guy, finished the work that might seal a creature in, he toured the attic space and pronounced it empty–and very clean.

Groundhogs greeted us early on, without damage, until they discovered just how good Grandpa’s produce tastes at its youngest and most tender. He named them, set live traps, and somebody (Dave or daughter-in-law Vicky, that tiny little hoss of a woman) hauled them, one by one–Fatso, Big Boy, Chubby, and all the others–to the spacious agricultural center property. All reports indicate that they hunkered down and belly-scrambled to the care and prosperity of the burgeoning Ag Center Clan. But last year, new-to-the-compound Gordo foiled us all, despite numerous attempts to move him to a better neighborhood for groundhogs. In late fall, neighbors sighted Gordo pinned to the ground by a coyote in their back yard, but we expect him back.  The neighbor showered the coyote with a hail of BB’s and when the tormenter loosened his grip, the un-injured Gordo made fast to the safety of the ravine. In April or May, we’ll all be complaining about the havoc among the gardens, both flower and vegetable. Gordo adores morning glories and cosmos, squash and Blue Lake bunch beans.

The intersection of human animals and their less domesticated relatives in the kingdom is a delicate point of balance. Every movement by either man or beast, any aid from the higher-ups in the food chain, and any modification made to the combined home turf informs and directs change for each individual. The great naturalist John Muir said it best, “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

We feed the songbirds, and a hawk makes dinner of the prettiest one. We clear the vines that threaten to deaden the trees that anchor and define the ravine, and the vixens label us as too familiar. We feed the raccoons to deter them from the garbage cans, and they take up residence in the attic of the apartment. We seal them out and put them back in their place, the place we invited them from when we first fed them.

We continually re-evaluate our relationships to these animals, some who gathered here before someone thought of building brick ranch-style homes alone this great ditch, and others because someone did.

The thermometer read 12 degrees this morning–in the sun. The purple finches and chickadees flitted and darted between the almost-empty feeders. The doves, in their puffiest winter coats, gleaned whatever spill they could find.
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The supremely beautiful cardinals, male and female, orange beaks shining, took turns with the remaining small pieces of bread Grandma and Grandpa tossed from their balcony porch yesterday. The usually-present squirrels stayed in their warm beds. After I finished my third cup of coffee, I layered up to fill the feeders, and when I came back inside to the warmth of The Cellar, I ordered another fifty pound bag of safflower seed.

 

Maybe the coyote was just passing through. Maybe a family of foxes will birth babies here again. Maybe the hawk sightings will be fewer. Maybe Kitty will return for a twelve-month stint. Maybe Gordo will decide he really doesn’t like morning glories, after all.

Happy New Year~from all of us here On the Ravine.


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The family that reunites…

Bites. Fights. Lights…Blights. Rights..or writes. Some of those may be true, but there’s no poem in this for me.

Mom and Dad didn’t go to church on Sunday. Neither had slept very well Saturday night. They both ached. No, they weren’t exactly “sick,” but they didn’t feel well. Sunday night proved not much better, so they were both dragging on Monday. It took them two days to recover from the family reunion.

Mom took her Rollator walker, Dolly, to the reunion for the first time this year. I guided the two of them over tree roots and loose rocks on the path to the picnic pavilion. “I just know they’re going to say, ‘What on earth are you doing with that thing?’ but I don’t care. There’s never a good place for me to sit anymore and I can’t get my legs under that picnic table. I’m going to sit on Dolly.” Mom had it all worked out and rehearsed by the time we got to the concrete.

Dad followed slowly, stabilizing himself with his cane on the rough ground. “Well, hello there, Sis, you did make it,” I heard him say to Aunt Elois. She’s the elder of the family now at 84. She was barely getting around, her voice weak. She won’t be at next year’s reunion. That’s the kind of thing you think, but you don’t say.

There are five remaining siblings remaining in Dad’s family, three brothers and two sisters. Each year, we believe there’ll be fewer the next. Every year, the “cousins”—that would be me and the rest of the children of these brothers and sisters—look older and older.

The Blair Reunion calls one and all, every year, the second Saturday in September at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Shelter No. 8—Don’t be late. Actually, my cousin Jerry Wayne is always late but we wait for him every year. This year he was on time. Being a Baptist preacher, you might think he’s a slam-dunk for the task of talking to the Good Lord on behalf of the Blairs, except that Daddy (“Toby” to the family) and Uncle Frank are also preachers. Frank Eddie is a Methodist. Toby was a Baptist and vows he’s still a Baptist even though he retired from the Methodists. Frankly (the “frank” has nothing to do with Uncle Frank previously mentioned), I’m not sure Dad’s a Baptist or a Methodist. You’d just have to talk to him to understand, and then you might not.

The other remaining brother, Francis Wilburn (“Bill”), has had a rough year. He had a stroke followed by the discovery of colon cancer. One of his sons brought him to the reunion. I heard somebody say, “Bill, nobody asked you to say the blessing.” He replied, in such a quiet and weak voice, that, being retired from the insurance business, it’s not his job to ask the blessing. He did say that he was glad to be there.

Jerry Wayne’s daddy, my Uncle Wesley, was a Baptist preacher, too. He was one of the first people to have open heart surgery at Vanderbilt—a valve replacement, I think. He was the first one of Shafter and Effie’s children to die.

Aunt Bessie, my dad’s youngest sister at age 69, is now in charge of the family reunion. It’s always been understood that the “girls” of the family will run the family reunion and nobody crosses them about it. I think Mammy Blair issued the command and the rest of the family hopped to. After Mammy died, Aunt Virginia, the oldest sister headed it up; she’s been gone for several years now along with Aunt Margaret, the next-to-youngest girl. Aunt Margaret never got a turn at being “boss” of the reunion. Aunt Elois was in charge for several years, but now she’s feeble—feisty, but feeble.

Aunt Bessie asked Jerry Wayne to pray, and “don’t take all day because we’re hungry.”

Jerry Wayne said, “How about Uncle Toby or Frank Eddie?”

“They don’t care,” Bessie said in a low voice to spur him on.

“What did he say?” Dad asked. He was standing right beside Jerry Wayne.

“I said, ‘Did you want to pray?’” Jerry Wayne answered, a bit louder than he normally talks.

“No, we’re too told,” Dad answered for both Frank and himself.

“Gracious Heavenly Father,” the prayer started. It ended with “I love you, Jesus. Amen.”

Some of us repeated, “Amen”—the men who are believers and the women who consider themselves liberated.

Food was everywhere, as usual. Four long picnic tables held courses of meat, salad, and vegetables. Desserts beckoned from the two tables adjoining the beverages and paper products. There are unwritten guidelines regarding the offerings of dishes:

1. Evelyn, my cousin three years younger, fries chicken—a lot of chicken. In addition to the legs, thighs, wings and breasts mounded in a two-foot by eighteen-inch aluminum roasting pan, she brings two cake pans of appetizers for a select group of the women: gizzards and livers. The aunts, mamas, and cousins who like gizzards are not “liver people,” and vice versa, but there are two of us who can, and do, go either way. We strategize to maximize our take. We watch the levels of the gizzards and livers, not an easy chore. The serving method for these delicacies is to leave the aluminum foil covering the pan (a coy encouragement for sneaking a bite) so if more than half the hands are reaching into the gizzards, the two of us know to eat gizzards first in order to get our share before they’re gone. Remember, the gizzard eaters won’t bother the livers, so they’re probably safe. By the time the Chaplain of the Year says “Amen,” the two cake pans are empty. When Aunt Bessie signals us women to “take the lids off,” some cousin fooling with the chicken always says, “I want you to look. There is not even a greasy spot left from those livers—gizzards either.”

2. Some of the rest of us fry chicken, too, but we understand that everybody is going to eat Evelyn’s first. No offense—no offense taken. It tastes just like Aunt Virginia’s.

3. Somebody always brings a pot roast, a ham, and some barbecue or meatloaf. There’s always pot roast and ham left, but not much meatloaf, and no barbecue at all.

4. There will be turnip greens, dressing, butter beans, corn, and green beans. Squash, sauerkraut, baked beans, and coleslaw are likely but not definite. Anything outside of those two lists of sides might be a culinary delight, just not expected.

5. Desserts will include pecan pie, chess pie, and chocolate pie; sometimes banana pudding. If you bring a new recipe of something sweet, don’t get tender when an unofficial vote is taken to determine if that one is worth squirreling away a piece to take home.

6. And, speaking of “taking home,” do not expect to take any of your dish home. There’s a small assembly, equipped with take-out boxes and Glad plastic containers, and they swoop in at the end of the meal, each vowing to “make me a plate to take home for supper.”

7. When all the seconds and thirds and supper-servings are finished, check your dish. If there’s more than a third left, bring something else next year.
I promised Aunt Bessie that I would make grape salad this year if she would bring Japanese fruit pie. She told me to make sure I brought enough for her to take some home. I did. I iced down a double batch. Aunt Bessie planned a little better for me. She brought an extra pie that remained in a Longaberger pie carrier under the table until we could put it in the van.

I think Evelyn will be in charge when all the aunts are gone. She seems so dedicated, something no one accuses me of when it comes to the reunion. Evelyn and I did discover one thing in common, though. When I first saw Evelyn on Saturday, I said, “Hey, you’ve got my shirt!” She was wearing a glitzy orange T-shirt studded with gold and sequins—just like mine!

“Well, did you get it at the Wal-Mart?” she asked, and we both laughed.
“I know, next year let’s both wear them!” I said.

When no one was paying attention, Evelyn and I agreed if we covered up our heads, no one could tell us apart. About the same weight and height, recognizable square bottom, same (ahem…) ample bosom, long skinny feet, freckly arms. We are kin. We hugged each other.

Evelyn ought to fry more chicken next year. I said I’d never bring another peach cobbler because nobody ate it. If I had brought that roast and had to take it home, I would not be cooking a pot roast again. One of the aunts-by-marriage said she’d remember to stop by Kentucky Fried on the way next year.

Aunt Bessie said she didn’t need to take up a collection this year because she had money left over from last year to rent the shelter for 2013. A few of the cousins circled up and vowed to bring some chairs that we could all get in and out of since some of the Blairs had such a hard time with the picnic tables and benches. We weren’t just talking about the aunts and uncles.

Tuesday morning, Mom announced that she was cooking a pork roast, butternut squash, and potato cakes for dinner. Dad cut a path down into the ravine and cleared off a third of the bank. When we sat down to the mid-day big meal, Mom said she thought maybe I ought to cook a pork roast for next year’s reunion. Dad said, “There’s never enough chicken.” Dave said there’s always way too much food.

I just hope somebody brings a guitar next year and we’ll sing—like we used to.

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