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.

“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.

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.

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.



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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