It’s a daunting task, this cleaning out of Dad’s books and papers. The job would go faster if I could resist reading everything that looks interesting. A few months ago, I found, on a shelf, a small cardboard box labeled “Things I’ve Kept.”
I opened it to find a used-up air freshener jar, two empty after-shave bottles, a thousand business cards, four wallets, three key cases, assorted key rings, a used battery, a floppy disk, eyeglass lenses, two pair of sunglasses, a tiny New Testament, a silver Western belt buckle, a clothes brush, a hairbrush and more.
Yeah, I chuckle about that box then remember my own “keeping” habit. My collections include bottles to be transformed into painted vases, corks, tissue and paper towel rolls, medicine bottle and rusted metal parts I might use in a collage or a mobile. Most of the time, some art teacher wants some of this stuff but I don’t part with the rusted pieces. I’ve loved making the mobiles–just want to be sure to have materials in case my muse visits.
And then there are the bags of seeds in the freezer.
Dad was a gardener. The berries he planted long ago yielded a couple gallons of strawberries and another of blackberries. Dave begged me not to plant vegetables this year, but I couldn’t help myself. A friend and I planted tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, bush beans (Dad’s favorite Pickin’ and Grinnin’), basil, and butternut squash. The rest of the space where Dad had full rows of everything looked so bare that we threw native plant seeds all over where grass and flowers co-mingle into beautiful gardens looking a bit like the English style.
It’s trouble keeping up with the gardens around this big old place. Dave still waters, but Dad always helped me with tilling, hoeing and harvesting. I look at my prolific plantings every day, but I still miss some cucumbers and they grow too large before I find them. That happened to Dad, too. He didn’t see well for several years, so I helped him find squash, beans, and cucumbers.
One day I found five foot-and-a-half zucchini, yellow squash so overgrown you could use it for a ping-pong paddle (if you could slice it up), and cucumbers I needed two hands to carry. I laid out all of them on the grass and hollered at Dad working in his shop.
“Hey, come look what I just found.”
He moseyed out, grinned when he saw the bounty.
“Well, those are inedible but I kind of hate that you pulled them off the vines.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I was saving them for seeds,” he said.
There’s a jungle in the strawberries now. Dad always kept the grass out. I try to rehab them but I got a late start this spring. I fail miserably at weeding when the humidity rises, but I keep on keeping on. My fingers get stiff and I wear a brace on my left hand. My hands are broad like Dad’s. I remember how those hands grew too stiff to weed when scleroderma attacked, so he hoed rather than pull.
Scleroderma is an ugly disease. Dad progressed to severe stomach problems and legs so unreliable he fell about once a week. His esophagus hardened into a long tube with no muscle action. He lived on protein drinks. He fell several times outside. Somebody always seemed near to help him up–one of us, a neighbor, the garbage truck driver, or the mail lady.
A couple years ago, a rheumatologist diagnosed my sudden inability to walk as an attack of polymyalgia. Usually polymyalgia symptoms disappear with a few days of a low dose of prednisone. I was immobile for only four or five days, but it took the lingering symptoms several weeks to abate and then with increased dosages of the corticosteroid.
Dr. Lyons told me that I had some form of inflammatory arthritis but that I did not screen for the rheumatoid variety. I hadn’t heard of such a condition, but I followed her treatment protocols and I feel okay most of the time. She also told me it was not unusual that I would turn up with these symptoms given that Dad had scleroderma. Dave says I have LupusLight.
In my file cabinet, I have several files labeled “Keepsakes.” If I allowed someone to look into those files, they’d find letters, special greeting cards, kids’ report cards and immunization records, college admissions paperwork, my own transcripts, a few torn out magazine articles, and jokes I’ve loved. In my desk, you’d find a gazillion business cards if I hadn’t pulled them out a few weeks ago.
It seems I’ve kept a lot of Dad, some inherited, some channeling I suppose. There’s the gardening thing, small hoarding issues and stiff joints, business cards, things I can’t part with because I might need them sometime, and things I want to always remember.
I pulled everything out of Dad’s “Things I’ve Kept” box and sorted it into giveaways, throwaways, and “Keep.” I kept a card from 2001 labeling Dad Chairman of the Smith County Democratic Party for some meeting at Legislative Plaza and a couple of campaign pins. I also kept an index card printed by Dad’s hand on one side and cursive writing on the other.
Side 1: Living according to God’s law enables us to live as God made us to live, taking our place in the created order with eyes opened to God’s glory. Side 2: 1-24-2010. Psalm 19 reminds us that we are a part of a big world. The author invites us to look beyond our small selves to discover how God is at work.
Dad always allowed the freedom to translate anything he said in order to apply it to our own lives. I know I’m going to read Psalm 19 to see how it speaks to me.
My daddy hovers, sometimes thrashes, naked, his mind somewhere along an invisible jagged line between his tiny spot of time and space on earth and the ultimate reality of Infinity.
His heart beats so fast sometimes that we fear stroke. Doctors get his heart rate down and his blood pressure goes up. Get the blood pressure down too low and some other wheel falls off the old bus.
He fell in his bedroom sometime very early a week ago Tuesday morning. Before we found him on the floor with a bloody gash on his head, he’d pulled shirts, belts, and a bootjack from his closet. He told us he’d ducked into a shed for shelter from the rain and realized he’d stepped into some man’s corn crib. Then he couldn’t get out of the field and had crawled through rough straw for miles.
Dad did not get confused because he fell; he fell because he was already confused in the night and hallucinating. We’ve seen a slow slide toward dementia for about three years, but since last Christmas the disease has tracked him like a cat, consistently and with increasing speed. We’ve watched a wretched auto-immune disease rob him of the ability to enjoy food and then to swallow well. His legs grew weaker and weaker, so often he could not stand, even with his walker.
In the emergency room after the fall, he fought with three cats, two black and one black and white, that kept pouncing on the bed. Every time he kicked them off, they came back. I shooed them away. He re-told the corn crib story with variations and repeated an earlier adventure stripping tobacco with two youngsters who would not talk to him. He was pretty sure they could talk, they just wouldn’t. The ER physician called a hospitalist to provide overnight observation.
Once in the room on the fifth floor tests began, including an ultra-sound on his legs. The technician came in Wednesday morning, made it through the scan of one leg and then Dad refused. He kicked at the machine operator. She dodged and moved the equipment. He kicked some more. When nurses arrived to rescue the tech, he doubled his fists and slapped at them.
I said, “I don’t think you’re going to get that next one.”
She smiled and said, “I’m pretty sure of that.”
Within a few hours, the a-fib grew worse and Dad grew so wild and combative I wished for restraints. They came quickly. He did not sleep–not one wink-– for four days. One night, I bent over to pick something up just under the edge of his bed and even though his hands were tied, he grabbed my hair. It took a few minutes to pry his hand loose.
My dad’s wild mind fashioned a scary story with escalating horror. He gave me the base plot as he dressed me down. I was trying to kill him, leading a band of nurses are my followers. He kept saying that he can’t believe I would do this for money. “Greed. Evil. You are no daughter of mine.” I stood stark still, as if at attention, stung and disoriented. The words might have attached themselves to a deep sorrow if I hadn’t heard a voice. “This is not your dad.”
For several hours, there was a huge farm machine loose on his farm. We–the nurses, Jade, John, and I–had already destroyed the farm with this wrecker/excavator. We knocked down trees and ran through the shallow creek, breaking the flat limestone into small pieces. We were going to let it run over him, and then it was somehow above him and we were preparing to let it fall to crush him. One hour we were setting him afire. Another time, we were trying to poison him.
He disowned me, then started yelling again. I tried to slip a dry mouth lozenge in his mouth but I wasn’t quick enough. He can’t bite since he has no teeth but he clamped his jaws shut, turtle tight. Then he said to the air on his left, “Jameson, look at your mother. This is the kind of mama you have.” Jameson is my grandson, not my grandson, and he is safe at home in his own bed.
Dad got back to serious yelling. “Where is Mom [my mother]? She’s the only good person around here.”
The student nurse asked, “Does he like music?”
“Yes!” I said. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought of that. I should have brought in a player. There’s no music channel on the TV.”
Wait, I thought. I could stream from my laptop.
I grabbed my almost-dead HP from my bag and began the frustrating process of hooking up to the hospital free-for-visitors wi-fi. It’s a finicky network. I spent twenty minutes and then gave up.
Dad changed the venue. “Help! Come on, we’re down here in the bottom by the creek. They’re trying to crucify us all.”
The last time he had mentioned crucifixion, the nurses were attaching restraints. I watched him pull at the cords and thought of rodeos and roped calves. I remembered a pig bound and hung for slaughter at my grandfather’s farm, and of holding my dog Murphy for an injection.
That night, I left him praying. The words were plain and the sentences cohesive. “Lord, thank you for this life I’ve been given. And if you want me to die now, I’ll come. I ask you to forgive Diana and all these evil persons who are doing this to me. They know not what they do. Take care of their little children.” I walked out of the room, on down the long hall to the parking garage.
The next time, he was on the hill at the farm in Smith County. He called for his mother. “Mama, come on here. I’m up on the hill. They’re about to kill your last son. Don’t you see the smoke?”
He did not remember that seventy-two years ago on the same day, Halloween, he and my mother took a long taxi ride to Georgia and married. He was seventeen, she “fourteen-almost-fifteen,” they said.
My mom waits at home, not really worrying, just pondering. She is dressed in blue matching pants and top, her curly hair neatly combed back, and her ensemble accessorized with the usual rings, earrings, bracelet, and necklace.
After two days and several doses of psychiatric drugs, the restraints were removed. He was still agitated but not trying to hurt anyone. He rolled his sheet and blanket into a wad and tossed them to the floor. He pulled his arms through his gown, easing the heart monitor through a sleeve. The gown and a couple Chux pads found the floor. I heard a pop, pop, pop as he removed the leads to the heart monitor. He seemed pleased that he had wires to untwist. He repeated the process several times.
He slid down the bed and pounded the foot rail in a surprisingly steady rhythm. He called for my mother, yelling louder than he’s been able to in years.
I told him, “Dad, Mom is not here.”
Sometimes, for a minute or two, he believed me when I told him, “You’re in the hospital, Dad.”
“In the hospital? What am I doing here?”
I told him, “You have to stay for a while until you get better, and you are getting better.”
“Am I in South Carthage?”
“No, Dad, you’re in Nashville. At St. Thomas.”
At times, it connected and he said, “Oh-h-h-h-h-h.” Another time he added, nodding his head, “So that’s the problem!”
One afternoon, he asked, “Did you know the cats are back?”
“No,” I said. “What are they doing?”
“Oh, they’re just lying around down there at the foot of the bed.”
I said, “But you’re not trying to kick them off.”
“No, I got used to them.”
From time to time, the psychiatrist Dr. Le Coguic stuck her head in the room to ask a few questions with telling answers.
She: What year is it, Mr. Blair? He: 2017. She: When were you born? He: Five, twenty-nine, no. Five, nine, no. Twenty-five. She: That’s good enough! Now who’s the President? He: Truman. She: Hmmmmm.
I snuck in a word there. “He really knows. I asked him myself yesterday and he said Truman and I said, ‘No, it’s Trump, Dad,’ and he said, ‘Yes, that’s who I mean so just pretend I’m saying Trump when I say Truman.'”
Dr. Le Coguic laughs out loud. “Good enough!” she said.
The next time she asked him, he said, “Oh, that damn Trump. Truman.”
The morning of November 7, I walked into the room where a soft-spoken chaplain introduced herself to me as Gail. She was asking Dad if he was a spiritual person. She didn’t understand him, but he answered her, “I suppose so. I’ve got a Master’s of Divinity from seminary.” I translated a few sentences to her until Dr. Chris MacMurdro from the Palliative Care Department stepped in. Because Dad was still talking with Gail, Dr. Mac asked if we might step down the hall to talk.
“Call me Dr. Mac or Chris,” she said and explained her specialty. After several minutes of discussion about what I might expect or anticipate or decide, Dr. Mac told me with his refusal to eat or drink, Dad would likely be gone in two weeks. It’s too early for hospice, she said, but you will need them. If Dad goes to a skilled nursing facility, he might get a few days.
Just as Dr. Mac and I were ending our conversation, Gail approaches us from the doorway of the family waiting room. “Your dad,” she said, and placed her hand over her heart. “Oh my. And thank you for helping me understand what he was saying. I could understand him after that.”
“Good,” I said.
“This is the first time a patient has prayed over me,” she said.
“He did?” I asked.
She teared up. “I asked him if he would like me to pray with him, and he took my hands and said, ‘I’ll pray for you.'”
“And he did?” I said.
“Yes, and now I have to go sit down somewhere and cry.”
Later that day, when I told Dr. Mac the evening Zyprexa seemed to make Dad more agitated instead of less as it was supposed to do, she wanted to revisit his history of hallucinations and his increasingly weak legs. “Let me go back and look at his chart again,” she said. “I’ll call you back.”
“Dad,” I said, “would you drink one of your protein shakes? I have a cooler over here with three drinks in it. Which one–chocolate or vanilla?”
His eyes lit up a little. “Chocolate!”
I rolled the bed up and offered him the straw in the bottle. He tried to take the bottle.
“I want to drink it. Myself.”
“Well, okay.” I grabbed some Chux pads and tucked one around the top half of his body. I helped him hold the drink, with him struggling to wrest it from me, until I knew he’d had enough that he wouldn’t immediately pour the stuff all over himself.
He drank almost all of the eight ounces. He drank almost ALL of the EIGHT OUNCES, the most food of any kind he’d had since more than a week ago.
Dr. Mac called. “Diana, this is not Alzheimer’s. I’m thinking more like Parkinson’s with Lewy bodies. That would explain the reaction to the Zyprexa. Do you know much about Parkinson’s?”
“Enough. A lot,” I said.
She said he wanted to confer with the hospitalist, Dr. Meadors, about switching him over to something like Valium, which would be much more effective if we were treating Parkinson’s.
Sure enough, the Valium (or whatever it was) helped calm him. Dr. Mac called to say that Dad appeared now to qualify for in-patient hospice, and she had arranged a meeting with Rosie from Alive Hospice downtown. She explained her wish for inpatient hospice.
“The Parkinson’s thought changes everything. His medications seem to be headed in the right direction. He could use the meds management at inpatient to get them all tweaked to the point that you could manage him at home with the help of home hospice.” She fears for my ability to physically manage him at home right now and for my mother’s emotional health as she watches Dad decline.
I made her promise that she will always work toward our goal of getting him home. She repeats to me all the information I’ve given her, including the DNR and comfort care directives.
End of day, Wednesday, November 7. Dad slept peacefully almost all night.
Yesterday morning, he knew me when I arrived. He smiled and said, “Hello, honey.” Dr. Mac called to discuss the latest strategy since he has improved enough that he probably does not qualify for inpatient hospice. “We’re thinking we can send him over to the rehab facility.”
Dad and I sat in quiet most of the day yesterday. He was tired. He thought he might want sausage and eggs. I tried. He drank a bit of milk shake. I tried again. I massaged his aching hands with cream, swabbed his gums and washed out his mouth.
“You’re going to make me bald,” he said when I rubbed his head. That’s a little joke we have. Not long after that, we both dozed at the same time.
When I told him I was leaving for the day, he said, “Be careful driving home. Is it still raining?”
I said, “No.” It did not rain all day yesterday.
Just as I started to exit the room, he called softly but firmly, “You are going to call Red Blair to help you get that big machine off the hill, aren’t you?”
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.
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. Dad 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.
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.
Dave saw them first and was so excited he stuttered a little. “Two…two f-f-foxes just r-r-ran into the ravine!”
I was too slow that time, but just a couple minutes later, he said, “They’re crossing that big log! Come quick!”
That time I made it to the dining room window in time to spot the two white-tipped bushy tails as they chased up and down the far side of the ravine. They looked like they were playing.
“They must be yearlings,” I said.
“No,” Dave answered, “They’re full grown, just small.”
We haven’t seen foxes in a few years now. The first spring we lived here on the ravine, two mamas had two bunches of little ones. We loved watching them play and grow. And then they were gone. Maybe it was the mange that ran through the skulk, or maybe it was Grandpa clearing brush from the banks of the big ditch. We miss them.
Like my friend Maybelle, I think fox sightings are a sign. I’m going to say that seeing two foxes running through the back yard and down into the ravine is an omen of good to come in this new year.
2017 was a rough year. I thought it was better not to even attempt resolutions because, at The Compound, not only do they not come when you build it, but they don’t cooperate when you plan it too well.
Sounds like Maybelle is a bit weary of resolutions, too, and Maybelle definitely doesn’t want to be a bada**. Check her out. Maybelle says she plans to do the best she can. I can’t fault her for that. In fact, I think I’ll follow her lead.
Maybelle, guess what! We saw foxes in the ravine again. We saw two of them; one for you, and one for me. Happy New Year, Everybody!
Driving home after birthday greetings, giggles, jokes, and toasts with my writing tribe, I thought how there was never a time I didn’t like Glen. He wasn’t anything like a heartthrob; he was just the consummate performer and he, or somebody working for him, knew how to pick a song.
When I heard Wichita Lineman for the first time, I had just finished my first year at San Jose State and decided to set out my sophomore year in Lewistown, Montana. The California college system had decided I was an out-of-state student, even though I hadn’t left California when Dad took a church and teaching position in Montana during my senior year at Pittsburg High School. I had to pay out-of-state tuition–in arrears–before they’d give me my grades.
I’d broken an engagement. I was emotionally adrift in a place as foreign to me as the moon. Mom and Dad did their best to take care of me. Dad and I decided to drive to California in his brown Dodge station wagon to move my “things.”
I don’t recall what we moved but I remember the car was full from the rear door to the front seats. We drove straight through Nevada, with only occasional stops for meals and a few naps.
We stopped for breakfast in the little town of Blackfoot, Idaho. We’d been on the road for about twelve hours, just about two-thirds of the way home. I know it was Blackfoot because we started talking about the Blackfoot Native American tribe before we hit the city limits. Mom and Dad had taken three little boys from Great Falls as foster children at Christmas time and they were “half-American Indian and half Chinese.” At that time, there was no information about their tribal heritage; we could only speculate.
“Is it possible the boys might be Blackfoot?” I asked.
“I suppose so,” Dad said. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve heard Cree, Creek, Blackfoot, Lakota. I don’t think anybody really knows.”
When Dad pulled in the gravel parking lot a little before 6:00 o’clock, we noted on the sign outside that the place was open from 6:00 a.m. one day until 3:00 a.m. the next. Our waitress, also one of the owners, brought coffee to the table before we sat down. She said their long hours gave them the after-bar business, and it was the only early-morning breakfast spot within a good radius. She and her husband took turns sleeping for more than the three-hour break, allowing for one of them to always be onsite. She seemed happy–and proud.
“Whatcha gonna eat this morning?” she asked.
Dad sighed. “Whatever you want to cook. I’m more interested in this coffee.”
“How about some bacon and eggs–or would you rather have ham–our ham is good–or I’ve got some good kielbasa, and how do you want those eggs?”
I answered this time. “Bacon and eggs, scrambled, and toast.”
“I’ll try some of that kielbasa,” Dad said. He didn’t say how he wanted his eggs and she didn’t ask.
“I’m gonna bring you a pot of coffee,” she said, on her way to the kitchen window. She didn’t hang her order on the clothes pin line, just handed it through the window to her husband and whispered.
She turned toward the jukebox against the front wall of windows and fished some coins from her apron. “We need some music. I won’t play anything too rowdy.” Then she picked up a pitcher thermos from behind the counter and set it on our table.
“I like him,” she said. “Glen Campbell. By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
I nodded. “I like him, too.”
“He can sure play that guitar,” Dad said.
When she left, I said, “Funny how he sings traveling songs.”
“All of them?” Dad asked.
“Well, Gentle On My Mind is about a guy jumping trains. And this one is he’s on his way to Phoenix.”
“Hadn’t thought about that.”
By the time the steaming plates arrived, we’d all moved on from Glen Campbell. I don’t remember what else played. The man stepped out of the kitchen, reached behind the jukebox, and turned the volume down.
While we were eating, the place filled up with working men and two more waitresses tied on aprons over white polyester dresses. There were no other women except for me. I felt obligated as the new target of ogling and sat up straight in my chair. A new waitress removed our dishes and we poured the last of the coffee.
“Are we rested enough to get on the road?” I asked. “I’ll drive.”
“Yeah. Let me finish this cup of coffee. We better hit the restrooms before we leave.”
About that time, a burly bald-headed guy at a table yelled, “Hey, Jack, turn that up.”
“Jack” stepped out of the kitchen again, wiping his hands. “I’m busy back here,” he said. But he turned up the music and we heard, “And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.”
“Make it play over,” Mr. Burly said. “That song’s about me.”
Somebody across the room said, “This ain’t Wichita,” but Jack pulled the plug on the machine. “Somebody needs to get over here and feed it some dimes. I’m busy back there.”
Our waitress sat her coffee pot on the top of the jukebox and fished out some more coins. “Alright, I’m paying,” she said, “but somebody needs to get over here and pick out.”
Burly obliged, pulling up his Duckheads as he punched numbers.
Dad reached in his pocket and laid some bills on the table. “We better get going.”
“Shhhh, shhhh,” I said, “that’s Glen Campbell. That’s his new song.”
I got up and headed for the ladies’ room when I heard, “…and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” I didn’t cry until I got in a stall.
I feel the same way about Glen Campbell that I remember feeling when John Denver died. I didn’t know how much I’d miss him until he was gone. Wichita Lineman ranks right up there with the best songs ever written and, without doubt, Jimmy Webb, its penman, in the top ten songwriters, maybe five. He lucked out, or maybe he was just smart, when he chose Glen Campbell to interpret his songs.
Trish Yearwood sings a Hugh Prestwood song called The Song Remembers When. The song testifies to the way that music can instantly–and intensely–give rise a memory that hasn’t shown itself in years. Funny, the woman in the lyrics says she was “standing at the counter, waiting for some change” when it happened:
Still I guess some things we bury Are just bound to rise again For even if the whole world has forgotten The song remembers when Yeah, and even if the whole world has forgotten The song remembers when.
When I shook my top in the bathroom this morning, a full serving of Cap’n Crunch and olive oil crackers floated to the floor. I crave something crunchy; we only thought of carrots and celery today. I managed to sit on the toilet, sort of spread-eagle, and picked up three cereal pieces and half a cracker. I brought them with me to the den. These days I’m popular with Murphy.
I miss cooking. Tomorrow, Dave is going to put a roast in the slow cooker. I’m going to coach him, step by step. And I miss painting. I have a first coat of chalk paint on some chairs and a dresser, and there’s a full lineup of walls, furniture, and cabinets begging for attention. I suppose it will all wait until I can be on my feet, and that’s going to be a little while.
I sit in the one comfortable, one-sided position. I list to the right, then prop up an elbow with a pillow and stick out my left leg. Sometimes the leg wants to rest laterally on the couch, sometimes it would rather hang over the side pointing toward the door to the porch. It’s a humorous picture.
Lying down is much more unreliable. Sometimes there just is no way to stretch out that works. So I just assume my contortionist persona and sit up. Reminds me of Rosemary Woods, Nixon’s secretary who somehow erased eighteen minutes of the tell-tale tape in the Watergate case.I have a much more honorable intention. It’s not necessary to sit or lie pain-free, only to reduce the hurt to a manageable status.
So Dave says I’m a demanding patient. I suppose I am. I have that man stepping and fetching as never before! He feeds me, cleans up after me, and even helps with a shower. (It’s really amazing how unnecessary it becomes to shower daily. I have found I can go four days without that rigamaroll–and, amazingly, I don’t stink!)
Who takes over my management duties for The Compound? Dave. He’s taking on CEO, CFO, and COO all at once, and all of that is more demanding than I am, personally. The man’s a saint.
But now I want to cook. I have to cook. I don’t know for sure what I’m going to make, but I see there are some spent bananas on the counter just begging to redeem themselves in some banana bread–with nuts. Now, if Dave will retrieve the the flour, and the sugar, I’ll be shaking walnuts out of my clothes by bedtime.
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:
Sledding. 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.)
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. She 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 painted 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. This 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.
Always have your camera handy–or your phone, and don’t forget to take the dog with you. Murphy 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!
So 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.
We’re having a snow day. Except that we’re really having an ice day. And THAT is the problem with snow in Tennessee. Southern clouds try to conjure up snow and take their work just a little too far. The result hangs in sharp points from rocks, rooftops, and shrubbery. It pulls tree limbs and power lines to the ground. Schools, churches, and flights get cancelled. There are people without heat, or stranded, or hungry–Our heat could go out any time. I know I’m not supposed to enjoy this.
It’s ice out there, not snow, and it’s about two inches thick. I was glad I thought to fill the bird feeders. One little chickadee sang his thanks this morning, perched on the ledge of the big picture window behind the couch in the den. He didn’t fly away when I turned my head to look at him. The cardinals are having a rip-roaring soiree. They love a party in the cold. They take turns at three feeders with the chickadees, woodpeckers, finches, and wrens. It’s no surprise to see the other birds, but yesterday afternoon a bluebird crossed the back yard. Our neighbor, Don, keeps several houses for the cheery little Eastern bluebirds.
“Look, look! One of Don’s bluebirds….” I was driving, just pulling the van into the garage, with Dave riding shotgun.
“Could be one of our bluebirds,” Dave said. “I saw bluebirds in that second house between those trees we planted on the edge of the ravine.”
“Really? We have bluebirds? In that little house that Dad built?”
I couldn’t keep my eyes off the back yard action today but I managed to cook the mid-day meal. Most of the time, lunch is our largest meal of the day. Today I made chicken adobo. I learned this dish in seventh grade when my friend, Dorothy Valenzuela, came to the house and cooked for us.
I bought a chicken, just like she told me to do, and she arrived that evening with rice, soy sauce, garlic, and onions. “You have oil?” she asked. “How about vinegar?”
“What kind of vinegar?” I asked.
“The kind you cook with,” she answered.
I handed her some apple cider vinegar.
When the rice adobo was done, so was the adobo . She announced that she was leaving the soy sauce for us.
“You’re going home?” Dad asked. “Aren’t you going to stay and eat dinner with us?”
Dorothy giggled. “No, no, I can’t stay tonight. See you later.”
At the door, she said, “You have to teach me potato salad.” Later, she told me the reason she left was that she didn’t want to be eating if we didn’t like her adobo.
Mom and Dad and I talked about Dorothy at lunch while we did away with the chicken, rice, fried apples, and broccoli-fixed-two-ways. Dad gets his cooked to mush in cheese sauce; I roast it crisp-tender for the rest of us. Dad declared the meal to be the “best meal you’ve cooked in a long time, Sis. I’ve made a pig of myself.”
“I thought you liked all my cooking,” I said.
“I do. I just think this one was extra-special,” he answered.
Mom got in the game. “I’ll just say that chicken was out of this world.”
After lunch, Dave made a trip to the veterinary specialists’ office. No one is supposed to be driving today, but we realized Friday night that Murphy would run out of prednisone on Tuesday. We stopped in at the office Saturday morning and the receptionist said it would be better to just wait and call in on Monday. Huh. See how that went down?
Dave is an excellent driver in snow and on ice, a skill he picked up in his home state of Montana, but I was relieved when he got home. “You didn’t crash and burn!” I said.
“No, but it’s a wonder,” he said. “And it took me five runs to get out of our south side driveway.”
I didn’t see a bluebird today, nor the doves. They must be bedded down in some warmer place, but there were two or three robins pecking at the ground under the curly willow. I wondered if they were digging out frozen worms.
I received a text from a young man who’s done landscaping and handyman jobs for us. “Ms. Revell, do you all have kerosene or a generator? Do you need me to bring you something? I will. Whatever you need.”
I responded. “I think we’re good. Thanks for thinking of us.”
“If you need your drives and walks cleared and salted, just let me know, Ms. Revell.”
And that’s probably the best thing about snow and ice in Tennessee, at least here in Nashville.
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.
Let’s just say that I should remember not to always follow Mom’s advice, especially when it comes to hot peppers.
She needed a project. She decided to make hot pepper jelly since we have peppers of all sorts coming out our ears, we all love the stuff, and we like to gift it for Christmas. I laid in a supply of sugar, pectin, vinegar, and jars.
She’s had a bit of stomach trouble lately so when Dad picked the passel of peppers last week, she wasn’t ready to start canning. Today was the fourth day for those peppers. They were in the fridge, and they looked fine, but it was just time.
I told her I would help her. I put ham and beans on the stove to start some soup for lunch, then I began to chop peppers and boil water.
Mom asked, “What can I do?”
I said, “Why don’t you chop some vegetables for the bean soup?”
We made her a place at the kitchen table where she could sit and slice carrots, celery, and onions for the soup. I said, “Just tell me when you’re ready for me to throw it in the pot.” When I had added her choppings and washed the cutting board, I jarred up the first batch of jelly. It was red. It was also a bit boring, according to Mom.
“I think you should just throw the whole jalapenos in the next batch. We do not want hot pepper jelly that is not hot.”
“Okay, Manuela,” I answered.
A few weeks ago, our long-term cleaning lady asked me if the peppers I just sacked up for her were hot. I said, “Manuela, they burned my hands when I seeded them for salsa.”
She answered, “Seeded them? Huh. I just throw the whole thing in the blender.”
So we did two more batches Manuela-style.
Hot? Yes. Caliente? Si.
My hands burn, my eyes water, my nose runs. Hot. Really hot.
If you want some really, really, really hot pepper jelly, let me know. I know where to find it. I’m calling it “Mama Blair’s Hotter-than-Hale Pepper Jelly”.
And I refuse to listen to that woman again when she counsels me regarding hot pepper jelly. I think she’s a dragon.