The Boxes

The Boxes

The boxes are there, in the corner, taking up space that I could use for a thousand other things, like books, or stacks of magazines that I never read but can’t help but accumulate, or clothes to go to Goodwill, or boxes of items that I could sell on ebay.  But the space is not available in this very large house, because they are there.  The boxes.

              It’s been seven months.  Seven, that’s a magical number, I tell myself. A good time to open the boxes and start sorting through a lifetime of minutia.

              There is not that many of them. The boxes.  As someone who abhors knick knacks with a passion, it was easy enough to pass those by when we were cleaning out Granny’s house.  And the years in the empty house had taken their toll on her shelves of books – like the matching spines of all of her Zane Grey westerns.  Books that she read over and over, like visiting with old friends.  She had shared them with me over the years, introducing me to wagon trains, Indian fighters like Lewis Wetzel, and the romantic west.  But the damp had crept into the old farm house in her absence, and covered the outer surfaces with a thin mold that made me want to wash my hands immediately.

              Feeling like I was invading her personal space, I shook out every box and drawer, searching for the snippets of poetry that she would write on the outside of envelopes or on the back of someone else’s stationery. At the time, I had not sorted through the slips of paper, just stacked them into the boxes to deal with later.  Now, it was later.

              I pulled out the smallest of the boxes, and found it was only half-filled. Obviously, my focus while packing had not been on full throttle. First, I sorted through a stack of empty envelopes, all addressed to her.  They had probably been Christmas cards, birthday cards, or even just cards to say hello.  Not a week went by that she didn’t receive some correspondence from a far flung family member.  She kept the envelopes in case she needed the address, placing them into stacks in the bookshelf. Finding the address then consisted of looking through all of the stacks, all of the envelopes for the one that she needed. And even then, she could never say whether the address was the latest, or from ten years ago. Gifts to her included address books and rolodexes, but they received no better treatment getting stuffed with the torn off address label, but not always stuck in the right section of the alphabet.

              I diligently checked each envelope, and found a larger envelope filled with a stack of mementos of her children.  I started to divide them into stacks to send to my aunts, my uncle, and my dad. I carefully categorized each small pile. In three yellowed envelopes, labeled with the names of her two daughters and her youngest son who is almost 70, I found tiny locks of hair.  Even as a mother myself, I marvel at the love of a mother for her children, holding onto precious keepsakes for all these years. They had not had a lot of money, so she had probably cut their hair herself.

In the pile for her oldest son who is now in his 80s, there is a grade card with one corner slightly mouse-chewed, pictures of his wedding to his second wife, and pictures of the lake at Tahoe where he now lives. The postcards of western rocks that I know he bought for her I slipped into my own pile. Her son had always hoped to delight her with the sight of the ocean when she finally went to visit him in California in her 80s.  She had smiled and dipped her fingers in the ocean water, but the tall rocks and waves of striations had left her amazed instead. When she had returned from that trip, she had knelt in the yard, butt in the air and kissed the ground.  Later, side by side, we sat together on her sofa and she had walked me through each of the pictures she had taken, including one of the black male flight attendant who had been kind to her. In my mind, I can see the veins in her hand and the knots of her fingers as she points to each picture and I can hear her voice as she creates the adventure of the trip with her words. Probably because she told it to me more than once.

The first box is empty. Pictures sorted. Small packages ready for my uncle, my aunts, and my dad. I wonder if one day I’ll have grandchildren who will be left to sort through my drawers.  Will they pull out three postcards and wonder why the image of Red Rock Canyon had been precious? Maybe not. Or maybe they’ll find a picture of an old farm house and a woman kneeling to kiss the ground and they’ll hear my voice in their head, telling the story of her adventure.

The Bird Nest

Growing up on a mountain with few neighbors and no siblings, reading became my main source of entertainment.  Especially during summers, when I would want to hide from the list of chores that my mother would devise for me to do, books let me escape.  Even if she found me, she was sometimes loath to interrupt me since she saw reading as a strong part of education.

As a mother, I follow that same mantra. It is hard for me to sit on my hands and not dictate a thousand titles that my daughters should read. Titles that swept me away at their age. They do read, probably more than the average child, but they have each other and an unlimited amount of TV shows and movies when allowed to have screen-time.  Reading to them is casual entertainment and not the longed-for companionship that I craved.

But this week, I found direct evidence of reading as a source of enrichment.  During the past school year, while we homeschooled due to Covid, I “assigned” the book, Sarah Plain and Tall, to one of my daughters to read and discuss.  Each week, we read a few more chapters and chatted about what was going on in the story. By the end of the so-called semester, my daughter had finished the book, and as a family, we watched the movie as a treat. There is a scene – in both book and movie – where Sarah trims the hair of the children. She takes the cut hair and lets it run through her fingers and out into the field, so the birds could use it for their nests. 

As the weather began to warm up, the girls brushed our dog, Necco, who has thick white fur.  They took the piles of fur, and like the character in the book, let it fly out into the field rather than just stuffing it into the trash. This week, while walking along the tree line, I came across a bird’s nest that had been blown out of a tree.

The base is thick with twigs, but lining the inside, where the eggs would lay, is the smooth white fur of Necco.  I carried the nest in to show to the girls.  With tiny fingers, they traced over the fur lining, and in delight, they said, “Just like the book.”

Yes, I thought, just like the book.

Frogs and Sisters

I came out of my home office and called out to my youngest daughter. “Did you get some lunch yet, or do you want me to fix something for you?”

She said, “You have to fix something for the frogs, too.”

Not paying close attention to her, I said absently as I pull some things from the pantry, “What frogs, babe?”

She held up both hands, where two frogs sat quietly.  On the one hand, I am thrilled to have daughters who don’t mind frogs, toads, worms, or even spiders, but I don’t want them bringing them into the house either.

“Sweetie,” I told her, “remember that I said that you couldn’t bring wild animals into the house?”

“They’re fine,” she insisted. “They have water and food.”

“Yeah, but maybe their family misses them. Maybe they have a brother or sister who wants someone to play with.”

“I wouldn’t miss my sister,” she told me. Her face took on the stubborn look that I knew probably mirrored my own at that age.

“Well, either way, the frogs have to go outside.  Put them back where you found them.”

“They were in the dog bowl.”

“How did they get into the dog bowl?”

“I dunno.”

While I stared at her, trying to fathom how or why frogs decided to move into a dog bowl, I noticed that one of her hands was steadily dripping.  One of the frogs had just peed on her.  My daughter’s nose wrinkled slightly, but she didn’t drop her charges.

In my best mom voice, I said, “Take. Them. Out. Side.”

“Okay, but it’s not my fault if the dogs eat them.”

“Fine,” I answered. “And where is your sister? I want to ask her if she’s had lunch.”

Her eyes scrunched up a little, and she said, “She’s in our room, but maybe you shouldn’t go in there.”  Without waiting for my response, she headed out the door.

I looked over at the closed door of their room and then turned around to go right back into my office, where the world made sense.

The Personality

Claire dislikes people in general. You can see the look on her face as she tolerates them.  Too many hugs, or get too much into her personal space, and she’ll get up and leave. She could not care less if it hurts your feelings.  She’s almost the exact opposite of her brother, Nathan, who given a moment to think about it, has a great love and affection for every person he meets.  Claire is a bit unfriendly. She keeps me up at night. She rarely purrs, and when she does, it never more than a few seconds, like a smile from an old grouch that slips out. And yet, my day would be empty without her.

              Claire has long, sharp claws, and she has proven that she’s not afraid to use them against the girls. Since they like to make up little beds in little hideaways around the house for her, she will spend time with them.

If you pick her up, she tenses and jumps away as soon as possible, unless you prop your hand under her back feet and let her dig lightly into your shoulder with her front feet, giving her a sense of control. The girls carry her on her back, like a baby doll, but you can see the panic in her eyes. On the other hand, Nathan can be draped around your shoulders like a scarf as he stares back at you with sleepy eyes. He dozes on shoulders, chest, lap, or anywhere in between, as long as he gets attention. Claire reminds me of myself wanting a warm blanket and to be left alone in peace.

              In the night, a warm figure will appear against the bottom of my feet. If I get hot and push her away, she eases back into place. If I try to pull her up closer to my belly where I can pet her, she will stiffly tolerate it before retiring to the back of my knees, out of reach.  I have woken many nights on the precarious edge of the bed after slowly inching away from this ball of heat while she claims the center of my side of the bed. If my husband pulls her to him, she blinks at him as if unsure of the reason for his existence before returning to her self-proclaimed spot at my feet.

              In the morning, when I get up and pad to the bathroom, I have learned to leave the door partially open. If I don’t, Claire will meow and scratch at the door until I let her in.  Even then, she will sit on the edge of the tub and give a long list of meows, pausing to let me respond. I can only guess that she complains about my movements in the night or sharing some kitty dream. The girls shake their heads and call me weird for having these little conversations with her. 

              When we move from the bathroom to head down the hall to the living room and kitchen, Claire does not like to walk behind me or beside me.  Instead, she lets me get a little bit ahead, and then she races in a full-out horse-hoof clattering pelt to get in front of me, and then she slows down to a snobbish saunter.  My husband says he can tell when I am leaving the bathroom just by listening to the sound of Claire’s feet on the hardwood.

              Claire feeds herself from the bowl in the kitchen, visits the litter box in the laundry room, and then she sits and waits as I take care of everyone else.  She will ignore the dog, who, respectful of her claws, returns the favor.  She may hiss at Nathan or the other two half-grown tom cats if they look too long in her direction.  Then, at long last, as I head to my home office in the corner of the house, she again runs in front of me to reach the door first so she can stroll into the room as if she owns it. As I start up my computer, Claire picks out her first spot of the day, where she will hang out until lunch.  After lunch, we repeat the ritual as we move from room to room until it is finally bedtime again.

              My youngest daughter claims that Claire is her cat because she picked her out, but I teasingly like to point out that she is my cat because Claire picked me.

The Preacher’s Chicken

Today is the day of my grandmother’s funeral, and I woke up thinking about fried chicken and preachers. My grandparents raised chickens for many, many years. They had a small shed on the hillside above the house called the brooder house. During the frigid winters, they would load up the wood stove with a warm fire and Granny would tell how the chickens and young chicks would line up around the heat of the stove. She marveled at how they would stick together in neat little rows. The eggs would be gathered every day, and once a week, Grandpa would load up a huge stack of egg crates and take them to Town (always a capital T in my mind as she told her stories) to sell.

As you gathered eggs, there may be one chicken who didn’t like being ousted from her spot as you checked for hidden eggs and she’d retaliate with a little nip. That one, Granny explained, would be the preacher’s chicken. Each Sunday, the preacher would visit one of the families of the church for dinner after church service. I’m sure that the women in the community would lay out their finest during these visits. I’ve heard of revenge being a dish best served cold, but as I think about her story, I think for Granny, it must have been a dish served fried in Crisco and served to the preacher.

Because of Covid, the service today will be a gathering of cars to follow the hearse up a rocky rutted road, and a short graveside service as we all sniffle through our masks and shiver in six inches of snow as another storm comes blowing in to knock us off the mountain ridge. My cousin said Granny had often told her that she’d be sitting on her little pink cloud, laughing at all of us. I wonder if we’ll look like little chicks to her, gathered in a circle around our center of warmth? We will celebrate her life, sharing the thousands of stories of her and by her. And I, for one, plan to remember her tomorrow on Sunday, by fixing fried chicken.  

The Green Blanket

When you were born, at least a dozen of the family members gave us exquisite baby blankets.  Hand stitched, quilted or crocheted, they were soft, beautiful, and a complete pain in my behind.  For every visit, as family showed up to look at your stormy blue eyes, I had to remember who gave us which blanket to be sure to have it on hand to show that we were grateful for their thoughtfulness. I had learned this quickly after the first few questions about missing blankets, or comments on how much time so-and-so had put into their blanket, or sad observations on stains that appear as they do with every baby. Everyone wants to feel special and appreciated, so I did my best to keep it mind, despite being an exhausted new mother.

Luckily, you and I were able to spend most of our time alone.  During those precious moments, I would carefully fold all the special blankets and put them away to keep them pristine. In their stead, I bought a five dollar blanket at Walmart.  It was green, soft, and I didn’t have to care about it.  If we sat outside in the grass, I would throw out the green blanket. No worries if it got grass-stained.  If we played on the floor with the dogs or the cats, I would spread out the green blanket.  It was easy enough to throw into the washer. As the air got cooler and we traveled to and from the babysitter, I could throw the entire green blanket over your car seat as we walked through the yard, unlike all of those teeny tiny baby blankets that would cover only half of you, or slip off as we scrambled to keep them clean.

As babies do, you grew, and grew.  The special blankets stayed packed away, while you kept the green blanket tossed over your shoulder, a constant source of comfort to you as you crawled then walked.  If you watched TV, the blanket curled around you and a cat. If you played in the floor, the green blanket was your cushion. When we traveled, you would wrap it around your arms as you leaned back in your car seat. Everyone became used to seeing you with your green blanket. Everyone assumed that green was your favorite color, when in reality it was mine.

 Instead of a description, the blanket earned the name, The Green Blanket.  Going out the door meant checking that you had The Green Blanket before we left.  Bedtime meant making sure that you had The Green Blanket in bed with you.  This went on for years.

This week, I was helping you to tidy up.  Blankets are still the favorite gift of family members, so they tend to pile up.  They are big and small, soft and slick.  I see images of Elsa and Anna, of Minions, of solar systems, and rainbows.  We folded them up and packed some of them away.  It had been a while since I had seen The Green Blanket, and I had half forgotten about it.  I flipped over a pillow, and there it lay, neatly folded as a cushion in the corner of your bed.

Casually, I asked if you wanted me to pack it away, since it was worn and not as soft as some of the new blankets. No, leave it there, you said. You looked at me, gave your little knowing grin, and patted me on the arm. I laughed at you, a little girl who knew exactly how to make her mother feel unique. I smoothed out the wrinkles in the fold of The Green Blanket, then covered it up with a pillow. A little bit of ordinary, but hidden and special for just the two of us.

Hindsight is 2020

I had looked forward to the concept of the year 2020. I thought then it symbolized a perfect year for clear 20-20 vision. What exactly I expected to see now seems to escape me. Perhaps a chance to see new things, because we had trips planned. Perhaps a chance to focus my efforts on a variety of personal projects. Another year to watch my daughters grow and learn in their chosen activities?

And yet, the year 2020 arrived and swept all of that aside.

Instead of beginning the year with clarity, we felt confused, worried, and a sense of unreality sunk in. People were dying all over the world, and the virus seemed to creep closer and closer to us. We felt great love and concern for people and yet wanted no one to get within arm’s reach. Our leaders sniped at each other with comments we would not allow on a kindergarten playground. I actively worried about children in homes with not enough food or in homes of abuse and had dreams of how I could rescue them. No, the world was a blurry place, and I felt more and more like I was in the eye doctor’s chair taking my eye exam and knowing with gut-wrenching anxiety that it was a test I could never pass.

We began to make decisions. We delayed plans for trips. We withdrew into our homes and made alliances with those of similar mindsets. We chose to mask or not to mask. To visit a loved one, or just to call. Conferences were canceled, as were family reunions. Family members would go into hospitals for procedures and forced to wait in the parking lot, we waited for news when every fiber of our being said we should be inside at their bedside, ready to quiz the hospital staff for details.

It is the last day of 2020. In years past, I would spend this last day of the year thinking forward about New Year’s resolutions and setting challenges for myself. Yesterday, a radio DJ announced that they would play the ‘best songs from the worst year’. Instinctively, I wrinkled my nose at the word, best. What was best about anything in 2020? Grudgingly, I gave it some thought. This forced me to stop and think and apply the magnifying glass not only to the horrors of the world but also to the treasures.

Family and friends have always been important to me. But would I have talked to so many of them by phone if I hadn’t felt the need to reach out and check on them? To send notes and little treasure in the mail to those I miss? I know for certain with all of the running around to basketball and piano classes and book groups and writers groups and community events that I would not have spent as much time at board games, reading books together, and just sitting at leisure at the dinner table and talking, sharing stories, and making plans for “after” with my husband and daughters.  

I would have assumed the girls were learning everything that they were supposed to in school, rather than working with them one on one, rebuilding on areas of weakness, and being in complete awe of their abilities and creativity.

I would not have spent the time on myself. Taking the long hikes over the mountains, both for the exercise, and wiping away the cobwebs of spending day after day in the same house with the same faces and then feeling the joy of Mother Nature as a breeze picks up and spatters my face with a light rain.

I would have allowed myself more days just to pick something up to eat on the go, rather than to pick new recipes out of the book and give it a try in the kitchen, loving that my husband will eat it, whether it turned out right or not. I would not have spent so much time with the written word, instead of feeling guilty for stealing another minute from family time.

Make no mistake, I am happy to see the backside of this year, these problems, and for certain this virus. But I also cannot leave this entire year behind.  Perhaps my resolution is to take this new vision of the world, and like eye drops, apply it as needed when we get back to “normal.”