The Blog Formerly Known As

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I may rename this blog All the Things I Refuse to Speak About. Last week (this one, too), it was politics. This week it is my mother’s cancer.

Instead:

The bird-of-the-week (I haven’t forgotten you, junco. You have kept me company these difficult days in Westerly at one of several of my mother’s feeders), is the Cooper’s Hawk.

Christmastime, she sat in the neighbors’ tree eyeing the buffet outside my mother’s kitchen windows. Didn’t take long for the place to lose all its customers.

I pointed her out one day to my mother who could only make out a dark spot in the leafless branches.

“Is that what happened to all the birds?” she asked. “Next time your brother comes, I’m going to tell him to bring his gun.”

Before I could manage my surprise, she looked at me and smiled, leaning on her walker. “Just kidding,” she said. “But I wish the damned thing would go someplace.”

Go someplace. That’s one of her phrases. When you ask her who her favorite child is. When my husband Dennis says he can’t wait to come talk to her about the Pats returning to the Superbowl next year. When anyone suggests she might benefit from a hearing aid.

And maybe what she would have said to the Cooper’s Hawk once it got bold enough to sit on the hedges outside her front window where my brother installed another feeder that she can see from her recliner. We had drawn the shades so the morning sun didn’t hit her in the eyes and a wing flashed in the slit of light. It cast more shadow than a measly sparrow or one of her omnipresent house finches. When I lifted the shade, the feeder was deserted, but minutes later, the hawk landed, fixing its yellow eye on this side of the glass.

“My god,” I said. “There it is.” An arm’s length away.

Before my mother could see it, the bird vanished. But I witnessed it: the way the creature staked out her territory. The way she made it clear: trespass at your own risk. But trespass.

What is there to say about a February where it is 60 degrees? Yes, when I head downhill each morning for my walk, the wind comes off the river and makes me zip my jacket all the way up, but by the time I’ve turned the corner onto one end of Beach Street or the next, I’ve peeled off mittens and bared my neck to the unseasonable weather.

Fifty four years after I was born right down the street at the Westerly Hospital, I have discovered whole neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. Babcock Street, for example, the kind of eclectic neighborhood contractors have made rare. An American foursquare next door to a 1950’s ranch, across the street from a stone bungalow, a few feet from a modern monstrosity whose garage dwarfs the home’s narrow entrance. This is the kind of neighborhood, I think, that kids could ride bikes around. The kind of neighborhood that fills a schoolbus up and inspires block parties. Except I don’t really see kids riding bikes now or overcrowded busstops or block parties. Instead, for the last two mornings, it has been one man walking a big white shepherd mix and me wondering what it would be like to live in a house different from the one Dennis and I bought over twenty years ago because it reminded me so much of the house I grew up in.

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That house. This past week, my brother-in-law Bill sent me a memory stick with dozens of pictures of the farm which I promptly posted on Facebook.  This morning, my cousin Rob shook his head. “Those farm pictures,” he said. Now that was a neighborhood. A neighborhood in which we escaped many things that could have killed us.

My brother told a story about crawling into the Harvestore silo to dislodge whatever clogged up the works. “I crawled in with a tool to hack away at the lump of silage gumming stuff up and Tum (our father) held my feet in case he had to pull me out of there in a hurry. There was 6 tons of silage over my head somewhere.”

In one photo, one our fourteen year old hired hands drives the David Brown tractor while my nephew Michael perches on the fender except he’s leaning down, looking over the treads and the hired hand, no doubt thrilled with his job, hurtles along over potholes and tire ruts.imag0088

We climbed the 40 foot ladder outside the Big Jim silo on a dare. Jumped barn roof to barn roof, a pack of kids in flip flops.

My brother, my cousin and I shared stories of corn trucks whose brakes gave out in busy intersections or pick-ups whose homemade sides rattled along the Interstate from the shifting weight of the thousand pound yearling bull in its bed, or the pliers pinched onto where other vehicles had gear shifts, or the rotting floorboards through which the highway’s lane lines flashed, or the passenger side doors that flew open when you turned a corner with your four year old passenger, unbuckled, in the seat.

Bulls broke free of their stalls. Cows charged, foolish with the first warm day of the year. Hurricanes knocked silos over. Equipment churned and chugged and stalled and lurched with us at the helm or as passengers. Skittish heifers kicked off their machines and we felt the air whoosh by our cheekbones. We ice skated on ponds that weren’t necessarily frozen solid, smoked in the hayloft, rode standing up in the beds of trucks with no tailgates.

Good times.

Hawk, you would not have scared us. We were very young and, no doubt, exhausted by the work behind us and the work ahead. We had no idea what to fear.

 

That was a long time ago.

Surry on Down

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Please imagine: red berries.

Dark eyed juncos. Those are my favorite birds this winter. They’re dressed right for the white background. They’re not really posing, in my heart of hearts I know this, but they do perch in the branches of some kind of shrub that has only red berries this time of year. This is the kind of calendar photo my friend Miriam would roll her eyes at, the kind where she would have to say to me: It’s a little cheesy, don’t you think? because, on my own, it would not occur to me. I like the Fifth Dimension, too. This makes my friend Karyn roll her eyes, but when “One Less Bell to Answer” plays at Market Basket — a much more rare occurrence than seeing one of ten thousand juncos at the feeder — I can’t help it: I sing.

I’m telling you this so I don’t discuss politics. I know you haven’t been sleeping at night so for your entertainment, I’m going to go on about the kinds of things that might induce drowsiness. Trust me. You are safe here.

In the mid-nineties, I had a student named Jennifer (I had several Jennifers then, sometimes in the same class; in my return to the classroom, I don’t think I’ve had any). This Jennifer sat in the back row and was a bright kid in a lovely but totally unmotivated class of seniors. She never asked why Shakespeare was written in Old English, for example. She volunteered to read poems aloud. She could correctly pronounce the word bosom. One day, I told the class that, if they were ever stranded on a tundra and could only eat polar bear, they should never eat the liver. Too much concentrated Vitamin A. Jennifer said, “Now I know why you remind me of Mr. Luther.” Mr. Luther was a beloved science teacher, iconic. I was still a young teacher unused to this kind of praise. I got that feeling peacocks must feel just before they flex that tail, but then Jennifer added: “You’re both so full of useless information. I mean that in a good way.”

For example, I’ve never forgotten the Islets of Langerhans from freshman biology class at Westerly High School. TWICE I’ve scored with that answer on a Jeopardy question. (On the other hand, in Pictionary, when I was asked to draw Europe, I put it slightly north and east of Maine. (And my partner guessed it immediately.))

While we’re on the subject of high school. Turns out, you never do need to know anything about trigonometry to make a go of it in life.

Dogs in TJ Maxx. Dogs sitting behind me in a basketball game. In Paris in 1992 (here, if I sound like a world traveler, you must accept that as an alternative fact), dogs went to cafes where, at least, they breathed cleaner air than those of us head-level with the mushroom clouds of cigarette smoke. But I remember thinking: ew. I grew up on a farm where animals were, you know, animals. Dogs in restaurants, especially in places with no real pooper scooper laws? This was a cultural leap for which I was unprepared.

But now, stateside, I’ve stood in line at cafes with dogs. They’ve run over my carefully unpacked picnic at the outdoor jazz concert on the Rowley Common. They’ve burst into my house, dashed up my stairs, scarfed down the catfood and torn out my screens. They’ve ridden around in carts someone is going to put clothes (maybe even food) into later. And everyone, everyone who considers themselves a dog lover, now considers me intolerant. I prefer to think my tolerance has limits. I have dogs. I’ve seen what they eat and what they lick. I’ve seen what they do when they have problems with their anal glands. They have anal glands. However, today, for example, when I’m done with this, I am going to bring them to the beach and let them chase the waves and then they are getting baths at the dogwash. On the way home, we are stopping to buy marrow bones and their organic, grain free food. But tomorrow, when I go to CVS to buy toothpaste or to the 99 with my mother (she calls it the 99 House), Bella and Izzy will be left home on their brand new dog bed that I am buying today at TJ Maxx also without them.

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Just to be clear: This photo is not from today, but these are my dogs and this is where we’re headed.

If, however, my cats would travel, I would strap on the Babybjorn and be off to Symphony Hall, Restaurant Week, and Nordstrom’s.

Last thing: Today on my walk, I saw three deer at the edge of the woods. When they saw me, they leapt through the snow. Deer leaping through the snow. Made me hum a little “Stoned Cold Picnic” all the way home.

Sweet Dreams.