Lips and Tubes

My left hand gripped the steering wheel, my eyes on the road, as I reached for the slender tube in the car console.  I could recognize the very familiar feel of the Chapstick container:  short, smooth, with a small ridge where the cap starts.

I adeptly removed the cap with one hand and smeared the tube’s slippery contents over my lips.  Then I slid them left and right to spread out the Chapstick.  Snapping the cap back on, I dropped the tube into the console.

Chapstick has an honorable history in my life.  Mommy kept a tube in her Sunday purse; her conservative religion did not allow lipstick so Chapstick was as close as she could come to pretty lips.  When the sermon was particularly boring, my sisters and I got squirmy.  Mommy would constantly shush us, then finally hand over her Chapstick.  We’d each put it on our small lips like it was ruby-red lipstick.  We’d feel beautiful with our “lipsticked” lips and settle down for a bit more droning from the pulpit.

One time when Mommy was not paying attention, I took her purse from the pew beside her, intent on finding the Chapstick.  Instead, on top was a long, soft thing wrapped in Kleenex.  I pulled it out, opened it up and didn’t know what it was.  I waved it at Mommy; she glanced over and with a look of panic grabbed it from me and stuffed it under her leg.  Then she grabbed her purse and whispered in a voice I knew meant business, “Don’t you EVER take my purse again!” I didn’t understand that I had pulled out a sanitary napkin and was waving it around where the people behind us could see. Her anger surprised me.  But we all settled down that day without our Chapstick.

Chapstick of the ‘50’s, however, was not what it is now.  Always encased in a black tube with a white cap and white writing. The contents were hard and waxy.  To apply Chapstick you had to press hard on your lips.  Once the stuff was applied, it felt like you dipped your lips in molten wax and let it dry.  But the lipsticks of the 50’s were not much better, as I found out as I entered my teens and applied it secretly in the school bathroom, so you just accepted the waxy feel as part of the beauty regimen.

Now Chapstick has expanded its tube colors and content flavors, and it is soft and moist.  Tubes are red, blue, pink and green.  Flavors include peppermint, cherry, root beer and lemonade.

These progressive product changes were not due to the Chapstick Company’s generosity to its consumers, or its creativity, but to competition.  Burt’s Bees threatened Chapstick’s market dominance, with its honey-colored tubes, multi-colored caps and smooth insides that promised “the real taste of honey and natural ingredients.”  Chapstick responded, after years of black tubes and hard waxy sticks.

It is an amazing observation of human existence that we have a product to make such a tiny part of our bodies soft and moist.  And lips – why so important, I wondered.

Except for kissing, a thrill in its own right and a topic for another time, lips are pretty much useless. I can’t name a single biological function that they provide.

People with thin lips can eat and taste as well as those with full lips.  Ditto with drinking, whistling, singing and talking.  Even though pre-K teacher tell children to make their lips round for the o-o-o sound, a slit in our faces would be able to make the o-o-o sound as well.

Am I missing something?

Horses don’t have Chapstick, or lips either for that matter.  They have what people call “lips” but they are not lips like ours.  Theirs have no color change from the muzzle to the lips, In fact, horse lips are like the afore mentioned slit in the face. The slit works perfectly well to delicately take a piece of apple from an outstretched hand, or to grab a whole mouthful of grass before it is ripped off with a closing of the teeth and a quick sideways snap of the head.  Horses’ lips are a human invention, an attempt to make the horse anatomy more like ours.

Our unique human species does have distinctive lips, for no obvious reason.  We moisturize, color, purse, tighten and smile our lips.  They form a part of our facial expressions.  But a slit would do just as well.  Mouth and eyes, that’s all it takes.

Could we communicate feelings just as well without lips?  I think so. But until we evolve into lipless robotrons, we will need cases of Chapstick in all flavors and colors to keep our useless lips beautiful.

The Visitation

The hummingbird’s round black eye looked at me. He laid on his side on the hallway carpet.  His tiny heart beat rapidly, his small ribcage trembling.

He had fallen out of the curtain folds when I closed them. The soft thud of his body on the carpet did not register with me; I thought a rubber cap from the curtain rod had fallen. Then I saw the oblong, colorful shadow on the carpet.

Kneeling down, I admired his shimmering green feathers, bluish head, long dark beak, and black gangly legs.  He was still alive.

He was scared.  I was scared. Without request, the stewardship of this teeny being had been thrust upon me. Beautiful and helpless, he was now a stone around my neck.

Don’t screw it up, I said to myself.
Don’t screw it up.

One wrong decision, one rough touch, one step of carelessness and he would be gone.

I nursed my husband Eric when he was dying of cancer.  I did everything the doctors and nurses recommended.  I measured medicines carefully, recorded important changes, kept a time log for administering meds and food. Helped his to the bathroom.  Helped him into bed. Kept a heating pad on the ready for muscle cramps, sat with him through numerous doctor and Emergency Room visits.

Yet he died.

I gently scooped up the terrified hummingbird.  He squeaked, a good sign. I did not want to be responsible for his life, but the responsibility was dropped at my feet – quite literally – and no one else was there to help.

A small outdoor lamp threw pale shadows across the warm summer darkness. I stepped out and gently placed him in the crook of the towering maple tree, on a bed of dried leaves.

Then I turned and walked into the house, not looking back. I would NOT develop a relationship with this bird.

A flip of a switch and the back yard was once again smothered in darkness. I tried to forget him. But I imagined him struggling to find a comfortable position or attempting to fly away into the darkness.  His instinct would tell him what to do, right?

Why? I wondered. Why was this bird here, in my house, dropping at my feet? I caught my breath as a vision of Eric’s face appeared in my mind. For a split second, I believed it:  the bird was Eric, coming to see me and check on me.  It was possible.

I quickly banished the thought.  Silly!  Dead people don’t come back to visit their loved ones.  Or do they?

Why would he test me by appearing as a vulnerable bird whom only I could help?  Was it a test?  Was it his idea of a joke? Was it the easiest way to get close to me?  Or was it just a bird in an unusual situation?

The next morning, the dried leaf nest was empty.  I scanned the branches above, but there were no hummingbirds to be seen. The dried leaves were in the same place, leaving no evidence of his sleeping or struggling.

The earth and his hummingbird family would take care of him now. He will tell his grandchildren of his brush with death in a Human’s house.  In his version of the story, he would have stood up on the carpet and challenged me. They will listen in amazement, their round black eyes sparkling, their little heads tilting as they try to imagine getting that close to a Human.

And I will tell Eric to never do that again. If he must come back to see me, come as an inanimate object.  Please.

A rock would be fine.

Midnight Searching

“CRAP!”  I was lying in bed at 11:20pm on a warm summer night, and I had forgotten to do something.

I swung my legs over the side of the bed, switched on the bedside lamp and slipped my feet into slippers.  My husband was a sound sleeper; he wouldn’t even know I had left.

I clomped down the long hallway, through the kitchen and into the mudroom.  Wiggling my bare feet into my smelly barn sneakers, I grabbed a headlamp and pulled it over my hair, then tied the shoes.

My outfit was not fit for the pages of Vogue: pajamas consisting of elastic waisted shorts and a knit tank top (pink), dirty blue sneakers, bad hair and a headlamp. Oh well, I lived in the country on a farm and no one would know.

I had forgotten to bring our two horses up from the lower pasture for their daily checkup and a meal of sweet feed.  My day had been hectic from 6AM to 6PM filled with farm work and errands, followed by an evening meeting.  I forgot all about taking care of the horses when I fell into bed exhausted.

Technically it was OK for them to stay in the back field; as there was plenty of grass and a small creek for water.  But I had my routines and the horses had missed their dinner.

At the barn, I poured feed into their plastic feeders which hung on the fence, 16 feet apart so they wouldn’t fight over the grain.  The fat one, Bandit, was known to steal grain from other horses, even though there was more left in his feeder.  He was just a piggy.

I stood at the fence and called them with a “Woot Woot!” sound and a whistle, the equivalent of their dinner bell. Then I listened, peering down the hill into the darkness.  I would hear them coming before I saw them.  The splash as they crossed the creek, the ringing of their horseshoes on the creek rocks, and then the fast thudding as they galloped the rest of the way across the flat field.

No sounds.  Hmm.  This was worrisome.

I trudged down the hill in my elegant costume. Once I found them, I was sure I could herd them up the hill.  I had done it many times before.

In the dark, horses can be found not by their body shape but by the shining red orbs their eyes make when reflecting a bright light.  I scanned the lower field with my headlamp.  No red orbs.

Further back, the creek crossed the pasture left to right, cutting this large field off from a smaller patch of grass on the other side. Maybe they are on the other side of the creek.

I tried to hop on rocks across the creek, but soon slipped on the moss, into the water.  I waded across in my shoes, ankle deep in water.  I squished my way to the other side of the creek and up a small hill.

Another headlamp scan of that smaller area.  No red orbs.  No horses. Uh-oh. Now I was really beginning to worry.

I walked the entire length of the fence line to see if a gate was open or a fence board down.  On the last stretch, I came across a section where the middle board was down. The top board was in place at four feet, so they would have had to crouch down to get under it. But never underestimate a horse.

I stepped through the opening into my neighbor’s field.  The neighbors did not keep livestock, so deep lush grass grew here, just over the fence from my closely cropped grass and weed pasture. In this case, the grass WAS greener on the other side, I understood why the horses would try to escape to this virtual buffet.

I noticed the long stems had been stepped on, and in 20 feet I came across the convicting evidence:  a pile of fresh horse manure.

As I scanned this field, four red orbs appeared on the far side.  Gotcha!  Bandit and Ozzy stood there munching quietly as I walked up.

“What are you guys doing over here?” I scolded.  “It’s time to go home.”

It was then that I realized I had not brought along any halters or lead ropes.  I tried to get Bandit to follow me by pulling on his mane, but he stood stubbornly in place.  I tried the same with Ozzy, but he was not leaving without Bandit.

Time to get creative.  I stepped out of my pajama shorts.  If I put Bandit’s head through the waistband and leg hole, I could use it to lead him.  I slipped the shorts over his nose.  The waistband made it up to his ears, but the leg hole got stuck; his head was too big to go through.  Meanwhile Bandit was tossing his head around with irritation. “Get this stinkin’ thing off of me.  I can’t see!’

“OK, that didn’t work,” I said aloud to myself. I stepped back into the shorts. The only thing left was my pajama top which had a large scoop neckline.  The only problem was that once it was off, I was bare naked from the waist up. In my neighbor’s field.  At midnight.

Oh, what the hell.  Everyone in their right mind was in bed sleeping.  I pulled it over my head.

The top went right over Bandit’s head and ears.  I gripped it tight around his neck and began to walk.  He followed.  Ozzy followed Bandit. Hallelujah!

We made our way down the neighbor’s hill, across his section of the creek, and across the field behind his house to the gate linking our properties.  I was praying the whole way, “Steve, please don’t hear a funny noise and decide to throw on the floodlights.  Cause I’m out here half-naked.”

I was surprised how chilly the warm night had become.

When we reached the gate, the horses started prancing, knowing they were going home.  They took off galloping towards the barn.  Bandit yanked the pajama top out of my hands and flew across the field with the pink fabric flapping.

“Hey! Come back here.  That’s my pajama top!”  I shouted this, but only in my mind.  I couldn’t take a chance of waking Steve and have him tell all of Lexington that Lady Godiva lived next door.

I fastened the gate, wrapped my arms around my chest and walked up the hill.  The horses were by the barn munching their grain, still breathing hard from their race up the hill.  I locked them into the paddock, then had to forcibly pull Bandit’s head out of his feed bin (piggy!) to retrieve my pajama top. It had been christened with horse sweat and hair.

I returned to bed in a clean T-shirt.  My husband was snoring peacefully on the other side of the bed. I snuggled in beside him, and glanced at the clock and smiled. Midnight. On the dot.

The Under Toad

Waves perfect for ducking

“If the wave looks too big to float over, just dive straight into it before it breaks,” my father shouted to me as we bounced chest deep in the Atlantic Ocean.  “It’ll break over your head, but you’ll be safe swimming underneath.”

I questioned this logic, having just discovered at 11 years old that adults are not always right.  But I did as he suggested at the next towering wave.  Dad was right. Under the water it was instantly peaceful, the roar of breaking waves above my head just a hush, water rushing past as I kicked against the surge.

When I popped up on the other side, Dad called over.  “HOW’D THAT WORK?”  I grinned and gave him a thumbs up, then returned to face the incoming waves.  One lesson you learn early when you spend time in the ocean: Never put your back to the waves for too long.

Under Toad

“Watch out for the Under Toad,” My mother warned me years earlier as we spread out our blankets in the sand.  I imagined a huge slimy toad sitting under the water waiting to grab children.

“Where does the Under Toad live?” I asked Mommy, now a bit nervous about getting near the water. She burst into laughter. 

“Under TOW, not Under TOAD!” she explained.  I was embarrassed.  Not only did I think there was a scary toad in the ocean, which is totally silly, but I didn’t know what a TOW was either.  I pretended I did, since I was then 6 years old.  I should know that, I thought. Luckily my older sister was down by the water’s edge. If she had heard what I’d said, she’d tease me for days.  “Watch out for the UNDER TOAD!  Here he comes, gonna grab your leg, pull you under and eat you up!” 

Our family spent many hours on the Ocean City sand in New Jersey.  We called it “Going to the Shore.  ‘Beach’ is a California and Florida word. ‘Shore’ is the East Coast term for the long stretch of sea from somewhere north of New York to somewhere in Virginia.  At the New Jersey shore, jellyfish floated and multiplied, leafy seaweed wrapped around your legs, and on August weekends the sand was covered with so many blankets and towels that it was hard to get to the water without stepping on one.

For two summer weeks, we rented the top half of a spacious old house a few blocks from the ocean.  Its shingles were a dark green and visible from a block away.  Our numbers increased as the family grew: first there were four of us, then five, then six.  My father joined us on the weekends.  He was a Pennsylvania farm boy who was never afforded vacations, and first experienced the ocean while in the Army. He loved swimming in the salt water and body-surfing the waves.  He’d stay out for hours, taking each of us one at a time into the deeper area.

“Clifton,” my mother worried when he returned to the beach chairs and sun umbrella. “Is it safe to be out there with a child?” 

“Sure!” he replied, rubbing a towel over his thick, unruly black hair.  “I’m right there with them.” She knew it was a losing battle to change his mind. Since he hadn’t ever seen the ocean as a kid, he wanted his children to get right into it, play, learn to swim, respect its power and know the rules of being in the ocean.  Like NEVER GO OUT SWIMMING ALONE. First Rule. WATCH OUT FOR THE UNDER TOW.  Second Rule. FACE THE WAVES. Third Rule. And there are others….

For my mother, going to the shore was a much-needed escape from the repetition of keeping house and children in order.  She spent her time sitting under our blue and white striped sun umbrella, keeping one eye on the youngest who was digging in the sand. She’d bring along a few historical fiction novels from the Quakertown library back home and read as much as she could all week. She would dole out cold drinks from the thermos and pretzels from the beach bag.  Yes, BEACH bag, not SHORE bag. Just to keep you confused.

A perfect day at the beach — er — SHORE.

At the shore, family rules were relaxed and food was casual. Every day at ocean’s edge from 10am-1pm, a break for lunch and cool rest at the big old house until 3:00.. We’d return, walking those long 3 blocks on sidewalks so hot that the heat came up through your flip flops.  Minimal sunblock, no hats. We didn’t know yet about the cancer danger from too much sun. When we left for home after two weeks, we had baked-bean-brown skin with a red tinge. We tried to stay up late at night, but being in sun and water all day exhausted us, so we fell into bed early despite all efforts to stay awake.

Now as an adult I can watch the waves hour after hour, their continual rhythm luring me into a hypnotic state.  The music of the waves echoes the beat of music, the pounding of a heart, the pleading call of a bird for its mate, the propensity we have for habit and routine.  It is a two-toned sound: CRSH – HISS – CRSH  – HISS, repeated every seven seconds. The sound conjures up plastic buckets and shovels, oily sweet-smelling tanning lotion, paperback books and transistor radios. Naps under the shade of the umbrella, Dad’s skinny white legs sticking out from a brightly colored baggy bathing suit, and a cooler filled with lemonade and pretzels. It is the smell of the shore, however, that spawns the strongest memories and emotions: a combination of rotting seaweed, salty water, coconut suntan oil and steamy sand.

If II could return to those shore-bound childhood days, I’d ignore cancer risks and get skin-crispy burned, eat a popsicle, letting it run sticky down my arm. I’d jump the waves, or dive under them if they were strong that day. I’d be watchful for the Under Toad. I’d go back for lunch at 1:00, track sand into the house and take a nap in air conditioning. Then back again after a lazy dream of salty water, soft colorful towels, and a good paperback novel.

How to Wash a Dog

It’s simple. Really.

First, start with a willing dog.

My dog Bart, is a good dog, 15 lbs. of curly black hair, dark Yoda eyes, and a bark that is like fingernails screeching on a black board.  Luckily he is not much of a yipper.. or a yapper for that matter.  And he is NOT a willing bather.

When this good dog hears the sound of the water running in the tub, he slinks away and looks for a place to hide.   I’m chasing around the house, looking under tables, beds, in closets…’til I finally see those dark eyes staring back at me from his secret hiding place. Then I cheerfully ask, “Ready for your bath?”  I don’t know why I ask, because ONE, he is totally deaf, and TWO, if he could hear me and answer the question, he’d say “Not no, but HELL NO!”

But do not despair, dear reader, because even with an unwilling dog, you can wash him.  It just takes longer and many things – including yourself – will get much wetter. And not wetter with nice clean water, but dog-smell water. Nothing worse than dog-smell water.

Second, you need a tub that can have a permanent ring around it.  If you wash your dog and your kids in the same tub, your kids will either A.) Foment a rebellion if they are the neat and tidy kind, or B.) come out of their bath with a ring of dirt around their waist.  This ring doesn’t come off with normal cleaners.  Check your local pet store. I’m sure for $12.99 they will sell you a special bathtub cleaner for dog dirt.

Third, you have to have DOG SHAMPOO.  Don’t ask me why dogs need to be washed with species-specific shampoo. The pet stores have rows of dog shampoos, at prices we wouldn’t pay for washing our own hair. DON’T use cat shampoo unless you want your dog to do something that dogs rarely do:  hang their head and blush in embarrassment.

You must choose between gentle, avocado-based, moisturizing, heavy dirt, formulated for tiny dogs, formulated for giant dogs, lavender scented, crème or clear… the list goes on.  My recommendation is to pick the cheapest.  But don’t tell your dog that. Even dogs have feelings and are aware of status. If your dog is particularly snooty to what you put on him, get a shampoo created by J-Lo.

The last must-have is towels.  Plenty and plenty of towels.  Preferably ones you don’t ever want to use for anything else except maybe mopping up spilled water or that occasional “accident”. 

By the way (I’m getting off the subject here…), never let your dog tell you he’s had an “accident”.  Accident?  Unless he was driving your car and crashed into a tree, dogs don’t have accidents.  Those ‘accidents’ are all on purpose.  I’m convinced of it.  Watch out for them right after you bathe your dog. It’s the only way a dog can say “F-You after a miserable bath.

Finally, it all comes together.  Tub, water, shampoo, wriggling dog, sudsy dog, dog that looks like it’s been to a car wash but not yet blown off.  Towels, wet towels, wet human, wet bath mat.  Shaking dog, dog droplets all over the bathroom wall, and the final dog race out of that torture chamber still dripping. Soaking human with achy knees and back gets to her feet, knowing she has done her “perfect dog owner” duty.

Meanwhile, the dog tears around the house at warp speed, skidding on the hardwood floor, rolling on the rugs to dry off, or maybe to get that horrible shampoo smell (Yes, even the J-Lo odor) rubbed off. It’s their version of a canine hair-blower. Look out for the crazy-eyed blur when you step out of the bathroom, with an armload of towels.

The question I haven’t asked yet is, “Why Do We Wash Our Dogs Anyway”? Because there is nothing better than a (dry), clean sweet-smelling dog lying next to you on the couch. Enjoy it now; It will last a full 24 hours. 

Let the Chips Fall

I was late.  I should have been there at 10:00, but the digital clock in the kitchen showed 9:55 and I was still gathering up my things.  I didn’t really want to go.  This was my 5th day in a row going to the hospital to visit Eric in ICU.  When I was in his room, I felt useless and bored.  But he knew I was there, and attitude is everything. I was his wife.  I needed to be there. He was counting on me.

I walked around the house quickly, closed the dog gate and doors to other rooms to keep Bart in the kitchen while I was gone. I refreshed his water bowl.  I picked up my computer bag, dumped out the detritus from the day before and threw away some papers.  I checked my purse for money, reading glasses and mints. I filled a water bottle.  I picked up my coat from where I had thrown it on a stool the night before.

OK. I glanced at the clock.  10AM. I really needed to get going.

Walking to the door, I stopped, returned to the kitchen and grabbed a family-sized bag of potato chips which hadn’t been opened yet. I would just snack on few as I drove to the hospital. I loved potato chips.  But I tried to limit how much of the high calorie, salty, crunchy rounds I ate. I dropped the chips in the passenger seat of my car and took off.

As soon as I turned onto the main road, I grabbed the bag, ripped it open, and shoved a handful into my mouth. Cheeks bulging, I crunched my way down the road, then licked my fingers one by one. At a stoplight I innocently looked forward and stopped licking my fingers, as other drivers pulled up next to me. As soon as the light turned green, I reached into the bag and grabbed another handful.

By the time I reached the hospital parking garage, I had eaten half the bag.  I curled the bag shut, disgusted, and threw it into the back seat.  No self-discipline! I scolded myself. I licked my fingers one more time as I maneuvered up the parking ramp.

The hospital was the same as always; this was Eric’s third stay (in addition to trips to the ER) and I had become familiar with all the hallways, elevators, café, coffee shops, and nurse’s stations. I knew which rules could be broken and which could not. Dazed visitors wandered in the lobby looking like they had slept in waiting rooms in their clothes; or whispered somberly, clutched together in seating areas. The marble floors gleamed. Elevators beeped. Medical staff in a rainbow of colored uniforms walked briskly in the hallways, chatting and laughing with each other. A well-oiled machine for caring for ill and decaying bodies.

If I had arrived at the hospital at 10:00, there would have been an hour or so when Eric would have already finished his breakfast, nurses would have changed sheets or given meds, and he would be alert for a while.  I missed the window of opportunity today; it was almost 10:45 when I was buzzed into the ICU hallway.

I entered Eric’s room quietly; his eyes were closed.  I tiptoed to the other side of the bed to the uncomfortable chair which I had occupied for the last four days.  White light poured in the windows and machines hummed. I put down my things, took off my coat and approached the side of the bed.

“Are you awake?” I asked in a whisper.

He opened his eyes and nodded. He had beautiful eyes:  grey-blue and intense.  Today though they were shaded and tired.  He attempted a smile, but the gauze around his neck and his chapped lips did not smile with him. He raised a hand in greeting just barely bending his wrist but keeping his arm on the bed. His emaciated legs stretched out under the white cotton blanket.

“How do you feel today?” I asked. It was a trite and lame question for a man with advanced cancer.

“Ph-retty good,” he replied, an inadequate answer for his true condition, a forced positive response to a routine question. His ability to form words had deteriorated during his stay, but I could still understand him.  We continued to act out our play.

“Did you have a good breakfast?”

He made a face. He was being fed mostly through a tube into his arm, but still tried to eat a bit.

“Oatmeal. Apphle sause.”

“UMMM! Yummy!” I forced a grin, then didn’t know what else to say. “Bart says Hi,” I added.

He nodded his head and gave me another half-smile.

“Isss he being gooh?” Eric asked.

“Yes, but he doesn’t like being left alone all day when I come here.” Eric nodded and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. 

I gave him a kiss on his cheek and held his hand.  In a few minutes his eyes closed and he was sleeping again.  I backed up and sat in the chair, retrieved my computer and opened email.  It would be another long day.

Late that afternoon after he awoke, I gathered up my things to go home, but assured him I’d be back that evening.  I needed to go home to feed the horses, let Bart out for a few minutes, and run a load of laundry. I was tired, although all I had done all day was sit by Eric’s bedside, read magazines and work on my computer. I’d stand up, look out the window for a while, then sit down again. The nurses who breezed in hourly were a welcome break.

I left his room with a mix of guilt and pleasure. The freedom to walk out when I wanted to was something he didn’t have. Even if he had the freedom to leave, he’d be in a wheelchair. I walked out in strong, quick steps and breathed more deeply the further I got from the ICU. I pictured him in his bed as I walked the distance to my car.

Before I had even exited the parking garage, I grabbed the bag of potato chips from the back seat. Steering with my left hand, I reached into the bag with my right.  After pushing a handful of chips into my mouth, I let my fingers smear grease all over the steering wheel.  Who cares? I thought. I chewed at stoplights, ignoring stares from other drivers. Crumbs fell into my lap and down the front of my coat. My eyes teared up but I kept on chewing and swallowing. My mouth was dry and salty, and quivering.  I ate like this would be my last meal; handful after handful, until the bag was empty. When there were no more left, I breathed in with a jagged breath and blinked away my tears.  I carefully smoothed the bag flat and laid it gently on the passenger seat. My greasy hands gripped the steering wheel. This time I did not scold myself.

Bug Money

I reached between the thorns of the rose bush and delicately picked up the Japanese beetle between my thumb and forefinger.  The beetle clung to the leaf he had been gnawing on, then flailed his legs in confusion as I lifted him through the air. His black body, with its purple, pink and green iridescent highlights, might mesmerize me on another day, but today I didn’t notice his beauty.  I carefully dropped him into a jar I was holding in my left hand, 1/3 filled with yellow odorous gasoline.  I watched the beetle thrash with its short skinny legs, then become numb with fumes and stop moving.  Soon he was just a floating oval, and I turned back to the rose bushes searching for the next beetle.

I was seven years old, and my grandfather, Pop-pop, paid us one penny a beetle to pick them off his prize rose bushes.  Pop-pop tended his rose beds with tender care, planting new hybrids each year and entering his roses in competitions. The pale pink “Violet Carson”, the deep lipstick-red “Ingrid Bergman”, the whitish yellow “Sunsprite”, and dozens more.  Each labeled with a small metal tag thrust in the ground at the base of the plant.  He was a member, and for a few years the President, of the local American Rose Society chapter.  Rose bushes filled every corner of his backyard, with grassy paths between the beds so he could easily trim, fertilize and pick the roses. The yard sparkled; a wonderland of reds, pinks, peaches, yellows and whites. He nurtured them as you would a delicate child.

The beetle wars took place many years before I explored Buddhism and its sacredness-of-all-life beliefs.  I didn’t carry any guilt about my job; drowning beetles in gasoline was my pathway to money, modeled after the attitudes of my grandparents.  Both Pop-pop and Nana grew up on farms, where bugs that ate crops were dispatched post haste.  Pesticides arrived as miracles for farmers, and they would have scoffed at the notion of “organic”. Killing bugs was not a moral question:  it was the bugs versus the farmer, and the farmer’s livelihood depended on winning that battle.

To me, dead beetles simply equaled money.  At 25 cents a week, my allowance was much too small to buy my objects of desire at Sine’s 5-and-10 Cent Store: paper doll cutouts, embroidered hankies, puzzles and games, and whirly gigs.

Sine’s 5-and-10 Cent was not the only place I could spend my earnings.  Pop-pop and Nana ran a General Store on one end of their house, and the centerpiece next to the cash register was a glass fronted penny candy display. Bubble gum, licorice, Tootsie Rolls, candy dots on long thin strips of paper, Bit O’ Honey’s; it all was within my reach with my Bug Money.

If I worked diligently for 30 minutes, I could get 50 beetles. Pop-pop smiled when I showed him my jar full of beetles, carefully counted the bodies with me, then dug into his pockets for change.  Two quarters!!

As the years passed, my Bug Money became less important as my allowance increased. At twelve I started baby sitting and mowing lawns for family friends.  Pop-pop and Nana would also pay me $3.00 to mow their lawn – mostly just well-worn grassy paths between rose beds – which took much less time than picking off 300 Japanese beetles.  Secretly, I was glad to be able to earn money in a less violent way. The accumulation of dead beetle bodies began to weigh on my mind as I lay in bed at night. Shiny blue green iridescent bodies floated through my dreams, and I was there with them, fighting the yellow noxious liquid in which we swam.

In high school I considered becoming a veterinarian.  I would heal the sick and repair the injured animals.

The killing of animals or any living thing has become more repugnant as I age.  I’m fond of dogs and cats and horses and bunnies and chickens and even squirrels. I watch them as they live, their lives not so different from ours:  looking for food and shelter, caring for young, and playing.

When I see a Japanese beetle now, I can’t bring myself to kill it.  I put it in the lawn, knowing it might crawl back up on the rose bush as soon as I turn my back.  I encourage it to move to my neighbor’s yard, so THEY can be the beetle harbinger of death.

I remember my Pop-pop’s lined tanned face, full of concentration and tenderness, as he bent over a rosebush to trim it, and the vase of pink, red and yellow roses which always graced their kitchen table. I loved him, and so I loved the roses.

This joy and beauty demanded a sacrifice, one which, at seven years old, I was willing to harden my heart to. The lowly beetle, with an unfortunate taste for rose leaves, paid the price. But I also paid a price, forming a young heart that did the practical thing:  Protecting my Pop-pop’s roses by earning a penny apiece for the beetles’ last breath. Was I penny-greedy, or just supportive of Pop-pop’s passion? I suppose a little of each.

The Tiny Yellow Canoe

I glanced into the coffee cup just before I took a sip, and then pulled back.  On the mocha surface was a bright yellow piece of straw, a tiny canoe floating in a sloshing sea.

I had gone down to the barn this morning and taken my coffee cup, placing on the sill of an empty stall while I fed the horses.  The winter morning was quiet; the contented crunching of hay an antidote to the dreary grey winter weather.

My morning barn chores take 20 minutes. I drop pellets of feed into stall bins, dump water buckets and chip out the ice that has formed overnight, then refill them with fresh unfrozen water, and drop large slabs of hay into each stall.  My coffee sits on the sill, cooling down each minute while I pass it by.  About halfway through the chores, I pause to take a sip of the lukewarm caffeine.

When I return to the house, I strip off my many layers of winter coats, boots, hats and gloves. 

The coffee cup waits on a shelf in the mudroom and a few minutes later is heating up in the microwave.

Now I examine the piece of straw in the cup, marooned and lost.  I shrug my shoulders with a half-smile, and lift the cup to sip.  As I tilt the cup, the yellow raft moves from the center of the cup to the far edge, sensing the change in angle.  It seems to know that it does not want to travel down that cavernous mouth that appears at the upper horizon.

Dirt and pieces of the outdoors follow me everywhere.  When I shed barn clothes, debris falls to the mudroom floor.  Green hay, yellow straw, grey powdery dust and small brown mud clods.

When I strip down to take a shower, debris falls to the bathroom floor: more hay, half dead weed pieces, grass clippings, an occasional tiny bug.

When I climb into my pickup truck, more debris follows me: mud, dirt, wood shavings, more grass clippings.

My life is one big dirt fest. Oh, how I long to be clean.

It is said that you should live a clean life.  Is this what they meant? Am I a dirt sinner, rolling myself in the debris of the natural world, giving a finger to what human beings have defined as being human?

By necessity, I am oblivious of germs.  I have often brushed a dusty horse and then eaten a sandwich without washing my hands. Sometimes I rub my hands on my jeans as if this cleans them.   I wipe sweat or spider webs off my face, scratch my arms, or carry around household items without thinking about how many microorganisms are lurking in the tiny wrinkles of my hands. Washing hands is reserved for special times at the end of the day when so much grime has built up that even my dulled sense of cleanliness is awoken.

The tiny yellow canoe in my coffee is right where it should be. It is the debris that belongs to my life, and I do not fight it.  I drink the coffee to the last sip, watching as the straw inches away from my mouth each time I tilt the cup. In the end, I wash the straw down the drain, acknowledging its long journey from field to bale to barn to my hair to my cup.  It has seen the world.


As Arnold would say, “I’m Baaack!”

I abandoned this blog a few years ago when life got so complicated that I could hardly think straight. I felt like I was swimming in the ocean and waves kept crashing over me. I’d (figuratively) head for the beach to get out of the waves but the tide kept pulling me out. For a few years I floated around, buffeted by winds and waves.

Even though all the advertisements featuring “seniors” show us happy and vacationing and exercising our trim bodies — Life after retirement holds just as many challenges as life in your 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. We maneuver them the best that we can and realize in our wisdom that we just cannot control everything.

But now, I am ready to get back to this blog and writing. Enjoy my stories, share or comment, or – better yet – start your own blog! Tell your stories and we will listen.

Here is the first post about selling the farm we had lived on for 27 years.

The Hour of Separation

I don’t know when the love affair began to disintegrate.  Was it in the dead of winter when the dark skies and constant cold turned my heart?  Was it in spring, when the promise of new growth filled me with dread?  Was it in the silent white heat of summer when grasses turn brown like a gasp of death?

But the ambiguous anguish which had been circling my heart became clear. I was miserable and bereft.  My heart was abandoning a precious companion; once the abandonment began, I was unable to stop it.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t love you anymore.  We need to separate. I need to begin over again.”

And thus began the withdrawal of my devotion to my Kentucky farm.  The pink sunrises, the emerald spring grass, the black-necklaced Killdeer, nesting in the gravel on large grey spotted eggs, the supple branches of pines praying in the wind.  The images of my past love, now being gently dispatched into a deep corner of my heart.

I am 68 and alone after the death of my husband.  To keep the farm would have been an easy choice: care of yard and pastures, planting and weeding, tending to horses, fixing fence boards and cleaning both house and barn. Nothing new or surprising. Nothing mentally or emotionally challenging. I could have continued my routines in this dance of affection, one foot in front of another. Collapsing into bed each night, weary, dirt under my fingernails that would never come clean, sore back and arms from lifting and bending, and thinking of the list of chores for tomorrow.

Do I want to get old hand-in-hand with a small patch of ground I have bowed to for 26 years? My life the price of my servitude.

Today I begin my journey of pulling away.  Today, the Purple Finch echoes a somber elegy:  Farewell, farewell, farewell.

Today I live as if these hours are my last.  Stopping to admire a bent limb stretching towards the ground. Touching delicate new-grown weeds, forgiving them their lowly status. Pausing mid-stream in the creek, amazed at the insistent pull and whirling of the muddy water. Breathing deeply, eyes closed, the musty fragrance of hay and sharp odor of manure in the barn.  Marveling at the night silence, broken only by the soft thud of pinecones dropping on the roof.

I grieve for my farm before I even leave it.

April, 2020

Denver: Rocky Mountain High

Four days in Denver! What to do? This is a long post because we found a bunch to do.

My primary goal was to spend time with son Evan and D-I-L Lauren, who moved from Louisville to Denver 3 years ago to follow jobs. Due to my husband Eric’s illness and then COVID, I had been to Denver just once in those 3 years.

We had 4 days to spend in Denver and all wanted to get to know the area better, so we went to The Denver Aquarium, The Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs, the Larimer area of Denver (wall murals) and the Colorado Train Museum in Golden. (Plus restaurants,of course, grocery stores, liquor stores and laundromats. We kept busy seeing, eating, drinking, and getting clean clothes)

The Aquarium was interesting and filled with tanks and tanks of fresh water fish, salt water fish, anemones, sharks, snakes and turtles. PLUS 3 tigers in a “rainforest” section. They seemed out of place but did have their own swimming pool.

Then lunch at The Ale House down the street. And no, we didn’t have fish n chips.

The traveling circus, happy with their beer and hard cider. (And food, I almost forgot that)
You’ve got to have a sense of humor at all this COVID frenzy….

That evening, an epicurean adventure; dinner with Evan and Lauren at a Chinese Hot Pot restaurant.

At hot pot restaurants, the heaters are built right into the table and each person gets their own broth (6 kinds to choose from.) Then you order raw ingredients to cook in the broth: meats, noodles, veggies, tofu, herbs, etc. They are served family style as each person creates their own unique Hot Pot.

Day 2 it had gotten colder and there was heavy frost on car windows and plants. We drove south towards Colorado Springs to the Garden of the Gods, majestic sandstone rocks jutting vertically out of the ground. Huge, red and beautiful!

Edith in front of The Three Sisters

Then on to Manitou Springs, a mere 15 min. away, where you could:
a. Hike an “extremely difficult” trail to Pikes Peak, or
b. Shop and eat.
We chose “b”. 😀

We ate at a small Indian/Nepalese restaurant in Manitou Springs. We were a bit chilled by then, so sitting in a warm restaurant eating spicy food helped recapture our Mojo.

Day 3 we joined Evan and Lauren for breakfast at Annie’s, a neighborhood favorite. Of course we over-ate, but who doesn’t like a hardy breakfast with a hot cup of coffee? Then off to the Larimer section of town which has blossomed into the wall mural Capital. Below are just a few of the murals.

Finally it was our last day in Denver but our train didn’t leave til 7:00pm so we hit the road to Golden and visited the Colorado Train Museum. Old trains, new trains (full size cars) and a small museum with a huge miniature train town. And a short ride on a steam engine train around the property.

The visitors train. Wood interior and velveteen seats.

Finally a quick drive through Golden (home to Coors beer.. but it was Sunday so sadly no tours were running.) The snow was coming down harder and the temperature dropping. According to the Weather Channel it was 16 degrees but felt like 2 degrees.

After a prolonged lunch just to stay warm inside, we headed back to the Denver train station, returned the rental car and then waited 3 hours before boarding in the driving snow and wind for our final leg home. We were getting out just in time!

Denver’s Union Station

From here, I say Adios. We will train thru the night and hopefully arrive in Chicago at about 2 pm tomorrow. Then a mere 6 hour drive back to Kentucky.

(LAST MINUTE NEWS: We stopped in the middle of Iowa to wait for a broken RR tie to be replaced — for 3 hours! New ETA is 5:30pm.
Thanks readers for coming along with us vicariously. We’ve enjoyed the trip but are all looking forward to sleeping in our own beds tonight.