MY ORIGINAL IRON MAN: A Memorial Day Tribute

Willard Lowe Snow was a real-life Tony Stark.  He didn’t live in a Malibu mansion, but he did live in Rancho Palos Verdes, California on the south end of Santa Monica Bay.  He didn’t own a garage full of sports cars, but he had a penchant for German engineering and owned many Volkswagen’s over the years from humble beetles and Karmann Ghia’s to a number of vintage Porsche’s.  Much to his nail-biting dismay, he let me drive several of them: V.W. bugs and Porsche’s. He didn’t have a string of glamorous girlfriends but he had a beautiful wife, four daughters, and finally one son. He didn’t own a weapons manufacturing company but he worked for one.  He was a U.S. Army Air Corps airplane technician stationed in North Africa and Italy during WWII. Years later as a tech rep for North American Aviation, he serviced the brakes on Chuck Yeager’s jet. He was a logistics engineer for Rockwell International on the B-1 bomber project and was a consultant for Bell Labs.  He was never able to get an official college degree from a name-brand university, but his extraordinary talent with tools and engines allowed him to do the same jobs as any college graduate.

Daddy didn’t get captured and stuck in a cave to create his mechanical masterpieces, but in North Africa, he labored on airplane engines in a network of caves the Army Air Corps used as workshops. He was also constantly busy for many hours in our home garage repairing our and other people’s car engines in order to make extra money to pay for braces, college, and other niceties of life for our family.  In fact, if you locked my dad in a well-stocked garage with miscellaneous parts and tools, he could and did create a variety of clever objects. 

His skill and creativity transformed an old Volkswagen bug. He cut off the roof, installed front handlebars, and a single front wheel turning the V.W. into the coolest desert chopper this side of Joshua Tree, California.  

My Dad bled engine oil and had a warm heart made of gears and bearings.  He died too young and I miss him. He was inquisitive, funny, well-read, interested and interesting. Decades after his untimely death, he still makes me smile, he makes me grateful, and he gives me good advice.  “Jean,” he said. “A car is just a vehicle to get you from point A to point B.”

Yeah, Dad, and it was sure fun to drive your candy apple red Porsche around the hairpin turns of Palos Verdes Drive.  Tony Stark has nothing over you. Thanks for everything.

Pearl and Willard Snow 6/1/1983

Pearl and Willard Snow 6/1/1983

 

BODIES IN MOTION

Ultimately, I think it is quality of life we crave  more than quantity.  Unfortunately, we get sidetracked by the stresses of life into neglecting the one thing that is most likely to give us a both a higher quality of life and a longer life: movement.   We have got to keep our bodies moving. Find a physical activity you love to do and do it regularly.  

MOVEMENT FOR JOY:  When I was eleven my parents sat me down and asked me, “Which would you rather do, take piano lessons or take dance lessons.”

This is not such a simple question.  My older sisters are both skilled pianists.  I idolized my sisters. They were the coolest.  They performed in plays and in singing groups with their friends and were often called upon to accompany on the piano.   I wanted to be like them.

However, as fate would have it, a lovely, statuesque blonde woman showed up at our door with a flyer advertising dance lessons at her home.  As a child, I was a bouncing ball of energy which drove my mother crazy as I was constantly asking, “What can I do!”   I think my parents were relieved when I chose dance.  It suited me better than hours spent sitting at the piano practicing.  And thus dance entered my life and gave form and joy to all that undisciplined energy.  I spent my teen and college years dancing in recitals, church programs, school dance concerts, and musicals.  It seemed I was always in motion.  I am grateful for this early foundation in keeping my body moving. It has paid big dividends throughout my life.  But it is never too late to pick-up the habit especially if you find something you love to do.

MOVEMENT FOR SANITY:  When I was thirty-five I encountered a new world of bodies in motion.  We were living in North Pole, Alaska and had just welcomed our fifth child. We were often house-bound by the cold and dark, so we joined the Alaska Club in Fairbanks to break out of our cabin fever.  I went to a dance fitness class and after a few weeks gathered the courage to step into the weight room.   It is pretty common today to find women in weight rooms at fitness clubs all over the country, but back then I saw very few.  It was tremendously intimidating.  After my first session with the trainer, I was hooked.  My muscles craved that burn and there was something meditative and calming about the sets and reps.  After six months of working out, I realized that I was stronger, had more energy, had definition in my arms and abs I’d never had before, and more sanity.   At thirty-five most of us wonder how we can hang on to our youth a little longer: weight-training, even just a little bit, pays off with long-term health benefits.  Always consult a physician and a trainer to avoid injury.  Life has interrupted the routine but I have come back to weight lifting again, and again, starting off slowly with light weights and building up gradually.  I feel stronger, I feel younger, and I look better when I am including weights in my fitness routine.  My younger sister walks holding weights and at 58 she has great looking, sculpted arms.

MOVEMENT FOR FUN:  Golf, it isn’t dancing but it is a lot of fun. Golf exercises mind and body.  It is challenging and refreshing and tantalizing.  It is never too late to start playing golf.    In 1994, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  A short time before that my husband began to teach me how to golf.  I was beginning to catch on but arthritis derailed that effort for more than a decade. In those ten years, I was able, with the aid of a series of new treatments, to calm the arthritis.  In 2007,   I underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer.  When I finished treatment, my body was back to square one in the fitness department and I needed a happy challenge.  I needed something fun to do.  I started golfing again.  Ralph and I began to golf together on a regular basis during the summer in Alaska.  We were living in Eagle River and would go to the Palmer Golf Course or Moose Run Creek Course.  I never considered myself athletically competent.  But to my surprise, I have discovered that I have the potential to be a good golfer.  That tantalizing goal sparks my interest every time I golf.  I am always learning something new or and increasing my skill. The best part of golfing is being out in the sunshine, getting fresh air, and moving my body for the fun of it.  Find movement for the fun of it.  If you get bored try something new.  But keep moving.

MOVEMENT FOR SURVIVAL:    No matter how fit we try to be, age and gravity and genetic tendencies will afflict us with aches and pains and injuries that will threaten our mobility as we reach retirement age.  Just when we are feeling free to do things we’ve only dreamt of, our bodies will sabotage our efforts if we don’t pay attention.  The solution is a good physical work up by a doctor, the proper treatment, and the proper movement.  Often our instinct is to do less and curtail our physical activity which will only reduce our enjoyment of life and spell disaster for our hopes and dreams in retirement.

Keeping our bodies limber is another fountain of youth.  Taking the time for stretching is a challenge.   Most of us just want to get on with participating in the main event:  the tennis game, the golf game, the running, the hiking.    These are the activities that invite injury if we aren’t prepared.

I have been very lucky to be free of injury most of my life.   But recently, my lower back has been giving me problems that were persistent.  A dose of Advil wasn’t enough to relieve the sore spot.  Twinges of pain would grab and my hip would give out suddenly mid-step.   I saw my doctor who ordered a back x-ray and the conclusion is that I have the normal amount of wear and tear in my lower spine for a person my age; nothing that needs a drastic fix.  She suggested taking a prescription painkiller for a short time to see if that would disrupt the tension and pain cycle and to come back to see her if it didn’t improve.

I did that but at the same time, I finally resolved to do what I meant to make a habit for years:  yoga. I don’t go to class.  I just do it in my home using a series of recordings on my DVR.  It is peaceful, relaxing, meditative, and healing for both mind and body.  Yoga may not be an attractive option for everybody but I can say without a doubt that gentle yoga stretching of some kind daily or as often as possible will benefit anyone.  The advantage of yoga is that it is systematic and incorporates stretching all muscle groups; places on your body you never even noticed before.   No muscle or tendon will be neglected if you do yoga stretches.  In yoga, the student is encouraged to go at their own pace and participate at their own comfort level.    Yoga solved my back problem.  I learned quickly, that I am at the stage of my life that regular stretching is no longer an option if I want to stay fully mobile and active. Remember with any exercise to check with your doctor.

Encourage yourself and encourage others to start moving and keep moving.  Find something you love to do and participate by yourself or with others.  For joy, for sanity, for fun, for survival, any effort small or great to keep your body moving will pay big dividends in health, peace, and enjoyment today and for the rest of your life.

STORY POWER 2016: from experience to story and back again

This is an experience, it became a story. It also became a new approach to my New Year goal.

Last Saturday morning I woke up shivering under three layers of blankets. A cold sweat created a breeze under the covers. My icy feet reached out for a warm spot under my husband’s leg. He didn’t move. He didn’t take the hint that there was a problem. Finally, I dragged myself out of bed and checked the thermostat. The outside temperature was 13 degrees, the thermostat was set for 71 degrees, but the actual temperature in the house was 65. It’s a big house. Our bedroom hangs out over open air above a patio. Our room was even colder than what registered on the thermostat. It took a few seconds for me to wake up and face the fact that the furnace was not working.

I shook off nightmares of frozen pipes and expensive emergency calls to a repairman. If we had to, we could turn all faucets to drip and go to my son, Dan’s, house. Ralph continued in deep sleep. He had been fighting a sinus infection and I hated to wake him. “O.K. I’m an intelligent person. It’s not my area of expertise but I can do something about this. I don’t need my husband to rescue me.”

First thing:  do we have fuel getting to the house from the buried propane tank under our lawn? It was possible that the line was frozen. We live in a somewhat remote subdivision which is not connected to a natural gas utility. It was also possible, though unlikely, that Suburban Propane had failed to top off the tank in the fall as contracted. “Ah, yes, I can check for supply line problems and warm up the bedroom and living room by turning on the two fireplaces.” Sure enough, they both worked, and warmed me up in minutes. We wouldn’t have to flee the house anytime soon.

Next: Hooray! Ralph woke up and started trouble shooting. Our HVAC is no ordinary forced air system similar to what we’ve had in the past. It’s a high-end sophisticated heat pump system. For the last three winters, that system has worked and we didn’t worry about understanding it even though we had questions. Now we had to get answers. The complex thermostat was sending messages that were completely foreign to us. After a couple of hours of Ralph scratching his head, I realized that the mystery wasn’t getting solved. The body language, the muttering to himself, telegraphed “Don’t leave me alone with this one.”  Neither of us had the energy to take on the task. But I had a little more than he did. I opened my laptop and started searching the internet.

What is aux. heat? What is E-heat. Why does the heat pump keep turning off. What kind of auxiliary heat do we have? Electric or propane. After a half hour of study, I felt that I had a grip on how it all worked.

Here’s a basic outline. A heat pump is an energy efficient way to cool and heat a house. It moves heat from one place to another rather than producing heat. However when outdoor temperatures become too cold for the system to keep up, then the heat pump calls on an auxiliary source to take over heating. The aux heat kicks in automatically as needed to supplement a lagging heat pump overly taxed by below freezing temperatures. In some homes those heat sources are electric, in some they are fuel burning: natural gas or propane or oil.  E-heat (emergency heat) is a setting you can choose to use if your heat pump breaks down or if you want to feel toastier air flowing out of your vents. A heat pump doesn’t produce a hot blast of air from the vents. It maintains a comfortable balance as it draws air from outside and extracts heat for heating and cooling.

We managed to keep our house warm over the weekend by babying our system and using the fireplaces. On Tuesday, we called in an expert. By this time, we knew a few things that he didn’t. We knew we had a propane furnace and a heat pump. We knew we had a complex electronic control panel. We didn’t know how to get these components back on track. The tech explained that our propane furnace is the auxiliary/emergency heat and that the malfunction was in the propane furnace, not the heat pump. Water was dripping from a vent pipe leading from the furnace burners up to the roof. Once the dripping water was blocked by a piece of sheet metal the system fired up. No new parts necessary. Once the snow on the roof melts we will check the vent chimney for damage. We now understand how that system works and where things can go wrong. It’s no longer scary. I am more fully acquainted with the living breathing house-creature that I live in. Dispelling my ignorance empowers me and removes fears.

And that is my story for this week. A story that gave me a novel idea for my New Year’s goal. I am going to create new experiences for myself by studying and becoming more acquainted with one subject every month. I will take my experience with those subjects and share them as stories. Stories I hope that will empower me and those that I share them with.

A story is never just a story. Experiences become stories when we mine them for knowledge, insight, and wisdom and then share them. Other people’s stories become our experiences giving us greater empathy, compassion, and self-knowledge.  We don’t always have to tell someone “here is the moral of the story.”  Many stories are better simply relayed without spelling out the message. But there will always be a message even if it isn’t the one the author supposed.

This year, I want to save and share stories: small, simple, and hopefully enjoyable.

Body Surfing, Birth, and Death

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“Never turn your back on a wave. Jump over, dive under, or ride a wave until the water is so shallow that you skin your knees, but never turn your back on a wave.” This was my Dad’s sterling advice after I nearly drowned playing in the surf. 

When I was six, my family moved to Rancho Palos Verdes, California.  Several beaches were within a fifteen to thirty minute drive from our home. Our favorite spot was Avenue I, Redondo Beach. It had easy access from the street, showers that wouldn’t take the skin off with the sand, fine textured, not too gravelly sand, and the shore sloped gently into the water.  The tang of sea spray mixed with the scent of tanning lotion and fragrant ice plant flowers. 

My first visit to the beach became a game of “keep-away”—keep away from Daddy so that I could keep away from the water. He finally caught me and convinced me to get at least my feet wet. He took my hand and we jumped over the frothy edge of each breaker where it sizzled over the hot sand.  We ran after the water as it retreated and then tried to keep the incoming wave from tagging us. Eventually, my father had me waist-deep in the foaming green water, my skin slick and gritty from salt and sand.

With time I learned to swim out farther into the water and body surf.  First, I had to overcome my fear of strange creatures that might lurk beneath the surface. My friends and I exchanged stories of stinging jellyfish and hungry sharks. We dug for tiny sand crabs that swam in the mud under our sandcastles.  We saw hundreds of harmless sand crabs but never a shark and only once a helpless jellyfish washed ashore in a tangle of seaweed.  My comfort level grew and I ventured further and further into the water, throwing my body against the crashing waves. Later, I learned to conserve energy by diving below the breakers.  Sometimes, while floating in the rolling swells, waiting for the right wave, I searched the sandy bottom with my feet to find the telltale bump of a sand dollar and grip it with my toes.  Some would still be alive, a velvety purple, others were empty shells blanched white, a delicate flower design etched in the porcelain surface.

Catching a wave and riding all the way to shore takes patience and precise timing.  I watched each swell for the perfect moment to turn, and swim furiously toward the shore; hoping to catch the curl at just the right point, avoiding either a disappointing floater, or a terrifying pounding.  

“Here it comes, wait…wait…now…swim.”

The wave would lift me and carry me along its crest.  The churning water suspended my skinny, fragile body and propelled me, roaring onto the beach.  The power of the wave was, for a brief moment, mine.  

That power would serve me years later in the landlocked city of Provo, Utah, when I gave birth to my first child.  As the due date approached, I tried to imagine what labor would be like. I watched fearfully and joyfully for the first signs.  Anticipation and dread were replaced with carefully practiced conditioned responses as early labor slipped away, and I struggled to manage the relentless volcanic explosions wracking my body. All the studying and practicing of Lamaze exercises had not prepared me for the intensity of the sensations as my body readied itself for expelling the infant inside me.  The book said not to just lie in bed. I walked, knelt, leaned on the wall, and finally chose to sit cross-legged on the bed. Relax. Relax. Breathe. Relax. Breathe.

Nurses made concentrating nearly impossible as they took my blood pressure, demanded urine, poked for blood—a string of insensitive interruptions.  Finally, I was left undisturbed, relaxing, laboring: cleansing breath, deep chest breathing, up a gradual curve over the top and down the slope, cleansing breath.  A machine tethered to my belly registered the onset and shape of each contraction. But I felt them first: an almost imperceptible flutter of discomfort, then tightness across the top of my inflated uterus pushing down, cramping around the bottleneck of the cervix pulling up, thinning, dilating and gripping with a saw-toothed steel band of pain.  

As labor progressed the intensity of the pain didn’t increase, just the length of time it lingered.  The peak of each contraction grew longer. The book said not to call it pain. Relax and condition your mind so that contractions will not automatically call up feelings of pain.  Labor is work, not pain. The rhythmic surges pressed from the diaphragm, advanced down the belly, marched through the intestines, and strained open and out through the upside-down mouth of the volcano of my uterus.

 I had forgotten to bring an object or picture to use as a focal point as I relaxed, something to keep my mind from wandering into panic, to help me stay in control.  But a focal point did come to me. It was well ingrained in the memory of muscle and bone. Each contraction must be prepared for, watched for, and caught at the right moment and ridden like a wave…

“Bobbing lightly on the water, my body is supported and relaxed by the surface of the ocean.  I am lifted up, then dropped back on my feet by the wind driven swells. A ripe swell rises, sucking water, building an overpowering green glass wall.  Along the top a white ruffle emerges, the wall bends, and its smooth curl spills into the pull of the earth. Swim too soon and you float over the top. Swim too late and the wave swallows and wrings you out.  Be patient, wait…wait… now turn and swim. The wave pulls me into its roots and propels me up and forward, foam churning around my ears. The ride ends as the wave spreads across the sand, shallow, spent…as I am spent, but the baby is finally here.  The power of the wave is mine again.”

When I was six we visited friends in El Segundo where beaches are surrounded by rocking oil pumps and blasted by jet traffic.  We went to a beach called Playa Del Rey. It sounded like “a place to play.” While the adults set out the picnic, I wandered down to the water.  With a bucket and shovel I molded turrets for a sandcastle, dug a moat, and watched it fill with seawater. I coated my legs and arms with grime. Splashing and kicking to wash myself, I slowly waded further and further into the water.

I followed the angle of the tide and it drew me several yards south of the picnic area.  As I turned toward the shore to locate my family, a breaker washed over me, knocking me to my knees.  The ocean-bound water sucked me further out. Undertow. Riptide. Those words summon a picture in my mind of my father running down the beach into the water and my arms futilely extended to him, my skinny legs too weak to escape the siphon pulling me down the slope into the mouth of the sea.

Before my father could reach me, another breaker rolled me over and over like a pebble in a rock polisher.  I couldn’t tell where up was through the turbulent sand and water. Where was air? My lungs were desperate for breath when Daddy finally yanked me out of the surf and carried me to the nearest shower.  

Swimsuit, hair, and skin were drowned in sand.  I received a stinging scrub and an urgent lecture about paying attention to my surroundings, and always keeping my eyes on the waves.  Bundled in a towel, cradled in my father’s lap, I shivered uncontrollably until I fell asleep. This was the first time it ever occurred to me that my life, or anyone’s could easily and suddenly end.  

The ocean nurtures a rich variety of invisible life in its soupy waters, life that occasionally works a peculiar display of death.  Red tide arrives in Southern California with a stench that clears the usually croweded beaches. My dad explained that a shift of the ocean currents hundreds of miles away causes the water temperature to rise drastically.  This warmth disrupts the normal balance. Protozoans overpopulate and taint the water with secretions that poison other marine life. This bloom gives the surf a reddish hue and the smell of death. After dark, Dad and I walked along the strand and watch the fluorescent sea foam ignited by microscopic life.  Microbes stimulated by the churning water, gave off an eeery greenish light. A couple of times on warm summer nights, we went bodysurfing in the tepid rusty breakers. Every stroke of our arms and splash of our legs invoked a glow: ghostly waves haunted by luminous human wraiths. We relished the deserted beach and bathed in the mystery of red tide.

Many miles inland from the tidal pools and beaches that I explored with my Dad, after bodysurfing through the birth of three more children and going home to share grandpa’s beaches with them, I found a new need for the imagery of the wave.  On Memorial Day 1987, at some point along I-15 outside Scipio, Utah, my parent’s van left the highway, slammed into an embankment, and burst into flames. When I was informed of the accident and death of my loved ones, there was no time to conjure up a metaphor for those words, “they were both killed.”  The wave was simply there: unrestrained, unstoppable. I felt it swelling in my intestines, ripping through my diaphragm, smothering the breath in my throat, and receding only to rise again and again with unrelenting power. It towered above and inside me.

I thought I would ride it out.  I thought life should have prepared me for this crisis.  I had been so lucky, blessed; it was only fair that I have my turn to suffer.  Tragedy had finally caught up with me. After all, I had been taught many sweet clichés about what death brought to those who passed on.   But my superficial understanding only led me to turn my back on grief and let it overpower me.

At first the wave rose up in every unoccupied moment and unfilled hour.  So I avoided inactivity. Workouts at the gym, volunteer work at the school, phone calls to friends, church work, shopping: all normal activities.  However, I packed life full obsessively. I fled from quiet thought-filled moments. Contemplation brought no peace, only the surge and impact of the wave.  The endless minutes of silent darkness before sleep were the most painful. It took continual busyness to push the wave out of consciousness, to avoid the repeated physical wrenching of the incessant emotional tsunami.

I assumed that I could ride the wave, or dive under it—sidestep pain, and escape drowning.  The moment I said, “I can handle this,” I was sucked into the undertow and pinned to the ocean floor.  I became a bottom dweller gazing up through the murky light. I thought I could still see, breathe, move, live: that my life would simply go on.  But I was suffocating. Like the fragile sand dollar the shell of myself remained, but the creature that existed before my parent’s death was gone.  Without these loved ones taking up their intricate place in the ecosystem of my being, I had ceased to exist as the same person. Cut off from the familiar coastline of my former life, I moved in the viscous dream-motion under the wave.

Childbirth required that I maintain carefully choreographed control.  I could ride that wave with just the right responses of relaxation, breathing, and pushing.  But there is no handbook of conditioned responses for grieving. The stages wash over you unannounced and undefined.  And there is no concrete reward to anticipate at the end. Grief seems endless.

To survive the wave of grief, I had to let go.  I had to let go of control and get hysterical weep and mourn with abandon.  I had to mourn hundreds of imagined futures that now would no longer include my parents.  I had to face the wave of pain: touch it, taste it, wade and then bathe in it. I had to talk and talk and talk and talk about thousands of griefs that were part of the loss of my parents.  But that wasn’t all. This enormous loss dredged up hundreds of submerged ones that needed healing. The broken flotsam and jetsam of my life rode in on the tide and revealed itself unbidden and would no longer be ignored.

Finally, I had to go back to the labor of birth.  The birth of a new me. Perhaps that is the most frightening thing about grieving.  Deep down inside we know that we have been shaken to the core and can never, ever go back to being the same person we once were.  This requires an enormous amount of work. Sometimes we think we will never have enough energy to do all that work.  

Now, more than a decade and a half later, I feel the tide of grief keenly.  Having once had that enormous breaker let loose, I do not grieve gently anymore.  But having turned my back on it, and then bathed in it, ridden it to great depths and heights, I would not want to be the person I was before.  I keep learning how to harness the power of the wave, to be born again and again, even though I may never reach the shore

Autumn and Sleepy Hollow

At my childhood home in Rancho Palos Verdes autumn came and went in California with only the sycamore tree dropping its leaves on the front yard.  I have since moved all over the country:  Utah, Wyoming, New York, Alaska, Washington, and Idaho and thankfully have more fully experienced the treasures of fall.   Because of that experience I can confidently assert that upstate New York is the capital of autumn.

We lived in the small village of Dryden, New York  and enjoyed two spectacular fall seasons.  The sticky heat of summer giving way to crisp mornings is the first hint of the season.  Pops of fiery color appear in the woods gradually envelope the hills, valleys, and farms. It seems every small village has its own river, stream, or waterfall along with a picturesque white steeple punctuating the blazing skyline.  At Cornell University Orchard store we tasted apples – Empire and Cortland varieties which I still crave – and filled our empty gallon jugs with fresh pressed apple cider.  On many Sunday drives we traveled country roads lined with produce stands, pumpkin fields, and corn mazes.

Our autumn color drives led us to Windham Mountain overlooking the Hudson River Valley where my husband’s ancestor, Peter, ran an inn back in the 1700’s. This is Sleepy Hollow country. This is where our American version of Halloween comes to life in the bounties of Squire Van Tassel’s harvest party and the terrors of the Headless Horseman. In our New York travels we saw many “Sleepy Hollow’s”: quaint towns festive with cornstalks and scarecrows. We witnessed the crumbling turrets of old mansions and mossy ancient cemeteries sinking into leafy soil. Tipsy pitted stones carved with R.I.P. and skull motifs show death dates going back to the early years of New York’s settlement. Halloween seems particularly authentic in the mystical countryside of the Hudson River Valley.  In the shadowy evocative hills and hollows of upstate New York I began to appreciate and savor the beauties of things neglected, spooky, and in disrepair and to follow the eerie allure of that which has been forgotten.

The mysteries and terrors of Halloween occupy miles of store shelves and hours of costuming fun but my favorite part of the fall season is the harvest.  I adore, and I do mean adore, the neat rows of bottled fruit in my pantry and the frozen gems of raspberry and strawberry jam in my freezer. The practice is labor intensive and not always a frugal practice still I find growing, harvesting, and preserving food to be deeply satisfy.  Perhaps I crave a hedge against insecurity and some future apocalypse.  Surely, home grown and home preserved food is the most delicious.  From Utah to Wyoming to Alaska to Idaho, I’ve  engaged in some large or small effort to preserve from my own garden or the local harvest.  In Utah, Wyoming, and Alaska that harvest included fishing and hunting:  deer, antelope, moose, salmon.   But as I contemplate writing about that particular harvest I realize it would take an additional essay for each adventure to be adequately detailed. I will save hunting expeditions for some other post.

Here, now,  in my home above Emmett, Idaho the buff colored hills are punctuated by spots of orange, yellow, and red.  The valley below is a patchwork of orchards and farms where we thankfully observe the the cycle of planting and harvesting. Last Sunday, we enjoyed a feast of autumn dishes with family: pork roast, potatoes, gravy, and apple-pear tart. This morning we turned on the gas fireplace to drive off the morning chill. Halloween is just a few days away.  My grandchildren will re-enact the yearly costume ritual redolent of  the road to Sleepy Hollow where their several times great grandfather, Peter,  served freshly harvested foods to weary travelers taking shelter from the terrors of the night on Windham Mountain in in upstate New York.

 

Sunflowers

SUNFLOWERS

First, a serious question. Although dandelions are not native to Alaska they are prolific there.  My question is, why do I see (almost) no dandelions in Idaho? Thankfully, I do see lots of sunflowers.

Until this, our second summer in Idaho, I paid little attention to these gems of the high country desert. I have passed them on the road and noticed briefly their spots of color but little appreciated the cheerful contribution they make to the countryside. They relieve the eye amidst the mile upon mile of dry brown hills surrounding Boise, Idaho. This year the sunflowers invaded my yard and I couldn’t be happier about it.

My house sits in the middle of 3 steep acres of dry grass and sage brush on a windswept hill in rural Idaho. This spot is remarkable because of the spectacular view overlooking a verdant river valley tamed by irrigation and a century of planting and growing. However, the hillside around my home is still wild and reluctant to give up its naturally wild ways. Which is part of the reason it is a pleasant place to live. Flocks of quail patter across our driveway. Coyotes, in the nearby ravine, howl in the night.  In winter deer come down from the mountain and browse on the grass in our yard. The lowing of cattle and braying of a donkey, drift up from the valley floor. Our grandchildren relish scrambling over the rocks hunting for lizards. As much as we enjoy this natural setting, I have learned that the invading human inhabitants need some trees and greenery surrounding them to feel at home. And so, we wrestle with tenacious wild plants to establish a patch of greenery around the house.

When we bought our home it was early spring and the landscaping had just barely been completed. The former owners moved out immediately. Three months later, we moved down from Alaska. With only the automatic sprinklers to supervise, the plants, grass, and weeds grew simultaneously with abandon during that three months. When we finally showed up and tried to bring the mess to heel, it gave us quite a fight. Two years later, we have created enough pleasing domesticated ground to make the space around our home inviting.

Thankfully, the landscape architect created small beds of trees and perennials near the entrance to the house that, once cleared of spring grass seedlings, need very little attention the rest of the summer. My husband mows the lawn with a lawn tractor.  A lawn maintenance service fertilizes and does weed control, and in spite of water rationing, our large lawn is taking hold, crowding out the weeds that nearly overran it last year. I’m talking about the kind of weeds that pose a serious threat to human well being: goat head.  Thorns so daunting they dig into lawn tractor tires and completely cover the soles of shoes. They get tracked into the house where they hide in the carpet and lie in wait to afflict significant bodily harm and pain.

This year I decided to conquer the slopes on either side of the driveway.  With spring rains fueling growth that area of the yard was overrun with long grass and a variety of both lush and unattractive weeds. Landscaping rocks and a few intentional plants hid in the chaos. For the first time in my life I practiced the art of weed whacking. In the span of about a month, I sculpted the grasses and weeds into a semblance of order within the wild authenticity, unveiled the volcanic rock, revealed the clumps of ornamental grasses, while still allowing select natural plants room to flourish. It appears I have achieved a maintainable balance between the cultivated and the accidental.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sudden invasion of sunflowers that began to appear at the end of July.  Between last summer’s feeble effort and this year’s determined effort at creating a landscape that was pleasing but low maintenance,  I left room for a thriving influx of sunflowers that has flourished in the heat of July and August. The cheerful invaders are bright and heartwarming and welcome.

From spring too fall the slopes are now poised to bloom with wild flowers first small pink, then lavender and yellow, ending with a crescendo of Sunflowers.

Some Things Should Never Be Forgotten

Places inevitably change but the old magic should never be forgotten. Thirty long miles northwest of Salt Lake City is a very important four corner intersection. Here lies the location of what was, for a few short days in summer, my childhood Narnia. This intersection now looks nothing like it did back then. Why does that come as such a shock to me? Suddenly, it seems unbearable that this magical place is being absorbed into suburban sprawl.

I will try to sketch it out for you as best I can remember. It was a tiny four-corner town in the middle of rural farms and pastures. On the northeast corner was a church building that was fairly new back then but has since been torn down. On the southeast corner was a plumbing business, a pool hall, and next door a tiny cement block city office building. On the northwest corner I’m pretty certain there was only a pasture, no buildings. On the southwest corner was an old fashioned country grocery store which had the most tantalizing penny candy display.  On more than one occasion I was sent to that store with a dime to burning in my palm.  I left with a tiny crinkled paper bag full of sweets (my favorite was cherry flavored candy lipstick). South of the store was the enchanted kingdom of my maternal grandparents. We called them Mother and Dad.

My immediate family lived in southern California with traffic an towns unending from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, all sandwiched in between the ocean and the desert.  For many summers we traveled across that desert to Utah to visit my mother’s hometown which was sandwiched in between mountains, orchards, farms and the Great Salt Lake. My mother packed fried chicken, carrot sticks, and celery sticks (no dip) along with a cooler full of ice water for the midnight crossing of the desert.  Our car had no air conditioning. We drove off the heat by rolling down the windows and wiping our skin with a wet cloth. It was a mysterious night journey through the warm darkness among Joshua trees, past the lights of Las Vegas, and through steep wind-carved canyons.  By morning the fried chicken was gone and I would start saying,  “are we there yet?”

By the time we had reached Mother and Dad’s place, I felt like I had entered an older fantasy world. The two bedroom clapboard house was nestled in the middle of a large lawn shaded by tall cottonwood trees, lilacs and forsythia, currant and chokecherry bushes.  Mother was quite proud of what she called her “rock garden”  which bordered the sparkling quartz gravel path that approached the front porch.  I enviously eyed the tidy “chicks and hens”, pansies and hollyhocks, and decorative rocks she picked up from her  travels.  All so pretty and cultivated compared to  the wild tangle of ice plant in front of our California home.  A shallow irrigation ditch ran down the middle of the property from the larger ditch along the street to the garden at the very back. When the ditch was full of water my cousins and I would carve squash from the garden into a regatta of sail boats and barges.

Northwest of the house at the end of a long driveway there was a garage where an ancient Ford sedan was housed.  The garage smelled of grain and engine oil. Beyond the back lawn was a sprawling garden brimming with treasures: shiny red tomatoes, yellow squash, crisp cucumbers, silken corn stalks, and sweet onions. Behind the garage was an old outhouse and a chicken coop that for many years supplied the fresh fryers that were eaten at Mother’s kitchen table.  Dad quietly dispatched the critters away from my impressionable eyes. But I watched as Mother cleaned out the innards and plucked the feathers from more than one of those ultimately delicious hens on her kitchen table.

Dad would sit in a corner in the kitchen and smile and nod as the clan bustled in and out of the back screen door which at some point had a hydraulic arm installed to keep it from banging.  The round kitchen table in its place by the sunny back windows would be loaded with plates of sliced cucumbers and onions in vinegar, juicy red tomato slices, fresh baked fluffy white rolls,  and ears of corn. Once, at least, there was wild asparagus that I picked from the fields on a foraging expedition with my mother.  This was daily fare for our relatives that lived in the area year round but to me it was the feast of a fairy kingdom rich from the bounties of the earth.  I don’t know why but we never grew such things at our home in California.

One year I was around to see Mother make homemade soap from the grease drippings she so frugally saved from every meal.  She poured the hot liquid soap into pans and cut it into bars which were then grated into soap flakes for use in the old wringer washer stored in a corner of the bathroom.  I was fascinated by the sight of clothes being cranked through that wicked looking wringer which of course I was warned, gravely, never to get near with a finger or arm.

Mother had a talent for making her home beautiful with patchwork quilts, hand painted and decorated wood chairs and cupboards, braided woolen rugs, and sparkling china knick-knacks.  It took an enormous amount of work to run that tiny two acre farm but to me it seemed as seamless as magic.

On several occasions we arrived late in the night at Mother and Dad’s home in Syracuse, Utah.  My mother and father and my sister’s and I somehow shared the one extra bedroom of the house.  We were hastily fed a snack of buttered rolls with homemade chokecherry jam then ushered into the bedroom  where an extra folding metal bed was opened at the food of my parent’s bed.  A soft homemade feather mattress was laid out and made up with sparkling clean sheets fresh from the clothes line, smelling of sunshine and homemade soap.  We snuggled down in the depths of that feather mattress and were covered with a brightly colored quilt, artfully sewn by hand and with the aid of an old treadle sewing machine, into a log cabin, or flower petal, or crazy quilt pattern.  A bed worthy of a princess,  a home worthy of all the castles, in all magical kingdoms, from all the fantasy books I have ever read.

Bit by bit, as I grew up and grew older that magical world was dismantled.  The wringer washer was replaced, the chicken coops and outhouse were torn down, the house was moved to a different lot miles away and served some other family down through the years. The four corner town is now a tidy suburb with new homes, new parks, new schools, and a new city building.  Today, Mother and Dad’s little farmstead is now the site of an Arby’s fast food restaurant.

But the old kingdom is still in my heart and soul and down in my bones. I am told nothing on the internet is ever completely deleted.  In this case I hope it is true because some things should never be forgotten.

(In Memory of: Elnora Stoker Dalton and Horace Orlando Dalton)