Like most of you, I’ve been finding ways to amuse myself during our COVID-19 quarantine. The picture attached to this post shows you one thing that’s been occupying my time. This puzzle is a compilation of covers from the first 56 Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured these books as a kid and am surprised at how many of the plot lines apparently have been nesting in some obscure corner of my brain for the last several decades.
This paragraph is a complete tangent, so if you want to stay with the main theme of this post, just skip on. No offense taken. But as much as I loved Nancy Drew, my favorite girl detective is still Judy Bolton. The Judy series ran roughly contemporaneously with ND, although it differed from its more successful sister in several ways. One difference that I always appreciated was that Judy, unlike Nancy, was not a perfect person. She had a temper, acted impetuously, and bickered with her older brother. She also grew older and changed. We meet her in high school in the first book, The Vanishing Shadow. By the time the series ended, Judy had graduated from high school, worked as a secretary, gotten married, and started to take on issues such as the plight of many Native Americans (The Spirit of Fog Island) and anti-Muslim violence (The Search for the Glowing Hand). We had to go see the Dragon’s Mouth at Yellowstone since Judy had traveled there in one of her books. 🙂
Back to the Nancy covers now! I’m loving the puzzle. Putting each piece in place is satisfying. That’s because the picture is only complete when all of the pieces are there. It takes all of them to make the picture perfect. I’m reminded of the old song, “All of Me.” You may already be familiar with it, but this song is worth another listen. I know it mostly from the Willie Nelson version, but the Billie Holiday rendition grabs me like no other. The song may be on the old side – it was written in 1931 – but its wise message endures. Give completely. If you’re in a relationship, give yourself fully to another person. Once you’ve decided on a course of action, commit yourself. When you read or listen or admire, focus. “You took the part that once was my heart/So why not take all of me?”
Given that perspective, I’m taking this song as my anthem for our COVID-19 experience. I’m all in on lockdown. There’s no cheating to run out and look at the sunset, even if the police are nowhere in sight. There’s no quick run over to a neighbor’s place for a chat, even if the neighbor is in my building and the visit would be undetectable. We all have to do this to protect ourselves and everyone around us. As with my puzzle, if one piece is missing, if one person cheats – the picture is imperfect. And with COVID-19, imperfection could be disastrous.
We will get through this time and look back on it, perhaps, with a weird fondness. Most of us have never experienced anything that binds us so much, that shows us how we truly are all in this together. Remember that “All of Me” became a hit during the Depression. This was another time when we saw how interconnected we are and rose to the occasion to weather it. We can do this. It just takes all of me. It just takes all of us.
When I was a kid, my family didn’t travel much. We didn’t have a lot of money, we weren’t the camping sort, and my dad really didn’t like breaking with routine. So my “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” papers were pretty much a variation on a theme: I read, watched TV, and slept a lot. We were homebodies.
But when we did travel, we always drove. Dad did the vast majority of the driving. Mom would sit next to him in the front. My brother would sit next to one window in the back, and my sister would sit next to the other. I sat in the middle, straddling the hump in the floor, because I was the youngest and smallest. It was close quarters in our 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne. There was, for example, nowhere to go when my brother decided to whistle in my ear all the way from Beaumont to Dallas when we went to Six Flags Over Texas one time. And the car didn’t have air conditioning or seat belts, so it could hardly be characterized as luxury travel.
Two things were sure to be wonderful on each trip, though. One was that many hotels had “Magic Fingers” beds in them. If you inserted a quarter into a slot at the head of the bed, the bed would vibrate. This probably had some sexual uses that we can skip over here, but we kids thought that the vibration was almost as good as the rides at the amusement park. The other thing that was great was that we would always stop at a Stuckey’s along the way.
Just in case you’ve never experienced the joys of a Stuckey’s, let me assure you that a stop there was grand. On a practical level, Stuckey’s was air conditioned and had clean restrooms. But the magical part about Stuckey’s was that the store was a wonderland of stuff for sale. They had pecan candies, commemorative thimbles, gimme caps with American flags on the front, actual cotton bolls in baggies, and soap-on-a-rope in every color and scent imaginable. You could buy impossibly large candy bars and salty snacks like chili peanuts that would necessitate stops at the next two Stuckey’s, one for a giant drink of water and the next for a bathroom break. Witty and sometimes slightly racy postcards filled racks that were as fun to twirl as they were to peruse. I remember one postcard to this day. It pictured a car speeding down an empty highway stretching through a desert; the caption read, “The sun has riz and the sun has set/And here I is in Texas yet.” What literary genius pasted on a card stock rectangle! It was dizzying.
Fast forward a few decades. Mark and I didn’t do lots of driving vacations with our children, but over the past couple of years COVID and the need to bring furniture from Texas to kids settling into homes in the Midwest have prompted us to drive Texas to Ohio and Indiana a couple of times. This trip we’re in a rented Nissan Rogue. It was white when we picked it up at the airport in late March, but currently it’s mostly the color of dust and a few miscellaneous squashed bugs. I can find it in a parking lot because it has Louisiana plates, and those are rare in Indiana.
Our trips have been blessedly uneventful thus far. Mark does most of the driving, but I generally do the midday shift. We listen to books downloaded from the library or from Audible. We’ve mostly chosen light mysteries, but right now we’re listening to Barack Obama recount tales from his early life and first term as President. And our pit stops tend to be at Starbucks if we need coffee or McDonald’s if we’re craving soda. But as the attached picture proves, we did find one of the remaining 117 Stuckey’s in the USA (down from a high of 350-odd shortly after WWII). Out of sheer nostalgia, we stopped at the teal-roofed building for a restroom stop (still clean, although the paper towel holder was jammed) and to see what wondrous goods might be on offer. FYI, Stuckey’s still sells gimme caps and giant portions of candy, although there was nary a soap-on-a-rope in sight.
Our visit to Stuckey’s was a throwback to yesteryear, and it was fun. But as with with most things from the past, I don’t miss it. I didn’t sigh as we pulled out of the parking lot or yearn for what used to be. One of your jobs as an adult is to decide what relationship you’re going to have with your own past. And I’ve decided mostly to leave it behind. Sure, I can chuckle or wince or regret or get gooey about something that happened before – singing silly songs with one of our babies and both of us laughing like crazy, asking a classmate at a reunion about his wife and finding out that they’ve just concluded a bitter divorce, looking at Mark when I got to the altar at our wedding – but mostly the past is, well, past, and I’m ready for it to stay there. The past is a gray country set behind an impermeable barrier. You can’t go there, and you can only vaguely trust what you see.
I know that this attitude doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve been fortunate not to have lost a spouse or a child, for example, so there’s no one in my past I yearn for. My parents are gone, but since I’m in my 60s that’s not surprising. I’ve lost other family members, friends, and pets; I’ve missed opportunities and closed doors that I might, on reflection, have wanted to take hold of. But with each loss I’ve also tried to learn something from it, square my shoulders, and push on. We carry the marks of every win, loss, or draw we ever experienced, whether we relive them in remembrance or not. And I refuse to be held hostage to what was or might have been.
So stopping at Stuckey’s was fine, but never stopping there again is fine, too. Face it, all of us here on this planet are on a road trip we call life, but the catch here is that our cars are different from our rented Rogue. Life only has one gear, and that’s drive. So get comfy in the driver’s seat, grab the wheel, and hit the gas. If you must look in the rear view mirror, only spare it a quick glance. The road awaits.
As you read this blog post, I hope you’ll hum the word “Procrastination” to the tune of Carly Simon’s wonderful song, “Anticipation.” Because I know it’s been a while since I blogged, and there’s no other reason than sheer procrastination.
It’s certainly not due to a lack of things going on. Mark and I flew to Texas from Spain in late March. We came to our beloved place in the Hill Country to find lots of large tree limbs down or, worse, partially down, as a result of the severe winter weather the state experienced last winter. We pulled the big stuff off the roof (no appreciable damage there, thank goodness) and the driveway, packed up our rental car, and drove to Bloomington, Indiana to see Mary.
We had a delightful visit with our dear daughter, just mostly hanging out and being together. Visiting Mary always includes visiting her two cats, Bud and Sutton, as well. We came away happy, well-loved, and covered in fur. It was a great visit.
Next we drove to Cincinnati to see our granddaughter, Harriet, and her parents, Jane and JJ. We spent close to five weeks there, ostensibly to help the new parents but in fact mostly to let the baby sleep on our shoulders and discuss whose turn it was to get to hold her. Harriet didn’t sleep all the time, of course, and is generally a happy, smiley baby. She has opinions, of course – she is her mother’s daughter, after all – but generally after she’s made her views know she cheers up and goes back to her usual charming self.
We did do some work while in Cincinnati. We got vaccinated (woohoo!). Mark painted Harriet’s room, and he and Jane assembled her crib. We cooked and did laundry, and Jane and I put in her garden. I also did some yard work. Mark and I took days off to explore the area and enjoyed local museums and a cold but interesting expedition to the Great Serpent Mound, which is about an hour from the kids’ house.
After saying our adieus to the Morris/Moffitt clan, we returned to Bloomington to see Mary graduate from Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. The graduation was in person for the JD students, and we watched a livestream of the ceremony. Afterwards we took Mary out to dinner and went to a delightful party at the house of some of her friends. After lots of hugs and congratulations, we headed back to Texas. The trip took us to Mammoth Cave and to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.
We then returned to Texas, but only for a few days. We made a short and rather jet-laggy trip to Spain to finish renewing our visas. Given COVID, Harriet’s birth, and Brexit, we left in March without finishing the renewal process. But we managed to obtain our visa cards – not the credit kind – and, as a bonus, completed our Spanish tax returns. That was painful, as Spain taxes both wealth and income worldwide, but a few happy visits with friends made the trip fun overall.
Since we’ve been back in Texas, we’ve pretty much been working on the trees and seeing friends. We intend to head back to the Midwest to see our Buckeyes again and then head to Indiana to help Mary in her move to Indianapolis. She has rented a lovely apartment there, which is walking distance to the law firm where she’ll start working in September. We will also help take care of her and her cats as she studies for and takes the bar exam at the end of July. After that, we’re planning to head to New Hampshire for a couple of weeks. Then it will be back to Texas to get ready to return to Spain in September. And, with luck, we’ll start traveling again!
So that’s the report. It’s a busy time, filled with family and friends and, I hope, an end to my procrastination. I’m trying to enjoy every moment. Because as Carly says, “these are the good old days.”
if you’re American, Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May. But if you’re British, Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Because we socialize with lots of Brits here in Spain, I now get to enjoy two celebrations of motherhood!
The origins of Mothering Sunday apparently lie in the Middle Ages. The day is said to have been inspired by the some of the lectionary readings for this week in Lent. Specifically, passages from Isaiah and Galatians read in this week refer to Jerusalem as “mother. Church leaders inferred from this a command for the faithful to return to the mother church – literally. Congregants were enjoined to return on this date to the church where they were baptized. This was generally not much of a hardship, because most people didn’t move from the area where they were born. If you weren’t near that church, you could go to a cathedral, which was considered the mother of all churches. Later, another tradition was added. Girls in domestic service were allowed a day off to go visit their mothers on this Sunday. Special cakes were and still are baked for Mothering Sunday. Now, of course, flowers, chocolates, cards, visits, and phone calls have been added into the celebratory mix.
This Mothering Sunday was a special one, as our family was celebrating the birth of Harriet Ruth Moffitt. She is the daughter of our daughter Jane and our son-in-law, JJ Moffitt. Harriet was born on March 11 and is gloriously adorable. Because of privacy concerns, I’m not posting a picture of her. So you’ll have to trust me on the adorable part.
Instead, I’ve posted a picture of my mother, Jane Ellen Crissey Tullos. She was born in 1926 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and died in 2006 in Beaumont, Texas. In between, she lived through the Great Depression, WWII, marriage to my father, and the raising of us three kids. She adored children, especially the little ones, and was a beloved mother to us and several of our friends. Later, she became a precious Gramby to her three grandchildren, Ellen, Jane, and Mary. The picture I’ve posted here was taken on our wedding day, and you can see her joy in getting to add Mark to her list of beloved people.
But that was then, and this is now, and it’s Jane’s turn to be Mom. I’ve become Gramgram, and Mark is now Pops. We’re headed to the USA next week to see all of our darling kiddos, and I CAN’T WAIT. It’s a three-day trip, due to the paucity of flights between Spain and the USA right now, but it’s a small inconvenience to endure to get to see our loved ones. I’m going to hug my children and hold my granddaughter. That’s pretty much the only agenda items that matter for this trip. Oh, yes, and I’m going to buy a gigantic jar of decent peanut butter to bring back to Spain.
Harriet’s birth, of course, has prompted me to think about the other mothers in our line. This is particularly true with regard to my mother’s mother’s mother, Harriet Samantha Lapham Heermans. Jane and JJ honored her memory by selecting her name for their baby, and by all accounts they picked a remarkable woman as a namesake. Harriet was born in Morrison, Illinois in 1877. She had several siblings, including a younger sister named Sibyl (which was her mother’s name). In the late 1890s the family cow contracted tuberculosis. Sibyl, who was about 14 at the time, got TB from the cow’s milk and was not doing well in the cold Midwestern climate. So Harriet, who was all of 20, packed up her suitcase and her sister and headed for a warmer area. She bought tickets to Flagstaff, Arizona (which is not officially in the USA at this point, because Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912). The two met a friendly railroad conductor somewhere along the way, who took an interest in them and advised them not to go to Flagstaff, as it was relatively wet and cool. He changed their tickets on the spot for ones to Phoenix, and that’s where they went to live.
In Phoenix , Harriet met Paul Heermans, and they married in October 1897. Sadly, Sibyl only lived long enough to play the piano at their wedding. Harriet went on to bear three children, one of whom died as a young boy. Harriet was a suffragist and helped support the family by selling homemade fudge to soldiers from Fort Bliss when times were tough with Paul’s printing business in El Paso. She was known for her kindness and sense of humor. She died before I was born, but her grandchildren adored her and told lots of stories about her.
So that’s where Harriet gets her first name. (I assume that the existence of Harriet Tubman was an added incentive). It means “ruler of the home,” which is probably pretty accurate right now. Ruth is for Ruth Badger Ginsburg, who is much admired in our family. That name means “friend” in Hebrew and “compassion” in English. And while we probably all know that a person can be ruthless, it’s also true that a person can be ruthful. I like that.
So here’s to mothers, people who mother, and people who have or had mothers. They make us a lot of who we are. And please wish our family luck as we welcome the new addition. I need to stop writing, now, though, and get back to the serious business of being a grandmother. Those toys aren’t going to order themselves, people! Now, where did I put that credit card?
Now I know that today is actually Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. In normal years, on this day the world would engage in wild, colorful, extravagant carnivals. Streets would become pathways for parades of carefully-crafted floats, complete with riders in colorful, often risqué costumes tossing out beads and candy. Alcohol and the desire to cut loose would send people into the streets in places like Rio, New Orleans, and Venice. And friends and strangers, costumed and masked, would indulge in music, dancing, and, sometimes, all of the things that Baptists are afraid music and dancing lead to.
At the same time, Fat Tuesday exists because it provides the last chance to party before the world gets more serious. It’s the day before the church calendar turns to Lent, the season of self-denial and repentance preparing us for Easter. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. That’s a day where, in churches across the globe, ministers and priests draw sooty crosses on the heads of their congregants, reminding each person that they came from ashes and will return to ashes. Those ashes, by the way, are the charred remains of the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. There’s a cycle there, a satisfying rhythm to this part of the liturgical year.
But lest we settle into the somber business of Lent too quickly, bear in mind that just two days ago we celebrated Valentine’s Day. This is no longer primarily a church holiday, but it is celebrated by millions of people all over the world. Valentine’s Day, of course, is devoted to love, and cards, flowers, candy, and other gifts serve as tangible expressions of that sentiment. Roses and hearts appear in store windows; street vendors sell teddy bears and balloons decorated with expressions of love. Even grocery stores get in on the act, displaying seemingly endless bottles of cava and boxes of chocolates on end caps. So today is a day set between the headiness of love and the dark solemnity of mortality.
Today’s odd in-between-ness seems even more profound than usual this year. COVID has caused most cities to cancel their carnivals. Streets that usually would be packed with revelers will be quiet tonight. Valentine’s Day was quieter, too; restaurants that normally would be packed with diners were closed or relatively empty as people stayed home to avoid getting sick. Even Ash Wednesday is changed. As a precaution against contagion, many churches are not holding in person services. Many more that are meeting in person are not dispensing ashes by means of one person touching another’s forehead. We are indeed in-between, not skipping our special days altogether, but finding offbeat ways to mark them in some fashion.
That’s certainly been the experience for Mark and me. Take Valentine’s Day as an example. We’re kind of disgustingly lovey-dovey on normal days (much to the chagrin of our daughters in their teenage years), so a celebration of love is right up our alley. In addition, we accidentally had our first date on Valentine’s Day in 1985. (That’s a whole other story.) We therefore typically go out for a nice dinner and splurge a bit. But this year, the restaurants are all closed in our part of Spain, at least for in-house dining. So we got a lovely takeout Italian meal at a small restaurant nearby that’s become a favorite of ours. The restaurant, fittingly for the occasion, is named Emilia Corazon. It’s fitting because “Corazon” means “heart” in Spanish. I don’t know who Emilia is, but the restaurant is run by Ilaria and Stefano, a couple from Italy. The place has about four tables inside and six outside, and the decor is anything but fancy. But Ilaria cooks fresh, delicious dishes, and Stefano welcomes patrons with a big smile and pours a generous glass of vino tinto. Mark went and got our meal, which consisted of a salmon and potato appetizer, risotto and a potato/apple/onion/ham bake for the entree, and apple/raisin crumble for dessert. We used our nice dishes and put the flowers Mark bought me on the table. So that was lovely, if not what we usually do.
Ash Wednesday also will be different this year. Instead of going to an in person service, we will use the liturgy our beloved church in Texas has provided. The service requires ashes, of course; we decided to try for authenticity and picked up a dead palm frond from one of the palm trees on the Paseo in front of our apartment. Finding the palm may have been easy, but turning it into ashes was tough. Apparently, palms do not want to burn. This is especially true when you’re burning them in a minuscule aluminum pie pan that a Tesco chicken and veg pie came in on a terrace that’s being buffeted by winds from the Mediterranean. And it’s particularly especially true when the only flame you have to work with is an ancient Bic lighter that some long-ago renter left in your apartment. Trying to huddle over the pie pan to block the wind and hold the Bic into palm bits is every bit as complicated as it sounds. But we managed to burn enough palm to get some ashes – see picture above – so our substitute Ash Wednesday will go on tomorrow, and we’ll begin Lent the best way we can.
So happy in-between, where the calendars of love and mortality collide and the COVID-improvised rituals move us forward in our year. May you find your own spaces for joy and reflection in the place where the pandemic finds us.
Be proud of me, y’all. I got the plumber to come unplug our bathroom sink (pictured) – in Spanish.
Now, I admit that I wasn’t starting from scratch. This plumber, a nice guy named Domingo, has worked on our apartment before. We found him through our friend Valeria. Valeria coordinates work on the apartments and houses handled by our property management company. She’s from Eastern Europe originally, but she speaks Spanish like a native (which means competently and really, really fast). Her English is okay, but she’d like to improve it. Therefore, we have a tacit language agreement; she texts me in English, and I text her in Spanish. The results are sometimes hilarious, but so far she’s gotten us what we need.
She’s been so helpful to us partly because she’s a nice person to start with, but Valeria also has the right disposition for her job. She’s a born fixer, and I mean that in the very best way. If Valeria worked in Washington, DC, she would be the person you’d turn to for tickets to a sold-out show at the Kennedy Center, an interpreter in an obscure language for a foreign dignitary, or the private number of the person who’s an expert on a given subject and an entrèe into the office of the Congressional representative who chairs the committee your new expert needs to talk to. Instead, she’s in Torrevieja, so she lavishes her talents on dispatching house cleaners, car services, carpenters, appliance installers, and the like. And plumbers, like Domingo.
So when our bathroom sink started draining about as quickly as Mitch McConnell moves legislation sponsored by Democrats, and we’d exhausted our DIY drain-cleaning options, it was time to call Domingo. I called him, and we arranged IN SPANISH for him to come take a look the next morning. He arrived promptly and set to work with liquids and plumbing tools and God only knows what. We could hear him working and muttering; my Spanish isn’t great, but I’m pretty sure there was some heavy duty swearing going on. Periodically he would emerge from the bathroom, announce, “I have to go down to my car to get a bigger tool,” and return a couple of minutes later with all sorts of things that probably were lines for reaming the pipe but which looked like something left over from the Spanish Inquisition. Finally, after about an hour, Domingo came out of the bathroom with a huge smile on his face. “Forty years! I think no one has cleaned this line in 40 years!” He gestured for us to come look. A wad of what looked like hairball that a woolly mammoth would cough up lay on the floor. Having been paid and thanked, Domingo cleaned up and went on his way. The hairball is now out of the pipes and the apartment, and water no longer accumulates in the basin when I wash my hands or brush my teeth. Hooray!
Our experience got me thinking that the United States really needs a good plumber. I’m thinking here of the systemic racism that plagues our beloved country. We don’t have 40 years of accumulated, toxic gunk of white supremacy and oppression and violence against people of color; we have 400. If you hadn’t seen it before, surely the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th laid that nasty fact bare. The willingness to kill in order to protect entrenched white supremacy should make it clear to everyone that calls for unity and having a Vice-President of color are not going to be enough to change the necessary number of hearts and minds to the necessary degree. Don’t get me wrong; those calls are important, and Kamala Harris is amazing and historic and fantastic. But we have a hairball the size of our beautiful 50 states. In the words of Domingo, we’re going to need a bigger tool.
I don’t pretend to have the answers, friends. And I know that systemic racism is not the only problem our country faces or the sole motivation for the attack on the Capitol. But I do know what happens when you allow the blockages to continue, and it’s not pretty. So let’s use our voices and our votes to be part of that bigger tool.
I use this title with deep apologies to the late, great James Baldwin. This post is not marginally in the same league as his masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. But given what we’ve adopted as our emblem for 2020 – see picture below – this opportunity was too good to pass up.
In case you’re puzzling over said picture, let me explain. It’s a Christmas tree ornament that’s shaped like a dumpster on fire and labeled “2020.” This post could probably end here and you’d still get the idea. But the coup de grace in this situation is that we ordered three of these little charmers in November (one for us and one for each of the households of our kids), and THEY NEVER ARRIVED. We did get an email last week saying that the ornaments had finally cleared Customs. I’ll believe it when I see it.
So you can see why this ridiculous bit of plastic has become our year’s emblem. Granted, we had a better year than millions of people across the globe. Many are hungry and afraid. Many are ill with COVID and other diseases, and, as of the date of this post, over 1,778,000 people worldwide have died from COVID alone. This number includes a friend of ours and several friends and relatives of our friends and relatives. Our country remains politically divided. And many millions are isolated and lonely.
We’ve had our share of disappointments, too, although they’re smaller than the ones listed above. The biggest is missing Christmas with our kids. We did mitigate our loss somewhat by watching “Elf” simultaneously while chatting about it in What’s App; we then had a lovely family Zoom. But it wasn’t like being together. Mark and I both had COVID, although we’re pretty much recovered now. We also missed visiting with people here in Texas this Fall and were locked down in Spain for most of the Spring. And our travel plans pretty much went to hell in a hand basket this year. Last year, we were in 20 countries; this year, we were in two. Places we missed included Israel, Petra (in Jordan), Florence, Milan, Lake Como, Bordeaux, Avignon, Morocco, and the Baltics. To top it all off, we missed at least five sets of visitors. In my book, that qualifies as a dumpster fire.
Hope accompanies us into 2021, though. Mark and I leave for Spain on Wednesday, God willing. There, we will renew our visas so that we can continue our Spanish adventures. Our first grandchild is due to arrive in March. Our younger daughter will graduate from law school, take the bar exam, and embark on her legal career. We plan to return to the USA in the Spring for these amazing events. And who knows? Maybe my skepticism will be proved to be unfounded, and our ornaments will be waiting for us when we are back in Texas. That truly would be the dumpster fire next time. But in the meantime, let me wish you a happy and safe new year, with much love from Mark and me.
In case you’re wondering why Mark and I have stayed married for 35 years, here’s the deal: he wakes me up every morning with a cup of coffee and a kiss. If you needed marital advice, you’re welcome.
While we’re in Texas, we enjoy our coffees in the living room of our small house. A bank of four windows gives us a view of the back part of our 28 acres, which lie about 45 minutes outside of Austin. The land is part of the lovely Texas Hill Country. Rolling hills that are actually mostly bulges of limestone created by a long ago shallow sea stretch out before us. Gorgeous live oaks, pernicious cedars (actually Ashe junipers), and native grasses adorn the landscape. We’ve put up a couple of bird feeders in the trees outside the windows and watch our customers enjoying their birdseed. We see titmice, chickadees, scrub jays, white-wing doves, sparrows, cardinals, ladderback woodpeckers, and various other species.
It’s really fun to watch the birds. The titmice tend to come in groups; maybe there’s an invisible dinner bell summoning them. They eat efficiently, perching on a feeder and pecking away steadily. The chickadees, which are very small, seem like nervous eaters. They land, look around, peck once, and flutter away to hide and survey the scene before approaching again. The little brown sparrows prefer to eat the spillage from the ground. They’re the same color as the dirt and leaves, so mostly you can spot them by watching for movement. And the white-wing barely fits on either feeder and often falls off after attempting to twist itself into some strange position to partake of the goodies. Apparently hope springs eternal in the dove breast, because the white-wing we see most often spends a lot of time walking up and down the branch on which the tube feeder hangs, looking at the feeder below. My theory is that this bird is strategizing about what contortion to try next time. And this dove must be doing something right, because it is a chubby one.
Sometimes in the late afternoons, we sit on the porch, drink wine, and watch the birds at the feeders as well. These days we can watch the sunset, too, because it’s cool enough to be outside. We have a porch swing, but usually for this purpose we sit in rockers as the sun dips through the lace of the leaves and slips below the horizon. We do talk some during these interludes, but actually we’re often quiet. If there’s no human noise, the birds come back for one pre-sleep feed. The titmice grab the bowl feeder, the chickadees dart back and forth to the tube feeder, and the sparrows take the ground. On really quiet days, you can hear the flutter of wings as the birds flit back and forth a few feet to rest in a tree or bush between bites. I love that sound. It’s like you can hear feathers.
Birds aren’t the only things with feathers, though. Emily Dickinson explained:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Dickinson, I understand, was petite and rather birdlike herself. Her poems are punctuated like the one above, so that ideas and images roll out in short breaths. She’s kind of a chickadee poet, moving in for a moment and then skittering back to her bush with the thrust of a hyphen. Maybe that’s why she appears to know something about feathers – and hope.
And this Christmas season, I’d like to think I know something about hope, too. Honestly, this is unfamiliar territory for me. In a world that preaches “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” I’m way better at the latter than at the former. It made me darn good at assessing environmental plans, because the concept of a “reasonable worst case scenario” made perfect sense to me. I’d been anticipating that all my life. And the kids always used to complain about their care packages when they got home from camp. The problem wasn’t the contents; rather, it was the entire roll of packing tape I’d use on each parcel. Apparently at mail time the counselors didn’t give the girls long enough to disembowel one of my packages. I tried to sell this circumstance as anticipation rather than frustration, but without much success.
But this December, I’m actually feeling a bit hopeful. Yes, COVID is rampant right now, and my heart drops at the daily statistics. But vaccines are rolling out, and non-crazy officials are saying that 2021 should see a decline in cases as vaccinations increase. Too, we’re apparently going to have an adult in the White House, which is a welcome prospect. In fact, Mark and I are feeling sufficiently sanguine that we’ve put down a deposit on a seven-day Greek Islands/Turkey cruise in September. Granted, the deposit is refundable, but as Mark put it, it’s kind of like the Old Testament (Protestant nomenclature here) prophet Jeremiah buying land and burying the deed in a pot even as the Assyrian army was bearing down on Jerusalem. It’s a marker of hope for the future, an act to affirm the belief that better days lie ahead. I don’t know that Jeremiah would be my choice of cruise buddy – those prophets could be rather dour – but you get the idea. I think it’s more like putting out birdseed. If you feed them, birds will come. If you hang in there, hope – and the fruits of hope – will come, too.
So this Christmas season I have a few feathers of hope. It’s a chickadee kind of hope, that looks around nervously and flies a few feet into a handy bush to hide every once in a while, but it’s there. And I hope that the same is true for each person who reads this post. I wish you a wonderful holiday, and I wish you hope.
In keeping with the rest of the year, Thanksgiving 2020 is unusual in a lot of ways.
Admittedly, some things are the same as always. We’re in Texas, so the weather is mild, and the windows are open. A turkey breast is in the oven, and we’ll have a last minute flurry of activity as we heat stuffing, veggies, sweet potatoes, and gravy. I will open our can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and feel momentarily guilty that I don’t channel my mother and make it from scratch. And we will sit down to a feast and follow up by washing dishes and the annual viewing of “Miracle on 34th Street.” So all of that is firmly in place.
A lot is different, though. For starters, it’s just Mark and I this year. When I was a kid, the Thanksgiving meal was held at our house, complete with grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin. My mother was a nervous hostess, so we had turkey and gravy with a side of anxiety, but there was always a crowd. The best part for me was cooking the day before with Mom. We’d sing “Harvest Home” and “We Gather Together” as a nod to the holiday and then start in on the Christmas carols. Later on, Mark and I would still have Thanksgiving at my parents’ table, schlepping the kids five hours from Austin to Beaumont. After Mom died, we began hosting at our home. We’d gather our nuclear family, my sister and brother, my niece and nephew, assorted cousins, and friends. Those were big, jolly tables, groaning with food and buzzing with conversation. But this year Jane is working, and Mary made the hard but wise decision not to come to Texas. Given that I tested positive for COVID a couple of hours after she canceled her flight, that was an especially good call – made even better by Mark’s getting sick a couple of days later.
It is tempting to slide into self-pity here. We have no boisterous crowd to entertain. We are both are still coughing and feeling very tired from COVID. I’ve lost my sense of smell, so food has almost no taste. We found out this week that a friend here in Austin died from COVID, and we’re grieving that loss. Around the globe, people are sick and hungry and afraid. Many have empty places at tables that will not be filled again.
But even in the midst of change and sadness, we have much to be thankful for. We have each other. Our children are doing well, and with luck we will see them on Zoom this afternoon and in person at Christmas. We have food to eat, books to read, and a peaceful house in which to recover. More friends than I can count have volunteered to bring us food and run our errands. And yesterday a flock of robins stopped on our property on their way south for the winter. It’s a sight to behold, that clan of determined, red-breasted birds. Not everyone gets to see that in their lifetimes, and I’m grateful.
So we recognize the gladness and the grief and give our thanks today. I’ll leave you with the words of Tennyson’s aging Ulysses, musing by the seashore in Ithaca. He sums up what I feel today:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are….
I’m grateful to you for reading my post. Happy Thanksgiving.
Note: I’m posting this entry several days after it was written; also, I couldn’t get a decent shot of the night sky and therefore went with a picture of the Mustang.
I bet you think you know how this line ends. We all learned this little poem when we were kids, right? “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may/I wish I might/Have the wish I wish tonight.” Then you made a wish on the star and quickly squeezed your eyes shut, because your wish wouldn’t come true if you saw another star. I actually always wondered how long that prohibition lasted. Does it only go for that viewing, or for that evening, or for the rest of your life? If it’s the last of these options, we are doing this process all wrong. As a child, naturally, I wished for childish things, like a Chatty Cathy doll (she was supposed to talk when you pulled the pink ring lodged in her back) or all the books in the world. If I could have saved that wish, I might have gone with more useful wishes, like a cure for cancer or the end of systemic racism. Or, honestly, I might have stuck with the thing about the books.
But if you’re thinking about this rhyme, you’re wrong. You see, I’m a child of the space age. We drank our Energy Tang like the astronauts do, so that we could join the space gang and do the moon walk, too. (For the uninitiated, that’s a reference to an orange juice commercial, not to Michael Jackson). We pretended to enjoy the Space Sticks we begged our mothers to buy for our after-school snacks, even though the sticks tasted like rubber flavored with enough chocolate not to get the manufacturer in trouble with the FDA. Part of of astronaut training in those days must have been to learn to eat the food. And, clad in pajamas and sprawled on the hardwood living room floor, we stayed glued to our TVs on Saturday morning to imagine ourselves driving George Jetson’s flying car. Now I’d settle for one that folds up into a briefcase like his did. Can you imagine never having to hunt for a place to park?
Since we had our own drinks and snacks and wishes, it’s no wonder that Space Age kids had their own rhyme. I’m sure this was hilarious the first twelve or so times I heard it: “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may, I wish I might/Never mind, it’s a satellite!” Yuk, yuk. I admit I’ve been suckered by a few planes in the sky over the years, though. Out of the mouths of babes….
Last night, though, Mark and I got to see the real deal. That’s possible because our house in Texas – a cabin, really – sits in the middle of 28 acres in the Hill Country. Even with our relatively large space we can see other houses in the distance and get light pollution from nearby Dripping Springs, but we still have a pretty good view of the night sky. Last night was spectacular. We had no cloud cover to speak of, and at 1AM an uncountable number of white points of light winked at us. This was no random expedition outside in the chill, though; we stuffed our sleepy selves into parkas and shoes to go out and see the Leonids meteor shower.
Ecclesiastes says there’s a season for everything, and meteors are no exception. Where we are, you can see the Perseids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Perseus) in August and the Leonids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Leo) in November. When the girls were little, we’d lay sleeping bags on the ground and rouse our sleepy-eyed kiddos and lie down together on the bags to watch for meteors. We’d count the brief flashes of white that marked a space rock’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere and murmured the legends of brave Perseus saving the chained Andromeda, Leo the fearsome lion slain by Heracles, and the mighty hunter Orion, eternally roaming the heavens in pursuit of Taurus the bull and being chased by his nemesis, Scorpio. The tales and the viewings ended when someone fell asleep, and we’d all stumble up the path back to the welcoming house and our comfy beds. I don’t know whether the kids recall those interludes; the nights were late and the kids were young. But I hope they at least dreamed of fables and stars.
Last night, though, it was just Mark and me in our jammies. We also departed from tradition by forgoing the sleeping bags and putting the top down on our Mustang convertible, which is currently parked on a macadam pad in front of the house. Once you recline the seats and wrap yourself in a blanket, you’ve got one sweet seat for sky watching. Having neglected to figure out where Leo was in the heavens and being too comfortable to bother getting out of the car, we decided to look right where the car was pointed. And we were rewarded with meteors – not a ton, only five over the course of about 45 minutes. But we enjoyed every bit of our time outside, and not just because we got to see meteors. If you’re not awed by a brilliant night sky, with its vast mixture of time-machine stars and the humble human need to tell stories in order to make sense of things, you’re not looking right. And the ephemeral nature of meteors – literally come and gone in a second, Nature’s Snapchat – makes the spectacle all the more wonderful.
This morning, I am out in mind of another rhyme, one a little classier than “Star light, star bright,” and probably less subject to modification. It’s by Walt Whitman; do you know it?
WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER.
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
I get what Walt’s trying to say here. Don’t misunderstand: I respect science tremendously. Without astronomers, how would we know when and where to look for meteors? And I respect wishes, too, although their limitations become clearer now than they used to be. I actually received a Chatty Cathy for Christmas when I was five or six, and she talked for about two days and then just coughed for the rest of her time with me. And, reluctantly, I admit that even we don’t have enough shelf space for all the books we own, much less all the books in the world. So I’ll be happy with a little time under the stars and a few meteors in my memory. And I wish the same happiness for you. That’s probably the best wish of all.
Except in our case, it was automobile, train, automobile (twice), plane (three times), automobile.
Let me explain. Mark and I are currently in New Hampshire, enjoying the beauties of a New England Fall. I’ve taken a lot of pictures, but this one is my current favorite. I took it looking down on Glen Ellis Falls, just a few miles from our condo. But when we’ve talked to people about being here, folks mostly have wanted to know about how traveling here from Spain was. So here goes.
We took a taxi from our apartment in Torrevieja to the train station in nearby Alicante. The taxi driver wore a mask, as all drivers do, and we did the same. We got a sandwich for lunch at the train station. The Tim Horton’s was closed, but Gambrinus was open. The tables were disinfected and spread out, and all of the personnel wore masks. Everyone at security wore a mask, as did the Renfe people who greeted us train side. The greeter also gave us each a small bottle of hand sanitizer and an individually wrapped alcohol wipe. We wiped down everything and wore our masks the entire ride, as did all the other passengers and the train personnel. We arrived at Madrid’s train station, Atocha, right on time. Everyone in the terminal wore masks, except for the tiny kids. We grabbed a taxi and drove to our hotel near the airport. The hotel had moved all of its restaurant tables outside, so we ate dinner away from others and without having to leave the premises. The hotel was a little noisy, but it served its purpose. Our 4AM taxi took us straight to the terminal, and we had no trouble checking our bags. In each airport, we wore plastic face shields as well as our masks.
Boarding a plane is actually more organized than it used to be. We had sprung for business class seats and therefore boarded first, but otherwise the plane boarded back rows to the front. This prevented a lot of jostling and crowding. Because people were passing by us on the way to their seats in coach, we left our face shields on in addition to our masks. The flight to a Frankfurt was unremarkable, except that the papaya served with our breakfast was extra juicy.
The airport in Frankfurt was not as busy as usual, but there were still many people there. The Lufthansa lounge was closed due to COVID concerns, so we seated ourselves near our gate but away from other passengers and spent our four-hour layover there. Our flight to Newark was on time. Again, business class boarded first, but we were to the left of the jetway and coach was to the right, so no one passed by us on the way to their seat. The flight attendant handed us individually wrapped sanitizing towelettes and reminded us to keep our masks on during the flight. We had a meal and then stretched out to sleep for a remarkably long time over the Atlantic. I’d wondered if wearing a mask would interfere with sleeping, but that all went fine.
Immigration and Customs in Newark were easy – too easy. We’d been given contact tracing forms on the plane and had duly filled them out, but no one asked for them. In fact, Mark tried to hand our forms to one Immigration officer and was waved on. The guy was too busy complaining to his cohort about a mechanic who’d tried to cheat him. Most people in the airport were wearing masks, but not all. We rechecked our bags to Portland, Maine, and headed to the United lounge, which was open. We sat as far away from other people as we could and used our own wipes to sanitize our seats. Only individual packets of food were available, which was better than the usual buffet service. After a couple of hours, we headed to the gate for our flight from Newark to Portland.
The flight from Newark was on a regional jet, and it was completely full. The seats are two on each side, so I don’t know what United does about rows with middle seats. The only mention of COVID was an announcement that the flight attendants would not be offering drink service. We were not offered sanitizer of any type, but we used the ones we’d brought with us. Because of the full flight, we left our face shields on over our masks. Again, boarding and deplaning were done with business class going first and then rows being called to avoid crowding. I’d be fine with that practice staying in place from now on.
It was a relief to get to Portland and pick up the car. We had an uneventful drive and brought our bags up without incident. After a nice, long sleep, we enjoyed the Dunkin Donuts we had picked up (drive in only available) and have had a lovely time since then. We will head back to Portland and fly to Austin on Monday.
So that’s how we traveled, and it seems to have gone well. Neither of us has had any indication that we’re sick, although we know where the local COVID testing is performed. We have stayed away from people on the walking trails and affirmatively turn our backs on unmasked walkers. All businesses require masks inside buildings, and we have gotten no blowback from anyone about wearing masks. We will see how it goes in Texas!