Tuesday, July 22, 2014

They Say We Come Into the World Afraid

They say we come into the world afraid
of snakes no matter whether venomous
or not.  Avoidance is the way we’re made
although this  truth may have eluded us.
In ignorance we may have thought our fear
a lack of fortitude or a moral flaw.
But now we know about the hiss we hear.
Our shuddering conforms to natural law.
Today I walked along a country road
encountering a lifeless coil.  I said
“I’m not afraid” as feet unbidden showed
a path that led around a snake so dead.
It’s strange the way instinctive dread persists
long after natural foes no more exist.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

We Are Always Getting Ready to Go Somewhere

 In April 2012, I went on my first trip abroad.  Having turned seventy, I was in no mood to delay anything. My sixtyish sister was returning to Bristol with her English beau; our mother had given us  money to visit Wales, the land of her ancestors; my passport was up-to-date. I said to myself, just go.

The most pleasurable part of getting ready for the trip was shopping for travel clothes. I wanted everything new and perfect.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to look:  in the airport, on the plane, in London, hiking with my sister in Wales.  I bought a fuchsia raincoat, purple hiking boots.  At the time, I thought this rosy persona would blend with Englishwomen my age.  There’s a picture my sister took of me in Paddington station.  I looked ridiculous.  I should have gone with a Miss Marple style—tweeds and stout walking shoes.

That imaginary role-playing was fun and frivolous.  Actually, I took comfortable clothes in dark colors, only wore the purple boots while we were hiking, and they were soon covered with mud.  The cheery raincoat was easy for my sister to spot, a good thing when we were walking among the Easter holiday crowds in London.

The other part of getting ready was as if I were preparing to die.  I had to confront the urge to write letters with instructions on the envelopes:  open upon my demise.  What would I say in those heart-felt, hand-written letters to my husband, to my grown kids, to my unborn grandchildren, and all future generations? I gave it up, admitting that it would be things like, “A stitch in time saves nine” or “remember to floss.”

 I don’t think experienced travelers  go through this agonizing, “I may die en route or when I get there” feeling every time they go on a trip.  Furthermore, they know how to pack.

Well, I went on the trip, had a great time, sang “Streets of Laredo” with a group of Welsh folksingers in a pub in Knighton, came home to find my family alive and glad to see me.

 I have always loved this quote from a Grace Paley short story, “All it takes is an interest in life, good, bad, or peculiar.”  Turns out, an interest in life is my best accessory.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Solitary Play

 In the early 1950’s we spent five summers on a sheep outfit my father managed near the Flattops, a unique mountain range in northern Colorado.  A memory from that first summer has  stayed with me for more than half a century.  Not traumatic, just odd.  I still don’t know what to make of it.

I was seven and my sister was an infant.  The ranch foreman and his wife had two teenagers.  I had no one to play with except the ranch dog, a border collie called Shep, who slept in the barn.

I remember the elaborate game I played with Shep.  The activity began in the barn.  I would open the heavy wooden lid to the oat bin and, with a coffee can, catch one of the surprised mice scurrying across the bed of oats, diving for the dark corners.  Shep would follow me  into the corral, where I crouched on the ground, let the mouse loose, called “Siccum, Shep,”  and watched the dog chase the mouse and kill it.  “Drop it, Shep,” I would command and then tell the dog to go back to the barn.   His part in the game was over.

The next site was a sandy inlet in the creek between the barn and the house.  I remember the child-sized beach, the clean sand, and how beautiful ordinary rocks looked beneath the water.
I gently dumped  the dead mouse onto the sand and used the coffee can to dig a grave.  With a stick, I nudged the furry corpse into the hole, covered the hole with the pile of cold sand, and tamped it down with both hands.   With pieces of tall grass and dry twigs, I made a cross to mark the mouse grave.  The game was over.

I don’t remember thinking one way or another about the dog chasing the mouse and killing it.  Dogs liked chasing and killing.  No one on the ranch liked mice.

Although I am not ashamed of the experience, I feel a shadow of guilt that I should remember it with such pleasure. That afternoon—one or many, I can’t remember—seems a summation of  the sensory pleasures of ranch life:  the darkness of a barn in daylight; the scent of oats, hay, leather, horse manure; the companionship of a dog; and the sound of water in a year-round creek, something westerners treasure even more than the scent of sage after rain.

 I remember the pleasure of solitary play, of being lost in the story I was telling myself about the life and death of a field mouse.    I do wonder what my childhood game says about me, if anything.  My husband tells me I am making too much of it.  Of course, he is one of Shakespeare’s “wanton boys” whose  summer days were filled with hunting and killing small things.

Sometimes I think I should have been in the house, playing with dolls, making up stories about a mommy and daddy and a baby in a crib, rather than hanging out in the barn catching mice for the dog to kill.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Love and Coyote Bait

     We get to a certain age and realize we are the old-timers.  Some of our stories seem like chronicles from another century.  They are.  My friend JoAnn Messerly Osorio recently sent me the following e-mail about an incident when she was a child living in a sod and rock cabin in a remote valley in northeastern Nevada.  Her father was running mustangs and supplementing their income by killing coyotes and collecting the bounty:

          “About the coyote poison remember they used to put a bounty on each coyote pelt, dressed out                or not.  I have pictures with dead coyotes covering a horse from neck to tail.  They mixed lard with arsenic and snake oil.  Then they rolled it into little balls then rolled the little balls in sugar.  The snake oil would attract the coyote; the sugar would make it tasty.  Then they would put it out on the range and come back the next day to pick up the dead coyotes.  I will never forget when I was about 3 or 4 years old, I found the sack in back of the car, and was licking the sugar off of the coyote poison ...he'll, what did I know.  I came into house with sugar all over my lips, and my Dad asked me where I got it.  I showed him the sack...you talk about one terrified cowboy...he talked to me very softly and walked me around very softly talking to me. Nice and easy ...which he never did before.  He never left my side. For hours, just walking and talking very gently.  My mom was terrified but did not panic,
.          Finally they decided that I had not eaten the little balls of coyote poison.
          But only licked the sugar off!!!”

     There are a lot of ways to think about her story, which took place in the mid-1940’s, not the 1840’s. While my friend was living a rugged version of Little House on the Prairie, the most powerful poison the world has known was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  DDT had become available as an agricultural insecticide, and we, on the ranches, considered it a godsend for keeping down the flies.
     It was a time in the West when we needed to push back nature, in some areas to keep rattlers out of our houses and yards; in nearly all places to keep coyotes from killing our calves or lambs.  The herds of wild horses were culled to keep a delicate balance in the management of open range.

    This is my friend’s vivid and loving memory of a father who was a rough and careless parent, and a sanguine account of a harsh time in her life.  We get to a certain age and we are inclined to sugar-coat bitter realities of the past.  It’s neither right nor wrong.  It is what we do.

     Here's what others do to us:  pass judgement.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bull's Blood Beets

I know we don’t want to rush the seasons, and I hope we have more winter ahead of us.   But the darkest night has passed and one of my favorite things to do in January is to sit for a few minutes with a cup of coffee and browse a seed catalog.

Some descriptions are little found poems.  Take this one from the Territorial Seed Company catalog for Bull’s Blood beets:

“The renaissance of the salad mix has made unique uses for all types of greens, and the leaves of Bull’s Blood are a regal addition.  The strong, deep red tops grow to 13 inches tall and have a clean crisp flavor.  The 2-3 round roots have delightful red and white zoning.  Harvest when small for the very best in eating quality.”

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Party, Bernalillo County Medical Center

 ‘Tis the season of the obligatory Christmas party in the workplace.  Everyone dreads it.  It’s not about gemutlichkeit.  I’m not sure what it’s about.  

My most memorable holiday workplace gathering was in 1973 at the Bernalillo County Medical Center in Albuquerque, where I worked for six months in the steno pool of the radiology department.

 With headphones, a tape recorder, and Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, I sat in a cubicle transcribing radiology reports dictated by radiologists sitting in their cubicles, feet propped on their desks.  Having recently achieved a Master’s degree in English literature from UNM, I was in demand for transcribing because I could distinguish “spondylosis” from “spondylolisthesis,” and words like that.

 Recently, I went through a box of papers from those New Mexico days and found a vignette about the radiology department Christmas party.  Being “P.C.” hadn’t reached Albuquerque in December 1973.

Here’s what I wrote:

Christmas Party, Bernalillo County Medical Center
December 1973

Someone announces over the loudspeaker, “Christmas party in the conference room,”

 We chipped in for cold cuts, brought goodies from home:  deviled eggs, Swiss cheese and crackers, cranberry relish, pink jello salad, fruitcake, and Mexican wedding cookies. Mary Dullea brought posole, which we eat in paper cups. The spiked punch is gone in fifteen minutes.

Mrs. Petty stage whispers, "We shoulda made chicken soup for Dr. Kopperman."

Sandra brought bunuelos, learned to make them in her Mexican cooking class. Consuela spits hers into the wastebasket, hisses to Teresa, "I've never tasted anything like that."

Sandra hears her, gets huffy, says, "They're Mexico City style. Not New Mexico."

Kyle, the security guard, plays Santa.  Evie drew my name, gives me three pair of bikini panties, each with a drink recipe on it.  On the q.t., Mary Dullea tells me she is selling hot Navajo jewelry for her brother-in-law in Arizona.

The custodians are having their own party upstairs. Lucille doesn’t like their food and complains,  "They're playing Spanish music and I can't understand a word of it." She writes her recipe for sweet potato pie on a pink, "While You Were Out" pad, tells me it's her new husband's favorite. He's from the Bahamas, hates Albuquerque.

They pass around a card to slip into Poopsie’s in-box.   She’s secretary to Dr. B, the chief of radiology. The card is a photo of a penis with glasses and a little Santa hat. Underneath it says, "Seasons Greetings. Guess Who?"

Poopsie won’t come to our party. The way she refers to herself as, "executive secretary," emphasizing the "zec," I know she won't show. Evie thinks she's having a mad affair with her boss.   I think Poopsie simply hates us all, especially this time of year.

Evie is pregnant, thrilled about it.  We laugh when she pops a button on her blouse because her boobs are getting big.  The conference room is near the nursery and the maternity ward.  When someone opens the door, you can hear an infant cry.

“Baby Hay-Soos,” Mrs. Petty says every time.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

My Dad and I Ride in the Rain

My Dad and I Ride in the Rain
       Maybe it is the golden autumn light or my November birthday.  Whatever the reason, November takes me to memories of childhood, especially the years spent on ranches in northeastern Nevada.  A few weeks ago, the first hard rain here in the redwoods of northern California triggered the memory of a summer thunderstorm sixty years ago.
      My father and I were horseback, about five miles from the Seventy-One ranch where we lived. It began to rain, and then it began to rain hard, and then it really came down. This was summer before sixth grade, my last summer as a ranch kid. That September we would move to Elko and live in town.
      I heard my dad call my name, tell me to rein in, get off my horse, and pull off the saddle blanket.  We would use our saddle blankets for cover he said as he checked my cinch and gave me a boost back on my horse.
     Why do certain memories stay with us?  Was it the strength of the sensory memory:  the strong scent of horse sweat, the heat and weight and prickle of the saddle blanket?  Perhaps it was the surprise and joy of galloping side-by-side in the rain, down the graveled  road and across the last hay meadow before the home ranch.
     Maybe this was the best experience I shared with my father, before adolescence and town life took over; maybe it was my last best day as a kid.