St. Patrick’s Day at the Pinnacles

Pinnacles 6We finished up a week in the desert (Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park) with a bit of green for St. Patrick’s Day: a hike at the Pinnacles before returning home. Gorgeous rolling hills, dramatic rocks, splendid wildflowers: It’s a place we discovered 28 years ago, and have gone back to many times. Here, once again, is an essay about one of my favorite places, with a few new pictures.

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It’s a steep haul up the High Peaks Trail, especially when you’re seven months pregnant with your first child. But back then, giddy with promise, my husband Jonathan and I floated past the massive boulders of Pinnacles National Park.

Cresting the summit, baby bulk and all, I relished the double take of the buff, shirtless teenagers loitering atop the rocks. They paused mid-swagger to glance in horror at my swollen belly as I conquered the mountain in my smocked maternity top.

Our family has returned to the Pinnacles again and again, drawn by the massive cliffs, soaring spires, and lush spring wildflowers. Leaving behind the fragmented kaleidoscope of daily life, we are calmed by the reliable sameness of the timeless, indifferent peaks.

Yet even in this constant landscape, change is under way. The fantastic rock formations are the remains of an ancient volcano ravaged by erosion, creeping steadily up the Salinas Valley along the San Andreas Fault. I am grateful that only subtle clues dispel the illusion of permanence. A precariously balanced boulder has fallen from its perch. Spatters of chartreuse and rust lichen toil as alchemists, turning rock to soil. Their magic allows monkey flowers the color of apricots to bloom from dirt pockets hidden in solid stone.Pinnacles, Monkeyflower

Time has worked its alchemist’s magic on us as well. Two years after our initial trip, we camp at the Pinnacles, weighed down by the accoutrements of toddlerhood — diapers, goldfish crackers, juice boxes, a travel crib. Emma, whose in utero view had been obscured, now enjoys the scenery from the baby backpack that digs into our shoulders as we trudge along the dusty trail.

When we return again, the campground has been paved over for more parking. This time, we have two young daughters in tow, barely out of diapers. But Emma and Ally are definitely into sit-down strikes at the prospect of hiking more than a few hundred yards. Not wishing to fight an uphill battle, we content ourselves with the flat path at the base of the mountains so the girls can splash in the creek. Jonathan, impatient with the meandering pace of childhood, sprints to the summit while the girls and I delight in wild bouquets and rocky forts along the valley floor.Pinnacles, Lupine

The next time the Pinnacles beckon, Emma and Ally gamely traverse the High Peaks Trail. They are enchanted by poppies sprouting out of boulders, the rock that looks like a camel. The girls nibble on miner’s lettuce and strategic bribes of chocolate, scampering around the summit while their tired parents lag behind. Rocks and children tame each other: whininess turns to exultation, forbidding stone becomes an infinite playground.Pinnacles, Clematis

Although the incline invites vertigo, the girls clamber up and down, up and down the footholds chiseled into the rock, swinging from the metal banister as if nature and the Park Service had fashioned monkey bars just for them. Jonathan and I must squeeze through the narrow cliff passage in an awkward crouch. But it is just the right size for Emma and Ally, who march through boldly upright, giggling as their crooked parents bump their heads against the rocky overhang.

We are not the only ones who find the Pinnacles a good place for families. Condors, recently reintroduced to the park, build nests in the sheltered crevices. While they teach their young how to catch thermals, we show ours how to catch the shine of buttercups on their chins in the warm sunlight.

Now our daughters have taken flight too, soaring and wavering in their own grown-up landscapes. Alone again, Jonathan and I make our pilgrimage to drink in the riotous wildflowers and steadfast rocks whenever time allows. As always, we stop in Soledad’s Mexican grocery for tortas — soft white rolls dripping with spicy carnitas.Jonathan in Soledad eating torta, March 2016

Soledad, gateway to the Pinnacles, has sprung up even faster than Emma and Ally. Twenty-eight years ago, it consisted of the grocery, a prison, a few dusty streets of dilapidated houses, and a fleabag hotel with a cracked, empty swimming pool. Now the highway billboard reads: “It’s happening in Soledad.”  Vineyards dot the hillsides, and a tony resort lies adjacent to the Pinnacles. Kids from tidy homes with manicured yards swarm the soccer field at the spanking new school. A vast shopping center dwarfs the original Main Street, but we still head to our old Mexican grocery.

Fueled by succulent tortas and memories, Jonathan and I start up the High Peaks Trail once more. Although stiffer and a little creaky, we ascend quickly past the boulders and apricot blooms of monkey flower.

Again and again, we come back to ourselves in the shelter of the enduring cliffs.Pinnacles 3

 

 

 

For the Birds

Sandhill cranesThis week my writing group, the Write On Mamas, was invited to share our work at a local senior residence. It was a delight to be there along with my fellow WOMers Janine, Mindy, and Steven. Here’s what I read, an old favorite of mine originally published in skirt!

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Like most married couples, my husband Jonathan and I have many pacts–no cheating, no badmouthing each others’ parents, no going to bed mad. Our agreements are the glue that holds us together.

One of our pacts is to never take up birdwatching. Jonathan and I spent way too much time as kids trapped in some swamp while our parents cooed over coots.

We once took a hike with our friend, Peter, an avid birder. Eyes downcast, my husband and I listened politely as he droned on about plumage and wing span.

“Oh,” Peter said, at last noticing our silence. “Children of birdwatchers.”

Since we have our youthful resentments to uphold, we cling to our pact even though every binocular-toting couple we know is happily married. Birdwatching may unite others, but not Jonathan and me.  If one of us strays, pulse quickened by a downy breast, it’s grounds for divorce.

Still, as long-term marrieds, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to spice up our relationship. The forbidden, even birding, holds allure. So what if it’s like watching paint dry?

That’s how we recently found ourselves driving to the delta with our friends Steve and Mary to catch the last of the sand hill cranes before they headed south. Or wherever cranes go when, sensibly enough, they tire of hanging out on the levees with bored teenagers gunning their engines.

Before we embark, my husband and I renew our vows.

“Promise me we won’t become birdwatchers,” I implore.

“I do,” Jonathan pledges.

Steve and Mary have an exemption. They even have a temporary placard for disabled parking. Sidelined from favored pursuits like hiking and backpacking by surgery, they have entered the phase of life Steve refers to as “recalibrated pleasures.” They’ve traded in their boots for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guides and sunk a few thousand dollars into birding paraphernalia. No doubt they’re faking it, forced to find the silver lining in an unjust fate. We’ll be safe with Steve and Mary.

We pile into the backseat of their car. After a drive that lasts forever, strip malls give way to fields of rice stubble. We pull onto the shoulder of the levee dam road. “Look at the swans!” Steve and Mary exult in unison. It occurs to me that they’re not pretending.

The side of the road is littered with parked cars whose trunks yield vast arsenals of birding materiel. Pot-bellied men hoist huge tripods onto their beefy shoulders. Except for their girth and Audubon Society t-shirts, they could be mistaken for guerrillas sporting shoulder-mounted grenade launchers.

Birders are a passionate lot. Within a 10-mile radius, only my husband and I are cool to the wonders of feathered fauna. At least I hope Jonathan still is. He seems suspiciously enthralled as Mary explains the difference between divers and dabblers.

Steve spots the cranes on a distant bank. Even I have to admit they’re spectacular. After about 10 minutes of genuine oohing and another few of feigned ahhing, I’m ready to climb back in the car and head for civilization, or at least a Starbucks in one of those strip malls.

But people who routinely drive 100 miles in search of creatures they can’t see without expensive equipment are not prepared to settle for such a small return on their investment. So we look at the cranes. We look at ducks. We look some more.

Birding is like time-lapsed photography in reverse. The day slows down and stretches out in a languorous slow-motion crawl of nothing much happening. We drive farther. A chain-link fence separates the road from a plot of barren land. Steve spies a thin white line close to the horizon.

“Might be white pelicans. On the other hand, it might be plastic garbage bags,” he says with quiet excitement, as if either outcome would please him equally. Has his sense of pleasure been so radically recalibrated?

We train the binoculars on the barely discernible thread of white. Sure enough, they’re pelicans. But heaped together in a slovenly pile, these pelicans look like garbage bags with wing spans fluttering listlessly in the breeze. Perhaps it’s some kind of rare hybrid species: Feathered trash.

The day moseys along toward sunset. Mud hens are now indistinguishable from mud in the long shadows swallowing up the fields. The sky is streaked with cotton-candy wisps of pink and smoky gray.

It is also streaked with birds, flying in formations that, truth be told, look a bit ragged. No perfect, straight-edged V’s for these cranes and geese! Maybe they’re bored, too, and want to mix things up a little.

I think of my friend who took his family to see Winged Migration. Ten minutes into the film, his eight-year-old daughter elbowed him and said, “So this is it, huh? It’s just gonna be birds and then more birds all the way through.”

I’m with that girl! But is my husband still with me? He’s keeping up a steady stream of delighted chatter, admiring how graceful the airborne cranes look when they’re not stuck on land with their unruly necks and legs all akimbo. Jonathan’s enthusiasm makes me nervous until I realize that I, too, sound like I’m going to log on to one of those birding chat rooms the second I’m near a computer. I sidle up to Jonathan in the gathering darkness and whisper, “You haven’t gone over to the light side, have you?” He smiles and squeezes my hand hard, twice, our secret code. Birds of a feather flocking together. Such a man I have married! Black silhouettes fly against a crimson sky; white lies fly below.

“It’s so beautiful,” I exclaim, this time sincerely. Not only because together my husband and I have resisted the call of the wild, but because of how the bloodshot-turning-charcoal clouds are reflected in the little pools of water dotting the furrows. The delta at twilight looks like sepia shards from a shattered kaleidoscope.

We stow the scopes, the tripods, the binoculars, the books back in the trunk. Relieved, we climb into the car and head for home. Steve and Mary point out raptors on the power lines while Jonathan and I hold hands silently, eyes closed, in the backseat.

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Postscript: Years later, Jonathan and I are still stubbornly resistant to birding. We know a hawk from and a hummingbird, and are happy to leave it at that. Steve and Mary, meanwhile, have traveled all over the world on birding expeditions. They are still our friends, though they haven’t invited us along on any more outings. What shared interests and antipathies do you and your sweetie enjoy?

 

S is for Send-off

 

I prowl the bulk food aisle at the grocery store, scooping my daughter’s favorite dried organic mango and granola into plastic bags. Ally’s about to leave for college, and I’m in charge of provisions. Scanning the shelves for the chai tea she loves, I find myself thinking of the King Tut show that came through town a few years ago.

At the exhibit, case after case contained wondrous artifacts that kept the Boy King company on his journey to the afterlife: a whimsical child’s chair; a model boat fashioned from papyrus; clay vessels for his favorite food and wine; an inlaid board game to while away the eternal hours.

I imagined Tut’s grieving courtiers and family members busying themselves by accumulating the little treasures of everyday life. What did he prefer to eat?  Remember how he crowed triumphantly every time he won this game! Don’t forget his boat, complete with oarsmen to help him cross over. This little clay animal will remind him of the pets and people who still love him when he is lonely in his journey to the afterlife.

My daughter, still very much alive, is simply starting college. But I feel a kinship with the ancient Egyptians as I place the mango and chai into the box next to the toothpaste and family photos I have been stockpiling for Ally’s send-off.  After all, she’ll need to be prepared for the new life that awaits her far from home.  Who knows if they have proper provisions in the world beyond known as college?

I add Scrabble and a deck of cards to the cache of treasures. When Ally’s homesick, they’ll help her conjure up nights of laughter with those who love and miss her. For good measure, I tuck in her old stuffed dog, whose soft pink plush Ally long ago caressed into a colorless, misshapen bundle. The mundane accoutrements of home will provide succor for the uncharted passage ahead.

We moderns marvel at the golden funeral masks and ornately painted sarcophagi unearthed from the royal tombs. Yet it is the relics of domesticity used in the ritual of farewell that captivate us. Several millennia span the time between King Tut and today. But the impulse is timeless to send along a bit of home, a bit of ourselves, in the hard task of saying goodbye.

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What tokens of home help you or a loved one when far away?

 

R is for Rodents

Rodent controlWhen mice skitter across your kitchen counter in broad daylight, it’s time to call in the pros. That’s how Dave the Exterminator came into my life. He was the White Knight to my Damsel in Distress, and I fell for him hard.

Dave praised me for correctly identifying mouse droppings in the cutlery drawer. “Most people are way more in denial—they think they’re coffee grounds,” he cooed. Who wouldn’t love a guy willing to credit me with astuteness when it had actually taken mice traipsing through the dinner preparations for me to give him a call?

Dave came, he soothed, he plugged my holes. Like a partner who loves you anyway despite cottage cheese thighs, he reassured me that mice were a natural part of living next to open space, not a sign of dubious housekeeping or moral rot. Best of all, he came every couple of days with his little black bag to discreetly remove the corpses. The dog loved him. Who can resist a man who passes the pet test?

My friends tried to temper my infatuation. “Sure, he’s cheerful and reliable. But do you really want to throw over your husband for a guy whose name is stitched above his pocket and who carries around dead mice in a briefcase?”

They had a point. But even if it wasn’t true love, my first exterminator will forever have a place in my heart. Also on my refrigerator, since his company’s magnet reassures me that Dave is there for me should I ever be invaded by mice again.

Today Mick the Termite Man arrived on my doorstep. Having a doorstep meant the house was still standing, so the call was obviously premature. Since I wasn’t buried by a towering mound of sawdust, I saw no need for further Exterminator Lust. But the Homeowner’s Association insisted that I go on this blind date, interested or not.

The dog liked Mick as much as he’d liked Dave, but this time I was more discerning. Politely bored, I only half listened as he told me about what he’d found in probing my siding. He showed me a tiny hole near the garage harboring termite feces. With unseemly excitement, he said there was no way to tell if the infestation had just begun or had been there for years. For $4,000 he’d be glad to tent the house and kill everything in it. Except, of course, the termites might come back right away.

“What’s the point, then?” I asked, like a woman pushing 40 finding out after the first cocktail that her date has suspicious gaps in his resume and no interest in having children. Why bother to even order an appetizer? Chitchat over bruschetta is for those with time on their hands and hope in their hearts.

Maybe the dog was still a sucker for animal magnetism, but my taste had matured. This was a guy who went around pumping poisonous gas into people’s houses, after all! And the termites, unlike their rodent counterparts, were hardly causing me to shriek and jump on top of the stove in a pathetic pre-feminist caricature. If they wouldn’t bother me for several years, who was I to bother them?

Sorry, Mick. Sure, you can give me your phone number. I’ll maybe call to set something up. Like after the house collapses.

But wait a minute. There on the corner of the estimate was a faint notation in red ink: “Tell about rats.”

“What’s this?” I asked, pulse quickening.

“Well, there are some rat droppings, nothing much . . .”

Move over, Dave.

N is for New Nest, Spiffed up with Cleanser (and Love)

cleaning suppliesI am down on my hands and knees in my pajamas, scrubbing my daughter Emma’s bathroom floor. The one-inch hexagonal tiles were clearly not installed with college kids in mind, to say nothing of the Deco light fixtures and grooved wainscoting. Every nook and cranny is caked with grime.

Emma is asleep upstairs in the bed abandoned by the previous tenant. She’s exhausted from yesterday’s 12-hour drive and the thought of setting up her first home outside the dorms. But I’ve been up since daybreak.

It’s been years since I’ve cleaned my own bathroom. I replenish the empty bottles of Soft Scrub and Windex that Maria leaves on the counter. That’s the extent of my exertion. How do I instruct my daughter in the lost domestic arts?

“Make enough money so you can hire a housecleaner” is my usual advice. But Emma at 20 is years away from a good paycheck.  What was I thinking when I let Maria scrub the toilet?

Emma may have grown up with Maria, but I grew up without hired help, under the tutelage of a mother who swore by Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Housekeep. When I was just a few years older than Emma, I shared an apartment with my friend Jane, whose mother’s domestic Bible was more Lutheran than Peg Bracken. Their credo was “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  Jane once surveyed the bathroom I had just scoured and asked in a despairing tone, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you about cleanser?”

My mother did teach me about cleanser, but she imparted a different lesson. She associated housework with the humiliation her own mother endured scrubbing floors for a sadistic boss during the Depression. My grandmother humbled herself for a pittance so her daughter would not starve. Maria, albeit with a kinder employer and higher wages, does the same. I am lucky to escape their desperate need. But here I am, another mother engaged in the sacrament of love through sacrifice, down on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor for my daughter.

By now my back is aching, so I pause to stretch. Chrome faucets, mirror, and light fixtures gleam. Stripped of encrusted layers of filth, the wainscoting and baseboards are blindingly white. I survey my efforts with pride, grateful that years of paid help have not stripped away my ability to clean, limited though it may be. For the grueling labor that is basic to love cannot be hired out.

Emma is awake at last. She comes downstairs, yawning and stretching as she stumbles into the bathroom. Her delight is a balm for my sore knees and stiff back.
After breakfast, we search out provisions in Emma’s new neighborhood, emerging from the hardware store with a Swiffer Sweeper Starter Kit and several other weapons in the war against grime.

Back at the house, Emma and I tackle the kitchen together. We work side by side, scrubbing the Formica counters, polishing the cabinet fronts. I remember a moment years ago, when baby Emma kept me company in the kitchen, her luscious neck folds spilling out of the collar of her cotton jammies. As I sat on the floor polishing with the cleaning rag, I glanced to my side. There she was right next to me, vigorously wiping circles on the cabinets with her blankie. Baby Emma grinned with delight as we swooped, cackling, into one another’s arms.

Now Emma spritzes Windex on congealed spills atop a glass table in the living room. We ooh and ahh over the house’s multiple charms—the elegant bathroom, soft pine flooring, built-in window seats. Emma and I scheme about getting rid of all her housemates’ junk. I think, If only we could get rid of them, I could move in here with you, and we could really fix it up nicely! But I keep this sentiment to myself.

The next morning I must head for home. Emma is content to stay behind, running her Swiffer under the sofas and across the honey-colored floors.

I go into the gleaming bathroom one last time. Pausing in my morning ablutions to admire my handiwork, I see that I have missed some spots. The window is streaked, and stray cobwebs dangle from the upper molding like Spanish moss. But overall, the bathroom cleans up nicely. It has good bones.

I’ve missed a few spots with my daughter as well: how to budget, how to scrub a toilet, the uses of cleanser.  But Emma, too, cleans up nicely. She has good bones.

My aching bones remind me again of my gratitude for Maria. I’d still advise Emma to earn enough money to hire a housecleaner. But I would impart some additional wisdom as well: Learn how to clean, so that someday, if you are lucky enough to be moving your daughter into her first house, you can know the sheer joy of scrubbing her bathroom floor on hands and knees while she sleeps.

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What was it like moving into your first home away from home? If you have children, what’s it been like helping them set up in their newly fledged adult lives?

K is for Kitchen Table

tableMy youngest daughter, Ally, who had our old kitchen table at college, wanted to sell it before studying abroad for a year. I, however, insisted on storing the table during her absence, certain she would need it upon her return.

But it was really my need: for Ally to still want to keep a part of home, and for her to remain with us, “in storage,” during the temporary absence that foreshadowed the permanent separation of growing up. Although the table would be cumbersome to move and store, I wasn’t ready to let go.

After all, it was so much more than a table. I remembered how my future husband set it with yellow roses and homemade spaghetti soon after we met, and the subsequent family dinners once we had kids. I recalled the homework, the crafts, the cookie decorating, how the table contained the overflow of books, mail, and all the stuff of family life throughout the years. I had held on to the table to forestall feeling the loss of these cherished times, the ache of the empty nest.

Transitional objects are not just the loved-to-bits blankies and stuffed animals of childhood; they help us cope throughout life. We hang on to them until we do the work of integrating and grieving what they signify, and can relinquish them once they become just the thing itelf.

So after remembering, and mourning, I called Ally and said, “Sell the table.” It had become just a piece of furniture to me, and a ratty one at that. I could bear its loss, and even look forward to what might open up in letting go.

In the end Ally decided to keep the table. Perhaps she still needed a token of home while growing up. Or just a place to eat dinner and throw her books.

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What have you hung on to, and what has helped you relinquish it?

F is for Family Life

bunny-crib-beddingI just became a grandmother. Pepita, as we affectionately call her, sleeps a lot, nestled in her bunny-bedecked bed. She is tiny, her head a perfect oval, as bald as an egg.

Maybe that’s because Pepita is an egg. My 13-year-old daughter Ally just brought her home as part of Family Life’s attempt to prevent teen pregnancy. All eighth graders are charged with 24/7 responsibility for their hard-boiled infants. No sleep-aways in the refrigerator next to the leftovers, no cracks or substitutions, no transformations into egg salad allowed. During PE class or nights on the town, a reputable eggsitter must be found. Ally even has to read 20 minutes a day to Pepita. Unlike with real babies, no pages can be skipped, and the egg’s grandparents must vouch in writing for this exemplary parental behavior. Also unlike with real babies, the experiment with teen parenting lasts only five days, and no college tuition must be salted away.

My neighbor, whose kids are much older than mine, had warned me about egg babies years earlier. She described how all the eighth-grade girls fussed and cooed over their charges, spending hours planning play dates and making little outfits for them, while the eighth-grade boys pretty much left their children in their lockers for the week. Since I have a lot of friends my own age whose parenting styles parallel this gender divide with only modest variation, I was dubious about Family Life’s ability to transcend hard-wiring.

I am happy to report that my daughter is breaking gender stereotypes. Ally tends more to the neglect side than the cooing side of the parenting spectrum. True, she deigned to decorate Pepita with a marker-drawn bow, big blue eyes, and rosy cheeks. But soon after coming home with her new baby, she was trying to unload her on me.

“Can’t you just keep her in your purse?” Ally wailed as we prepared to go to a photography exhibit. “I don’t want to lug her around, and you’re bringing your bag anyway!”

“You’re the one who got pregnant!” I countered. “Deal with it.”

Pepita spent her first art opening crammed into a linty, airless pocket of her sulky mother’s sweatshirt. After that, she’s been pretty quiet. You might almost be tricked into thinking how easy it is to have a baby around the house (or locker). After all, eighth-graders have to read 20 minutes a night anyway just for English.

One thing’s for sure, although I didn’t need egg babies to clinch the case: At 13, my daughter is way too young to become a mother.

And having only recently liberated my purse from carrying around snacks and extra socks for my own kids, I’m way too young to become a grandmother.

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I wrote this several years ago. Now Ally is a language assistant teaching English to babies and toddlers in Barcelona (or maybe she is “exposing” them to English, just as they are exposing her to constant viruses). According to Ally, exposure to the real thing–germs and all–is an even better preventative than egg babies! 

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What are your experiences with efforts to prevent teen pregnancy?

D is for Dog

Button puppyMy husband and I are cat people, but our daughters failed to get the memo. Despite a menagerie of two felines and an assortment of rodents, the lobbying for a dog began in earnest when Emma, our eldest, was in second grade. In between constant replays of “Homeward Bound” and “Milo and Otis,” Emma vowed to take care of all things puppy if only we would grant her wish. She even promised to pick up poop.

We’re bad parents: We said no. So Emma brought out the heavy artillery: Begging. Whining. Pitching fits. After a solid year of this, our firm “no” turned squishy. Not only did we fail to hold the canine line, we also failed Parenting 101 by caving in the face of  her atrocious behavior (unsurprisingly, this soon became our m.o. for dog-rearing as well).

Of course, I was the weak link. If it had been up to my husband, we never would have accepted even one of those “free” goldfish foisted upon families at school carnivals. But after Emma went to work on me, I went to work on Jonathan. On a long, romantic hike I outlined why we should overthrow reason and do something crazy, like get Emma a dog for her ninth birthday. “Besides,” I concluded my pitch, “Maybe we could surprise ourselves and let in new love.”

Jonathan, who pays attention to research saying that marriages fare best when husbands agree with their wives, knew he was doomed. But at least the birthday girl was thrilled with the promise of a puppy as soon as we got back from our summer vacation.

Upon our return, we headed straight to the Humane Society. Emma was in heaven when she saw their brand new litter. Who knew that Rottweiler-Pit Bull puppies could be so cute? Still, it was not the mix I had in mind, even though Emma saw no need to look any further. This time, I did not cave, resolutely removing my screaming, betrayed child from the premises while simultaneously saving my marriage.

Fortunately, the next day there was an ad in our local paper for a litter in a nearby town. We knew we’d found our puppy as the mellowest little black-and-white guy yawned and waggled his tail. Thus Button entered our lives and our hearts.

Emma and her younger sister, Ally, were enthralled as Button waddled up and down the stairs after them. They were less enchanted by his needle-like puppy teeth, and spent Day Two climbing into the lower branches of a tree to avoid his nipping enthusiasm. Many days thereafter they ignored him completely.

In his intemperate youth, Button chewed through one sofa, several shoes, and two pairs of Jonathan’s glasses. Neither girl ever picked up any poop.

But one promise was kept: We could, after all, let in new love.

*

Button lived to a ripe old age. He had a great life, a great death, and we miss him. He was the perfect dog for our imperfect family. How have you handled kids and pets?

Transplant

A pot of flowers doesn’t seem like much. It can’t begin to compensate for the loss of rose beds, lemon trees, azaleas just coming into their glory. But at least it’s something to greet my in-laws the day they’ll cram what they can from sixty years of marriage into two tiny rooms in their new retirement home.

My husband’s parents have never much cared about material things; flowers are the one indulgence they allow themselves. A pale yellow Cecil Bruner rose foams over the entry of the Craftsman bungalow they are about to leave behind. Bluebells, daisies, holly—every season’s bounty—grace the coffee table in their living room. Now the vases, furniture, and garden tools have all been donated to charity. My father-in-law, who disapproves of brooding as a foolish waste of time, has banished all misgivings about their imminent uprooting. Still, he confessed to me a few days earlier that he felt a pang as his prized roses started to leaf out. He will want a bit of dirt to fuss over.

At the nursery, I select lemon-yellow ranunculus, blue pansies, white impatiens, and a single periwinkle to spill over the edge of a big ceramic planter the color of cream. The rich black potting soil tumbles from bag to bowl. I carefully ease the flowers out of their plastic cubes and transplant them into the readied dirt, adding soil to fill in the empty spaces. I give the pot a gentle soaking. It looks perfect.

I arrive at the retirement home an hour before the movers and my in-laws are due. Yellow caution tape, the kind used in crime scenes, blocks the path to the 4- by 6-foot concrete pad we charitably call a patio. Perhaps the dismantling of a long life is indeed a crime, but I am too rushed to appreciate the symbolism.

I inquire at the front desk about the obstruction.

“Which unit are your in-laws moving into?” asks the receptionist.

“It’s on the end, overlooking the swamp,” I say.

“We don’t call it a swamp,” she admonishes before explaining that the path is cordoned off due to high tide warnings. “We say ‘marsh.’”

Since my in-laws refer to their fellow residents as “inmates,” I imagine them bristling at the euphemisms, if not the rising waters, about to engulf them. They may be old, but they’re nobody’s fools.

Swamp or marsh, it is clear that no senior citizens will be allowed to wander off into a flood zone, so I resign myself to a treacherous detour. Bracing against the weight of the pot, I gingerly pick my way across soggy hillocks toward the patio. A few more steps and I’ll be home free on the solid concrete.

As I bend to put the pot in place, it slips out of my arms. I watch helplessly, unable to reverse the inexorable crash. Dirt and ceramic shards are everywhere. The flowers I had so tenderly transplanted now lay crushed under two cubic feet of soil.

I pull the biggest shard from the rubble, frantically combing through the dirt with my bare hands. The sweet blue faces of the pansies emerge, and here is the tattered head of the ranunculus. One after another I toss the survivors onto the shard. It is a cool, overcast day; with enough soil clinging to their roots, perhaps the flowers will pull through.

But I cannot yet tend to the shocked transplants. I still have a “Welcome” banner to install, a mess to clean up.

I shake the dirt off my jeans and sneakers as best I can, and struggle to unlock the front door. My in-laws are zealously tidy; their new home, with all the charm of a chain motel, at least makes up in spotlessness what it lacks in character. Or at least it did before I tracked in dirt. Now the traces of my good intentions are ground into the carpet.

I affix the “Welcome” banner to the blank walls. Fishing a crumpled tissue out of my pocket, I blot up the mess as much as possible before finally turning my attention to the drooping plants.

Bare handed, I scoop up some of the soil from the patio into the plastic nursery pots, sweep the rest into the grass with the side of my foot, then head home with my load of distressed flowers and dirt.

There I find an old terra cotta pot, slightly battered, with a patina of dirt and mildew. Filling it almost to the brim with the salvaged potting soil, I carefully transplant each bedraggled flower, once again troweling in dirt around the edges, gently misting off stray soil before giving everything a good drink. The blossoms are wilted from their ordeal, but are starting to perk up a little.

I hope they’ll take root in their new home.

*

I wrote this four years ago when my in-laws made their big move. They’ve taken root just fine, as has my father-in-law’s garden! 

Lightweight

lightweight backpacking equipmentJudging from my saga of preparing for camping, then actually going camping, you might think that “Lightweight” refers to me! But it’s actually an homage to my long-suffering husband, Jonathan, written when he was really in the thick of his lightweight backpacking craze a few years back:

  • 24-ounce mega-cans of Heineken beer
  • Snack-sized Starkist tuna lunch kits

This could be the shopping list of a frat boy who cares about  Omega-3 fatty acids but not about mercury. Instead the list is my husband’s, and he’s not even a drinker. Jonathan intends to pour the beer down the drain, give the cat a treat, and fashion a portable stove from the cans.

Jonathan is obsessed with lightweight backpacking. He spends hours online chatting with like-minded fanatics about the newest miracle fabric that repels water, retains heat, and is lighter than air.  They swap recipes for freeze-dried concoctions requiring less space than a teabag. Each gram shaved from the overall weight of the pack is cause for celebration; it means he can go faster and farther on his solo trips into the wilderness.

Jonathan spends all day experimenting, drilling holes into the beer can, creating a miniature windscreen. Our teenaged daughter catches him trying to boil water in his makeshift tuna-can stove. Rolling her eyes, she declares, “This mid-life crisis has gone too far!”

I know I should be grateful. Other men troll online for extramarital flings or buy expensive sports cars to stave off the onslaught of age. My husband is both frugal and true.

Yet I can’t help but wonder about his preoccupation with traveling light. How much does he long to unburden himself of home and family, of a life heavy with obligation?  The mortgage, my hot flashes, college tuition, endless household chores–they all add to his load.

No wonder Jonathan wants to set off unencumbered at a swift pace. Come to think of it, I’d like to join him. If I promise to travel light, maybe he’ll boil enough water for two.

*

What encumbrances would you like to shed?