I’m grateful for my mother. I may not have said that here often, but it’s been true all along. She would have been ninety-four today. I wouldn’t be here without her, on so many levels. The obvious one. And when I bought this land, she pitched in the last five percent that I didn’t have. And all those years between. I could write a whole book about how grateful I am to my mother for her love, protection, and support. Not that it wasn’t fraught sometimes in the early years, but by and large she was my best friend for all of our life together, and she called me her night rainbow, though I don’t remember why.
The gifts she gave me are immeasurable. I’ve written about them before. But even though she’s always in my heart and I think of her almost every day, I don’t really think about her in the way that I’ve been doing today. She was a talented artist, had a wonderful tact, a great sense of humor, and a tender open heart; and she could be fierce, vindictive and petty. At the end, her true strength manifested in dignity and astonishing courage. As I look for and at these images of her, I find myself chuckling at some memories, of things she said and trips we took, and tearing up at others. I suppose I’ve never really gotten past the grief of her dying. I’m so grateful I was able to be with her during her last eight months, her last days, her last breath. It was one of those difficult experiences that nonetheless brings genuine happiness because it’s so clearly the right thing to do. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.
I’m so grateful for travels with dogs through the years, and tons of digital photographs to remember them with. It’s delightful to take these journeys again with Stellar and Raven as I peruse years worth of images from our many trips back and forth across the country. As Stellar’s journey through this life winds down, I’m grateful for the memories.
As Stellar lies dying, I roam through these images, remembering him at the peak of his vitality, and tell him of these adventures: all the beautiful parks and creeks and beaches, the forests and deserts and picnic tables, the friends and family we visited.
Each image, each memory, validates my choice to let my best friend live his life to the end as long as I can keep him comfortable, as I would for any other beloved person for whom I had the responsibility. When he was a tiny puppy, I could see the dog he would become; in the prime of his life I could see in him the tiny puppy he once was and the tired old man he would become; now that he is that tired old dog, I see the fullness of his life in each glance, each caress–through it all he has been the epitome, the best dog ever on the whole planet. I don’t begrudge him this time of total focus, after the years of unconditional devotion, protection, and delight that he’s given me.
Today I’m grateful for connection. Through the magic of Zoom, I connected with cousins in five other states, and my eldest goddaughter in a sixth. It was windy most of the day and challenging to be outside, so it was a good day for zooming inside. There are those, I imagine, who are sick of Zoom and might feel it doesn’t offer real connection; but this digital platform has been a lifeline for me the past year of physical distancing, and brought miraculous opportunities to connect with real people in real ways once unthinkable and now taken for granted, bringing me back into connection with friends and family from my past, and creating new connections with people I never imagined.
I made a yummy omelette with Havarti and three fresh fat asparagus, mixed a Bloody Mary with last year’s homemade tomato juice from the pantry, and spent a couple of hours with my dear girl in Brooklyn. Later, the weekly cousins’ zoom brought connection with distant family, a recipe for Turketti which I can hardly wait to try, and a couple of cross-country bird reports of interest, including Bill’s sighting of a phaenopepla, a rare desert songbird who resembles a black cardinal. I’m grateful to have seen one many years ago, and today enjoyed empathetic gratitude for his seeing one though he had no idea how lucky he was. I’m grateful to have been reminded such a marvelous creature exists on this same planet. I’m also grateful for the sense of connection I felt with the food I ate, the water I drank throughout the day, and the earth those gifts came from.
Today I’m grateful, as I have been most Sundays since last summer, for my newfound, longlost cousins on my mother’s side. Cousin Jack initiated a weekly zoom call among his siblings and their mother, and kindly included me, Auntie, and Auntie’s daughter in his invitation. It’s been heart-filling to be back in touch with these four boys and two girls with whom I spent many special occasions through our growing up years. Sometimes my brother shows up, sometimes some of their grown children show up, and even young grandchildren. In each session, their mother Clara is there at 93 with tech assistance from granddaughter Amanda or one of her visiting children. In the first couple of months, Auntie Rita was able to attend also, even though for half of those times she struggled with the effects of her stroke.
But she was there fully for a few sessions before the stroke diminished her capabilities, and it was delightful to observe her and Aunt Clara speak together, sharing their thoughts and lives, their concern for each other, much as they had for around seventy years as sisters-in-law. Remarkably, these two women were born on the same day of the same year. And it was wonderful that Auntie was able to see many of her nieces, nephews, and grand-nieces and -nephews a few times before she died, and they her. For me, it’s been a real gift to feel connected to family again as I haven’t since my mother died. And I hadn’t felt connected to these grown cousins for decades before that, as we all went our separate grownup ways, and because I’d been branded a black sheep by their father, my Uncle the General: for my radically compassionate philosophy he considered me a communist, and said so, which is how I know.
Oh well! We don’t all ~ or even many of us ~ share the same political views, which has been a little challenging for me. But the camaraderie, the teasing, the humor and affection that we shared as children chasing each other around the grounds of the Distaff Hall, playing hide and seek in the Knoll House, sharing holiday dinners at one another’s homes, feels stronger than it ever did as we have all lived through enough of life to be tender and accepting with one another. The three siblings ~ a father and two mothers ~ that bind us as family have all died; only Clara remains, one mother among us, and they are kind enough to share. I’m protective of my time these days, but our Cousins’ Zoom is an event I prioritize each weekend, because it brings me such joy, and a feeling of connection I realize I have longed for since long before The Time of the Virus.
The Colonel drilled into me the importance of the right tool for the job. It’s a refrain I hear often in my head when I’m working in the garden or the kitchen. Because I was raised in a throwaway culture, though, it’s taken me awhile to learn the importance of regular and proper maintenance. I’ve re-oiled the cutting boards a few times since sanding them. I was thinking I should invest in a new big cutting board and really take care of it from the beginning, sanding it and the others regularly, but I hadn’t gotten around to it when Cousin Melinda offered to send me one for Christmas.
And she did! I’m grateful for this new cutting board, and will tend it well for many years. Melinda lives in Kentucky, not far from Berea College, the first integrated, co-ed college in the south, with a remarkable zero tuition, work-study program that includes student crafts industries like high-quality brooms and… cutting boards. I’m grateful that I got to visit Berea one year when I stopped at Melinda’s house for a few days on a cross-country trip. I’m grateful for the student who made this cutting board, for the teachers who taught him or her, for the trees that gave up the wood…. In gratitude practice, you eventually figure out that everything is interdependent.
Though we didn’t grow up together, Melinda and I connected a few meaningful times in our younger years, and then about sixteen years ago we reconnected for good and for real. I couldn’t be more grateful to be family with my wonderful cousin, who comforted me after my mom died with the promise that she’ll remember that I love peanut soup. She’s probably forgotten that by now; just this morning we talked at length about our fading memories, how we can remember some things that happened but not when. I asked her when it was that I had stopped by her Kentucky home that first time. I had to look it up, and she had to ask her husband.
I was driving back to DC in the fall of 2003 when my dad mentioned that his niece lived near where I had stopped for the night at a hotel. “You should call her,” he said, so I did. I think I left a message. Six months later I was making the same drive east, with two dogs, a tortoise, a snake, and a carful of possessions as I moved back to help my mother through her last months with PSP. Melinda and her husband welcomed me and my menagerie with open arms, and since then we’ve been fortunate enough to visit here or there about once a year. Until this year, of course.
I’m grateful for the long, easy conversations we share by phone at random times, for her wisdom, medical knowledge, and wicked sense of humor. I’m grateful that through her, I was able to connect with her brothers and their families a little bit, and her dear father who will be 98 in February. Her mother and my father were siblings, and died a couple of years apart some time ago. I’m grateful to be able to explore family history with her in our conversations, comparing our sibling parents and their upbringing, to gain insight into who I was growing up and who I am today. I’m grateful that she’s game for any adventure I dream up while she’s visiting here, and that she’s eager to share her life in Kentucky with me. I’m grateful that even though my other mothers are gone, I still have Cousin Melinda to love me.
It could as well be a wildfire, but it’s just the sunset, that great ball of fire in the sky rolling by.
The breeze is finally cool tonight, and it wants to rain. It’s been a merciless summer so far, except for last Friday night. Relentless heat in the nineties, and no rain for months. The aridification of the West. My field like most on this mesa is at least half brown, with meager green grass. Fires rage, and we’re lucky, with nine reportable fires in the state, and more than twice that many from Oklahoma west, that we are not oppressed with daily smoke, and have not had to evacuate. I feel for those closest to the fires, how the smoke settles down at night and it’s all there is to breathe. Even here sometimes, dawn brings smoky air that sends me downstairs early to close windows and doors. With the heat of the day the smoke lifts, though we get a hint of it from time to time, but otherwise skies are simply hazy. We are desperate for rain.
My skin is turning lizard. Our skin is dry always, and hot by midday, and almost no one has air conditioning, because heretofore we have not needed it. Nights in the high sixties never cool us down enough to make it through a closed-in day. This is climate chaos at play.
But last Friday night, unbridled joy erupted: At last, rain! The band won’t soon forget that night, nor will any of us who happened to be there when it rained. First there was a lightning show in the mountains north and east of town, but the music was good so we stayed, despite the obvious risks: Gobs of electrical equipment, cables across the lawn, the church steeple right across the road, lightning cloud-to-cloud around us in a constant thunder rumble.
Rapidgrass played through the rain at the Old Mad Dog Café downtown, speakers and amps covered in tarps. Many left before the rain, but those who stayed remained until the band was through, well after dark. Some ineffable unity came to the band and the crowd: strangers and friends danced together, streaming onto the dance floor as rain came down; laughing, swinging, cheering, whistling, weeping. Grizzled old-time ranchers whose livelihoods depend on water danced with young hippie transplants, confirmed hermits splashed in puddles with dark-eyed children. We stuck our heads under downspouts, laughing, getting drenched in the welcome shower, dancing, dancing, and the band played on.
A double rainbow heralded a slight break in the rain. At sunset a downpour began in earnest: dancers and drinkers poured inside, and the band followed us through the double doors, continuing acoustically with Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain and a few other tunes, before taking their only break.
People headed to cars and trucks or nearby houses to refresh themselves or change clothes, and most returned for the next set. The band kept trying to quit at the end of their second set and we kept them going for an hour more with piercing whistles and cries of Play all night!!! For the rain of course, I realize now, but in the moment it felt like for the frenzied joy.
It’s been a joyful summer in so many ways, so far. Cousin Melinda came from Kentucky for relaxation therapy, including the best fish tacos ever, chihuahua for a day, a day over the pass at Iron Mountain Hot Springs, and our ritual cocktail party at the Black Canyon right down the road.
Local, organic sweet cherries, just one of many delectable snacks shared at our precious, local National Park, a hidden gem in the historical treasure of our National Parks system now under threat (like the rest of us) from top-down mean-spirited tampering.
Chihuahua Therapy at the home canyon.
Iron Mountain Hot Springs in Glenwood Springs, with 16 mineral-water hot pools including this pebble-floored 106 degree pool overlooking the Colorado River.
In(ter)dependence Day brought more beloved company and festivities to our neighborhood pod, and days before that Felix turned 100. His dearest friends concocted the party of the century. More than 200 people enjoyed live music from Swing City Express (featuring vocals from various local talent), great barbecue from Slow Groovin’ in Marble, and visiting with long-ago and seldom-seen friends. People came from across the globe to honor our favorite centenarian, who was not the oldest person at his party! Felix got covered in lipstick kisses.
We were invited to “Dress like it’s 1945,” and guests obliged in diverse ways.
Meanwhile, midst all this partying, the garden struggles along in the hottest driest summer I’ve seen in my 26 years here. The magpies have fledged and gone, the redtails in the canyon are learning to fly, and the baby hummingbirds are almost too big for their nest, with tail feathers out one side and sweet faces peeking out the other. Despite myriad fears and stresses over weather, climate, and the demolition of democracy, there is so much wonderful life to cherish and celebrate, every day, right here in our own back yards. Open your eyes. Let me remember to be grateful, every living moment of every day.
The desert willow, a Zone 7 tree, has always done ok on the south side of the adobe house, but this summer it’s full of more blossoms and bees than ever. Funny how some things like the dry.
Passing by this tiny bumblebee on a dahlia, pretty good for a phone camera…
Pamela grating nutmeg on farm fresh eggnog in the ancestral Cantonese punchbowl.
“Farm hands,” she says as I turn the camera on her, grating nutmeg onto the eggnog. Two gallons, at least, of deep yellow, delectable concoction, consisting largely of homegrown eggs and liquor. The Bad Dog Ranch girls came early to mix the eggnog in the ancestral punchbowl that I’ve talked about but have not used since I’ve lived here. In the family since the late 1800’s, it’s one of those heirlooms that only came on out very special occasions. It’s been in a trunk for twenty years. Poor thing. Like an opal it needs to breathe, to see the sun from time to time. The punchbowl had a very nice afternoon, did a great job, and got a lot of admiring attention.
The Holiday Cookie Exchange has quickly become a favorite tradition in the past few years up here on the mesa. Each woman brings a couple of dozen cookies, and a tin or tub to take home that many. People pull out all the cookie stops with some of their creations. This year we had seventeen lovely women from all three towns and the valleys and mesas scattered among them. There were occasional hijinks from the dogs, who were otherwise gracious. Snow lay across the land outside, still tall on every twig, on fences, outlining everything white, but paths and patios were clear; the ground was so warm when the storm hit last night that snow didn’t stick too much to bricks and concrete. I knew we’d be warm inside, all our happy warm energy, and kept the door to the mudroom open, where boots filled the floor and coats, hats, and bags were stacked on every surface.
Green tea – white chocolate sugar cookies
Earl Grey shortbread
Salted Nut Roll Bars, with a frisson of marshmallow.
Delectable handmade Pizzelles, with a garnis of pecan sandies.
Chocolate Kisses, like a cross between a truffle and shortbread.
Perfect Molasses cookies.
Three-nut baklava, yum.
Kahlua chocolate shortbread
A delicious surprise, club crackers magically toasted with almonds, brown sugar and butter.
It wasn’t possible to taste even one of each kind of cookie, there were just too many. Most had labels; there was a small table devoted to gluten-free offerings. Fortunately, some people brought spiced nuts, ham biscuits, apples and cheese and crackers, to balance the sugar fiesta. The holiday music of my childhood, choral and instrumental Christmas works, played in the background of waves of conversation. All that sweeping and rearranging furniture paid off, creating lots of smaller sitting and standing areas, so that seventeen broke into five or six more intimate groupings, rearranging themselves through the afternoon, and each got to visit with all. Our stories wove together, catching up the threads of the neighborhood, the past weeks and months of our lives since we’d last seen each other, pulling the safety net of love in our community a little tighter this winter day.
Everyone also got to fill their tubs or plates with more cookies than they brought, and somehow there were still dozens left over. How did that happen? The math didn’t add up but the sense of plenty flowed through us.
“Old hands,” said one of them as I was taking pictures. “We all have old hands,” I said. And lucky to have them, I thought. The stories they could tell. The meals they’ve prepared, the fences they’ve built, the babies they’ve held. The lives they’ve lived, these hands all gathered here around this generosity of cookies.
Well, all of us have old hands or farm hands or both, except for the one beautiful daughter who came, a young mother herself, and she brought a baby! With the baby snugged to her chest in a cozy wrap, Rocky couldn’t get enough of them both. If he’s ever seen a baby that young it was when he was a baby himself. He was fascinated, and maybe a little jealous. The big catahoulas, bouncy as Tiggers, relegated upstairs or outside for the whole afternoon, were jealous of the littlest dog, who got to sit on the lap with the baby. But several people took a break from the cookies and walked out through the snowy woods to the canyon rim; the big dogs got their joy escorting guests on their walks. I wallowed in gratitude all afternoon.
Marla brought a beautiful strudel for dessert! Like anyone needed dessert. And it was gone in no time. Some people went home, saying “I need a nap!” Some people took their nap in situ.
The baby behaved as well as the dogs, as cloudy afternoon wore on to dusk. People drifted off as they needed to leave, to check on a puppy, to feed a husband, to get home before dark; half a dozen stayed to watch the last of the Broncos game on TV. Suddenly it felt like any holiday I ever spent with family growing up, sitting around chatting and laughing, sated, with the soft drone of a football game (even though we were all women, it struck me sweetly) lulling everyone off to sleep.