Thanksgiving Traditions — The Same and Different

The November sun is not quite up, but I am.  My grandmother would have been, too, sitting in her darkened kitchen, her thin legs wrapped around each other, a treble clef, smoking, thinking about the day ahead.  At her elbow would be a stenographer’s pad with notes and a timeline as she prepared for battle with the Thanksgiving feast. 

I say “battle,” but really it was more like maneuvers, the complicated logistics of who goes first, second, third, carrying what, all manner of equipment and provisions packed into the olive drab jeeps and canvas covered trucks in just the right order. 

Somewhere else in the quiet house, my brother and I would be sleeping.  Granny Opal was known for her quiet ways. Calm, reserved.  Easy, I think, is the word to describe her.  A soothing presence, a baby whisperer.  Reassuring.  She never woke us, even when we begged her to get us up in time to put the bird in the oven.  I don’t remember now why that was such a big deal, but it was. 

We were never too disappointed we missed it, and might have been secretly glad, because we slept under blankets in a pitch black room, and it was fine by us to stay there, in soft beds warmed by our small bodies.  

I have tried to get my nieces and nephews interested in learning the old recipes, some written in Granny Opal’s elaborate hand.  They are spattered, some of them, but they are also dated, with attribution and notes in the margins.  Her recipe books are full of the names I recognize as  her Sunday school group, names from an era when they gathered at someone’s home a couple of times of year.  Gatherings with butter mints and peanuts—cocktail nuts, to be exact, these tee-totaling Baptists.  

It was a time of ladies’ magazines, snack sets and sweater sets. And recipes that made the rounds. Recipes that took all afternoon to make, fancy sandwiches, mile-high cakes with freshly grated coconut. And always something passed along by Gwen Brown, or Mrs. Pruden, the best bakers at Buena Vista Baptist Church. 

The elaborate cranberry salad we slaved over, with all the ingredients ground in a cast iron food mill clipped to the formica table is particularly labor-intensive.  We helped with grinding and chopping, and I would have sworn it was a recipe brought with great-grandmother when she moved to town. 

I make it still even though no one eats it.  But tradition is tradition and not subject to practicality. Then my sister informs me that, no.  My mother didn’t grow up eating this.  They served cranberry sauce from a can.  Granny Opal started the tradition, sometime in the sixties.  I didn’t believe it.  But there it is, neatly typed in her recipe book. “Cranberry Salad”  from “Mrs. Sam Talley, 8-13-64.”

What am I to do with this information? 

I have the cranberries, the pecans, the celery, the orange and the grinder. I’ll make it, of course, using the old grinder,  as Mrs. Sam Talley instructs.

The generations are turning, and the nieces who had little interest in recreating my childhood Thanksgiving  Eve rituals now need sweet potato recipes.  They have decided they love the  cranberry salad, request instruction on creating the perfect pie crust. It seems to happen when they leave in that real way, creating families of their own.  The first one to need a recipe was my niece, Alex, a couple of years ago.  The first married, she wanted the Thanksgiving dressing recipe. 

I sent it, of course. But I also made her call me, because there are things Granny Opal and I needed her to know, things about proportions and execution that can not be written on a recipe card.  I wanted her to have the most important part of the tradition.  The showing, the telling, the heads bent over chopped onion and celery. 

My nieces and nephews, that great sleepover and soccer-playing busy generation, are only now catching their breath and casting around for something more sustaining.  We have new little ones among us although the cousins have yet to meet.  They are far-flung and still so new, but soon I hope to see them in a puppy pile, rolling around on some floor, the adults looking on admiringly. 

I hope, too, just once, on Thanksgiving morning, to have little ones asleep upstairs, snug and toasty, while I put the poor bird in the oven. 

Retreat To The Woods

I spent the weekend in the woods, or almost in the woods, and perhaps more accurately on the edge of the woods that cover the hill which seemed like a mountain that rose behind the cottage where I stayed at Hindman Settlement School.  

I know of those who spent the weekend lallygagging poolside in Florida,  but I had on my calendar a writing retreat at the settlement school, one I signed up for in the sweltering heat of July. I signed up because I was hot and November seemed refreshing. I signed up because several of my friends had signed up, too.  It was a bit like junior high.  

Our pal, Silas, was facilitating the workshop, and he sent a text telling us the spaces would go quick and we eagerly enrolled, like adolescents going on a field trip.  It was better than any field trip, with all those writers, and with the author, Ashley Blooms there, too, running her own sessions.  I came home with some new people to call friends, and I suspect, so did most of us. 

I liked my new pals immediately.  For one thing, writers, at least my favorite ones,  are just funny,  They tell the best stories.  So, we sat around the first night laughing our heads off, as we rearranged the furniture a piece at a time to accommodate newcomers to the circle. I suspect, we also gathered in a bit because our hearts were slowly warming to each other. 

The thing I like best about a good story told by a writer is the clever turns of phrase they use…so we laugh, but we also repeat the phrase quietly to ourselves, catch the eye of someone doing the same thing, and we laugh all over again.  It’s like chili or soup that is better the next day. 

We had to show vaccination cards upon arrival and we socially distanced during craft workshops, each of us with a big table to ourselves.  But the rest of the weekend was … just normal.  Taking our mugs to Marianne’s room for her good coffee each morning.  Lunch and supper in the great hall, where Vivian fed us well and with the best and kindest of humor, retrieving her polenta recipe so I could take a picture of it.  

Until Hindman, I have been dismissive of polenta, remembering only my grandmother’s cornmeal mush, which she served when she’d get on a kick.  Out came Vivian with an Ina Garden recipe and her own notations written in the margins, and I was the hero of our table, because we had all rhapsodized about that polenta throughout the meal. 

Some in the group stayed mostly in their rooms, writing.  Some of us stayed mostly outside our rooms, making too much noise.  It was a weekend designed for whatever we wanted.  Silas did several craft seminars, and we could attend them or not. If we wanted to work on our writing in solitude, we could do that.  If we wanted to just relax and rejuvenate, show up for meals, we could do that.  If we wanted to do any combination of activities, go right ahead. 

One group, hardy souls that they are, walked the steep hill behind the school.  I am told the view from the ridge is wonderful.  And I am sure it was Saturday afternoon, too.  The late November light was slanting golden and warm, the trees almost bare after laying down a carpet of russet and ruby leaves for the hikers.  The pictures they posted were stunning.  All of them smiling, backlit and shiny, leaning in toward each other like comfortable old lawn chairs. 

I couldn’t make that hike the first time I tried it, the trail shoots straight up in a lung-busting trajectory. I wasn’t tempted even a little bit to join them Saturday afternoon.  But I waited for them to return, all rosy-cheeked and bringing the crisp fall air in with them, the woods trapped in their jackets and wool caps. We toasted them as they toasted each other, and it was perfect, as perfect as a moment can be.  Simple, warm, loving.

We created a little community as best we could in this time of almost past Covid.  I noticed the way we instinctively spaced ourselves in the dinner line and when chatting around tables after meals were over, or before sessions began.  That three foot spacing for public life. But then we went home to our little cottage in the woods, and friends from other cottages stopped by. And there were hugs, and heads bent together for gossip, and a glimpse of normal, and it felt good.

Finally, Signs of Fall

I awoke yesterday morning to a text from a pal in Lexington.  He reported an overnight frost and that he was wearing his cashmere sweater.  Relax those eyebrows, it’s okay. He was in cashmere mid-week because he was going calling.  I had overslept, so a quick scan of the backyard showed no signs of frost here, but I’ll be glad when it does. 

Right now I have a few Gerber daisies still hanging on, colorful little starburst heads bobbing on worn-out stems.  I can’t bring myself to toss them on the compost pile, but neither can I quite stand to look at them.  A killing frost will put things right, and I can move on to collecting moonflower seeds. 

My house wasn’t particularly cold, and I am not cold-natured, but I turned my heat on anyway, just to smell the furnace.  You know, the way it smells after months of idleness, a warm, toasty, “is my house on fire” kind of aroma that scares and soothes us. I didn’t keep it on very long, just long enough to get that autumn longing out of my system.  

Halloween will kick off the holiday season, and it sounds like we might have some challenges this year.  Turn on the news and gaze upon the thousands of metal containers on ships off the coast of California, Georgia.  In those containers are the toys, and games, and very cool electronics that land on Christmas lists.  If you see it in the stores, you better buy it. 

In this way I am lucky.  My Christmas gifts fold neatly into envelopes or lie on a shelf in a closet, gathering dust as I have collected them all year long. 

But the same can’t be said for the Thanksgiving turkey. 

I tell you what I am about to tell you in a spasm of holiday solidarity.  I keep reading that turkeys may be in short supply this year. It isn’t the turkey so much that is elusive, but the personnel to process it.  I have already begun scouting the deep freeze bins in our local food emporiums.  I urge you to do the same, and if you see one, get it.  Just don’t get mine. 

I am so stressed about the turkey shortage that I dreamed just last night I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner with people I do not know, and when I arrived there was no scent of roast turkey in the air.  I have no idea what they served.  I woke up from this nightmare in a cold sweat and had to get up and walk around a bit to shake it off. 

Before I thought my house was on fire because of my furnace, I thought it was on fire because so many neighbors have fireplaces and fire pits all aglow.  I have a fire pit, too, with tinder, kindling and fuel all laid out in perfect Girl Scout order, but I have yet to put a match to it.  The city has replaced the light in the alley, some LED horror that lights up my backyard like a prison yard.  Sitting just so, around the fire pit, it shines directly in your eyes and you could read the newspaper by it. 

They promise to come out and adjust the light, and I hope that happens soon.  It is one of my best skills, harnessing fire, and I miss getting to use it. 

I have sorted my books, the ones I’ve ordered and left in a pile, awaiting the fall,  and I am reading “Anxious People,” by Fredrik Backman, who gave us the wonderful “A Man Called Ove.”  And the second Thursday Murder Club mystery, “The Man Who Died Twice,” by Richard Osman. Here we have a group of sophisticated retirees, still vital, still irritating in the ways they have always been irritating, still talented in the ways they have always been talented, solving murders, old and new.  And these books are funny.  But not fluffy.  Well, light, maybe, engaging and affirming, because the characters are old, but they are not sweet. 

If I had a cashmere sweater I might put it on.  As it is, I’m digging out a sweatshirt, some socks, a fuzzy blanket for the couch, because the window it rests against faces west, and soon the wind will whistle and barge its way through the cracks. Now if those leaves will just turn.

Wandering Elmwood

On a good-natured challenge from a friend, I spent last week finding new places to walk.  We both find it hard sometimes to get ourselves up and out there, moving.   She won the challenge because she found a mountaintop apple orchard and rewarded herself with cider and fried cakes. 

But it is only the cider and cake that separate us.  I came in a close second because I took rambles through Elmwood Cemetery.  On two crisp fall afternoons I explored the cemetery that I have visited all my life, but only on Memorial Day, with sloshing buckets of peonies in the trunk, my mother a bit frazzled, herding her kids. 

When my father went along, we sauntered and he’d stop every now and then, remembering the person whose name was on a stone, and he would tell us a good story.  He should have been a teacher.  He was the master of pith and brevity.  He knew when to wrap it up.  Something I never learned in all my days in the classroom.

And he was always funny.   We learn better if we are laughing, did you know?  There are studies. 

On my wandering afternoons last week I parked the car at the top of the hill, where we always park, between the big trees.  My maternal grandfather had insisted on plots in town, in a perpetual care cemetery, because he was forward-thinking and practical.  He knew the vagaries of time would sooner or later take over the old country churchyard cemeteries, the tiny family plots.  

A modern cemetery would keep things neat and tidy, would insist on vaults, would create a sense of peace and serenity.  Also, I am told, his appetite for extra work on weekends was extremely limited, and the notion of someone else tending the graves suited him just fine. 

We aren’t a family to visits the cemetery often.  We did Memorial Day, almost too late in the weekend, and that was it.  We didn’t decorate for the seasons or birthdays or holidays.  My Oklahoma grandmother talked lovingly about Decoration Day, with picnicking and the whole family out there on a windswept plain.  I think she secretly longed to recreate such a spectacle at Elmwood, but she never pulled it off. 

These days, I try to bring flowers at Christmas, but honestly, I do it more out of a sense of “I should” than a feeling of “I’d like to.”  I don’t know if it is cultural, or specific to families, which is a kind of culture, too, but in my family, we don’t take comfort from visiting the grave.  I’ve tried to find some communion with my lost loved ones.  I might sit for a while, but for me, that is not where I find them.  

I’m as apt to have my Granny Opal return to me in her favorite grocery this time of year. Seeing turkeys piled up brings her to me in a way her headstone does not.  Thanksgiving was her thing, our thing, and the scent of fresh celery puts me in her late November kitchen and I am four, eight,  thirteen years old and reading recipes aloud as she gathers bowls and spices.  I still buy my celery for the Thanksgiving dressing in the exact same store.  Every year.  In small everyday places I find my people. 

But roaming Elmwood I found my Uncle Billy and Aunt Jean, buried as they are in a different part of the cemetery.  For some reason I didn’t know where to find them. Graveside services always disorient me, and nothing seems familiar. Now I see them all the time, conjure them each time I pass their stone.  And other family, too, distant relatives I never heard of.  I take photos of the names and dates and when I remember I send them to my cousin, Jan, because she is the family historian and she wants them.

Walking the winding pathways of Elmwood I see the parents of friends, can tell by the headstones which parent has died, can tell by a blank space under the birthdate, which parent is still with us.  I wander over to Potter’s Field, nothing more than a wide expanse of grass now.  The plaque tells us it is possible more than a thousand men, women and children are buried there. 

I’ve wandered cemeteries all my life, but never my own.  Far from sad or morbid, I find a peace and comfort there, a wistful connection to time, and people. The ones beneath fine monuments.  The ones beneath my feet in Potter’s Field.  A connection, less to be understood, and more to be felt, in a slowing of steps, a sigh perhaps.  The passing of day in the sun on my face, the order of stones, facing the same way, except for the ones that don’t.  Those there, facing east, while most face south. This one, knocked a bit sideways,.  This one, a corner buried, engraving worn and unreadable.  Granite and crumbling stone.  Ordered and disordered, the way we are in life. 

Here there are trees that will be green in winter. And oaks, beech. Elmwood drapes over the highest spot in town, festooned with pathways like so much ribbon on a party dress, around and around and around. Stones wink in the late day sun.  A place benevolent and quiet. The wind comes to such places, high as it is, but knows how to behave. Starlings murmurating in widening nets above the trees, but they, too, keep it down, leaving us with our thoughts.

Spooky Books for October Reading

The first of October is the official start of two things: Halloween season and, much as it pains me, all things pumpkin spice.  While I eschew all that pumpkin spice business, I love a scary read in the autumn. If you do, too, let me offer some suggestions to see you safely through October, when the nights turn cool and you read with the covers practically over your head. 

For scary, creepy books you can’t do better than the two classics, “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”  I like “Dracula” especially, because it is set in Romania and I have been there, and they drink a lot of slivovice, and I have been there, too. 

There is a scene in which Dracula scurries diagonally across a vertical wall, in the mist and dark, and it makes my heart race every time I read that passage.  It terrifies me so I can’t stand to watch the squirrels out my kitchen window as they skittle up my neighbor’s house, at an angle and frighteningly fast.  

I swear, I swoon in fear, I’m so triggered. 

Wilkie Collins is supposed to be the fellow who gave us our first mystery novels, elevating the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the short form. Collins was a contemporary of Dickens and his books are described as long and that right there is why I have never read him. However,   I return to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” stories I first read under the covers with my Girl Scout flashlight. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a good one, too. 

“Rebecca” is, at its core, a ghost story.  But not one of those chain-dragging ghost stories.  The ghost of the real Rebecca haunts every character in the novel in unique and unsettling ways.  I have read this book several times, but always with several years in between readings. With some distance I find it surprises me and upsets me in all the darkest and spookiest of ways. 

Agatha Christie can take up a good portion of your October reading, but I find I prefer to partake of her work by way of Masterpiece Theatre.  I first read her books in my early adolescence but they didn’t hold my attention long.  I much preferred Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

I must have been introduced to “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” in junior high.  Is it possible that was required reading for an English class?  I don’t know, but it horrified me because I was at the time afraid of dogs, even though I hate to admit it.  So, the notion of gigantic creatures howling their heads off somewhere out there on the moor sent me into spasms of delicious fear, safe as I was, still under the covers reading while my little sister slept across the room. 

Junior high was also the time I was introduced to H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pen name, Saki.  We were assigned “The Interlopers” and that is all I am going to tell you.  Saki is the O. Henry of the disturbing twist ending, and after reading “The Interlopers,” I devoured all his short stories in quick succession.  In particular, “The Open Window” galvanized me for days, even though each element of the story, taken alone, is benign and ordinary. But that ending.  

Shew. 

You may note there is no Stephen King on my list, but if you adore him, you go right ahead and read him.  I managed to read “Cujo,” which makes no sense, considering I just shared my fear of dogs.   I read most of “It,” and I’m just going to say, he writes so well and at such length I am too terrified to finish his stories.  My poor heart can’t take it, not really.  

So, I return to Shirley Jackson, my final suggestion for you.  And again, I knew her first in junior high or high school.  We were assigned the short story, “The Lottery.”  You have read it, usually assigned at the same time as “The Rocking Horse Winner,” and “A Rose for Emily,” although she didn’t write these two. 

For a quick and spooky read, try Jackson’s novels,  “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” or “The Haunting of Hill House.”  So classic.  So satisfyingly eerie.

MOVIES TO SPOOK YOU

On the first Sunday afternoon that seemed like fall, just barely like fall, I was awash in a longing for my nieces and nephews to still be little and flopped all around my living room while we watched “Halloweentown.”  It was about as gentle as a scary movie could be, starred Debbie Reynolds as the matriarch witch in the family, and the kids’ mother was also a witch, but she denied her powers. 

There was a mystery of some sort that took the whole family to solve, and some lessons on claiming who you are, and doing good. I tried watching it by myself the other day, and it just wasn’t the same without little ones in the house and popcorn all over the floor.

Now I am curating my list of scary movies to watch this month when I tire of reading scary books.  I am partial to black and white movies when it comes to terrifying myself.  What they lack in explicit gore and bad words, they make up for in the creep factor.  “The Night of the Hunter” is one such movie.  Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters star, and it is one of those slow burn movies that gets your heart rate up, and right now. 

I put “Cape Fear” in the same category.  The original, released in 1962, is also in black and white, with Gregory Peck as a small town lawyer whose family is terrorized by the ex-con, Max Cady, who has been released and seeks revenge.  Watch this one first. 

Then, scoot over and watch the remake, filmed in 1991, starring Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro.  There are plenty of horrifying surprises that will make you jump, but pay attention to a scene between DeNiro and Juliette Lewis, the teenage daughter.  It is so subtle and so frightening I can honestly say my blood ran cold.  Still does when I think of it. 

Another remake of a movie that might be worth a gander is the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” starring a young Donald Sutherland.  All fatherly now and selling us orange juice, in the early days of his career he had that certain something, not a creep factor, exactly, but something unsettling, that made me like him and loathe him and like him in just about any part he took on.  “Body Snatchers’ has a great supporting cast, too, with Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy. 

If you like this kind of thing, then set aside some time to watch the “Alien” franchise.  The best, in my view, are the first two, “Alien,” and “Aliens.” Sigourney Weaver as the much beleaguered Ellen Ripley is a pretty perfect image of a fierce and iconic hero. 

Anything Alfred Hitchcock will work for a couple of hours of spookiness.  “Psycho” and the “Birds” are classics for this time of year, but let me also suggest “Rope.”  It is set in one single room, on one day,  and Jimmy Stewart is a bad guy.  I know, I know, that alone is mind-bending.  It is as much a psychological thriller as anything, and fun in an upsetting way. 

John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” was industry-shattering when it came out.  I was working at Western Kentucky University at the time and I drove to Nashville to see it.  I was thrilled at all the Bowling Green street references and the mention of all the small towns in the area.  Carpenter’s father had been a professor at WKU and John used real southern Kentucky places in most of his work.  “The Fog,” manages to name just about every street in town as the miasma creeps closer and closer to Adrienne Barbeau, his wife at the time.  “The Fog will work in your list of scary movies. 

My siblings and I stumbled across “Soylent Green” on a rainy and boring Saturday afternoon, and it lives on in the McDonough Canon of Film. Right this minute I am drinking from a Soylent Green coffee mug my nephew, Wesley, sent me. It is not so much scary as dystopian, and maybe a little cheesy, but don’t say that in front of us.  We still shout the last line of the film at each other when we run out of things to say.  

And then we laugh and laugh like hyenas, but spooked hyenas, even so.

Autumnal Equinox

This is a day of symmetry. Mid-afternoon, 2:21 p.m. Central Time, the sun will float directly above the equator and from that moment until deep December, it will be fall. That moment of solar hovering will signify the autumnal equinox, with the day and night of equal duration.  Tomorrow, the days shorten, the nights lengthen, and  we spin toward winter, but so gradually we hardly notice. 

Then, one October morning we open the door and the lawn is rimed with frost.  We leave the house for errands, in shirtsleeves as usual, and halfway to the car we realize it is chilly and return for a sweater, a jacket.  Flowers fade and hang their heads, hydrangeas turn a camel  brown, and look sturdy as a camel, only to turn to paper in our hands.

Leaves rustle high in the trees, some ready to release, happy in the natural order of things.  The sidewalk is blanketed in gold as ginkgo trees say goodnight.  Oak leaves hang on, like sleepy tots, overtired and cranky but desperate not to miss anything.  They will drop and you will rake, again and again, never quite finishing the job.  Sometime after Thanksgiving the first snow covers the stragglers, and you ignore what’s left until spring. 

Maples, the true stars of autumn, will blaze and glimmer, and we will comment on the palette, nodding sagely as we discuss the impact of drought or rain or summer heat on the vibrancy of color.  We will mispronounce “foliage” but no one notices.  Down here everyone says it the same way.  To do otherwise is to put on airs.

The sun slants at a most pleasing angle. Has been settling into its autumnal slouch for a few weeks now. The golden hour glints more golden, the blue hour seems more the shade of the Crayola crayon, Midnight Blue, darker, somehow, softer and sadder.

Mornings arrive later.  Sleep is restored. 

Below us, past the equator, our friends will be preparing for spring.  In their hemisphere Christmas arrives in summer, and to contemplate such things confuses and confounds us.  The idea of Santas in beards and red shorts confounds most of us, too. Autumn must be crisp and bright.  Winter cold.  

Even when autumn is warm until November, when winter plays hide and seek,  refusing to deliver on childhood dreams of snow and sledding, when shrubs bud too early, we will have some frosty mornings, at least some little bit of snow, enough to remind us to wind the stem of our internal watch, the one that marks, not hours, but years gone by, warm kitchens, grandmothers baking, perhaps.  Or boisterous kids with red cheeks and running noses getting in one more football play before the light fails completely. Frozen hands on handlebars, too stiff to safely steer toward home. 

We bring the fall and winter in, nestled in our sweaters, our coats, our woolen hats and mittens.  Maybe they, too, seek a little warmth in spite of the cold that defines them. Summer stays outside, playing past bedtimes, making a racket.  Summer wears us out.  Autumn knows we need our rest. Winter insists we conserve our strength.  

Autumn whispers to us, subtle but sure.  We might not hear it today at exactly 2:21 p.m., but if we stay attentive, we will hear it. There is wisdom to be had, a centering and calm, if we stay still long enough to listen.

Hospital Visits, 1960s Style

I was telling a friend about the Southern tradition of Sunday hospital visits, back when hospitalizations were week-long affairs for the arrival of babies, or surgeries or tests and observations. And I say it was a Southern tradition, but maybe it was more universal than that and I have attached too much regional significance to be strictly accurate. 

My parents held great debates on whether to make such visits, weighing their sense of obligation against their longing for Sunday naps.  But we were in the habit of going to church each Sunday and then to one of the grandmothers for lunch, and they thought, well, since they were still dressed up probably they should go. 

But if they were going, they shouldn’t piddle around,  because my mother’s feet hurt and she wanted out of those shoes.

I remember these discussions clearly because our Sunday afternoon fate hung in the balance.  We would get a little more time at our grandmother’s while they made their calls, and that was fine by us. We might have held secret discussions of our own, wondering if we might squeeze in a whole afternoon without parents bugging us about “school tomorrow,” those dreadful, dreadful words. 

My grandmother, on the other hand, loved such visits and sometimes it was she who had to make her hospital rounds as she rushed Sunday dinner and shooed us out the door. In those days, if she was lucky and the prayer list long, she might get to hit both hospitals in town. 

She loved gory and disgusting procedures and would pump the poor bedridden patient for the details she would later spill for all and sundry at canasta on Monday.

I imagine the Sunday hospital patient was eager to tell her all about it, just for a little attention,  since it was not uncommon for the room to be full of well-wishers talking to each other and not the poor patient in the hospital bed. 

I was indoctrinated in the practice early, when my grandmother sometimes dragged me along.   I hated it. I almost never knew the person, but that didn’t keep my grandmother from pushing me toward the bed to say hello.  As more people arrived I circled back to a corner and watched as whole parties and gabfests erupted, the poor patient clearly wanting only ice chips and to be left alone. 

Or worse, the visitors would gather around the foot of the bed with an expectant air as if the one in the bed was the afternoon’s entertainment. What was the thinking back there in the Sixties, the Seventies? But maybe, in a way, going to see someone in the hospital was a kind of entertainment, really, what with blue laws and bad afternoon TV.

The best hospital visitors I ever saw were my sister-in-law’s parents.  My father, nearing the end of his life, was again in the hospital and they arrived early on a Sunday afternoon, not to visit, but to check on him.

First they poked their head in the door to see how things were, then, holding hands, they took a few steps inside the room, refused  to sit down, said they just wanted to say hello and see for themselves how he was doing.  They asked if we needed anything, gave their good wishes, and took their leave.

It was such a classy move, warm and considerate, that I haven’t forgotten it.  In fact, in moments of boredom I have dissected it, deconstructing every move.  For example, the hand-holding.  While they were an affectionate couple, I believe it also served the purpose of keeping each other in check, to help remember and reinforce the mission, so that if one of them  got too chatty, the other could lead them gently toward the door.

They smiled, asked concerned questions, maybe three or four, expressed their love and concern, then floated out on a cloud of goodwill.  And they generated such goodwill, we almost wished to call them back. 

Now, of course, even major surgeries and procedures might not require more than a couple of days’ stay.   And Covid limits and sometimes prohibits visitors altogether.  Weekend stays are rarer now, unless they can’t be helped. We designate visitors as we continue Covid precautions, and in most hospitals it is one visitor per customer. 

For the duration. 

And as long as it the visitor of your choosing, you might find that one is quite enough.  

Shakespeare’s Son

If you are looking for a good book to read now that the kids are back in school and the garden is producing in a more manageable fashion, let me suggest to you one of my favorites of the summer, if not the year. 

“Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell, is work of fiction, but linked to the most famous writer of all, William Shakespeare, although his name is never mentioned.  He is referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, and that is all. 

But we know. 

This is a sweeping book of small domestic intimacies.  We are at home with Shakespeare as a charming but distracted young man as he navigates the mine fields of a difficult and often cruel father. He meets Anne—Agnes, as she is referred to throughout the book, and it may in fact have been her name—a woman older and wise in the ways of nature, herbs, and falconry, and he is quite quickly a goner. 

But first, we meet their son, eleven-year old Hamnet, running down a flight of stairs. 

He is frantic, looking for his mother, his grandmother, anyone who can help him, for his twin sister, Judith, is sick. O’Farrell takes us through the streets and alleys of Stratford as we follow his running feet, and before we have turned the third page, we care about this child, his desperately ill sister, and before the chapter is done, we care about the family that enfolds them.  

We care because this is a fine novel of small things, the vagaries of marriage, the difficulty of in-laws, the joy and desperate love for children.  And it is a novel of the plague. 

It surprises us, even as we sense a creeping fear that things will not be well for the children in this family.  We have read the subtile of the book on the jacket cover:  “A novel of the plague.”  

But it surprises us all the same. 

O’Farrell moves around in time in a way that deepens and enriches both the story and the characters.  We are in Stratford in the late sixteenth century with Hamnet and his sister and family, and we are also given a supposing of Shakespeare and Agnes’ early meeting fifteen years earlier.  Again, much of this is imagining, but the reader senses much research went in to the writing of this book, and the author provides such a steady hand we willingly go along. 

All of this book is a delight to read, from the feel of the beautiful cover to the gorgeous use of language to the dramatic setting.  

And then there is the flea.

That flea takes us from a glassblower in Murano to the sickbed of a child in England, and it may be worth getting this book for that journey alone. The circuitous route, the happenstance of it all was fascinating and heartbreaking and something to wonder over. 

The story, of course, will have a sad end, and we know that going in.  But such tender writing, with such depth, gives us to know the writer cares about the reader as much as she has fallen in love with the characters. She writes as if she is wise and loving grandmother holding our hands while the heartbreaking truth of things unspool before us.  

Which makes this such a moving and satisfying read. 

It is a skillfully crafted book.  It is fiction, a broad imagining of events six hundred years ago, events in a family with what is now surely the most famous name in literary history.  As with all good fiction, though, it feels true and evokes in the reader emotions and memories and  curiosities to ponder long after the last leaf of the book is turned.

The Nature of Things

The mornings are nice to sit outside, drink coffee and contemplate the world, one’s life or even the laundry piling up in the basement.  I was doing all these things a couple of mornings ago, when a tiny rabbit sidled along the walk, hesitated, sniffed the air, then headed for the hostas by the back door, disappearing for good. 

I don’t take much notice of the rabbits in my yard, especially since I learned to forgive them their lapin ways, eating all my tomato plants as they do.  We just coexist now in an easy acceptance of each other and I feel all  Beatrix Potter when I see them, then quickly return to my own thoughts, my own business at hand. 

But that morning I sat up and felt a swell of tenderness, whispered, “oh, you made it.”  And  I was one with the universe for a moment.  

I hoped this little fellow was one of a fluffle my young friend, Sterling, and I unearthed by accident a few weeks ago.  She was handling the shovel, I was giving directions, as she dug a shallow hole in the flowerbed along my side porch.  We had just pulled up a lemon verbena that threatened to take over and one I was tired of.

The ground is unusually soft there, which is fortunate, because Sterling didn’t have to dig too hard to turn the earth.  On the second scoop of the shovel, she gave a little cry. 

There was a baby bunny wriggling and squinting and squirming not four inches below the surface.  We came closer and no, not just one.  Three, four baby rabbits, maybe more. 

To her credit, Sterling took it much better than I.  It horrified me a little.  But she asked quietly what we should do, and then, not waiting for a reply, began gently covering them back over.  We placed the pulled up verbena over the space and hoped for the best. 

It is a myth, I found out, that mother rabbits will not return to their babies if they sense human involvement.  Friends reassured me they would be fine.  My sister and brother-in-law have a rabbit maternity ward in their backyard, with rabbits routinely giving birth close to their house, and they watch the mothers feed their babies, toss them out of the little burrow to clean the nest, then toss them back in again.  

But still, I was afraid to check on my little boarders.  I just couldn’t do it. 

So, I was happy to see the hopping little thing hide in my hostas.  Later, I screwed up my courage and checked the hole, but not before researching how long baby rabbits stay in one.  It is a short period, two weeks, or so, and that time had easily passed.  They were all gone.  So gone from the place, if I hadn’t known they had been here, I would never have known they were there.  I planted my garden phlox as I had intended weeks ago, and marveled at it all.

I have friends who grew up along side creeks and woods and country lanes, or had grandparents they visited regularly in the country.  They talk about the Gaines woods, or Anglin Falls, or “the narrows.”  Sometimes they use words like “shoals.”  They speak lovingly of mud. 

And I don’t completely get it.  I like nature, but I like it manicured, neat.  Maybe it is the fecundity of our region, all that undergrowth and dampness, everything at certain times of year just on the verge of rot.  I will hike with you, but let’s do it in the autumn, or a crisp winter day, when the path is clear, when we can see where we are headed, when the trees aren’t dripping wet for no good reason.  

I had a colleague from Colorado who came to Kentucky in her early twenties on the Greyhound bus.  She left a place of wide expanses and rocky outcroppings, slept through the prairie, and awoke with a start in Kentucky, all the green, the lushness, the closeness of our landscape.  She had the heebie-jeebies for a week. 

She soon appreciated the differences.  Out west the landscape forces us to look out.  Here, the landscape requires we look down.  Under things.  Look with specificity, find grandiosity in small wonders.  Move carefully.  Know the ways of rabbits, snakes, birds. Study bugs and bark, the fallen trees rendering back to earth.  

I try to learn from my nature-bound friends.  It is a long, long lesson.

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