School Supplies and Summer’s End

I remember going back to school after Labor Day as a child.  This may or may not be true, memory is an inconstant thing, but this is how I remember it.

There were swimming lessons late in August, lessons in the evening and we shivered in our damp towels on the ride home, the nights already cooling in a way they did not in July.  As I write this I wonder why lessons so late in the season, mere weeks before the pool would close.  It was the early 60s and the world was lousy with kids so maybe it was the only time there were slots open.

Regardless, my mother and her friend signed us all up for lessons, and I did passably well learning my strokes and holding my breath as long as my feet could still touch the bottom.  On the night of the final, the big test, with parents gathered around to watch us, we were to stand on the ledge of the diving pool, lean over with our arms above our heads in some semblance of a diving stance, then splash into the water and  swim the length of the pool without drowning, some poor lifeguard treading water for what seemed like hours, making sure we didn’t. 

I failed that test. 

Never jumped in, no matter how that lifeguard begged me, reassured me.  No matter the jeers from my brother, already in possession of his certificate. 

Not even when my mother’s friend marched up to her own daughter in a huff, because she was pulling the same stunt I was.  Not even when her little girl’s eyes widened as her mother hissed words is her ear and she dived in like a cartoon character doing a double take and swam like a maniac, her little butt stuck up in the air,  jiggling back and forth with her leg kicks, and everyone laughing.

Not even then.  

My humiliation wore off fairly quickly, because school would soon start and here I was in my element.  Not math class maybe, but English and current events, in which I learned I had many opinions, and then the social aspect of school.  Well.

This I was born to. 

But first it was about the school supplies. 

Mostly it was about the school supplies. 

It seems to me that we showed up at elementary school early one morning, our mothers squeezed into tiny chairs where they received some kind of instruction and a list of supplies for each of us.  At that point, not a moment sooner or later, we piled back into the car and headed for Ben Franklin. 

The lists were not so long back then, fat pencils and crayons, notebook paper and penmanship tablets, and always lots of begging for compasses and protractors, that last bit of equipment I never knew the purpose of.  Gum erasers, maybe a small ruler.

But just last week a friend of mine, a teacher,  was tossed into a tizzy, a bit of a meltdown, when she saw an advertisement for school supplies at one of her local emporiums. She knew what that meant. It’s not that she is oblivious, for surely she has seen the stacks of paper and legions of colored folders taking up the shelves that used to house pool toys and sun screen. 

It’s just that something about the end of summer, her summer, hit her between the eyes and she didn’t like it.  It broke her heart a little.  Broke every other teacher’s heart, too, with whom she shared her upset on Facebook.

It was a fleeting upset for her, I hope.   But anyone who lives by the school calendar feels her pain and commiserates.  Me, too. The end of summer used to be late August.  Not anymore.  

Summer calendars get filled in and marked and loaded down with things, obligations, work and chores and then one day, where did it go, exactly, all our lovely free time?

My life, since age six, has been ruled by the school year.  Every job I have had has been in an educational setting or in support of school aged children.  Even now, when I no longer have to report for duty, when I can travel anytime I want, I cling to fall break,  spring break and Christmas closings like a drowning man, mark them on my calendar still.   

And I am always sorry for summer’s end.  The idea of it, that freedom, even as I feel the tug and anticipation of a fully stocked Ben Franklin.

I will wait until later in August, because that is proper timing, and at such time I will buy new notebooks.  Pens.  A protractor.  And then, for summer, a proper goodbye. 

A New Kind of Hindman

 All this week I will be attending the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, while sitting at my dining room table. I wouldn’t have planned to attend this year, except Sonja Livingston, an essayist and memoirist whose work I greatly admire, is on faculty and teaching in my genre, Creative Nonfiction.  

So, here I am. 

Or rather, here I sit, while she sits in her home in Western New York, and my classmates are sitting in theirs, or at the beach, or wherever they are spending this week in late summer.  There is no trudging up and down hills for meals and class, no  gatherings and in person evening readings.

There is no dinner bell that echoes around the mountainsides when it calls us to come eat or to attend a session in the May Stone building.  There is air conditioning here, in my house, a constant 72 degrees, except in the afternoon when I get hot and crank it up, or is it down, to 68.  Hindman is air conditioned, too, but it seems spottier, somehow, with all that walking and all the damp that hangs around windows and drips from the kudzu. 

Books are important at gatherings such as this, and we have a bookstore at our disposal.  The Red Spotted Newt, in Hazard, has a pop-up shop on campus, and we have the website to order all the books our virtual carts can hold.  The owner, Mandi Sheffel, is on campus for the few participants who are staying there, but she is sticking around for the rest of us, too, just like at a regular writers workshop, only we see her at a distance in a tiny Zoom window.  We can’t walk up and chat like we normally would.  But we also do not  thumb every book she has brought, picking them up, putting them down, flipping through them again, so maybe she is happy, at least, to have more pristine stock to offer customers.

It’s weird seeing old friends and complete strangers in their tiny Zoom rooms, these people who have bared themselves on the page, the ones we are to give feedback to, receive feedback from, the angst and the tenuous trust of that. But, somehow in Sonja’s hands, it works.  The group, too, does its part, jumping in and braving the process, and my only let down was this. 

At Hindman, after the first session  we walk back to the May Stone building for lunch.  This takes a while, as we meander alongside a wide meadow and then over the small foot bridge, and it is one of my favorite parts of the day.  Up ahead are little clutches of classmates, their heads together, still discussing the workshop we have just left.  Someone behind me has told a funny story and now I hear nothing but laughing, and I am sad I missed it.  

My pals and I walk slowly, reveling in another first day at the forks of Troublesome Creek, with a general sense of love and well-being and a mild wondering of what is for lunch.  The heat may be bothersome, but in a minute we will be snaking our way down the lunch line, searching for and finding old friends from other years,  with squeals and hugs and much shushing because someone we can’t see has just started grace. 

Hindman is different this year.  Was different last year, too, with serious discussions about if, and how, to carry on in light of the pandemic.  This year, there was no discussion of if to have it.  The work it seems to me, was directed toward how to have it well, and the week is off to a great start. 

It has been a few years since I have attended, but the draw of working with a writer I admire was too important to forego.  So here I am, new notebook, my good writing pens.  But I’ll miss some things, too.

I’ll miss the after hours conversations, the socializing, the landmarks that let me know I am almost there: Yoders, the Amish store on the outskirts of town where we buy bread and cookies, the Midee-Mart, on the edge of campus, the new concrete bridge over Troublesome that replaces the old one that created a deadman’s curve. 

And then the settlement school, nestled in the crook of the creek.  Whenever writers gather, there are words upon words upon words.   And they are the point, those words, and here we all are, together, sharing them.

How to Shop for Baby Now

There was a time when I went to baby showers content in the fact that I had shopped at the most exclusive emporium for baby goods.  I had been assured by the clerk who looked down her nose that my purchases were tasteful, useful and oh, so desirable for the new mother-to-be, and if they offered gift wrapping—which places like that always do — more the better. 

I then took myself off to the baby shower, relatively happy to play those silly games because for baby showers there is always cake in the shape of happy animals — rabbits or teddy bears, and I am a sucker for cake. 

Sometimes a slightly disheveled sister-in-law would bust in late, a giant package of disposal diapers under her arm.  The more spit-up she had on her shoulder, the bigger the package of diapers. 

I’d scoff a little to myself, reassured by the receipt in my purse, the one they put  in the little envelope, as if it, too, were a gift, because I couldn’t think of a more unimaginative present than diapers. 

A couple of weeks ago word reached me that my niece, Katie, was starting to panic, or at least getting a little anxious, as the birth of her first child loomed on a near horizon.  Her friends had thrown a virtual shower, with links to on-line wish lists, but still, there was so much she needed, or thought she needed, to feel prepared.  

And diapers were right up there with onesies.  There was something about having a shelf full of diapers in two different sizes the soothed and reassured her.  Ditto, onesies.  But that’s not all.

It has been twenty-five years since I have bought baby things, and it is nothing like I remember.  There are Boppys, round pillows for the baby to lounge on, and for something called “tummy time.”  When my mother thought the backs of our heads were getting funny-looking, she just flipped us over.  My sister turned her kids like pancakes because she wanted them to have ‘pretty-shaped heads,” the highest compliment our grandmother could give a child.

Then there are the bottle and pacifier boxes.  Katie’s sister, Hannah, and I went shopping last week and we looked for them because they were on the registry.  I had no idea what this was.  I worked out maybe they were sterilizing contraptions, which I understand for bottles, but not the pacifier.  If we spit one out in the dirt outside, my mother rinsed it off with the garden hose.  Inside, if water was in the other room, it got swiped across the leg of her pants. I saw the dog lick one clean once.

But no, the bottle and the  pacifier box are designed for the child to choose.  In each box is a collection of, let’s say, four different pacifiers, bottles.  The idea is to let the infant try them out and then somehow “select” the one they like best.

I fear these new parents may come to regret this early encouragement of choice, but what do I know?  Maybe a little more ease and comfort early on would have made us all a bit nicer, more tolerant of each other.  I know I act my ugliest when I am frustrated and powerless and not listened to, so perhaps there is something to it.

Katie is a practical sort, even so, and while she is enthralled with the idea of the baby choosing pacifiers and bottles, she is keeping it simple, too.  Her cousin, Alex, has helped in this department.  She has an eight month jump on Katie in the new mama department, and has been the go-to for what works well, what is a must-have, what is ridiculous, and what is the thing you need most at 2:30 in the morning when you have your first cry at the kitchen table. 

Katie wants socks the baby won’t kick off.  Alex says there are no such things. 

Katie thinks four swaddles are enough.  Alex, and every other mother out there, says no.

Katie just wants this baby born.  Alex, who went long, says, I hear ya. 

Katie and Troy are waiting.  It shouldn’t be much longer.  And of course,  it isn’t about any of this, diapers, swaddles, Boppys.   It is about this new little life and how it will ripple and ripple through our hearts, forever.  Onesies we can buy any time, and all day long.

Doing Battle with the Beetle

My good summer help is off the clock for a week or so.  She has church camp in Michigan and then some family time in Chicago, and my yard is beginning to miss her.  We set aside a few chores for her return, but now I think I may have to get after them myself.  My casual, happy little landscape theme is beginning to look like neglect, the kind your neighbors can call city hall about. 

Even so, when she returns there will be plenty for her to do. Because now is the time when, in all my summers,  I am bored with everything:  potted plants, the pepper plants, even most the herbs, save rosemary and basil. 

We were spared the cicadas, here,  and I will cop to being disappointed about that a little, but we are infested with Japanese beetles.  They have eaten the leaves on my young crepe myrtle, my calla lily—the leaves and flowers—and are making their way toward the basil.  

This I will not stand. 

Early this morning I inspected the crepe myrtle, the one I nurture all year because it replaces one I lost to an ice storm and is therefore precious to me.  I wish you could have seen it.  The sun barely up and it was an Amsterdam youth hostel up there on the leaves. Beetles everywhere, some cozied up to each other, you know, and something inside me snapped. 

I try to be gentle with, or at least tolerant of, the living creatures in my yard, but not this day.  I plucked off as many as I could before the activity alerted their little buddies and they took flight.  Then I gave the ones I caught a little spa treatment in a bowl of soapy water, and what happened next, well, it is between them, me, and my God.

Sitting here, telling you this, has me thinking about the balance of things, and I just looked up what kinds of critters rely on the Japanese beetle to survive.  It seems birds like them, in particular robins and cardinals, both regular visitors at my house.  I see them everyday.  Either they are lazy, there are just too many beetles to get at, or their palates are more refined than usual, because, again, beetles everywhere and procreating in my myrtle. 

Raccoons, skunks and moles like them, too, but these come with their own sets of troubles and I would not like to invite them into my habitat.  According to one source, Japanese beetles bring almost nothing to the party, except destruction.  We all know that guest.  And to make matters worse, the beetles weren’t even around here until 1916, when they were accidentally introduced in the New Jersey area. 

There are some plants that will deter them, mint being one, but I am not kidding, they have gotten into my grandmother’s mint, as well. But no, on closer inspection just now, I see the leaves of a weed nestled in with the mint is nothing but skeleton, the mint itself, unscathed. And lavender repels them.  Which is good news, because I have some of that I need to relocate. 

When Sterling returns from her travels, she and I will bolster the defenses against the Japanese beetles.  Strength and victory through deterrent.  Move that lavender into strategic positions, ditto little pots of Grandmother’s mint.  I much prefer this to early morning raids with bowls of soapy water.  But still.  I have Dawn.  And I am not afraid to use it. 

When Did I lose My Pioneer Spirit?

My people didn’t stay put.  They came from Ireland to Oklahoma sometime in the mid-1800s,  a famine and poor prospects driving them to docks, and then onto rolling and crowded ships, to heave up in some port on the eastern seaboard.

Some went  south to Florida, but the boys, the boys who wanted to be cowboys, pitched up in Cincinnati for a while to shore up their resources before moving on to Indian Territory in the West. 

When my grandfather was fifteen, his parents decided they should move again, this time to New Mexico.  I don’t know the reason, perhaps Oklahoma didn’t fulfill their dreams as they had hoped.  Maybe they were simply restless. Perhaps the grass was just greener somewhere else.  I am guessing they had never actually seen New Mexico to understand that not only was the grass not green, it wasn’t even there. They did not hit the big lick in New Mexico, either. 

My family, it seems, runs from bad dirt, broken dreams, or toward pretty promises, the ones they tell themselves and gussy up with all the fantasy they can muster. 

But my grandfather didn’t want to go.  He rented a horse and wagon and hauled pipe and lunch and supplies from town to the new oil fields being developed, so he could support himself.  I have no idea where he slept. He refused to go with the family and made it on his own—fifteen, remember—his own individuality on display, a study of self-sufficiency and get up and go.  

Only he stayed. 

The owners of the oil company were impressed by this young man making his way, and soon he was working for them, taking time out for the Great War, an experience I understand he never discussed.  My grandfather left Oklahoma in the early 1920s to open up the oil fields in western Kentucky, and his branch of the McDonoughs have more or less stayed put ever since. 

I think of these things as I sit in bumper to bumper traffic on I-65, vowing to never leave home again, at least not in summer and certainly not to go to a sweltering and crowded beach town.  I am a calm and cautious driver so I don’t gasp and make comment every time someone in front of me does something stupid—I expect it and prepare for it in advance.

But still, the traffic.  It was bad. I was tense with attention.

I became mesmerized by the spinning wheels on the tiny pink bike clamped to the back of the car in front of me. I see lots of cars with bikes leaving the beach, but something about this one, so small, so bright, streamers flying away from the handlebars, just  tickled me no end.  A banana seat, white pedals, it was the picture of hopes and dreams and promise, and I tried to imagine the little one who maybe mastered that sweet ride on this particular trip.  

This little fantasy took a good five minutes, and I was glad for it.  

But the rest of the trip was torturous.  Stop and go traffic, forty miles an hour if I was lucky. By Columbia, Tennessee my head was rolling around like a melon on a pike and I truly thought I might die. 

I came off the road, then, not knowing or caring I was less than three hours from home. Food didn’t perk me up and before the check arrived I had procured the last hotel room in the Hampton Inn down the street.  

Now, here is the question.  How have I let my family down, those roamers, settlers, dreamers?  Would they even claim me?  I struggled driving, both coming and going to Florida,  with all that mass of humanity off in search of fun—through the remnants of a tropical storm going down, frightening and difficult traffic coming home.

And soft, I am so soft compared to them.  My air-conditioned car, with cooling seats, no less.  A playlist of my best open road music, expensive protein bars and electrolyte water on the seat beside me, as if I am running a mini-marathon.  

And still I can’t take it. 

I know when to claim defeat.  

If you are traveling south, as I know some of you are, be prepared.  It’s like the Oregon Trail out there, prairie schooners packed and tilting, everything lashed down and covered in tarps. Me, I’m not moving ’til fall.