All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.

HAUNTING OUR FAMILIARS

Tucked up in my living room I sit in a big chair I had no need for, but purchased anyway, and it has become my writing place.  My living room is odd, spanning the entire front of my house and it doesn’t make sense in any objective way.  I am told the family that built the house, back when my little street was the end of town, had a grand piano and where I sit now the piano sat when the house was new, sometime in the mid-1920s. 

A grand piano, baby or otherwise, is the only way to make sense of the room. 

But now this chair fills an odd corner. 

Early morning writing is the only way to make use of this corner and this chair. There is a bench here, too, but it only has company when I entertain, and that hasn’t happened in a very long time.  In fact, it was the favorite spot of my pal, Otis, who came to my get-togethers, dragged, I think, by his wife.  He anchored this end of my living room with another put-upon husband, Vance, and over our antics and silliness I think they bonded. 

Otis told me once he finally had a good time at one of my parties and then I quit having them. So, now when I sit here, trying to think of something to write, I channel Otis and Vance, and think about how much I miss them.  Those parties, though, they about killed me getting everything ready, but now I wish I had thrown a few more, because you never know when your pals may leave you for good. 

I wouldn’t think of them nearly so often if I were sitting in the writing place I prepared upstairs.  If the living room is odd, running the length of the house, the large bedroom upstairs is equally odd, running the width.  It makes for a nice, sunny room, but somehow too big for a bedroom, although it has some nice features like a window seat and a nook. I am turning it into a sitting room and office, but really, it just sits there wondering when I will get in gear and do something, anything with the space.  

I have an antique table I bought solely because of the brass feet shaped like dolphins.  When I sit  at the table with the dolphins I look out over the backyard.  This is pleasant but the view rarely changes and it isn’t as inspiring as I thought it would be.  So, to chat with you each week, I sit in a chair I didn’t need but have come to love, look at all my familiars from a different angle, laptop, sitting squarely when it was designed to be.

Virginia Woolf talks of a street haunting, walking out around nightfall, some insignificant errand excuse enough to explore her surroundings.  How different it seems. The street cloaked in fog. Furtive figures hunkered down in coats, hurrying…home? Or some secret meeting of the business or personal kind  But she begins the essay in her sitting room.  Noticing the clock.  The hole in the hearth rug, burnt by a rolling log, an ember, a careless guest. 

Sitting where I never sit is a bit like a street haunting. It turns my attention in a different way, through other windows, the half-shadow I never notice hanging about my front door. The leaded glass as resolute as the fir door it sits in, the way it throws rainbows on the wall as the sun sets, all fairy lights and dancing color. It lasts but a minute.

The refracted light I see every afternoon. From this chair in the morning I see the prisms.

Interesting how we can haunt our own houses, our own familiars.  Important, too, perhaps. My unnecessary chair has become my favorite perch.  Not for very long and not every day, but it lets me look out different windows, lets me see the backs of things, reminds me of old friends and the ghost of  parties.  The reflected and dancing light of place, from this angle and that.

Farewell, Ma’am

The Queen is dead.  Long live the King.  

Words from movies, books, evocative of palace intrigue, skullduggery, warring nations on horseback, battles fought with lances and arrows.  A time of scourges and plagues. Poison in rings, monarchs laid low by the most common of illnesses.  Dramatic times.  Romantic times. 

Our time, as it turns out.  

A peaceful death in the fullness of old age, sad but dignified. 

The morning her doctors “expressed concern” for her heath,  I woke to dings on my phone, friends announcing the news.  We are all Anglophiles to some degree. It has become one of our things, sending each other post cards from the Royal family when we find them.  Writing messages and signing them “Charles and Camilla,”  or the more more familiar, “Chuck and Cammie.”  The Queen writes sometimes.  She especially missed me at Balmoral a few summers ago.  

The Cambridges missed me at sweet Charlotte’s christening.  This one sent from London,  dated, “10  May 2016.”

I have given my friend Jason a tea cozy in the shape and likeness of the first Queen Elizabeth.  Another friend gave him a life-sized head of a smiling Queen Elizabeth II to place in the  passenger window of his car. It looks for all the world like he is driving her out to Costco to pick up chew toys for the Corgis.  I think she is even waving. 

It was no surprise, then, to learn our most devoted lover of the English, Jason, made reservations in London the moment he heard she was unwell.  A few days later, he is on a flight, determined to pay homage, to soak it all in, the ending of a true historic era.  To bear witness.

And he took us with him. 

He dropped pins to show us where he was so we might snake along the Thames with him as he moved in the queue, an eight hour slow walk to Westminster Hall.  He send a selfie with his new friends, his mates, who were standing in line with him.  A close-up image of his wide yellow wrist band, the thing that allowed him to step out of line for a moment to get something to eat or drink. 

He arrived in London, dropped his bags  and headed for the line on the first day of the Queen’s Lying In State. He waited in line making friends while we sat in front of laptops and TVs, trying to catch a glimpse of him.  After six hours or more he had arrived at the top of the steps leading down to catafalque, and he texted us, but none of us saw him just then. 

We see him later in the evening, a grainy copy of a TV shot, as he bows his head, walks  away, looks back, moves on. Later he spent a quiet day walking around London with his good friend, looking at flowers and mementoes.  He found a good spot at Horse Guards Road to watch the funeral procession and sent a video of the Queen as she passed him. 

For all the pageantry, and no one does it better than the British, we were also watching a much beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother mourned by her family. Publicly, on display, and the state and personal impact of her passing kept me riveted to the coverage. Sorrow etched deep on the faces of those who loved her most.  Charles, Anne, Sophie Wessex, often the pure images of grief.  

And why are we moved so, by it?  My friend, Marianne, was moved by the organ music, setting her off to weeping.  She, too, is an organist, and the majestic pipe organs served to open her heart and make it tender. The pipers and the laments fading away did it for me. The tear-rimmed eyes of her children and grandchildren, too. 

A woman in line, overcome with tears, told an interviewer she didn’t know why she was so upset, really, but that this loss reminded her of her own losses.  Maybe that is where the wellspring of emotion comes from. Maybe this is the thing that connects us, finally in death, a queen or a commoner or a Yank, the way we can have it, that fellow feeling, the focus on something bigger than ourselves, but in refection, about ourselves, too.

Of course, the Royal Family, like all families, has troubles.  Deep ones with tensions and upset, and that, too, is on display and out there for public consumption.  But this is not about that. Nor is it about the viability and correctness of the Monarchy.  Kirstie Young, in her moving remarks at the close of coverage on BBC said of the Queen, “She made history.  She was history.”  

Queen Elizabeth’s story is compelling, even though, or perhaps because, it has an anachronistic aspect to it.  But as she aged, she moved with the times, too, and we saw her more frequently.  Saw her playful in her role. Ask Paddington bear, or James Bond. We saw her in those big bright hats, her perfect skin, that smile. 

Farewell, then, to a steady presence I did not know, but one for whom I felt real affection. I will miss her.

Oh, We Got Talent, Right Here in River City

Well. 

Once again I am impressed with isaand amazed at the talent that lurks about in Owensboro.  These seemingly regular people going about their ordinary lives, and then, one night, they light up the stage.  Maybe it is the stage in the Old Trinity Church.  Maybe it is the stage of the Empress Theatre.  Maybe the stage at OHS, home of the Rose Curtain Players. 

But last week, it was the Trinity Center, on a Saturday night, for a production of Lisa Kron’s play, “well.”  There was a great write up about it I am told.  I hesitate to say I missed that article in the Messenger-Inquirer when it ran, but my friends didn’t, and they asked if wanted to go with them, season ticket holders as they are. 

With the promise of a downtown dinner beforehand, I was in.  They tried to explain to me the premise, the staging, but really, they weren’t very good at it.  Something about only two characters — which is wrong.  They were right in saying the play centers on a grown daughter and her ailing mother. The mother, by the way, has been unwell for years. 

The set design is minimal, but before the play started I leaned against the apron and took photos of the recliner and the paraphernalia on the small table to its right.  I have been in homes where illness has come, and I was drawn to the tabletop, counted the objects, marveled at the perfection of them. Tissues, a notepad and pen, the remote, a bottle of pills, a large drinking glass and straw.  There was ice in the glass.  Ice.  Hard candies scattered about. A large bottle of generic antacids, hand sanitizer, a coffee cup full of pens.  

The requisite zig-zag afghan across the back of the recliner. A tote bag hanging off a corner of the table. That’s just about it for props.  The stage is divided in two, sort of,  The recliner, with the mother firmly planted in it, anchors one part of the stage and provides the audience with a visual and emotional warmth, while the minimalist other half becomes whatever the playwright needs it to b, allergy clinic, meeting room, I can’t remember what all. 

What I will not forget for a good while, though, are the performances of the central characters.  Lisa, portrayed by Nicol Maurer to energetic, comedic and heartbreaking effect.  The mother, Ann, played by Debbie Reynolds, in a subtle, nuanced performance that offers a space of calm in this mother-daughter reckoning. 

It is a classic genre, the mother-daughter thing, but the playwright, Lisa Kron, lets us know right off the bat it isn’t about her or her mother.  Oh, no.  Never that.  And of course, it is.  What marks this play as different from some others is the unconventional way the story is told. It is a comedy, but also a play within a play, with a memoir feel to it, but lots of breaking the fourth wall, so I don’t know.  All I know is, it works and I am so glad TWO has offered it for us.

The action is quick-paced and funny, laugh out loud funny, and the “swingers” not quite Greek chorus, not quite fully fleshed out characters, are all superb and perfectly cast.  I have met every one of them in real life.  You know what I mean. 

Here is the part where I say, I have seen plays in Chicago, London, New York.  One summer I walked in the evening half-light to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre where Fiona Shaw was starring in “Medea.” 

The plays in those places were wonderful.  Stunning, some of them, like “Medea.”

But so was the performance last Saturday. So well done.  So easy to suspend disbelief as if, we, too, were struggling to make sense of our earliest influences—our mothers—and our necessary separations from them. We want to let go, but then we don’t, exactly, either. 

Wes Bartlett and Mary-Katherine Maddox direct, and they must be pretty adept at it because we don’t see their guiding hand in any obvious way and that’s hard to pull off. 

Theatre Workshop of Owensboro will have more performances this coming weekend.  I was so impressed by the experience I want as many of you who can, to have it, too.  Contact TWO for ticket price and times.  You’ll almost think you are at the Abbey.

Reading, and Re-Reading the Best Books

My book group has chosen for our first book this fall,  “Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles. You may know him as the author of  “A Gentleman in Moscow,” but “Rules of Civility” was his debut novel. I have read it already, read it shortly after I read “A Gentleman in Moscow” and here’s the deal. 

I didn’t like it. 

It is set in the late 1930s in New York City, and not my favorite setting for a novel, especially as I was able to spend so much time with the Count in the Metropol Hotel, gazing at the Kremlin across the way when we got bored. So, “Rules of Civility” just fell flat. But here’s another deal. 

This time, I love it. 

It is as if I never read it the first time.  Nothing is familiar to me and I am underlining and highlighted passages like I am to be tested on it, and it a great read.  How is this so?  Well, it just is. 

I enjoy re-reading my favorite books.  “The Great Gatsby”  for example.  I suspect teachers require it because, as classics go, it isn’t too big.  I’ve read it three times, at different phases of my life, and it was a different book each time.  If you haven’t read it in a while, return to it, and you will see what I mean. 

My grandmother was an avid reader.  She brought home stacks of novels and history books, always returning them before they were due.  She didn’t want a blemish on her permanent record. In her 80s she began checking out books she had read years before.  She had forgotten most of the book, forgotten, even, that she had read it, and as far as she was concerned this was such a good thing.  She got to enjoy it all over again. 

I have read, and re-read, Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Her “White Album,” too.  Both are collections of essays set in the 1960s, an era I was influenced by, but too young to take an active part in. I will remember an image, a snippet of a well-turned phrase, and off I go to find the book.

It then lies about for a month or more, and before I return it to its home, I have read everything in it.

My pal, Alice, rereads books all the time.  If you could see her collection, you would know what a thing this is.  When she finishes a book, she writes in pencil on the last page, her name, the date and time.  I love this but would never be consistent enough to do it. 

She re-reads Michener.  Michener, I say.  She recently purchased “The Drifters” and sent it to my Kindle—did you know you can do this?  Also a Michener, but one I would actually read. It took place in the 60s and followed a band of disenchanted youth across continents. I loved every page I didn’t actually turn.

I am already looking forward to a week at the beach, maybe two, when I have forgotten enough to enjoy it again. 

I read “The Miniaturist” on a long flight home from Europe, and then finished it off at home. I loved it so much, I would like to read it again before I start the sequel, “The House of Fortune.”  It arrived last week from Waterstones, and is one of the prettiest books I have ever seen.  I can’t re-read my copy of “The Miniaturist”, though. Alice has it, read it, and can’t give it back.  She says she can’t explain it, but once she reads a book, it is as if they have bonded, Alice and the book, and to my face she said, you will not be seeing this again. 

I have to admire her honesty, and I have offered to get her own copy, but no, it isn’t the same, apparently.  She has probably already penciled in her name, the date and time.  I get it, sort of, but no, not really. 

About the only book I loved but could not read again was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”  I tried, but as I read the first few pages the intricate and intriguing plot twists spooled out in front of me and there was no going back to a fresh beginning. 

Maybe in my eighties I will see it at the library.  Pull it down from the shelf, as my grandmother did, and think, oh, this looks interesting. Get a nice young person to help me carry it to my car.  It’s a big old book.  But not as big as a Michener.

Dog Days Of Summer, Let Them Pass

And now the dog days of summer.  So far we have been spared the August haze that often engulfs such  mornings as this one.  I look out, right this minute, and it is sunny and bright.  I open the door and it is a furnace blast.  I like a little warning for that, thus, my surprising disappointment at no haze to alert me. 

The sun, though, if we pay attention, is signaling change, hanging at a different angle, but just barely, as it makes its way to the perfect slant of September.  I love September light best of all. Love the way it is bright and sunny, then golden by afternoon. The wind,too , not cool, exactly, but whispering fall.

But now, right now, dog days. 

There are mimosa trees trying to grow between the bricks of my patio. I let them. They won’t survive anyway, and frankly, I just don’t want to bend over to take care of it. A bit more satisfying is pulling up the spotted spurge that also grow between the bricks. The spurge spreads and grows at an alarming rate, but gathering the long tendrils all in a bunch, I can work my way back to the roots and with an easy tug, dispatch the weed handily.  As easy as it is, I only have about seven tugs in me. 

Then I turn my attention to water.  In particular the water from weekend rains standing in an old wash tub at the back of my yard.  I forget it is there, and I need to go right now to tump it out, but I dread what might turn up there..  So every day I ignore it, the chance of finding something disgusting and awful increases. 

Produce is coming on, and while I have grown and harvested exactly four of my own poblano peppers, friends and family have loaded me down with plastic bags full of cucumbers, tomatoes, corn. I have gotten into my piggy bank to finance the purchase of several pounds of bacon.  Yes, the irony.  

I never thought it possible, but I have foundered on BLTs. I have enough new bacon grease to get me through the winter. I can’t imagine eating one more slice of tomato, or this premium country white bread. I no longer want to lick the knife with Miracle Whip on it. 

Some days I dispense with the bacon and bread altogether, and eat tomatoes whole, leaning over the kitchen sink, wondering where all those tiny little bugs have come from. The microscopic ones, moving fast and disappearing.

From gardens in south Daviess County, east Daviess County, Mclean County, that’s where. They hide in the corn silk, crawl unseen to be carried home on cucumbers.

  The scattered rain has revived my potted plants, which is good, because I sure haven’t.  

Oh, I have scooted the big germaniums in their big pots to the edge of the porch so they might catch a few drops, but that’s about it.  Watering my plants while thinking deep thoughts? That thrill is gone. 

Now I am turning to thoughts of autumn, and wondering what I might plant for fall color. The only thing I come up with is asters, and I only know about asters because I work crossword puzzles. I’ve tried chrysanthemums, but I can’t spell it, which makes me mad, and also, I can’t get them home without breaking off crucial branches. The chrysanthemums I took a half hour to select for its perfectly round shape, looks more like a loaf of bread or football by the time I get get it out of the car. 

So, there is little left for me to do but wait until the sun reaches that perfect autumnal glint, then wander out into the yard to survey the damage and release the withering plants from their pots, turning them into compost in a spasm of renewal. It is my contribution to the circle of life. 

It is all I can muster, and you know, it’s just about enough.

Come a Tide That Broke My Heart

We needed the rain. All across Kentucky we needed the rain, especially after baking so in the early days of July, those days of withering heat.  And then we got it. 

Our friends in Eastern Kentucky were swept away by it, four children ripped from their parents as they clung to a tree and each other.  And they were gone, four sweet babies swirled away and their parents’ anguished cries echo, sweeping our anguish along in a choke of fellow feeling.  Because how can we think of such a thing and not imagine our own babies, our own feeble arms trying to hold on.

Numbers of loss of life climb.  Over thirty, and we hold our breath, for there will be more. 

The Appalachian Writers Workshop was going on last week when the rains came. Troublesome Creek lived up to her name, over-washed her banks. Sweeping away cars, roaring now, illuminated only by lighting strikes. The water kept rising, rushing, threatening all the low places.  

“Come a tide” Appalachians would say.

It rained and rained, Troublesome rose and rushed, and by the middle of the night, with no electricity or water, writers were jostled from their sleep to head for higher ground, until all who could safely get there huddled on the porch of Stuckey, a cottage that was first a hospital for the settlement school. They wondered with worry about their friends on the other side of the creek, with no way to reach them. 

I know all this, not because I was there, but because so many of my friends were, and I’ve heard stories.  I’ve seen their pictures and videos. Go to the Hindman Settlement School Facebook page and you can see them, too. 

The sun rose on devastation. While buildings were still standing, the flood waters wreaked havoc, destroying offices, meetings rooms, and especially heartbreaking, the archives. 

Looking at it, one wonders how it will ever be made right. Over the weekend and even now, volunteers are sifting through old pictures, letters, correspondence—the documents that help create and preserve a living place—with experts guiding them in preservation.  

My friend, Silas, sent a photo of a photo from the early 1900s, an image of a straight-backed woman in a doorway, a dulcimer in her lap, her hair piled in the fashion of the day. Flood waters and mud have done their best to ruin her, but, even so, we still get a sense of her, the time and place, though streaks of scratches dull her, we know her, even so. 

He said he saved this one, but so many beauties like her were lost. 

He spent the day, and so many others did, volunteering.  He worked the archives, unloaded flats of water, sweltered on the campus that started his writing career. 

You don’t have to be a writer to have a connection to Hindman,  If you have read “The Dollmaker,” and loved it, you have a connection.  Harriet Arnow was a pillar of the writing workshop for years.  If you adore Wendell Berry, you have a connection,  He is a great friend of the place. As is Lee Smith.  If you own and play a mountain dulcimer, you have a connection to Eastern Kentucky, if you have sent supplies to Red Bird Mission, you are connected.  

It was surely impossible to escape the devastation of the flood waters for folks from Hindman.  Family, friends displaced and homes destroyed.  But even so, the staff at the settlement school set up emergency housing for the community, provided hot meals cooked in a makeshift kitchen—grills in the parking lot—feeding and caring for anyone who wanders up and needs food and water and, there is no other word for it, love. 

Hindman and the settlement school aren’t the only ones who have suffered.  And right now, before FEMA funds kick in, before insurance pays out, our friends in Appalachia need our help.  We have so many outlets and ways to help right now.  

I invite you to go to the Hindman Settlement School and donate through  Hindman Flood Relief.  Funds are used for immediate clean up and the provision of cleaning supplies, food, shelter for the displaced.  Appalshop, that wonderful program, suffered greatly from the flooding too, and they have a Flood Support tab you can use to donate.  Buckhorn Home, too, suffered damage and their website provides a place to donate.

There are other outlets, too. 

This is something we can do, right now, knowing what we give will be used tomorrow, or the next day to ease suffering, to bring some hope, to save just one more photo, diary, little scrap of history. 

Thank you for helping. 

When England Melts

Our poor British cousins. If you are close to any of them, check on them.  They are sweltering in record temperatures this week and it is dangerous.  Not much air conditioning there,  you see.  Almost no ice.

As I write this it is 101 F in London.  The tarmac at Luton Airport has melted. The temps may soar past 104 F, roads have buckled and rail service is a hot and sweaty mess.  The guards at Buckingham Palace, the ones who don’t move and wear wool uniforms and those gigantic bear skin hats, they are melting, too, but they can’t save themselves. 

It is important to note these are the highest temperatures recorded in Britain, ever.  It is easy for us in the border south to poo-poo their discomfort with memories of our own hot summers, especially those of us old enough to remember life before air conditioning.  Oh, some stores had it, with penguins on ice floes painted on the door, exclaiming in tufted letters of snow,  “Brrrrr…it’s cold inside.”

We didn’t have it a home, but rather, a big attic fan that circulated warm air, kind of like a convection oven, and beds dragged to the window in vain hope of a breeze. This is how I can taste, even to this day, a window screen.  All dust and rust and some other thing.  Because when your little chin is propped on the window sill waiting for some air, it gets boring, and after a while there is nothing else to do but lick stuff.

I was in England for a heat wave once.  

After my work assignment ended, I had a few days and nothing would do but I stay in a Cotswold coaching inn.  I was traveling alone and needed a place on the train line. I ended up in Moreton-On-Marsh, where I dragged my suitcase from the the little station until the village green hove into view, and checked into my digs, The White Hart Royal Hotel. 

You can look this up.  Go ahead.  You will see the little courtyard I am about to tell you about.  My room looked out over the umbrella. 

The temps had been steadily climbing all day, and after my trek I needed a drink.  Which I could have, in the little bar right off reception, a sweating, tepid bottle of beer, there being no ice for a proper drink.  I made my way to the room, floors sloping, the ceiling lower and lower with each flight of stairs. 

I have never been so hot in my life.  The window opened, but just barely, and onto a courtyard below where no air circulated. I sat on my bed sweating and every fifteen minutes or so I shed another piece of clothing, until 10:00 pm arrived and I was down to my delicates, still perspiring and thinking this is dangerous.  Limestone, that lovely golden Jurassic limestone, is gorgeous to look at, but it soaks up heat all the day long, slowly releasing it all through the night. 

I feared my my life and I’m not kidding. 

The courtyard was empty, as was the ballroom just across the way, the one that was on my level, and I made the decision to crank open the window, throw wide the drapes for for any scrap of air. I wrapped myself in a sheet I had soaked in cold water, and, in the altogether, tried to sleep.

And I did sleep, until midnight, when I woke to raucous laughter from the courtyard below, a strong beam of light illuminating my room, the entire length of the bed, and the tangled sheet that had come undone and was now lallygagging about my ankles. I rolled out of bed and crawled to the window.

The ballroom was now bright as day and shining in my window. It was  stuffed to the gills with  people drinking, laughing.  They were as visible to me as I must have been to them, had any of them taken a gander.

I was beyond caring. I hoped they were drunk enough not to recognize me at breakfast. Assuming I lived to see breakfast. 

The next day was easily as hot, hotter, even, when I asked directions from a nice young man.  He was waiting for his bus and helped me, standing there in his short-sleeved shirt and wool sweater vest.  He lifted his arm to point the way and I fairly swooned. 

By noon I was close to dying again, and wished I knew of a pool.  Then I remembered the  great British tub in my room.  It was huge.  As was the book I took to the bath, where I stayed all afternoon, floating in cool water, working the taps with my toes, reading and drinking and saving my life.

Decoration Day

My grandmother wanted to picnic on the grounds.  It is all she talked about, Decoration Day out on the blowing prairie of east Oklahoma, the day her family met at the cemetery on the outskirts of town, which was hardly a town. They decorated graves, which meant, first they pulled weeds, but only after standing around a bit, as you do, in any cemetery where your people are buried. 

You stand, you look down, maybe gaze off into the middle distance, look down again.  Decoration Day, Memorial Day, birthday, maybe, or Christmas, whenever you visit, this is what you do. 

The Paxton clan would not have been alone out there in Fair View Cemetery. Other families would be working and picnicking on the grounds, too.  Nothing my grandmother liked better than a picnic, in a Talala, Oklahoma cemetery or in her own backyard. 

Can you imagine for just a moment, a family up at Elmwood, quilts spread out, unwrapping sandwiches, soda cans tipping over in the grass, someone with a butcher knife and a watermelon?  

Well, we couldn’t either, even as children, and we did our best to  ignore her when she talked in that wistful way about picnics and gravestones, because it was the only power we had. 

We showed up, not with picnic baskets, but tubs of peonies, iris, flowers cut from the yard. A watering can to fill at the pump with the red handle, that one there, by the road.  We wandered around while my mother worked, while my grandmothers worked, but the job was soon done. We went early in the morning, dew still clinging to blades of grass, and home in time for lunch.

But I can’t remember if we decorated the graves exactly on Memorial Day.  It seems we must have, returning later in the week to collect the vases, discard the dead flowers.  But maybe not. 

So, this is my question.  Is it tradition to decorate on Memorial Day or for Memorial Day?  It hasn’t bothered me until recently. 

After my grandmothers died and my mother was sole proprietress of the Memorial Day ritual, we began visiting Elmwood on Saturday before the holiday.  Early morning calls made the rounds, and whoever wanted to tag along, did.  For a while we still fooled around with fresh flowers but Daddy was a menace with the lawnmower and eventually the yard was bare. 

Mother began to regret the expense of bought flowers, so she bought, instead, flowering plants she could retrieve later and use in her planters.  Now my sister and I do the same.  We dig little divots to hid the price tags on the pots, nestle them into the grass, and worry they won’t be there when we return. 

But, of course, they are. 

We go on Saturday and reclaim therm on Monday, the holiday itself, before the day gets too hot and they wilt beyond reviving. But on Monday, Memorial Day, I see an elderly couple walking gingerly, he has her elbow, she has a fistful of flags. They walk at an incline, an arrangement sitting on the hood of their car, they will have to make two trips. There are lots of car trunks gaping open, gardening activity around stones even though Elmwood is supposed to be perpetual care. And I am driving by to get our potted plants, to take them home after their scant time in memoriam, and I wonder if I have the protocol wrong. 

Even when I was young I got the sense of putting flowers on the graves was more a duty, if not a chore. Not an onerous chore, but one my mother was always iffy about when we should go, what we should take, who’s going with her. There was always some hemming and hawing. 

Now Kathy and I do the graves,  and we hem and haw, too, never very excited. but coming around to the task once we crest the hill at Elmwood.  

I can never find the Skillmans, my mother’s parents, even though they are not five yards from the McDonoughs.  There is one spot left, by my Granny Opal, and I want it. I stand in the empty space and admire what will be my view.  Then, Kathy and I decide to visit other cemeteries, other family.  It isn’t the prairie or a picnic lunch, but it takes all day and we are glad.

Me and Mr. Jones…

The love of animals runs deep in my family.  I’m told my grandfather spent time in the woods, loved being out in nature with his cocker spaniel, Smokey, and he was forever bringing home orphaned critters he ran across. Baby squirrels, little red fox cubs, and maybe a bear cub or two. 

I can’t be certain about the bear cubs.  I never knew my grandfather, and my mother is no longer here to ask. But I want to believe I have that right.  I am certain, however, this habit of his was the vexation of the next door neighbors, and I would imagine words were crossed. Mother confirmed it, this I remember, and she was surprisingly benevolent about it, even on the neighbor’s side at times, because some of these animals smelled.

All my siblings have pets, rescues or bred on purpose, and I am the only one petless. As a child I was afraid of dogs, having been bitten more than once.  We never had cats, and I never wanted one, their personalities a mystery to me. But this doesn’t keep other people’s cats from seeking me out, even when they hide from others, doesn’t keep them from rubbing against my legs and majestically displaying their tail and other things for me to admire. 

And then, a  couple of weeks ago I invited myself to dinner at my sister’s.  Mostly I was going to see my new great-nephew, because I heard he would be there, and, low and behold, food.  There was something about the evening.  Impromptu, easy, no expectations. Just a few of us, and Bill Jones. 

I think he may have Russian roots, he has the coloring.  He is, if not moody, self-contained. On the edges, observant, mysterious.  

But, oddly, not aloof. 

So, as we were watching the baby tear around the living room, amazed because he is an early walker, I sat on the floor and Bill Jones curled up on the chair, and we had quite a pleasant evening together. 

When I was a kid, the D volume of the World Book Encyclopedia was grimy on the spine, so many grubby hands pulling it from the shelf to look up dog breeds.  We had dogs at home, strays, a mean rat terrier, procured precisely to cure my older brother and me of our dog phobia.  A miniature dachshund left in our care when one of my brother’s girlfriends went off to college. 

We loved all those renderings of dogs in their classes—working dogs, hunting dogs, toys—we spent hours discussing which ones would be ours, if our parents were only reasonable. 

The C volume of the World Book stayed pristine.  We weren’t interested in cats. 

But after an evening with Bill Jones, calm, loving, and not at all needy, I came home and googled cat breeds.  Thought I might need me one. It was interesting to read about the breeds, their personalities, and to see piles of kittens in baskets, as if they stay like that for long. 

Bill Jones is surely part Russian blue, and there is much to admire about his attributes.  But a British shorthair is pretty great, too, with a hruumpy old man’s face, broad shoulders and chest. They look like they are just on the verge of speech.  The exotic shorthair is pretty cute, too, bred to look like a  shorthaired Persian. 

I spent several days in happy revery, my little cat and I, and my cat-loving friends were gently encouraging, but never pushy.  Because taking on a pet is a serious thing.  I must tell you now, the feeling passed, and I suspect some of the love and glow of that evening with Bill Jones sprang from an easy visit with family, the newest generation toddling around like a little clown and filling us with hope for the future. 

But still, something lingers, and while I am not committing to any kind of pet, and I have done a serious assessment of my own dedication to caring for another life, there was something connecting in that evening, and old Bill Jones, who showed up one day and simply stayed, was a nice part of it. 

The Great Unmasking

We joke, or we try to joke, that if it weren’t for our doctor appointments, we would have nosocial life at all.  That, and babysitting.  The pandemic descended just about the time my friends were deciding about Medicare coverage, and the lunches were long and boring. I was spared the angst because the institution I worked for offered an excellent supplemental plan so I sat and picked at my salad, rolled my eyes a lot and sighed heavily. 

No one noticed, or else I was ignored, but I had no idea how important all that medical support was going to be to me, and in the very near future. Because I had to get out of the house.

Covid brought with it a slew of grand-babies, new nieces and nephews, and that was the other thing we talked about.  A lot. Once I, too, had some new little ones to coo over and brag about I was happy.  But frustrated, too, because I couldn’t get my hands on them, either through distance or cautious new mothers. 

Could we dare to hope now we are back to normal?  Could we dare to hope that spring going into summer going into fall will bring vacations and air travel without masks, and festivals on steamy humid days, all barbecue and funnel cakes and people galore? 
I think, maybe. 

The sign for me was spending the weekend with friends out of town.  A normal weekend out of town.  With lunch out, dinner out, shopping in a quaint but crowded antique emporium, a late evening performance with the large crowd growing more cozy as the night wore on, and I was up for all of it. 

Of course I was.  I am compliant but I am not always a true adopter. But the friends I was with are believers of the first order.  Hand washing, isolating, mask and double-mask wearers, vaxxed and vaxxed and vaxxed some more.  Friends who made big plans for things important to them, only to cancel them when numbers were high. Friends who did everything right. 

Friends who were now on a crowded dance floor at one in the morning, dancing with strangers, not a mask in sight.  

And it was a beautiful thing. 

It was Friday afternoon when the school bell rings, the last day of class, the first bike ride in spring, the unexpected snow day.  

Freedom, pure and simple. 

And freedom feels good. 

And there is plenty to go around.  I have friends who were dismissive of the mask thing, although they, too, complied, but not without some angst of their own. They didn’t agonize about the value of wearing the mask as much as they struggled with their feelings around being told what to do, being subtly or not so subtly shamed, the aggravation of friendships, relationships reshaped by a thin piece of cloth about the nose and mouth. So, no more of that.

Back to normal now.  Or almost. 

For years I have disgorged from aircraft into airports teeming with people in masks and I have never understood it.  The spectacle of it. Now, I get it and I am even relieved because airports scare me.  I am no germaphobe but my imagination runs wild in international airports when I think of the crush of humanity who pass through, exposing me to who knows what, and I go a little nuts with it.  

Now, like  a good neighbor, I can wear a mask when I want, lull myself into thinking I am protecting myself, reassuring the international traveling public I am protecting them from me. And I can do it with no self-consciousness at all. Once on the plane I can eat my peanuts in peace, fall asleep maskless with my mouth open and dream the dreams of the innocent. Or wear a mask the whole flight.

Free, then, to do it my way. 

Like the way I dance, at one in the morning.

Look, don’t look, who cares, I’m having fun. My mood lifting as my mask does. And each day a little more freedom, something I have missed.