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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Major Household Appliances

The big bucks ones! As a woman, who has been for long stretches of her life, a housewife, I don’t take appliances for granted. In fact, not too long ago, “housewife” was shorthand for drudge, and we pampered modern ladies forget this at our peril. Living in an area where I can still see Old Order Amish women slaving from morning till night—in between dropping babies and attending church—and as a writer of historical novels—I’m keenly aware of the comfortable life we modern women lead.

I’m not ashamed to love my appliances. I name them, too, because they are my “serving girls.” I feel lucky, rather like a Jane Austen heroine, to have married well enough to afford them. ;)

The washer came first, while we were still in college. As I had been lugging baby + clothes + diapers to the laundromat for over a year, this was a real luxury. I earned it, too, this trendy looking brown Sears appliance, while working as a waitress, picking up the quarter tips which were standard in the early 60’s diner, while my husband minded our son, Miles, and did his college homework. We’ve got pictures of me bringing in frozen diapers from the line during a harsh Massachusetts winter, though, and it was a good while before we managed to get the space and the dollars for a dryer.

I’ve just graduated to a front loader, a Bosch. Her name is “Ursula” because she has a bearish, blockish look. She is German by design, though the salesman carefully explained she was manufactured at a plant in Ohio. I love her dearly, because she is already saving us money on water and electricity. More than that, she does a ton of laundry at a time, and has a way with deep cleaning the ground in dirt that men are champions at producing in a way the top loader never did.

A dish washer only arrived at my home a few years ago, so the thrill of loading it up and then unloading clean dishes has not yet gone away. Her name, (christened by my husband) is “Heidi,” and she is also a Bosch, thrifty and extremely quiet. I was the dishwasher for years, and vividly remember many Thanksgivings and Christmases at which I spent literally hours at the kitchen sink, washing endless coffee cups, plates and silverware for our houseguests—my husband’s brothers and sisters. I dearly loved being the “Mom” and their lively company, but sometimes it got to be a bit much, and I’d have to go into the living room, turn down the rock’n’roll, and drum up some relief.

One beneficial side effect of not having a dishwasher for all those years was that both my sons were trained early to do dishes, dry them, and put them away. They were sent on to wives quite domesticated—at least, for boys!

You notice I haven’t said much about dryers. The fact is they aren’t very interesting. They are simple creatures and don’t develop personalities the way the other appliances do. However, I thank my stars to be a woman here in the 21st Century during winter or during weeks of rain like we had last summer, as I dump Ursula’s prodigious output into the gaping mouth of faithful, careful Molly the Maytag.

Friday, November 27, 2009


The Iroquois have an inspiring “Salutation to the Natural World” which I’d like to paraphrase and share as my contribution to this year's Thanksgiving

Their prayer begins: “We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings thanks…”

First, they send “greetings and thanks” to the Earth Mother, for “she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time.” Second, they thank the waters of the world, for “water is life.”

Third, they turn their minds to the Fish in the water, who, they believed purified the water, and who gave themselves to the Iroquois as food.

Fourth, they thanked the plants, which “work wonders,” sustaining all life. They especially thanked the food plants, the grains, vegetables, beans, berries and roots which “help the People survive.” They thanked the Medicine Herbs, who are “waiting and ready to heal us.” They thanked the trees, who gave food, shade and shelter to men and to animals alike.

They thanked the animals, who were their teachers, and who gave their bodies as food. They thanked the birds. With their “beautiful songs…each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate our life.”

Then they thanked elemental Nature. They thanked the Four Winds, which “bring messages and strength,” and the “Thunder Beings,” ancestors, who brought water and kept demons” in hiding. They praised the Sun as “Elder Brother,” “the source of all fires of life.” They thanked Grandmother Moon, “the leader of all women,” and the stars who guide hunters and warriors who travel at night.

Finally, they thanked the “enlightened teachers” who have come to earth throughout all ages. “If we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live…”

Last of all, they thanked The Great Spirit, sending “greetings and thanks for all these gifts of creation.”

The Iroquois believed that all we need to live a good life is here on Earth. Sometimes in our modern, frazzled lives of getting and spending, of racing here and there, of competition and “keeping up with the Jones,” it’s therapeutic simply to pause, to look around us and remember to give thanks as they did, for the natural wonder of the world which sustains and surrounds us.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Afternoon at the Opera

Just attended one of those wonderful HD transmissions in my local Regal theater. These originate at the Saturday matinee of the Metropolitan Opera’s "Aida."

“Met at the Movies” is a godsend to lots of us: elderly fans and to those who’d like to introduce kids to this peculiar Western art form, and folks like me who don’t have a zillion dollars for Trip to NYC + A Good Seat. I hope it raises some money for the Met, too, during this economic fall over the cliff we’ve just passed through.

It’s not only a real treat to see/hear the opera through the privileged eyes of cameras, but to get the commentary from the elegant Diva Renee Fleming. This week, she took us backstage to see fascinating things we’d never get a look at otherwise, like the formidable machinery that moves huge sets and multi-level stages in a few minutes, while stage hands, focused as any pit crew, swarm everywhere.

As the performance is broadcast live, all the glitches are there, too, like this week’s incident where the Prima Donna had to leap across a rapidly opening gap between two stages. Verdi Prima Donnas are not generally made for jumping, so her stumble when she landed elicited a gasp of real fear from the audience who really wanted her to survive to sing the last two acts.

When I was a kid, my mother spent her winter Saturday afternoons stretched on her bed with a cocker spaniel and a murder mystery. She chain-smoked and listened to the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcast. We managed to pick it up in the Finger Lakes, although the nearest station that carried it was in Toronto.

Grand Opera became the sonic background to many a snowy, freezing afternoon of childhood. I know this makes me a little strange, but the emotional depth and absolute beauty of operatic music became imprinted on my brain.

Yesterday, I sat in the theater, listening to the familiar score of "Aida" and remembered all sorts of things, like me and my best friend, Gay, dressing up and dancing to this music. A melancholy rush through time into a dark, cold Skaneateles afternoon...

Snow piled up outside, and the two of us, all of ten or eleven, played at ballet and make-believe, putting the needle back on the "Aida Highlights" record again and again. We danced in tights and undershirts, wearing junk jewelry we imagined was exotic, long polyester scarves and odds and ends from the costume box her clever seamstress mother maintained. For a few hours, we were Temple Priestesses or the Princess Amneris' dancing girls, not just kids in a small upstate town.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Out All Night With the Grand Marquis

This has become a catch phrase in our house, applied to people who have been out all night partying—perhaps in scandalous ways. We got it from an advertisement, which I don’t think was ever shown on this side of the Atlantic. It featured a long skit, a divorce trial with a dishy, elegant brunette on the stand. The prosecution lawyer declaims: "She was out all night with the Grand Marquis,” eliciting a gasp from a packed courtroom. The camera pans in on the front row of spectators, and we see a debauched 18th Century aristocrat, silken legs, heels, make-up, wig and all. Next, there is a fast cut to the latest Grand Marquis—a smooth, sleek, ultimately made-in-Detriot automobile—with the brunette at the wheel, driving fast. A voice over passionately tells us all about the car's many new, luxury features.

We thought it was a very clever ad. Me particularly, with my 18th Century hang-up.

Oddly, this is my preamble to another cat story. As you may know, we’ve acquired another. (Actually, he acquired us.) He decided to live here during the winter about two years ago, after searching the neighborhood for an amenable house with an attentive kitty feeder/doorperson. My husband and I proved to fit his requirements to a T. One or the other of us, we’re up and down all night, turning on lights and wandering around at 1 a.m., at 3 a.m., at 4, and maybe 5 o’clock, too. As we are already awake, we can certainly open doors if his Lordship wants to come in during the night for a munchie, a pat, or just to crash on the carpet behind the speaker for a few hours. When he stays out all night, and comes in late mornings, he looks as if he’s really been out with the original Grand Marquis—the old, depraved 18th one—at some drunken hell-fire club.

His kitty eyes are blurry and rheumy, and a long ago injury shows up in a limp which he doesn’t display when he’s fresh out of the sack. He gives us a perfunctory leg rub, then makes a few face-first slams into the crunchie bowl to bolt a few down. Then he’s off to the nearest couch, bed, or warm chair to sleep on his back and drool for the next six hours.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bookcases I've Loved

My mother had a charismatic English friend named Rosemary, whose home we visited during several school holidays. She lived in an rambling old stone house in the evocatively named small and ancient village of Shipton-Under-Wychwood.

In memory, my image of Rosemary has merged with Julia Child’s. Mother’s friend was a tall, fair, big-boned Englishwoman, forever engaged in day long sessions with French recipe books, standing in an enormous dim kitchen filled with arcane culinary devices and dangling copper pans. Her children were much younger than I, so they weren’t very interesting to me, a solitary teen. She also kept 6 or 7 (they milled in a group, so it was tough to count how many there actually were) long-haired Dachshunds, a breed of dog I’d never met before. They were charming dogs who liked to lie in heaps on the couch, like a fluffy, smiling pile of black and tan pillows.

Rosemary had terrific bookcases, which I was turned loose upon while she and Mom sipped sherry in the kitchen. They were full of historical novels from the 30’s and 40’s—some earlier. Here were Norah Lofts and Elizabeth Goudge with their mystical and yet oh-so-grisly- vision of the romantic past. Between those covers I discovered a burning love for the genre, and learned what a mesmerizing time travel experience a good writer can deliver. The most exotic of all the books Rosemary owned were the ones by Joan Grant: “Winged Pharoah,” and “Lord of the Horizon.” Mrs. Grant always said her “novels” were, in fact, recalled past lives. So brilliantly realized are these books that they infected me. I had dreams about them for years. They also kindled a keen interest in topics which were considered totally wacko in the ‘50’s, but are now Cable TV staples: past lives, auras, astral projection, Egyptian gods and Pharoahs, Atlantis, and so on.

Rosemary was also an expert in all these new and fascinating topics, and seemed to like to talk to me. After a few hours, I found I could enter the kitchen and talk with her about these astonishing things I’d read. The ladies, having imbibed several glasses of sherry and had their grown-up chat, were quite welcoming, even Mom, who was proud of my geekiness. I remember sitting on a stool in that imperfectly lighted kitchen, watching Rosemary turn a perfectly delicious bird into a pate, which to my kid taste buds didn’t taste half as good as plain turkey. Meanwhile, ever more dishes piled into the big sink. Spoons and glittering knives of many sizes and shapes littered the counter. The dachshunds were everywhere underfoot, begging for thrown treats and getting them, their long ears dragging across a slate floor with an authentically medieval patina of grease.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Last night my husband and I were watching a unique, charming romantic movie called "Getting Married in Buffalo Jump," It had two very handsome thirty year old protagonists, and was set in the starkly beautiful outback of Alberta ranch country. At the first dark moment, my husband turned and said "This is just the usual woman's bull****!"

It was not the romance he was objecting to, as he uses his handkerchief regularly during sad or romantic movies. When asked for clarification, he said, "This is all about whether he's good enough for her, and/or what his motives are, but what about her? What do we know about her, about HER skeletons?" He felt the heroine was (a) jumping to conclusions (b) not revealing anything about herself. He thought she was just as culpable--at least in messing up their budding relationship--as the hero was.

I replied that learning about each other, building trust and understanding, and the ups and downs thereof, is a big part of the genre. He said he understood that after years of me on about whatever I was writing, but he was ticked off nonetheless. He said it was out of character for such a strong and independent woman to have shown the guy the door without any further discussion. Moreover, if there was something in her past which made her jump to the worst possible conclusion, he thought we ought to already know this.

I keep thinking about this. Is this an intrinsic difference in how men and women see romance? Or is this just a plotting or characterization problem? Do you think heroines are more easily seen as "virtuous" than their heroes? And/or does this seem instead to be a characterization problem, or, perhaps, a plotting problem? BTW, up to his complaint, I had been thoroughly drawn into the story, and had been entirely willing to believe the heroine's outburst of anger and uncertainty.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cicada Time

Bob was sitting on the picnic table the other morning, smiling and pleased with himself. He’d been out dancing in the moonlight, even though it was unusually chilly over night. I was sitting on the bench, patting him. He seemed entirely happy, kneading air with his paws and showing me his spotted belly, playing at being a Domesticated Animal.

The first cicadas are starting in our area, the genetic misfits who awaken on the far edge of their particular Bell Curve. They don’t sing much and flame out early. When one fell from a nearby maple, buzzing like a clockwork toy unwinding, Bob leapt from the table with a bound which would have done a cougar credit and made short work of it.

(It’s humbling, the way he can tune me out. Snap! Gone on cat business!)

I suppose he ate the poor confused thing, like he does everything else. Cicadas, with heads that are pure fat, are one of Mother Nature’s most sought-after crunchy snacks. Birds adore them. I’ve even seen squirrels eat them, these winged, green-armored Doritos of the insect world. I would think the wings and feet would make for an over-ridingly icky mouth feel, but not coming from an insect-eating culture, I’m not the one to judge.

I love cicadas. When I was small, some imaginative family member told me that their wings--see-through, gossamer, etched in green--were fairy wings. I guess what I really love is their deafening song, which can be as loud as 120 decibels up close. They are one of the few noisy things in which I take pleasure. It’s Nature, after all, like waves crashing on shore. The males on my trees start; the neighbor’s cicadas shout out an answer. With the trees arching green overhead, it’s my favorite sort of chorale.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Great Sammu

“Pica” is defined as a “depraved or perverted appetite … for unnatural food, as chalk, clay, etc. common in chlorosis or pregnancy…”

My mother used the word in a way which stripped it mostly of those dire connotations, simply to describe cravings, like the classic chalk or pickle cravings of the old time malnourished pregnancy. I’ve often thought of the word when describing some of the odd foods my many felines have enjoyed over the years.

One of the oddest cravings I’ve ever seen in a cat were those of Sam, a.k.a. The Great Sammu, a large apple-headed Siamese who adopted us when we lived in Hendersonville, Tennessee. (The name “Sam” slowly morphed into “Sammu” because he was fat and sleek, like Nammu, the Whale). Sam had been living next door with his boy and his boy’s family. They had fallen on hard times, and had moved in temporarily with an aunt and uncle. A dog already lived there, and although this dog was a mellow character, Sammu’s nose was out of joint. He began to show up on our doorstep, rub on our legs and converse with us in his most elegant Siamese. He was a gorgeous seal point, with dark blue eyes, very intelligent, and skilled at getting his way. Finally, he spent so much time mooching at our house that his boy simply gave him to us.

Sammu lived happily with our family for about four years, until something happened to him, about 2 years after our move to PA. We never found out what. One day, while I was deathly ill with bronchitis, he just didn’t come home. Although I hobbled around the neighborhood coughing, searching alleys and garages, I never found his body. My dearest hope is that someone catnapped him; he was beautiful and personable.

At any rate, we learned from the boy next door that Sammu’s family had found him behind a Mexican restaurant in Arizona, where he was scrounging the dumpster for his supper. This must have been where he came by his pica, which was for “Mexican.” In the ‘80’s, making Nachos out of corn chips covered in bean and burger chili, layered with cheese, salsa, guacamole and sour cream was the latest thing. I soon learned I could never produce one of these meals without fixing a little plate for Sam. It was quite amazing to watch him eat, because he’d just start at the top and work his way straight through to the corn chips at the bottom. Cats aren’t really equipped for handling this kind of food, but he would sit there and chew away at the corn chips until he’d got most of them down. He seemed just as fond of the beans and guacamole as he was of the more predictable sour cream and hamburger. After he finished, he sat there, sides bulging, cleaning his face and long whiskers with one elegant, dark chocolate paw. We always wondered whether we should offer him a little dish of cerveza to go with it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Vertigo & The Battle of Saratoga

The Schuylerville Monument commemorates the surrender of General Johnny Burgoyne to General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, a battle which was a turning point in the American Revolution. The British, who’d hoped to split the colonies in two with this invasion, started from Canada. The British gentlemen who took part were promised the lands of the American planters, Dutch descendants like Major General Philip Schuyler, who owned most of the upper Hudson and Northern New York. Gentlemanly Johnny Burgoyne set out with German noblemen and mercenaries in tow, anticipating a cake walk through ineffective Colonials, but what they got instead was a summer of guerilla warfare launched by Vermonters and the New York back country boys who’d been mobilized by Schuyler to destroy existing roads, fell trees, burn bridges, destroy crops, snipe, and generally mess up what seemed like a simple plan. The battle was fought near my family’s home place. They’d built a homestead in 1745 with Mohawk for neighbors, out in what was then the back of beyond.

Mother believed in pilgrimages to the old home place. She’d spent many summers on the farm with her grandparents, running barefoot, in periodic terror of an enormous rooster who patrolled the path to the outhouse. I went to a lot of battlefields and graveyards during my formative years, but one of the places I learned to dread was the Schuylerville Monument.

There are 184 cast iron steps inside this old stone tower leading to the top. Here, hardy souls are rewared with a commanding view of the beautiful upper Hudson countryside. Three bronzes figures decorate the crown: Horatio Gates, who politicked his way into commanding the Continental army for the actual battle, Philip Schuyler, who successfully prepared the ground for success and Daniel Morgan, whose riflemen played a large role in the victory. The fourth niche, for Benedict Arnold, who fought heroically at Saratoga and was seriously wounded, is empty.
The cast iron steps are why I still experience anxiety when I think of this place. Lovely, 19th Century, ornate--and to my vertiginous brain--filled with holes, holes through which I could see the descending spiral below me, through which I could see the bottom. I remember walking, then crawling on my hands and knees. Mother’s brown legs raced ahead. I sweated. I trembled. I sat down and laced my fingers through the holes. Despite the calls of “Come on! Hurry! Don’t be silly! Don’t be such a ’fraidy cat!” I began to back down, clinging to each stair. I can still see the flowery pattern, how worn and thin and frail the ironwork seemed. I imagined them bending, giving way, and then saw myself falling. I remember resting my forehead for a time against the cold metal, getting up the courage to keep backing down.

I was perversely pleased when I looked the monument up on the internet, and it said: “DO NOT attempt if you are acrophobic.” I guess I’m not the only one who has chickened out while attempting to get to the top of this venerable Victorian tower!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Serial Bob

We have a bulkhead next to a small extension at the back of our house. Between bulkhead and laundry is about a foot and half of pavement. This has become the place where our local serial killer lays out his victims. I tend to let cats in and out at this back door, where I’m sort of tucked inside, facing the patio and a fence. This is often the first view of my yard I have in the morning, but I’ve learned not to look around the door at the area between the bulkhead and the house until well after I’ve had my coffee.
Our ex-stray cat has decided that this is the place to leave displays of his night’s work. Right now, fortunately, he’s apparently on hiatus, but earlier this spring when everything was young, tender, and frisking with joy, he was busy. The “work” that always impresses us most is the squirrels, full grown ones that he lugs in for us to admire. He used to eat them whole back when he was on the lam, but now just the head seems to be satisfactory. What’s the zombie joke? “Brainssssss!”
Anyway, he caught four squirrels this spring, great big plush grown-ups who should have known better. I don’t feel too sorry about them, because we’ve got a ton of squirrels who are up to no good with my bulbs and gardens. I do mourn the bunnies and chipmunks he catches, but what purely I hate, what I yell about, are the song birds.
Worst and most heinous of all his crimes, he ate my adorable jazz-master catbird in his fine, gray Wall Street suit. He crunched house finches around the bird feeder like potato chips, so that I gave up putting seeds into it. He brought me a darling Carolina Wren in his mouth, held so carefully that when I coaxed it away from him, the wren took flight straight from my hand. I hope very much that his/her rattling little bold scolding self survived the ordeal. This cat of mine could give Sylvester a bad name!
Web Site: Juliet Waldron

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Birthday Memory

My oldest was born in the summer of ’65. We were living in a basement apartment in Allston, outside Boston. I had hand-me-down pregnancy clothes from Aunt Judy, the 50’s kind, with floppy tops and belly cut outs. My mother-in-law helped too, whipping up shifts on her Singer. Those were the days! I didn’t go to a doctor until 6 months in, and what we could afford was the Boston Lying-in clinic. I rode there on the bus every few weeks, answered questions that were part of a long-term survey, and saw a group of young doctors and nurses—a different set every of time.

It was the hottest spring in 90 years, super oppressive for this country girl. It was also the spring of the Boston Strangler, and a pregnant 19 year old in the basement apartment alone in a strange city felt pretty anxious sometimes. My husband worked at a bank running an IBM 1401 mini-computer, one of those new gizmos that were being bought by businesses everywhere. We were both hoping to return to college in the fall, but didn’t actually have a clue about how.

For the day I went into labor, we put aside taxi fare. I packed a bag. However, as the due date approached my hands, feet, legs and face swelled, and my B.P. soared. The clinic staff said this was “toxemia,” which I looked up in my bible, Dr. Guttmacher’s "Pregnancy & Childbirth." Two days later, I collected my suitcase, caught the bus and rode to the hospital. The whole thing seemed, after all those movies with hysteria, hot water and ripping petticoats, an anti-climax.

They never gave me the drug, though, as I obligingly went into labor after the embarrassing prep that was de rigeur for OB in those days. Husbands were not welcome, either, so mine stayed at work. Natural Childbirth – I might have been poor and young, but I was not uneducated – “Only works for European women, who are so much stronger than American women.” (I’m quoting the supervising Obstetrician I’d asked.) Because this was my first, the staff pretty much ignored me until a nurse noticed the top of my son’s head. Hospital rules required anesthesia, in this case a saddle block, but it was given so late it didn’t take until well after he was born.

Baby arrived to thrill a room full of neophyte students. He was seriously pissed off about the rude ejection. Quickly, though, he stopped crying, and began to gaze around wide-eyed with a “Where the HELL Am I NOW?!” look on his face.

A stout, gray nurse approached with a needle, but I had the La Leche League handbook memorized.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Just to dry up your milk, Honey.”

“No thank-you. I’m going to nurse my baby.”

“You’ll be sorry!” Her lips set in a grim line. She checked the chart, too, even argued a little with the resident, before she went away.

Later, I talked to my husband on a phone at the nurses’ station. Visiting hours were over. He would be allowed to see us tomorrow afternoon.

The family survived all this long ago hospital rigamarole. My son grew up, got married, and had a lovely daughter of his own who is now in college.

This all happened a very long time ago, but when his birthday rolls around every year, I still think about it. I guess that's a Mom Thing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Summer, 1949

Looking over the backseat of a ‘36 Chevy is an early memory I have about cars. I stood, holding onto the back seat and peering over it, across my parents’ shoulders. We were probably on our way to my Grandpa’s house in our small Ohio town, the place where all the family I had still lived. The actual year is cloudy; perhaps it was 1949, just post war. The car had probably been grandpa’s. It was the sort of hand-me-down + all-in-the-family cash-deal that people did a lot of in those days. So many young men were back from the War, and jobs -- and cars -- were hard to get.

“Hold on,” Mother always said. Maybe she’d repeat the story about the inattentive kid who got his teeth bashed out when the car he was riding in stopped suddenly. This reminded me to pay attention to what was going on as we traveled. In 1949, that was good mothering, sufficient unto the day.

We probably never drove faster than 25 mph to get to Grandpa’s because we went through town. With a small thriving college there, the streets were always busy with an odd mix of farmers and students from big Eastern cities.

I remember a tall stick shift protruding from the floor, and the strength it seemed to need to move it. My Mother could manage shifting as well as Daddy, though, a thing which gave her potency in my eyes, even though she was a small woman. She put a cushion in the driver's seat for height, and she drove like a champ. I remember her small, broad saddle-shoed feet stomping on brake or clutch while she shifted with great dispatch and authority.

Even as young as I was, I knew it was bad form to grind the gears, although I heard a lot of others do it. Not my parents! As the car had been Grandpa’s it was probably in perfect shape. My Father, who painted houses and studied to be an engineer, was every bit as good at taking care of things.

It was summer, so I think we might have been going to a picnic at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. They had a big white four-square along wide Xenia Avenue, which still had trolley tracks running down the middle. Behind the house was a spacious red brick patio that Grandpa had laid himself. It was flat and smooth and surrounded the largest, shapeliest sugar maple in town.

It was a lovely shady spot, always cool and filled with birdsong. Sometimes my Aunt Jeanie and her husband, Richard DeWine, would be there with Cousin Michael, who was younger than me, but fun to hang out with anyway. If it was a special occasion, Richard’s parents, George and Alice, might be there, or maybe our Aunt Judy would have come home from Ohio State. Mike and I both liked our lively, attentive Aunt Judy.

A table with a checkered oil cloth waited for whatever was about to be served, a lot, if I’m remembering correctly, of fried chicken with either biscuits or homemade bread. I'm sure there were pickles, coleslaw, potato salad and baked beans, but like most kids, I didn't eat that stuff. For dessert, there was certainly homemade cake or fresh fruit pie. If there wasn’t, the grand finale might have been Grandpa’s ice cream, which was so sublime that even kids knew it didn’t have to be chocolate.

Another Nirvana-like childhood dining experience came the day Grandpa and George DeWine served us morels. These I’ve never had since, but I’ve never forgotten them, either, the Holy Grail of Mushrooms, fresh, fragrant, and lovingly fried in sweet butter.

Friday, May 15, 2009


This term was defined by Dr. Eric Berne in the 60’s in his popular psychology book “Games People Play.” I heard “nowadays…” from my elders all the time. I’d nod, 20 year old wise- acre, and note the complaining and fault finding that always followed such a preamble. “Nowadays…” was categorized by Dr. Berne as a fairly harmless pastime of old folks—if not too vitriolic. Otherwise, it was a “game,” inviting others on the same wave-length to agree and add their own stories of what used to be a far superior way of life. Whether “pastime” or the higher ante “game,” “nowadays” was labeled as an inauthentic way to relate to others.

Well, I’m now in my 60+’s, and despite Dr. Berne, “nowadays…” pops out of my mouth with some frequency. For instance, last week, I was at my local feed store, and a young gal who works there was talking about her new baby. All winter we shoppers had been chatting with her about the coming blessed event. Now baby had arrived, and here she was, hardly missing a beat, and back to work. It wasn’t easy, though. This was her second child, and, of course, two are always a heck of a lot more work than one. Unfortunately, the new baby had “colic.”

Well, as I listened to her anxious recitation to another shopper, it wasn’t colic, it was allergies. Baby was allergic to his formula—to soy formula, to corn oil formula, and apparently to all the other expensive substitutes that Nabisco and all the other pharmaceutical/agri-businesses have devised. She complained that her milk had dried up, but I could tell by the way she said this that her own milk hadn’t been given much encouragement. The first baby, she explained, had taken to canned cow straightaway like a champ.

The young mother is now near panic; I can hear it in her endless rambling. Her six week old baby is at home with Nana, screaming and puking. She’s an emotional wreck and not getting much sleep. But where is she? Behind that counter, at work--at least, sort of. Here's “nowadays” for you. Young marrieds think they have to have it all right now—the big house in the ‘burbs, the SUV for Mommy, a diesel truck for Daddy, the newest washer/dryer, fancy kitchen, freezer, flat screen TV’s, Cable + movie packages, riding mowers, gas grills, etc., etc. They are only doing what TV taught them to do—owe their souls to the Company Store.

I felt terribly sad as I listened. Like most women of my age, I wanted to say something helpful, to give some useful advice that would soothe her, maybe, even, bring relief to the suffering baby. (Imagine starting life in constant pain. In no future I can imagine will a kid with this kind of awful start be a “happy camper.”) It’s not just the raging consumer madness that drives the young couple, but the inability of the mother to simply do as Nature intended--without shame, without pressure, without having to get to work on time, without her husband or her relatives being embarrassed by an “animalistic” display--and give the child of her body the comfort and nourishment of her breast. This, after all, is the perfect “formula” for that particular small new individual’s tender stomach.
I'm glad my husband and I were too dumb to do anything except what came naturally. We were 19, married, and living pretty much hand to mouth. I was a part-time student and a very part time waitress, but I was lucky enough to be home in our 2 rooms/1 bath apartment--mostly. Milk that came from me was a heck of a lot cheaper than formula, so that was what my babies got. I washed clothes at the laundromat and hung them out in all weather to dry. Our prize possession was a VW bug, but if my husband needed the car for work or school, I walked to wherever I needed to go, pushing a stroller. A new book or a record was a big treat.
Yes, we had some occasional help from our folks, but then we didn't even have a credit card until some years later. Sometimes we had to scrounge in the couch cushions for coins to go to the laundry or gas up the car or buy oatmeal, but we got by. We longed to have "stuff," sure, but we knew that acquiring all these things, for plain middle class folks like us, would take time.
Don't take this wrong. A woman must have education and/or job skills with which to support herself. Otherwise, she ends up a victim. I don't know--and I wish I did--what the answer is for that distressed young mother, but I am sure that it's not the best of all possible worlds when a paycheck is more important than taking care of the baby.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tulip Ruminations

Here in southern PA, the tulips have already gone by. It’s sad. You study catalogs, choose bulbs, dig and plant, crawling around on your old, creaking knees for hours making certain they are comfortably bedded down. Then, in they appear, bloom, and in less than a week, their glorious moment is past. This year, three record breaking days of 90 degree heat finished them off in record time.

Daffodils last a bit longer, and there is quite a selection of these nowadays, ones that come early, ones that bloom late, ones with ruffles, ones in pink and white as well as yellow. What’s more, squirrels don’t think daffodils are quite as yummy as tulips, so the bulbs—and the flowers—are more likely to survive. (Bob Cat has done a good job of young squirrel crunching, but he isn’t as hungry as he used to be.) Our apple tree, too, flowered and dropped in record time. I hope the pollinators had a chance to do their job and make us some apples. The bloom lasted such a short time that I never found an instant to go and stand under the tree and catch the scent, or listen to the busy humming over my head, and contemplate the miracle of flower and fruit upon which life on our little planet depends.

Think I’ve learned my lesson about tulips. They were once the sole property of aristocratic gardens, and maybe that’s how it should still be. Corporations and Outlet Malls can bring in troops of gardeners and plant annuals over the bulb’s heads way faster than I can. Better for this home gardener to plant perennial native plants that bush and straggle, but which do bloom and feed the local pollinators for a respectable amount of time. Better for this home gardener to raise a few veggies, tomatoes, salad and herbs in pots on the patio, and eat from home rather than what came in on the truck From Heaven Knows Where, sprayed with Heaven Knows What.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bob's Good Idea

Bob, the Cat-Boy-in-the-Hood who has chosen to live with us, occasionally finds his new home boring. With his usual creativity, he has found a good solution—good, at least, for him!

This April, the weather has been erratic, with warm spells, followed by really chilly cold spells. We’re glad to see the rain, because we need it, and I’m glad to see the cold, because it suppresses the neighbors and quiets the place down a little.

Anyhow, Bob has a pretty good routine devised. He cruises, hunting for moles and mice as he always has, using our house as a convenient pit stop for crunchies, and for shelter when it rains, snows, blows or is otherwise inclement. This works well for him, even at night, because we are retired and also because we are old, which means one or the other of us is awake and always ready to play doorman for him.

When the weather is really bad, however, he may be stuck inside for 10-12 hours which soon becomes intolerable. Things then become intolerable for our other three gentle, completely domesticated felines who are kept indoors most of the time. To liven things up, Bob will try to play with them, and like a lot of tough street cats, his idea of fun is not the same as theirs. He plays rough, and although I don’t think he really means to hurt them, they clearly do not like it.

Well, around 2 a.m. on a night when I was up reading, it started to rain. So, I opened the door as usual and there he was, waiting to come in. After giving him the usual quick stroke on the head, I went back upstairs and climbed into bed, because rain on the roof is a wonderful sleeping potion for me. No sooner had I settled down, then the noise began. It was kitty thunder footing, and if you have more than one cat, you know what I mean. Amazing how much noise those dainty little feet can make, especially in a herd! I figured Bob was just blowing off steam, so I ignored it. With the lovely rain drumming, I soon went back to sleep.

The next day I came downstairs and at once realized that this had not been a good choice. In the middle of the living room lay a headless mouse. I realized Bob must have smuggled in some "entertainment."
Sure enough, a few nights later the process repeated. I tried to check his mouth. He easily evaded me, and trotted off into the dining room. The other cats—for once—followed. There he dropped his mouse, and then sat back with a feline smile. The others approached, quivering with excitement. Rarely do they get such a thrill!

The poor mouse took one look and made a run for it, and a melee followed as the indoor cats took after it. Bob licked his paw, apparently well pleased with himself. It suddenly came to me that we now had a mouse inside—perhaps crippled—which would obtain a small revenge by dying far back under my ten-ton entertainment center. After hanging around for some time, following the stampede hither and thither, I realized there was not much I could do to either help the mouse or hinder the cats. In the end, I decided there was nothing to do but go back to bed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hand-me-Down Bride/Opening Chapters

Sophie studied her toes. She sat on the double bed in which she'd spent the night, knees drawn up beneath her white lawn nightgown. Only her toes stuck out. Lifting her dark head, she gazed through a nearby window at a June morning that shone upon a blooming--but sternly regimented--rose garden. In spite of the warm breeze, she shivered.

Then, hoping it wasn't true, for the hundredth time, she looked at the other narrow bed, the one next to hers. Upon it lay her new husband, the rich grandfatherly man who'd paid her way from Germany, a man she'd married only yesterday.

Theodore Wildbach was quite dead. Proper, in death as in life, he was flat on his back, hands folded on his chest. He looked a bit like the stone knights lying in the cathedral in her home town. That was how Theodore habitually slept, and how he'd died. Pale lips gaped inside a ring of neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.

She'd discovered him upon awakening. She’d arisen and come up close, staring, unable to believe her eyes. It was a terrible surprise, nowhere among the thousand twists of fate she'd imagined as she'd journeyed across sea and land to German Mills, Pennsylvania.

That was when the shivering began. Stumbling, teeth chattering, Sophie beat a hasty retreat to her bed.

She’d been sitting there ever since. She kept thinking she ought to feel something, sorrow for Mr. Wildbach, panic at the black abyss of unknowns into which she was plunged, but all she could do was sit, study her toes, and shake.

At last she heard footsteps ascending the stairs. Sophie jumped out of bed, dashed across the room, tore open the door and ran into the long hallway. She didn't know which member of the family she’d meet, but she didn't care. She couldn't sit with a corpse--even such a proper one--for another minute.

There was her dead husband's youngest son, dressed in one of those outfits of denim and leather that all the young men around here seemed to wear. He was tall, muscular and blonde. He was also shocked by her sudden and indecorous appearance in nothing more than a summer nightgown.

"Herr Karl Joseph!" She how noted his clear gray eyes widened, then began to roll, trying to look anywhere but at her. "Dein Vater ist Tod!"


Your father is dead?

The shock of seeing that poor girl race into the hallway, shaking, terrified, in an embarrassing state of undress, made him stumble over the German. Karl had been born and raised here in Pennsylvania, but, unlike his father, he strove to be, in every way, an American. When, at the age of thirteen, he'd run away, he'd told everyone his name was “Joe Wildbrook.” He’d stuck with the American moniker even after joining the army.

Only yesterday Karl had come from the mill to attend the wedding. He’d arrived in a terrible mood, still hardly able to believe his father was enough of an old goat to have gone through with it. The feeling grew after he'd seen the young, pretty Fraulein Papa had ordered from The Old Country. Karl had come home from the great Civil War with a notion to get married himself, but the local German girls his father kept parading under his nose aroused no interest.

"Handsome enough, eh?" His father had taken Karl by the elbow, nodded in the direction of the bride. Sophie sat on the other side of the room, gravely sipping from a flowered teacup, one that had belonged to the first Mrs. Wildbach. Karl's mother had been a plump, fair lady from an “English” family. Her placid manner had given Theodore no warning of the strength of will she’d possessed.

"We could send for one of her sisters for you."

"No thanks, Papa. I can find a wife on my own." Karl pointedly disengaged his father’s hand. His insistence upon his marrying a German girl grated. Brother George had been given no such orders, but George, like Papa before him, had quickly found himself a well-heeled bride.

"Ah, but not a Schone Jungfrau like that." His father had sent a proud, possessive look at the poor girl.

To Karl, Sophie appeared solemn and edgy. There was not so much as a glint of happiness to animate her beauty. She seemed like the girls who eyed him hopefully at the dances in nearby Palatine or New Bremen, the ones from whom he ran as if they were agents of the devil.

Sophie nodded whenever his father spoke, those dark, long-lashed eyes apparently engaged in a careful study of her lap. Born and raised to be a Hausfrau, Karl thought, with not a thing in her lovely head but "kuchen, kirche und kinder--cooking, church and babies . . .

It was a genuine surprise to learn she could play the piano. When her Aunt insisted, Sophie executed an intricate classical piece, showing far more animation than she had in conversation. Karl didn't know much about music, but it was a treat, the performance poised and polished. It was clearly no beginner's effort.

Papa had been cross when Karl, after one too many glasses of the spiked punch, had made a joke about it.

"You think I would marry a peasant? If I wanted one of those, I could have had a barefoot Dunker off any farm from here to New Bremen, with none of the trouble--or expense--I've just gone to."

As the celebration went on, Karl began to have second thoughts about the girl. When she thought no one was looking, she surveyed the goings-on with intelligent, wary eyes. When she caught him watching, however, that numb mask he'd mistaken for her real face quickly took control again.

Maybe she was the sly opportunist Aunt Sally suspected. Which would, Karl thought, serve Sally right. After all, it took one to know one!

Now, this morning, here the object of all his speculation stood. Dark braids trailed over high unsupported breasts. Ample curves showed to advantage beneath a sheer lawn night gown. She was distraught--and disturbingly disheveled.

Sophie, seeing the shock and embarrassment in Karl Joseph's gray eyes, thought he might run away. To prevent this, she seized his wrist and repeated what she'd said.

"Entschuldigen bitte, Herr Karl. Excuse, please, Herr Karl." Somehow she managed to translate between chattering teeth. "Dein Vater ist Tod." Then, hoping that use of both languages would aid the son's tardy understanding, she added, "Herr Teo-dore--iss--dead."
"Good God!" Karl tore his wrist from her grasp and ran straight into the spacious paternal suite.


After three months of traveling, Sophie stepped out of the coach that had come from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to German's Mill. It had been the goal of a journey that had taken her across the ocean, to the port of New York where she'd met her Aunt Ilga, her mother's sister.

They had traveled by train until they'd arrived in Philadelphia. A week had been spent resting in her Aunt and Uncle's luxurious home, which sat on the heights above the river.

"We want you to be calm and pretty when Herr Wildbach sees you, Schone Nichte. First impressions are so important." Her aunt had anxiously pinched Sophie's travel-pale cheeks.

In a week, she and her aunt were away again, this time in company with her coarse, rich American Uncle Ralph. In German's Mill, dapper Theodore, beard neat and elegant, greeted them. He’d worn a new three-piece black suit, waistcoat crossed by a heavy golden watch chain. Herr Wildbach was old enough to be Sophie’s grandfather, but still a fine looking man. He carried a bouquet of fresh cut roses that he'd presented to Sophie.

He was formal, but Sophie knew he was looking her over, from the top of her brown head to her brand new high-button shoes. Seeming to approve of what he saw, he smiled gravely, gave her his arm, and escorted her to a shiny carriage which boasted a uniformed black driver. Ilga and Ralph joined them.

Her aunt beamed. She had made the match, successfully sparking Theodore's interest.

Sophie knew that Uncle Ralph and Herr Theodore were business partners, and that her husband-to-be frequently visited Philadelphia. It was during one of those business trips Aunt Ilga had found the opening for her proposal.

The drive took them through a busy little town with rutted dirt streets and many tall, graceful elms and maples. Graciously speaking to Sophie in German, Theodore pointed out "sights of interest" in this, her "new home."

From the carriage, she saw a school house, a smithy, a harness maker, a doctor's office and a cooper's shop. A modern brick general store had the porch‑sitters Sophie had noticed at every general store in America, but there were shoppers, too. Mill and store belonged to her husband-to-be.

The mill itself was on one end of the town, set against a little river. In the middle distance, Sophie could see a white cataract. Theodore explained that water was diverted along a race to power the mill.

Making an expansive gesture, Theodore explained, "My grandfather immigrated from Brandenberg to Manheim, Pennsylvania. His son, my father, came here and built this mill, the cornerstone of this village." It seemed Theodore had gone his father one better, setting up the general store and coining money as the population grew.

Wagons drawn by red and white oxen waited at the mill. Farmers with straw hats, brown faces and baggy, dusty work clothes stood at the loading area doing what farmers everywhere do--discuss the weather.

They paused to solemnly tip their hats to Theodore. He returned their salute, but did not ask the driver to stop. Over the sound of rapidly falling water, the thump and groan of a working mill was audible.

"Where is Karl Joseph?" Aunt Ilga asked. She'd been studying the men busily loading sacks into wagons.

"Out checking on the buckwheat," Theodore replied. "He's gauging the time of harvest," he explained to Sophie. "You will meet my youngest, Karl Joseph, tomorrow." Taking Sophie's hand in his, he'd added, "My second son manages my mill for me. It is an excellent place for a young man to acquire a thorough knowledge of business."

Then, he pointed up the hill toward a two-story brick house with tall windows and announced, "There is your new home, Miss Neimann."

Sophie, who had spent her life in cramped, dark city apartments, had never imagined she would live in such a place. It sat in the midst of a park‑like space, with tall trees surrounding it. A rose garden in full bloom surrounded it.

It would be like a fairy tale, she thought, except for the woman's price I shall soon pay--my body given to that chilly old man!

Sternly, she pushed self-pity away. Her father had been an educated man, a civil servant. Since his death, her mother had worked herself nearly to exhaustion to support the family.

As Sophie had done time and again on the voyage, she told herself, "I am unbelievably fortunate to have this opportunity to help my family to a better life. Perhaps, in time, if I please this gentleman, and if he is as generous as Aunt Ilga says, he will let me bring my mother and all my sisters to this wonderful country where there is more than enough for everyone.

In spite of the often-repeated lecture, however, fear churned in the pit of her stomach as the carriage ascended a curving drive.

Theodore handed Sophie down, and escorted her through a great dark door into an impressive but gloomy parlor. It was paneled in walnut, full of massive furniture and Turkish carpets. Dresden figurines crowded every small table. Lace-edged antimacassar lay across the chair backs. China plates lined the rails just below the ceiling.

Here Sophie met Herr Wildbach's oldest son, George, and his wife, Sally. Both were distinctly cold, but Aunt Ilga had warned her about them.
"George Wildbach thought he had the inheritance sewed up," she'd explained. "When you have children—and," she paused to send Sophie a solicitous glance, "I am convinced you will most certainly have that happiness, George and Sally's plans will be out the window."

Theodore, in a lord-of-the-manor fashion, introduced Sophie to the housemaids and to the German cook. When Sophie saw how nicely the servants were dressed, she was glad Aunt Ilga had bought her new high-button shoes.

It wouldn't have done at all to arrive in German's Mill with those wooden ones she'd worn across the ocean. She'd had leather shoes at home, but her mother had been told that it wouldn't be safe for Sophie to look as if she had anything to steal, so she'd gone on board dressed like a servant.

The new, Baltimore shoes were breaking in nicely, although they still rubbed a little. She'd had to resort to sticking plasters at the heels, but Sophie was thrilled with them anyway. It had only been during Papa's lifetime that she'd owned anything so handsome.

That very evening, she and Herr Wildbach--he, starched and upright--were married in the oppressive downstairs parlor. A local dignitary, called a "District Justice," performed the service. Only servants and immediate family were present.

Sally Wildbach was tearful, clearly not with happiness. Her husband, George, a stooped younger copy of his elegant father, appeared preoccupied. The youngest son arrived late, just after Theodore had opened his pocket watch and declared he "would not wait one second more to convenience that impertinent puppy."

"Puppy," Sophie saw, did not really describe Karl Joseph. He was taller than either father or brother, muscular and fair, out of an entirely different mold. His handsome face was pale and shadowed, like a man who has spent the night awake. Sophie instantly felt ill at ease, for she had an intuition Karl was sorrowfully remembering his dead mother. When Aunt Ilga had talked about the Wildbachs, she’d explained that Karl Joseph had been deeply attached to his mother, that he’d run away and joined the army just after she died. It didn't take much imagination to know what he must be feeling.

After a brief ceremony, there had been a hearty German supper of roast pork, filling, gravy, kraut, and poppy-seeded noodles. The dessert was a fabulously tender and moist Dampfnudeln‑‑raised dumplings‑‑swimming in a delicious cherry sauce. Sophie's stomach was a knot, so she couldn't eat much, no matter how good the food looked and how blessedly familiar it was.

Theodore and her Aunt and Uncle were cheerful, but the other family members were taciturn, particularly Karl. He passed dishes wordlessly and consumed quantities that would have made him champion at an eating contest. He was a polite diner, but the way he kept staring from across the table at her was almost unbearable. His cold gray eyes bored straight into her.

Under such relentless scrutiny, she wielded her fork with great care.
What was the big square jawed American staring at? Was he waiting for her to spill cherry sauce down the front of her new frock?

Worse, how much he looked like Captain Frederick, that wolf in sheep’s clothing whom she’d so unwisely loved! Remembering him, remembering everything that had happened, a chill ran down her spine.

Sophie swallowed her last bite with difficulty, set the fork precisely down. Once and for all, her mind screamed, I must put the folly of my past behind me.

After a couple of agonizingly slow turns around the rose garden, Theodore announced they intended to retire. This sent Sally into another fit of weeping. The surly younger son, after a mumbled "thank-you" and "good-bye," sentiments more suitable for a Sunday dinner than a wedding feast, had hurried to the front hitching post. Throwing himself upon his big chestnut horse, he'd galloped away as if pursued by the devil.

Sophie's heart had been pounding, her palms sweating, when, at last, the bedroom door closed behind them. In German, in a tone more like a sergeant than a husband, Theodore directed her to get undressed and put on the lovely nightgown Aunt Ilga laid out.

Obediently, Sophie went to the bed by the window and lifted the fine material between trembling fingers. Her husband instantly retreated into an adjacent dressing room.

"Herr Wildbach," her aunt had explained, "believes that sleep is more profound and healthful when a husband and wife occupy separate beds."

Nervously hurrying to do as he'd said, Sophie heard the sound of pouring water. Next came the opening and closing of a cupboard door and the tinkle of a stirring spoon. After a few moments of silence in which Theodore was presumably drinking whatever mixture he'd made, he began to move about again. A wardrobe door opened and closed.

What would her wicked friend, Lisel, now left forever behind in Osnabruck, say about the kind of man who takes the time to hang up his pants on his wedding night? Especially a man of fifty-seven, about to possess a twenty‑four year old bride?

Sophie began to shiver in earnest.

When Theodore reappeared, he wore a perfectly ironed ankle-length nightshirt, leather slippers and an alarmingly warm expression. He took her hands, and, formally, one at a time, lifted and kissed them.

Beneath that knowing older man's gaze, Sophie lowered her eyes. She felt a flush bathe her, bosom to brow.

Theodore bent and kissed Sophie upon the lips. His lips felt cold and dry.

"Now, Frau Wildbach, into your bed."

She could hardly see, but somehow she managed it. When she faced him, clutching the sheet in a death grip, he said in his precise, clipped German, "Don't worry about your marital duties tonight, Frau Wildbach. We'll perform them soon, but I think we should be more at ease with each other first. You will know when that time arrives," he instructed, "because I shall join you there."

Sophie tried not to look as relieved as she felt, but this unexpected turn of events brought her to the brink of tears.

"Mind, my dear girl, don't confide this to anyone, particularly Sally. It is none of her business, though she will try to make it so. She is a typical pushy American woman." He shook his head disapprovingly. "I've told George many times that leisure spoils a wife. It only gives them time to meddle where they shouldn't."

Sophie nodded. The dangerous sister‑in‑law Aunt Ilga had warned her about was maybe not such a threat after all.

"I would not do that, Herr Wildbach. Mother says words between husband and wife are private."

"Prudent advice," Theodore observed dryly, "but not always easily followed. At least until you have more English, you won't . . . "

He paused, left the sentence trailing. Sophie could not tell if it was discretion he was requesting, or a better command of her new language.

"I am sorry, Mr. Wildbach, I do not have better English."

"English is a confusing language, needlessly difficult. If you want to know something, ask Grete in the kitchen, or me. Divine, the Schwarze cook who works for Karl, knows some German, too. She was born in Palatine."

This caused Sophie to raise her eyes in wonder. Herr Wildbach chuckled. "I mean to say that Divine was born in Palatine, Pennsylvania," he explained, "which is inhabited almost exclusively by Germans."


Theodore gave her a last long look in which fatherliness and lusty regret uneasily combined. Then he turned on his heel, crossed the room, blew out the lamp and got into his bed, the one closest to his dressing chamber.

It took her awhile to stop trembling and settle back into the clean, fine linen where she smothered tears of weary gratitude in the pillow. What a kind, kind man, Sophie thought. Surely, after this, when Herr Theodore came to her bed, she could do what she must without so much fear. Perhaps, even, with a feeling of--if not love--at least gratitude for tonight's supreme charity.

"And you woke up and that was how he was?" Karl kept asking it. Sophie had followed him back into the room and stood at the bed's foot. Seeing the body, her teeth began chattering again.

"Ya. Ich kenn nicht maken! I did not know what to do."

Soon the house was in turmoil. People wept, even the servants. Men flocked up from the town below to stand, hats in hand, in the yard. Sophie shed some tears, too, at last, though she'd only known Theodore Wildbach for a brief two days.

She was truly sorry. Theodore had seemed fastidious in every way, a man of his word, and one who had been supremely careful of her feelings. His kindness last night had convinced her that he was--rather, had been--a very, very good man.


The Will was read in a Judge's parlor. Here, from a seat beside her tight-lipped Aunt, Sophie learned that it had not been altered to include her. A codicil had been drawn, the Judge apologetically explained, but not yet been signed. This left George and Sally possession of the great house on the hill, the general store, some railway stock, and undisclosed sums lodged in Philadelphia banks.

The judge read on: "I bequeath the sum of $600 and title to the mill, commonly known as German's Mill, as well as the attached house, barn and 3 acres, to my son Karl Joseph Wildbach on condition he forswear continued use of the English alias “Joe Wildbrook.” Shame concerning his family’s origin is an attitude which has inflicted great pain upon his father. Although, during his youth, Karl Joseph displayed a disobedient and reckless disposition, experience of life has, I trust, worked a transformation that will render him worthy of his inheritance."

Sophie saw Karl Joseph blanch. His big muscular hands gripped his hat as if he intended to punch fingertips through the brim.


This is what I get, Karl thought, for feeling the least bit of sorrow for Papa. Even from the grave he knows where I'm vulnerable, how to humiliate me, control me.

That he, Joe Wildbrook, a decorated Veteran of the War Between the States, still could feel like a bullied child must be hidden at all costs. He had already proved he could survive beyond the protective wing of his rich father. As a soldier, he'd proved he was a man‑‑if killing made you one‑‑many times over.

Karl glared at the elaborate parquet which floored Judge Markham's dim lair. He would not give George or that malicious Sally the pleasure of witnessing his pain.

He had been feeling sorry that he hadn't loved his father more or pleased him more, remembering the affection his father had given--of a distant kind, to be sure, but a portion of what a father ought to give his son. Now here was Papa as ever, ruining the warm moment, still tearing him down, now from beyond the grave!

While fighting the Great War, a teen surviving among rough and desperate men, Karl had learned some of life's hardest lessons. When he'd fallen seriously ill just as the war ended, his father had taken him from a crowded military hospital, and brought him home.

Karl had been grateful. After hearing from army friends that postwar service mainly consisted of killing Indians, he wanted no more of the army. He’d done enough killing, witnessed enough death and dying. So, after getting his health back, instead of resuming military life, he'd resigned. He ended as a Captain, no small feat for one who'd gone in as a friendless, penniless boy.

He had accepted his father's offer to manage the mill. It was noisy and dirty there, nothing that either Papa or George wanted to deal with. Karl had been thankful to keep life simple while he got well and sorted out his mind about what he had seen--and done--during the long agony of that terrible war.

While recovering, he developed a vague notion of earning a stake, and heading west. He had heard inspiring stories about Oregon, and thought he might like to go there.

Now, only eighteen months out of a sick bed, Karl Joseph could neither bear himself nor German Mills. He was at his father's beck and call, his nose rubbed in the same dreck that had driven him away in the first place.

Judge Markham, watery eyes twinkling over his spectacles as he read, was very much enjoying his role as Theodore's earthly surrogate. As a matter of fact, the antagonism Karl felt for Markham went way back, to the days when Markham had tried to teach him Latin. The task was finally abandoned, but only after being loudly and repeatedly declared "as impossible as teaching speech to a donkey."

As a boy, Karl would much rather ride, fish and hunt with the wild McNally boys and chase after their pretty sister, Dawnie. His childhood had been spent rebelling, getting whipped, and then rebelling again. Meanwhile, George was groomed to do what Karl saw as the easy job‑‑inherit.

"George is obedient. George is hard working. George is serious and studious." Finally, it boiled down to a formula: "George is good. Karl is bad."

The truth, as far as Karl was concerned, was that George was a sneak and a bully. His brother was also many years older, and so was able to enforce his will with words and blows. Blows which George, (being George), was careful his father never saw.

It had been something of a shock to meet his brother after a decade of absence. The tyrant was now balding, and he remained at the beck and call of an overbearing father. George was chained until all hours to “Wildbach's Hardware & Grocery.”

No longer did it seem enviable to be oldest. Nowadays, George did all the work while Papa played in his rose garden, stopping in at the store every afternoon to "criticize and upset everything," --Sally's exact words. Karl often thanked God that Papa had mostly lost interest in the mill, with the vagaries of weather and farmers.

As Judge Markham plodded through an apparently endless list of small bequests, Karl's attention shifted to Sophie. Her glossy dark brunette was now hidden under an old-country black bonnet. She was covered, neck to ankle, in a black dress, but this did not disguise the curve of her waist or the swell of her breasts, the proud rise he’d glimpsed through the delicate nightgown. Even the shock of finding his father stretched out so still and cold had not been great enough to obliterate his memory of that high firmness.

In the hallway, trying to find words, her cheeks flooded with rose. Karl found himself wondering what she'd look like with her long dark hair loose, lying back upon pillows, the curtains blowing in a warm summer wind, the scent of her skin, of roses and fresh linen mingling …

Good God! Swiftly, he reined himself in. Just that much of a fantasy was enough to make the heart of a man far younger than Papa's race almost to bursting. Prudently, Karl looked away.

It was hard to be warm-blooded and in his twenties and stuck in German's Mill! During the war there had been free women, women who had appreciated Karl's happy‑go‑lucky smile and muscular self.

Lately, however, he'd begun to believe he knew what life was like inside a monastery. There was a brothel just south of Harrisburg, but he feared that someone from German Mills would find out if he so much as put a foot over that legendary doorsill.

Perhaps this was why the widowed bride looked so good, in spite of knowing that she must be either avaricious, numb as a stump, a born martyr, or some combination of all three. There could be no other reason she would have agreed to an arranged marriage with a man old enough to be her father.

Karl comforted himself with the idea that every time she opened her mouth and German came out, all his-below-the-belt agitation would end.

About as exciting as dairy cows, German girls, even if Papa probably died on top of this one.

The last thought made Karl shift uncomfortably. Still, he mused, stealing another look at Sophie, he’d seen plenty worse ways--and places--to die!

Meanwhile, Markham droned on, reading that long list of small bequests. Along with each gift came a lecture: for each grandchild, for servants, even a lecture for one of the aged grocery clerks, as Theodore made sure he had the last word.

"Will you be staying?" George asked. It was, Karl thought, one of his few virtues. His brother rarely beat around the bush.

"For a while, but I will start looking for a mill master. There's nothing to stop me going West now."

"You can't go anywhere until the harvest's over." Sally spoke up immediately. She was a thin woman and her once white-blonde hair had faded. She had been pretty in a sharp way, but it seemed to Karl that as years passed, her abiding passions, greed and meddling, had left a mark. In his mind’s eye, Sally was a ferret, sharp nose and bright eyes, poking into everything, always looking for something--or someone--to devour.

"Didn't say anything about leaving right away, Ma'am. However, don’t count on me after next year."

Maybe they couldn't imagine it, but Karl knew he could survive outside German Mills. He'd sell out for whatever George or someone else offered, collect his $600, and go west. After all, he'd landed on his feet when he'd run away with only the coat on his back.

"Perhaps you'd have preferred the store." Sally glared and then pinched her thin nose with her handkerchief, as if a bug had just crawled up it.
The store was far more profitable than the mill. George, for all his drawbacks as a human being, was an excellent manager, a close student of every modern method. They had the local post office, too, and that was a sure fire method for getting the entire population through the door regularly.

"I have faith, dear sister, that with or without me, you and George will soon acquire most of Greene County."


His brother began, but Karl cut him off. "Papa didn't own me, and you and Sally sure as hell don't."

Without a by-your-leave or goodbye, he strode out of the heavily curtained chamber. "Damn this place and everybody in it!" At the door he paused to grab his hat and clap it on his head before tramping out to the porch and away down the stairs.

Judge Markham sat at his desk. George Wildbach faced him across the mahogany surface. A bottle stood between them. It was the finest Kentucky bourbon, meant for sipping.

The Judge poured. Then, ceremoniously, the two men raised their glasses.

"A good day's work, son." It was not just a figure of speech. George's wife had been born Sally Markham. The union had made kin of the two sharpest dealers in the county.

"I don't know how I can thank you, sir."

"Just doing the right thing, m'boy." The Judge's spectacles were misty with emotion. "You've been a fine husband to my little Sally, and now there's Teddy and the girls. They come first."

"To think! Just because Papa died so sudden, Ilga Bullmaster and her niece would have waltzed off with $5,000 next week, skimmed right off the top."

"Well, with both wills in my file and the witnesses in my pocket, it was easy enough."

"A damned handsome girl," George remarked after a meditative sip. Oddly, he felt a little sorry for Sophie. She seemed quite innocent, although Heaven knew that conniving Ilga was not.

"Forgive me for being candid, George, but nothing less but than handsome would have suited your father. He was a man of the most informed and demanding taste. Ilga had the good sense to offer him a rose as perfect as any in his garden."

The Judge paused to splash more whiskey into George's glass. "It's just good business," he declared, "not to let money get away from the family. Real family, that is."

George drank the second shot neat and then shook his head in an attempt to clear it. He wasn't accustomed to drinking so early in the day, nor was he accustomed to downright felony. Theft which could be performed under cover of law, like foreclosing a couple of years back on that shiftless Washington McNally, was one thing. To "lose" a signed and witnessed codicil was something else.

The Judge held up his glass, admiring the way light filtered through the amber whiskey. He had a vested interest in George, but had decided not to share Theodore's last little whim with his son-in-law. At least, not until he'd had a chance to have a nice private chat with young Karl Joseph.

Judge Markham had been genuinely fond of Theodore Wildbach, an excellent businessman and poker player, one whose company he and his cronies would miss. For old times’ sake, he'd give one last, discreet lecture to that bullheaded Karl.

To turn up his nose at the mill, just because it had a few unusual strings attached, would be a prime piece of foolery, a mistake George would never make! Nevertheless, once he'd told Karl about the other conditions Theodore had laid upon his inheritance, Markham was certain he would run. That would leave the entire fortune to the malleable George and his very own Sally, just in time for next year's federal elections. With Wildbach money behind him, too, he was certain to take the seat left vacant by the death of Congressman Cox.

Yes, keeping it his secret was for the best!

Markham knew his target well. Back Karl backed into a corner, and he ran. You could count on it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Courtesy of Netflix, I’m currently watching Due South, a t.v. series from the early 90’s. It revolves around the adventures of a police odd couple, a Mountie (descended about equally from Dudley-Do-Right and Sgt. Preston) and a cynical, not-so-by-the-book Chicago Detective. The Mountie, Constable Benton Frazer, has a wolf companion, named Diefenbaker, after a long ago Canadian P.M. The wolf sleeps in his bed, while Frazier sleeps in a pristine boyscout bed-roll, on the floor. It’s old time television with happy-endings, clearly never meant to be taken too seriously, a kind of "Monk" with Canadian v. American jokes. Most episodes are witty, with a wry, dry humor.

The opening shot of Constable Frazier marching into Chicago—walking beside the roaring interstate, with backpack and wolf—is genuinely poignant . He’s the classic stranger in a strange land. It’s uplifting to enter--if only through the suspension of belief —a reality where honesty, knowledge, industry, and optimism carry the day, but there’s another reason, I think.

My mother loved this series and long ago begged me to watch it, but I refused. This had to do with me and her and her preference, long established, for dogs over people. "Due South" had that wolf, so I figured it was just Mom being obsessive about canines, as usual. At her best, Mom was Auntie Mame—at her worst, well, let’s just not go there.

Anyhow, some time around Christmas, I began to watch. At first finding the show appeared to be the result of searching for Paul Gross, after loving his work in the award winning t.v. series, “Slings & Arrows.” As I watched, however, a memory returned, of Mom talking about "Due South" and me saying “Yes, sure I’ll watch,” but never doing so. Mom’s been gone for a few years now, (but always, in the way of mothers, around) so I wasn’t all that surprised by the sudden appearance of this “coincidence.”

I’ve now watched all of "Due South" and enjoyed it thoroughly. (It's a break from the news!) I hope Mom has enjoyed sharing it with me, at last. I find that even the darn wolf has become a thing of beauty. I can hear Mom saying that he’s “a lovely, smart boy, and probably a wolf-husky mix,” like the one her best friend at the nursing home, a proud member of the Mohawk Nation, often brought to visit.

This Christmas has been a time of reconciliation, for letting go of old injuries. Hopefully, Mom can move on now, beyond the “borderlands.” Meanwhile, I find myself imagining that the pure-hearted Constable Frazier is now returned to his ice-bound arboreal forest, and that he, the wolf—and perhaps some hearty frontier woman--will live happily ever after.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kat Hurl

It is spring now, so let’s just say that cats take a little extra work. This is because they groom themselves, and swallow what they groom. To make a bad situation worse, they shed their winter coats. This leads to internalization of large wads of cat fur, hence to vomiting.

There are also their eating/sporting habits. Cats are like owls. When they eat a mouse or tender young rabbit, they eat every bit. This means they swallow fur and bones. All that stuff has to go somewhere, either out the back or out the front. Often, it’s easier for cats to hork, so that’s what they do. Then Cat Mom has a cleanup job of which she is not particularly fond.

This morning, sitting in front of the computer, waiting for it to boot up, I happened to glance out the window. I never saw farther than the sill, however, because I could see that some rotten feline had thrown up all over. There were kitty crunchies swimming in a light sauce of tummy juice, spilling over the edge and oozing down the wall. When I got my bucket with hot water and white vinegar, rags, paper towels, my gloves, etc., ready, and pulled back the horizontal blinds, I discovered that the window, too, was involved. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a cat execute the classic drunk’s forward splash maneuver before, but there’s always a first time. Another trip was required, for more paper towels and the glass cleaner.

We who love cats have all endured the awful cold squish between the toes during a darkened, sleepy nighttime trip to the bathroom. We all have our “Epic” puke stories. I think mine was back in the 80’s, when one of my kitties (I suspect it was Stanzi Marie Pussycat, a lovely tri-color patched tabby,) barfed fulsomely into my trusty dot matrix printer over night. I didn’t discover this until I went to turn it on.

Cussing, I carried the poor little machine outside and shook it heartily, upside down, knowing that even if the printer wasn’t totaled, this was just the beginning of a lengthy cleanup. As I watched the stuff fall out, I actually had a moment of wondering why I loved these cats so much.

It didn’t last long, though.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cat Names

Cat Names and how they get them is a long and tortuous topic, as twisted and lumpy as old street cat’s busted tail. The “owner” (or, more properly, the feline “host”) gives kitty a name, but as Paul Gallico told us long ago in his wonderful and heartbreaking story, The Abandoned, kitties arrive with their own names, secret names that only cats know.

It is my theory that the secret name leaks into the susceptible mind of the cat “owner” and causes a kind of sea change to occur. The original “given” name becomes something else, it transmutes, sometimes taking along the elements of the by-human-bestowed name, sometimes not. I gave the name “Pamina” to a small flame-point domestic shorthair barn-born kitten, during my extended period of Mozart Madness. This promptly morphed into “Mina,” which became in turn became “Meena,” “Meena-Moo,” and finally just “Moo.” At the same time, we had another barn baby who made a perfect imitation of a Maine Coon, old-fashioned black and gray. As if Mozart wasn’t sufficiently entertaining, I was also reading a lot of ETA Hoffmann, one of the 18th Century inventors of the Fantasy novel. This darling round kitten became “Murr,” after Hoffmann’s own beloved feline companion. (It means “purr” in German.)
Typical of human skill in naming, this large cuddly ball with toe feathers and a fluffy buff belly, did not purr at all. He had that gorgeous round Maine Coon face, with neck ruff and ear feathers, so he became “Murr Face.” After awhile—and you can see this coming—it just became “Face,” or, when we wished to address him formally: “Face Cat.”

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with “Mittens” or “Boots,” nor even “Fluffy,” although I think these cats, too, have secret names, ones their owners may never discover. I once read in a new age magazine that cats prefer names which have initial sounds of “S,” “T,” “F,” “B,” “M” and “P.” On the strength of this (perhaps) dubious authority, I followed the rule for many years in giving cat names. We had “Set” and “Tut” strictly following the Egyptian theme. We had Bast the Beautiful, a ferocious black female who chased squirrels up trees, caught them and then rode them down to their deaths. We had “Sam,” a Siamese, of course, but of the apple-headed big bodied variety. His full name was “Mahasamatman” after the Buddha.

Some nice folks in Nashville let us take over Sam’s care, as he’d moved over to our house anyway. Fact was, they’d picked him up behind a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. He loved those dinners we had in the eighties: corn chips covered with chili and cheese. You could make Sam a plate starting with the chip, bean and burger layer, then top it with salsa, sour cream and guacamole, and he’d motor through it, right down to the bottom.

There’s an old adage about every life “Needs 9 cats.” You need at least nine, IMHO, because every cat is a stand-out individual. The older I get, and the more I learn about them, the better my feline relationships become. As the all-powerful aliens said on an ancient Star Trek “They are beings; they have spirit.”
–Juliet Waldron

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why Possum Tracks?

Why Possum Tracks? Well, this is a funny little beast, one of Nature’s abandoned experiments in creature creation. It just appeals to me, perhaps just because I’m nearsighted, a bit untidy, and enjoy rummaging for inspiration and creative sustenance in the small, messy details of life.

A possum leaves odd tracks, especially in snow, because his/her tail drags along behind. Like a Charlie Chaplin bum, a possum’s ungraceful and lumpy, scuffling along like a bundle of untidy, smelly rags. They can hiss and show you rows of teeth (50 in all) if you surprise them, and they can play dead and sincerely hope not to be eaten, but that’s about it in the defensive arena. In fact, they are mostly on the run, hoping to bluff you—or the dog—away, so they can scuttle off to safety.

Cheerfully omnivorous, they chow down on anything, even more so than Fido, who is notoriously unfussy about what he eats. They like insects, but Possums also enjoy fruit—who doesn’t--and will gravitate to apple, persimmon or paw-paw windfalls with delight. They have one particular claim to fame. As the only American marsupial, a family line which still has some survivors in isolated Australia, they are unique.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

air borne
organizing V,
chatty winged
heads South.

One flies contrary,
mate and tribe
lost, alone
but still
ancient lays
to North

B.0.B. Cat

Bob, yes, that’s an acronym. He arrived as a skinny youth, a gray striped tiger with two enormous boy accoutrements carried proudly beneath his tail. He had a very loud, deep voice and a head and chest that were thick, out of proportion to the rest of him. Clearly, here was a young tomcat -- on the lam! I, of course, petted him. He was very friendly. I fervently hoped he had a home.

Then, one day as winter approached, I offered him food. At first he turned it down. He had on a tight, much weathered collar. He began to show up daily for petting, and also to eat what I offered. He drooled as he gobbled down a bowl of dry kibble, and I imagined he’d been recently abandoned—or that whoever had been feeding him had stopped. One day he came to me and put a paw on his collar, clawing. I removed it, and scratched his neck, which obviously felt good. It had been on the verge of choking. Again, I hoped that if he did belong to someone, even marginally, they’d replace the collar, but no one did.

We began to call him B.B., in honor of his sizeable boy parts, ever more notable as he grew. He began to appear, calling loudly, morning and evening, to get his handout. He liked to sit on my lap, too, so I began to huddle on the porch, sitting on the car’s silver sunscreen to keep my butt warm. I started to take my flea comb out and groom him a bit, pinching out the ones I caught, and cleaning his scarred up head. He seemed to like it. Because he was so big and such a tomcat, I was hesitant about handling him—I just let him do what he wanted, which was to curl up on lap and knead for a few minutes after he ate.

We already had 3 indulged indoor cats, and my husband was adamant about “no more,” so B.B. and I got through the winter as well as we could. (Chris keeps my cat collection under control.) I worried about B.B. when it was very cold, and offered water along with the food now, which he would lap thirstily. Still, he walked off every day as though he had places to go and things to do. (The song “Tomcat Strut” came to mind.) As long as he was fed, everything seemed OK, although I did worry when he showed up covered in blood from fighting during the autumn Yy-eowly season. In the depths of the winter, too, he’d show up covered in blood, but with no new wounds I could locate. Then his ribs and belly stuck out and he had no appetite. When I found squirrel tails in the yard, I understood that alone among 40 years of cats, I had concrete proof that B.B. wasn’t afraid to take on our thuggish local “tree rats.”

Cute, squirrels—and don’t get me wrong, there’s almost nothing more adorable than a litter? of babies, practicing their acrobatics, rejoicing in spring and the abundance of food. Yes, and they are smart, too, but just hell on my birdfeeders! I’ve never lived anywhere with such aggressive squirrels. These guys have a look in their eyes that makes me fear they’re planning a mugging. Perhaps it’s that we live in too urban an area for the men to plug them, like they would in the sticks, but we do seem in need of a predator for them.

Well, to return to B.0.B., a dear friend of mine who loves animals kicked in half of the Humane Society’s spay and neuter bill, and we trapped B.B. and took him on the appointed day. He was tested for Feline Leukemia/ peritonitis, given his shots and his life changed—we hoped—when we removed the B.B’s. We brought him home and locked him in a room with box and water, and fed him as he recovered. He seemed happy to be warm and didn’t carry a grudge, as we humans might. What we still didn’t know was if this paws are made for walkin’ guy would stay with us after neutering and gaining entry to our home.

As we suspected, he hasn’t changed his game plan one iota.

We did change his name, though. Now (at least to us,) he’s B. Zero B. or Bob. It seems like a decent name for a large gray cat. Who knows how many other names he has! I put a collar on him with a tag, and that lasted about 2 days, although I did get a phone call from a lady who said she was glad such a nice cat had a home, and that he visited her regularly. I put another collar on him, which lasted even less time, but received a phone call from a second lady who said pretty much the same thing. Who knows how many other benefactors he has?

Oh, B.0.B., you total bum! Even as I write, I’m waiting for you to put in your daily appearance. He’s taken to using our house for a crash pad, appearing when it’s cold, or raining, and calling for “in.” When the door opens, he heads for the food bowl and slams his face into it. Kibble flies in all directions as he eats . The other cats watch him, in awe. Then, after getting some patting—he’s a great leg rubber and has a wonderful purr—he goes to sleep upside down on the couch with his mouth open. He drools, too, especially when he’s happy or getting a chin scratch.