The stress and expectations of the holidays are over. Snow could still happen. Winter has not yet worn out its welcome. It’s too early to dread the tasks of spring. Sunrises are spectacular. There is fog. Rainy cocooning days are abundant, yet interspersed with crisp sparkling sunny ones—but not too many. What’s not to love about January in the Pacific Northwest?
True, the spring-is-not-imminent bubble is broken when seed catalogs show up in my box, and when my neighbor starts pruning his apple trees and mine haven’t been attended to in four years.
Last weekend, much to my regret after a stormy week, the sun came out and the temperature rose. After ignoring it for a couple days, I couldn’t avoid spending Sunday outside when I really wanted to stay in and paint a wall or work on my newest writing project or finish reading my book (Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens—a beautiful book).
I wasn’t going to go crazy. I was just going to accomplish one long-avoided outdoor task: get the St. John’s Wort under control. I am missing the stone retaining wall buried under it. It was harder than I anticipated. It did not pull easily, even out of rain-saturated ground; and pulling it from the downhill side of the wall caused the large stones to drop and roll, endangering my feet; and necessitating carrying them back up the slope.
I gave it up after realizing it was going to wreak body havoc and I can’t take ibuprofen because I’m having everyone’s favorite cancer prevention procedure this week—and I don’t mean mammogram. I left the piles I had created, that didn’t put a dent in the job.
I moved on to cutting down the large dead rhododendron to add to the pile my helpmate is going to pick up for disposal soon. (He came on Monday! Two pickup and two trailers full. I created it all.)
I do love opening up space, which is kind of what January is about for me.
Dragging the branches up to the pile, returning for more again and again, I tried to turn a blind eye to all the other tasks that need to be done before the commencement of spring adds to the list. Only sheer willpower kept me from sitting down in the driveway and crying. It’s too much. It needs a blanket of snow—out of sight, out of mind. I should live in Alaska. Or Siberia.
My mother, after my father died, hired people to do it all. I don’t have her resources. She did a yeoman’s job keeping up the house and the myriad repairs needed by an aging structure. She hired it all out; but as evidenced by the complete files she kept, it was a huge task. She got multiple quotes then followed workers around—probably with a clipboard—checking on their work, inevitably writing letters of complaint to superiors, challenging the cost, making follow-up phone calls.
Not me. I have a hard time asking for help for something I can do myself. It’s not a virtue. But when I hire someone (by webbing out from one person I like to the next), I tend to trust them to know their trade and to set a fair price. Maybe I could use a wee bit of my mother’s micromanagement, but so far this is working for me.
Returning to the St. John’s Wort to pick up my piles, and rake storm debris out of the yard—dumping the loaded wheelbarrow over when a bolt fell out of a leg—I wondered how my father did it all. I had asked my mother if he hired any help. “No,” she said, “never. And it killed him.” We’ll never know if it killed him or saved him, but what I really want to know is did he resent the time the endless tasks took him away from his beloved workshop and creative endeavors?
This property was my parents’ life. I see that now. It had to be. I love it beyond measure, but it can’t be my life. My mother dealt with the overwhelming tasks beyond the yard by saying, “I didn’t want it to look like a park.” I’ve believed it was her rationale for letting go of what she couldn’t deal with. I do want it to look like a park; and it’s in danger of looking like back country wilderness if left on its own. But I’m overwhelmed. Hard choices are going to have to be made. I don’t know that I’ll make it to my 2027 exit plan.
Piles and branches picked up, fir needles and cones blown out of the carport and across the parking zone to add to the wet needles and leaves that need to be scraped off the edges of the driveway before they turn to soil, I was ready to call it a day. Then I remembered the roof. Holy crap. After the not-quite-epic Epiphany Storm, it had to be cleaned off. Sighing, I dragged the ladder down the stairs, positioned the wheelbarrow for dropping into from the top, threw the broom and bucket onto the roof, and climbed up. It was a mess. I shouldn’t have left if for last, when I was exhausted.
I took two of my mother’s extra-strength Tylenol, only slightly past expiration, plugged in the huge heating pad I finally found for her too near the end of her life, and was in bed at 7:30. How many days until the rain comes back? Could it stay January for a few more months?
P.S. The dreadful procedure is over—”yucky,” as the littlest little is fond of saying—and all is well. The drugs were good, and I got to spend the afternoon napping instead of working outside. Unlike pulling blackberry vines, I won’t have to repeat that for a long time.
Today the rain is back. Yehaw!
To Love January
I clasp January to me giddy
with hope for its newborn
cry that clears away the worn
out year like so much tinsel
carted off to storage.
I love January’s uncluttered room,
its freshly laundered calendar innocent
and white beneath a pure blue sky
grazed by bone-clean trees.
To love January is an acquired taste,
like learning to let the tongue curl
around the slow, sweet burn
of Tuaca’s golden fire.
I do not want to wait for April to fall in love,
July to run with a salty sea,
October to be crowned
in color. I want to drink it all in now
when everything is possible
and I and the world are infants again
babbling, listening for birdsong.
(Thank you to Joanna Powell Colbert and those before her for sharing this poem.)
It’s time for someone else to enjoy the bedroom suite my parents purchased circa 1964. At least that’s when I got their old dresser for my first-ever room of my own. They bought the old one when they set up housekeeping after the war, purchased from a hotel going out of business.
I used that dresser for 48 years, until I moved back across the country six and a half years ago. My mother didn’t want me to take it back in 1976. “It’s mine,” she said. She finally relented, realizing it had become more mine than hers; and I began homemaking with it too.
I’ve changed its look twice. The first time I removed the blue-grey and Dijon-mustard marine deck paint my father covered the natural finish oak with; updating it. I reattached the mirror with the arms that of course he had kept for 30 years after altering the heavy mirror to hang on the wall, and changed the chrome knobs he put on in favor of something more in keeping with its original period. The second refurbish included painting the drawers and mirror frame black and changing the knobs again; updating it.
I guess my mother and I were both sentimental about it; I have kept it all these years. Now it has come out of storage and back into use, and I’m so happy to see it again. Someday, when she has room for it, I will make my daughter take it. My modest wardrobe doesn’t need that much room, and it has to stay in the family. (Heirlooms are hell.)
Meanwhile the Early American reproduction dresser and mirror, along with bedside tables and bed, have been donated for use by someone who will, I hope, be as ecstatic to have them as I expect my mother was. There was a lump in my throat when the guys from the charity carried it out. It’s the bed I crawled into when I had a bad dream, next to my mother on the far side. It’s the bed my parents slept in together for 30 years. It’s the bed she died in.
The chair my mother rocked her babies in stays with me.
It was a calm evening, with a faint rainbow and a sunset that took me off my route home to bask in its beauty. From home, it was showier to the east than to the west. Maybe I should have had a clue that something out of the ordinary was coming.
I didn’t know there was a storm brewing—”worst of the winter so far with wind gusts of 50-80mph causing massive power outages”—until I saw a Facebook post just before I headed to bed. Great.
It hit at midnight on January 6, Epiphany, the celebration of the climax of the magi’s quest. It was thunderous. Fir cones hitting the roof sounded like bowling balls. The lowest branch of the fir tree outside my bedroom window waved wildly—the branch I have regretted not including in those I had removed to open the view. At 12:25 a BOOM had me upright in bed; coinciding with the eerie silence of a power outage. Not a tree, I know that sound. A transformer, I assumed.
Branches hit the roof with a thud, then skittered off when the next gust wailed across the valley and over my hillside home and into the grove of trees on the other side of the house. Loud crashes had me clean out of bed twice, but there was no where to go. I desperately wanted to be in the basement where maybe I wouldn’t hear every cone and branch that hit the roof; but I had a guest in the Airbnb.
I wasn’t terrified, but I was anxious. I felt vulnerable, and desperately wanted it to end. I was at the mercy of nature, and there was nothing I could do about it but wait it out. When it finally stopped ninety minutes later, I prayed it wasn’t the eye of the storm. It’s not a hurricane, I told myself; there is no eye. Please, please don’t let this be an eye.
Epiphany: a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.
It was the end and I fell into fitful sleep some time later. There was no reason to get up before daylight; it was dark and cold. And there was no coffee.
The power finally clicked on shortly after 8:00—just as I was lighting a fire—with Alexa informing me that my WiFi was disconnected from a power source. She knew the power was back before I did.
I pulled up a chair and sat by the fire until I ran out of wood, then reluctantly dressed and headed out to clean up the yard and driveway. It took all afternoon. I hauled a loaded wheelbarrow full from two sides of the house up the driveway to the collection point. I threw that much more from the other two sides over the retaining wall into the DMZ on the east side of the house. A large branch—big enough for firewood—was probably one of the crashes I heard as it hit the overhang and fell into the narrow space between the house and the carport. I dragged it down the steps to the firewood rack to cut up later.
Another loud crash was no doubt the stepladder falling off the side of the shed. I returned it to its place, and left the strewn plastic plant pots—that I keep meaning to take to the transfer station for recycling—where they lay for now.
The driveway debris was daunting. I didn’t know where to start; but, as always, I just began. It had to be done. It was one of those times I wished for a partner in this adventure.
Epiphany: an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking.
The storm debris doubled the pile of rhododendron prunings I had stacked last month in my driveway’s turn around/additional parking area. There will be more before the winter is over, and I know my limitations. I can’t pitchfork it all into a trailer and all back out at the transfer station. Besides, I don’t have a trailer. I would have to ask for help, and that’s hard for me. And it needs to happen before the next storm makes it overwhelming.
It was a lesson in doing what needs to be done in the moment regardless of other plans. I wonder how the hundred acre wood got along—there are always trees down in there—but trail and meadow clean-up can wait for another day.
I hauled a load of firewood from the grove at the edge of the meadow down to the wood rack by the house, then went back up the driveway for the rake and saw. Returning to the house, the eagle caught my attention. It glided back and forth behind the fir, coming close then moving farther back, then close again. I’m doing it, Daddy. Thank you for being here.
Epiphany: an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.
When I got back to the house, I sent Chris—the generous man who mows the meadow for me and for my mother before me—a text message to see if he and/or his son could haul it off at their convenience. He wrote back immediately. “Yes! Sooner rather than later.” I do have partners.
Epiphany: an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.
I checked in with my elderly neighbor. He said I was next on his storm report list. He was fine, without his hearing aides during the night he didn’t hear the three large trees that fell in the woods right behind his house that would have scared the daylights out of me. Without people with chainsaws, his access to the trail he walks with his dog several times a week—still, at 92— is cut off.
I emailed the president of the Friends of Seminary Hill, of which my parents and my neighbors were founding members, asking if the Friends could help. He wrote back immediately. In the meantime, I will invite Robert and Gracie to accompany me on another route to his familiar trail.
I continue to live on this wild piece of property, caring for it, sharing it, loving it as my parents did. And following the star wherever it leads.
“Without the quest, there can be no epiphany,” Constantine E. Scaros.
A friend shared a newsletter from Abbey of the Arts. I think this storm and its aftermath touched on each point (detailed in the newsletter) of the lessons of Epiphany.
For three of the last five school years, I have driven into Seattle on the Alaskan Way viaduct nearly every Monday to care for one or the other grandchild, and back across the next day. Trust me when I say it’s been the highlight of the drive, otherwise traveled on Interstate 5.
This week was the last time. The high roadway flanked on one side by Puget Sound with the sparkling Olympics on the horizon (on clear days) and ferries, cruise liners, and barges and the Emerald City on the other side closes permanently this weekend. When it’s torn down, the penthouse dwellers will have their view unsullied by the eyesore of the roadway far below them; and the lowly commuter will travel underground in a two-mile long yellow tunnel.
In the three weeks while they connect the north end of the tunnel with Highway 99, the 90,000 cars that travel the viaduct every day will be on already overcrowded I-5. Next week I’m not going. Then I will figure out some alternate timing for the duration. And will they really get it done in three weeks? Remember Bertha, the tunnel driller that got stuck?
I won’t miss the elderly short tunnel at the end of the viaduct. Remember when it collapsed on Grey’s Anatomy a few seasons back? Or the real life time not too long ago when the automatic sprinklers came on and drivers couldn’t see a thing? Then there was just last month when I drove it and the “tunnel closed, do not enter” lights came on when it was too late to abort and I had to sit in the full tunnel until whatever closed it was cleared trying not to hyperventilate.
I will brave the tunnel (I am not fond of any long tunnel, think Princess Diana) until it becomes a toll road in June or so. When my weekly gig is over forever when school’s out (another sadness), I will probably just do the crappy interstate drive through the city on the occasional visit to the Littles to avoid the toll. Or maybe I’ll just get the darn Good to Go pass.
A cloud and I commiserated together as I drove the last few miles to the viaduct on Monday, after the relief of exiting I-5.
On Tuesday evening, I approached the lower deck of the viaduct for the last time, heading back home. Goodbye old friend.
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On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
The last gift I gave to my mother. You may recall, if you regularly read my Daughter on Duty blog, that my mother was obsessed with writing her mother’s story. Though she had written stories on scraps of paper, in notebooks and on paper pads for decades, they were scattered throughout the house in drawers, boxes, and on shelves and countertops. Each time, she had to begin again.
In the last years of her life she started over again, this time on a tape recorder. “I thought you would help me with it, Gretchen,” she said to me once. That was news to me; and I couldn’t do it and keep my sanity. She got patient Dan, her handyman, to help with the business of recording. I recruited Jo Ann to transcribe them and told Mama I would edit them.
Jo Ann transcribed a few of the tapes—highly tedious work, particularly without benefit of modern technology—and I began the equally tedious work of editing the verbatim transcriptions. It was not chronological, though she intended it to be, as she would remember some often inconsequential bit she may or may not have already told. Then forgetting where she left off, would pick up in the wrong place. There were details I knew were inaccurate, because I have heard much of the story before—and read those bits found around the house.
I think the need to finish this project she claims she promised her mother she would do (my grandmother died in 1988 at the age of 99), was keeping her alive, both in the sense of giving her purpose and in not allowing her to leave when she very much wanted to.
Last Christmas, I decided to put the part that was transcribed into a book for her, hoping she would feel—literally holding it in her hands—that her project was being taken seriously, and that she would know I intended to help her get it done after all.
Rebecca read it to her, and she wasn’t happy with it. She said I made stuff up. Maybe I did, in the way memoirs from time before memory does, to make the narrative more interesting. I was a little shocked at her anger about it, but she moved on in the end and thanked me for doing it.
And now I am want to finish it—at least to the point she left off, I don’t think she completed what she wanted to say before her mind became too jumbled. Jo Ann brought me the rest of the tapes last month to transcribe myself, as she doesn’t have time. It’s daunting, and I have my own new epic project—now that my own memoir is approaching last steps to get into the world—telling my father’s story of growing up in a family very different from my mother’s, and then being scattered during the war years, communicated via hundreds of letters from three of the siblings that have been kept for eighty years.
Do I have enough time before my end comes? I need a tower and someone to bring meals.
On the Eleventh Day of Christmas
And representing the reprise of the knitting years (scarves, fingerless mittens, baby hats, all sold at Hubbub), I made her a second infinity scarf. They fit the needs: lightweight, not scratchy, not hanging down, not bulky, covered the neck she hated, and kept her warm–or at least gave the illusion of warmth. Another favorite. Until she got hung up on wheather or not they matched her outfit. Or they got lost in her drawer.
On the Tenth Day of Christmas
More printing on fabric. My parents and things they loved through the years. Funny thing was, it turned out she had been making (with help) a full size quilt for me of me and the things I loved through the years (photos on fabric). She gave it to me maybe for my birthday or Christmas the following year. Or was it the same Christmas and I hadn’t opened it yet? I can’t remember now. I felt bad then, that maybe she felt bad when I she opened this that Christmas; that I’d stolen her brilliant idea or something. I feel bad again just looking at this photo. Monkey mind.
On the Ninth Day of Christmas
The year I made bags and sold them at North Carolina craft fairs and Hubbub. My mother bought this one and was still using it the last days of her life. “It was perfect,” she said.
On the Eighth Day of Christmas
The beginning of the fabric art years and printing photos on fabric experimentation. This gift may have been my crowning achievement. A box covered with and full of how I saw my mother, and of all she had done in her life. Why I was proud to be her daughter. It’s covered with things I found around the house on a visit home: silver thimbles for feet, pins, old jewelry, a leaf from the yard, shells. I’m pretty proud of this one.
On the Seventh Day of Christmas
The paper years: A little book with pockets holding inspirational words. Hmm. Well, they were fun to make, anyway, and she actually bought some from me to give as gifts; except she wanted to tell me what colors and words to use, and to fix what she saw as flaws. It was in keeping with her philosophy: “If I’m paying for something, shouldn’t it be like I want it?” Took the fun right out of it for me, a dabbling non-perfectionist.
On the Sixth Day of Christmas
Putting nature to work. I believe young children helped me with this gift. There were two of them; maybe I will find the other one someday, or maybe it broke. (I think this one cracked in the creating.) I took it off the wall a year or so ago.
On the Fifth Day of Christmas
The cross-stitch years, a craft I stuck with longer than any other. The note cards were meant to be used, of course, but 35 some years later the collection remains unbroken in her stuffed-full greeting card drawer. (She bought multiples each time she needed one, and seldom, it seems, used one from her drawer, even after I organized them for her.)
On the Fourth Day of Christmas
Fast forward to my wheel pottery class. Either there wasn’t much crafting between elementary school and marriage, or my mother didn’t keep anything. Or I didn’t give her anything. Or I just haven’t dug deeply enough into the backs of cupboards and to the bottom of boxes. I took some painting classes from a neighbor, but the cupboards are full only of my older sister’s flat art. Clearly mine didn’t measure up.
On the Third Day of Christmas
She wore the earrings made in third grade every Christmas until, apparently, one broke. They are still in her jewelry box.
The paperweight, made in fourth grade, with its crumbled pink foam backing, still holds paperclips in the kitchen desk drawer. Finding it empty three years ago, Mama bought a box of paperclips (with her caregiver’s help), not asking me if there were more somewhere. Uh, yeah. In the back of the same drawer. In the desk in the study. In the desk downstairs. In the cabinet downstairs.
On the Second Day of Christmas
Popsicle stick art. I think this was made in Girl Scouts, or maybe fourth grade with an arts and crafts enthusiast teacher. The center elastic is broken now, but it still lives in the dining room buffet.
On the First Day of Christmas
Every child made some version of this in preschool or kindergarten back in the day. I have two of them. This one is pretty classy with its glaze. The other one is simple unfinished plaster of Paris. This one hung in my mother’s bedroom until I took it down to paint the wall. I put it back up. Some things are just classics.
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New Year’s Eve
I pruned the rhododendrons by the front steps this week. Drastically pruned them. I love how it opened up the front of the house. Like trimming up the fir tree on the other side of the house two years ago, I feel like I can see beyond the present that sometimes closes in around me and out into the what’s next. And I wonder what might grow with more light.
And then I felt bad. Did I make a mistake? No, I didn’t ask “her” permission, as a friend queried. But if I had, the conversation might have gone something like this.
“My dear rhododendron twins. You have been growing here beside these steps for some decades now. And except for this past summer after my mother died, you haven’t bloomed for many years. You seem like you might be yearning to get back to your roots and start anew. Could I be right about that?”
“I feel weighed down by the responsibility to hold up all these branches,” she replied. “The birds don’t nest in me any more, I don’t bloom any more. My soul is buried down here where even I can’t find it. I’m tired. And they are holding me back from what might be next.”
“But you did bloom beautifully last year. It was incredible.”
“I wanted to honor your mother, who planted me, back when she was young. It seemed fitting that when she died, I should pay my respects. Really it took everything I had. Like the surge of lucidity and energy some of the dying have before the end.”
“I’m thinking of cutting you way back. You will be very exposed until you put out some new growth.”
“It sounds vulnerable, for sure. But I think this is the year, this is the time to step out into the world and take a risk. It may take me a few years to get comfortable, and I’ll probably wish I could just hide again and not have anyone scrutinizing me, but it will get better. And like your mother now, I will be full of energy and new life again! Go for it!”
And so it is. With the rhodies and with me as the sun sets on the last day.
I sit in candle and tree and fire light on the last night. I have written down and ceremonially burned what I want to let go of as the new year begins. No more remaining tight in the bud of fear, as comfortable as hiding is.
I make another list of 2018 accomplishments and successes. It is much longer. It includes sending my mother on, fulfilling my promise to care for her to the end.
I’m finishing up Michelle Obama’s excellent memoir, “Becoming.” She says of moving from her loving and encouraging, but always financially struggling, family into the opulence and spotlight of the White House (and even long before, when she went to ivy league colleges), she felt like an imposter.
Each time I have stepped out of my comfort zone I have literally told myself I have no business in the place I have put myself; and it has held me back from taking the next step, paralyzed by fear of someone finding out I’m not good enough.
And so, my mantra for 2019 is: ‘Am I good enough? Yes, I am.’ (Michelle Obama)
These two days of looking back and looking forward have become my consistently favorite days of the year. I did not—haven’t for many years—stay up until midnight. I do not revel or watch a ball drop. I don’t want company nor invitations. I sit here in the firelit room in the waning hours of 2018, aware that soon it will no longer be the year in which my mother left. And I weep. Was I good enough? I hope so.
The moon out the windows is waning too. And the fresh cuts on the stubs of rhododendrons are exposed to tonight’s sub-freezing temperature. Tomorrow I will look to my goals for 2019 that will send me spiraling, exposed, beyond what is comfortable. Will I be good enough?
New Year’s Day
As the sun rises on the first day I sit watching the shifting sky and letting the shift occur in me too. Out of the dark comes the technicolor dawn.
Along with a walk in the woods adjacent to my home, I sit by another fire contemplating what I want in the year ahead. As I have for several years now, I do my friend Joanna Powell Colbert’s new year tarot spread with her beautiful Gaian deck. Usually the cards and my interpretation of them bring up thoughts that are spot on responses to the seven questions. This year’s is very confusing. Maybe that in itself is a response.
I dream in the new year with a list of intentions. Joanna, my favorite earth mystic, soul guide, and friend, says keep your list to just three or four goals. Otherwise you set yourself up for failure. I have seven. I think they are all doable if I just decide I want it enough. Though there is the one that’s on my list every year, and I haven’t done it yet. Walk more in the woods I loved as a child, and learn the names of what lives there, as my mother knew. Ironically “Explorer of Earth” is the card I drew in the “what do I leave behind in the new year” position.
As Joanna says of the turning of the year, “[This is] a time when the old no longer seems to fit, but the new is only a dream.” And so it is with the rhododendrons and with me. The space has been cleared, the seeds of an idea have been planted. And now we water and fertilize and wait and see what will bloom.
Will I be good enough? Yes, I will. Will I succeed or fail? Time will tell, but it won’t turn on a lack of planting and pruning.
With a garden you never know for sure what will or won’t happen—whether anything, in fact, will grow…We’d asked everyone to watch what we were doing. Now we had to wait for the results. (Michelle Obama)
And the sun sets on the first day. And now the work of the new year begins.