My grandfather’s garden…

My grandfather loved to garden, and although I do not have any pictures of him, whenever I think of him, I picture him bent over and tending to his beloved gladioli, bougainvillea, and roses. While my just-divorced father was trying to figure out how to raise my brother and I, since my mother had run off to England with a new husband, we had the good fortune to be deposited in the care of my grandparents. Home, for the next three years, was a spacious bungalow surrounded woods of banyan trees on one side, and an enormous verandah facing deep flower beds on the other.

Bangalore, where they lived, was known as the “garden capital of India” in those days, and my grandfather was devoted to creating a garden worthy of those standards. Although he had several gardeners to instruct about where to dig and how to plant, Nana reserved the important jobs of pruning and thinning for himself. Also, he was the only one allowed to decide which blossoms could be cut, and where to place those flowers indoors. Nana never seemed to find a vase when he came into the house with flowers from his garden, so he made do with whatever was on hand: a brass pot to show off lotus blooms, a copper kettle to arrange bougainvillea, an empty bottle of oil for his tall gladioli. This habit drove my grandmother mad, but I loved the way he always seemed to match the most improbable kitchen vessel in which to best display his flowers. It was a lesson I’ve lived out in every home I’ve had.

I was too young for my grandfather to impart any gardening knowledge, but not so young as to not notice the way he loved shaping a space into one of visual delight. He didn’t mind having me tag along on his garden chores; quite frankly, I think he was so lost in his craft that he forgot that I was present at all. And that was what I enjoyed the most: seeing how it was possible to lose oneself in the act of tending to a garden, in the act of doing something one loved.

I did not inherit my grandfather’s green thumb, and I’ve known more failures than successes in tending to my own gardens. But, I did inherit his need to create with all that grows, to look at space and imagine what could grow. And I think of him as I garden in a climate so different from his in sultry Bangalore. He would be pleased, I think, to know that his silent little gardening shadow grew up to plant and cherish gardens of her own.

Sunrise at Hebron Hills Farm

“Every morning, even before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed. But…sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement: why am I myself? What astonishes me…is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?” Simone de Beauvoir

Early mornings have become my favorite time of day ever since I retired and moved up to the farm. This was not always the case, though. Until the summer of 2018, early mornings were the most hectic time of the day, from the moment I leapt out of bed in pre-dawn hours, until I was in my classroom just as the sun made its first full appearance. I often felt I had already failed the day before it had really begun: had I remembered to feed the cat, give the dog a long enough walk, check a child’s homework, bring the writing folders I had labored over back to my students so that they could continue working….???

Early mornings on the farm, however, mirror the “childish amazement” and astonishment de Beauvoir speaks about, the gratitude for being where I am: “deep in this life and not in any other”. There will be the sunrise to savor, my dog and sheep to tend to, a farm house and its grounds to tend to, and a beloved partner with whom to share this good life.

And, as I go about my day, there will also be vestiges of the past to recollect and reflect upon: memories of raising my children, of my students and my teaching life, of journeys taken and books read, of people I’ve loved, of the experiences that a life of many decades affords. All of which now allow me, as well, to wonder: “What stroke of chance has brought this about?”

Looking back (thanks, FB)…

One of the (very few) things I like about Facebook is that every once in a while photographs from the past will pop up and thereby invite memories. Yesterday, these pictures showed up on my feed to remind me that I had visited my parents in London at this time in 2018, and spent that lovely Spring day at their club.

We had had a few rainy days after my arrival, typical London-in-Spring days, and then awoke to this particular day of blue skies and unlimited sunshine. The manicured lawns and beautifully tended to flower beds seemed to sparkle in a way possible only on fine early Spring days. After brunch in the conservatory, and a glass or two of champagne, my mother and I took our customary perimeter walk, one length of which lies parallel to the Thames. We stopped often to admire this blossom and that bloom, and also to allow my ninety year old mother to rest. The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, an annual Thames tradition, was a few days away; eights from both universities sliced their way down the river in practice, and we could hear the coxswains from both teams calling their instructions.

My mother basked in the sunshine, and took delight in all she saw. Macular degeneration had already dimmed one eye, and left the other weakened and damaged. But, her love and practice of gardening still allowed for the enjoyment of all the Spring blooms that seemed to have reserved their best day for that day. I cannot remember what we spoke about, but I distinctly recall the mood as we took our gentle walk: a quiet appreciation of being able to be together on that beautiful day.

In a few months, she would fall and break her hip; in less than a year she would lose her husband, the love of her life; and she already recognized what the rest of the family already knew – that she was slipping slowly into dementia.

It is good that cannot see into the future and know what calamities and heartaches lie ahead. And I am grateful today that we made the most of an April day but three years ago, a gift of a day.

Easters past and present…

On Easters past, when the children were young, the day began early (sometimes, too early). Our three would race around the main floor in search of Easter eggs and treats, knocking each other (and the occasional chair or vase) over in their competitive zeal. Somehow, I managed to wrench them away in time to get to church, dressed and looking Easter-y.

West Side Presbyterian was always decked in the creamy whites of lilies with dashes of yellow daffodils. Bells and brass would echo all the way to the front steps, a glorious beginning to the service that would follow. There were Bible readings, of course, and the sermon, but the star of that morning was the music – the orchestra seated in front, the choir (including my husband, Scott) ranged above. Non-believer that I am, it was always this that moved me, and raised my spirits as I stepped out of church that morning, and plunged into the joyous chaos that was preparing the Easter dinner and getting my high-on-chocolate children to help set the table and tidy the house before the arrival of our guests. Easters past were all about ceremony, ritual, the extended family gathering for feasting.

Easter present is quite different.

We’ve moved to the middle of nowhere, which makes travel (even in non-pandemic times) much more difficult. Our children are grown, with partners and other obligations; it is no longer a given that all three will be home for Easter. Advancing age and girths have streamlined all those “must-haves” for the feast: dessert is a no-no, as is heavy cream and generous use of butter. Julia Child, whose recipes have governed so many feasts in the past, would despair. There is no church to attend, certainly not one that rises to the musical heights of West Side. We make do with radio broadcasts from Kings Choir, Cambridge, and old records. Our new Easter is quiet, relaxed, and finding its own changing rhythms.

This year, we are gathering outdoors with friends. Our host is Polish, and everyone is contributing something semi-Polish (well, in our case) for the main courses he is preparing. Next year will be different, too, I expect. That is the new normal, and one we are happy to embrace, given that we will always have those memories of Easters past.

Shearing time…

One of my most favorite rituals on the farm comes but twice a year: shearing day. I was lucky to find a true sheep whisperer in Colin Siegmund, who is so gentle in guiding the flock, one by one, to be sheared. Sheep are famously twitchy and easy to startle, but Colin has a way of handling them that keeps each one of my sheep calm and therefore easier to shear.

The joy that comes from watching each fleece being peeled off and falling gracefully in a heap of glorious curls, crimp, and luster, is hard to describe. By the time shearing day arrives, the flock wear six month’s worth of coats: that’s six months of daily tending to, hauling hay and water, finding time to sit still and keep them company, and to distribute chin scratches and treats equitably. It’s a labor of love, truly.

Each fleece is bagged separately, and tagged with it’s owner’s name; although these days I have reached the stage when I can recognize each one instantly. There is a comic joy, too, in seeing the shorn flock wandering around fleece-less and puzzled initially, unable to recognize each other. At some point, they realize how wonderful it feels to be rid of their winter warmth just as the temperatures are rising, so skipping, leaping, and racing around commence, much to our delight.

Yesterday, I began the process of skirting each fleece – spreading it out on the screened table Scott built for just this purpose, and slowly picking out all the hay and poop that gets trapped over the course of the past months. As it gets warmer, I will wash some and send some to be spun into yarn. Carding and spinning are on my list of things to learn how to do this Spring, as well as using the natural dyes I’ve collected to create variations of color. That, and planting in the garden, should keep me happily busy in the months ahead.

Joyful work to look forward to, for which I am so grateful.

Dusk, by Tracy K. Smith

Livy Smith, Primrose Hill, London, 2018

Sorting through old photographs, I come across those taken when my children still lived at home. The ones of them as babies and “littles”, are charming, and make me smile in fond remembrance.

But the ones of them as adolescents really make me pause; they are loose limbed and somewhat awkward in these, often moody and with eyes averted from the camera. In many, they appear poised to make a movement, their shoulders turned away as though ready to take off somewhere. Of course, that is what they were actually intending to do: to slip away from the proverbial nest in arcs of flight all their own.

It occurs to me that these photographs capture so many moments of their transition to maturity, moments that seemed mercurial and exasperating at the time the pictures were taken. I see them differently now, these photographs, that is. I see their restless spirits, searching for a way into identities of their own; I feel the stirrings of their need to make their escape, as the poem below so perfectly speaks to. What I often had taken for perverse ingratitude, was simply the journey we all make – to find ourselves, be ourselves, make ourselves anew.

Dusk by Tracy K. Hill

What woke to war in me those years
When my daughter had first grown into
A solid self-centered self? I’d watch her
Sit at the table—well, not quite sit,
More like stand on one leg while
The other knee hovered just over the chair.
She wouldn’t lower herself, as if
There might be a fire, or a great black
Blizzard of waves let loose in the kitchen,
And she’d need to make her escape. No,
She’d trust no one but herself, her own
New lean always jittering legs to carry her—
Where exactly? Where would a child go?
To there. There alone. She’d rest one elbow
On the table—the opposite one to the bent leg
Skimming the solid expensive tasteful chair.
And even though we were together, her eyes
Would go half-dome, shades dropped
Like a screen at some cinema the old aren’t
Let into. I thought I’d have more time! I thought
My body would have taken longer going
About the inevitable feat of repelling her,
But now, I could see even in what food
She left untouched, food I’d bought and made
And all but ferried to her lips, I could see
How it smacked of all that had grown slack
And loose in me. Her other arm
Would wave the fork around just above
The surface of the plate, casting about
For the least possible morsel, the tiniest
Grain of unseasoned rice. She’d dip
Into the food like one of those shoddy
Metal claws poised over a valley of rubber
Bouncing balls, the kind that lifts nothing
Or next to nothing and drops it in the chute.
The narrow untouched hips. The shoulders
Still so naïve as to stand squared, erect,
Impervious facing the window open
Onto the darkening dusk.

Marilyn Jean Smith

My mother in law, Marilyn Jean Smith, would have been 93 today. She left this world twenty seven years ago, “gone too soon” as they say. By then, had retired from a career in teaching that spanned more than thirty years. In her retirement, she became a master quilter, and an art docent. She hoped to travel, she hoped to be able to watch the growth of her grandchildren, and the happy lives of her children. All of that was cut short by ALS. Her last two years were marked with suffering such that not even the love of her family could assuage.

When I think of Mom, I remember a story Scott told me of her youth. In high school, she had wanted a summer job, one that could help her pay for college and a path to a new life. Her father, an emigre from Bulgaria steeped in patriarchy, was not supportive. Mom got a job anyway, driving the candy truck that wove through her upstate New York area and bringing joy to children wherever she went. Crossing paths with her disapproving father one day, she beeped, waved and called, “Hi Papa!” and went on her way.

Mom knew what she wanted her life to be, and she worked to make that life.

She was a feminist: a woman who raised her son to value women, the work they did, the sacrifices they made, and their right to demand the respect they deserved. Her boy knew how to cook, sew, do laundry, and (above all) think of marriage as a co-equal contract among two independent souls.

I was young when I first met her, in the earliest days of courtship. I had known no mothering, my own mother having absented herself from my life when I was barely out of infancy. But, I was aware enough to understand that the influence that Mom had made upon the man I loved, and how much that love was dependent upon the values she had nurtured.

I am not too far removed from the age Mom was when she succumbed to her illness. I am now steeped in stories of who she was and what she did. Our home is filled with antiques she bought, art she fancied, quilts she made. We often enjoy the recipes she collected for a book she gave my husband when he first went off to college, with the expectation that he would be self sufficient, a man who could be an equal partner to someone some day. The man she had raised.

And I, sitting at a table she’d purchased, looking upon the portraits and federalist mirror she had selected in some long ago antique shop, am grateful.

Night sky…

When I first moved permanently to the farm, and lived here on my own until Scott was able to work remotely (the pandemic’s one silver lining), I found the darkness that fell after sundown to be quite daunting. Country dark is all-enveloping, and even that which was familiar, my parked car, for instance, took on the guise of something menacing. So, once night had fallen, I rarely wandered off the safety of the front porch.

Then, Bowie arrived, followed quickly by the sheep. At first, I’d race across the path from the house to the barn and then back. Not even the lights we’d installed to make me “feel safer” slowed down my pace. But, bit by bit, the landscape of the farm began to feel like my landscape. Night, its darkness and its peculiar sounds, began to be familiar, too. One summer night, I turned off the porch light when it was time to the the dogs out one last time; and, as they disappeared into private corners of the front lawn, I took in the star encrusted night sky. Spectacular. The following night was quite different: clouds raced across a dimly lit sky, and the moon was shrouded. Still, the sight was spectacular.

Ever night after that, no matter how cold it was or how tired I felt, I’ve made time for the night sky. And, I take my time while walking to and from the barn. It never looks the same, but it’s lovely in every guise…another gift from this blessed place.

For everything there is a season…

For a few days last week, temperatures soared into the high fifties. Great slabs of ice and banks of snow melted away, and the outlines of my flower beds emerged at last. I was tempted to begin the work of clearing out winter’s debris, perhaps even organize and prepare seed trays, but I knew that the lovely weather was not here to stay. Indeed, we had snow squalls all of Saturday morning – so much for an early spring.

Instead, I opened up boxes and envelopes that had been accumulating on my desk: the hopes and dreams of planting season. Their warm and vivid colors were a delightful antidote to the dull greys and browns of the landscape I could see through my windows. Sorting through them, I began thinking of drawing maps and time tables for their planting. Closing my eyes, I could imagine looking out upon them some July morning while walking barefoot through grass still heavy with cool morning dew.

Small Kindnesses…

Photograph by Jon Katz

There are certain unspoken courtesies in living in rural upstate New York that I was slow to cotton on to, having lived in cities and suburbs where courtesies and few and anonymity is always the first rule. One waves while passing another car or someone walking along the roadside (of course, on most days I see a handful of such folk, I am often the only person on any given road no matter the time of day). One makes eye contact and engages in conversation whether at the gas station, the grocery store, or getting a cup of coffee at the convenience store (which are few and far between, anyway). Everyone from the plumber to the nice gentleman who plows large quantities of snow off our driveways and our dirt road will stop first to chat and then to work (unheard of in the city – time is money, your money, so it’s best they get to work right away).

At first, I rolled my eyes when I learned of the above, I thought the “rules” silly, a waste of time, intrusive. I’ve come to value them, however, to see how such small courtesies help ease the day. Early this week, for example, the grocery clerk took note of the artichokes I was purchasing, which reminded her of the way her Italian grandmother would prepare them every spring. Her story and the images it conjured stayed with me and gave me pleasure all day. While driving to a farm in Vermont, my source for cheese and the best sweet potatoes anywhere, I waved at a gentleman determinedly pushing his rollator up the road; while driving back home I saw him again, and gave me a smile and a thumbs up, implicit for: I’m okay and you stay well, too.

These small and simple interactions and gestures, much to my citified surprise, have touched me; they’ve become necessary.

Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”