Drama Management

Drama Junkie Gladys Kravitz from “Bewitched”

January has been a real test. I’m settling into a new job and I won’t lie—the learning curve momentarily took my moxie away. A new operating system, new software, a new type of business, and a tiny keyboard had me wondering if there was something wrong with my brain. But I rallied and have recovered my stride.

So far there is no drama associated with my new gig and I aim to keep it that way. When I mentioned this at the Country Farm and Home counter the other day, paying for bird seed and wheat straw, a customer behind me snickered. I turned and we both laughed. “As if!” she said. “Yeah, right?!” I blurted, enjoying the moment, and then in my signature off-the-cuff way I said, “Drama happens everywhere if you stick around long enough. It builds up like plaque!”

It occurs to me I’m not even sure what the word drama means so I start asking around. One bright young woman defines it as “Things that make you suck in your breath real quick.” The dictionary defines drama as: Any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.” Armed with two workable, albeit broad interpretations, I got to work categorizing situations that fit the mold.

First off, there is my own personal drama. Although this type of drama might seem unavoidable, I actually do have control over how much drama I solicit and how heartily I react. One woman told me she was much more into drama when she was younger and I realized this was also true for me. We have both learned to keep ourselves out of trouble and to temper our responses to the unavoidable.

I’m no longer a catastrophizer, my own word that means someone who takes a little bit of drama and cooks it up into something big. My mother used to call this “Making mountains out of molehills.”

Next, there’s the type of drama we experience vicariously. You can’t build intimate friendships without sharing a little of your own inner workings but it’s essential to know how much to share, and when to turn it off—how to toe the line between venting and obsessing.

Our outer circle of friends is where I need to watch my step. Here I’m learning to strike a balance between interest and involvement. Sometimes it’s alright to dismiss a situation with, “Well, it’s their life, their marriage, their children…” and other times I have to reach out and weigh in. Especially when I can see that whatever just happened is horribly unjust or unfair. Either way, it’s a good idea not to do too much thinking about what’s going on in the lives of people I don’t know terribly well.

And then there is the drama of unmet actors on the world stage. For me, this is the safest kind of drama, a cathartic exercise that helps me calibrate my moral compass. This kind of drama is the story of how human minds work. News stories evoke responses like, Don’t that beat all?” and “How does something like this happen?” Voyeuristic drama feeds the creative juices my writing head requires without risking contamination.

A few days after my Country Farm and Home encounter, I marched into Chatham Marketplace for Brussels sprouts and was stopped short by a bank of yawning shelves. Craig, busy as ever, twinkle in his eye, quipped over his shoulder, “Drama!” Hmm, I thought, I guess non-human breakdowns can be classified as drama, too.

Like salt, drama spices up my life. And like salt, a pinch brings out the flavor, while too much renders food inedible. Unlike salt, I don’t have to add drama to my life. Drama happens when things break down, when I receive a letter from a friend, when the car leaves me stranded, when politics goes my way, when the heat pump fails, or when deer eat our broccoli. Drama is joy and loss, birth and death—unavoidable, and essential to a full and interesting life.

Stuff happens all the time to rock our little worlds. All the planning in the world won’t prevent software changes from messing up my mojo, or grocery stores from running out of Brussels sprouts. Be cautious about adding outside drama. One day you may be blindsided by an indigestible tsunami of grief: a loved one snatched by death, a cancer diagnosis, a slip and a fall. Err on the side of boring. Savor those stretches of bland. Add a pinch of drama when necessary. Season to taste.

2019 Intentions – Quality over Quantity

The curtain opens on 2019 with Bob and I settling into new jobs, and with enough dry and above-freezing weather to weed, mulch, and plan this year’s garden. We’ve added eight raised beds and gone over the seed catalogs. In addition to what we grew last year (potatoes, leeks, peppers, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cherry tomatoes, husk cherries, lettuce, fall greens, and broccoli) we’ll add spinach, edamame, carrots, beets, and crook-necked pumpkins. And we’ll push the envelope of our comfort zone with Brussels sprouts and cantaloupe.

My personal garden, the traits and habits I cultivate with intention, will also look a lot like last year. Although I have to admit I was tempted to skip making resolutions after reading an article about the down side of striving for perfection. The people we compare ourselves to, those who have made it to the holy grail of success, sometimes surprise us by ending up dead by their own hand. At some point we need to reach complacent self-acceptance. But then I listened to a podcast that recommended we trust ourselves to know which aspects of our lives were good enough and which ones need work. There is nothing wrong with coasting and likewise, nothing wrong with stepping on the gas.

When I asked Bob if he will set some goals this year he said he is always working on something and that January has no more significance than any other month. “Every day is a new year if you’re Bob; every day is your birthday, every day is Christmas,” he said. A banner above the shop floor of a manufacturing company we both worked at flashed into my mind. The banner read, “Continuous Improvement,” which is a good approach to both life and gardening.

But I love the clean-slate feel of a new year. I like the idea of a hard stop with its opportunity to look back, take a reckoning, and re-calibrate. So I will take a few moments to do both.

2019’s theme is “Quality over Quantity” and my goals are:

Reading – Slow down, read for fun, comprehension, and retention.

Conversation – Again, slow down, pay attention, damp down my inner dialogue and absorb what others are saying.

Everybody needs more pot pie!

Writing – Slow down, write for fun, play with ideas in my journals, and write at least one old fashioned letter per month.

Sweets – Ramp up the savory with new pot pie recipes while damping down the sweets. All those sugar bombs are not doing me one bit of good. Sure, there will be cookies in the chest freezer, but those are there to make my life easier, not sicker. And it isn’t just the cookies; it’s the chocolate and other candy treats I drag home from the grocery store. The added benefit of my “Pot Pie of the Month” plan will be an increase in my pie dough expertise.

My self-improvement theme for 2018 was “Focus” and my goals were:

Bake more cookies – success!
I baked nearly a thousand cookies last year! I learned to keep the freezer stocked with grab-and-go goodness, turning cookies into my new go-to potluck offering. No more scratching my head over what to bring, life is simpler with cookies in the chest freezer.

Focus on the good – success!
Because my job as property manager required I focus on problems a.k.a. things that aren’t working, I hung up my hat and found a less-demanding job, one in which I didn’t have to be in charge.

Focus on my friends – success!
I shrunk my circle of friends to a dense core, and found I had more time for family during a challenging year.

Mind my own business – success!
I didn’t even have to work at this one. I naturally lost interest in other people’s problems after the employment change and social focusing. Less drama meant more solitary time, and more energy for my life with Bob.

Reading List – success!
I read thirty-four books, exceeding my goal of twenty-five and more than doubling the fifteen books I read in 2017.

Snitch Pad – success!
I now travel with a notebook where I jot down ideas and interesting catch phrases that I can turn to when I need writing inspiration.

Submissions – some improvement!
I submitted eighteen essays, missing my goal of twenty-four submissions, but exceeding 2017’s eleven. I also got better at teeing up the next project after turning in a story, but I had a lot of trouble launching into writing mode.

And there you have it, my goals for 2019 and a reckoning of last year’s intentions. For me, happiness is both acceptance of where I am now, a settling in with comfortable habits that work, and the challenge of reaching towards a better me. It takes wisdom to know which aspects of my life qualify for status quo and which need a little more work. This year I choose to take my foot off the gas, savor the good life, and harvest the rewards.

Christmas Time

On Christmas Eve, time hits a warp and bumps me into unexpected glimpses of Christmas past. Taking out the compost after dinner I’m transported to three years ago when the fence was still open to the farm, a path crunchy with fallen leaves worn between our house and Haruka and Jason’s. I squint into the darkness, searching for the soft glow of their porch light, remembering how we’d already have planned, and been cooking towards, a mostly home-grown Christmas meal.

Pulling our fake turkey roast from the freezer I have a sudden longing for winter-less Maui, where I never had to pull on jacket, hat, and gloves to make it to the compost pile. Back then my skin never chapped and my hair occasionally smelled of salt water. Fifteen years ago, we would have been planning a vegan Christmas feast with Pam and Shaun, the folks who showed us how to enjoy not eating animals.

Twenty-three years ago we would have decorated a tree, and wrapped presents would be spilling from its base across the living room floor of an old Colorado farm house. The next day the girls would arrive and fill the house with jewels of laughter. Emily would have been eight, Amy six, and Molly three. That was the last time we set up a tree – the lights, ornaments, bulbs, and painstakingly crayoned paper garlands long gone from our peripatetic lives.

This Christmas morning, I squint into a layer of frost, imagining Nana’s painted plywood reindeer and Santa sleigh racing across her snowy lawn. Fifty years ago my five brothers and I would make Christmas wrapping fly around the living room like a scene from Edward Scissorhands. We would still be living in an old New Jersey neighborhood lousy with kids, there for so long (six years) that we imagined we’d never move again.

In those days Nana was in charge of pulling together the family dinner. We’d head over there after mass to find her stone fireplace flocked with fake snow, more presents underneath her tree for us and our cousins, a turkey in the oven, and pies cooling on racks. Oh, to have a time machine and go back to this idyllic moment!

Back then it was almost always a white Christmas and we kids didn’t hate winter. We burrowed through the drifts to make caves and Dad wowed us by making candy sugar snow cones. We sang carols, there were candles, and no babies ever cried.

Back then everything was perfect. The spirit of Christmas illuminated all our hearts. Peace on Earth reigned. No one languished for want. America was great, no crimes were committed, and all was calm and bright.

I think.

Maybe I don’t really want a time machine after all. I’d hate to find out that those times were ordinary times just like these times. I’d hate to find out we were fighting wars and going hungry, that there were people being robbed or raped or killed on one of those stellar Christmases past.

So, forget about that old time machine. Instead I’m going to sit down with the seed catalogs to envision a succulent future. I’ll plan peppers and cantaloupe and maybe even artichokes.

Much love and fond memories for all who have shared Christmas cheer in years gone by!


Just Desserts on Airbus A320

Shadows on the Big Thompson

You can fly for peanuts, but don’t let one cross your lips.

Towards the end of November, Bob got assigned of a couple of farm audits in the-middle-of-nowhere Kansas and, in a stroke of brilliance, decided to route himself through Denver, book an extra four days, and bring me along. It had been two years since we’d seen our Colorado family and friends and everyone we pinged was happy to arrange their calendars to include our impromptu visit. We packed and flew out at dawn on December 2nd.

Although we had pre-board passes, TSA pulled me out of line to examine a Kentucky Fried Tofu sandwich, a bag of homemade cocoa mix, and some leftovers in a Ziploc Twist ‘n Loc. They ended up giving the sandwich and cocoa a pass, but held on to the mashed potatoes, sausage gravy, and Brussels sprouts. “I’m sorry,” the woman explained, “mashed potatoes fall into the ‘gel’ category.” She offered to dump and rinse my container but, embarrassed, I demurred.

We ate in the air, sharing Bob’s sandwich and some peanut butter crackers I found at the bottom of my purse, speculating on whether or not the flight attendants would offer free water while listening to the loudspeaker sales pitch. If we really got thirsty we could invest $2.99 in a bottle of water, a soft drink, coffee, or tea. Coffee and a snack could be had for $4.99.

Our time in Colorado was rich with bright memories: an evening with Emily, Tyler, Nolan, Amy, Molly, Shane, Steven, Caroline, and Ned, savoring Amy’s hand-harvested wild Idaho rice and homemade Thai stew, watching three-year-old Nolan negotiate his world of towering adults; frigid strolls with Cathi, Shirley, Rob, Amy, and Bob; a nostalgic Data Entry Products holiday party at Sharyl and Rob’s with their son, Logan, daughter, Mikki, and friends, Margie, Tim, and Jeff; ambushing Sharon at the Habitat Thrift Store; pizza with Julie; a late lunch with Shirley, Cathi, and Fred; and plenty of lounging in our hosts’ sunny guest rooms.

Air Over Kansas

Beyond its dry clarity, the quality of daylight made me feel closer to the sun. Which of course, we were.

On the flight home we were again bombarded by a garbled sales pitch. In a hurry to get into their jump seats, the flight attendants whipped their words to a blur like cars on a runaway train.

This time, I had filled a plastic bottle at one of the post-security check water fountains, and TSA had not confiscated our lunch: a pair of breakfast burritos. Just as before, I’d been asked to step outside the line to watch a man rifle through my purse. He held up the offending item and raised his eyebrows. “That’s lunch,” I volunteered. Bob and I held our breath while the man palpated the gel-like contents of our burritos, then shrugged and placed them back in my bag. Just in case, I had brought two peanut butter Tiger’s Milk bars.

We were in the air when the speaker crackled again. My ears pricked up at the word “peanuts” and my face fell when I realized they were asking us to not eat anything containing peanuts. “Did they say we can’t eat peanuts?” I asked Bob, folding my arms across my chest. “That’s what I think I heard,” he said.

After devouring our burritos, I sat and stewed. I was still hungry and that tiger bar was calling to me from the bowels of my purse. I’m of an age where I remember free peanuts and in-flight dinners on porcelain plates. Being told my food was off limits was bad enough; I’d be damned if I was going to pay $3 for a tube of Pringles!

I reached into my bag, unwrapped dessert, and took a big bite. “Are you hiding your power bar from the flight attendant?” Bob asked, glancing at my hand beneath the tray table. “Yes,” I said, chewing furtively. Embarrassed by my juvenile act of rebellion, I chomped down quickly and caught a hunk of lip between my teeth.

Double damn, I thought: crime doesn’t pay. And it turns out that just desserts taste like blood and peanuts.

Prosperity Day – the view from right here

Our willow oak on Thanksgiving morning

It’s Thanksgiving, a holiday with many meanings here in the United States. Around the world, expats spend weeks sourcing ingredients for their traditional meal. For most Americans, this day remains an honored ritual of sitting down to eat with family. At some point we will pause to reflect on those things we are grateful for: our health, prosperity, progeny, and luck. Few face the holiday without a tinge of guilt for the gluttony it represents – gluttony at the expense of the original inhabitants who were swept aside to make way for our American Dream.

This morning, our lawn blushes green between patches of hoarfrost and russet leaves. The oaks have shed half their leaves and what remain are shimmering gold. Cold-weather crops dominate our garden: sturdy collards, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale. Tiny lettuces have arisen from seed in the tote behind the feathery asparagus patch. The roses are still in bloom and the azaleas have decided to join them.

It’s turned cold. North Carolina cold. 40 degrees Fahrenheit feels punishing after the coddling 65-degree days. I took advantage of the sun and harvested all 130 pounds of ginger and turmeric. I raked leaves to blanket empty garden squares, and perched on an aluminum ladder to wash windows. I took a pair of old washcloths and rubbed black mold from the daffodil siding and spinach-colored door on our back porch. I painted a weathered joist with auburn stain and seal, doing my best to rub out the black patches before immortalizing their lava lamp shapes with fat brush strokes. I lay in the hammock and talked on the phone, swept leaves from the tree house, and went walking with my friends.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I drag a bulging bag of gratitude into the sun for examination. In it, I find:

  • Bob, a man who continues to love and support me despite my age and cynicism
  • Three daughters, five brother, and two parents, alive and reasonably healthy
  • A roomy, dry home with a modest mortgage payment
  • Retirement, a long-awaited event which has turned my life into one big game
  • The mechanics who keep our three old cars on the road
  • My health, still running on all eight cylinders with minimal leakage
  • Friends old and new: loyal companions, sincere, supportive, and entertaining
  • My New York Times subscription, for painlessly putting me back in the know
  • Our deep freezer, stocked with roasted peppers, peanut butter cookies, and other delights
  • Neighbors who would drop everything and come to my aid should I fall off a ladder or choke on a cookie

Bob’s Thanksgiving Eve haul from the Pittsboro Farmers’ Market

The life Bob and I have engineered for ourselves is so spectacularly fine that we marvel at it every day. Luckily, we were born at the apex of American prosperity between the Great Depression and the slow slide into corporate rape beginning in the 70’s. Our families gave both Bob and I enough of a start to put us on our feet, but not enough to prevent us from developing a healthy work ethic. We worked steadily for forty years, for big corporations and small, family-owned businesses.

We paid our dues and lucked into a couple of corporate windfalls. At the apex of Bob’s career, we followed our hearts and jumped off the tread mill. We reinvented ourselves as serial expatriates, highly-employable for our skills and mobility. It was the things we decided not to do that set us free: to stop owning and rent instead, to not make any more children, to give away our last pet, and most of our belongings. We chose instead to value experience over security, stewardship over ownership, relationships over toys, and to live frugally, to garden and cook and eat in.

For this I am grateful. I need look no further than our yard for spiritual guidance, inspiration, and meaningful work. This morning, I have a clear vision of the world outside my window. I know where I am, how I got here, and thanks to whom.

Homegrown for the Holidays

Not to jump the gun or anything, but we have in our deep freezer the ingredients for my Nana’s dressing, what we used to call “stuffing” because it was stuffed into the turkey and baked with the roast. It features chestnuts, one of the finest foods on the planet.

My Polish Nana’s was an exceptional cook and the wizard behind my family’s annual Thanksgiving feast. Nana was raised in Brooklyn before the American Chestnut blight made this delicacy scare. By the time I arrived on the scene she was making stuffing with Italian chestnuts and paying premium prices. Leaving them out was out of the question.

This dressing is the true centerpiece of the spread, not optional in the least, and not merely a side to carboholics like myself. The crunchy nuttiness of the chestnuts and the spicy and succulent sausage compliment the seasoned bread so well that everything else on the plate is merely there to riff off its perfection.

For years I made this dressing as soon as Italian chestnuts appeared in the produce aisle. But, not lately. Thanks to decades of work by plant geneticists the blight resistant American/Asian Chestnut was developed, sparking a movement to restore chestnuts to the Appalachians. Homeowners began planting seedlings, anticipating holiday magic in the years ahead. Happily, my vegan sausage version of Nana’s dressing has recently begun featuring chestnuts grown within fifteen miles of my home instead of Italian imports. Many thanks to Tami Schwerin and Lyle Estill for sharing the fruit of their optimism. Nana would be proud!

Here is the recipe. You will also find it archived on our recipe site here.

Chestnut Sausage Dressing – Vegan

Nana’s time-tested masterpiece, veganized


  • Chestnuts, roasted, removed from their shells and chopped – 2 cups, or about 1 pound
  • Gimme Lean Sausage, fried – 1 pound
  • Bread Cubes (stale preferred, previously frozen is fine) – 6 cups
  • Margarine – ¼ cup (half a stick)
  • Onion, diced – 1 cup
  • Celery, diced – 1 cup
  • Vegetable Stock – 1 1/2 cup (I use vegan chicken base or boullion)
  • Poultry Seasoning – 1 tablespoon


  • Prepare chestnuts by roasting, removing the nut from its shell, and chopping.
  • In a large pot sauté onion and celery in margarine.
  • Add stale bread cubes and toss.
  • Combine poultry seasoning with stock and drizzle over bread, tossing to moisten.
  • Fry sausage in separate pan.
  • Fold in fried sausage and pre-cooked chestnuts. Do not over-stir. What you don’t want is a big glob of dough.
  • Taste and adjust seasoning. Resist the urge to add more stock as much as humanely possible.
  • Place in a greased casserole and cover.
  • Bake at 375 degrees, covered, for 30 minutes.
  • Uncover and bake for another 15 minutes.


  • Best to do the chestnuts and bread cubes ahead, especially if assembling this on Thanksgiving morning. You can also chop the onion and celery ahead, and fry the sausage. Heck, you can make the whole casserole several days before the big day and just slip it into the oven like a pro. Last-minute stress adds no flavor to a fine dish.
  • To roast chestnuts, score each nut with a sharp knife (this is the dangerous part!), place in a flat pan, and bake, covered, at 400 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. I do not bother soaking the nuts or double scoring with an X. At 30 minutes, test one nut for doneness. Toss the other nuts around in the pan if returning to the oven. The chestnuts will be done when the shell peels back revealing the starchy golden nut and the nut is mealy, but not mushy. Remove from shell when warm, before the membrane no longer pulls away from the nut easily. Keep them in a covered pot to continue steaming as you peel. After peeling, you can freeze them in case harvest comes well ahead of Thanksgiving. I recommend buying 2 pounds so you can enjoy some while peeling and setting aside your 2 cups.
  • If using fresh bread, cut bread into cubes, lay on a cookie sheet and bake at 200 degrees until the cubes firm up – half an hour to an hour.
  • I do not recommend substituting corn bread for wheat bread.

High Water Apocalypse

We had strung tarps beneath the sweet gums and were living on canned food and wild mushrooms. What with the hurricane rains, the woods were lousy with them. The kids seemed fine with the arrangement, old enough to understand why we’d abandoned the comforts of our thirty-year-old manufactured home, yet still young enough to turn the situation into an adventure.

Bob set down an armload of wood and inhaled the vapors from the pot hanging over the cook fire.

“I love the smell of beans in the morning!”
“You ain’t smelled nothing yet, Mr. Man.”
“What are the girls up to? We could use a bucket of water.”
“Oh, they’re off playing hide and seek with the chanterelles. Maybe they’ll score a lion’s mane.”
“Speaking of water, turn around.”
“Uh oh. Shit.”

The predicted high water event was creeping up the meadow below our camp, spreading towards us like a disease. We would have to leave and leave now. Twenty yards uphill, I regretted my haste.

“Dang, I should have brought shoes!”
“We aren’t going back.”
“What about the girls?”

Silence. I knew the answer. We had prepared them for this moment and had to trust they would also be heading for higher ground. Still… I stopped and yelled for them, trying out a couple of one-note pitches until I found the loudest one, and repeated it twice more. Wishing I had time to stand and wait for their answer, I ran to catch up with Bob.

We arrived at a large pavilion in the center of town and were greeted by the staff. Two of the first, we chose seats on an old sofa with spotty, blue upholstery. I stretched one foot behind me and folded myself into the heavenly soft cushion, leaning into the warmth of my distracted husband. The place was filling with murmuring refugees. Second tier refugees. We’d already evacuated once.

All had mentally rehearsed this moment, this banding together, this test of our collective mettle. We all knew that our lives would never be the same. Together we would create a new, possibly nomadic reality in conjunction with other roving bands. Big government wasn’t going to save us now.

Bob got up and moved around the room. I yielded my cushy seat to a young family, a little self-conscious in my bare feet and baggy cream-colored flannel nightshirt smothered in frisky ponies, a remnant from our online shopping days. I scanned the room for our kids but didn’t see them. I thought I caught a whiff of vanilla and before I could talk myself out of it, dared to hope for something sugary and fried in fat.

A kindly-faced man cleared his throat and everyone turned toward him. “It’s time to announce the election results.” I dug around my brain and remembered voting months ago for a contingency leader should rising water force us into an apocalypse. “And the winner is, Bob Armantrout!”

No one was surprised. Bob feigned a tired smile. In his heart of hearts, he would rather have dodged this bullet. I beamed, excited for the challenge. I went to his side, hoping to slide in beside him, but the green and yellow webbed lawn chair wouldn’t fit the two of us.

I re-entered consciousness beneath a down comforter in our opulent pre-fab master bedroom and watched my dream melt away in rivulets. I listened for rain but heard none. I was comforted by Bob’s quiet breathing and noticed hints of dawn spilling around the edges of our dun-colored wooden blinds. No tarps, no apocalypse, no exodus; just another easy day in paradise.

Out of the Closet

I won’t even tell you about what didn’t make it back into the closet.

Now that I’m retired, I am finding all manner of diversions to keep me occupied. I weeded our vegetable garden, planted broccoli and cauliflower, took a pick ax to the pampas grass, baked enough cookies to feed an army, re-homed thirty-five pounds of plates, painted sealant on the back porch steps, and tore apart our hall closet.

Everything came out. All boxes exhumed and examined. Decisions were made, items pitched, a portion repackaged and returned to the closet.

This is what made it back into the closet:

  • The kid’s childhood sketch books
  • 42 rolls of toilet paper
  • Hobbles and a green halter in case we need to restrain a wandering horse
  • A vacuum cleaner and a cobweb duster
  • Letters dating back to the 70’s from friends and relatives, living and dead
  • Art, mostly mine, dating back to 1961
  • Four picture frames in case we suddenly notice a bare wall
  • Supplies for water color, candle-making, embroidery, and crochet in case we decide to get crafty
  • Christmas ornaments
  • Three soapstone chops and a tin of orangey-pink chop paste we bought in China twenty years ago

I’ve got a big plastic bag headed for the landfill with stuff I couldn’t imagine ever needing for any reason. Things that had been in our closet for eleven years, and some that were shipped from Colorado to Guam to Oahu to Maui and back to Colorado, then Texas, Oilseed, and Troutsfarm.

Hell is not other people. Hell is the stuff you shackle yourself to and haul around from place to place, carefully placing on shelves in a succession of closets in case you might one day find a use for it.

Under the Sweet Gums

I push her through the automatic doors into a blindingly beautiful day. Past the others in their wheelchairs under the shadow of the main entrance overhang. I want her all to myself. When we leave the shade, my mother forms two shelves above her eyes with her hands. “I lost my sunglasses,” she says cheerfully and I picture the three white visors I put into a box yesterday. Mom’s scalp is as pink as a newborn mouse beneath her perfect white hair.

We head around the back of the building and enter a canopy of sweet gums. I think of my mother’s own sweet gums, the three lonely teeth poking up from her lower jaw, never pulled, her uppers misplaced and gone, necessitating a pureed diet. My brother told me the other night he’d left her eating pizza with a spoon. Everything she eats goes through a blender. I park Mom beside a picnic table and lay on my back on the bench so I can admire the blue post-hurricane sky with its bright, white clouds.

Mom and I sit under the trees for a long time, not caring if we ever return to her nursing home room. We talk about whatever comes to mind, like I used to do with my school mates. A gum ball hits the ground making me jump, and Mom says, “You’re a Horton – they have that trait.” She retells the story about her mother offending a man in line at the bank after hearing a sharp noise and responding with an involuntary, “Oh my dear!” Crouching over the keys he has just dropped, the man looks up at her and says, “I am NOT your dear!”

I flew four hundred miles north this morning out of Hurricane Florence’s slippery, wet grasp to get a head start on packing my mother’s apartment. There was plenty of stuff in there when my mother went to Shippensburg State Health Care Center in February, and more than plenty now. My father spends the day at the apartment and sleeps at my brother, John’s house. He is a man who rarely throws anything away.

The knight in shining armor here is my brother, Michael. Several months ago, Michael moved out from Colorado with a plan to shepherd my parents into their twilight years using his background in Healthcare. With his patient support, my father has bought a trailer big enough for himself, Michael, and Mom and then set his mind to a State-approved transition plan for Mom’s release. No easy feat.

None of Michael’s five siblings have been able to accomplish this miracle, and not for want of trying. Michael has a special way with Dad. Maybe it’s because Michael doesn’t carry his childhood baggage the way the rest of us do. Or maybe Dad is hearing him more clearly because Michael has been away for twenty years. Maybe, as James suspects, Dad doesn’t trust his married sons because they under the influence of women. Joe, the priest, is under the influence of the Catholic Church. And I, myself, am a woman. Or, maybe Dad is finally ready to accept reality. Most likely, Dad has been pushed off dead center by all of the above.

The next day I crack open the apartment door and take a look around. Dad is asleep in the other room. I’m alarmed by the immensity of the task, every horizontal surface, including much of the floor, cloaked in a shambling collage of plastic Madonnas, torn envelopes, food, tissues, documents, photographs, and clothes. My brothers coined a term for parental sprawl. They called it the shifting sands. “We don’t dare put anything down,” they said, “Or it might disappear under the shifting sands.” On one of his recent visits, Joe lost his cell phone for half a day.

The windows are closed to protect my father from pollen. The stagnant air is revolting, and I fight the urge to bolt. Stymied, but determined, I decide to work my way in from the door. I open the hall closet door to my left, fold eight inches of hanging clothes around their hangers, and push them to the bottom of a large box. When that box is full, I tape up a smaller one for audio tapes. Two hours later, I’ve got everything out of the closet and packed in my bright yellow rented Jeep Renegade.

I’m joined by others after they get off work and Dad has been shuttled to John’s house. We are careful not to pack the things Dad will miss, things on and around the couch and the bed, and in the kitchen and bathroom. We hope to upset him as little as possible.

The cavalry arrives Saturday morning, James with a U-Haul truck, Bob with his credit card and tool kit, and John’s son, Brandon join Michael, John, Darla, and me. I dub us the Magnificent Seven. Before noon everything is out and Darla spends the rest of the day cleaning. Bob buys a file cabinet and two book shelves. Michael unloads a gift from his friend, Dave, a sturdy dining set made of real wood. Brandon is everywhere with energy and muscle. James helps Bob assemble the book shelves and populates them with books and movies. John goes back and forth to his house, helping our temporarily-displaced father with his meals. I wash bedding and towels and make the beds. Michael mows the lawn.

At 3:00 PM we take a break and go see Mom. It isn’t every day she gets to see five of her six children at once. We wheel her out to the sweet gums where she basks in our love. James shows her the picture he took of her couch in the new place and her face radiates joy. We sit under the sweet gums, drenched in team work and a sense of closure, breathing the clean air of a fresh start.

Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille

Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille

Sixty – More Than a Number

I caught up with Bob Armantrout outside Playa Mexico the day before his sixtieth birthday He’d driven to the coastal town of Emerald Isle with his wife to celebrate at the beach. He didn’t have to point out that this is the absolutely best time of year to be dipping in the Atlantic.

I asked the soon-to-be sexagenarian if he had some words of wisdom to share with the younger generation. Sure, he said, and this is what he told me:

1. Life is too short to use crappy soap or bad toilet paper.
2. Being nice to people is easier than the alternative.
3. Keep the tools of your trade sharp.
4. Stay abreast of industry news.
5. Be a good team mate.
6. Don’t get addicted to nicotine.
7. Keep your things in order so your kids don’t have to do it for you.
8. Incrementalism works. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed by some task; do a little bit along the road so you don’t have to do something Herculean. Take it in small bites.

Enough said. And with that, we walked into the Playa and ordered up some big plates of food. And tequila…