Tribute to the Kinderhook

Across the creek is a mystery to me. It is a private little world that I only get to view from afar. Every morning as I leave the hallway from my bedroom and step into the circular, open floor plan of my home, there it is. Dominating the view through an array of open glass, visible from the living room, kitchen and dining room.

My house is perched on a slight knoll, just twenty-five feet from the water’s edge. Flowing downstream from the east, the creek rounds a corner at the beginning of my property, cascading over rapids and then calming in a series of natural pools and beaches. Directly in front of the house it narrows, creating a sense of the water moving much faster. Then, it hits a second set of rapids and bends out of sight, lost in the woods, safe from most human interaction. From my deck I look down upon the land-locked oasis of birds, deer, weasels and logs on the other side. Almost like an island, each spring it takes on a new persona because it is in a flood zone. As winter melts, millions of gallons of water come crashing downstream, slicing at the bank. Once the water recedes, the trail of debris left in its wake resembles the childhood game of pickup sticks when dumped from their canister. The leavings are mostly natural, with a few stray lawn chairs or broken buckets that were hidden under the snow and long forgotten by their owners.

Life on the creek is still relatively new to me. I moved here four years ago after three decades of being high in the rolling hills of Schoharie County, about an hour southwest of Albany. From my living room, back yard or barn, I could literally see across town to the Schultz brother’s farm, friends of mine from high school. Spoiled by the beauty of my own farm, whenever assessing the properties of other people, I would instantly determine they had no redeeming qualities because they lacked the expansive view I had grown up with.

Undaunted by the perpetual wind and endless snow of hilltop winters, I trudged through drifts and ice to care for animals. Chapped from the cold, both my face and soul were rewarded by the unmistakable lullaby of the peepers that always heralded the arrival of spring. Summer’s song was that of distant farm machinery, splashing pool water and mourning doves. Then in my rural litany was the unmistakable whirring of chainsaws preparing wood for the long winter ahead, punctuated by the honking of geese on their southern trek. And throughout all the seasons was the plaintive call of the coyotes. As they raced along the ridge, their nightly ululation pierced my solitude, causing goose bumps to rise on my skin. Despite those creepy predators, I was in my comfort zone, and I never thought I would leave.

But, as lives are prone to do, mine changed patterns and was no longer centered on the farm as I spent more and more time building a relationship with an urbanite. Then came the opportunity to buy the unique contemporary house built by his parents. I spent months coming to terms with the heartbreaking decision to relocate from the top of the hills to this forty-acre low-land wooded lot fifty miles away in the southeastern corner of Rensselaer County.

We moved in just weeks before Christmas 2009. Twenty days of blur were spent readying the house and our belongings to host Christmas Eve for the large sibling group of my partner, Guy. Then, with no farm animals to tend to, I spent the rest of the winter pretending to be one of the Stepford Wives.  The house was spotless, I was neat and tidy, dinner was always prepared, consumed and cleaned up by 6:00 PM. And I was bored.

When spring finally burst out of her cocoon, I was recuperating at home from shoulder surgery. As the days grew warmer and longer, so did my time on the back deck. I soaked up hour after hour of midday sun listening to the lapping of water on stones as the creek did her daily ritual. On rainy days I would retreat behind the wall of glass in my living room, still able to watch her flowing, little white-caps every few feet as the water slapped up against protruding rocks. Each day I gained new strength in my arm. And, each day from my perch, I watched life return to the other side of the creek. Deer nibbled on the tender green abundance, frequently hidden behind large sections of bramble. A pair of beaver built an underwater lodge at the edge of one of the pools in a pile of small trees that had arrived during runoff of the winter melt. Once an hour they took a break from working and would swim out to the center of the creek, slapping their tails in the water and then diving for food.    

Spring also brought the unwanted arrival of people fishing for the prized trout that legend assured they would find. I don’t like it when any one comes on my property, and when April 1st arrived, I awoke to a phalanx of uninvited guests near the water’s edge, the sun glinting off the lines of their poles as the fish tugged at their lures below the water. Leaving their cars parked on the side of the road, the posted signs of Conservation Law went unheeded as they trespassed across two acres of woods to reach the water, instead of entering the creek at the nearby bridge. Identifying the trespassers was simple, they rarely acknowledged your presence. Those who had followed the rules frequently waved as they waded deeper into the water so their cast would reach the deeper pool on the far side.

A few weeks into the official trout season, kayakers have to duck under fishing lines on their way through. Their time on the creek is limited to when the water is still high enough to keep the rocks from damaging the bottom of their vessels. By early May, the water warms and fishing season gives way to tubing season. The trout like cold water and drop to the bottom of the pools where they are rarely tempted to chase after the lures floating in the warmth above, so the fishermen give up. The tubers are generally a more likable crowd, their arrival announced by peals of laughter brought on by their precarious bouncing over the rapids and the requisite beer cooler that is tethered to their group on its own little float. They happily wave and wish me a good day as they bob past my deck and backyard.    

Each day I witness slight changes in the creek as the heat of summer begins. The water level drops so low that the tubers also give up. Then the only company I have is that of the teenagers who live across the way. But they are always polite, asking permission to cross my property and fetching any stray pieces of trash that have been bothering my senses. Almost every evening in late July and most of August, Guy and I will take our Bassett Hounds and Labradors down to the beach. They run in and out of the creek, splashing us as we sit in waist high water, enjoying the cool respite of the pools and good beer.  

Unfortunately, living on the Kinderhook Creek is not always bucolic. In 2011, when Hurricane Irene lashed down upon us with countless inches of rain, the creek rose swiftly. She became angry, with churning mud and large trees caught up in her water. I was home alone the day it struck because Guy was diligently working a side job to help pay for our rapidly approaching wedding reception. I couldn’t peel my eyes from the water as it continued to rise. My anxiety increased as each natural marker of height disappeared from view. I collected some “get away items” in an overnight bag, leaving it by the front door with my purse and the dog leashes. Just before dark, the rain slowed as Guy pulled in the driveway. When we went to bed, there was only six inches left before the creek would spill into our backyard.

The next morning our side remained safe, but the land-locked two acres of the south bank was completely under water. Massive Maple, Oak and Birch trees were at varying angles, their roots pulled from the soil by the unrelenting force of the water. From the safety of my deck, my eyes scanned the area, but I saw nothing stable enough to support the deer that had been there just the day before. Throughout the next few days, the water receded, leaving the once verdant greens in a sad brown layer of silt and mud. But the community across the creek is incredibly resilient and by the time the golden and red leaves of the next season began to fall to the ground, the deer and beaver had returned.

As time has elapsed, I have learned to love living on the creek, including the untouched area across the water. We don’t own that space, but we really don’t need to – due to the flood zone, no one can build anything there. But I won’t trespass to investigate the various nooks and crannies housing the birds, deer, weasels and beaver, because I honor the rights of that property owner. So even when I’m outside, it’s as if there is still a wall of glass separating me from that private little world.

For a little while longer, the creek belongs only to the various critters. Soon enough the four deer that crossed the frozen pools last week will have to share it with the fishermen. Right now, I’m basking in the beauty of a solitary morning in March before they arrive. As the sun crests over the stand of cedar trees on the east end of the pool, serenaded by the soft melody of wind chimes, two ducks float in a trail of golden light that explodes in a million dancing crystals when it hits the rapids.

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Living Within the PV

               Cold.  Cold.  COLD!  Ugh!

                I, like the scores that surround me, have had enough of the cold.  I’m tired of frozen water buckets, stacking firewood, slipping on ice, trudging through knee-deep snow, while wearing so many layers of clothing.

                Please understand, I’m no newbie to winter in the Northeast.  I have lived 200 miles north of New York City my entire life.  And my world has always been a rural one, where farm animals and responsibilities are daily factors.  It’s a good life and I enjoy it very much.

                However, there is a distinct difference between my agrarian lifestyle and that of my urban and suburban friends.  The people I know living in cul-de-sacs, townhouses and apartments see a snow storm in the forecast and plan an extra trip to the grocery store for “essentials.”  When I hear the same forecast, after I spend 15 minutes swearing loudly, I make sure the horse trough is full of water, the tarps on the firewood stacks are secure, that we have plenty of fuel for one of the tractors to plow nearly three-quarters of a mile of driveway and barnyard.  Then I figure I’ll make do with “whatever” is in the fridge.

                As a kid, the only logistics for winter survival were to load up on steaming hot oatmeal in the morning, sled all day and then drink copious amounts of hot chocolate just before dinner.  I worked in the construction trades through my 20’s and 30’s, frequently outside all winter.  Wool socks, custom made, fuzzy, hard-hat liners and constant motion got me through.  I learned to downhill ski at 42 and took to it with such a passion that I managed 16-18 trips to the slopes between January and March each year.  As the end of each season approached, I’d pray to the snow gods to dump another three feet so that I could ski until late April.

                So, when did my attitude about winter change?  It was sort of gradual, a by-product of aging, if you will.  Several injuries and subsequent surgeries have kept me from skiing. Now my sweet friend, Jo-Ann, and I celebrate our January birthdays in Florida, not slope-side.  The light tinge brought to our cheeks from multiple Margaritas by a heated pool is far preferable to the wind-whipped glow we earned while on a mountain. 

                 Now it’s more than just “the years.”  And, by the way, I am not totally responsible for the change.  I blame it on the Weather Channel

                All my life I’ve known that a Nor’ Easter meant at least two feet of snow, time off from school or work due to bad road conditions, tons of shoveling and the constant rattle of massive snowplows going by the house, even in the dead of night.  And if it wasn’t a Nor’ Easter, then it was just snow.  Quietly falling from the sky, leaving in its wake a beautiful blanket that hides the dead browns of late Fall and muffling many jagged man-made sounds.  Everyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line knows that bridges freeze before the rest of the road and you never touch wet skin to anything metal.

               But the crew at the Weather Channel had to go and change it all on me – they gave each storm a name!  No longer do we reference the month or year of a winter weather event.  Remember the Snow of October ’87, Blizzard of ’93, Ice Storm of ’96?  Gone.  Forget about it.  Now you’ve got Atlas, Kronos, Titan and Vulcan.  According to their website, the naming of “noteworthy storms” has a specific goal: “…to better communicate the threat and the timing of the significant impacts that accompany these events. The fact is, a storm with a name is easier to follow, which will mean fewer surprises and more preparation.”

              Sorry, but I’m just not buying it. 

              First of all, the National Weather Service, which is run by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), does not name winter storms.  So why does the Weather Channel?  I think it’s all in the name of exposure – with no pun intended.  If you’re talking about Titan, then their media savvy is on the money and that translates to revenue for their network.     

              Secondly, I find it hard to believe that the intention is to help people be better prepared.  I say phooey to that.  All that this attention has done is to turn otherwise stalwart winter survivors into wimps.  By the time the Millennials are ready to retire, they won’t know how to function if snowflakes arrive without the forecast gods at the Weather Channel telling them about it.  Has everyone forgotten the Girl Scout motto of “Be prepared?”

             Thirdly, it’s hard not to consider collusion between the weather forecasters and the behemoth grocery store chains.  It seems like when there’s an abundance of bread that’s about to go stale, the forecasters start yapping for you to batten down the hatches.  People, frantic about the possibility of being “snowed in,” rush to buy out supplies.

             Winter is supposed to be cold.  But now even the cold has a name: they call it the “polar vortex.”  Really?  We need to name it to know that it’s cold?  My horses don’t call it the polar vortex – or as I prefer, PV.  Even on mornings when the whiskers on their muzzles are covered in hoarfrost, they don’t look at me and say, “Whoa, mom.  Holy polar vortex last night!”  Instead, as I release them from their stalls, they run in circles, bucking and rearing in an effort to jump start their metabolism and warm up.

             Hey folks, stop panicking, it’s only Winter.  We can live within the PV without catastrophe.  Snow fall is important to all of us, not just the farmers who work land.  We all need the moisture in our water tables, for drinking, washing cars, watering flowers and filling swimming pools.  Also, with or without abundant snowfall, the deep cold of winter kills nuisance bugs and germs in the soil.  And as it fades, winter gives way to the most hopeful of seasons with the arrival of tulips, daffodils, robins and mourning doves.

            It’s time for the meteorologists at The Weather Channel  (and you know who you are: Tom Niziol, Jim Cantore and Mike Seidel)  to stop their silly geek speak by developing a list of 26 separate and distinct storm names for this winter.  Even if we only suffer through one a week, that’s six months of snow storms.  Please put Electra, Falco, Maximus, Quintas, Ulysses and Xenia back in the box.  The only name we want placed on the weather is Spring!       

Dressing for the PV!

Dressing for the PV!

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Good Timing or Something Else?

      A few weeks back, my husband and I were in a mad dash of flailing arms and legs in preparation for a southern vacation.  When you have a gentlemen’s farm over-run with chickens, horses, dogs and an outdoor wood boiler, preparing for time away can be double the work than if you stayed home.  Under these circumstances, mundane tasks can be very therapeutic for me.  With my busy life, physical labor is my incubator for story ideas.  Any time I’m performing rituals such as mowing the lawn, cleaning horse stalls or working in the garden, I find myself considering how I can lyrically weave it all together.                        

     For several hours I worked outside hauling buckets of water to the 100 gallon heated trough and then stacking firewood while my husband, Guy, did the splitting.  Due to how loud the splitter runs, conversation was impossible.  With my Muck boots squeeking and sqonking with every step in the frigid snow, I traipsed repeatedly from pile to stack, comforted by the distinctive clork and clonk of wood on wood.  Deep in thought about our pending trip to Florida with my friend Jo-Ann and her family, I found myself considering a short story about friendships. 

     On average, I think women have more friends than men.  We tend to be chattier, we orchestrate gatherings, and are frequently the ones who represent the family at school and community gatherings.  In truth, talking a great deal is second nature for many women I know, myself included. 

     As the sun slowly slid down the western edge of Saturday, my literary reverie was jolted when Guy shut off the woodsplitter and announced that he was going to the store.  I blinked a few times, surprised that I hadn’t been invited.

       “What?  I don’t get to go with you?”  Okay, I was a bit indignant.

        “Well, I’m only going to Tractor Supply.”  He hitched his blue-jeans up over non-existent hips.  “Don’t you need to feed the animals?”  He waved toward the horse paddock.  “Besides, you’ll want to change your clothes and I don’t want to wait that long.”  Just before he climbed into his car he shouted to me.  “Do you need anything?”

     “No.”  I was let down by his sudden departure.  Frequently, especially on days when we’d labored side by side, we would treat ourselves to a fun evening of conversation and beers by a fire, even in winter.   Many a night we’ve stood by the “red-neck-fire-pit”, as we have so dubbed the outdoor wood boiler, with the door open, keeping us toasty.  Even the dogs would keep us company, curling up on piles of fresh sawdust from the chainsaw.

      I stood encircled by dogs, watching him drive away, pouting because I knew he’d be gone for hours.  With the car taillights fading in the distance, I motioned for my Black Lab, Jack, to follow me to feed the horses.  As he played with his favorite delicacy, frozen manure balls, I tied the mares in their respective stall, clucking, petting and rubbing them as I do every night.  After I’d given them hay and grain, Jack and I headed back to the firewood stack where his Bassset Hound sisters waited for us. 

     Once I’d loaded the firebox of the boiler with enough wood to last to mid-morning, it was fully dark.  With an icy chill wrapping me, I retreated to the warmth of my house, still pouting.  Upon entering the kitchen, I checked both phones (house and cell) but had no new calls.  This observation only put me deeper into a funk.

     “Nobody loves me.”  All three dogs looked up at me.

      “Nobody ever calls here.”  I waved at the land line.  “It hasn’t rung in days.”

      The dogs had no idea what I was talking about.  But since I was in the kitchen and speaking to them, they were sure a treaty-treat was involved.  As I looked at their beautiful brown eyes, the image of an out-of-state friend interrupted my pity party.

      “Oh my God!  This must be how Dianne feels!”

      Suddenly widowed late in 2013, my Oklahoma friend didn’t fit the mold of most women I know.  She and her late husband, Keith, were the epitome of soul mates.  As they both retired within weeks of the other, the few workplace friendships they had, began to dissolve.

       Now with Keith gone, Dianne’s life was nearly devoid of regular interaction with people in her peer group.  Other than her daily conversation with her son or daughter-in-law, her phone didn’t ring much either.

      “Hhmmm…I think I’ll call her.”  My self-indulgent mood swung 180 degrees now that I had a purpose. 

     When her house phone didn’t answer, I tried her cell.  While waiting for a return call to either message that I’d left, I dallied in the world’s largest time wasting platform, the Internet.  After half an hour of surfing Facebook and Craigslist I grew concerned about Dianne’s lack of response so I sent a text to her daughter-in-law, Crystal. Her reply:  “We’re on our way over there to see why she didn’t respond to you.”  Twenty minutes later she called me with an update.

      “Sharon, you will never believe this.” Crystal was practically shouting at me.  “You saved her life.”

       “What are you talking about?”  From my vantage point, the only think I’d done in the past hour was waste time on-line instead of doing something productive like writing or cleaning the house.

      “Seriously, when we got here she was on the living room floor, in a coma.  The ambulance crew is here now, but they can’t wake her up.”

       “But is she alive?”

       “Yes, her vitals are pretty bad.  And the house is a wreck.  I’ll call you from the hospital.”  Crystal had worked in nursing and hospice care long enough for me to be comfortable with her knowledge and intuition. 

       “Okay. Buh bye, sweetie.”

       Dianne’s saga played itself out over the next few weeks.  Originally the emergency room doctors thought she’d suffered extreme brain damage, possibly from a stroke.  But two days after she was admitted, Dianne was conscious and able to speak in a lucid fashion, her oxygen and sugar levels had come back to normal and she wanted to go home.  Instead they sent her to a rehab center to analyze her motor skills.  Blessedly, they found no signs of permanent brain damage and she has since returned to her own house.

       It’s still pretty overwhelming for me.  Had my husband asked for me to join him on that shopping trip late in the afternoon, I wouldn’t have placed that call.  Instead, I was busy acting like a petulant child who wanted attention.  With myriad friends to call, why I had thought of Dianne is anyone’s guess.  My answer: it was the will of a higher power.  Not just to save the life of another, but to remind me of the importance of taking care of others who are not always as fortunate as me.

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My Tradition

     Born on the 6th of January, I am, in essence, a Christmas baby.  My arrival at 8:48 a.m. was timed perfectly with the first snow storm of my family’s upstate New York residency.  And ever since, I have loved Christmas.

     Throughout my childhood, “the season” was a fantastic blur of spritz cookies, snowstorms, gathering around a huge tree in the living room of our 1790’s farmhouse and a two week vacation from school.  My parents always managed to stretch a tight budget so well that all six of us thought we were rich with presents.

      Every year my siblings and I tumbled our way through our time out of school.  Each day started with a monster pot of oatmeal.  Pasty, gloppy and packed with raisins, my mother loaded up our bellies with substantial carbohydrates and then sent us out to play in the snow.  Sometimes we would perch our sleds and flying saucers at the peak of the hill behind our house.  Backing up, we’d take a running leap and belly flop, catapulting our way down the hill as our German Shepherd tried to pull us off the sled, miraculously arriving at the bottom with no broken bones.

     When we grew bored with the traditional version of sledding, we’d move on to the lesser known style that involved a pony.  After retrieving one from the pasture, we’d outfit them with a harness made of sisal baling twine and burlap.  Then we’d head up the road to our hayfield.  One person rode the pony while the rest of us piled on to the toboggan attached to the fawn colored lines.  The rider would circle the outside of the field, forcing the pony to run as fast as possible in the deep snow.  We frequently fell off the toboggan while ducking to avoid the bullet like hard pack snow coming from the four hooves of the pony pulling us.  There was no stopping in this game so, if you lost your seat, you had to run like crazy to catch up with the toboggan and then jump quickly to get back on.  It was a crazy game that we loved to play.  And since it kept us out of the house and thoroughly exhausted us, our mother turned a blind eye until one of us came back bleeding.

     The down side to being born during the holiday season was a lack of birthday presents.  Often my mother would find herself cash poor and my gifts would be few and less grand then any I’d received for Christmas.  Many years, I was the recipient of coloring books, stationary sets or matching mittens and scarves.  I know my mother felt the gifts were inadequate and by my tenth birthday, she had come up with a special gift that only I ever received.  Her answer: the Christmas decorations and tree.  She knew I loved them, so from that birthday forward, none of them were taken down before my birthday had come and gone.  It was a special gift for me and me alone.

     My birthday tradition continued throughout my teenage years, though I was frequently oblivious to it.  My focus was usually on some other self-centered teenage pathos and not my family.  But by my early twenties, I had returned to appreciating my mother and her efforts.  And each year, the tree stood in our living room until at least January 6.  An appropriate gift for her only child born on the 12th Day of Christmas.

      Many years have passed since my mother’s last Christmas, but I keep her tradition alive in my own house.  In the frenetic last hours leading up to a large gathering of my in-laws on December 24th, my husband and I select a tree from our forty-acre wood lot.  Mounting it in the stand is always a test of each other’s tolerance that is accompanied by a chorus of grunting, power tools and the inevitable silver wire to tie the tree in place.  He hangs the lights while I run around trying to vacuum the rug one last time.  Once all of his siblings arrive with their children, the younger ones finish decorating the tree.  This is a new tradition that I started a few years ago when I’d had knee surgery less than two weeks before the holiday.  They have all been blessedly sweet to me and happy to have this piece of the action belong to them. 

     Later that night, and for at least the next twelve, my husband I snuggle on the couch and admire the tree.  Depending on where in the week my birthday falls, the next day we begin to disassemble the decorations, bough by bough.  When a branch is empty, we cut it with a pair of garden loppers and then burn it in the fireplace.  By the end of a week, the tree has assumed a natural state that I can spread on the garden.  On the next available weekend, I complete a whirlwind cleaning.  This includes packing up all the decorations displayed throughout the house and, of course, the tree lights and ornaments.  When Sunday evening rolls around, I am able to sit peacefully in my spotless living room watching the NFL playoffs.  As much as I love Christmas and how all of its display lasts through my birthday, I also love our tradition of burning the tree and setting the house to rights to start fresh with a new season, in a new year.

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This story was originally published in the December 26, 2010 edition of the Times Union (Albany, NY).

A Very Special Christmas

     I’m sure that most people believe their family to be the best.  I know I do.  With the 2013 holiday season upon us, I am reminded of the Christmas that my family won first prize in this unspoken contest.

     When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked both a full- time and a part-time job.  During the week I was a union pipefitter but on the weekends I transformed into a rock and roll disc jockey at a local powerhouse radio station.  I worked every Saturday and Sunday morning, paying my dues and being part of a very prestigious team.  Throughout this work-a-holic phase of my life, I was also co-parenting my sister’s three children, along with other members of my family.  Three generations under one roof.  The kids (four, nine and eleven) had loving adults around them at all times.  Even during lean periods, we tried to make Christmas very special for them with extra hugs and cookies, decorations everywhere and whatever presents we could afford.  

     In the pre-computer era, when you worked part-time in radio, it was assumed that you would be available to work all weekends and holidays.  Simply put, part-timers should have no illusions about spending any holiday at home.  Most holiday weekends were scheduled in extended shifts because there weren’t as many part-timers available to fill all the spots.  At 7 am on Christmas morning 1984, I filled up a travel mug with coffee, smiled wistfully at the tree full of presents awaiting small children and headed to the station for an 8 am to 2 pm shift, an overcast day promising a white Christmas. 

     I spent the day extending holiday greetings across the 200 mile coverage area of the station, taking phone calls from well-wishers and thinking about my family.  I assumed they were snuggled up at home topping off the annual ham dinner with a pot of steaming hot tea and mounds of the cookies I’d spent the week baking.  All the well-meaning phone calls couldn’t console me as the snow continued to fall on what should have been an idyllic day.   When 2pm arrived, I dashed out to clean off my car and trundle home 28 miles through several feet of unplowed snow.

     Just past three o’clock I was greeted at the back door to the heart-warming aroma of honey-baked ham.  My Border Collie and Black Lab danced around me as I stomped off the snow and started removing my coat.  I could hear the kids’ laughter drifting from the living room.  At that moment, I hated my second job because I had missed such a special day with my family.  But, I put on a brave face and headed down the hallway. 

     As I stepped into the living room I was overcome with emotion as four year-old Nick jumped off the couch, his arms wide open to hug me.

     “Merry Christmas, Aunt Sharon!”

     His beautiful freckled face beamed up at me as he pointed to the tree, “We waited for you!”

     I burst into happy tears at the sight, and the knowledge that these three wonderful children and the rest of my family had indeed waited all day for me to come home before Christmas could begin.

     Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone, I love you dearly!

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Lessons from an Old Dog

     I have lost track of the number of times I’ve held her face in my hands, stared deeply into the brown pools of her cataract filled eyes, and asked, “Why, baby?  What happened?”

     The windows to her soul – aged, rheumy, bloodshot – are set deeply in a graying face.  She blinks – her only response.  I raise her head just enough to kiss her cheek below her left eye, the one with the new wart growing under the lid.  Mmmm, she smells good!  My nose is buried in her freshly shampooed coat, the floral essence of TreSemme filling my senses. 

     “What happened to your first mom?”

     This time she stretches her neck and delivers a butterfly kiss to my left cheek, as if to say You’re my mom now.

     Chelsea arrived in our driveway, mid-day, the last Saturday in December 2012.  On a bitterly cold day, someone had stopped their car in the wide mouth of our driveway, nearly a tenth of a mile from the house, and cast out this ancient Black Labrador.  We only knew she was there because a man with a better soul had come directly to the house, honking his horn.

     “Can I help you?”  I shouted as I stepped out onto my front stoop. 

     “Uh, yeah.  You got a black Lab?”  He stayed in his car.

     “Yes.  Why?”

     “It’s in the road.  ‘Bout to get hit by a car.”

     I panicked, yanking open the storm door, furtively searching for my eight-month old puppy, Jack.  Within seconds he careened around the corner and crashed into me.  I turned back to the man in my driveway.

     “Nope.  Not mine.”

     “Well this road’s a death sentence for a dog.”  That I knew.  When we purchased our house from my father-in-law’s estate, after nearly losing our Bassett Hounds, we invested in an “Invisible Fence” for our two acre yard.

     “You’re right.  I’ll be right out.”

     I shoved Jack back through the door and asked my husband, Guy, to meet me at the end of the driveway.  I half trotted, half walked in a weird crooked gait, trying to avoid falling on ice.  When I reached the end of the driveway, the stranger and a companion were holding an old dog by the collar.

     “Appears to be a female.”

     I agreed given the swaying belly with nipples protruding through her hair in various directions.  As I approached, she barked repeatedly, as if she was trying to tell us something.  Moments later Guy arrived with a leash and she happily held her head up to be tethered.

     I looked at both strangers.  “Ever seen this dog?”  They shook their heads in negative unison. “Are either of you interested in having her?”  More negative head shaking.

     “Okay, honey.”  I turned to my husband.  “Let’s go call the dog warden and see if we can get this lumpy old woman back to her family.”

     “Thanks, gentlemen… I think!” I shouted back to the men who had saved her life as the three of us started down the driveway to our house.

     For several weeks, I searched for her missing family by calling multiple dog wardens, leaving posters in convenience stores and posting pictures on Facebook pages.  In desperation one evening, I took her to a local vet and asked if they might test her for a micro-chip.  A few minutes later, the office clerk stood up from behind a PC mounted on the counter and shouted.  “Chelsea!”  In a split second, the overweight old dog at my feet jumped up and started barking like crazy.  As she danced in circles, barking and barking, I felt like she was mocking me.

     Oh, thank God you finally figured it out.  These two idiots I’ve been living with have been calling me stupid things like Moms, Molly and Mona.  But it’s Chelsea.  My name is Chelsea!

     After a few minutes, she calmed down and stood by me, wagging her tail.  I turned to the clerk, “So will you call the people who own her?”  I was so excited.  We’d found them!  Very soon we’d be back to three dogs and I’d have less vacuuming to do.

     “We’re trying it right now.”  She pointed to a co-worker.  “But it’s rung like twenty times and there’s no answer.  It’s not looking good.”

     “Well can you give me their name and number and I’ll keep trying?”

     “No, by law we can’t.  But you can call the police and have animal cruelty charges pressed.  They’ll make ‘em take her back.”

     I shook my head in depressed confusion.  “For what?  So they dump her out somewhere else?”  I patted her smelly, old, unwashed head.  “She might not be so lucky the next time.”  I looked at the woman behind the counter.  “Thank you anyway.  At least I know her name now.”

     I rubbed her ears.  “Come on Chelsea, let’s go home.”  The two of us, old fat and lumpy in our own special ways, got in my pickup truck and headed back to the house.

     Since finding out her name, I’ve made several more discoveries about Chelsea – some enjoyable, others not so much.  Such as, she has these really long front feet that she uses just like human hands, something I’ve never seen another dog do.  She’s a disobedient counter surfer who would steal anything edible if her old legs would let her jump that high and she piddles on the rose colored carpet in my living room instead of asking to be let out. 

     She becomes a maniac around fire – whether it’s in the outdoor boiler, fireplace or bonfire – racing around like crazy catching sparks in her mouth and barking incessantly, but ironically she slept through a recent fire in our kitchen!  Swimming and fishing in the creek were a particular favorite for her this summer.  She loves to ride in any automobile, but is most fond of trips through the woods with the other dogs in the back of our “Gator-esque contraption – again, barking her fool head off, baring her teeth in a grin. 

     In recent weeks, she’s reminded me of my mother in the waning months of her life.  As I write this story, her rapidly thinning body is in deep sleep in the living room, so deep that sometimes it’s hard to tell if she’s even still alive.  Chelsea is a beautiful, sweet old dog.  I have been blessed by someone else’s cruelty and reminded of how important it is to be gentle and kind to older bodies, whether they are human or not. 

     Like my mother, I know her days are winding down and it breaks my heart.  As we approach the seventh anniversary of my Mom’s death, I realize how very much I miss her, and I know she’d have done the same for this old dog.  God bless you Mom, and thank you for all the decency and strength you instilled in me.  And when your day comes, Chelsea, make sure you find the white-haired Irish lady who’s probably fileting politicians but will never harm you.

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Freefall Thoughts

Hhmm…I’ve been thinking about time.  The irony is that lately I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about time.  All of this time spent thinking may be a by product of aging.  If it is, then by time I’m truly an old person I will be spending most of my time thinking rather than doing.  And that little action, or lack there of, will most certainly be a direct result of aging…if I allow it to be so.

But I digress, let us go back to the time I’ve spent thinking about time. 

Most of this thinking has occurred in waiting rooms, the car or meetings.  In the past two weeks I’ve spent nearly two hours sitting waiting for a doctor, a dentist, a dental hygienist and two MRI technicians.  And since the beginning of the year, my waiting time calculates to nearly a 40 hour week.  When I am scheduled for any type of medical appointment I bring a book with me, a practice I began years ago when my chosen field of employment did not allow for mid-day leisure reading.  With a voracious appetite for books I’ve always horded reading time.  Unfortunately my life is a bit fractured of late and I’ve had trouble remembering where I am, let alone where I’ve left the book I’m reading.  And so it is that I’ve found myself with plenty of thinking time.

The thoughts that have been rattling around in my head are extremely varied.  Pinning them down to any sort of pattern is nearly impossible because there are so many triggering mechanisms. 

From the window of my dentist’s Schenectady waiting room I see a person jogging. 

 I really need to get back to my running.  I have a 5k this Sunday, how am I going to manage the distance without dying? 

A peek at my feet reveals their ever present sneakers. 

You bought two new pairs in February so that you could run.  Why haven’t you done it? 

My stomach growls. 

Man, am I hungry.  I think I’ll get a Filet-O-Fish on the way back to the office. 

“Sharon?”  My dentist has a new assistant who doesn’t recognize me so she has to shout my name from the doorway of a waiting room with only two people in it just to see if it stuck to a human being.    

Forty-five minutes later I’ve done more waiting and thinking in between the ex-ray tabs being shoved in my mouth, and the dentist’s hands and tools also taking up temporary residence there.  On the way to the car my stomach starts up again. 

Okay, I’ll find something.  What do I want to eat? 

I turn the car up Nott Street and two blocks later pull into a Stewarts.  Sating myself with a customized shake of vanilla ice-cream, coffee and chocolate syrup, I justify the calories of the shake because it‘s the first thing I’ve had all day and it’s nearly noon. 

Back in the car I continue up Nott to McClellan and head over towards I-890 and the Thruway.  

Man this is yummy. 

Nearly collapsing the straw, I suck the remainder of the shake into my mouth. 

But I’m still hungry.  I want a Filet-O-Fish.  I can get back on my diet tomorrow. 

Minutes later I arrive at the intersection of McClellan and State where I should turn right to head to 890.  Instead I turn left. 

There’s bound to be a Mickey D’s nearby…they’re everywhere! 

Sure enough, after two blocks I’m pulling out of the drive-thru with my fat laden craving sitting on the seat next to me.  I wolf down the “fish” and a burger within a few more blocks and I’m riddled with guilt. 

Jerk.  You definitely have to stop this. 

As I’m heading east on the Thruway towards my office the indigestion starts. 

Sweet Josephine.  Was it worth it? Yech! 

I swallow some water and pop gum in my mouth to rid my teeth of the film from nasty onions and tartar sauce. 

And so the cycle spins around in my head.  It’s like a never ending game of ice hockey and my mind is the puck.  Getting slammed over and over again, battered from one location to the next.  I believe my hop-scotching thought patterns are phase two of menopause.  First the uncontrollable hot flashes, next incoherent thoughts that flit around like bugs on a pond, moving too quickly for me to remember them or to write them all down. 

Like my mother before me, I am a very busy woman.    A few years before my mother died she told me that she didn’t have time for fluff.  She wouldn’t waste her eyes and ears on local or reality tv, nor did she read Hollywood based tabloid trash because she had things to accomplish before she died.  So vividly now I relate to her logic.  I wish I could ask her about all this thinking.

 

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