Archive for January, 2010

Yesterday, Today

January 31, 2010

     Yesterday wrapped itself in a soft, whispering snowfall. The gift came in shades of gray, graduating to white. Red and blue wings of bright color splashed here and there at the bird feeder. A day like that, when parents and kids, wearing flannel, can hole up together in a warm house, sipping hot chocolate, and snuggling together on the bed watching movies is rare. The cat, curled and asleep, owned a corner of the quilt. The phone didn’t even ring.

     This morning, the sun is back and the sky is cloudless blue. Ice sickles drip from the eaves of the house, and the plow makes scraping sounds on the gravel driveway. Boots scuff and stamp on the porch. The cat tip toes out, walking gingerly around the edges of sparkling powder, hoping to keep his feet dry. He jumps at the sound of the shovel on the walk. Stretching out long, he glides silver around the corner of the house. Birds flutter and chirp.

Life returns to normal.


January 24, 2010

“You may not play with those boys.  Shooting marbles is not lady-like, Carolyn,” my grandmother stated firmly as she pitched round colorful glass pieces out the back door.

“But Mama, I won those today.  I worked hard to get them all, and that big one was Jimmy Myers’ best taw.  I shoot marbles better than any boy at school.”

“I don’t care how well you shoot marbles.  It is not lady-like to be down on your knees with your bottom stuck up in the air, your hands in the dirt, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of boys.  Why can’t you play with the girls?”

“Girls are stupid whiney girls, that’s why.”

My Grandmother shook her head, looked up at the ceiling and asked, “Why Lord, why?”

Carolyn went out into the field, picked some wildflowers and presented them to her mother as a peace offering. Grandma smiled, put the flowers in a vase, but still didn’t like marbles.

If marbles could grow into trees, an orchard would have sprouted behind the house.  Every marble my mother ever won, landed as colorful glass seeds on the hillside. She wasn’t allowed to harvest them. Marbles were not allowed in the house.   Grandma bought my mother fragile china tea sets she didn’t use, dolls, she ignored, and embroidery kits, she took apart to use the thread to tie on the legs of flying bugs so she could have insect pets. She collected frogs in her pockets, snake eggs to hatch, and rode the neighbor’s horse bare back through the fields, whooping like a “wild indian.”  Mama’s family  lived next door to the Presbyterian Church and tombstomes made perfect hurdles for leapfrog. 

My mother had two older brothers and two older sisters. She was more boy than any child her mother had ever seen.  When Mama turned  ten , my Grandma gave up trying to make her into a feminine presence. Grandma allowed her youngest daughter to wear pants because they insured modesty when straddling a horse or hurdling tombstones.  Hairstyles went short, to keep tangles to a minimum.  A fishing rod was presented for her birthday.  Mama breathed a sigh of relief.  Grandma apologized to God.

Mama swears the wildflower peace offerings where what caused Grandma’s turn-around.  I think Grandma just finally gave up.

Altar Table

January 18, 2010

Grandpa Payne was a man with a fourth grade education, a mind for math figures and a love of wood. He cut and pieced, sanded and stained the grain of Walnut, Pine, Mahogany and Birch.

He was a master carpenter. In his thirties, forties, and fifties, he built houses from the ground up, a carpenter’s apron around his waist, a nail between his teeth, a hammer in his hand.  When he retired, he built a workshop behind his house and made furniture. Sliding his hand across the smooth finished top of a table, his eyes smiled. When he lost his sight, he fashioned walking sticks from Grandma’s Cedar Christmas trees. After stripping the branches, he sanded and stained the trunk, then adhered a rubber tip at the narrow end. He tried each one out with a walk in the woods before handing it down to one of his grandchildren. I was the youngest.  I received the last one.

Communion Sunday meant we all went to church, even if Grandma had an excuse. Grandpa was dressed in his gray suit, had a Blue Jay’s feather in the hat band of his Fedora, and a gold chain shined as it disappeared into the watch pocket of his trousers. At the end of that chain was his retirement gift.  When he pressed a button, the gold cover with his initials, IGP, popped open and the second hand ticked to the rhythm of time.

Mama and I fancied up too, wearing our lace dresses and good shoes. Grandma put on her Sunday-best hat; the yellow one with a striped bow. I carried a quarter for the collection plate.

Grandpa led the four of us into the sanctuary.  Our seats at Mt. Moriah Methodist Church were three rows back from the front, in the center.  The minister looked right at us when he preached. 

The church allowed senior members to stay in the pews during Communion. Grandpa refused to let his eighty-eight years keep him from kneeling at the alter.  When it was our turn, he used his walking stick as leverage to help him stand. His knees creaked as we followed him to the front. Two deacons assisted Grandpa as he knelt, and the minister came forward with the sacrament. We all received our wafers dipped in grape juice and kept our heads bowed in prayer until we were all served.  The minister stood and waited for us to get up and take our seats.

The elders bent to assist Grandpa. He shrugged them off. Still on his knees, he reached out and grabbed the leg of the altar table, giving it a good shake. Candles flickered, coins rattled in the collection plates, the vase of flowers slid.  We stood gawking over Grandpa, our mouths wide.

Grandma said, “Garth?”

Mama said, “Daddy?”

I looked down at my patent leather shoes, and wished I was somewhere else. 

Reverend Doug bent real close to Grandpa’s bald head.  “Mr. Payne, are you alright sir?”

“Yep, fine.”

“Do you need help Mr. Payne?”

“Nope, don’t need no help, just checking to see if this altar table is still sturdy.”


“Been a long time since I built this table, Son, almost thirty years I think. Made it in my workshop.”

“I didn’t know that, Mr. Payne.”

Grandma and Mama looked at each other, shrugged, and then looked at Grandpa.  We didn’t know it either.

“Nope, Reverend. I didn’t tell nobody. Finished it, brought it to the church and left it inside the front door.  Figured if it was needed, someone would find a place for it.  Table’s been right in this spot since the Sunday after I brought it.”  He released the leg of the table and pulled himself up using his walking stick. “It’s still sturdy,” he said, satisfied.

“Yes sir, it is,” Reverend Doug agreed.

 Grandpa walked back to his seat, and as the rest of us took out our hymnal for song 252, he stood and sang it by heart.  

Break’s Over

January 11, 2010

 Ben went back to college today. He’s been home since the first week of December.  I forget how much his presence changes the dynamics of our family.  He takes on responsibility that doesn’t usually fall on the shoulders of a college student.  Ben cleans the house while he’s home and keeps it that way, washing dishes, scrubbing floors, toilets and tubs.  He makes his little brother clean up after himself and won’t let him leave dirty dishes under the bed. Ben did some of these things before he left for college, but not to the extent that he does now.  I think maybe he’s finding his own sense of organization and wants it to rub off on the rest of us who aren’t nearly so organized.  Our homework is to keep the house straight until Spring Break.  We will not succeed. Our grade will be a paultry D+.

    Ben makes plans for us when he’s home.  He scheduled family dinners with grandparents, making sure that the get-togethers were held at each grandma’s house so he could enjoy their home cooking and attention lavished especially on him.  He chose the menus, Country Ham, creamed potatoes, green beans, sweet potato casserole, corn pudding, homemade biscuits,  iced tea and pound cake at Grandma T’s,  Barbeque Spare Ribs, scalloped potatoes, tossed salad, pickled beets, homemade yeast rolls, lemonade and egg custard pie at Maw-Maw’s house.  The boy knows how to pull on the “I’ll do it” strings of his grandmothers.

     Ryan cried when Ben left.  The two of them wrestle, beat on each other, yell, fight over video games, laugh, joke, play together in the snow and pile into Ben’s car to ride for fast food and scope out girls at the mall. Ryan hangs out with Ben’s friends, all college age, and they accept him like he belongs to the pack.  There is six years between the boys, but they are closer than any two brothers I know.  Their Great-Grandmother would be proud. She encouraged them to “love each other,” because “one day they would be all that is left of the rest of us.”  Ryan got the “work hard” at school pep talk from his brother, because “College is fun and Mom and Dad aren’t going to send you if you aren’t going to study and take it seriously.”  Ryan said, “ok,” but rolled his eyes.

     While he was home, his Dad changed the oil in Ben’s car, put in new brake shoes, and wiper blades and had the bucket of bolts inspected.  Bruce ordered new tags and registration and checked the spare tire for air.  In return, Ben chopped and stacked some wood, helped deliver several loads of mulch and compost and helped bleed the brakes in his Dad’s truck.  I think they’re even now.

     As for me, I got heaping helpings of hugs from the bear of a boy. I’m tall and he towers over me at 6’6″. I have to stand on tip toes to hug him around his neck. His body takes up whole rooms of space. His smile warms cold places.  As old and as big as he is, he continues to crave body to body contact with his family. We learn all over again, how close we are when Ben comes home. 

     Every semester, I look forward to him coming home, but after 3 a.m. foragings in the refrigerator, keeping his little brother up way past bedtime on school nights, unending telephone calls from his girlfriend, and lectures on housekeeping, I look forward to him going back to college. He’s been gone seven and a half hours now and I can’t wait for Spring Break. March is a long way away.

Build a Green House, They Will Come

January 11, 2010

Our community needs a Green House. Not one for gardening, but one for growing the lives and minds of frail, dependent, elders. One that promotes cultivation of people in a warm environment. Currently, too many of our seniors with physical and cognitive challenges are planted in cold warehouses.

Two of my grandparents died in nursing homes. They had no choice. My grandfather had a massive stroke, lost the use of one whole side of his body, his speech, and his ability to control bladder and bowel.  Days spent in a wheelchair, dribbling food and drink from the corner of his mouth, trying to speak with his eyes alone, made my grandfather the saddest person in my life.  I visited and tried to bring a little light back into his existence, but failed in my attempts. I always left him, crying. A lifetime of fly fishing for trout, growing Beefsteak tomatoes in his garden and building homes from the ground up, only played as old movies in his head.  No one in the nursing home talked to him about his life; no one knew; no one cared to know.

My Grandmother lost her mind to dementia.  She didn’t recognize me.  Looking through me, she mumbled words that made no sense to either of us.  She dressed in backward layers and searched for home.  In her day, she raised five children, cooked meals that fed not only her own family, but others in the neighborhood who were hungry.  She pieced quilts to keep those she loved warm, and braided my long hair while telling me stories of her childhood.  To the staff in the nursing home, she was a wrinkled body that had to be fed, bathed, and chased down the hallway because she wandered, looking for purpose.

When my great-grandparents were elderly and unable to live alone, they spent six week intervals with each of their nine children. When the elders visited, they helped as much as they could with cooking, cleaning, watching the children, doing yard work and small repair jobs around the house.  When they were no longer able to be of assistance in a physical way, they used their knowledge to share recipes and gardening hints. They rested in rocking chairs, and at the end, took to the bed until it was time to ‘go home.’  Family gathered at the bedside, caring for basic needs and listening to last stories. When God and others before them called, this generation was sent to the next life surrounded by love.  Nursing homes didn’t exist.

In the 1960’s family units began to change. Women worked outside the home and children no longer lived in close proximity to their parents.  Something had to be done with Mom and Dad when age took their bodies or minds.  As elders became unsafe in their own homes—leaving pots on the stove, wandering winter streets at night with no shoes, forgetting to eat—families, children, and communities, needed a ’safe’ place.  There was no model.

The early architects of nursing homes looked to the hospital as their model.  Semi-private rooms, long halls, starched staff, polished tile, stainless steel, and shiny linoleum suddenly became ‘home.’  Kitchens were placed far away from living quarters. No one’s mouth watered from the smell of baking biscuits. Laundry swished and swirled in industrial machines and came delivered in folded stacks, with a scent of Clorox. Baths, meals, therapy, activities and laxatives came on a set schedule. For the sake of safety, doors locked, walking discontinued, bodies with weak legs were tied down and when voices rebelled, chemicals in the form of antipsychotic pills hushed them. In caring for elders, quality of life was sacrificed. Staff ‘cared’ the life right out of the wisest ones.

During a visit to the ‘home,’ visitors met with scenes of drooped heads, drooling mouths, calls for “help” and “bring me a pair of scissors to cut this strap.”  Bingo was the only activity that promised a surprise ending in a long and tedious day. Elders didn’t have a say in their care. Their feelings and knowledge were ignored.  They suffered alone in a building filled with people rushing about, or vegetating.

Laws in 1987 tried to regulate care, bringing rights to nursing home residents. It’s a sad commentary on a society that has to pass laws to protect its eldest citizens.  Each of us has these civil liberties—we are born with them, but because of rampant abuse and neglect, Congress passed a ‘Nursing Home Bill of Rights.’  Included in this mandate were the following rights:

  • to be treated with respect and dignity;
  • to receive care, treatment, medicines, and services in compliance with laws;
  • to be free from mental and physical abuse, restraints;
  • to open and read one’s own mail, have access to a telephone, and writing materials;
  • to manage financial affairs;
  • to enjoy privacy in one’s own room,  with a spouse and for the couple to share a room;
  • not to be expected to work for room and board;
  • to have personal belongings.

We, as youthful humans, take for granted and expect these rights. We become outraged if these freedoms are yanked from us.  In 1987, fundamental human rights had to be spelled out and enforced in nursing homes. Legislators developed a three inch thick ream of rules to regulate care facility practice. Nursing homes became the second most regulated industry in the United States behind nuclear power plants. Twenty two years later, there is change, but not nearly enough.

The medical model still exists.  Nursing home residents continue to suffer from loneliness, helplessness and boredom.  Institutions are large and every room, every hallway, looks the same.  Breakfast sits on the plate in a yellow mound. Lunch and dinner are ground into unrecognizable meats and vegetables. Sliced bread is the only piece of normalcy on the plate. There are few spontaneous activities, while choices are limited.

Elders are no longer tied down or given  pills to shut them up, but body alarms have taken the place of restraints.  If someone chooses to rise from a wheelchair and their legs refuse to hold them up, a screeching alarm alerts staff.  In most cases, the noise startles the elder into moving too quickly, and they sprawl on the floor anyway.  As soon as most residents arrive, they are presented with wheelchairs.  The halls in the building are long and the walk to the dining room for meals is quite a hike for arthritic bones. Loss of mobility comes quickly. Loss of self comes even faster. A person’s diagnosis becomes his name, his disability, a nickname, his frustration, and a staff member’s annoyance.


“There’s a new admission in 208, he’s a fractured hip, a feeder, and a screamer at night.”


Not all facilities are warehouses for broken, old people.  A reform movement called ‘Culture Change’ is making some progress.   It’s slow in coming, but all needed change seems to crawl when it should sprint. The main principle of culture change is person centered care.  Individuals in these homes are encouraged to thrive in a community environment, not decline. ‘Home’ becomes the operative word, not the residence that each person remembers, but closer than the institutions that exist today.

A social model replaces the medical one. Each resident’s room reflects her personality. Family photographs and artwork recognizable to the individual decorate the walls. Familiar furniture, a favorite chair, a vanity with a dresser set, and a four poster bed with a soft mattress make life more livable.  Memory books, with cards and notes from children and grandchildren, stories from the past, and love letters from a spouse provide comfort. Residents choose when they wake, when they want to rest, what foods they wish to eat, and when they bathe.  Staff members have consistent assignments—they learn the history, interests, likes and dislikes of the elders in their care.  More importantly, the elders recognize their caregivers and relationships develop. Nursing assistants begin to understand that care is not the physical act of bathing and dressing, cleaning and making beds. Care is about the individual, and helping to make her life worth living.

“Clara helps me get dressed for the day, then we can sit and talk a few minutes about the red bird couple visiting my bird feeder this morning,” says Joan, a recipient of culture change care.

Unfortunately, the rules that came in the 1980’s, designed to protect and care for elders, have discouraged a rapid jump into culture change.  Administrators and Healthcare companies are fearful of the new direction. Regulations are strictly enforced and severe monetary penalties are imposed for noncompliance. ‘Infection control’, limits family style dining, homemade foods brought in by the community, and the adoption of pets.  Medical care and treatment still supersedes a resident’s right to eat and drink what he enjoys, or have a peaceful night’s sleep without being awakened for turning, positioning, and care needs.


“I’m 96 years old. Sure I have diabetes, but I’d rather die from the sugar in a Hershey Bar than die from wanting one,” says Earl, a three year resident in a care facility.


Staff are so concerned with documenting care , that they don’t have the time to deliver it in a way that makes the resident feel like an individual.

“If services are not documented, they did not occur.” This statement comes directly from a State inspector.

“Get it done, write it down,  that’s what I have to do in eight hours with a caseload of ten residents,” says an overworked C N A. This rushed approach leaves the elder feeling like a piece of furniture to be dusted or a wilted plant needing water.

A forerunner of the Culture Change movement is The Eden Alternative.  It’s a small not-for-profit organization which is turning eldercare on its gray head.  This organization embraces the belief that aging is a stage of development and a person can continue to grow well into the age of elder-hood.  The Eden Alternative has developed new models for housing those in our society who are frail and dependent on others for care.  These communities are called ‘Green Houses’. They promote growth in their inhabitants.  When an alternative Green House is built, instead of an institutional design with long foreboding hallways, smaller, residential housing units are organized.  Each unit houses no more than ten private bedrooms with private baths.  The rooms have doors that open to a short hall or a great room. Each house has its own kitchen, dining room, laundry, front porch, mailbox, backyard with grass, bird feeders, a cat or a dog, and a garden.  There are upwards of fifteen units in a Green House community. Each house has ten elders, and a family of care staff.  Residents can assist as they are able with meal preparation, cleaning, laundry, gardening, pet care—all activities they would normally participate in at home. Recreational pastimes, calendared events, interests and hobbies are pursued with passion or not, depending upon the likes of each individual. Elders feel needed, valued and activities are meaningful. Each house is run separately from the others.  Each small community within the larger, is autonomous.

Where are the nurses?  Where are the administrators, social workers, business office personnel, maintenance workers, housekeepers, and dietitians?  This innovative living concept does away with some positions. Those that are necessary, are housed in a separate unit within the confines of the community. Care staff in the Green Houses are cross trained to provide personal care. Staff cook, clean, assist with activities, budget household expenses and shop for needs.  There is one ‘Administrative Building’, which houses offices and the nursing staff.  Nurses travel from house to house like home health workers. They come at a specific time, provide medications and treatments, then leave. The housekeeper comes once or twice a week for deep cleaning, and the bed and bath linens are taken to a separate building for washing. They are delivered back to the house when clean, reminding elders of the old time laundry services.  Personal laundry is washed, dried, folded, and ironed in each house with the assistance of the residents.  The elders rule their homes. They plan meals, celebrations, spur of the moment ice cream making, trips to the store, or poker nights.

Green Houses in existence have waiting lists. The concept is innovative and studies show that elders thrive in these communities.  Costs are lower, staffing needs are less, and quality time between elders and caregivers increases. With the Baby Boomer population reaching retirement age, society needs a new and better way to care for those who will be unable to care for themselves in the near future.

In a prime example, the City of Charlottesville prides itself on being a mecca for retirees.  Cultural, educational, medical and community based services for seniors abound in this city.  Yet, when a certificate of need is granted for an eldercare facility, an old medical model nursing home is built.  Isn’t it time that we, as an innovative community, take the reigns in the Culture Change movement.  Shouldn’t we set the example of improved quality of life for our frail elders?  Shouldn’t we make the difference before we are placed in a medical model facility and wish we had done something about care when we had the ability?

Cherry Picking on Afton Mountain

January 6, 2010

    In summers when I was a little girl, my grandmother began sorting through her cherry pie recipes.  This seasonal ritual told us it was time to load up the car and head to Mr. Coffey’s cherry orchard on Afton Mountain.  Grandpa went into the smoke house to collect his gathering baskets.  They were round, made of flat reeds, dyed red and green, reminding me of Christmas in June.  The baskets had wire handles running through long wooden beads to hold onto.  They were stacked, seven together, an odd number because I was little and was only expected to fill one of them. The adults each had to fill two.

     The ride to the orchard took us over steep, narrow, winding roads.  The car passed a set of rock steps that lead right from the road, straight up a steep hill to the front porch of a house that looked like it was hanging on the side of the mountain. It seemed to be leaning forward like someone waiting to hear a good story.  I wondered if the people who lived there  ever worried about the house letting loose in the middle of the night and rolling down to the Rockfish River at the foot of the mountain.  I imagined them waking up in the morning, looking out their kitchen window and finding themselves in Charlottesville or even Richmond if the water was up and the current was fast. The mother would say, “Oh dear, we’ve floated away and got us some new neighbors.”  I  giggled to myself thinking of them running out in their bathrobes, mouths open, staring at the tall office buildings in their new front yard.

    On the way to the orchard, we passed the Shell Gas Station with its Dr. Pepper, bottle cap sign, telling us to be thirsty at 10, 2 and 4,  but making me want a soda no matter what time it was.  Our car went under three railroad trestles and if we were lucky, the train might be thundering overhead, making me cover my ears and reminding  us that my Uncle Garnett might be the conductor that day  

     Three quarters the way up the mountain, where the road had been cut through, a wall of rock rose from the side ditch.  In the summer, sections of the rock were wet from water that seemed to materialize from nowhere.  Tiny clear streams trickled over and through the dark gray granite, making me want to stop and cup my hands to drink.  “That’s the best water there is to wet your whistle, Tump,” Grandpa said as we drove past the springs.

     Near the top of Afton, we veered to the right at a sign, hand-scrawled in red letters, on gray barn wood, Coffey’s Cherry Orchard, Pick Your Own.  The mountain flattened out into a plateau up there and cherry trees stood in neat rows, dotted with red ripe fruit, ready to pick.  Just the other side of the trees, the Rockfish valley spread out below like someone painted a picture and laid it on the ground.  Everything looked so small in the distance, cars, houses, ponds, barns, and cows.  I imagined myself a giant who could content herself picking up and rearranging all the pieces to a community play set.  I remember thinking that I needed to be very careful where I put my feet. I didn’t want my sneakers to squash anyone’s home or horses. I would pick up the Smith House and put it nearer the store so that when I visited Jenny, we could walk by ourselves to get a Baby Ruth.  I‘d gift Mr. Timberlake a new red tractor from the Farm Store because his kept breaking down and Grandpa had to go help him fix it.  “Man needs to get rid of that piece of junk,” Grandpa muttered every time he came home wiping grease from his hands on a rag.  

     “Tump, come on, cherries won’t pick themselves,” Grandpa called to me.  As I ran up to him, he handed me a basket and told me to stand on the ground and reach up into the tree to pick. Grandma was in charge of making sure I didn’t get on a ladder.  Grandpa and Mama climbed the ladders to pick the cherries up high in the tree.  I wanted and waited to get big enough to climb the ladder to pick cherries. I knew when I was big enough to climb the ladder, I’d be grown.

     Grandpa, Mama and Grandma ate as many cherries as they put in their basket while they were picking. Grandma said, “It’s the price Mr. Coffey pays for us picking our own.”   I never liked to eat the cherries.  They reminded me of Mr. Coffey.  He’d come out to meet us at the car each year.  He was a nice man, telling us it was good to see us again and shaking Grandpa’s hand.  That was when I noticed his arm.  He couldn’t shake hands like other people because his right arm and hand were bent and shriveled.  It just hung on him, boneless, and didn’t work.  It was like someone had taken him apart one time, and before they could get him put back together, something terrible happened to his arm,  like a dog chewed on it or it got caught under something heavy and was mashed flat and twisted. I didn’t like to look at it. It made my stomach turn flips.  If the cherries were baked in a pie I could eat them, but if they were raw, I saw Mr. Coffey’s arm. The only time my Grandpa ever shook hands easy or with his left hand was when he greeted Mr. Coffey.

     When our baskets and Grandma were full, we paid Mr. Coffey for our cherries and headed home to bake pies.  As we got closer to Rockfish Gap Country Store, Grandma poked me in the ribs.  That was my cue to ask Grandpa to stop.  He seemed to listen better to me than to Grandma, because when I asked, we always stopped.  Rockfish Gap Country Store had a wheel of “Rat Cheese” and cold cider bubbling in a big square machine.  Two dollars from Grandpa’s pocket,  bought us each a hunk of yellow cheese and a cup of chilled cider.  It was our reward for picking cherries all afternoon.

     Back in Grandma’s kitchen, she’d make pie crust while we got the cherries ready.  I sat at the table and pulled the stems off the cherries while Mama and Grandpa ran the fruit through the pitter, a cast iron machine with a handle.  The cherries went in round, shiny and whole. When they came out of the machine they were smashed, their skins ripped, and their insides spilled out. It mangled them, and their pits were gone.  The machine scared me. I remember thinking that maybe Mr. Coffey’s arm got caught in a big cherry pitter and it de-boned him.  I shuddered, thinking about it. I felt bad for him, but didn’t want to make his same mistake. I stayed well away from that pitter. Even when it was back in its spot on the shelf, sitting quietly, I didn’t get too close to it.

Fog on Afton Mountain

January 5, 2010

Afton Mountain is deceptive. When the sun shines, there’s a clear view of Rockfish Valley on the eastern side. Cars become matchbox miniatures and vineyard rows look like fresh rake marks in dirt. Sometimes, visibility is so sharp that individual leaves on the trees wave to the passerby. On the western slope, the Shenandoah Valley spreads out rolling, slopes touching clouds, and dipping into ravines—a haphazard blanket over a bed of sleeping dogs.

When it’s a gray day, and water droplets weigh down the pockets of the clouds, Afton Mountain is ominous. Fog rests in tree tops and filters down before sprawling on the highway,  like a ghost with arms outstretched, quietly gathering up guardrails, warning signs, tail lights, cars, and whole tractor trailers in its mist. People become confused. Airplane pilots lose their visual bearings and travelers on Afton lose direction, front-to-back, side-to-side. It seems they drift alone and a silence takes over. The fog can kill.

In April 1992, sixty cars skidded then piled up on the mountain, claiming two lives. In April 1998, sixty-five drivers succumbed to the same fate; forty people were hospitalized. Three weeks later, eighteen cars collided in a chain reaction. When Afton Mountain hides under cloud, a dangerous game of hide and seek ensues. It’s best not to be tagged. Stay at home when rain threatens.

Out My Back Window

January 2, 2010

       Our January  is cast in shades of freezing and thawing earth.  Garden steaks stand in rows, lonely for vegetation.  Late sugar snap vines kneel, heads bent to the frost, their curled fingers un-pried from the climbing wire.  The rusted red tiller is stalled, mid-plow in snow, lost in the white, searching for fertile ground. 

     The barn day-dreams in the distance, vision fixed South, its back braced against the wind.  Every once in a while its gray bones rattle.  

     A man and his daughter walk across the pasture toward the hickory tree.  It’s cold and they don’t have hats.

Twenty-nine and Holding

January 2, 2010

  I woke this morning to a hot cup of coffee presented to me in bed. It was a nice way to start my anniversary. My husband is a good man.  He isn’t romantic, doesn’t sing or recite poetry, rarely tells me he loves me, but brings me coffee, changes the oil in my car, plows the path for me to explore, and sometimes cooks. He goes about life quietly doing.  A hug from him wraps me in security I can count on. I hadn’t had much of that before he came along. I take him for granted.

       Few of my friends have been married twenty-nine years. One asked, “How have you tolerated the same man for so long, doesn’t he get on your nerves?”

      “Sure he does,” I said. “I’ve finally learned that his workday begins at daylight and ends at dark, “evening” means anytime after the noon hour, and “Ask your Mama” is his way of being supportive in raising children. Oh, and he snores.”

      My friend shakes her head. She doesn’t understand my marriage.  She never will. She thinks I should be bored.  She exhales excitement about her third marriage. The latest man is tall, has hair on his head, and his chest, drives a BMW and sky dives.  

      Then, she complains about the blendedness of her family. “His cell rings. It’s his ex. Every other weekend is his son’s soccer followed by his daughter’s ballet.”

   My friend doesn’t like receiving children mid-raising.  They don’t love her on contact. They wear shoes on her carpet and leave water rings on her coffee table.  Vacations are not relaxing. Her hair needs color and her nails are chipped.

      The equations that make up her life take me back.  I come from a long line of complications.  Multiple relationships flung themselves at me when I was growing up.  I spun around, trying to catch all the strings that tied me to parents, step-parents, step-siblings, and sets of grandparents. 

     “I just want to find that simple love I missed out on the first time,” my friend laments.

      I want to tell her, but don’t, that nothing about relationships is simple, and they get more complicated with endings, new beginnings, additions, subtractions, divisions and multiplications. There is no simple love. 1+1 rarely equals 2.  Love takes sweaty effort, a good sense of humor, and some luck.

     As I leaned back against the headboard this morning, holding my cup, I decided I’m happy. The payment I receive for the toil in this marriage is measured in my son’s excitement at hitting a baseball, in the comfortable quiet as I sit next to my husband watching the sun set behind the Blue Ridge, and in tablespoons of fresh ground coffee.  No words are needed. I don’t want a man with a fancy car or one who jumps out of planes. I want one who plows a path for me to grow, and brings me a cup of coffee in the morning.

New Year’s Eve 2009

January 1, 2010

     New year’s eve, the day I throw away the trash collected in the pockets of last year, and admire the shiny treasures worth keeping.  At midnight, I start new, donning stiff jeans, starched shirt, a strong leather belt, no holes in my socks and the brim of my hat will point forward to 2010.

      I’ve lost some dear friends this year.  Vicki, was fifty. She died of pneumonia.  No one dies from pneumonia anymore, well, maybe old people with compromised health, but not someone just reaching her stride.  Vicki hadn’t walked the outer banks enough.  She was the most honest person I ever knew. She fought for the independence and rights of old folks, offered marital counseling, sticks of gum, and recipes as she cut and styled hair.  She called me when I was sick and paid for a pedicure and massage for me when my grandma died.  She understood my loss and comforted me with touch.  My only solace in losing her, is knowing Vicki was welcomed into heaven by her own Grandmother’s arms.

     Sailing ships, seed catalogues, rooting my Grandma’s French lilac, pruning perennials, plowing the earth, counting inches of rainfall, hugging away hurts and cherry cigar smoke rings are all things that speak to me of Granddad Thomas.  He lived next door and I knew his kindness for forty-eight years. He was almost ninety when he died.  Ryan and I were with him when the rescue squad came. His spirit left him on a clear, dark, November night. I think it slipped quietly from his body and then exited his house through a crack in the window. He is sailing among the constellations now, dipping his net for the stars that are his children David and Judy and his Granddaughter, Monica. He will pull them up into his boat, and the four of them will sail on, waiting for Grammie.

      My step brother, Randy, died December 4.  I met him when I was 21, at my father’s third wedding.  He was four years older than me and already had a wife and two boys who were seven and five.  He laughed hard and often.  He lived life large, smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and downed his struggles with cases of Budweiser. His daring always skimmed the surface of foolish, like he understood he’d leave the game at half-time.  Off shore oil rigs let him smell the salt air, feel the power of God’s hands in the crashing waves and glimpse the brushstrokes of uninterrupted sunrises in the Gulf.   He made the trip to Virginia in September to gift us with a tight squeeze and one last look into his blue eyes.  He didn’t tell anyone, but he knew.

     I have plans for the new year.  Some will work out.  If I write them down, they’ll feel more real to me, but in feeling real, I have to own them.  I’m not sure I’m ready to do that yet.  It’s only 2:18 on New Year’s Eve. I’m warm and comfortable in my patched and faded jeans of 2009. My soft sweatshirt has a hole in the elbow and a vegetable soup stain running down its front, my belt is cinched just right and my big toe peeks out of my sock.  I lost my hat to the wind in June.  I still have almost ten hours to sort through what is left of this year, to revel in its comfort and decide what I keep, what I toss, and what I add to my new pockets for 2010.  
  The countdown has begun. Why do we hear the ticking so clearly on Dec. 31st and not so much the rest of the year?
     Happy New Year.