Winter has Returned…

Six degrees F this morning. I’m watching the sun rise slowly (everything moves more slowly in the cold). I invariably get sick when it first gets cold and here I am, following my personal tradition. Getting a cold when you have asthma is like overloading an exotic sundae. Too much of a good thing. So, I got up at 6, sucked on the albuterol (which I very seldom use), and shocked the dogs by letting them out in the dark.

Mindy stood at the back door looking bewildered.

I was driven by the thought of hot bitter coffee flowing down my esophagus, opening my chest.

Long, long ago in the sainted land of the Helvetians, which I have been privileged to visit many times, I had a family. How that came to be, and what the family was, isn’t important now. But one year I was given a genuine American WW II B3 bomber jacket. The father of the family — who was like a brother to me — sold furs. He was also afraid I would be cold in Switzerland, coming as I did from California.

image

Z√ľrich, January 1997 on the Lindenhof

Not only was this jacket warm, it was companionable. Those were very hard times in my life, and I remember flying back to the US on a crowded jet after the Christmas season, cuddling my jacket and wishing I hadn’t had to come “home.”

image

In St. Gallen under the statue of St. Gall, the Irish patron Saint of Switzerland

Ultimately it stayed in Switzerland for a while (it’s colder there than in California and the jacket is fur, after all) then it moved to Italy with the mother of the family who was like a mother to me. Last year she died and her son — who’s like a son to me — brought it to Colorado for me.

I was so happy to have it.

The curly depths of its sheepskin hold my Swiss Christmases, the love shared between us all and its own intrinsic warmth. Perhaps that’s why it is so heavy.

If I had worn it to the parade Saturday, I might not be sick now. ūüė¶

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/saintly/

A Letter

My aunt died this morning. I’m happy that she only suffered the terrible pain she was in for a short time. I’m happy my cousins did not have to contend with it for weeks or months on end, unable to do anything about it. My grandma said that death was merciful sometimes, and this is one of those times.

I found the actual letter my grandfather wrote his brother’s sons, and I sent it to my cousins. It’s a pretty amazing piece of literature in its way. It’s written in pencil on manila paper. I don’t know if that exists any more.

My grandfather was born in 1870 and grew up on a farm in Eastern Iowa. He was a brilliant man, self-taught, they say, but I have his 3rd grade math book and it has trigonometry in it, so that bit about, “He only went to third grade” is kind of bogus. It’s not how far you go in school, but what you learn while you’re there. He thought of himself as a philosopher which isn’t a very useful calling when you’re sharecropping a farm on the high plains of Montana in the 30s. I never knew him, really. I was 5 when he died.

The letter is a precious family artifact. It was written in 1941 when my aunt would have been 16. ¬†It was kept by my grandfather’s nephew, passed to his son, and then given to my mom when she went to “find her roots” in Iowa. That’s how I happened to have it. It was one of the rewards of the “great garage purge of 2017.”

This is something my cousins might want to pass along to their kids. I hope so.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/mercy/

Real Fame

I had six aunts. I now have two. Last night I learned that the youngest — Dickie (Madylene) — has gone into hospice with a large mass in her lung. She doesn’t want to go through the misery of tests and so on, so she’s asked her kids to just let her go. I don’t know how that is for them, but she is a nurse, she is not in the least sentimental, and she is very, very practical. When I read my cousin’s message more-or-less conveying this, I heard in my mind Queen’s song from The Highlander,¬†“Who Wants to Live Forever?” No one does. I don’t. I am sure my aunt doesn’t, either.¬†The second-to-youngest of my aunts is at “the home” with pretty advanced dementia and doesn’t want to eat or drink. Both of these women are in their 90s.

I’m very sad. My relationship with some of my aunts has been important to me and, I hope, vice versa. I grew up around these women. My mom felt her family was important, she relied on their being there, so we spent time around them. This aunt — Dickie — has kids around my age, in fact, one of my cousins was born a month after I was. We grew up as friends.

One thing I learned from these women is that OTHER adults — not just parents — can be important in a kid’s life. I reached adulthood wanting to be that OTHER adult, not the parent.

A few years ago I decided I wanted my Aunt Dickie to know who I am. We’d been close, but had gotten estranged as a result of family stuff, and I didn’t like that. I have always liked her. I sent her a letter and a copy of¬†Martin of Gfenn. She loved the book and wrote me a letter with two messages that meant the world to me. She was proud of me and she loved me.

I sent her¬†Savior¬†which she liked even more and then¬†The Brothers Path.¬†She really loved that book. Last winter her church book group read it as their winter book. She wrote me that and said, “I’m making them order it from Amazon so you’ll make a little money.”

Later I heard how the book group went. “Please keep writing the story of my mother’s family,” she said. “I’m very proud of you and she would be, too.”

This year I’ve ploughed through the sludge of disillusionment over writing, publishing, promoting, etc. Afew weeks ago, — after months and months — I looked again at what I’m calling “The Schneebelis Go to America,” and saw it’s a pretty good story. I wondered if I should keep going, or? My aunt’s words, “Keep writing the story of my mother’s family” echoed in my mind. “That’s a good reason to write,” I thought, “so my Aunt Dickie can read my book.”

My grandfather, my aunt’s father, in 1941, wrote a letter to his brother’s kids when their dad died. He wrote:

“I’m awfully sorry but it is a natural condition to make a change. It would be too bad for us to have to be bothered with this old body for¬†ever. It seems sad but it might be if there was no death, that life would lose its meaning and love would perish from the earth and I would rather live where love rules and death is sure as to live forever in a land without love — but I am very sad.”

I can’t say it better.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/sludge/

Dogs

Since 1987, when I got Truffle, my first real dog (on my own; the family experimented a couple of times when I was a kid, experiments that lasted days, weeks or months) I’ve had upwards of twenty dogs living with me. Not all at once. My upper limit was always six, as defined by law. As soon as I learned that two dogs were less work than one, I always had at least two, and usually three, dogs.

My dogs have all been large dogs from most people’s perspective, usually between 60 and 80 pounds. There are larger dogs, but none of them ever made their way into my life. I don’t think they’re that easy to come by. Only one of my dogs was bought at a pet store and she ended up the saddest dog story of all. Big Puppy was an overbred, over sized, yellow Labrador retriever who killed her adopted mom (Cheyenne T. Wolf) and then tried to kill Lily. These events happened with no provocation, no food involved, no crowding at the door, nothing that normally triggers dogs to scrap. The fights were to the death, too, also very unusual among a pack of dogs and not typical of the Labrador retriever. I had to put her to sleep when she was only two years old. The vet suggested that maybe her mother was also her sister and her dad her brother. “It isn’t uncommon,” he said, “breeders are often in it for the money.” We both cried in that little room at the vets’ office as this beautiful golden dog slipped into death.

The rest were rescues. All of them, though two were adopted from their “mom” it was find a home for the pups or they go to the pound.

I didn’t set out to be a dog rescuer, either. Back in the day, there were no breed rescues or fostering or anything like that. I took in a lot of strays, cleaned them up, neutered them and trained them then took them to the shelter and pretended they were my own dogs and I had to relinquish them. The end result of that was that when I wanted to adopt a dog from the shelter, they wouldn’t let me. I fostered a springer/poodle mix who was happy, bright and loving and quickly found a home. I fostered a pure-bred English spaniel who was adopted while I was signing the papers “relinquishing” her. I fostered other strays, too, and found them homes by walking them at a nearby park with a sign around their necks saying, “Please adopt me.” A well-mannered, leash-trained dog in the company of a happy person is pretty attractive to someone looking for a dog. I always checked up to be sure the homes where the dogs were adopted were legit and the dogs were happy.

There’s no way to keep all the dogs.

I have loved dogs as long as I can remember and wanted one from the time I was born, nearly. I used to put my stuffed dog under my pillow at night hoping the dog fairy would replace it with a real puppy. My mom said I always “pet” things, velvet, fur, the satin edging on my blanket, and she always found it odd, but I think it was like the Dalai Lama who is “recognized” because of what he chooses as a small child. Once I finally had my own dogs I felt more at peace with my life.

And I can’t explain it.

I like being around dogs. Dogs also like being around me. I’ve had several experiences in which a completely unknown dog will see me from several yards away and come running to me with no encouragement at all. It’s pretty freaky when it’s a pit bull, but they’re a happy, enthusiastic and passionate breed and it’s been pit bulls more than once. My first year here my neighbor’s dog — who was tied to a tree 24/7 — broke free and came to my house. Why? He’d seen me walking with my dogs and I’d talked to him. What I’m saying is not that I’m Dr. Doolittle or something, but that it’s not only that I’m attracted to dogs, they’re attracted to me. I think I emanate a, “I love dogs,” pheromone and they sense it.

My mom said they were children replacements. That wasn’t and isn’t true. I’m not their mom and they’re not “fur babies.” My dogs are something else, not quite pets, either. Companions, definitely, but what does that mean? Living with so many dogs has taught me a lot, some of which is inarticulable. I think it’s in “dog” not human language.

So pet? Child surrogate? Friend? I’m dubious about all those terms. But having had not “one” but many dogs during some hard times of my life, and feeling their company was sufficient, has made me think about the canine/human connection.

When my alcoholic brother died, and I learned about it five months after the fact in a strange and unsettling way, I came home from work alone with that knowledge. I remember opening the door to my very cold, very dark house in the mountains, starting a fire, feeding the dogs — at that time five dogs — cooking dinner, all with a numb, sad, cold place inside of me for which I had no words. What do you do, what do you feel, when you learn about your brother’s death five months after it happens? How do you even think about where he might have been when he died? How do you face the questions you will have to ask? How do you even think about finding his remains or what you will do with them? How do you confront the absolute loneliness of that reality? There is no consolation, really. In time you’ll talk to friends, family members will call, there will be sympathy, flowers, even, but that first realization is as lonely and cold as a stone house on a dark night.

There were the huskies, Lily, Cheyenne and Cody. Dusty T. Dog, of course, and Big Puppy? I don’t remember, but I think so. When the initial bustling of a return home was finished, and I sat down to collect my thoughts (which was not possible) I noticed that all of them were there, as near me as they could get. Cody suspended his vendetta against Dusty, and ¬†sat quietly beside me, my Knight in Furry Armor. They were simply THERE. I am not sure that any person could have accomplished that much-needed companionable silence. There would have been words and in those moments, there were no words nor should there have been. There was sorrow, dark, purple, bleak, silent, exhausted sorrow.

There have been many times in my life when dogs have been “there for me,” so to speak. I’ve left my house and all my possessions in the care of my dogs during a few dark times, never imagining that there was any better way or any better guardians of our lives. It isn’t really strange. Shepherds trust their life’s fortune to their dogs and have for thousands of years. That I, a single woman, would entrust myself to dogs doesn’t seem that strange to me.

So I do not know really what to call them. Not pets. Not “fur babies.” For me it’s a relationship between equals who have different abilities in interpreting the world. That many of my dogs have learned I love watching birds and learn to show them to me is beautiful. I didn’t train them; they have the instinct as predators and they are aware of my behavior all the time. I’ve seen them work it out — most recently Bear. It’s as if she has thought it over, “Oh, Martha likes to watch hawks and cranes. We always stop to when she sees one.” Suddenly (it seemed to me) she was watching for them, too. Her breed is part “sight hound” and seeing that gift of genetics play out to help me enjoy birds is pretty wonderful. But most of my dogs — one way or another — have learned to read me and to relate to me with that knowledge — the same gifts that make some dogs guide dogs and helpers for handicapped people.

Cody O’Dog — above — was an exceptional being and someday I’ll write about him, but he embodied that human/canine partnership best of all my dogs, so I’ve put his photo here. In the photo, he’s in the backseat of my car and we’re heading for Montana. ūüôā

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/dubious/

“My Mom, My Mom, I’m Sure You’re Tired of Hearing About My Mom”*

“Well? What did you expect would happen?”

That’s my mom’s voice. I cannot believe you can’t actually HEAR her because I can, like nails on a blackboard. I grew up thinking this woman KNEW everything that was going to happen ALL the time. I’d make a series of choices (as we all do) and it wouldn’t turn out well. I’d be hit with, “Well? What did you expect would happen?”

I didn’t expect THAT would happen. I can say that was true 100% of the time.

Why didn’t she tell me, “If you do that, THIS will happen”? But she didn’t. Maybe she knew, maybe she didn’t, maybe it was her way of teaching me to look ahead to the consequences, maybe it was her way of making me feel fearful and stupid. I have no idea.

But just that word, “expect,” is enough to trigger that voice inside my head. Shudder.

*Eminem “My Mom”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/expect/

“Life is an Overcoming”

“Life is an overcoming,” said Nietzsche in¬†Thus Spoke¬†Zarathustra¬†

I was sitting at one end of the sofa. My very crippled and messed up dad on the other. I was “dad” sitting. He was watching TV and occasionally suffering a leg spasm. I was in high school, going through my sophisticated phase and reading “forbidden” or questionable books. Nietzsche was questionable to my teacher, Miss Cohen for reasons that I think are now obvious. We talked about the book and in it, she explained, came Hitler’s idea of the ‘√úbermensch’.

That isn’t what I found at all.

From the first chapter, it’s clear that he has a different view of things, a human centered view. One of the first things he says as he prepares to walk down to the village from the mountain is directed at the sun, “Oh great star, what would you be if not for those for whom you shine?”

And down he comes.

Still no “√úbermensch.” I found all kinds of ordinary, simple people and a half-mad oracle. I got the impression that the oracle was a little out of his mind, still, he brought a message of stoicism and hope to the village people (YMCA!) who were struggling with misery and darkness that was, in Zarathustra’s mind, mainly in their heads.

“You tell me your lives are hard to bear, but if it were otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?”

My dad had a more severe spasm and nearly slid off the sofa. I was there to catch him. He motioned to his urinal. I said, “No problem, dad.”

He said, “Errrrwwa errr eading?”

I said, “Thus Spake Zarthustra,” handing him his urinal.

“Werrr ooo ike it?”

“So far.”

My dad finished. I took the urinal to the bathroom, flushed the contents, rinsed it out in the tub. Back in the living room, “Listen to this, dad. It’s beautiful.”

“K.”

I read the beginning, the prologue.

WHEN Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake

of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went be- fore the sun, and spoke to it thus:

You great star! What would your happiness be, had you not those for whom you shine?

For ten years have you climbed here to my cave: you would have wearied of your light and of the journey, had it not been for me, my eagle, and my serpent.

But we waited for you every morning, took from you your overflow, and blessed you for it.

Behold. I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.

I would rather give away and distribute, until the wise among men once more find joy in their folly, and the poor in their riches.

Therefore must I descend into the deep: as you do in the evening, when you go behind the sea, and give light also to the underworld, you ex- uberant star!

Like you I have to go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.

Bless me, then, you tranquil eye, that can look on even the greatest happiness without envy!

“Isn’t that beautiful, Dad?”

“Es.

“That’s just the beginning!”

“Ayyyknow.”

I loved Zarathustra. I knew nothing about who or what he was supposed to have been, but I liked the idea of his going off by himself to figure out his right relation to the universe. The message of life being “an overcoming” really struck home for me given the situation we — my family — were all living at the time.

As for Hitler, all I could guess ¬†was that he didn’t really understand it. I suggested this to my English teacher, Miss Cohen, and she nodded. “Possibly that’s true, Martha,” she said. “But what horror that misunderstanding unleashed.”

***

So this morning I revisited¬†Zarathustra.¬†It’s still beautiful.

You tell me, “Life is hard to bear.” But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?

Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate! We are all of us fine beasts of burden, male and female asses.

What have we in common with the rose-bud, which trembles because a drop of dew has formed upon it?

It is true we love life; not because we are used to life, but because we are used to loving.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/overcome/

Goin’ to School

My little brother looks so bewildered in this photo, and sleepy. After our dad immortalized this moment, we headed out the back gate, across the Gustavson’s yard (otherwise we’d have had to walk on a busy street, a REALLY busy street with streetcars running on it) and on our way to school. Englewood, Colorado. 1958.

It was three blocks.

Of course I had no idea that it was also the first day of ten years of walking to school with my brother. ūüôā

There were the days in Montana when we were staying with my aunt and uncle and Kirk started first grade. In Montana, their first grade was Kindergarten the first four months and first grade the second, so effectively Kirk went to Kindergarten twice. My mom always believed that’s why he never got the idea that you go to school to learn, not to play. But…

My aunt and uncle (and cousins) had four steers in the pasture. They were going to sell the steers that fall. I’m glad I did not have a perfect understanding of that because to me they were pets. Bret, Bart, Hobie and Chester I thought were their names. They were really Bret, Bart, Hobart and Festus or something, named after TV westerns I was too little to stay up and watch.

One of the main crops in that part of Montana in the 1950s was sugar beets. Trucks loaded with sugar beets roared down Central Avenue (which we had to walk beside AND cross) spilling beets along the way. “Pick up as many beets as you can when you come home, kids,” said my uncle. “We can feed them to the cows.”

Kirk and I were little kids, and we couldn’t carry a lot, but we usually came home laden with sugar beets. We got to put them in the cowshed with the other beets we were picking up from the railroad tracks on weekends when we all went out in my uncle’s truck and drove along the frontage road getting the beets that had fallen off the train.

In other walks to school, in Nebraska, we crossed a football field that was on one of the higher hills in our town beside the Missouri River. This place was amazing. Crossing the field one day I found a cecropia moth. In winter, the wind blew hard across the top and drifts could be higher than either of us were tall. Sometimes they piled up against the snow fences placed at either end of the football field and Kirk and I would climb up the crusted snow and jump down five feet to the foot of snow below. Other times the snow came at us (the walk home was straight north) like stars and spaceships. The mufflers my mom knit for us were usually crusted with ice by the time we got home on a winter day.

I liked walking to school with Kirk. I liked Kirk. I have a lot of stories like these — priceless to me, evoked by a photograph.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/priceless/

Time Passages

“OK, let’s synchronize our watches.”

We look down at our left wrists and, with our right hands, make small movements, adjusting our imaginary watches.

“O400, we attack.” We tip-toe to the bushes — mostly honeysuckle — and look through the branches across the next yard at the enemy. They are also synchronizing THEIR watches. We get down on the ground, crawl on all fours to the fort that is the newly installed central air-conditioner.

“Debbie! Junior! Come in here now! I told you to wash the dishes before you went out to play and those dishes are still on the table!”

We stand up. Debbie and Junior call out from their yard, “We’ll be right back!” My brother and I sit down on the central air-conditioner unit to wait.

Dad yells from the house, “How many times do I have to tell you not to sit on that goddamned thing!” We jump off.

In this the twilight moment between summer and fall, the sun seems to hurry toward the end of the day. Just a month ago we’d have had HOURS left to play, but now our dad’s shrill whistle summons us inside before Debbie and Junior have finished the dishes.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/synchronize/

Sibling Rivalry

I loved my brother and respected his talents. But…of all the rocks I’ve painted, people like the one with his cartoon character on it most. It’s almost as if he’s back. I hear our art teacher saying to me, “Why are you always hanging around the art room? You don’t have any talent.”

That is not true.

My mom, “You’re the writer, Kirk’s the artist.” That was that, pure and simple. My reaction against this was instantaneous and visceral. Art is not just ONE thing.

For the most part — between us — my brother and I didn’t have any issues over this. Our work was very different AND different people liked his work from those who liked mine. My brother liked my work. In fact, he was my biggest cheerleader — up to a point.

When my work sold, paintings sold, he wasn’t too happy. He should have been since he was always hitting me up for money, but… He got over it. “You’re an abstract expressionist,” he said.

I had to look that up.

“The thing about your paintings, Martha Ann, is they’re not on the public pulse.” That was true.

I have never had any interest in drawing comic strips. I don’t enjoy them very much and to draw the same thing over and over again in order to advance a narrative (that’s the new way to say “tell a story”) seemed tedious. Why not just write the damned thing? But my brother’s comics were hilarious. I have a decent sense of humor it’s more situational than it is a world view.

Still, my brother wanted to do conventional paintings and he did some. I felt his imagination kind of died in that kind of work, but he was hoping to sell them for big bucks.

That led my grandma to say that which was never to be spoken, “Kirk’s a cartoonist. I think Martha Ann is the fine artist in the family.”

My mother’s face paled. Kirk’s reddened. I was pleased, but I looked down at the ground. The taboo had been broken.

Between us it was really not about whose art was better. I helped my brother paint cells for the animated cartoon and he taught me to make paper and sharpen my linoleum carving tools. Really that’s the point. I painted this rock so that Leafy could wander around Colorado Springs (where my brother lived most of the time).

 

He'll wander around Colorado Springs on this painted rock. :)

Leafy Wanders, my brother’s cartoon alter-ego.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/visceral/

My Pardner

“This is my partner, Meg.”

I remember that transition. It was weird. You had to call your unmarried live-in main-squeeze SOMETHING and “partner” was the word that seemed to have the most cach√©. It wasn’t sexist or diminishing like “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.”¬†Meg would always be willowy and faux-independent. She would cling to Larry’s arm more tightly than would a wife, but they were in an open relationship.

I always thought Larry was in an open relationship. Meg was probably hoping to get married, but I was probably wrong.

In my life, the word “pardner” was nicer. It was a word my Uncle Hank would say to me to get me away from the noise of the family, whatever noise — my mom and her sisters, my cousins, my brother, whatever was going on that made me unhappy. “C’mon pardner, I have a job for you,” and I would follow him. Sometimes we’d go to the garage and work on a car. Sometimes we’d go to the shop and he’d show me his latest saw or the boxes he was making. Sometimes we’d just take a slow walk to the back 40 and back to the house.

When I was grown up, sometimes it was my idea. “You wanna’ go for a ride out west of town in Little Red?” (the name of his old Mitsubishi small pickup. The first time I proposed this — and we went — he said, “Well by golly, Martha Ann, you can drive a stick.”

“You wanna’ go get coffee at McDonalds?” (He liked that.) “You want to go shopping for Jo’s Christmas present?” (That was a howl for both of us.)

Pardnership is knowing your pal well enough to know when they need to escape, and good pardnerships are rare. I miss my pardner very much.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/partner/