Monday, July 28, 2008

Catching a Little Neutral

It was one of those days. As I sat in my hammock swing on our deck watching the clouds drift by and listening to the summer breeze in the pine trees, I wondered if this day would be one I’d remember years from now. Nothing much was happening in my life that could be classified as memorable, and the entire day had slipped by much as the clouds overhead were doing. Rocky and Tom were snoozing on the deck, Tom on the railing and Rocky on the floor beneath. Diamond was stretched out at the edge of the deck, watching and listening for any intruders on her property. Little Liberty was at my feet, tail wagging, waiting for an opportunity to play. It was a lazy day, and I wasn’t inclined to do anything but swing and observe the world around me

I remembered a phrase from a book I read this spring by Jimmy Buffet, “catching a little neutral.” He compared life to an automobile, which has three options, forward, reverse, and neutral. Life, he said, only has two choices – forward and neutral. We don’t have the ability to go backward as a car can do- to retrace our steps or select another route. But we can pause in our journey through life and catch a little neutral from time to time.

This is what I was doing on this sultry summer day. There wasn’t a single noteworthy thing going on in my life, and I hadn’t accomplished anything significant all day long. However, I was catching a little bit of neutral and enjoying every moment of it.

I think I will remember this day, after all.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Chicago Surprise!

This time last week I was eagerly anticipating my upcoming long week-end trip to visit Wade in Chicago. My suitcase was packed and my flight reservation confirmed. Wade had made all of the arrangements for my trip and had bought my ticket as a combined birthday and Mother’s Day gift. Chicago and my son were beckoning me, and I could hardly wait to get to Wade’s apartment and have three full days to explore the city with him.

If I had known ahead of time what was in store for me, I don’t think I could have endured the excitement. But I was totally in the dark about what was soon to happen and would remain so until Saturday morning.

After arriving in Chicago Friday evening, I got off the airport shuttle at Wade’s place hungry and ready for a good dinner. As soon as I dropped my suitcase in his apartment, we headed out on foot to find a nice restaurant that looked appealing to us. Over dinner we talked about the next few days and how we might like to spend them. The three days stretched out ahead of us unplanned and wide open for any adventures we might find. I was simply happy to be with my son and to have some precious time with him.

Saturday morning dawned late for me – I couldn’t believe it was almost 9:00 when I roused from a good night’s sleep on the air mattress on the living room floor. And I was hungry! I suggested that we go down the street to Einstein Brothers Bagel shop (one of my favorite places in Wade’s neighborhood) for a breakfast panini – my treat. Naturally, Wade was agreeable to this plan, so we quickly dressed and headed toward coffee and food.

Everything changed as we finished breakfast and went back to Wade’s apartment. As I turned the corner from his entry foyer into his living room, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Brian and Roy were sitting on my air mattress, grinning and announcing “Surprise!” I was flabbergasted. My three boys were in the same room with me, and I ‘d had no clue that anything was in the air. I was totally and absolutely surprised and thrilled. All I could do was hug each one of them over and over and cry! Wade had orchestrated the entire week-end without letting the cat out of the bag, and here we all were, together in Chicago for three whole days! I couldn’t be happier if I’d tried.

The week-end passed in a blur of fun – eating out, sightseeing, going to the movies, watching movies at home, talking, laughing, walking, more walking, and enjoying plenty of food and drink along the way.

In my collection of days, these sit right up in the top of the basket and rank among the very best. I’ve wanted the four of us to be together in the same place at the same time for such a long time, and I’d just about stopped hoping it would happen anytime soon. Wade made it happen, and he, Brian, and Roy together made my wish come true.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sweet Addiction

Phil is convinced – I’m addicted. And what a sweet addiction it is …. at least for me!

We all know about football, basketball and baseball widows, those women whose husbands park themselves in front of the t.v. during the sports seasons. In this case of addiction, the tables are turned. Phil is a berry widower, because every summer I am hooked on berries - picking, preserving and eating them.

Last night I got home from work after 8:00 pm to a cold hamburger sitting on the kitchen counter and Phil snoozing in the living room. Where was I all this time? At the blueberry farm! What was I doing? Picking blueberries with my friend Sandy. Do I need more blueberries? Of course not, this is my fourth trip to the farm in two weeks. I have a pantry full of jellies and preserves, and my freezer is packed beyond comfort with the fruits of my summer labors. What did I come home with? Five pounds of fresh, plump, juicy blueberries.

It was lovely at the farm last night. The heat of the day was releasing its grip on Georgia, a cool breeze was drifting through the rows of blueberry trees, and the birds were having a song fest. I was in heaven as I filled my bucket with berries I don’t need, snacked on some as I meandered down the rows, and enjoyed chatting with Sandy about a multitude of subjects.

After picking blueberries on Saturday with Marie and her children, I found myself out in the briars searching for the last of the blackberries. I can’t help myself! If I know there are luscious berries out there, I have to go searching for them. I don’t want to leave a single one to dry out and go to waste. But, with my addiction there is a huge sense of peace and pleasure. I keep very little of what I pick. Most of the fruit ends up in jelly jars ready to give away, and I pack up bags of fruit to give to friends and family. And, above all, I love being outdoors where I can pick berries and let my thoughts loose and send my worries off to drift away with the wind for a little while.

I’ll probably be out at the blueberry farm this afternoon. I want to take Rachael and Lillie over there to share it with them. I’ll pick a few more pounds of berries and help Lillie fill her bucket. I plan to make a cobbler today for Phil. And tomorrow, I’ll take blueberries to work to share with my co-workers.

Mr. Kitchen told me last night as he weighed my berries when I was finished picking that it looks like the season will extend into August!! YEAAAA!!!! Addicted? You bet!!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Summertime, and The Livin' Is.........

Yesterday morning while getting my hair cut and colored, my hairdresser, Layla, asked me, “Are you having a good summer?” Layla has been styling my hair for over seven years, so she knows a lot about my family, my work, and my life in general. After all, she’s my hairdresser, and when I am in her shop, which is every five weeks, we have lots to talk about. I always have an 8:00 am appointment, and am the only one in her shop. Over the years, we’ve become friends. She knows my family and I know hers through our conversations over shampooing, hair cutting, coloring, highlighting and eyebrow waxing.

Layla knows my sons by name, even though she’s never met them. She wanted to know if they were coming to see me this summer, or if I had plans to go to Chicago and New York, where they live. She also knows about my barn home, my berry picking and my gardening. Yesterday, she was the recipient of a jar of wild plum jelly, which she accepted with many thanks. She told me that she will have a jar of wild cherry preserves for me the next time I come in from her home country of Iran. She always repays my small gifts with those of her own, usually something unique to her home country and culture.

After Layla asked the question about my summer, I began telling her about my upcoming trips to Chicago, Boston, and New York. We talked about Wade and Brian, and I updated her on their latest accomplishments and activities. She was sad to learn that Wade and Belinda have broken up, but she was happy to hear that he is doing so well in his job in Chicago. She always enjoys hearing about Brian and Roy and their New York life, and was thrilled when I told her that Brian is having a staged reading of his play this month. She told me that I needed to go to New York to see it. I told her that I’d be going to Maine next January to see the play when it is produced up there, so she was satisfied that I am doing what I should be doing as my sons’ mom.

I told Layla about our vegetable garden, the blueberry farm I discovered this summer, and my bumper crop of wild plums. All of this is making my summer very busy, and very full, as well. Layla also heard about our little orphan dog, Liberty, and how she is adapting to being around Diamond, Tom and Rocky. Layla loves hearing about my adventures at my barn home, and she always says, “You got out of this neighborhood at a good time!” I think it means a lot to her that I drive 45 miles to go to her shop for my hair appointments after moving out of the area five year ago. She knows that Phil’s mom is in a nursing home near her shop, so a part of our appointment time is also spent in updating her on Mom’s condition. She always checks with me before I leave, “You’re going to see your mother-in-law, aren’t you?” And at each hair appointment, she wants to know how Mom is doing.

I keep up with Layla’s family, as well. I enjoy hearing about her daughter’s and son’s summer activities, and about her husband’s ventures in the restaurant business. I have watched her children grow as the photos at her station change with every school year. I love seeing her photos of her trips back home to Iran, and have learned so much about the culture there and how her family lives in this faraway country. I am happy that her niece is now happily married to an American man, and have hopes that her other niece will be able to come to the United States to live and work.

Yes, Layla, I am having a very good summer. It is packed full this year, but I am enjoying it. And, I am glad that I have my appointments with you during the summer to keep my hair from going wild and to have these quiet Saturday mornings to spend with you.

It’s summertime, and the livin’ is…………wonderful!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Miss Liberty

Sometimes I think there must be an invisible sign on our back door stoop that flashes so that only animals can read, “All Stray Animals, Park Here.”

On the 4th of July, there was a starving little dog curled up on the concrete pad when we returned home from a holiday party. All we could see was skin covering a pitiful little skeleton. The little thing looked up at us with haunting white eyes, and then laid its head back down. Taking a closer look we could see chewed up ears, skinned up paws with no fur on them, and reddened, raw skin on the inside of the haunches and on the snout. Phil got a bowl and filled it with dog food, and the little pup managed to stand up and inhale it before laying back down. We left it there and went upstairs for the night.

Next morning, the dog hadn’t moved, but when I went out to check on it, the little guy (or gal)managed to get up on its legs and greet me with a weak wag of the tail. I wasn’t sure if it was a female or male, and didn’t want to get close enough to tell. I began calling the pup Liberty, thinking that it could be a name for a girl or a boy, and appropriate for its 4th of July arrival at our house. I headed out to the garden to pick some blackberries, and was surprised when a little skinned up snout nosed its way into the basket and began eating the berries. I could see that the dog was a female, and a hungry one at that. I led her back to the house, and gave her a morning bowl of food. She ate and then limped back out to the garden where I was picking squash and cucumbers. She lay down in the garden close to me while I worked.

By evening, she had perked up somewhat, but still looked quite ragged. By Sunday morning, she was able to climb the steps to the upper deck, and settled herself in front of the door, waiting for us to come outside. That evening when I took Diamond for a walk, she accompanied us, and walked the entire two miles without flagging or falling back. I was quite impressed with her gumption and perseverance. After this outing, she curled up and slept through the night. I cried, I was so proud of her.

On Monday, I made some phone calls to animal rescue centers and Humane Societies, and either got no answers or answers I didn’t want to hear. I decided that I couldn’t condemn Liberty to certain euthanasia by taking her to the Humane Society. I want to find her a good home, but she needs to be healthy before I can ask someone to take her. Phil and I agreed that we’d feed her and nurse her back to health, and then see if we can find someone who would like a dog. I cried again as I thought about what she must have gone through in her journey that led her to our house.

It is now Wednesday, and Liberty has improved at least 300% since last Friday. She is filling out, her white eyes are brighter, and her tail wags a lot. She still has a long way to go, but I think she is going to make it. I plan to take her to the vet on Friday to make sure that she doesn’t have anything major wrong with her, and from there we’ll get her ready to be adopted if she is o.k. If we didn’t already have two cats and a German Shepherd, we’d probably keep her. But the invisible sign is still blinking in bright neon that only animals can see, and I know it won’t be long before there will be another orphan on our stoop.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Picking Blueberries

I see the sign at the intersection of Spring Street and Highway 11 every summer – BLUEBERRIES – on a hand painted sign in the shape of an arrow pointing down Spring Street, and then another one at the turn onto Hightower. This is the first year I’ve been curious enough to find out more about these mysterious signs.

I did a Google search last week and found Hard Labor Creek Blueberry Farm – Pick Your Own. I emailed the address on the website, and received a response from the owner within a day. Mr. and Mrs. Kitchen own the farm and open it to the public for blueberry picking every summer. Mr. Kitchen emailed me that the blueberries are abundant this year and to come on out. As a side note, he said that I might need a stool or ladder, which completely stumped me, so I emailed him back asking about this. In his second email, he said that Iprobably wouldn't need one - there were lots of blueberries that I could reach. He also told me that this is the last year he and his wife will own the farm. He is 80 years old and is going to sell it after this season. The farm is only about four miles from our house, so I decided to give it a try, especially since it may not be there next year. I left home yesterday morning at about 9:00 am for a little berry picking.

The only blueberry plant I’ve ever seen was about the size of a small shrub, and I anticipated a back-bending morning of leaning over and picking the little berries until I filled a basket. I really didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what I saw as I drove down the winding driveway toward a lovely brick ranch house. As I passed the garage, a small sign directed me toward the back of the house, where I saw a few cars already parked. I parked my car, and saw a white pick-up truck with the tailgate down with a sign telling me to take one of the plastic-lined buckets, pick my berries, and go to the garage when I was finished to weigh out and pay. The sign also advised me to walk to the end of the row and work my way back toward the parking area. I didn’t see a single person, but I could hear voices as I took a bucket, and walked toward the sounds of people.

What I saw amazed me. The berry trees were in twenty rows, with a sign at the end of each row explaining what variety of blueberries were planted there. I had no idea how many different kinds of blueberries there were. I also couldn’t believe how big the plants were – they were trees! I chose the pathway between the fourth and fifth row and began walking. I could barely see the other end of the row! I’d guess I walked about the width of a football field when I finally arrived at the end. The blueberry bushes, or trees, were huge, and they shaded the path from the morning sun. The pathway was mowed and wide, and childhood memories of walking through orange groves in Florida came to mind, minus the sand.

At the end of the row was a smiling gray-haired man on a tractor. I knew that this must be Mr. Kitchen, so I introduced myself as his email buddy of the previous week. He knew that I was a novice, so he stepped off his tractor to give me some pointers about blueberries. When a blueberry is picked, he told me, it doesn’t ripen further as other fruits do, so you need to make sure that you pick ripe ones. As you pick, a ripe blueberry will almost turn loose on its own and fall into your hand (much the way wild plums do). If you have to tug at it to pick it, then it isn’t quite ripe, even though it may be solid blue. He also said to try different varieties from the different rows, but that any of them do equally well in blueberry preserves. I thanked him for showing me the ripeness test, and began to pick blueberries.

It looked to me as if all of the biggest and best berries were high up on the trees and beyond my reach. The idea of a stepstool looked pretty good to me. However, I began picking those berries that I could reach and discovered that there were lots of them low enough for me to get to them. Being the curious one that I am, I had to test Mr. Kitchen's ripeness test. I found a berry that looked ripe to me, but it took a good tug to separate it from its branch. I popped it into my mouth, and he was right – it wasn’t ripe! It was hard and sour, and not very good. Then, I found another one that looked exactly like it, but released at touch. It was yummy, sweet and juicy. I decided to take his advice, even if it meant taking a little more time to fill my bucket.

I began picking and daydreaming. Picking berries of any kind is therapeutic and somewhat spiritual to me. My mind drifted with the clouds above, and my bucket slowly, oh! so slowly began to fill with blueberries as the passage of time evaporated. I was brought back to earth when I realized that I was picking nearby another person. She remarked about how hot it was getting and I saw by my watch that I had been out there over an hour and my bucket was barely half full. We began talking as we picked, and soon her bucket was full and she went on her way. I continued for another hour when my blueberry bucket could hold no more berries.

Now, a day later, ten jars of blueberry preserves are in my cupboard, frozen blueberries are in the freezer, and a pint is in the refrigerator. I think I’ll go back out to the farm tomorrow morning and pick again.

How I hope that the person who buys Mr. Kitchen's farm will keep the blueberry trees and his wonderful tradition of opening the farm for people to come out and enjoy picking blueberries.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Big Tom, Our Alpha Cat

My beautiful black cat, Tom, is snoozing away on my desk while I eat a bowl of cereal, check my email, and do a little writing this morning. His big sprawling body, all eighteen pounds of him, leaves very little room for me to work. Thank goodness for my keyboard tray, which slides out from underneath the surface where he is relaxing.

He loves it here – the light above my desk produces a nice amount of heat, and his silky black fur is absorbing the warmth and glistening from the light. I reach over to stroke him and I can feel him purring and soaking in the heat from the lamp. He is the picture of contentment and comfort. It doesn’t bother him that underneath his belly are ball point pens, a ruler, a spiral back notebook and my address book. His only concern this morning, if he has one, is how much milk I am going to leave in my bowl for him to lap up. He waits patiently, but I know he’s thinking that he’s going to get a treat in a few minutes.

I love my Tom. He’s been with us for over eight years, when he showed up on our back deck hungry and alone. It took him over two years to decide we were worthy of his companionship and affection, keeping his trust and acceptance at a safe distance. He was very patient with us, and stayed around our house all that time, but took his sweet time in deciding that he liked us. During his getting acquainted time, I often remarked that the spirit of my mother was in Tom, and that he came to our house to keep an eye on me for her.

The reason I say this is due to his interest in my jelly making. My mother taught me how to make jelly and preserves, and I inherited all of her “stuff” that she used for making her wonderful jellies. After Tom came to live with us, his favorite place to sleep was my strawberry patch, which contained plants that I had moved over from Mama’s house after she died. The first time I made jelly following her death was after Tom came to live with us, and this was also the first time he even acknowledged that I was worthy of his attention. When I was washing the berries, preparing them for processing, Tom jumped up onto the counter and watched me. This was the first time he ever showed any interest in the kitchen except for his food dish in the corner. Not only did he sit on the counter and watch me wash berries, but he stuck around while I extracted the juice, cooked the jelly and filled the jars. It was only after the entire process was completed that he left his spot on the counter and went on to other interests. This routine went on every time I made jelly for the next few summers until he decided that I knew what I was doing! I feel like I am finally a Master Jelly Maker now, because Tom doesn’t bother to supervise me anymore! I like to think that Mama is pleased.

Tom is now about nine years old, fat and happy. When we moved out here to the barn five years ago and let him loose in the house for the first time, he circled its perimeter, explored the rafters and high places that we have here, and proclaimed this his domain. This is his barn, and he is beneficent enough to let us live here with him. This morning, aroused from his nap on my desk, he stretches, licks his paws, checks out my cereal bowl, and settles back down. During this brief exercise, I am able to pull my address book out from under him.

He seems unaware that it is missing and settles back down for the morning.