July 12, 2012
Stories this photo appears in:
Dad watched as I tried to turn a screw with a fingernail file and asked if I would try to use a crowbar to topple a telephone pole. I continued my effort, paying no attention to the man who bought a used Willys Jeep to transport his family of seven.
Once again, wildfires feed on the drought-stricken West. Uncontrollable infernos in a ravenous quest for combustible fuel rage against the forests, firefighters, and man-made structures that stand in their way. Those of us who call the West home scan horizons stacked with layers of brown-gray smoke, smell the acrid odor of burning landscapes, and count the number of days, weeks, months that have crept by without significant rainfall.
Our bumpy voyage began on a gray November morning when Joel, gazing at the ceiling, remarked, “I’ve never liked the lighting in this kitchen.” That comment sparked a chain reaction: If we upgrade the lights, the cabinets will look bad. If we replace the cabinets, we should add more. If we add more, we’ll need a larger kitchen. If we enlarge the kitchen, we’ll have to cut back a wall. If we cut back a wall, we’ll have to replace some flooring. If we do all that, we’ll need more countertops. If we get new countertops, we’ll need matching paint. And on and on.
I sighed, scowled and fidgeted as the problem I needed to solve stomped around in my head, trailing a mob of what-ifs.
Each year, the optimistic, abundant personality of spring reminds me of a friend of mine who had those same traits.
A pervasive joke about the shopping tendencies of men and women alleges that a man will pay $2 for a $1 item he wants, while a woman will pay $1 for a $2 item she doesn’t want.
My siblings and I have become the older generation that used to look on fondly as we organized games and chased after children. We are the old folks who go to bed early so we can get up with the sun, while our descendants reminisce and laugh late into the night.
I’m baffled by technology. Bamboozled. I don’t instinctively know how to navigate new sites. I’m unable to perceive the function and relationship of every command, icon and arrow.
As a principal, I enjoyed playground duty.
In February, news of a cruise ship stranded at sea for five days of heat, stench and plastic bags instead of toilets eclipsed all other current events. Evidently stymied politicians don’t interest us as much as people like ourselves bobbing around on a smelly ship, eating cold waffles and sleeping on mattresses dragged on deck.
During a lunch conversation about sharing winter roads in Colorado with whipping winds, blinding snow, tire-spinning ice and fellow travelers driving like idiots, a friend said that when road conditions are bad, she counts the miles until she can exit the freeway and its massed, slow-moving cars interspersed with crazed drivers intent on passing.
Aunt Mary delivered me home, then settled in for a visit with Mom while my cousins played with Bob and Barbara. Unnoticed, I sneaked away to see if anything had changed during my extended absence. First, I looked for our creaky cat and found her as alive and irritable as ever. Next, I climbed a cottonwood and inched along a sturdy branch to see if anyone had defaced the initials “JB” I had gouged into the tree’s bark on my 8th birthday. They were untouched.
Joel and I collapsed into our seats on a crowded airplane, sleep deprived from raucous nights in a bedroom with joke-telling, wrestling grandchildren and half-sick from accompanying them down every slide at an indoor water park—over and over and over—in recycled waters enjoyed by a multitude of users. The plane felt like a snug, safe refuge as it carried us to our home and quiet lives. Two weeks later we began planning our next trip to see the youngsters who had exhausted us. How do children manage to tie up one’s heartstrings so easily and completely?
There’s a chance that going public with my intended change for 2013 will shame me into keeping it, so here it is: I am going to stop talking about my medical issues with anyone who will listen, even though doing so will be more painful for me than my recently developed plantar fasciitis—I love clucking away with friends and family about the latest indignity imposed on me by my body. I first noticed an upswing in my interest in discussing bunions and bursitis a few years ago when I stood in a circle of men and women at party and thought, “I used to run from conversations like this.”
Joel and I disagree about holiday movies. He refuses to watch A Christmas Story every year, and I’m not interested in reruns of Miracle on 34th Street. Compared to other anxiety-ridden situations that surface during the holidays, disagreeing about whether to watch the shenanigans of a department-store Santa or Ralphie’s pleas for a BB gun seem insignificant. Years ago, my friend Judy invited me to drop by for a visit after Christmas. When I arrived, I found her draping wet laundry around her kitchen and wiping away tears.
When I was nine, a Sunday school teacher shocked and alarmed me. I sat on my miniature chair, gazed up at her wobbling chins, and listened with growing panic as she described a heaven in which all my ancestors could look down and watch everything I did. Every day. Horrors! Plucky Great Great Grandmother Simmons, who crossed the plains with the Utah pioneers, saw me stomp from the room and slam the screen door when told to go get the mail? Grandpa Hall knew I lied when I swore I hadn’t run through the tomato patch, leaving broken plants behind? And cousin Eula knew I routinely swallowed my gum even after Carolyn warned me that eventually a big wad of undigested gum would plug up my stomach, and I’d never eat again?
During the Thanksgiving season when others mention the blessings for which they’re grateful, I never mention press ‘n seal plastic wrap. But I could. The struggle to decently cover leftovers has plagued me for decades: I’ve balanced plates atop half-full serving dishes, hurled plastic tubs and lids here and there searching for a matched pair, stretched elasticized bonnets until they snapped, and rued the wastefulness of discarding aluminum foil after one use. Since the invention of press ‘n seal, however, I unroll a sticky length of film, stretch it across a bowlful of dinner remains, smooth it’s stickiness down the container’s sides and dance on the inside.
In 2011, a few months before my 69th birthday, Joel and I decided to climb Huron Peak near Buena Vista, a summit Colorado Fourteeners Magazine described as “a shapely, shy peak hidden in the heart of the Sawatch.” I worried as we finalized our plans, fearing I’d wear out when the hike became strenuous, and Joel would have to roll me back to the truck. In the preceding decade, I’d climbed other fourteeners with vigor and enjoyment, experiencing only brief moments of minor hysteria. Recently, however, during less challenging hikes, diminished energy and sore knees had reminded me of my dad, mournfully singing, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” I managed to banish my concerns as Joel and I started our climb on a promising day in August. My spirits soared, buoyed by the beauty of daybreak in the mountains and the companionship of my husband: a bond unharmed by our drive through an obliterating darkness to the trailhead on a rugged donkey path during which I miss-navigated two turns, and Joel used profanity.
For many years, fourth-grade children smelling of summer surged into my classroom in early September, bouncing and squirming like puppies surprised at being indoors. District procedure suggested that I begin the first day of school by explaining the routines necessary for order throughout the year. But as I welcomed my students, shining with hope in their new clothes, I felt a lengthy lecture would be inexcusable. So rather than burdening my youngsters with two hundred rules for happy living, I chose to spend thirty minutes teaching them how to listen. I believed then, and now, that careful listening in school, as in the world, could solve most problems. I explained three steps for skillful listening: stop what you are doing, look at the speaker and attend so closely that you could summarize the speaker’s words, if asked.
As I navigated a sidewalk crowded with Nevada Day revelers, I saw a former student of mine standing along the parade route with her family. When in fourth grade, Anna had smiled shyly from behind shaggy bangs, learned adequately with some extra help and created intricate works of art she sometimes slipped onto my desk, whispering, “I made this for you.” Now in ninth grade, she looked like the teenager she was: makeup awkwardly applied to cover a spotty complexion, clothing approved by her peers, and an air of mingled boredom and embarrassment at being in the company of her family. As I approached, her eyes lit with recognition. The smile she gave me was the same, though it seemed more guarded.
We watched Colorado burn. Nightly, reporters posed in front of leaping flames to talk about acres blackened, homes destroyed, lives lost. And it seemed unending. In Moffat County we worried about those caught up in the destruction of distant fires, watched smoke invade our valley, listened for the wail of sirens and hoped our luck would hold. Though we had experienced smaller-scale fires, so far we’d escaped the widespread devastation on the Front Range. Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Idaho also burned. I followed news reports about the distant fires and wondered if the land that had nurtured me all of my life—lands of towering grandeur and rushing streams—could survive the onslaught.
Last week as I watched spruced-up children scamper by my house, wearing new backpacks and excitement, I wondered what they were thinking about as they began another school year. My teaching experience tells me they weren’t focused on increasing their knowledge and earning straight A’s. Instead, they were probably thinking about friends, recess and teachers—in that order. It wasn’t until I sat at the teacher’s desk that student learning and a fair system of grading dominated my thoughts as a school year began. I worked hard to establish procedures for collecting scores and assigning grades that would fairly represent the progress of each student, refining and improving my procedures year in and year out. Still as an educator, I was often surprised by the reactions of parents and students when reports cards were issued.
After seeing me skirmish with neighborhood friends on a dirt court beneath a basketball hoop hanging from a telephone pole, my dad told me I’d be a great player — if the other team would leave me alone. Dad’s comment summarized my competitive life: 0thers scheme, maneuver and never give up. I fail to think beyond the immediate play, forget to watch for exploitable weaknesses in my opponents and lose any ability to concentrate when the going gets tough. My lack of assertiveness puts me at the mercy of bloodthirsty competitors, ruthless cutthroats who sense my lack of guile, take advantage of it and quickly dispense of my weak-willed self. Unfortunately, I’ve lived with many of these rogues.
Even as I use and appreciate the technology embraced by younger generations, I mourn the passing of my world. Icons from my past are slipping away. Soon future generations, reading with idle curiosity about my era, will gasp with disbelief and ask one another, “How did people manage to live like that?” For a school assignment in eighth grade, I asked my grandmother to tell me about life in the olden days. I forgot her words as soon as I wrote my paper, but I still remember her touch as she smoothed my bangs away from my eyes and the wistful expression on her face as she responded. At the time, I thought speaking of her youth saddened her because she was old with gnarled hands and shadowed vision.
A couple of years ago, my husband, Joel, started to mumble, running his words together willy-nilly; all my grandchildren seemed to need speech therapy; and waiters whispered the night’s specials as if revealing classified information. I knew I’d begun to miss words and phrases during conversations, but blamed the mutter-mouths surrounding me. Then I telephoned a niece who habitually spoke crisply and clearly and realized the deficiency might be mine. Pauline answered the phone cautiously — when elderly relatives call, it’s usually to report illness, death, or befuddlement. I punched up the volume on my phone — the pesky thing hadn’t been working well — and assured Pauline none of her old folks had broken a hip.
A block from home, I froze in my tracks: I’d forgotten to check that the TV, oven, coffee maker, and curling iron were turned off before I left the house. “If I don’t go back,” I thought, “I’ll be rushing home later to the wail of sirens and the sight of smoke hovering above my neighborhood. But if I do go back to check, I’ll be late for my dental appointment — a personal failing I’ll regret for days.” I dithered excessively and then turned around. I’d prefer not to think of myself as anal-retentive. Though the definition may describe me — “a person whose attention to detail becomes an annoyance for others” — the label lacks dignity.
As a grandparent, I’ve laughed, moaned, and cheered while watching soccer, T-ball, softball, basketball, volleyball, track events, and swim meets. I’ve been indignant, amused, ecstatic, nervous, resigned, and bored out of my mind. I’ve sweated sunscreen off my face, struggled to stay upright in unrelenting gales, huddled under blankets to ward off humid cold, and run away from lightning with a toddler under each arm, all so I could reassure my grandchildren that I saw their hit, score, or outstanding play at third. Along the way, I’ve stored up vivid memories: Lucy as a senior digging a volleyball off the court and returning it during championship play; Sophia with a baton and a determined look out-running older girls; Sally managing to stay in her own lane at a swim meet — most of the time; and Harrison kicking a soccer ball that, much like Old Faithful, regularly went straight up in the air and straight back down.