Country Roads

Alongside the country road I drive most days, I’m sure to find—depending on the time of year—trillium, wild irises, fire pinks, flame azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, Japanese meadowsweet, bee balm, daisies, evening primrose, black-eyed Susans, Turk’s cap lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, wild blackberries, Joe-Pye weed, touch-me-nots, ironweed, snow, and ice. All strikingly beautiful and all worth slowing down for.

 

On a cool but sunny day, I’m as likely as not to find a lazy dog dozing on the asphalt, in no hurry to get out of my way.

It isn’t rare to find myself behind a farmer driving his slow-moving tractor from one field to another. Other times it may be a load of Christmas trees or a flatbed groaning under the weight of too many rolls of hay puttering along in front of me.

A deer, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or even a fox or bobcat might scamper—or mosey—across the road any time of day or night.

I often come upon a car or truck at a dead standstill, the driver having stopped to catch up on the latest community ‘news’ with a neighbor. Usually, they’ll look ahead and wave me around; they’re nowhere near ready to move on themselves.

It’s only right to roll down the window for a “Howdy” when couples are out for a morning jog or an evening stroll. Those moments, too, may turn into drawn-out conversations.

One should never be in a hurry on a country road.

A Day in the Life

We could have been washing dishes. We could have been cleaning the bathroom. We could have been weeding in the garden or mowing the lawn or taking care of any of the other chores on our frighteningly long to-do list. But we didn’t do any of that.

Instead, we sat for more than an hour watching ‘our’ baby Carolina wrens. Sometimes, we stood—to get as close to the screen door as possible to watch the mesmerizing sight in front of us.

The parents showed up about two months ago, first razing their former home, presumably in anticipation of a major remodel. Sticks and leaves were strewn all over our deck floor. Ultimately, they chose an alternate site—on the opposite end of the deck, but in a similar location. They did well, choosing a crevice so tiny and well-hidden that their babes were almost sure to be safe.

The nest is in the cranny beyond where these two boards intersect. It’s only one and a half inches wide in there. How can a whole family of wrens plus a nest can fit into such a small cavity?

For two months we’ve watched the wrens bringing, first, sticks and grasses and other building material and, next, bits of food for the nester and then the chicks. We’ve listened to Mr. sing his beautifully melodic songs to Mrs. and, later, his babes. He has many songs, and they can be ear-piercing. How can so much sound come out of such a diminutive being? And for two months we’ve been loudly and soundly scolded whenever we dared to venture onto the deck. We know when Mama raccoon is around because she gets the same insistent scolding.

And for the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard the almost unceasing chirps of young wrens begging for their next meal. In the last few days, we’ve noticed a head or two peeking out from their refuge, too eager and curious to stay concealed.

But today—today was different. First one, then a second, and—surprise—a third, slipped out into the open, standing on the wooden beam that supports their home. One ventured even further away from its protected nest. It tested its little wings. It slipped and almost fell, but clawed its way back up. One at a time, the birdlings peered over the edge into what must have seemed an abyss.

One soon-to-be fledgling eyes the horizon while the next investigates the gaping distance to the deck floor and the third lingers at the opening to its nest, ready to dart back in if danger appears.

We were sure this would be the day, the day they would fledge. As many birds as have nested near our home over the years, fledging is an activity I’ve never witnessed, and I didn’t plan to miss it. Not unless they dilly-dallied until we had to leave for an important appointment. I stayed glued to my seat. The Gnome had to go upstairs for a brief shower. “There are four of them!” I cried as another head popped out. “Five! “No, six!” He made it back downstairs in record time.

By the time the last two bashfuls made an appearance, the second bird had joined its sibling on the beam. Their four brothers and sisters, lined up like a chorus of dancers waiting for their cue, weren’t going to miss the big event any more than we were. Perhaps they were gathering courage.

The most adventurous, the first to slip out onto the ledge, finally made its leap of faith. It wasn’t a long flight—just a couple of feet, but it was a huge success, nevertheless.

The wren on the left has flown all the way over (barely down at all) to a cross beam and gives an encouraging look to the one still pondering its options.

Then off flew another, and another, until finally only the most timid little bird was left, alone and surely waffling between the desire to be brave and free and a wish to hold onto the security of home.

Clinging to the beam

Mama brought a last bite of nourishment. That was all it took. The last little bird took the longest flight of all.

We cheered. We hugged. We cried.

We’ve been reading North Carolina writer Leigh Ann Henion’s book, Phenomenal, for the last week. She traveled the globe to explore the world’s greatest natural wonders. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful tale, full of awe and wonder and great truths. I highly recommend it. Yet, today, we experienced our own exhilarating phenomenon. And we never left the living room.

And then there were none.  No more begging, no more scolding, and nearly a year’s wait for the gusty, mellifluous songs heralding that a new generation is on the way.

 

 

 

 

Nothin’ But a Hound Dog (Or a Hundred or So)

The Gnome and I took a day off last weekend. In theory, we can do that every day of the year now that we are repurposed. Reality is a bit different. We’re each working on major projects, and we push ourselves as if the world will end if we don’t finish sooner rather than later. Actually, that’s the truth—we have way more days behind us than we could ever hope to have in front of us. One day our time will run out and chances are we’ll still have more than a few unfinished projects lying about.

I think that’s the way I prefer it. Much better to be in the middle of something I care about, anticipating the results, than twiddling my thumbs feeling that there’s nothing left to do.

But back to our day off. We decided to visit a small, picturesque waterfall in the small county that borders ours. I’d never seen it, never in our almost forty years here even heard about it until a few months ago. In his work, the Gnome had driven past but, zipping by in a car, he hadn’t had a chance to stop and enjoy it, either.

Falls and a swallowtail at Newland’s Waterfalls Park (Photos by Ron Wynn)

After soaking in the beauty of the place for half an hour or so, we decided to continue on the same rural road to a popular general store, dipping and climbing on curvy mountain roads. Our route took us through the unincorporated community of Cranberry, population 500 or so. (Even before it was settled in 1850, Cranberry was known for having one of the largest veins of iron ore in the United States.)

We passed the grounds of the former high school, which is now being used for occasional community events. The place was crammed with cars and trucks, mostly trucks. A metal yard sign next to the road read, “Heritage Day.”

That sounded like fun. We whipped the car around and headed back. As we drove onto the property, our ears were assaulted with barking, howling, yelping,  baying. We found ourselves surrounded by dogs, dogs, and more dogs. More than a hundred, we were sure. Dogs with their wiggly noses sticking out of car windows, crated dogs in pickup truck beds, dogs pulling people on leashes, dogs tied to fence posts on the shaded lawn. They were not, not a one of them, sleepy yard dogs. These dogs were on the alert. They were, in the truest sense, rarin’ to go.

Hound dogs.

Have you ever heard a hundred hounds baying simultaneously? Well, let me tell you, it’s deafening, each dog with a distinctive and  urgent voice. We couldn’t help but smile.

This was a very particular breed of hound, a scent dog known as the Plott Hound. If you’re not a North Carolinian, maybe just a Western North Carolinian, you may not be familiar with this breed. The dogs were brought to North Carolina by Johannes Plott when he emigrated from Germany in the 1700s. In the early part of the next century, his son Henry moved with his family to the mountain range that bears the family name: the Plott Balsams in Jackson and Haywood Counties in the southwestern corner of the state. Henry continued to breed the dogs, mostly for bear and wild boar hunting. The Plott Hound was named the state dog of North Carolina in 1988.

As it turns out, my mother was born and raised in the shadow of the Plott Balsams, and I’m interested in anything related to that heritage.

plott balsams wikimedia commons

View of the Plott Balsams (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons (wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Plott-balsams-pb-ll-nc1.jpg)

Somehow, we had landed in the middle of a Plott Hound barking competition. (Never heard of that before.) What a stroke of luck! We followed the dogs.

In the far corner of a temporarily fenced-in section of the school grounds stood a cage, ever so slightly camouflaged. Inside the cage was a bear. Not a real one, thank goodness. But it moved. And it growled. I’m willing to bet bear scent had been sprayed around the cage, too.

In the near corner, dog handlers were hanging on to the leashes of their dogs. From the looks of it, that was some kind of hard work. When the whistle blew, three dogs at a time were turned loose and inevitably flew straight to the cage where they positioned themselves, barked, repositioned, and barked some more, stopping only when the timer blew his whistle and the keepers releashed their dogs, leaving the arena for the next trio to advance.

We didn’t fully understand how the process worked and we left before trophies were awarded. But from what we observed and overheard, we gathered this much. The event is timed. There are three judges. The judges are looking for degree of aggression, number of barks, and focus.

We looked, but if there was anything to Heritage Day other than the dog competition, it was well hidden. Never mind. Listening to the baying of a hundred eager hounds left us buoyant.

We almost always manage to come across some bit of serendipity—chance magic—when we’re out and about. Maybe a four-leaf clover, a funky art gallery, or longhorn cows in a meadow of buttercups. What a treat to happen upon a Plott Hound barking competition.

Have you encountered a bit of serendipity this week?

(Take a listen to the Plott Hounds.)

 

“Everything I Need”

Have I mentioned I have the most amazing mom? Really, I do. This woman, 95 today, has never ceased being my mentor and teacher. And I’ll bet she doesn’t even realize it. She’s no longer trying to mold me; that work is done. Yet, her daily, living example does influence me.

I recently came across a March 19, 2018, New York Times article by Jane E. Brody: “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age.” She references several experts in the field of geriatrics with observations such as these:

  • Even when physical decline and losses restrict one’s options, there remains the capacity to appreciate and approach each day with a sense of purpose. It’s all about how you frame what you have.

  • Positive aging is “a state of mind that is positive, optimistic, courageous, and able to adapt and cope in flexible ways with life’s changes.”

  • older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment,” not on a future that may never be.

That sounds a lot like Mom, now classified as among ‘the oldest of the old.’

Five years ago, my mother lived in a six-room house filled with antiques and family heirlooms. She and my dad had already downsized once or twice. Today, widowed after sixty years of marriage, she lives in one room in an assisted living facility. She no longer drives. She shares her small room with all her possessions—a chest, a rocking chair, a couple of bedside tables and lamps, a small bookcase overflowing with books and word puzzles, a television set, and a few pictures and pieces of needlework adorning the walls. Aside from her clothing and a bed furnished by the facility, that’s about it. Talk about downsizing!

Having suffered a broken hip, a fractured pelvis, severe osteoarthritis, and several fractured vertebrae that shortened her height by at least five inches, she moves slowly, painfully, and infrequently—with an aluminum walker as her constant companion.

Some people would look at her circumstances and be overcome with sadness. Not Mom. Sometimes when we’re on the phone, she’ll randomly say something like, “Not many ninety-four-year-olds are as lucky as I am,” citing her long and happy marriage, her children, the mountain view from her room, the resident cats that come for daily visits.

On my most recent visit, I asked if there was anything I could pick up for her. She took a cursory glance around, looked me straight in the eyes with a tranquil smile, and said, “You know, I have everything I need.”

I’d say she’s mastered the art of finding meaning and happiness in old age. Now, if only I can be as good a pupil as she is a teacher.    

Mom through the years

 

Grandparents’ Camp, Part II: Lessons Learned

If you read last week’s blog post, you know we sponsor Grandparents’ Camp every year for our grandchildren. Some have told us the name is topsy-turvy—sounds like someone’s sending the Gnome and me to old people’s camp. Hey, maybe when they get older, the grandchildren will actually host a camp for us. That would be totally awesome!

A friend of mine hosted her own grandparents’ camp the same week as ours. She’s a natural born planner with a strong theatrical bent—each year her camp has a different theme. She even engages her grands in planning and preparation. That must be fun. Our camps are more a hodgepodge: a few new activities scattered among a host of old favorites. That works, too, though it can be a challenge finding activities that suit a toddler, a soon-to-be ’tween, and a couple of teenagers all at the same time.

(Hover over picture for caption. Click a second time to see captions in their entirety.)

Here’s a little compilation of things I’ve learned from hosting Grandparents’ Camp. Some I learned long ago; now, with a little one added to the mix, I’m learning a few new things, as well as relearning a few old tricks.

1. Children thrive when they get to explore outdoors, sometimes completely on their own. Children thrive when given the opportunity to be creative. Children thrive when they discover it’s perfectly fine to get dirty. Children thrive when they know it’s okay to use their ‘outside’ voices.

2. Almost-three-year-olds ask a lot of questions, especially ‘why’ questions, often about life’s great unanswerables: why do you have (insert any visible object)? Why do you wear clothes? Why do you have stairs? Why are birds here? Why are we eating (insert any visible food item)? Why is it still light?

3. Almost-three-year-olds also talk about their parents a LOT! Mommy this, Daddy that. It’s only natural—an almost-three-year-old’s world is small and those in it loom large. Our almost-three-year-old has set his parents on such high pedestals they’re in danger of breaking something when they inevitably crash to the floor with the rest of us mere mortals. (They are mighty special—and lucky to have his adoration.)

4. Little girls idolize their older cousins, looking at them with wondrous eyes, mimicking everything they see. The older ones are a little stunned by the awesome responsibility that just dropped in their laps once they notice a younger cousin adopting their hairstyles and clothing tricks.

5. There’s nothing quite so good for one’s self-esteem as having an almost-three-year-old scoot next to you for a cuddle with these words: “I love you. You’re my best friend.” Hundreds of times a day. Literally. Hundreds. (Smiling gramma!)

6. There are a few things you should check out with the parents before they say their goodbyes. If certain routines that have become sacred traditions, you need to know about them, word for word. You need to know the bedtime sequence of events.

7. Planning activities for vastly different ages in a camp-like atmosphere is best done with more than one adult on hand. Occasionally, one set of campers needs a break from the other age group and separate activities are called for. A shopping trip for the older ones, a visit to a playground for the younger ones gives everyone the breather they need to be happy to spend their remaining hours together.

8. Just like at home, campers need to be given some responsibilities, such as helping with the dishes, putting things away when an activity is over. Not too many—they’re not at Basic Training—but enough to build their confidence as able human beings and enough to be reminded we’re all in this thing together.

9. It’s important to refrain from the temptation to overly rely on the older ones. They shouldn’t be made to feel like babysitters or ‘junior counselors.’ Camp is for them, too. Sometimes the balancing act is delicate.

10. When older campers notice that the camp directors have hit a wall and offer their services unbidden, you love them more than you thought possible. (Clearly, they’ve  been raised right.)

Bonus: This year, I also discovered that the almost-three-year-old and his camp director, seventy years his elder, now use the same cautious technique to climb stairs! Oh, my!

Grandparents’ Camp, Part I

The Gnome and I sponsored our annual grandparents’ camp a few weeks ago. Lots of folks do these days, but I’d never heard of such a thing when we opened our first camp seventeen years ago.

A lot has changed in that time. Back then, we had only one camper. Easy peasy. As the years passed, the number of campers has, at times, quadrupled; the camp directors’ ages increased dramatically, along with the number of cranky joints. The age gap between campers grew, too. We’ve had as many as four campers simultaneously, their ages ranging from two to eighteen. That makes planning a little more complex than back in the early days of our camp.

Our pioneer camper is clearly aging out, no doubt soon to be followed by the next eldest—too soon. But they will always be welcome in our home, camp or no camp.

I still look forward to camp and, unsurprisingly, still feel a bit of a letdown when the last camper says goodbye and heads for home. Kind of like that feeling I get as a wonderful vacation is nearing its end or the way I felt as a child as the holiday season wound down.

The first few camp years, I began planning weeks in advance. Now, with nearly two decades of experience, I’ve pared the process down a bit. I keep a notebook with all essential information (menus, recipes, activities), adding new ideas along the way. But planning still begins about three weeks in advance—I just don’t spend so long on it in a given day or week.

For campers of a certain age, I send camp invitations and registration forms, SASE included. I insert a goofy questionnaire asking, for instance, if the camper has ever been bitten by a tsetse fly or suffers from conditions like whinitis or pre-teen angst. I send a checklist of potential activities, including a few goofy options, such as eating worms or picking up rocks. I include a list of common-sense items to bring with them, and I request that they leave some items at home, absurd things like pet crocodiles.

About the same time, I put together a menu and shopping list. It’s fairly standardized because I can count on the same special requests from year to year: fondue, cookout, s’mores, sweet potato casserole, and a baked spaghetti dish.

I break buying trips into two parts. Perishables are purchased only a day or two before the start of camp. But to save myself from too much sticker shock, I buy non-perishables a week or two in advance.

I check the status of our regular supplies: canvases, paper, and acrylics for painting along with glue, food coloring, and liquid starch for that all-time favorite, slime. I collect materials for new projects I’ve discovered over the year.

I make sure bedding is in place, pull out equipment that’s been stored for the last twelve months, and do a last minute clean-up. I don’t know why I do this—it will take about five minutes for the house to explode in suitcase innards, toys, crayons, and more. Still, my illusion (delusion?) is that starting the week organized helps keep things under control.

In addition to the ever-popular painting and slime-making, we blow bubbles, watch fireflies, stargaze, make homemade ice cream—with a different fruit each year, add an item or two to one grandchild’s wooded fairyland, go for walks. I try to stay away from rigid schedules as much as possible. At the risk of hearing those dreaded words, “I’m bored,” I still prefer the freedom from routine that comes with grandparents’ camp.

The best part of making ice cream is getting every last drop from the can and dasher.

Learning to arm knit

Harvesting supper from the garden is great fun.

We include a few field trips. They break up the routine, but too many and the week starts to feel overscheduled. Field trips have included a trip to our favorite local park for picnicking, playground fun, bicycling or strolling, kite flying, and splashing in the icy mountain river that bounds the park. We’ve visited local tourist attractions, we’ve gone gem mining, we’ve toured a cavern. Lately, we’ve included a shopping trip to boutiques for the older kids while the youngest one visits a playground or library story hour. (Shopping bonus: I get surefire gift ideas.) We’ve gone on downtown scavenger hunts, visited a working alpaca farm, attended a street festival, spent long evenings at fireworks displays.

One of our all-time favorite activities was the “spaghetti pool.” It involves playing naked in a kiddie pool full of oily spaghetti sprinkled with food coloring, so it’s only suitable for the youngest campers. But since it’s one of the first camp experiences the grandkids have, they’re sure to anticipate future camps as a wildly fun adventure. (A long, warm, bubbly soak in the tub inevitably follows this activity.)

We’re seventeen years older than we were when we held our first grandparents’ camp. We’re a little slower now, but I love our special week with grandkids every bit as much now as then. It’s a rare opportunity for them to spend time with each other; it’s a different pace than their norm with different freedoms—and different rules; they get to know us one-on-one. Invariably, the kids initiate conversations on subjects that don’t usually come up when the house is filled with mostly adults, so we get to know them better, too. Their conversations are open and free, and they treat us like one of their own.

John McCutcheon, one of my favorite folk artists, sings the song, “Water from Another Time. It tells of childhood summers spent with grandparents, getting water from a rusty pump “primed with water from another time.” The point of the song is that we all need a little from the past to feed our souls—old melding with new to help us make our way in this world.

I hadn’t really thought about it before I heard those words, but that’s what the Gnome and I are trying to give our grandchildren with these precious summer moments. My fervent hope is that one day my grandchildren will utter the words I so often do: “I want to be kind of grandmother my grandmother was.”

Water from another time.

Dressing Gramma’s childhood doll in clothing made by Great-gramma—water from another time.

 

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up on Parts I and II of The List. You can find them here and here.)

Actually, I had written a hundred and one items on my hundred-things-I-want-to-do-when-I-retire list. One, though, was something I simply didn’t feel comfortable broadcasting to professional colleagues. Yet, if my list had been in priority order, this one item would have been at the very top. The number one thing I wanted to do when I retired was to take off my bra.

It was the number one thing I did, too. For awhile. Then I remembered something Maya Angelou once said about her aging experience: “My breasts are in a race to see which one gets to my bellybutton first.” I’d seen that effect first hand at Asheville’s Go Topless Day, and I really didn’t want to speed things up for myself.

Funny thing about bras. Back in the sixth grade, we girls could barely wait to get our first bras, whether we needed them or not. (We didn’t.) We huddled together during recess whispering about them—who had one, who needed one, how embarrassing it would be wearing one to school for the first time. My two best friends and I coordinated our bra-buying plans so we’d arrive at school wearing our first bra on the same day. We reasoned no one of us would feel quite so conspicuous that way. Proud and conspiratorial, maybe, but inconspicuous.

Pretty sure my first bra was this very style! (But smaller—much, much smaller) 

 

At a church youth retreat a few years later, my friend George said to a bunch of us girls that he couldn’t comprehend how we could bear to be so confined. He thought wearing a bra would feel incredibly constricting, like being in a straitjacket. We were a tad scandalized by his brazen discussion of such an intimate subject, but we tried not to show it. We assured him it wasn’t like that at all, that bras were perfectly comfortable. Frankly, we couldn’t imagine life without a bra.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about a bra. The more I’ve needed one, the less comfortable I’ve been wearing one. George had it right, after all. Constricting is exactly the right word.

In the end, my bra and I came to a compromise. That is to say, I compromised. Pretty soon I started wearing my bra again. Still do. These days, I free my breasts from their bra prison a little earlier in the evenings, though, hoping my body doesn’t notice I’m cheating.

Bras—there’s the Double Support, the Sexy Plunge, the Elegant Lift, the Magic Lift, the Convertible, the Vacationer, the Glamorise, the Wonderwire. Seamed, seamless, lined, unlined, foam lined. Sheer, padded, molded. Strapless, t-strap, gel strap. Wirefree or underwire. Front closure, back closure, pullover. Leisure, sports, nursing, active lifestyle. Extra lift, minimizer, slimming, back smoothing. Push-up, shelf, bandeau, bustier, demi-cup, long line. Cotton, nylon, silk, microfiber, jersey knit, lace, satin.

The most common theme in bra advertising is comfort: original comfort, smooth comfort, pure comfort, moving comfort, 18-hour comfort, super cool comfort, comfort flex, comfort revolution, passion for comfort. HA!

I have a passion for comfort. It’s why I wanted to dispense with my bra in the first place. But gravity is a law. And I’m a law abider, so I’m sticking with my bra.

(Photo images in this post are public domain photos via Creative Commons.)