Becoming a Blue Bird of Happiness at 80

western blue birdOkay brace yourself! As some of you know, despite my name, I am ‘Sad’, while my sister is ‘Joy’ (according to the gospel of ‘Inside Out’). She is often required to drag me around by my heels, until I cheer up. (Confused? You’re going to have to see that movie.)

Then along came my 80th birthday on Cinco de Mayo, and a house full of people, 18 months to 81, all of them beautiful, people who had gone to the trouble of seeking out 80th b’day cards!!

The biggest surprise was a six foot parcel of fun from Brussels.

Well, maybe he was the second biggest surprise. The biggest is my realization that in spite of events, I have not actually failed. It was never my job to save everybody. They all had their own saving potential. Whatever happened was not wrong or my fault.

I am going to use the kindness I have experienced as a mirror to see myself as Joy.hat:out window edited

Of Geniuses and 800-year-old Hips.

geniusOn Sunday at 2:15, I have an appointment with an Apple Genius at Sherway Gardens. I bury my late-rising self in the Saturday papers for too long, and when I raise my head civil war breaks out.

Hips demand exercise. Sorry, Hips, I say, I’ve done Feet. No time for you. I need to spend that half hour on Mind and its buddy Computer. I’ll get back to you later this afternoon. Then I stand up.

“See,” yell Hips. “We’re all seized up. You should stretch one minute for every year of your life.”

“Like I’ve got an hour and a half every expletive day!”

“Look, we’re structural, we’re the foundation. Mind is just electrical.”

Mind, tyrant that it is, does what it wants, and uses up the half hour.

So I arrive at the Genius line more or less knowing what my computer problem is.

In front of me is a beautiful boy. He has apparently tagged along with his parents, probably bored out of his mind. But no, the adults go off with their Genius, and the boy remains. Is he 12? Maybe a young-looking 13? The next Genius leads him away, asking,”What do you want to work on this time?” The boy begins a lengthy answer, not a word of which I understand.

My Genius shows up. I ask him to repeat his name. It is Chinese and sounds like the French word for yes.

I haul out my Mac Air Book-3 years and 6 months old, no longer covered by that expensive extended warranty. “I have been leaving it on because it takes so long to reboot, but it shuts off while it’s sleeping. When I go back to it, it won’t turn on until I plug it in. The battery still has a charge, so that’s not the problem. Then it takes forever to boot up again.”

He starts tapping keys. “First of all, you need to turn it off as often as possible. We’ll get rid Rapport. I know your bank told you to run it, but you don’t really need it. The bank site is secure enough. I find people who have it complain their computers run slow. Then we’ll take out this. I’ll leave this window open and when you get home, plug the computer in and click “Turn off file vault.” I check it out. Who knew I was encrypting my files.

“We’ve only got 15 minutes, so we need to use out time wisely,” he says.

Okay. We must have used 3 already.

He reboots the thing. It’s already faster and no longer black and white when it asks for my password.

“So, I tried to save my photos on iCloud, but..”

“ICloud isn’t really for photos.” He grabs my iPad, plugs it in and in a trice loads my photos there as backup. “I’m like a car mechanic. I fix things. I’m not really a teacher. Come to classes where the teacher is good at that. Here’s the screen for quitting File vault again.” Then he adds, “I suppose you don’t turn the iPad off either.”

“Isn’t it off now?”

“No, it’s sleeping.”

Okay, I wonder, does he want me to turn off my iPhone as well? I don’t ask. I give him my humble thanks. I figure he just came out ahead by at least 5 minutes, kind of a slam, bam, thank you situation.

As he departs backstage, I rise from my high stool. My bags are on the floor. How did they get so far away? “See,” yell Hips. “You need to do a full set of Tai chi, not just the exercises and not just those stupid Yoga stretches.” Stooping is not going to work.I creak forward in a deep bend from the waist. Central Back screams. I stagger down the aisles of people, some of them four-years-old, playing with chained-down devices.

Across the way is a Pottery Barn outlet. Maybe I could just saunter around it. Who knew Christmas shopping started before Remembrance Day? I sidle through the crush. I never shop in stores now. See Hips above. But I spot red lunch plates, only $9. I really really want lunch plates to go with the Fiesta Ware I received when I turned 70, but have you see the prices?. $40 later, I have a huge box of plates. I get to the outside door, but before I press the button to open it, I go back to the store to ask for a bag. Carrying the heavy box has threatened to tip me forward.

Starbucks is jammed, but a welcome rest stop.

I am parked on the deck, way out beyond civilization, past construction. I see there is a yellow hatching on other side of the road for pedestrians, complete with barriers. Cars without parking spots are cruising nose to tail slowly around blind corners. Pedestrians on the other side are flattening themselves against hoardings as I did on the way in. The walkway I’m on is more roundabout, but finally, it leads me across the road between cars to a seven inch curb painted yellow. Okay. There’s a low wall on the left. I put one hand on it to balance and step up, ignoring Hips who are crying out in agony. I glance right. A good-looking young man is looking at me. He smiles his congratulations. I’ve made it.

Good-looking young men used to check me out for a different reason.

Hips and Feet, with a little help from Legs, approximate walking all the way back to the little red Yaris.

 

The Immense Heart and Mr Death

rumi quoteBlake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake.  It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.

Then we said goodbye.

Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.

For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.

Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.

My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.

This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.

Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.

Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.

This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?

She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.

I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.

I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.

I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.

I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)

At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.

I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.

As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.

No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.

MrDEath

Square One Writer’s Block

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

Okay, I need a new direction. Writing the blog post on Cockroaches took three days and was absorbing. I had to go back through it on my iPad reminding myself of names and sorting out the red herrings from the real resolution. I neglected to say in my review that the plot was not memorable.

The difficulty arrives from the fact that I’m more or less stuck here in a mountain village in Kern County, California far from Toronto, as a result of a family illness. There are days when I am superfluous to need, but then again, a relapse occurs and I’m fully involved. I don’t even have time to think. Other days like this one, I am at loose ends despite bear incursions.

Because I’m a big reader of mysteries, several people have suggested that I write a mystery. I thought about it.

Okay… I’d need a crime, a locale and a detective. I could set it here in this mountain village. Wait Mar Preston has already done in Payback, although I didn’t recognize the happy, friendly village I know in the misanthropic town she depicted. Besides hers had a town hall, whereas the real place has only one centre of administration, the club house. This village is unincorporated. In other words even its roads are private property and privately maintained. The streets are patrolled by security guards, although the sheriff rides in for serious matters. So I suppose I could write a truer picture of our remote mountain valley.

Then I’d need a crime. Darn. Something bad would have to happen. Something seriously bad. What stops me there is my own personal experience. My father had a way of being on the edge of seriously bad stuff. After his death, three different police forces spent $1,000,000 trying to figure out exactly what. I can only say it was not worth every penny. Even if he did look exactly like the police drawing. (See home page for ebook.)

Most of all, I don’t have a scientific background except for Biology 101 which taught me how to dissect a pig embryo. I suppose I could make it all up from my extensive reading and my watching of CSI, but I am loath to do so. It’s possible that television writers take liberties with fact. And I have no experience of group work in policing.

I could write about group life in a high school prep room. Pretty cut-throat especially before smoking was outlawed.

Actually I could depict two older women, who have no investigative qualifications except curiosity. And mystery reading. One of them, the elder, would be irrepressibly garrulous, a little deaf and charmingly dotty who could worm information out of a stone wall. The other an ex-English teacher, more reticent, but with a mind like a steel trap. I suppose Clara would want a slice of the royalties. Anyway, that sounds too fey and Agatha Christie has already captured the market.

I’m reminded of the conversation between the writer and the doctor at a party. Doctor: When I retire, I’m going to write a novel. Writer: And when I retire, I’m going to take up medicine.

So, no, I think not.

I could find another indecipherable novel like The Luminaries, study it carefully and blog about it. The Luminaries post draws about 150 hits a week, once 164 in one day. Any suggestions?

I have embarked on the project of following The Outlanders by Diana Gabaldon on Starz and reading the books, but those stories are pretty decipherable. They are historical romances, no matter what the author says.

I could start writing a memoir about this illness, but the patient will write her own as and when.

For the time being, I sit here on another sunny warm day on the edge of the pine wood, writing a blog about my inability to get a good idea. I swear I’ve marked a hundred “personal” essays from students just like this.

Help!

 

 

 

Family – a committee designed by a camel

camelI saw a sign in a gift shop the other day, which read,”If he said he’d do it, he’ll do it. Don’t keep nagging him every six months.”

This summed up my relationship to my husband when I was married. It remains a bit of a problem even now. Yes, I can rely on my children’s father — eventually.

I’ve led a selfish life for years now. At least three. At 75, I stopped volunteering. For 10 years prior to that I headed the shipping committee for a charitable organization. We shipped books and t-shirts around the world, making a good deal of money for the club. My committee worked well; I left the other 4 alone to do their jobs. Trouble was the committee that managed the club didn’t extend the courtesy. I knew what we needed to cover orders, but I wasn’t allowed to order goods. That meant I ended up taking the flak when the club in Sydney or Warsaw didn’t get what they ordered. So I figured 10 years is enough and quit. As it turned out supplying instruction books wasn’t that important and trade died off. Recently, I got an email from the management asking if I could remember how many books we last had printed and by whom. I ventured that all relevant invoices had been filed. By me. Of course. But I had not committed that information to memory.

My trouble with committees is the only good ones are run by me.

As the mother of young children I ran the committee. My husband made decisions about gardening, the pool, the sailboat and the cars, but I made all the important ones. Mostly, things worked well, although my adult children seem to remember my style as autocratic. Well, what working mother’s isn’t? My son was once asked by a friend whether I denied him dessert if he didn’t eat his vegetables. He said, “No, she just threatened to kill me.” Nonsense. I never said that. He misinterpreted my look.

As they grew up, I had to back off the dirty look and bring my at-home leadership  style into line with the more laisez-faire one I used supervising the teachers who worked in my department. Vegetables were the least of my concerns. One of my teenagers was driving. They went off to an alternative school. It was the late 70’s – what drugs were they taking? Etc. But Blake and I soldiered on, trustfully in that laisez-faire way and nothing terrible happened.

Just when I had settled down to living for myself, I was suddenly drafted back to family duty.

How surprising! I had made it through the helpful grandmother stage, relatively unscathed. True I had to fly across the continent to do that, 2 or 3 times a year over a period of 25, but I read  bedtime stories and babysat and helped boys learn to swim and drove them to school and went camping with them. Now they were both adults. I was complacent. All future trips would be recreational.

Not. Illness struck and serious illness at that.

As soon as daily hospital visits ended, it began to be clear that 3 people really can’t live in 950 sq. ft. with 1 bathroom. Then the family grew, exponentially for a while and then shrunk back down to 4. Mother-in-law had come to live in the mountain village too. So that is how we 2 mothers came to live at the Reality Hotel – see previous posts- and later in the house she bought.

I learned pretty darn quick that my habit of declaring absolute opinions didn’t go over well. There were serious medical decisions to be made and apparently, the principals had to be given equal voice. Apparently, I had to back off and take a lesson from Marshall McCluhan, “I don’t necessarily believe everything I say.”

Meanwhile my new best friend was my son-in-law’s mother, Clara, who has a style all her own. She packed up to move by first pulling everything out of closets, cupboards and drawers and only then did she begin to put things in boxes. We heard daily reports of the chaos. When the house deal finally closed 7 weeks later and things began to arrive, Clara unpacked in exactly the same way. She emptied box after box and sat things everywhere. At a modest estimate, she has 2000 decorative objects, and she can tell at which thrift shop she bought each one. My room was the only sanctuary, since all I had fitted in one 23 K. suitcase.

Organization is my middle name, so I had to keep a tight rein on myself. I let myself wash each piece of china and re-stack it in categories. When Clara put a couple of mugs in one cabinet, I allowed myself to put the rest in there -at least 60 of them. Gritting my teeth in impatience, I awaited further clues. The plates, the pans, the glassware and the pantry have now been allocated.

Meanwhile I have taken it upon myself to initiate floor care. The highlight of my day today. That laminate shines up really well. I know pathetic. But there’s still no television in the house and the night life here consists of Madd Bailey’s Bar, live music Fri to Sun. Food can be ordered up from Mommy’s Roadhouse.

Or you can sit on the porch and watch the moon rise over the mountain.

So much for growing rigid with age.

The title makes no sense unless you are familiar with the saying, “A camel is a horse designed by committee” and maybe not even then.

 

 

 

 

Offa This Mountain: an anti-Shangri-la moment

the bandWhen I get offa this mountain, you know where I’m wanna go
Straight down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico
To Lake Charles Louisiana Little Bessie girl I once knew
She told me just to come on by if there was anything she could do…

The prospect of an uninterrupted three weeks on this mountain, three weeks of sun, pure air and altitude is taking its toll. I’ve put in two already, but now I crave exhaust fumes, crowds, bookstores, freeways at a standstill, lunch at a noisy curbside.

I distract myself listening to the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” its raunchy message offsetting the unbearable niceness of life here at the village centre.

I distract myself by driving a golf cart. Turn the switch on. Press the pedal. Silently, it moves off, leaning over as it turns. Yes, it has an a go-pedal and a brake. No rear view mirrors. No directional signals. It has a governor. Which on down-hill runs kicks in later than I think it should. Once you put the brake on, it locks. The only way to unlock it s to press the accelerator. Stopping at stop signs is entirely absorbing. Turning on a hill causes a lean that is entirely exciting. Did I mention I’m a septuagenarian?

I feel like crying “Hi ho, Silver!” although it keeps turning into “Hi ho Silverwear. Don’t forget your underwear!”

Ah, little red Yaris, 2000 miles away in Toronto.

I come romping home to the small hotel in the dark, grab my Elizabeth George novel, take myself upstairs next door to Madd Bailey’s bar, order a Guinness and read. The bar is mine and mine alone.

I can travel – by golf cart or on foot – to an internet connection and a phone. There are of course no actual public phones still extant and no kindly charity has stepped forward to protect the species. I can, however, sit outside the internet cafe even when it’s closed and get online where the miracle of Skype lets me make phone calls all over the world. Try to have a private conversation, though.

The television set in my room seems to be the last analogue receiver in service. I can get a very, very grainy CNN and if I’ve already seen the show, I listen to the sound -The Sixties, Music e.g.; otherwise, forget it.

Yes, I am reading. And reading. And reading. A book every three days. Right now I’m embarked on another Lee Child, a Jack Reacher thriller, Running Blind. Without Fail is waiting at my bedside.

And listening to the Band on my iPod. “I’m a lonely boy/Ain’t got no home.”

Ostensibly, my mission when I’m not involved in the family healing project, is to plan a mystery novel. But I feel like one of the wasted detectives I read about -Vera Stanhope, Wallender, Rebus. In off hours, I just want to retreat to oblivion and music.

But hey, it was distracting to have my hair cut very short and get a bracing Christian message, all for $45 and a very small tip.

“Acadian driftwood, Gypsy tailwind,/They call my home the land of snow/Canadian cold front moving in/ What a way to ride, oh what a way to go.”

Such was my midnight moan, but sitting outside the Bear Claw Bakery having breakfast the next morning, my octogenarian friend warily asked if I would go shopping with her in Santa Clarita. “Just hand me your car keys,” I said as I sprang to my feet. An hour later, down many mountains, we found the mall. She completed her outfits for her grand-daughter’s wedding and I added to my collection of Apple gear – a small iPad

Pack in Haste: regret at leisure

suitcase(howtodothings.com)

You’ve see those movies where the grifters have to leave town asap. They throw their clothes, hangers and all, into suitcases. Easy to do, because they had only one suitcase of clothes to begin with. Or the flee-ers scoop everything out of drawers into suitcases, which they slam shut. In comedies, some personal item trails out.

This time I had a 2 hour notice that I had to get from Toronto to Southern California. (Last time I got maybe 20 hrs.) It took me a half hour to figure out how to book  ticket while in a state of shock. (Definitely, on-line. Definitely don’t pay attention to prices.) Signed, sealed, delivered, checked in, bag paid for, boarding pass printed. Now what to pack?

I had made the same trip under more relaxed conditions, in early May, four weeks earlier. No problem, pack what I took then.

I dragged the purple suitcase out of the back of the long narrow cupboard. I set it on the blanket box at the foot of the bed, opened it and began flinging clothes at it. I had to be at the airport at 6 p.m. It was 5. Okay, this isn’t working.

I phoned Blake, my ex-husband. He knew he would have to drive me to the airport already. I said, “You have to come now,” I can’t think. He was with his young female friend. Let’s call her Noreen. “As soon as he could,” he said. They were caught in traffic. I kept flinging clothes. Breaking off now and then to empty the fridge, tie up the garbage, unplug the fountains. Forget the timer for the lights. I could cancel the papers once I got there. I was a whirling dervish.

5:20, they arrived.

“Joyce, this is Noreen” etc. I had heard a lot about Noreen. She seemed amiable enough.

“Can you two roll all this stuff up tightly and pack it.” The first time I’d met her and she was rolling my underwear.

I was stuffing toiletries into a plastic bag. When they finished, I put the dresses, etc. into the top compartment where they stood a small chance of not getting wrinkled.

They dropped me at Pearson International airport at 6:15. Noreen helped me put the bags on a cart and hugged me goodbye. Big surprise. No crowds. I self-served all the way through baggage check, customs, immigration, baggage loading – a nice Jamaician man lifted my bag onto the belt and sang me a song of his own devising- and finally, that metaphysical hurdle, security check, to arrive in good time at the gate for an 8:15 departure.

I forgot to mention the stop at the exchange counter. I have several hundred untouchable U.S. dollars in the bank, untouchable unless I present myself at the bank counter to claim them. I paid $138 Cdn for $100 US.

Fine.

At the first of June, on the mountain, north of Los Angeles, I survey my suitcase. What a difference a month makes! 24 times 31 little hours! It is hot, even at 5000 feet.

The grey wool suit, however light, is a non-starter. The tights will work on cold mornings or for midnight trysts. The desert cools down at night, especially at altitude. I have one t-shirt. No problem, here are 3 t-shirts from my male host. They should work. No shorts. Not even any capris or clam diggers. Well, here are 3 dresses and a wrap-around skirt that my size 2 hostess can give me. I am a size 14, but by some miracle, these are loose and flowing – on her. On me, not so much. I have brought the top of my bathing suit but not the bottom. (You should have some fun even in the middle of an emergency.) You know how they always say, “You can buy what you need when you get there.” They weren’t talking about the wilds of Kern County, but it is true in this one case. I find myself in Bakersfield and  buy a black bottom in Walmart. No sandals. No problem. I order some from Birkenstocks. I do not upgrade the shipping. Two weeks later I try to track the package. It has just been accepted by the mail service. In China. I pull out the silky tank top. It’s not the plain, soft one. It’s covered with glittery bits of plastic, like scales. I bought it for a costume.

Everyday, I discover new left-behinds: the list of my passwords for example. And no one will believe that I know my mother’s maiden name.

Bell has handed my cell coverage over to AT&T. The mountain is served only by Verizon. I send pleading texts from other people’s phones: please water the plant, did my parcel from Amazon come? Have they stopped paper delivery?

I can get most websites on my computer up here, but not my bank’s. I am reduced to telephone banking. How 90s!

They say that new experiences keep the aging brain young. I figure mine has dialed back to 17.

 

 

 

Bouts of Joy

Not us. Another group of haymow jumpers

Not us. Another group of haymow jumpers

Back in the Sierra Nevadas, having exhausted myself walking up the mountain at 7,000 ft., I came down to the village to walk beside the lake, really a pond that holds the water for the fire department. One side of the water is thick with cat tails and behind there is a slope covered with deciduous bushes of different hues, including a soft red. Suddenly, I had a flash of standing beside the Indian River with my grandmother, Gladys, when she was the age I am now and I was 42.

She and I had found ourselves single and living alone that summer. Her son had gone off to live with his best friend’s wife, best friend having passed to his reward. Gladys had left the farm and gone to live in a small house on the Quebec/U.S. border. Meanwhile, my husband, daughter and son had gone off in their own directions. Gladys and I were heart-broken and yet she still made me laugh.

She recalled a day in her first home, a farmhouse. It was spring cleaning time and she had hired a French Canadian girl whom I remember later as Aunt Kate. Kate was cleaning upstairs, when she suddenly came rushing down yelling, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” It burned to the ground. All that was left was a stone-lined cellar hole. Gladys roared with laughter as she imitated Kate.

They didn’t lose everything. The “men” -two of them would have been about 12- must have smelled the smoke or heard the sound of pots smashed together that called them back. They rushed in and grabbed the first thing the saw, the big round oak table, which immediately got  jammed in the door. Gladys screamed and yelled. They pushed and shoved. Finally the door jam yielded and the table flew out, but precious time had been wasted. Other men began to arrive and grab what they could. Some things Gladys loved were lost and the family of 6 was homeless. But in the country, someone can always squeeze in a family of six.

Twenty seven years later, the family had changed shape. My mother, who was 13 when the house burned, was married as were her next three brothers. But there were still three children at home, more or less the same age I was and I was 19. This house, too, caught fire. Once again the men seized the oak table first. Once again it got stuck in the door and Gladys screamed, “Leave that damned thing to burn”. Gladys never damned anything. It was the worst word to her. They didn’t leave it. See above.

The third house was built by the community across the road from the second one. The porch was smaller but screened. There was a coal furnace in the cement cellar and no longer needed to be insulated on the outside with banks of sawdust. And there was an actual bathroom. Until 1955, the old out-house had stood at the back of the wagon shed and only little children could use the commode inside. Gladys was very happy there. Her kitchen stove had a wood side for heating and an electric side for cooking. She had hot and cold running water, which ran into a claw foot tub. Many a visit, we sat at the much despised round oak table and laughed.

We laughed about the time that four of us, aged 11 to 13 decided to jump in the hay. It wasn’t a dangerous sport once the new hay had been harvested, but it hadn’t. All there was in the mows was last years hay, so low in the mow that it could be pulled down through the lowest door. Moreover it had compacted and was hard.

I was 13, Evelyn and Ted, twin aunt and uncle, 11 and Percy, 10. The boys dared us to go out onto the side beam that led across the mow from the barn floor (ramp) and jump from there. Sure, we girls said we can do that. The boys went first, sliding on their bottoms far across so as to leave space for us. I went next, noting as I began that it was at least 20 down. I could barely move. Finally, Evelyn began the crossing. We were all scared but she was terrified. She didn’t want to lose face in front of her brothers and once, embarked, she couldn’t go back either.

My sisters, Georgia 7 and Anne 5 stood watching on the barn floor.

I was sweating and gripping the beam. First Ted and then Percy launched himself off into the air with a bloodcurdling whoop. They would crash together, I thought. Both disappeared. A few seconds later their heads appeared as they dug themselves out of the dusty hay.

I knew I couldn’t do it. “Go back, Evelyn,” I cried.

“I can’t move”, she said. Me neither, I thought.

I studied the mow. The boys were urgently calling us to jump. “It’s fun. It’s not so bad.” My stomach heaved. I had to go to the out-house. I jumped.

The worst part was drowning in hay dust and desperately scrambling out. But now we had another problem. Evelyn was deaf to our pleading. She was weeping in terror and hiding her face in her shoulder.

“Go get Ma,” Ted yelled to my sisters. They clomped off down the wooden ramp. Crying and yelling ensued while we waited. Then Gladys was there with her small grand daughters, wiping her hands on her apron, and clearly not happy.

“What in the name of heaven were you kids doing out on that beam?” We always jumped from the barn floor and never into low hard hay. “Get back here,” she screamed at her daughter.

“Can’t,” said Evelyn,” Can’t move.”

“Well, then jump!”

Evelyn protested she would die if she did.

“Well, you’ll die if you don’t, Evelyn Grace. I’ll come out there and give you such a clout…”

Evelyn threw herself headlong, screaming, and landed on her face. We pulled her out and I dusted her off, but she continued to scream that it was all our fault. The boys and I ran across the hay, through to the mow over the cowshed, down the trap door, out through the empty cow shed and up around the barn. There on the dirt ramp, stood Gladys, her face in her apron, laughing so hard her body shook. My little sisters, who were totally unused to laughter, clung to her skirts.

 

 

Bulletin #2 from Shangri-La: altitude

The village I am visiting in the Sierras sits in a bowl, at about 5000 ft., surrounded by 9000 ft. mountains. The mountains I was born in are the northern end of the Appalachians in Quebec, Canada. Mt. Hereford is less than 3000 ft. high, but down the way in the New Hampshire, White Mountains, Mt. Washington rises to over 6000. I went up it once with my young children and had to fight the urge to crawl. My additional 5 ft. 4 in. were just too much. I had the same impulse on Mer de Glace in the French alps.

One summer, I went camping in Yosemite with my daughter and her family and my French brother. He joked about being the only member of a film crew on a mountain shoot that had to go down to sleep. Poor thing, I thought. Then I lay down in my tent at 9000 ft.

Half an hour later, I woke up suffocating. I got out of bed, unzipped the tent flap and walked around in the pitch dark. That got tiring. I crawled back into my sleeping bag. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Around 1 a.m., I ran into my brother, who was even worse off than me. He was babbling. My daughter emerged from the tent where she, her son and husband had been sleeping soundly. Being a health care professional, she questioned us about our symptoms. Her most alarming question was, “Are you hallucinating?”  She advised us to go down to sleep.”Don’t sleep in the car. The cops don’t like that,” her husband called out from inside their tent.

I’m not sure what happened next. Rob seems to have set out to walk to the car, some distance away. I must have gone back to my tent to get something. My next memory is of walking the long dark track wrapped in my sleeping bag. A figure up ahead suddenly came toward me.

“Joyce,” it cried out.”Is that you?” Rob walked up to me. His face in the moonlight was full of horror. “I thought you were a giant ninja turtle come to take my soul.”

This was hysterically funny to both of us. We staggered toward the car, laughing. We laughed and laughed until we started to cut down through Tioga Pass where a huge full moon hung in a velvet black sky. Then we both began to cry, convinced that no matter how difficult our lives had been and they certainly had, this moment made it all worthwhile.

It took some time to find a motel. Rob disappeared into reception and came out laughing and waving a key.

“I told her you were my sister,” he chortled. “And I think she believed me.”

There were five beds in the room. It took us an age to chose.

So I scratched vacation spots of 9000 ft. off my list. The town where I was able to sleep was 7000.

Peppermint Creek up the Kern River in Kern County qualified. We spent several vacations there camped under the redwoods beside the rock pools. No problem. Well, there was the time I was getting breakfast food out of the car trunk when something breathed down my neck. Something taller than me. I took a breath. I slowly turned to meet death by bear and found myself nose to nose with a cow.

Then came the year after I had had major surgery, a whole year after. Shouldn’t I be ready to camp up there?

Obviously not. This was my daughter’s dream vacation after a very hard year. Both sons-7 and 16-were there, the latter of whom lived with his father across the continent, her newish man, her best friend and me, old short-lunged me.

Suffice to say that I spent my nights sitting in a car seat, only slightly reclined, the only way I could breath. Well some of the night. The rest of it was devoted to taking the trenching tool and the flashlight and hying myself off into the bushes. This time, altitude sickness featured the runs. But rattle snakes hunt at night and we seemed to be camped in the middle of rattlesnake city. And the flashlight seemed to have a black spot in the middle of the beam. True I could see the bowl of heaven above me and it was absolutely dense with stars. I felt as if God were talking to me. During the day, I got more and more skittish. I was getting about 2 1/2 hours sleep a night. I didn’t want to spoil the holiday. Guess whether I did.

So now I am here at  5000, among pines and bird song. And sun. I’m Canadian, don’t forget, and we’ve had a cold, rainy spring. I  have taken two walks. All roads are uphill! I stop frequently. I aim for benches. Getting showered and ready for the day makes me breathless. I sit gazing out windows at the pines. I sit on the deck gazing at the pines. I sit and read. Once in a while, when I get rested, I do tai chi. Down at sea level, I am full of energy, all those new red blood cells racing around.

I want to stay of course.

 

 

Bulletin from Shangri-La: the boxcar house

boxcar house #2

Shangri-La, here in the Sierras at the bottom end of Kern County has a type of house called the boxcar house.

This is the possible view from the back of the boxcar house.

mountain view from boxcarmountain view #2This is the actual view.

actual viewThere are no windows on the long side, except around the front door. There are sliding doors at either end, but we are enjoined not to leave them open, in case of bears. THey are the only windows that open.

During the day when we are out, the temperature inside soars. It is still about 90F/33C when we return. There is no AC. Someone used to live here full-time. How?

My room-mate and I have 163 years between us. The bathtub is two feet off the floor. Tai chi and a well-anchored bar makes it possible for me into it to take a shower. The other gal showers elsewhere.

Our first night is amusing. It is about 60F/15C inside. We have been told there are wall heaters. And yes there are. I turn on the one in the living room. It heats well enough, but not as far as the open kitchen and certainly not to the bathroom or the bedrooms, which are at either end. I turn on the heater in my bedroom. The fan powers up. A little guy inside is hitting heavy metal with a sledge hammer. I actually try to bear it. After three minutes I shut the heat off. I prefer silent cold.

The phone will not make long distance calls. The owner lives in Ventura. My cell phone gets no reception at this spot. Who carries a phone card these days? Next day, we learn that the noise will quit after the first five minutes. That proves to be true.

I start to make my bed. Like all rental cottages, this one does not provide linens. We have brought linens from the house in the pines, over the way. The bed is queen-sized. My sheets are not. If you turn the top sheet crossways and tuck it in at the sides, it more or less covers the mattress. Then the fitted sheet can be tucked in at one bottom corner to serve as a top sheet. I pile the five blankets, I find in the cupboard on top.  Quite a heavy load. I wrap what turns out to be a padded baby crib mattress cover around my shoulders and endeavour to read in bed.

In the morning, I decide to boil water for tea. I search all the cupboards. No kettle. For a few dizzy moments, I can’t find any dishes at all, until I spy the narrow cupboards built into the front wall. I find a pan to fill with water. How to turn the ceramic top burner on high. I take a guess. Ten minutes later the pan is still cold. My room-mate is an outgoing, former actor, a famous joker, but with less salty language. I stand there in exasperation and hear myself exclaiming, “Bad word, bad word, bad word.”

But here’s the best part. It is silent. No railway trains, no traffic noise. One jet – overhead in two weeks -a fighter from Lompok. No light pollution. Great beds. Excellent water pressure. Lots of hot water. And it is costing less than $60 a night. I have the address.