Friday, April 30, 2010


(The product to the left costs more than $200, and is advertised as a Mother's Day gift.)

A number of years ago, I noticed a mother with four young children in a card shop the week before Mother’s Day. “Look through the cards,” she told the two who were old enough to be in school. “When you find one that says how you feel, call me over and read it to me.” She kept the younger ones, whose ages were probably two and four, by her side and read cards aloud to them. When she found one they liked (easy to recognize because of their squeals), she knelt down and hugged them tightly. ‘Thank you very much for the wonderful cards,” she said sweetly when all four had shown her the ones they liked best. “I’m cheap,” she explained to me as she herded the children out the door with no purchases. “I receive the sentiment without spending a nickel.” I couldn’t help but think she had the right idea.

Mother’s Day is almost here again. Of the many mothers known personally to me, only one savors the event without reservation. I worked next to her for several years and heard her preening and primping, almost like a bride-to-be, in order to present herself in the most favorable light at the family’s celebration. She adored being matriarch of the family and explained to anyone who’d listen how privileged her grown children feel to be able to trace their lineage from her—and how thrilled her in-law children are to have married into her clan. After Mother’s Day, she always called co-workers to her desk to show them whatever gifts she’d received and phoned her friends to share each minuscule detail of her fete.

While several of my friends overtly abhor Mother’s Day, the majority of us respond to this holiday with mild apprehension or vague dread, wanting to be gracious to our grown children who remember and generous to our children who don’t. The gaps that already exist in our society—generational, economic, self-righteousness—widen on this occasion. Haves and have-nots are pitted against one another in a new way: mothers whose offspring remember her on the day, and those who do not. Is it because they forgot? Or is it because they don’t love her?

The retail sector does its best to promote need and greed among its guilt-ridden- constituency. While some mothers may wish their children would do more for them on the second Sunday of May, others wish their children would do less—that is, spend less. Florists mark up their arrangements and delivery charges. Extravagant packaging increases the price for Mom’s favorite candy. And hideous bud vases disguised as porcelain women in brimmed hats and long skirts containing a single “fresh” rose are actually sold by the dozens to adults who will present them to their mothers. Mylar balloons at $4.50 apiece and decorated with colts and lambs spouting “I love my Mom” cavort across the ceiling of my local grocery store. Grotesque cellophane wrapped baskets of bubble baths and talcum powders loom on the ends of pharmacy aisles; made-in-China plush animals wearing ribbons inscribed with filial adoration perch by cash registers at convenience stores.

Full page newspaper ads and store flyers arrive the week before Mother’s Day that show slender, sulky “moms” reclining in lacy bikini underwear or filmy negligees. I can’t help but wonder who the target audience is, who is being coaxed to buy undies for this occasion? Children with Oedipal complexes? Fathers who wish to jump the mothers? Or the mothers themselves, hoping to become sirens when they aren’t wiping noses? Disappointments surely ensue; stretch marks and varicose veins can’t be airbrushed on the live recipients.

Telephone circuits get busy and stay busy from morning till night. Florists have their second largest day (after Valentine’s) in the retail cycle. Candy makers and card shops love the occasion. And only in America would merchants dare suggest that children—big or little—surprise their moms with 18k gold baubles costing $1,500—or rings studded with precious stones commemorating the equally precious dates of birth of themselves and their siblings.

What are we thinking! Nothing takes the place of a child’s spontaneous hug, be it from a grownup or a toddler. To be meaningful, expressions of appreciation shouldn't be prescribed like a drug or advertised like a back-to-school bargain. Hugs can’t be store-bought. Real affection is best expressed without prompting. A great many mothers would prefer their children skip the folderol of the holiday and simply say “I love you, Mom,” whenever the spirit moves them.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Now that we are old . . .

We moved every few years when I was a child—not because my dad was in the military, but because something would change in our lives that made it necessary. The first move I remember took place when I was seven, in 1947, although it was already my third home. Both of my widowed grandmothers had died within a year of each other, bequeathing quantities of heirloom furniture to my parents. Receiving it was an honor, a privilege and responsibility, so we bought a larger house out of necessity. Those were the days before anyone had even imagined mini-storage units.

I was so thrilled with that house! I still remember my excitement, waking up in my new bedroom as the sun streamed through the window. A wonderful feature of the house was its “back hall” that could be closed off; we used it as a piano room. The kitchen housed a built-in table with seating booths—just like a restaurant! The next door lot was vacant, the perfect host for many evenings of summer games, and then we built things from its excavation dirt when its owners began building their house.

When my father decided to leave his job in Seattle to start up his own hometown bank in 1951, he shopped carefully for the right small town in which to establish it. He settled on Aberdeen, Washington, and chartered Harbor National Bank. Our lovely Seattle house went up for sale and sold so quickly that we had to rent a furnished house in an adjacent neighborhood for three months so my sister and I could finish out our school semesters. When we arrived in Aberdeen, we again lived in a rented, furnished house for several months while we waited for the sellers to finish the house they were building. It was June 1952 when we finally got into our fabulous turn-of-the-century Aberdeen house—the fourth place our family lived in one year’s time.

In 1955, Dad’s bank was acquired by a large statewide bank and we returned to Seattle. My parents elicited my help in looking for our home there, and the process made me feel very grown up and important. That was my first taste of house hunting, heady stuff for a fifteen-year-old. (My older sister was enrolled in a college across the state.) Many memories were made in that house—romance and sadness, hope and betrayal. Some of my happiest moments and some of most difficult happened there. I moved to my own apartment just blocks from the University of Washington in 1960 to be closer to my classes and my friends.

By the time I was twenty, I’d already lived in eight places!

Married life brought a number of moves, and most of them “upward,” to bigger, better homes for bigger, better reasons. Eight more places! Here’s the overview: #1 Newlyweds’ studio apartment for one year—moved because of a baby on the way; #2 One-bedroom apartment for another year—moved because another baby was on the way; #3 Three-bedroom rental house for three years—moved because yet another baby was on the way; #4 First home of our own (bought with the help of my mother) where we lived four years—moved because hubby took a job in Milwaukee; #5 Three-bedroom, rental house in Milwaukee (a single-family home sneakily changed into a triplex by the sneaky landlord) for one year—moved because we bought our own house; #6 Our own two-story, four-bedroom turn-of-the-century beauty—moved thirteen years later because hubby took a job in Seattle; #7 Small rental house in Seattle for one year; #8 Spacious rambler, circa 1973, our third “own house” in Seattle and the place of empty-nesters.

You might say, after living in sixteen places over a forty-seven year span, the last one finally ‘took.’ But now we have decided to move again. Part of me wants to say it’s for no compelling reason. At least it’s not because of a new baby or a job change. But it is for a life-changing reason: aging. So this time we bought something a little smaller. Now the housing telescope is contracting, not expanding. We are doing the proverbial “downsizing” in an effort to be responsible old people. Fewer square feet equal less stuff. We hope.

This time it isn’t as exciting as it was when I was a youth. It isn’t filled with eager anticipation, the way it was when I was nineteen or twenty-two. We aren’t moving because of the promise of something wonderful happening in our lives, as it was when we were expecting babies or landed a new job in the career path. Now it’s all practical. We’re getting old. Tired of yard work and gutter cleaning and painting every few years. Weary from trekking up and down the driveway to collect the mail, the paper, and the trash cans. Overwhelmed with the wearing out of house parts and alarmed by the wearing out of body parts. We’re starting our disappearing act, and it’s uncharted territory. But to make it less terrifying, we’re shaking it up a little by adding a big distraction—a lovely townhouse, new neighbors, beautiful scenery, easy-to-access parks and trails. It should be interesting, even exhilarating. Let’s hope so.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poetry for a grocery clerk

This was inspired when someone quite young tried to get my attention in a store. I had no idea I was the one who was being addressed.

To the Clerk

You are remiss
to call me Miss.
I am a M'am,
by damn!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poetry Month

I wrote this more than ten years ago when a friend challenged both of us (via e-mail) to write poems with the phrase, “hating her for making us all envious that we are only us.” I’m not sure he ever finished his.


Funny, how one woman
could invite pleasure
to run away with her
and ruin the afternoon for others.

My friends and I had been laughing
on the dock in placid sun
and sherbet breeze, counting
fly hums, perfectly contented.

When first we notice her,
she is scraping something
sticky from her shoe.
She shakes her head, her

natural curls rippling and
dropping like so much frayed
and tangled rope being
tossed ashore.

Her man, I’ll call him Cpt. Bully,
stands on the bow, and
calls something to her that
we can’t hear. He winks then . . .

at us? She answers, running
her tongue around the bottom
of her teeth, a clam exploring
the phosphorescent sands.

Her singing starts, the notes
dripping, gushing over, spilling
into fiberglass that haloes the
silver-metal cleats upon the bow.

And her song keeps coming,
stronger in the wind, guttural
and beautiful, uncoiling like
rope across the deck.

And we, no longer feeling superior,
stretch to listen, spellbound but sullen,
hating her for making us all
envious that we are only us.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Signed, sealed, and to be delivered

Our offer on the condo townhouse (see picture) was accepted and finalized.

Our home of twenty-three years is officially "For Sale" today. Now the waiting game begins. Funny, how something like this has such a profound influence on sleep quantity. I haven't had trouble drifting off at the regular hour, but oh those wee-small ones . . . from, say, 3:30 a.m. until about 5:00. My mind is reeling: what furniture to get rid of, where to keep the fancy china, what if I can't find a place for the proverbial 'junk drawer' that's a mainstay of everyday life?

The condo, although configured nicely for our needs, and large by condo standards, definitely means we're downsizing. Hubby pointed out we'd lived here, in our current house, nearly half our married life (marriage will be forty-eight years in September). No wonder this seems challenging. But don't get me wrong . . . it's thrilling, as well. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


I wrote this essay the first April after I retired. The weather hasn't been quite as lovely this year, and I'm focusing on so many other things besides the joy of being at home. But it's good to reflect on the beauty of this tumultuous but tender time of year.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Other than weekends and the occasional sick-day, I have spent relatively few daylight hours at my house since we bought it twenty years ago. As my vacation allotment expanded over time, so did our grown children’s careers that kept them ensconced in their own regions—California, New Hampshire, Minnesota and the western-most peninsula in the contiguous U.S.—so I used my time away from work to keep family ties knotted tightly. Until now.

Now I am home every day. I am learning the creaks and groans of my house, the mail carrier’s schedule, and our neighborhood’s patterns. This is my first April ever to observe my house Monday through Friday. April sun streams through my dining room window at ten o’clock in the morning. Birds bat against the sliding-glass door as they swoop in to the feeder. When I’m outside, I hear a madrona tree branch squeaking as it rubs against the trunk of the maple in a woodsy shoving-match.

Little birds jump and flit about the salal on the edge of the woods like kids on a grade school playground. Throughout my backyard, the ground is cushioned and fragrant from the fir needles that drop as the new ones push forth. Until I lived here, I never knew that evergreen trees also lose their leaves. Some of the firs are over a hundred feet high and cast their April shadows on the house. When the wind blows, those shadows dance across my carpet—startling me into thinking there is a visitor standing on the front porch, poised to ring the bell.

Beyond the salal that delineates my backyard is the litter of a woods—fallen branches, rotting stumps, vines competing for light and host organisms. I used to dislike the messiness of it, envying Bavarians their Black Forest neatness. But when I observe birds scavenging for nesting materials among the stumps and rubble, and see the camouflage and food available to all the critters who make that place their home, I appreciate the life-sustaining quality of decayed and discarded matter. It’s an invitation to the dance.

Looking out of my dining room window, I am intrigued by a colony of purple thrushes as they dart from the leafy bushes to the feeder and back—males and females jumping about, taking turns eating and waiting in a way that would make Miss Manners nod in approval. Mixed in with the songbirds is a plentiful supply of crows showing off in a fancy display of acrobatics, as if boasting of their urban adaptation. Sometimes when I am outside I hear the faraway steady hum of traffic as a reminder of the city in whose confines I live, but mostly I think of my property as rural, bridging the woodsy world to the concrete one.

Birdsong seems to be coming from the still-bare locust tree, but I cannot find its origin, although from the sound of it, it is a member of the thrush family. A squirrel is clacking in another tree, and because of its twitching tail, I have spotted it. One of my favorite springtime sounds has returned after its winter hiatus—the humming of flies. As a child, I always loved the sound of fly-hum in the warm summer woods of our lake house. Why the sound of a fly out-of-doors can make me nostalgic for my childhood mystifies me, because the sound inside transforms me to a woman on the rampage. The squirrel’s clacking, too, makes me think of those idyllic summers of childhood at the lake house—apparently I’m a pushover sentimentalist.

Although I have plenty of indoor activities with which to busy myself, the yard and the woods suck me outside like one of those giant magnets when the weather is nice. The jumping-bean twitch of April seems strangely heartbreaking in its fragile, fleeting loveliness, like the fat black beetle’s dash to a safe haven when I stoop to pull a hunk of vetch. The moles have returned—I had hoped they would take up quarters this year in a neighbor’s yard—but for some reason this morning their roadways through my only flowerbed make me smile. We share this place, all the critters and I—even the prehistoric mountain beavers, with their insatiable appetite for the plants I purchase from the nursery—and they are welcome. Overhead, a jet plane’s contrail seems to reinforce my acceptance with its bold underline.

A little boy with a backpack trods up the hilly driveway my house, home from school. I hear his siblings greet him—two younger boys who have not yet begun school. The scent of something— someone once told me it’s strawberry moss—is deliciously sweet. The sour odor of a weed called Stinky Bob makes my nose wrinkle up involuntarily. Just as I get ready to go into the house, needing to make lunch and finish a project, a neighbor walks by with his dog who barks ferociously at me.

“It’s OK, Cody,” says his owner, “she lives here.”

Yes, I do—and it’s good for Cody and me both to remember that. Other Aprils I have not been home. Somewhere a neighbor down the way is tapping a hammer—I wonder what he is making—and now I hear the whir of an electric saw. In distance, is the rattle of a truck in too high a gear, lugging up the hill, and far, far away on the lake that is several miles away, I catch the straining sound of a float plane struggling to lift off.

As I make my sandwich, I crack open the back door to let the sounds and smells of April come inside like drop-in neighbors. The air is still chilly, but so fresh and fragrant I can’t resist. Now I can also hear the drone of a power washer, a sound that most likely will go on all day. From my kitchen counter I can see the candytuft that is giving a surprise party in the rockery—a party gotten too wild with its bursts of bright white flowers everywhere that have even pushed moss from the rocks, as it aggressively demands more space. And just then, as if he smelled my tuna salad, the roaming cat from several doors away claws on the screen door, dropping by for his daily petting.

Yesterday I found three shattered robin eggs in the driveway, and later in the afternoon the shells were gone. Crows? Jays? Cats? The robin still sings in the tree. Is it a song of heartbreak or hope? Last night I heard a well-known author speak. “Man is a terrible, warlike animal,” he said, “an unforgivable polluter, aggressive, mean-spirited, and insatiable in his greed.”

We are a nation at war, yet I am at peace this day. I am joyful in my world and for the moment, I have blocked out ugliness and terror—at home in April.