Thursday, April 30, 2009

Stitched Together

I've been thinking lately of the ways in which women bond with one another over different pursuits. Obviously horses have been on my mind, but so has cooking and writing and...sewing.

On one of the many childhood trips to my grandmother Baumie's farm, there were three sewing boxes waiting for us, one for each of my two sisters and one for me. Though it was the smallest, I thought mine was the best. I still have it. It's a little wooden box, 6x6 inches, covered in fading wallpaper with pink roses and green ivy. There is a heart-shaped cut-out, maybe from an old Valentine, glued to the front with a tiny farm scene in the center. The box is lined with light green fabric, gone dull with age. When I open it, the smell of musty cloth and old wood is the same as it was when I first opened it as a little girl. I still have the small tomato pincushion that came with it, but the other supplies are long gone.

The sewing boxes were a surprise as far as I knew, an activity that Baumie thought would be fun and edifying for us over the long weekend visit. I remember learning some simple hand stitches and the pride I felt at the accomplishment. My sisters probably got busy on a sewing machine trying out more advanced things. Both of them learned to sew quite well-- me, not so much. When you're the youngest, you tend to dabble in things and then off you run. Adults indulge you, or else they're busy working with the older kids and don't mind if you get lost.

My mother knew how to sew and she helped teach my sisters, too. They layed the tissue paper patterns out on the living room floor, pinning fabric to the pieces and painstakingly cutting the pattern out just right. I played with the tools--I loved the rotary marker that made an indentation of a dotted line on any giving surface (including the dining room table).

In high school, I took typing class in lieu of Home-Ec. (So that I could become a secretary instead of a seamstress!) Mom had passed away in my freshman year, and my sisters were off at college. I'm sure that Baumie would have taught me to sew if I had asked, but it seemed to me that there were more important things to think about at the time, as you might imagine.

After I graduated and got married, it warmed my heart that my oldest step-daughter assumed that I knew how to sew and brought me small things to fix--a missing button here, a ripped seam there. I could handle the small repairs, so there was no need to tell her that, no, I don't really know how to sew. She was so grateful and so awed, I just decided to bask, surreptitiously, in the power that accompanies great sewing ability.

But I knew who to ask when the big guns were needed. Not long into my married life, we had a couch and chair and ottoman that needed to be recovered. Enter the queen seamstress, Baumie. I made her tea, cleaned up the scraps and sewed the piping. She taught me how to sew piping.

I always feel a little out of place at fabric stores, but I call upon my minimal reserve of sewing knowledge and that allows me to put up a good enough front. Good enough I guess to cause the woman cutting my yardage at a JoAnn's recently to strike up a conversation. "These look like little girl's dresses," she said as she measured out the blue searsucker and floral print. "They are!" I exclaimed. "Or, well, they are for a skirt that I'm making for my granddaughter."

"I'm making pajamas for my granddaughter," she said. And then she sighed a confession: "All I want to do is sew. I wish that I could just stay home and do only that. I sewed all of my children's clothes when they were little. I'd have them playing on the floor nearby and I would just sew all day. Now that they are grown, I don't have any time at all it seems!" Her wistfulness over that time in her life was palpable. And though I didn't have memories of sewing with little children underfoot, I could still feel nostalgia for my own memories of making it through young motherhood with whatever pluck I could muster. I nodded and murmured in genuine sympathy with her, my spotty sewing background still a safe secret.

Earlier this week, my friend MJ told me that she had something to give me from her mother, who passed away recently. MJ was telling her mother about me and how I was taking up sewing (later in life!;) Her mother said, "Oh, I have something for her then." It is a book, a basic sewing book. And a thimble, too.

I am so touched at this gesture. I think it is an extreme example of the easy generosity, both material and spiritual, that flows in and around this, I'm going to call it female art form. MJ's mother didn't know me personally, but I am her daughter's friend and I am taking up sewing, so...she has a book I might find helpful, "and give her a thimble, while you're at it!"

I think that I will always feel like an imposter in the world of sewing. It is hard to attain the same expertise of women who have been doing it since age four. But, I will tag along at their heels and accept their gifts of knowledge, supplies, and belief that "why of course you can do this!" gladly.

I am closing with a poem that MJ wrote that is, like all good poems about a lot of things, including this time, sewing and mothers and love...
Please enjoy, and special thanks to MJ for permission to reprint it here.

*My Mother's Jumpers*

In her bedroom
my mother sewed jumpers
encircled us with her yellow tape
mended our pants.
We grew up amid doll quilts,
Tammy clothes that matched our own,
ric-rac trim and searches
for her thimble.
Snips of thread ran through our rugs
like lost veins.

While her machine gathered our sleeves into cuffs
traced our middles to make a dress
of a bodice and a skirt,
I lolled on her high bed with the cherry posts,
keeping her company
as the venetian blinds striped the wall,
the stale smells of passion safe
beneath the white chenille spread.

She never told us she loved us
not straight out.
I grew up thinking those were words
for when the bedspread lay folded back—
love for children was assumed
like the cup of water I boiled for my father
as soon as I got up.
How could she know we’d search our childhoods
for a single phrase?

I think about her
when I draw the covers about my son,
practice telling him I love him
while he is too small to know
I am still trying out the phrase
tugging its seams
searching its pockets.

--- MJ Abell

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You Give Me Fever

I don't know why it moves me so, but watching big, fit horses gallop by and negotiate massive jumps makes my heart catch in my throat. I don't care how many times I see it, it never fails to move me close to tears.
Did you know that, at the gallop, all four of a horse's hooves are off the ground at the same time? Unlike a racetrack, you can get very close to the horses at a cross country event. You can watch them fly, literally, right past you. They devour the ground with huge strides and fly for a moment, all four hooves tucked as they sail through thin air before hitting ground and pushing off for the next stride. The riders are a talented bunch too, but it's the horses that catch your eye and steal your heart. They are athletes at the peak of fitness, putting heart and soul into their effort. Watch their faces as they gallop towards the next set of obstacles--ears are perked, eyes are bright--they soak in the cheers and applause after they've leaped an embankment and sailed over a fence with only one stride in-between. Amazing creatures with the biggest hearts...where did they come from? How did we get so lucky, we humans?

Aunt Lainey told me, "there is nothing like coming up on a fence with some trepidation about whether you can make it, and your horse just takes the bit in his mouth and tells you, essentially, 'I've got this'."

Needless to say, I had a blast at the Rolex horse show. I riddled Mindy and Aunt Lainey with a million questions about my (very near) future horsey set-up, enjoyed steeping in equine culture, and managed to purchase some cute things at the trade show.

A pretty ceramic pendant:

Some fun wellies (for Alice's sake!)

And some guy gave all three of us free pocket knives with our names engraved on them...

This item cracks me up, because it is, to me, the epitome of what I call cowgirl style--useful things that you will definitely use--all prettied up with, say, your name engraved in a scrolly font. Love it.
I finally made it back home, after finishing up a long weekend in Columbus, and everything has popped! The lilacs are blooming, the redbuds are profuse, dogwoods are coming on, and the woods are filling in with green. A light rain is falling now and will likely continue all week. The door to the study where I'm sitting is open and a cool breeze comes in here and there. It feels very good to be alive right now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Delayed Re-entry

My sister Kathy and her husband Rick came to visit over the weekend. We had a marvelous time working and playing. Those two were great sports and helped us move not one, but TWO piles of wood to the drying shed. John has stacks of old barn siding and smaller barn beams scattered about. Tom and the boys used them while building the house and John will use a lot of it to do finish work and build cabinets and such. However, they were real view-killers sitting in front of the house and on the walk to the cabin, all piled up and covered in their blue tarps, not to mention the fact that they were getting wet and moldy. It was amazing what a difference four sets of hands made in getting those things moved. Thank you Kathy and Rick! John was able to get more grass seed scattered and Kathy even helped him scatter more straw. (She felt bad sitting at the kitchen table watching John work, whereas I am quite practiced at it : )

They left at lunchtime on Monday. I threw myself onto the yoga mat after they left, and that evening, John and I drowned our sorrows in gyros and chocolate peanut butter pie at Theo's Restaurant in Cambridge. I'm always a little blue after family and friends leave, so when John left me the next morning to head to Columbus for work, I threw myself into painting furniture. Here it is Wednesday, and I simply must get back to some semblance of a responsible life-style even if the weather is grey and depressing. So, I'm paying bills, blog posting, and...making plans to travel again this weekend! Yes, country mouse is on a roll this month. This time, I'm heading to Kentucky with my other sister, Mindy, to meet up with the other horse-crazed member of the family, Aunt Lainey at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event . For those who don't know, it's like an equine version of a triathlon. Horse and rider compete in dressage, cross country, and stadium jumping over three days. We'll be watching the cross country event on Saturday. I can't wait. It stops my heart and brings a big lump to my throat to watch those gorgeous horses leaping fences at a pounding gallop. You can stand close enough to the course to feel the ground rumble as a horse approaches. It's awesome. Plus, there's shopping. Vendors upon vendors of all things horsey.

And tomorrow, the county extension agent comes out to advise on my own little bit of horse heaven. Updates forthcoming. If I don't make it back here before next week, have a great weekend everyone!
Mementos from the weekend and the ensuing fallout:
This view used to be "mud with woodpile" Now look at it!

Kathy and I squeezed in some antiquing and she bought me the cutest little blue vase you ever did done saw...

Here is the chair I painted and plan to fix with perhaps an old feed sack for upholstery a la this cool one in Country Living magazine:

Detail of the bed table painted in the same antique white:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Garden Plans

This is the future garden plot (inside the white square) as seen from the star-gazing deck:

Here it is from the ground, looking south. Imagine you are standing in the arbor, under a prodigious wisteria vine and there is a table in front of you--might as well set it with a lovely dinner and a nice bottle of wine:

It is a 20 x 30 ft. plot. I want to start small so as not to get discouraged (I know me so well). It will have a fence about five feet high, and that descends about twelve inches below the ground. I'm trying to thwart deer and groundhogs, respectively. I hope to make the fence pretty somehow. I may call upon John's talent with bittersweet, or simply grow plants over it. My plan is for a 2 ft. bed around the inside edge, and four, 4 x 8 ft. raised beds within. If I have space, I'll put a focal point in the middle.

It will be a potager--a French word for "kitchen" garden. I want to grow food and ornamentals together, though I'll try to make most of the flowers edible, too.

As you can see, we started tilling. The old Firestone rototiller we bought so many years ago from Emmet Hay, a farmer in Hanover, Indiana, kept stalling, though. I hope we (read: John) can figure it out. Once the soil is in there, I can take over. Sort of like those rocks up at the cabin...remember them?

I need a little help with the initial back breaking work, but then I'm good to go.

I love the placement of the potager plot. It is between the house and the cabin. In the summer, you can sit on the upper deck and gaze upon it. You can walk right out the kitchen, through the screen porch and pick some fresh food for dinner. It sits on the hill, facing south, so it will have a nice breeze and a great view. It is the one thing around here that was a no-brainer for me in terms of location.

Oh, plants are great things! Every year, the gardeners I know are full of plans. Even the experienced gardeners who know that, by August, things will be much different than they envisoned, even they are stoked in April. Even if all you're going to do is a couple of containers for your porch, it's still something to design, something full of promise. You get a fresh chance. Every year.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Back Home Again, Again

Yesterday I was navigating my way through DC to catch my flight home from the Baltimore airport. Today, I took a walk through the moody, wet, spring woods to the sounds of woodpeckers knocking on trees and wild turkeys gobbling on the far hill. Jeez, I really am living the life! To be able to visit cities and live in the country has always seemed the best of circumstances to me. Thanks to John's travel schedule, the frequent flier tickets are plentiful. And thanks to all the amazing young people in my family, I have lots of people to visit in marvelous places.

I visited my niece Emily who lives and works in Washington D.C. over the weekend. I was supposed to help her paint her new condo, but an eleventh hour real estate debacle occurred (as they are wont to do) and we ended up playing instead of working. I didn't bring my camera, so she has all the incriminating photos. It was such fun to walk the city, eat at great restaurants, browse bookstores, drink cappuccinos, and meet her friends. We got in some salsa dancing (which I have no idea how to do) and mojitos (I found out in Mexico that those taste very good) and the American Indian Museum (beautifully designed) and a drag show brunch on Easter (don't ask), and a little bit of was a blast.

Back here, at a much quieter pace and during a lull in the rain (which has begun again in earnest) I took a walk through the woods and fields. I love doing that after returning from several days away from home. It quiets my soul to say, "Hello," again.

I love the way that beech trees retain their leaves until the following spring when new growth finally pushes them off. The leaves are a delicate, butter yellow against the smooth, silver grey bark. The overall effect of them weaving through the other, bare branches of a crowded woods reminds me of lace.
May apples are coming up! They look like alien pods all writhing and weird to me.

Little wood violets are out, too. Their heads were hunkered over from the rain, but that color was unmistakable. Soon, they'll be everywhere--enough to make a small bouquet in a tiny vase.

While I was gone, John was busy finishing the stairwell in bittersweet vine. It is impossible to photograph. You'll have to come see it in person.

I'm with LeRoy in thinking that it is the coolest thing ever. I feel like I'm walking up into a treehouse every time I climb the stairs.

And we won't have to worry about small children falling off the stairs anymore. He's still got some work to do finishing the railing around the whole upstairs. Guess I'll have to travel off again for a long weekend so he can get busy!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Kitties

Oh, the kitties. They are as happy as we are that spring has arrived. Clarabelle is making tentative forays into the big wide world again, and it is hard to get LeRoy in at night when the temps are in the fifties at 9:00 p.m. Lately, it has been in the thirties or even twenties at dawn and dusk, but that doesn't bother me too much. Spring is here. There is no stopping it.

When we left for Mexico, we dropped LeRoy at the vet's for boarding and...substitute LeRoy and Clare for the dogs in the car and yard, respectively, in this good old Far Side cartoon:
When we picked him up upon our return the woman who brought him out in his carrier said, "Who wants LeRoy?"

Uh, we do?

"He's a real..."

Piece of work?

"Well we didn't take any of the ornery out of him, but we didn't put any in, either."


It seemed for about a week that he had matured. He laid down and gazed pensively, blinking his eyes in recognition of you, just like mature, zen-like kitties do. He wasn't jumping Clare every five minutes. He purred bodaciously when you stroked his pretty fur.

Gradually, though, he's reverted back to his very ornery, playful, and sometimes ridiculous self. He wrestles Clare (poor old gal), jumps up onto the kitchen counter and table, looking for scraps and leaving muddy pawprints, and climbs halfway up trees like a madman when following us on walks.

He has a new "toy" in the house. John is building the staircase, slowly but surely, out of bittersweet vine (its gorgeous). LeRoy thinks that he is doing a swell job and highly approves of the work. When you think about it from a cat's perspective, this whole house is one big scratching post. It is nice, from a human perspective, that I don't have to worry about them ruining the woodwork. These old posts can take cat claws and then some.

And he loves playing in the bathtub with the rug that Sarah and Jorge gave me for my birthday in Mexico. I have it hanging over the tub, whereupon he pulls it in and wrestles around with it making all kinds of racket that causes one to look up and ask, "what in the world...?"

Meanwhile, Clarabelle sits by the stove, wondering why we don't have it cranking at 500 degrees for her. She makes a tasty target for LeRoy--who wouldn't want to jump on that lump of sleeping adversary? I throw my slipper at him. Clare looks up, thanks me with her gaze, and goes back to sleep.

Ah, the kitties. What would I do without them?

PS: Thanks to Heather for the Picasa tip. I'm still learning! It's fun!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I Believe in The Way Things Work

Everyone has their lessons in life--the ones they seem to have to learn over and over again. Goodness, there is patience somewhere in the Universe. Huge stores of it that guardian angels have to go take hits of on a regular basis. I am sure of it. I had to learn one of my lessons again this past weekend.

Here's what happened: John and I got all busy. And when we get busy, sometimes we bite off more than we could possibly chew in a hundred years, much less a weekend. Around here, there is so much possibility, so many things to fix up, so much that we want to do. And John and I are doers. That's how we got here. We don't usually sit around talking about what we want to do and then just go have a cup of coffee and a smoke...

And like everything in the world, that quality, that thing, has a light side and a dark side, or good and bad if you like. The light side is, you know, we get things done. The dark side of it is more complicated of course, and harder to put my finger on exactly. It has to do with worrying about the end product all of the time instead of enjoying the process, or realizing that the process is all there is. Because end products are all ephemeral anyway, even if some take more time to disappear than others.

We started to stake out the location of the horse barn on Sunday. The speculative nature of the task brought back a rush of feelings similar to what I felt all last year as we navigated the building of the house. "I don't know," was my response to everything. Should we put it here, or would it be better there? Should we put the hay storage here, or here? Is eight feet wide enough for a grooming aisle or not? At one point, I threw up my hands and cried, "Oh my god, let's forget this!" As much as I want horses back in my life, I felt so overwhelmed by yet another project where I'm asked to envision three-dimensional space, which I suck at. Real bad. (And then the rototiller kept stalling while we tried to till up the garden, and then I mis-measured a curtain for the bathroom and had to tear the stitching out--two times. Process? I got your process right here!)

This might not sound like a big deal. But it's my lesson and the tide was gathering, dragging all sorts of notions that I have about myself to the shore with it. Notion one: I am not actually capable of anything outside of normal, safe, suburban life. Notion two: I need to make this place perfect so that everyone will like coming here. Notion three: I'm too old to be doing all this. Who do I think I am anyway? And a few more variations on those themes.

After some gin and popcorn, we settled down. That night, I had this dream: I was fixing a large, unwieldy display of some kind. It was like a holiday display at a department store or something--I couldn't see the whole thing. I was applying a wet, sticky cement-like spackling to it, trying to seal it up, make it tight. It wasn't working too well and I realized that I had to get help. I ended up talking on the phone to an old gradeschool acquaintance who owned the Oscar Meyer company. He remembered me right away and as I talked to him, the spackling started to work.

So...I'll leave you to analyze that as you may : ), but I will say that it made me feel good, upon awakening, that I apparently have psychic access to an astute businessman who remembers who I am and can make the spackling work.

Breathing deeply the next day, I called the county extension office to ask if an agent could come out to advise us on the location of the barn. He's coming April 23. And then, the most beautiful, wonderful, blessed thing of all occurred. I received an email from my Aunt Lainey in Texas. She wanted to know, did I want two horses instead of one, and would I perhaps like for Uncle Jack to come up and help build the barn?

Wait a minute. Are you kidding me?! (you gotta know that Uncle Jack is really, really good at building barns, houses, you name it. And you might as well know that we wanted a horse for John, too, and that horses need company anyway.) Um, yeah. Yes. Two horses and Uncle Jack, we'll take it.

So, I got to learn my lesson and eat it too? I'm not sure why or how things work out the way they do around me. All I know is that I am grateful. I've learned my lesson again. For now. Even though the end product is coming into clearer focus, I'm not worried about it anymore. This is just a place to live. These are just things to do. I'm just living a regular old messy life and taking my lessons in the form that they come in around here.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Botanical Wonders

Did you know that Oaxaca is a hotbed of biodiversity? I can't remember the numbers or percentages exactly, but it is always in the top five spots on the globe for the number of species of this plant or that animal. Someone gave me a copy of Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal before our trip. It is an account of his participation in a botanical expedition to Oaxaca in 2001 with members of the American Fern Society. Because, of course, the region has the largest number of fern species in the world. Go figure, right? Ferns? In hot, dry Mexico?

The biodiversity is there in part because of the varied terrain throughout the state--an arid central valley to cloud forests at the top of the mountains and several different zones in-between. There are two seasons: rainy and dry. We were there at the end of the dry season, so it felt very desert-like to me, and yet there were tropical plants everywhere. In the dry season, the tropical plants drop their leaves and put their energy instead into flowers. Those are pollinated, then the rains begin and leaves and seed production get underway. It is astounding (to me) to see how well adapted the moisture loving tropicals are to the dry season. They hunker down like the cacti and wait.

One of the treats afforded to me by my old job at the Conservatory is the ability to appreciate the sight of plants very foreign to Ohio in their native habitats. The horticulture staff does an amazing job of growing all different kinds of plants in the greenhouses, but they can only do so much in terms of height and width and bloom with the paltry light conditions in Ohio for sixth months out of the year. Also, plants with the ability to hunker down grow very slowly. So, numbers count. The more Century Plants you have in one place, the more likely you are to see them in bloom.

I'm pretty sure that what the Mexicans call "Maguey" is the same species that we call the "Century Plant"--Agave americana. I thought I saw different bloom stalks on plants that others called Maguey. Either way, you can make mescal and tequila from both. It has plenty of other uses, too--fibers to make rope, shoes, floor mats, thatch for roofs, etc., etc. You can even use the plants as a fence line as they did here in the Sierra Norte.

John and I took a guided tour of the Ethnobotanical Garden housed on the grounds of the old Santo Domingo Convent. We saw all those wonderful food crops that came from Mesoamerica--beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, chilies, amaranth, and more. They did not have a cacao tree growing there, though! And surely that is one of the finest gifts to mankind from this area of the world. But, we saw plenty of other things to make up for it...

My first Kapok tree with actual seed pods (where the soft kapok fibers come from). The Mexicans call it a Pochote tree. There was one growing in the middle of the restuarant we ate at almost every day. Those are not seed pods, but a more impressive photo of the thorns that grow on the trunk.

Plumeria, or Frangipani in full-on bloom (made me feel like I was in Hawaii!)

Stupendous cactus plants.
Along the streets and in the parks and on the mountians we found dozens of other wonders.
The Guaje trees, which Oaxaca is named after supposedly, have pretty hibiscus-like blooms.

Here they are growing on the hillside of the Cerro Fortin where we hiked.

Bromeliads on the trees in the Sierra Norte. They don't have roots in the soil. They perch on trees and gather nutrients from the moisture in the air.

Lupines on the same road.

And a Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) in bloom in the courtyard of a cafe!

The famous tree at Tule--a member of the cypress family. It is thousands of years old and it is huge (this picture isn't even half of the tree). There are hundreds of birds living in it, like some avian version of ancient cliff dwellers with apartments high and low.

I saw a whole lot of topiary there, too. All of it ficus.

A bird peeking out of a nest--or, I thought, cuckoo clock.

I could go on, but it is time to quit as anyone who has posted pictures on blogspot knows (oy, the scrolling!). I leave you with a shot of Sarah gazing from a perch in the Santo Domingo convent onto the botanical splendor of her current home.