The Given Trees

Apple tree

I had the dubious honor of having Margaret* on my list for the evening after only two weeks working at the nursing home. When I think back to my trepidation that night, I’m ashamed.  Margaret would give me several gifts, one of which I think each year as we put up the last apples of the season.

 

Completely bed ridden and saddled with a strict diet, Margaret had little control over her life outside of her morning and bedtime routines.  She was notorious for yelling at anyone who failed to deliver her care to her very detailed specifications.  I hadn’t met her, but I was terrified of her.  

 

“What are you doing?” she demanded as I first entered her room that night.  

 

“I have your dinner, Mrs. Williams,” I said, determined to be polite, even if she yelled at me.

 

“I don’t want any,” she said. I didn’t argue and took the tray out of the room.  The institution’s policy was not to force people to eat if they didn’t want to.  What Margaret could not refuse was minimum basic care that prevented bedsores.

 

 Hoping to avoid conflict, I eschewed suggestions from the nurse manager and asked Margaret how she wanted me to proceed.  Apparently unused to being asked what she wanted, her demeanor softened. The snapping ceased, and she quietly explained which gown she wanted and how she wanted her pillows arranged.  Before I knew it, we were done.  

I continued with my list and was nearly finished when the call-light outside Margaret’s room went on. Another nursing assistant rolled her eyes at me when she saw it.

 

“Now you’ve done it,” she said.  “She’s going to bug you all night.”  

 

When I went to see what she needed, Margaret asked if I was done with my list.  I answered not yet. She asked for fresh water which I got before returning to my list.

 

Second shift at the nursing home was quiet. We did rounds before the graveyard shift started.  Most nights between rounds we finished our charts at the nursing station or studied. But this was not most nights.

I had just started my charting when Margaret’s call-light went on again. Again, I went to see what she needed. She requested more water. Then she asked my name. She asked how long I’d been working and where I was from, telling me about herself as we talked.  I soon learned she had not only grown-up in our newly-adopted Vermont town but in the red farmhouse that we had just bought. Our property had belonged to her family since the colonial period.

We talked about people we both knew.  She told me about our house. She corrected me on a few points of history, mentioning that it had been built in 1761 and not 1790 as we had thought. She told me of an attic beam with the build date carved into it. Suddenly, it was 10:30 PM and time to begin last rounds.  

 

I got home late that night.  

 

Before I went to bed, however, I opened the door to the attic at the back of the bathroom and, armed with a flashlight, found Margaret’s beam.  I went to the east end of the attic and, just as she’d promised, found ‘1761’ carved into a rough-hewn beam. Margaret was not as senile or cantankerous and I had been led and only too willing to believe.  She was a living connection to the history of our town, our house, and to another way of doing things – a way that we very much trying to emulate.

 

The next night and the rest of the week Margaret asked to be on my list, and  I began looking forward to my shift. 

 

I learned she had moved to another town when she married, losing contact with old friends. I knew one of those friends and asked her if I could let him know that she was here. She said yes and we arranged a meeting.  The two octogenarians had attended the town’s remaining one-room schoolhouse together, and had much to share.  The meeting didn’t prompt a miracle turnaround of her physical health (I didn’t expect it to) but, following that visit she seemed a little happier.

 

Her health soon began failing rapidly and her memory with it.  Some nights she barely recognized me at all.  Even when she didn’t remember my name, though, we enjoyed lively conversations, mostly about her family’s farm.  

 

One night I said mentioned how much I loved the trees on the property.  For the first time since I’d been taking care of her she’s snapped at me.

 

“Those damn hippies let my father’s fields grow over,” she growled.  She told me of how hard her grandfather had worked to keep them clear for their livestock. She told me how father had changed the very shape of our road by planting grapevines  as roadblocks.  Then she told me of an apple orchard her grandfather started nearly 70 years ago. The wooded hills were hiding dozens of apple trees.

 

Margaret died a few weeks later. I didn’t know or care if it was professional to do so, but I cried.

 

About that time, the Big Guy and I decided to build a new house on our property, dividing and selling part of the land to help pay for the construction of the new house.  The land near the old house wouldn’t perk for a conventional septic, so we began hiking through our forest, looking for a better build site.

Cluttered with Rosie Bush, it was easy to get lost even on 10 acres.  We did notice that some of the craggy plants looked like trees. When April dotted the trees with apple-scented blossoms, I realized Margaret had been entirely lucid that night.

Apple hands copy

 

We had no intention of trying to restore a neglected 70-year-old orchard, but we did need a building site.  I asked our excavator guy if he could keep an eye out for the apple trees while clearing.  He doubted there would be any and warned me that any he found would not be productive given their age.  I’m not superstitious, but I was sure our discovery was a gift from Margaret, and I asked him to humor me.

 

When the clearing was done there were three apple trees in our yard.  And the excavator guy was right.  For the first year or two none of them produced anything bigger than a walnut.

 

After a few paltry harvests and wanting to expand my vegetable garden, I contemplated cutting the trees down.  Sentimentality ruled.  The apple blossoms were beautiful in spring, and the shade from the trees didn’t hit the garden until very late in the afternoon, so they were spared.

 

The next year, the Big Guy asked a tree-expert friend for help.  When I asked if the trees were too old to produce, he answered honestly that he didn’t know.  The trees were so old even he couldn’t identify the variety. He charged us $20 for a pruning.  Then we waited.

 

The spring blossoms came and went as they had the first four years. Then the walnut-sized fruit began to form. This year, however, they grew almost as big as tennis balls.  We had apples.

 

Everyone on our road seems to grow red apples whose rosy color clearly indicates when they’re ready to pick.   Our trees consistently give yellow-green fruit.  We decided to rely on cues from the local farms, watching for their billboards inviting passersby to the harvest.

 

When it was time to pick, our apples weren’t pretty. We discarded any that had been attacked by worms.  However, knowing even  scarred apples could be made into pie or applesauce, we filled several 5 gallon paint buckets. We were so excited we didn’t think to taste any.  When we finally did, our harvest was very starchy and not sweet.  We assumed we had picked too early.  

 

The next year we picked later, but the harvest still failed to give us sweet apples. Another year an early frost killed the blossoms.  We began to wonder if the pruning and picking was a lost cause.  

 

Once, again, I wondered if we should cut one down. Something about chopping down a given tree, however, seemed like breaking a commandment. I decided to extend my garden another direction and Margaret’s trees remained another year.

 

Last winter we pruned again, knowing we would get one or two heavily-sugared $20 pies.

 

Before we knew it apple picking season had come and gone.   Margaret’s trees had gone untouched. The first frost hit, and still only a few apples lay on the ground. We had not picked a single one. The nights mostly stayed warm until Halloween week, and then temperatures dipped into the 20s.  The apples began to fall.

 

The Big Guy has a healthy sense of adventure and had the first bite of the year.

 

“Wow,” he exclaimed. He took another bite and handed it to me.  “That is the sweetest apple I’ve ever tasted.”

 

I tried it and agreed. We began picking and then shaking trunk of the tree to loosen riper fruit. We quickly filled our 5 gallon bucket with candy-sweet treasure. I made a pie and a crisp and another pie.  We got the kids to work shaking and picking and gathering.

 

Now as we peel and core and put up the last of the harvest, I think about Margaret’s gifts.  They’re not just in the apple trees or even the history that only she could tell us.  They’re in learning to look deeper.  

 

Her exacting standards were not just about controlling her shrinking universe – they were about forcing the people in it to see her as a whole person, regardless of her age or physical condition.  I’m ashamed to admit that I when first met her, I was thinking of her list of demands and not her need for human connection and to feel valued.   

 

This winter our tree guy will come and tend our trees, and they may or may not give a good harvest again.  But if they don’t, they will still have a place in our lives because, like Margaret, what they have to give is still valuable, even if we don’t recognize it right away.

 

*Margaret’s name has been changed.

Sunshine Good Day

Halloween happy

Jack was born in the summer.  By default, our summer travel routine and the vacation plans of most of his classmates made most of his birthday celebrations quite a bit smaller and tamer than the circus-like orgies of cake and presents that are depicted as normal and desirable in movies or ads.  His birthdays are often spent with family doing something special at the beach or going to a favorite museum.

We knew that  six-year-old Thing2’s October birthday made the more traditional kid birthday party more likely.  He’s seven today, and we planned his birthday over the weekend.  Watching Jack’s interest in traditional kid birthday parties (even when we offered) begin to fade when he was around nine, I know there won’t be many of these left.

Thing2, the Big Guy and I decided he should invite his classmates, and a few weeks ago, I filled his backpack with his homework, lunch, and seventeen invitations.  Knowing that not everyone RSVPs for kids’ parties, the Big Guy and I got the house ready for a halloween-themed party on Columbus Day Weekend. 

Three kids and their moms showed up.

At first I was a little nervous about Thing2’s reaction to the dearth of kids (and presents, of course), but he didn’t seem to notice.  For two hours, the kids cavorted in the sun and the leaves for two hours.  They beat apart and divided the treasure from a piñata filled with candy for 16 kids.  There was no pin-the-tail on the donkey or other party games.  Instead, they screamed and laughed as they chased each other through and around the house.  The Big Guy in his Herman Munster costume and I as Lily Munster sat at the table with the three other moms getting to know each other a little better than we do at the bus stop.

Thirteen-year-old Jack’s own memories of these few traditional kid parties are often impressions of sunny days, the details blurred by distance.  I know this day will blend into the collection of parties we’ve thrown for Thing2 as well.  But I’m hoping that his memory is marking that, while a larger party would have been fun too, sometimes less really is more.

Seeds

Uncle vanya

“Tara, I hear a baby!” cried the curly-haired toddler sitting on the church lawn. Her neck stretched as she searched a far section of the audience. I  turned my head, trying follow her intent gaze to its destination on our left.  Then I saw it.  I’d seen it earlier, dressed in a unisex-colored onesie and trying to crawl over it’s mother’s knee, then wobbling like a Weebil  on a too-small picnic blanket.  I had spent a few smiling moments trying to guess if the baby was a boy or a girl, but one thing was clear.  The infant was barely old enough to sit up without help, but his or her delighted squeaks were telling on of my stories. 

A few short years ago, I was the mother lying on a picnic blanket with an alternately curious and hungry infant.  A few years ago, it was my baby who crawled over his mother and brother and father as the sun began to set behind the mountains that provided much of the backdrop for the annual play put on by the Mettawee River Theatre Company.  He was the one squeaking with delight as the players in primitive masks emerged from behind the papier mache rocks and giant puppets appeared above them.  He was the one who settled into nurse for a few minutes, glancing occasionally back at the scene unfolding in front of him.

It happens at the same time every summer. This tiny company of players and producers bring their puppets and props to this sleepy Vermont village, and on the field in front of the mountains, they bring Euripides and Aristophanes, Shakespeare and the tales of poets long forgotten to life.  They touch on serious themes unlikely to entertain small children, but every summer they do even more than that.  They enthrall them.  They plant seeds of curiosity and creativity because for all the things that were seen and forgotten in my babies’ first years, these were the few moments they would take into the next.

Now their summers are littered with these moments.  We’ve found a host of free outdoor productions that introduce our kids to new thoughts and new thoughts about their parents.  Tonight, sitting with both my babies (one now bigger than I) in lawn chairs around our picnic basket, I can’t help but smile as I see another seed being planted near by. 

 

 

Magic Reclaimed

boysathubbardhall

About a year ago – almost exactly a year ago – I wrote a piece about a very special place not far from our house.

Hubbard Hall, a community theatre and art center in the one-traffic light town of Cambridge, NY, had been on our radar for a number of years. My husband became involved with their theatre company and returns at least twice a year. Then I got pulled in by a writing workshop/group that is moving into its second year. My sons are the most recent members of the flock, and it was their experience at summer theatre workshops that prompted my piece last year.

Jack, my oldest, was already navigating the self-conciousness that comes with early teen years and thought he had no interest in being in a play.  Thing2, my six-year-old, never had much of a shell, but, like a lot of kids his age, he sometimes takes a few minutes to get used to a new classroom before letting go of my hand. In the presence of the Hubbard Hall Magic, however, Jack came out of his shell, and Thing2 discovered new worlds.  Both kids came away from their camps with new friends and new outlooks, and every subsequent workshop begins with Thing2 exclaiming, “Oh I LOVE this place.”

Over the spring we got a little disconnected from this magical place. I’m still at the Ministry of Encouragement hosted by author Jon Katz, but our little group has been going in different directions for a few weeks. It’s been temporary, but disconnection can morph into discouragement if left to fester.

So now, a year after I first wrote about this magical place, I’m sitting under the same oak tree on the same rotting picnic bench watching the same kids emerging from the murderously hot buildings as they scamper from rehearsal to craft projects. Thing2 and two of his friends become involved in a very sophisticated game of make-believe, laughing and waving their arms and looking like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Parents go in and out of the nearby Battenkill Books, seeking company and relief from the heat.

The scene is completely ordinary and completely magical, and in that moment I’m reminded of the things that inspired me last summer when I couldn’t stop writing. I’m still a big believer in the Ministry of Encouragement, but this is the perfect way to be reminded that I found it at the Church of Possibility here at Hubbard Hall.

The End of a Year, Beginning of an Era

 

Closing piece for reading

A little over a year ago I stumbled into a writing workshop at Hubbard Hall, our local community theater and arts center.  The Hubbard Hall Writer’s Project was led by celebrated author Jon Katz, and, as with almost every other class or event our family has experienced at Hubbard Hall, it was life-changing event for me  – and for every member of the group.  

There was an application process for the workshop, and getting that acceptance letter felt like winning the lottery.  I hadn’t shown my work to anyone outside my family and had only been prepared for rejection.  That letter was a thousand times more valuable than any lottery ticket.  

Jon, our guru, later told us that he wanted to find a group that not only wanted to write but that would work well together.  He chose wisely.  Over the last year our group has become a family of sorts.  We’ve become sounding boards and safe havens for each other, and everyone in the group has flourished.  What began as an artistic exploration of rural life became a search for authenticity in our creative and personal lives.  Jon encouraged us all, and, recognizing our strengths, we began to grow and to encourage others. 

Last Friday night, we met to celebrate the impact of the last year.  The unseasonably steamy evening started with a reception which allowed all of us to display our work and continued with readings by each of the writers.  The evening was warm and encouraging – just as the year has been.  

I like public speaking about as much as I like shopping for a new swimsuit.  I wasn’t nervous when it was my turn to read, however.  Working with the video portion of the presentation kept me busy much of the day and evening, and I didn’t have time to feel nervous – at least not about the reading.  

The crowd dispersed quickly after the presentation, and the writers returned to the reception room to clean up their displays.  We all milled around a bit, even after our families had left, and I think I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want it to end.  Even though the group is going into its second year, when we started our goodbyes, I began to feel nervous.  

I’ve been working on a collection of short stories that should have been done last month.  Dealing with some mental health issues has slowed down progress, but there’s been a part of me that feels this project is part of my workshop experience.  I know I’ve been a little afraid that when it’s done, so is the workshop.  I felt a little of that on Friday night as I climbed into my car. 

When I got home I made sure the kids were in bed and then turned on the computer and checked messages, intending to sign off quickly and visit with my visiting sister-in-law.  Unconsciously, I clicked on the link to  our group’s Facebook page.  There, like a beacon in the soupy heat of the evening, were celebratory posts from one, then two and then a third writer.  A post from our guru suggesting a get-together appeared.  I didn’t know what to post that could add to the conversation, and I closed my computer. 

The next few days I didn’t go near my computer much.  We had a guest and baseball and garden to occupy us, and I like getting away from the screen.  For the rest of the weekend, however I took with me the knowledge that while the year of writing un-dangerously may be ending, it’s okay because it’s really part of an era that’s just begun.

I’ve posted and reposted links to the blogs of most of our members below (one author is currently keeping her blog private).  They are growing, breathing proof that some of the best work comes from an atmosphere of encouragement.  

Pugs and Pics by Kim Gifford, Vermont writer, photographer, artist and pug lover.  Whether she’s writing about her beloved pugs or her distinctive photographs, Kim’s work is humorous, heartwarming, and sometimes heartrending.

http://www.pugsandpics.com/

 

 A real life milkman-turned-writer and poet, John Greenwood’s blog Raining Iguanas is a journey of discovery and nurturing of his own talents as a writer and artist and of his native Upstate New York.  It combines the best of pleasurable escape and motivating inspiration.

http://rainingiguanas.blogspot.com/

 

Bedlam Farm by the venerable and always affable Jon Katz, was the inspiration and benchmark for each of our blogs.  Honest and fearless, Jon’s blog is living, breathing proof that the most important thing in life is to never stop growing.

http://www.bedlamfarm.com/

 Merganser’s Crossing by Diane Fiore, follows her journeys with her father and his dementia at the end of his life.  Diane’s blog is intensely personal and incredibly relevant at the same time.  Hopefully she will give us a book out of this, but, for now, it’s worth not only visiting, but going to the very beginning and reading it straight through.

 http://merganserscrossing.wordpress.com

 

Coordinated Mayhem by Rebecca Fedler. A recent college graduate and a poet, Rebecca is prolific and powerful.  Sometimes funny and always intriguing, her poetry is as insightful as it is entertaining.

 http://coordinatedmayhem.wordpress.com