St. Francis Leaves the Bluff

When we moved to Bainbridge two years ago, we wanted to make sure the move was right, so we didn’t sell our house, but leased it. Planning to visit often, we kept access to the guesthouse, the Buffalo. But the universe conspired to prevent visits, and time has come to put the property on the market. (I recognize this as a tale of privilege. Several times that’s stopped me from writing, but the blog began on the bluff, and now that part of the story ends.)

Only 900 square feet, the Buffalo is still a complete house with the utensils, bedding, linens, art, photos, books, and furniture of a house. And, because of a big closet, extraneous things got stored over the years – all our photo negatives packaged in labelled shoeboxes, beloved aged backpacking tent, sleeping bags, extra kid equipment. An empty file cabinet became the repository of my mother’s things when she died, her purse, her files and photos, and little stacks of expired passports and driver’s licenses.

In her book of essays, titled “Everywhere I Look,” Helen Garner quotes a clergyman’s wife on changing houses, “Every time you move you have to work through your whole life.”

Because we never really lived there, the Buffalo’s emotional weight blindsided me. In the first few of many trips to clear out, I thought it would be just sort, give away or toss, pack. But things speak of their provenance to a person packing up, voicing memories and original hopes.

A lot of the things I hoped for came to be. We built the bigger house and a garden and moved there, our sons came willingly to visit, and one married there in a beautiful ceremony. Eventually the Buffalo sheltered their growing families, and always it made it a pleasure to have guests.

In the drawing below, done early in the garden’s life, it’s orderly. But this spring, nature occupied every available space. Thuggish plants crowd and engulf plants once cosseted. Buttercups invade the beds, water suckers ruin the shape of the enormous Sambucus, the paths are clotted and choked by grass. I used to fantasize it was “contained abundance” – no longer.

My friend the wordsmith (who has been the most amazing help and support, making a sometimes hard thing cheerful) says it looks like the garden of an abandoned English estate. Kinda. The realtor will have it cleaned up for listing, and I’m hoping for a new gardener to love it.

The wordsmith’s husband muscled our statue of St. Francis (it stood for years in the center of the foursquare garden) into my car. I remember the first time Lady Baby spotted him and stood nearby, seemingly shocked he was taller than she. He looks contented now, in his tiny pretend Tuscan courtyard, surrounded by rosemary and welcoming hummingbirds who visit a nearby fountain.

 

Both Anguish and Action

It’s impossible to ignore what has happened this last week in America. And from a position of white privilege, but with no political power and no ability to influence unacceptable police behavior, hard to know what to do. I’ve already voted for people who support fairness and equity under the law and against the evil occupant of the White House.

And yet, just to post the blog intended for today, is inadequate. To say nothing at this moment seems completely head-in-the-sand unacceptable.

So, I offer the Obama Foundation’s suggestions for turning anguish into action, because, of course, these people have thought long and hard about what needs to happen. They make concrete recommendations for how to get informed and involved – for people like me – and hopefully you. Their statement of purpose:

We work to help leaders change their world—and the world needs changing. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the loss of far too many Black lives to list, have left our nation anguished and outraged. While now is a time for grief and anger, it is also a time for resolve. Find resources below to learn what you can do to create a more just and equitable world.

https://www.obama.org/anguish-and-action/

 

Gardening in the Time of COVID-19

The other morning I read an inspiring and joyful article by Charlotte Mendelson titled, “It’s Time To Grow Your Own Beans.” Right away I forwarded it to the California gardener, and put a handful of heirloom cannellini beans (from a sealed bag I seem to have saved for the apocalypse and can now use to make soup) in the mail to California.

I kept thinking that the author’s name sounded familiar, and, to my chagrin, realized Mendelson’s gardening memoir, “Rhapsody in Green: A novelist, an obsession, a laughably small excuse for a vegetable garden,” has sat unopened on our coffee table since last year (it does have a wonderful cover, but still).

For this whole strange time when thinking about reading, I have assumed I would concentrate better on a page turner, some junker that could transport me to a different catastrophe, one with an ending. I would never have predicted a memoir about a “comically small town garden, a mere 6 square meters of urban soil and a few pots,” would be my escapist dream.

Mendelson’s writing really appeals – and her delicious sense of humor about gardening, gardening experts, and gardening desires – also slugs, failures, and small triumphs. In her prologue, she welcomes the reader, “Come into my garden. Try to keep a straight face.”

Gardening season begins now in Washington, but we are weeks behind California. Over these last years, Sweet B’s dad (with her help recently) transformed a barren urban plot into a green haven. Larger than Mendelson’s garden behind her terraced London house, the California garden has a tiny square of lawn (just big enough for a small bike rider to make circles), and a brick patio (just big enough to hold a large deep wading pool). A pergola, covered in grape vine and shade-cloth, provides shelter from the sun for an outdoor couch, chairs, and table.

A podocarpus hedge grown tall shields the garden from close next-door neighbors. A variety of fruit trees in garden beds surround the lawn: banana, pomegranate, lime, papaya, orange, plum, and an olive. Bougainvillea climbs the painted bright-blue cement wall at the end of the garden, and throughout the beds California drought-tolerant perennials crowd huge lavender and rosemary shrubs and smaller herbs. Seasonal color flashes from early sweet peas, California poppies, red hot pokers, and more.

In the past, family summer traveling limited vegetable growing, but this year, by using a graveled-with-pots, previously ignored space at the corner of the house in full sun, a vegetable plot took shape. The chief gardener and his assistant cleared out the gravel, constructed an L-shaped raised bed, and erected a sturdy trellis.

By ordering soil and starts online, the gardeners planted food – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries, snap beans, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, green onions, radish, and zucchini. Behind the garage by the compost (beside a volunteer pumpkin), corn, melons, and cucumbers found space. (I had to ask for this list. It ended with, “and a few things I may have forgotten about – we’ll see if they grow.”)

And now there’s a chance for Jack-in-the-beanstalk moments!

Blue bird, butterflies, and bees visit flowers in her garden, by Sweet B.

 

Olive tree with climbing ladder, spirit house on stilts, and gardeners watering, by Sweet B.

Sheltering with the Alaskans 

Lady B made the drawing below of her situation (that’s Baby Brother playing with trucks nearby). But I’m a little doubtful that her speech bubble contains a meaningful comment, because we hear tales and see photos and videos of a giant pile of snow in the back yard for snow caves, and of great cross-country skiing.

Lady B is learning to skate ski, but on the downhills, she gets her skis in the tracks, tucks, and hurtles around bends. Baby Brother rides in a trailer behind his dad (a handle on the back allows Lady B to also catch a ride). Luckily, good weather and plentiful snow fill these quarantine days!

She sees her class on Zoom – she tells us they each log in with something to share and the big screen fills with the classmate talking, the others appear in little boxes at the bottom. We are all pixels now.

But there must be moments like below.

Sweet Brother and Big Sister

Suffice it to say that Sweet Brother looms larger in real life, than in this drawing of him with his mother – made by his sister on his first day home. Now, nearly three weeks later, although nested with his mother most of the time, he’s an impactful presence.

I don’t remember the day my sister came home. Do any oldest children remember the day? Such a profound event – gaining a sibling – influencing us forever. The initial arrival brings sudden puzzling changes, distracted grownups, and most of all a very busy – with somebody else – mother.

And then there’s this long-awaited baby in person – after months of imagining a playmate, a partner, reality presents in this useless form. I remember Lady B telling me how she’d teach her brother about seat belts and helmets and how to keep safe (now – three years later – she does that). Her dad, when his brother came home, dashed to get his best friend next door. They came back with a cowboy hat and six shooter for the baby to wear. When that didn’t work, they lost interest.

Sweet Baby (who should really be Sweet B now, five years old in a month!) has more sustained attention – she falls in the camp of wanting desperately to participate in some way. A virus has stalked amongst us limiting her hands-on exposure, but she understands that in time she will be much help.

And on Valentine’s Day after she received a cobbled together “Best Big Sister” necklace to wear – she made valentines for all of us (she’d already made them for her class). She left out her brother, but told me how wonderful it would be when she could make him one – “in a few years or so!”

 

Sweet Brother

Yes! – the first post back for the new year introduces Sweet Baby’s sweet brother! He really is very dear and calm – the name fits. His mom did a great job of bringing him into the world on the 29th of January. He was six pounds, 11 ounces, and 19″ long, and he’s beautiful! He’s figuring out how things work in this night and day routine, and, with luck, his parents might soon get some sleep.

Sweet Baby, like her cousin, will be a terrific big sister, this baby already turns his head at the sound of her voice – he’ll soon learn how much fun she is!

December Days

Bustle – and I hope it is cheery bustle for you all – not just the stress of to-do lists!

Music and lights and evergreen garlands, flashes of red and green and gold interrupt the dark, wet gloom outdoors. I always love this season, and this year more than ever in my gratitude for life and mobility. But am I behind in all I’d like to do? Oh, yes!

In Hawaii, Lady B, her brother and Sweet Baby added their creative touches to our Christmas cards – between swimming in pool and ocean, they sat at a table outside the sliding door and used watercolors (including swell metallic ones), colored pencils, and rubber stamps to make every card unique and colorful.

So, before I begin to write them and mail, I’ll post a handful – though it’s hard to select just a few – I love them all!

One day on the trip, I found Sweet Baby and her parents at work – brushes in hand – so I can’t resist adding two of theirs.

 

Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House”

A list of books for Christmas gifts occupies the front of my mind this time of year – they please in many forms (beautifully illustrated books, a graphic novel of the Mueller report!), but finding the right book is still challenging.

So, I enjoyed reading Ann Patchett’s piece in The Guardian books newsletter about her habit of giving books for all occasions (she owns a bookstore).

And her new book, The Dutch House, belongs on the list. It’s the stuff of fairy tales: a mother disappears leaving two children with a distracted father in a haunting, enormous house. The father remarries, then dies, and the wicked stepmother casts out the children. (It’s also a modern tale of real estate and sibling devotion.) I’d saved it for a concentrated time of reading, the book rewarded the wait, and made a long flight pass quickly!

One day on our trip after a library visit, Sweet Baby asked me how books are made, and I gave an overlong explanation of signatures, endpapers, binding, printing.

And then we just made a book – sketchbook paper cut and folded into pages sewn with dental floss – with a story dictated to her mom and illustrated admirably!

 

“Twenty-five Teacups”

Opening this Friday evening, November 1st, Bainbridge Arts and Crafts, the gallery where I show my work, will host “Tea Party” – a multi-media exhibition. I was invited to participate early last summer, and my “Twenty-Five Teacups” will be at the party.

Because I love everything about tea – the warmth, the lift, the comfort – and the cups – whether reaching for a favorite at home or choosing from a good grouping at a friend’s house, I was excited right away to be included.

All spring I’d been thinking about pattern and the Souleaido squares were still on my worktable, so I began there, settling on a grid of twenty-five squares, composed of two patterns (wallpaper and tablecloth) and a teacup (mug or cup and saucer, each has its time). I adapted some of the fabric squares and had fun searching for other inspiration to make up backgrounds (learning a lot about the little motifs used in patterns for centuries).

I rearranged repeatedly (my painter friend encouraged my keeping on through many photo texts). I enjoyed manipulating the color, shape, and stylized flowers in the patterns. Then, with all the backgrounds and cup silhouettes complete, I decorated the cups with more recognizable flower species – from this summer’s garden, from my morning walk, and from my old work.

The squares are small (5½” x 5½”), on heavy Fabriano paper. The gallery plans to hang them unframed in a grid (attached by tiny, powerful magnets), and price them at $65.00.

I will post all 25 teacups for a while here on “Her spirits rose…,” beginning with “Teacup Seventeen” (Helenium) – orange flowers for this Hallowe’en week!

 

Five Decades and Holding

50 Years! My good-natured (the explanation for this longevity) husband and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary in California last week. I still can’t grapple with that number, but it was fun to mark it with the SoCal branch of the family.

From their house we drove north to a rented house in Montecito, (right near Santa Barbara) for three days. Cars and people a plenty, but the beach is perfect – white sand, hard-packed by the water and fine for walking. We picnicked on the beach, watched Sweet Baby love holding on to her dad’s shoulders as he caught waves near shore on a boogie board, walked along Butterfly Beach and goggled at the mansion built by the emperor of Beanie Babies, visited Ganna Walska’s Lotusland (built over decades with an astounding collection of tropical and sub-tropical plants, some 20 different gardens filled with stories of horticulture and history, never just one of anything but mass plantings of giant trees), played a lot of UNO and JENGA, and ate a celebratory meal at a Montecito restaurant (featuring fantastic plant-based food) to mark the actual event.

We laughed a lot about that blustery day 50 years ago, when we married in a cabin on Kenai Lake in Alaska – and I thought about how lucky I’ve been and how grateful I am.

Most often these days Sweet Baby draws mermaids – complicated aquatic creatures with elaborate clothing, curls, and crowns crowded onto a page – but she took time out to draw us on our special day in 1969!

OPG

My Best Portrait Ever

In the midst of a week when governments fiddled while the Amazon burned, and continual bad and crazy presidential behavior bludgeoned us, I received a welcome letter from Sweet Baby in the mail. It contained a penline and crayon portrait of me (she says) with long curly hair, a rainbow-skirted dress (with a tiny bow), an apple in a green tree, and a heart for love. Spirits rose!

Mr. Putter, Tabby, and Oberon, Too

If you have only two days for a visit with important people, you pack in all the favorite activities. So, no “Borrowed Flowers” today, because I keep thinking about Sweet Baby and her cousins and our time with them.

At ages seven, four, and two, abilities and interests vary, but affections seem of a kind. Elaborate train track set-ups interested all, and provided agility training for the grandparents with tracks and cars and engines scattered about. In a melding of super heroes and princesses, the three play well together (until they don’t, as Mrs. Hughes once said).

Little presents for the visit need to be equal in number and significance. This time, a book for each from Cynthia Rylant’s “Mr. Putter and Tabby” series (neither Tabby nor Mr. Putter have been cute or peppy for a very long time), worked, and led to many readings. Late on Saturday afternoon when Downtown Abbey became the “The Napping House,” Lady B and I sat at the kitchen table, and she, starting with Tabby, drew the characters from the books, while updating me on her life.

During dark times this winter I wondered if I’d ever walk in the mountains again. But, the road into Powerline Pass where we camped over night last summer, provides an easy way into a grand mountain valley for Baby Brother and his granny.

Encouraged by the fleet-footed girls, he determinedly walked the whole way! Whatever her older cousin does, Sweet Baby attempts. When they tiptoed out a fat log into a puddle and neared the end, she asked “Now what do we do?” before gamely splashing down in the leap from log to land.

An inbound hiker told Uncle Tutu that he’d seen a black bear cross the trail an hour earlier, so we walked a mile singing, “no bears, no bears, no bears today” and sat on the flank of Flattop Mountain in a patch of bearberry, to eat our sandwiches and peanut butter cookies. The cousins played in tunnels formed by the “gimme shelter” trees (black spruce bent and gnarled by the wind).

Walking out, luckily before spirits flagged, I remembered “Simon Says” – “take ten steps and do the hula” or “take 19 steps doing the skaters Granny Katy’s physical therapist taught her.” At the uphill just before the parking lot, Lady B took charge: “Simon says run up the hill!”

At breakfast each morning, Mr. Carson is doing a wonderful thing with his children. I didn’t ever get to ask him how or why this came about, but they work on their “lines” (from a Shakespeare play), now “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I nearly teared up listening to Baby Brother and Lady B recite lines from Oberon’s speech with such a sense of fun:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

I loved it – and learned from them about oxlips (a primula found where cattle and oxen graze) and eglantine (wild roses! I never knew). Later that day, when we walked through the Alaska Botanical Garden, the three ran circles around the beds in the Herb Garden until Lady B came to an abrupt stop and shouted: “I found thyme!”

Oh, and another thing, Lady B opened that door to the world’s knowledge, adventure, and pleasure and has become an able reader. When I asked her if it felt like magic, she agreed with a firm nod of her head.

I’m beyond grateful to the surgeon and the physical therapists for putting my knee together to allow more shared experience with these children. When we got home, on a FaceTime call to check in, Baby Brother greeted us with a grin, saying: “Hello Mr. Poppa Jammy! and hello Mr. Granny Katy!”