Memories of September

I remember apple trees and shucking corn, and the smell of oil in a cast iron pan. A fine dust of white flour on the counter, and fried apple turnovers sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar at the center of a lace tablecloth.

I remember red and gold leaves, raked into thick pillars taller than me, and a woodpile at the bottom of the hill, stacked tight and high in advance of the coming cold.

And I remember my grandmother, her stubby, gnarled fingers, like knobby roots on an ancient tree, wrapped delicately around a tiny sewing needle. She made me a bright pink apron once, and I remember parading around the house in it, swooshing it around my hips like a ballgown.

There are things I don’t remember. I don’t remember the name of the family who lived down the hill, or the phone number I used to call to say hello to my grandmother after school. I don’t remember my grandmother’s face, though I recognize her in pictures, and I’d know her voice in a crowd even now. Some days, I don’t remember the names of my children and their children. Or so they tell me. And though I can play my favorite song on the piano, my own fingers now stiff and curved, I can’t remember the words.

Memories are precious things.

I used to spend whole days with my grandmother. We’d cook and talk, and she’d watch her gameshows. She’d tell me about when she was a girl, how she loved to read and play ball, how she was her class’s valedictorian, and how she always wished for a black-haired grandchild. My own hair was auburn. What’s left of it now whisps around my head in spindly gray spider’s webs.

One September day, just after the leaves had started to turn, my grandmother sat with me on her front porch. The air was still warm, but the breeze carried with it the bitter cold sting of winter. I must have been about seven. My grandmother had made us root beer floats and we were rocking back and forth in old wooden chairs, keeping rhythm with each other.

“How old are you,” I asked.

“Seventy-five,” she said. “I’m an old lady.”

“You’re not that old,” I answered. “Seventy-five isn’t that much more than fifty.”

“Well, then, I’m just over middle-aged,” she said, and laughed. She had a crackly, dry sort of laugh.

“Yeah,” I nodded, and dug my spoon so deep in my glass that root beer sloshed over the top and into my lap.

I can’t remember if the rocking chairs were painted red or white. I don’t know what happened to them after my parents sold the house. Maybe they’re still out there somewhere, rocking another grandmother and grandchild.

My grandmother died when I was twenty, and I have many more years behind me now. Time makes blank slates of all of us, slowly and meticulously, and unrelenting. Soon, like my grandmother, I will be a name in the family tree, a face in an old picture, a story or two at a holiday gathering, and people will argue over the details.

After I got lost driving myself to the grocery store one morning over the summer, my children hired a nurse to live with me, Heather, and she tells me not to worry about things like time. She says that I am strong for someone my age. She’s young, and once when I asked her, she told me she still remembers the name of her kindergarten teacher. I couldn’t remember something like that, even before I started losing pieces of my own story.  

It’s September now, late in the month and early in the fall, and the leaves have just started to turn. I ask Heather every day to help me outside, where I can sit on my own front porch and watch as the wind blows them down.

Today, she’s spread a fleece blanket over my legs and she’s sitting beside me, reading aloud from my favorite book, Jacob Have I Loved. I can’t remember who wrote it.

“Heather,” I say, interrupting her just as they’ve discovered the sister can sing, “have you ever shucked corn?”

She folds the book up in her lap and says, “I don’t think I have. You can buy it from the store already ready to cook.”

I ask her if she can go to the store later and buy some corn that hasn’t been shucked. She says yes and goes back to reading.

Twenty minutes later, she leads me to my bedroom and I drift off to sleep. I dream of corn on the cob and of root beer floats.

************

My grandmother taught me how to pull corn off the stalk and shuck it. She taught me how to string beans and how to fry chicken and make biscuits so well that they came out golden and flaky every time.

Sometimes we’d make a batch of biscuits for no reason at all, and we’d eat them toasted and slathered with a thick smear of dripping yellow butter. This she bought from the store. I remember her telling me how to make homemade butter, once, but I can’t remember what she said to do.

I sent poor Heather to the store this afternoon with a grocery list a whole page long, but she didn’t seem to mind. She seemed happy, in fact. Maybe she’s relieved I finally want to do something besides stare out at the garden.

We’re in the kitchen together now, and I’m instructing her on how to mix the biscuit dough just right and how you need to salt each piece of chicken individually before you cover it in flour and crushed up Corn Flakes to fry it. I’m too weak to stand long enough to do it myself, and she’s being a good sport.

“We’re going to have a feast,” she says. She’s got flour on her chin and smudged just under her eye.

“This was just a normal dinner when I was little,” I say. “You should have seen what we used to put on the table every night.”

“You’ll have to teach me more,” she says, and I nod.

“I never could get red velvet cake right,” I answer. “We could try that sometime.”

“I’d like that,” she says.

She comes over to sit by me at the table, and she brings with her a package of four ears of corn, all still in their husks.

“Now,” she says, “you tell me what to do, and I’ll just follow your directions.”

I tell her the best I can, miming everything and probably looking silly, but she doesn’t laugh. She gets to work. Her long, slender fingers are quick and she makes the whole thing look easy.

“One day, you’ll teach someone how to do this,” I say. “You can tell them you learned from the second best.”

“I can tell them I learned from the best,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone better.”

She finishes cooking everything and we sit down to eat together. She tells me little things about her life, and I smile and nod and try my best to bite down and grab the corn off the cob with my teeth. Eventually, she cuts it off for me and I eat it with my fork. It’s such a small thing, but it’s one more. One more thing I’ve lost. I can’t remember the last time I could eat corn right off the cob. It was kind of her to let me try.

After dinner, Heather helps me to bed and sits down beside me once I’m settled under the covers.

“Thank you for sharing all those recipes with me,” she says.

I roll over on my side and close my eyes. She reads for a bit, her gentle, even voice almost a song.

************

I remember nights without street lights, with stars as bright as flame and a big, yellow harvest moon in the sky. I remember the bitter smell of wood fire, burning hot and steady in the old metal stove downstairs. I remember evenings spent playing Rook and drinking cold boiled custard.

I remember the rustle of the wind through the leaves and the stiff cornstalks in my grandmother’s garden. I remember her dented black mailbox, at the top of the hill. I don’t remember the address, but I remember the long walks up and down, my grandmother beside me, beckoning me to keep up with her. I remember complaining that it shouldn’t be so hard to get your mail.  

Tomorrow I will ask Heather to pick up some green apples. We’ll make fried turnovers, and I’ll tell her how I learned to peel apples without a fancy peeler, and how my grandmother used to make jars and jars of apple butter and keep them on shelves in her basement, ready for visitors who wanted a little something sweet.

I will tell her these things, while I can still remember them. Maybe I’ll even ask her to write them down. And maybe someday someone will find them, and I will become a new memory.

Found Friday #5: A Historic Site in Journalism

Moving off of my property for this post, but only just, and I promise a good story. About five minutes from my house, there’s a church and cemetery.

Mt. Zion Old School Baptist Church was the site of a Civil War skirmish, a hospital, and a barracks (among other things). Graffiti dots its walls, tangible remnants of the soldiers who recovered within them. Its congregation met until 1980, and it is now a public park offering educational events, tours, and event rental space. The adjoining cemetery contains both marked graves – including one War of 1812 veteran – and at least 64 unmarked African American graves that lie outside of the cemetery’s gray stone walls. It sits along a historic roadbed, at a crossroads that was, once upon a time, essential to travel in Loudoun County.

There aren’t many places in the area that have seen quite as much history as Mt. Zion, and, when I first visited, I was intrigued to find that it’s even considered a Historic Site in Journalism. (I didn’t know such a thing existed, and am happy to have that knowledge, now.)

The text on the plaque reads:

In the graveyard adjoining this church, on June 23, 1863, Harpers Illustrated Weekly’s Alfred A. Waud, one of the Civil War’s most renowned artists, dug the grave for the burial of his friend, Lynde Walter Buckingham, the chief cavalry correspondent for the New York Herald.

Buckingham had spent the day of June 21 covering what would become one of the largest cavalry battles in U.S. history, in and around the villages of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. At the front with Union General Judson Kilpatrick throughout the June 21 fight, Buckingham was on his way to Washington with his account of the fighting when Confederate Partisan fighters under Major John Singleton Mosby’s command overtook him and caused his horse to dash down a steep hill and throw its rider powerfully to the ground. Buckingham later died of injuries to his skull in a makeshift Union Army hospital within this church.

After burying his friend, Waud rode on to Gettysburg, where on July 2 and 3 he sketched scenes of the fighting there that continue to shape Americans’ views of that epic battle. A couple of days after Buckingham’s burial, Union Captain Webster, an old friend of his, came to Mt. Zion with an escort and ambulance to disinter the body and send the remains to Buckingham’s family.

The Society of Professional Journalists hereby designates Mt. Zion Old School Baptist Church and Graveyard a Historic Site in Journalism. For as long as they exist, they will recall the devotion to duty and fellow man that embody the best qualities of America’s war correspondents.

Marked this 14th day of June, 2013.  

It’s a sad story, isn’t it? And a tragic memory worth preserving. But there’s life and community at Mt. Zion these days, as the curious passerby and the avid history buff alike drop in to look around and learn, and to enjoy the beautiful rural viewshed ideal for an afternoon picnic.

I’m sure Mt. Zion has many, many stories left to tell.

What’s your writing routine?

The short answer is: It is not.

I read this book recently, which gives brief descriptions of the routines of famous writers, artists, and other creatives.

I’d recommend it, if you’re looking for a fun, quick read. And it did get me thinking.

When I decided to pursue writing as more than just a hobby, I thought I’d develop a routine and habits, in the same way I’d developed them working in an office – a 9:00 a.m. coffee, a quick walking break mid-day, a late afternoon rush of productivity. But that never happened. I do write a fair amount, most weeks, but never on any kind of schedule, and never as part of a regular practice. And when people ask what my routine is, I never really know what to say.

“Well, while still in last night’s pajamas, I sit in the recliner in my living room and I drink coffee until I’m jittery, and then I type frantically on my laptop until something happens. And then I keep at it until it’s done, which is sort of indeterminate and looks different every day, but I really can’t focus on anything else until I hit some kind of stopping point and please don’t ask me to. And then it’s usually time to eat something or at least drink water because I’ve forgotten to do that all day.”

Like, is that a routine? That doesn’t seem like a routine. But it works for me, at least most of the time.

Though I hate to be asked, I confess I do find it fascinating how different people approach the act of creating. I feel like it’s deeply personal to each creator, and that’s probably why it’s often hard to explain. Or, for some, why it’s easy.

Found Friday #4: Pretty Mantis

I’ll start this one with a story.

When I was in third grade, my class had two pets – a cute, chubby red and white guinea pig, and two bright green praying mantises that I thought looked a lot like aliens. At the end of every week, two students were chosen, by popular vote of the class, to take the pets home and care for them until Monday. I desperately wanted to bring the guinea pig home for the weekend. But when my name finally came up and the class voted, I got…the praying mantises.

So there I was at the end of Friday, trundling down the steps off the school bus, saddled with my backpack, my spring windbreaker, the books that wouldn’t fit in my backpack, my lunch box, and a wire cage containing two potentially extraterrestrial life forms that I had absolutely no idea what to do with. When I opened the door and plopped the cage down on the kitchen table, my mother was predictably less than pleased.

“What is THAT?”

“Praying mantises.”

“Why do you have those?”

I explained what happened, and she told me I shouldn’t volunteer to take the class pets home ever again. Honestly, I don’t blame her.

Fast forward about thirty years, give or take, and my garden is positively brimming with brown praying mantises right now. It might be karma. But they’re actually kind of interesting to watch, so I’m not complaining.

We’ve been seeing them mostly on our windows at night, seeking out moths to snack on. Earlier this week, though, my husband looked out the window of his study and found this little guy hanging out in our euonymus.

He’s sort of cute, actually. And very photogenic.

And possibly has aspirations to conduct an orchestra?

Live your dream, buddy.

I don’t want him inside my house, would not even consider keeping him as a pet, but as an occasional visitor who keeps to himself, he’s perfectly welcome.

Because (A Slapdash Love Poem)

I love you because
when I want cider and you want wine,
we drink cider.

I love you because
you learned to cook
so you could do it with me,

and because you always give me the best spot on the couch.

I love you because we talk about the world
and where we want to go in it
and how we can make it a little better
together.

I love you because
you dance with me in the dining room
when we should be doing dishes

and because you know all the words to Bohemian Rhapsody.

I love you because
you exist and are, in the same way that
birds fly and
fish swim and
flowers bloom.

There will never be enough time for
how much I love you.
But seven years is a just fine start,
and for now will have to do.

Found Friday #3: The Fantastic Family Fox

Aren’t they adorable?

We get all sorts of critters and beasties on our property. We’ve got a family of deer who come through in the evenings, a groundhog who loves our still-growing orchard, opossums, butterflies, cardinals and other little native birds, and the occasional black bear. And there are two spoiled animals who live *inside* the house with us.

These two really enjoy their creature comforts, and the consistent access to snuggles, soft places to sleep, and snacks.

We’re constantly looking out our back window to see who might be visiting, and back in the spring we were delighted to learn that a family of foxes – mom, dad, and kits – had made a den under our barn. They normally popped out around sunset for playtime and dinner, and we tried to snap some pictures without scaring them.

We found them to be lovely neighbors. They were very adept at controlling the field mouse population, and so fun to watch (from a distance, of course).

The kits have grown up now and I think they’ve moved on, but we still see a fox or two out back under the willow tree from time to time. I’d like to think they feel as happy and at home here as I do.  

Autumn Poem

Perfect?

We are more than perfect.

We are.   

Just as the sea and the sky and the stars

and the jagged earth under our feet,

tired butterflies with chipped wings,

and the ancient trees,

split trunks shedding leaves made bright in their last moments,

wonderfully, woefully unsteady,

uncertain,

unstable,

present and tangible and here and now and flawed and beautiful.

Found Friday #2: Civil War Bullets in the Ceiling

When we moved into our house back in 2016, the previous owners told us that there were four Civil War bullets in our breakfast room ceiling.

Though we knew the house was built around 1820, we didn’t realize until later that it actually sits in a Civil War Battlefield Study Area. I’m sure that if we headed out to our back field with a metal detector, we’d find some interesting artifacts. I’m actually surprised we haven’t done that already. We don’t own a metal detector, so perhaps that’s why.

At any rate, before we even got unpacked, the first thing we did – and I’m serious, the very first thing – was examine that ceiling. We found three bullets fairly quickly.

The first three were easy to spot, but we’ve never found the fourth. Which means we’ll just have to keep looking!

(P.S. – I bought a metal detector. So there’s that.)