Born First

Children sometimes have a problem their parents don’t see or can’t solve.  It is a fortunate child who has a stepdad like Chuck.

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It’s all about a stupid chair

and nothing more.

I think it isn’t fair

my brother sitting there

when I’m the one it’s for!

 

It is a special chair

all soft and cushiony

and close to the TV.

And I’m a special guy,

the oldest brother in the family!

 

I tried to tell my mom and dad

that they should love and cherish me

and make my brothers leave that chair

always every time for me.

They did not agree.

 

Mom said, “He was there first

sitting in that chair.”

She said my brothers, too,

are each significant and rare.

I didn’t care.

 

My dad said, Just don’t start!”

He said,  “Now, have a heart.”

My turn would be tomorrow night

if tonight I didn’t start a fight.

But waiting was too hard for me.

 

I said, “Don’t give my brothers turns!”

‘Cause sometimes I forget

about my own significance.

I just can’t miss one single chance

to test your attitude and stance.

 

On justice I insist.

Give all your love to me.

Each day make every gesture show

a strong partiality ’cause every hour

I need to know youre not discounting me.

 

Of love there’s never too much proof.

At night I’m still in doubt.

Until my little brothers came

I was the star of every game.

Now I’m the one left out.

 

The row I made about that chair!

Now all week I can’t sit there.

Which only shows I’m onto them.

They love my brothers best.

It isn’t fair.

 

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The row I made about that chair

Was not the end of it.  My dad,

He really is my stepdad, see,

I usually call him Chuck,

agreed with me.  Was I in luck!

 

A first born son needs, he said,

A chair quite soft and cushiony

And close enough to watch TV

To keep his special place all safe

Inside a busy family.

 

He took me shopping at the mall,

Where you can hope for anything.

And then like Watson, that was Chuck,

And Sherlock, that was me,

We snooped around for clues.

 

We took our time, we tried three stores

And then I found a beanbag soft and

Velvety in blues.  It wriggles up,

It lounges back, I drag it anywhere.

I don’t need the other chair.

 

I’m easy when my brothers ask for turns.

As Chuck explained, a first born son

Can share a lot and keep his place.

And that’s the whole story.

Rural Nobility

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Because of my farm roots, I have a special fondness for rural “stuff”—the strength, endurance, and courage that lie in the soul as expressed on our farms and in our villages.

Once I took my kids ice skating on the pond in Neahwa Park, Oneonta, a small city along the Susquehanna River just north of the Catskills. As I hadn’t been on skates with any regularity I was awkward and, the kids thought, quite hilarious. (Today, some years later, my bottom still remembers the cool sudden thump on firm ice.)

Still, I came away that day with a vision of success. An old man in a top coat and a hat with earflaps came gingerly down the wooden ramp of the old skate house, paused to remove the protectors from his skates and, holding these artistically crossed in one of his gloved hands, began a smooth path among the skaters. His composure and something more than skill, that transcendence of the physical made possible by years of excellence, caught my attention completely. He was not flamboyant. He had come not to show off but to feel the movement, to do what he could do. His unselfconscious grace caught my heart so strongly that I approached him when he had finished and was at the ramp, replacing the skate protectors.

“Please, sir,” I said, “forgive me for intruding on your private moments, but I loved watching you.”

“Thank you,” he said with a nod.

Emboldened, I continued, “Do you mind telling me how old you are?”

“I am eighty this year.”

“Well,” I finished, “may I still be skating, however awkwardly, when I am eighty.”

“May you be!” he said with a slight bow, as graceful in connection as in movement, and he was gone.

I didn’t see him after that season. My kids grew old enough to go skating without me, and I allowed myself to be too busy with adult cares to join them. I have more than a few doubts about my chances of skating at eighty, though I expect to keep up with yoga and be still standing on my head at an advanced age.  The image of that elderly gentleman skater gave me an expanded idea of what a human being can do!

I know another man, also a member of the rural nobility. As his son-in-law likes to say, “Emerson is a prince of a man!”

Emerson Mitchell, straight, lean, is the picture of elderly health. His gray-blue eyes are clear under strong brows. His white hair waves thickly back from a high forehead. His mouth turns slightly up at the corners, as if each moment holds amusement for him. Waiting for me at in his blue work clothes at the top of the path, he is elegant and ready for work.

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He pulls a green garden cart down the gravelly woods-road and leaves it near some standing deadwood he intends to harvest for kindling. Carefully he rests the old bow saw on the cart handles.

Then, beckoning to me, he steps lightly along the hillside and into the ravine. He wants to show me the springs. We enter a pine grove, snapping underfoot the bleached twigs and lower branches sloughed off by the growing trees. Nimble as a buck, he gains the granite ledges, skirting patches of ground juniper and gray, unleafed blueberry bushes. He bends and finds three red-orange box berries, gives me two, and eats one. After a winter of snow and cold, they still taste faintly of wintergreen.

We manage the last steep descent by catching at the trunks of small maples and alders which hold fast by strong roots in the bank above. Jumping one branch of the brook, we find ourselves standing on a sandy delta large enough for a square dance. From here he holds his hand out in a familiar pointing gesture, showing me where two springs enter at the gravel head of the ravine. There, at the source, he has dug a basin deep enough to fill a bucket. He keeps a dipper hanging on a nearby tree. Reaching for it now, he bends to fill it and offers me a drink. We share the dipper, drawing the sweet water into our smiles.

He shows me tight curls of fiddlehead ferns pushing through the loamy sand, skunk cabbages growing big, and a spot where lady slippers bloom each year. He tells how the contours of this basis change from year to year, how the postures of fallen trees can make it hard to pull them out for firewood, how he and his son once brought a tractor and borrowed winch to the delta, set the rope and winch around yonder oak, and coaxed several downed trees up, out of the gullies, nearly a year’s supply of firewood.

On our way back we stop at the garden cart. Emerson saws straight across the base of each of the drying pines, which make small cracking crashes against their neighbors and the ground. Then, kneeling on the forest floor, he uses the stumps as props and saws stove-sized segments. I stack the lengths in the cart.

Pausing, he tells of the blizzard of ’44, which came in May when he already had chickens out of the range, how he got through the drifts and brought water and grain into the shelters so the birds would survive till the snow melted. I see the past stretching back, events faced with courage and ingenuity, care taken. And amusement won from the hard life of a farm boy in the days when chickens were still raised by the mothers.

“I suppose I was about seven,” he begins. “I went to the barn to feed the horses and I noticed our three hens all outside with their broods, the little chicks looking for bugs like their mothers taught. But when I went in, I heard a small insistent peep coming from somewhere in the barn. Well, I traced the peeping to the stall of our old draft horse, and I deduced that that chick was beneath one of his feet. I went to his head and backed him up. He moved three of his feet—but not that one. So I moved him forward. Again he moved three of his feet—but not that one. I unhitched him and backed him out far enough to make him move all his feet. The little chick scampered off, cheeping, to find his mother.

“The horse knew,” he finished mildly.

“And meant to keep him,” I added.

We piled the cart high with good round kindling.

One story led to another.

“One day, I went down at dusk to do the evening chores and the three broods of chickens had all followed their mother into the barn to the nests. Only, most of them had followed the same mother, leaving the other two hens with only two or three chicks each. I don’t know what it was about that mother hen that attracted the chicks. Perhaps it was her dulcet voice. But there she was, trying to spread her wings to keep almost thirty chicks warm. Well, I didn’t think I could let this go on, so I took a few for each of the other hens until it seemed about fair and all the chicks were in, under, for the night. ‘Course, I had no way of knowing which chicks belonged to which hen, but since none of them complained, I decided it was okay and went on about my chores.”

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Without apparent strain, Emerson Mitchell hauls the loaded cart to the cellar door where he’ll unload it later. After a light lunch, he settles on the couch to watch a Red Sox game, snoozing between innings, a man who works and rests, pacing himself.

What a father can do, I tell myself, a daughter can strive to do also. I resolve to be so fine at almost eighty. And I have a larger idea of the stuff I am made of.

First published in the anthology Out of the Catskills and Just Beyond, edited by Bertha Rogers, Bright Hill Press, 1997.

The Colors of Christmas

“Why are the Christmas colors green and red?” I sometimes ask people.  No one has thought about it.  Well, of course they wouldn’t have.  The tradition they have known does not suggest why these colors became associated with Christmas.  And I’ve never read an explanation anywhere, but I think it’s obvious—to those who know the Solstice Celebrations that predated Christ Mass.  Red and green are the colors of life—red for animals and green for plants.  These are the colors of the juices that flow through living things.  They were the colors of the Winter Solstice, adopted later by Christians in order to persuade pagans to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

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Then, just as planned, people forgot that red and green represented the return of life when the sun began to spend a few more minutes each day above the horizon.  They forgot that lighted trees had been used both indoors and out for many centuries before such trees were associated with Jesus’ birth.  I’m thinking in particular about the folks in my small village today, most of whom think only about the years they have witnessed and not much further back.

Most people are not students of history.  We seem to have lost the need to remember how our ancestors lived.  Since the industrial age and, now, the age of technology, people have all they can do to keep up with the new demands on their attention and skills—and little need to know what past generations knew.  Of course, in truth we have forgotten or let slip a great deal of old time knowledge, including herbs and healing and the many mistakes mankind has made throughout history, useful lessons if we only kept them in memory.  We have lost the perspective and wisdom history can give.

Many of us care a great deal about the traditions of our families and regions, customs we learned in childhood that still bring us comfort and joy.  The ancient Pagans must have felt much the same.  At the time of forced conversion, they must have been much happier with a celebration of the birth of Christ that looked and felt like what they had known as little children—lighted trees and those bright colors, especially red and green.

Tradition is proof enough of the rightness of our ways.  This makes sense to anyone who has studied the Myers-Briggs ideas about character and personality.  As laid out for us in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, about thirty-eight percent of a random population report being oriented to helpful deeds, to duty carried out faithfully, and to the protocol handed down by those who have gone before.  Protocol minds work like a check list or flow chart–if this, then that.  We depend upon these dutiful people to run our institutions and to keep the basics in.  When protocol people learn about their particular gifts, they feel validated.  “I always knew I worked like that but I couldn’t explain myself.”

There are three other general types of personality, the action folks, the objective thinkers or scientists, and the relationship people.  None of these care as much about tradition as the protocol people, though some will tolerate ritual and celebration for the sake of the family (relationships) while others will say “bah humbug.”  Action people will put up with a lot if it involves music or any action such as ice skating.  They don’t bother about what the protocol people say is true based on tradition or what the philosophers say is not true based on observation.  Much that is traditional cannot be observed today.

This breakdown is oversimplified, but you get the idea that there are many different approaches to tradition and celebration.

As a subjective compassionate, I am most interested in relationships, in how people treat one another, in whether a tradition or celebration is kind and good for us.  I write to examine or question traditions that don’t go back all that far.  I honor the old ways of my northern European ancestors.  I write to recognize the simplicity of celebrating the return of the sun and the life that can go on under the sunshine of spring and summer.

In the spring I eat fresh greens, which will transform to good red blood.

But I will not argue with those who trust in and love a more recent tradition.

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A Plausible History of Handedness

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My mother had wanted to use her left hand but was forced to use her right.  Even years after her school days an awkwardness was apparent in her cursive.  And she was still protesting against the interference with her natural preference.  Easy to agree that no child should be forced to change.  By the time I was born with that left-handed preference I was left alone to use the hand with which I was most comfortable.

Wondering recently what was behind the old belief that all children should be trained to be right-handed, I recalled two bits of trivia from history.  Suddenly I had one of those moments when the whole story clicked.

The first bit of history was this: during the many years when men used knives and swords and, then guns, it became necessary to know whether it was safe to walk up to another man.  To show that each meant no harm, men greeted each other with an outstretched right hand, ready to shake with the same hand that might have gone for the sword.  If they did not shake, they doffed a cap or pulled a lock of hair in greeting, again showing the right hand clearly.  Apparently most men did use the right hand to hold a weapon, though I expect if a swordsman was left-handed, he had to make his left hand visible as well.

Now here a second bit of history: I have read that in the days before toilet paper, people used their left hand to wipe and their right hand to eat or shake hands with a friend.  It was necessary to know you were not shaking with the unclean hand.  From this, right-handedness became the norm.  I can imagine parents teaching small children to wipe with the left and eat with the right.  You couldn’t have had part of the population doing the opposite—how would you ever know which hand to trust?  Add to that, as a friend of mine who joined me in this line of reasoning suggested, over time right-handedness must have built itself into the genes.

By the time my mother was forced to change her preference, folks may have forgotten that history.  I’m not sure, though, since the family used an outhouse built into the barn where a Sears catalog sat, um, handy for ripping out a page to use.

Meanwhile, a few scientists have made much of the relationship between the sides of the brain and preferred hand, noting that artists are often left-handed and that the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain—the nerves cross at the neck.  The left brain is supposed to be better at order and mundane work, while the right side is supposed to be better at pattern and abstract thinking.  In hard times, of course, art and deep thought are a luxury, giving that much more reason to stress right-handedness.

These bits of information came to my awareness separately and many years ago.  Only recently did I put enough attention on them to fill in the whole picture and come up with this theory.

I grew up with modern sanitation and, probably not coincidentally, was allowed to write and eat with my left hand.  The awareness of why earlier folks were so adamant about right-handedness was lost.  Thankfully, by my time so was the opinion.

How We Took a Short Cut Home from the Lake

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I take most of the blame for what happened.  I knew that the lake was northwest of where Brenda lived and northwest of where Adam lived—we’d picked him up on the way.  I knew this because in Maine, lakes are northwest of where you live while the ocean is southeast of where you live.

We swam, we barbecued, we talked, and we swam.  When we were done having all the fun we could think of, we headed home.  Owen and Logan had not yet had all the fun they could think of so we said our goodbyes and left them to their daddies.  We headed home, but not the way we had come.  On the way there Brenda had needed to stop at a store which turned out to be not only a bit south of our route but across one of those roads you can’t get across in Maine in summer because of the zip of vacationers going northwest to the lakes or southeast to the ocean.  Adam, as driver, managed to do a run around the end of the road and drive back to the store, cars buzzing both ways.  When Brenda came out of the store with the chips and sodas, cars were still buzzing steadily both ways.  To get back on the road to camp, he drove down and around the other end of the road.  That got us back on track.

Now, in the car going home we were drowsy with eating and swimming and with watching two little boys soak each other with a hose–and anyone else who came near.  Hey, when has there been enough water in just one lake for two little boys.  We had done our hugging and waving goodbye and were headed up the camp road to the blacktop.  Brenda said, “If I still felt like talking, Adam, I could tell you the shortcut home.”

“I think I know that shortcut,” Adam said.

I sat quietly in the passive (passenger) seat.

At the bottom of the road he turned one way instead of the other and pretty soon Brenda found she needed to talk whether she felt like it or not.  “Go left here and around by Thompson Lake.”

“You mean between Thompson Lake, don’t you?” Adam grinned.

Between was a better word for it.  In a couple of minutes Thompson Lake was on both sides of us.

“This is the place where Lenny and Mitch drove into the lake in winter,” Brenda explained.  “There were no guardrails then.”

I didn’t asked what became of Lenny and Mitch after they drove into Thompson Lake.  I had just seen them at the picnic and thought the story could not have had a bad ending.

Adam drove between water and up around to the left, which was north.  The direction was all wrong.  Everyone knows that in Maine, when you leave a family picnic at the lake you have to drive southeast to get home.

I started to say we should have gone the other way, but I remembered that the other thing everyone knows is that you never, ever turn around.  Once past the intersection you are committed.  There is no more going back and taking the other road than there is going back to yesterday and marrying the other guy (or girl).  So I sat in the passive seat and kept my own council.

“I think I should get out the map,” Brenda said.

“No, don’t look.” Adam was into the adventure of it now and didn’t want information to spoil his afternoon.  He kept taking turns to the south but the road curved back to the north.  Then the road obligingly curved back south.  Adam said not to worry.  He had an internal compass and he knew the average direction we were going.

Brenda, sitting in back of Adam, took out the map anyway.  How was he to know?  Besides, mothers never quite make the switch to doing what their children say.  She was going to put some order into an otherwise random trip.

Adam drove this way and Adam drove that way, trending northeast, I was sure.  When I mentioned this he admitted that missing the next turn could end us up in Canada, though there would be some rivers to cross.

I said, “You just came between a lake.  Coming between a river shouldn’t give you trouble.”

“Owen and Logan would like a river,” he said.

By now Brenda had studied the map. “Turn left here,” came the word from the backseat.

Adam did.

“But this road is bumpier than the one we were on,” Adam said.  He looked at me, waiting for Brenda to hear the taunt in his voice.

She didn’t hear.

I said, “Have you been teasing your mother like this for almost forty years now?”

He guessed probably, if we consider that he began teasing her before he could talk.

But she was focused on the way home and refused to be distracted, an ability she’d begun developing, oh, about forty years ago.

“Go straight across the next road,” she said.

Adam did.

“Now watch for a dirt road on the left.”

It was beginning to sound like she had her bearings.  It wasn’t a dirt road.  But in a few yards the pavement gave way to dirt, proving that either Brenda knew what was what or we were in Maine.

We continued northeasterly and, thanks to Adam’s internal compass—or perhaps to Brenda’s map—came out onto a paved road and to a familiar apple orchard stand open for business.  We stopped.  Brenda got some pumpkin donuts and some macs for pies.  And we got everyone home from there.  None of which could have happened except that the camp on the lake may have been southwest of home, not northwest as I had supposed.  But, no.  Couldn’t be.  In Maine you don’t go southwest to get to a picnic.

Disclaimer: I have lately been reading Mark Twain, and no one so influenced can be much trusted with a narrative.

Book Note: Lucinda’s Solution by Nancy Roman

Book Note:  Lucinda’s Solution by Nancy Roman

I wanted to read Lucinda’s Solution to support a writing sister in my area and to find out what she writes about.  I was well rewarded for my curiosity.  I started reading and I couldn’t put the book down.  This is a historical novel with an excellent understanding of women’s issues during and after WWI when women were about to get the vote.  During much of the plot Lucinda doesn’t have much say even in her own family where her autocratic father makes the decisions about the lives of his children.  Roman brings the story to life, the condition of women, their trials and trumphs.  The characters are vivid and plot well-suited to bringing out the best in Lucinda.  I do love a bohemian solution.  Lucinda’s Solution reminds me of one of my all time favorites, John Knowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  Thank you, Nancy.

 

Gleanings: Waiting with Bated Breath

Small glass bottles are ideal for filling with water and a bit of food coloring.  You can play around until you find colors you like.  Today I created the moss green color and the turquoise.  The bottles sit on my table where I can see them and smile as I walk by.

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My second sharing is about idioms.  How often do you find yourself accepting a trite expression without examination?  I do it all the time.  But every once in a while I wonder what is the story behind that image.  If you look for it there is a picture behind every word we use and behind each idiom.

I’m reading an old Zane Grey favorite, The Riders of the Purple Sage.  There is a tense scene in which the main character waits “with bated breath.”  Not baited as the word is often written.  That’s an error.  I looked it up.  But before I got as far as the dictionary entry,  I thought, “bated” as in “abated,” meaning “lessened.”  Yup.  The New Oxford American Dictionary says “bated” means, “in great suspense, very anxiously or excitedly.”  In the sixteenth century “bate” meant “restrain.”  Makes sense.

Sometimes I go through my own writing to make sure I have not let an error like that slip by or used a worn cliche without being aware of the image it evoked when it was fresh and new.  If I want to say something was completed in the nick of time, I try to at very least stop and think what nick would mean.  We know what we mean by the phrase but if it doesn’t give us a vivid picture, we may not get the same sharp idea the writer intended.  According to wikipedia, “nick” once meant a small notch marking the exact point.

I found a lovely list of cliches on this cite.

https://literarydevices.net/cliche/

Making up one’s own images is, I think, a bit harder these days than in former times.  Our ancestors had nature and farm animals to refer to when they spoke.  When her children quarreled at chores, my mother would say, “Quit your pull-hauling.”  Anyone who had ever seen a team of oxen that refused to pull together would understand that image.  The disgusted farmer would say, “First one pulls and then the other hauls.”  Today we have driving images and those related to computers, the internet, and our many devices.  One joke has it that when a waitress slipped on some water and fell, a customer said, “Our server is down.”  Then there is the question how Bill Gates gets into his house when he forgets his key.  He uses a window.  When we use images related to computers and the internet, most people get the picture right away.

Still, I like the old images best.  But if I use them, I know I have to explain.  If I say “cock of the walk” I will add something to freshen it up or change it a bit: “he thinks he’s the cock of the barnyard fence” will do.

Here are more:

Sly as a fox looking for a break in the chicken coop wall.

Let’s hightail it outta here like heifers running from the cattle truck with their tails lifted high.

She’s growing like a weed, taller than a tomato plant and sturdier than kale.

Play with color.  Play with words.  The pictures behind the expressions we use are vivid and telling.  And don’t follow anyone’s guidance unless it’s as much fun as a barrel of piglets let lose in the barnyard.

If you find any worn cliches in my books, be so kind as to let me know.  Grin.

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