Tree in Bloom

A huge cherry tree grew outside, so close that its boughs tapped against the house, and it was so thickset with blossoms that hardly a leaf was to be seen.

…”I named that cherry tree outside my bedroom window this morning.  I called it Snow Queen because it was so white.  Of course, it won’t always be in blossom, but one can imagine that it is, can’t one?”

~Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

I have my own “Snow Queen”–not a cherry tree like Anne’s, but an apple tree.  It inspired this piece of bead embroidery, “Tree in Bloom.”

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This was mostly created while I sat out on my sunny front porch, watching spring burst to life–and nursing a very nasty spring cold.  I spent the beginning of May embroidering, binge-watching All Creatures Great and Small, and single-handedly keeping Kleenex and Sudafed in business.  It was hard to feel too sorry for myself, though, when the birds and flowers were so cheerful.

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“Tree in Bloom” is worked on cream cotton and is framed in a 10-inch embroidery hoop.  Both wood and glass beads create the tree branches, fluffy flowers and budding leaves.  It was something of an experiment, and although there are a few things I would change next time, overall I am happy with it.

I photographed it on my own “Snow Queen,” which, due to a long-lasting winter, isn’t actually in bloom yet.  “But one can imagine that it is, can’t one?”

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This piece is being raffled off at the library where I work, as part of a fundraiser.  Hopefully it invites a lot of tickets!

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Pieces of a Life

This is a companion to my post What Will Be Left Behind.

In my yard, next to the carriage house, under the shade of two apple trees, is an interesting area which I ungraciously call “The Junk Heap.”  It is exactly what I call it–the place where past residents of my house used to toss their refuse.  It was uncovered first by my dog, and then further exposed by natural erosion–Mother Nature conducting an archeological dig in my own backyard.

In my college ceramics class, I recall my professor relating that most of the reconstructed ceramic pieces we have come from middens (the official archeological name for “junk heap”).  Considering the tradition of deliberately breaking one’s pieces that don’t quite “come up to snuff,” my professor mused on how many ancient ceramicists would be horrified to discover that their rejected pieces have been painstakingly reconstructed, and are now lauded as paragons.  Be careful what you throw out, because it might wind up in a future art museum.

Every now and then, on a sunny day, I go out and sift through The Junk Heap.  My house was built around 1880, but being neither an archeologist, nor a glass or ceramics expert, I have no way to accurately date the items I find.  My lack of expertise, however, in no way hinders imaginative speculation.

Scattered throughout The Junk Heap are small lumps of coal.  Admittedly, when I first found them I was bemused as to what they could be–these lumps of hard, shiny black rock, which looked like pieces of wood.  They were numerous, and I wondered with alarm if at one point the carriage house had burned down (the carriage house had, in fact, had a fire in its lower story, but that was much more recent in origin).  It finally came to me that what I was looking at were the remains of fuel for a stove, not evidence of a great conflagration.  How the people who tossed out those bits of coal would have laughed at me–imagine, not knowing what coal looks like!  Yet these small black lumps represent such controversy in my day: they cause anxiety over pollution and a suffocating planet; over lost jobs and shrinking mining towns.  Once, though, they warmed a home and kept frigid northern winters at bay.

The Junk Heap has given up only one metal item: part of a hinge, crumbling with orange-brown rust.  Although it is slowly falling apart, it is thick and heavy and fits in my palm.  I wonder what structure it was once attached to, and why it was tossed away.  I know the house has undergone many changes since it was built; it is now a 2,400 square-foot duplex, but once I believe it was a much smaller, single-family home.  If you climb the stairs into the attic and look behind you, you can see the original roof, complete with wooden shingles.  An insurance map from 1920 shows that by that year, most of the current house was in existence as a duplex, except for one kitchen and both back porches.  The basement and foundation are clearly divided into “old, older, and oldest.”  I wonder what prompted such rapid changes over a forty-year span, and who built and lived in the house first.  Who looked at the land that is now my yard, and said, “yes, here!” and went to work on plans?  Who was first to plant his shovel in the earth, and scoop out a small hole which would become the foundation?  What did it look like, when the house was new and smelled of wood shavings and paint?

By far the most common item in The Junk Heap are pieces of glass.  They come in a wide variety of hues: clear, white, green, purple, and blue, the latter being the most prolific.  Some pieces are still shiny, but others have been rubbed rough by the soil and have the appearance of sea glass.  Most shards are rather small, but sometimes I come across a large piece: the bottom of a bottle, or a broken-off neck.  One favorite piece is a small, smooth fragment of opaque, milk-white glass.  Was it part of a bowl, a vase, a lamp?  For some reason, I have decided that it was part of a lamp, perhaps because my grandma had a milk-glass lamp in her kitchen–before I broke it.  I was sliding happily along her smooth kitchen floors in my sock feet when I slipped, and my flailing arm knocked the lamp clear off the counter as I fell onto my backside.  The lamp smashed quite loudly and dramatically on the shining floor.  My grandparents, aunts and uncles were all gathered talking at the kitchen table, and there was a deafening silence before they all jumped up to see what had happened.  I was sure that I would be in trouble for my heedlessness, but everyone only wanted assurance that I was unhurt.  Perhaps come unlucky accident landed this piece of milk-glass, now flecked with dirt and pebbles, into the Junk Heap.

I have found only a few ceramic pieces in the Junk Heap, but one shard has especially caught my imagination.  It is a piece of stoneware, glazed yellow with a thin white band and a thick rim, very much like a piece of a mixing bowl.  It reminds me of set of yellow Pyrex bowls my mother has had since I was very young–probably since she was married.  Those bowls have mixed up many, many batches of banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, and mashed potatoes.  When I look at the shard of yellow pottery, I am reminded of all the delicious, home-made foods my mother has made in her own set of yellow bowls.  When I am cooking in my kitchen, covered with flour and mixing up cookie dough, I think about the many women before me who have lived and cooked in my house, who had aprons dusted with flour and secretly licked the bowl clean.  A former resident of my neighborhood told me that when he was a boy, the lady who lived in my house always had cookies to give out to the neighborhood children.  Many cookies surely passed into small, eager hands through my front door.

Now our house is up for sale, and the Junk Heap and all its fascination and mystery will pass into new hands.  Before we leave, I will add to the pile, in the tradition of ceramicists and this house’s former inhabitants–I will smash a few of my pieces from college ceramics class which aren’t quite “up to snuff,” and a few favorite, but hopelessly cracked, dinner plates and bowls.  There they will sit, among the rubble of coal and glass bottles and iron hardware: pieces of a life, for someone else to pick up and ponder.

Water on Fire

Someone asked Shaun and I what challenges we faced when we first got married.

We looked at each other, smirked, and then burst out laughing.

“Well,” said Shaun, “Ashley didn’t really know how to housekeep or cook when we first got married, so that was kind of rough.”

While this was totally throwing me under the bus (I love you, too, dear), it is also true.  We ate more hot dogs and canned baked beans in that first year than I would care to remember.  Also, more than once we had toast for dinner–which I don’t recall, but Shaun apparently does.  Vividly.

My most vivid memory of my early culinary expeditions is the time I lit water on fire.

This incident occurred when we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in El Paso, TX.  The kitchen was a tiny galley kitchen which seemed better suited to microwaving a TV dinner than to actually cooking.  It had all the necessary appliances, but they were arranged in such a way that counter-space was extremely lacking.  I think the maximum length of continuous counter-space was about two feet.  Also, our kitchen was outfitted, by someone who shall remain nameless, with a variety thrift store pots and pans, which were “cheap” in both price and quality.

In my defense, this wasn’t the greatest kitchen in which to learn how to cook.

One evening before Shaun came home from work, I was in the kitchen dutifully preparing dinner.  I was making a dish which required pasta, so I got out my thin-walled, slightly-bowed-on-the-bottom thrift store sauce pot and some bow-tie pasta.  I have an unfortunate, scatter-brained habit where I put the pasta in the water before the water is set to boil on the stove.  It doesn’t seem to make that much difference, cooking-wise, except that you have to watch the pasta a little more closely in order not to overcook it.  It does mean that the pasta is soaking in the water while it’s heating to a boil.

The pasta came to boiling, and my little thrift store pot started rocking gently on the burner while it cooked.  The stove was electric, the type with coil burners that have metal pans underneath to catch drips.  Sometimes, the rocking of the sauce pot–combined, perhaps, with the fact that I had overfilled the pot a little, or had forgotten to turn down the heat–caused the pot to over-boil.

In this case, the rocking pot was overfilled on a very hot burner.  Hearing the water boiling and the pot swaying to and fro, I turned from my other dinner preparations in time to see some water slosh over the side of the pot and into the burner.

A stream of flame erupted from beneath the pot.

I had an immediate vision of being unable to work the fire extinguisher, of alarms going off throughout the apartment building, and of being surrounded by furious neighbors while explaining to the fire department that the conflagration had started when water went up in flame on my stove.  All while the apartment building burned to charcoal in the background.

Coming back the present, and realizing that I still had time to head off a catastrophe, I desperately wondered, “HOW DO I PUT OUT THIS WATER FIRE???”

Thankfully, I had read somewhere about what to do in the event of a cooking fire.  It had been very emphatic that if you have a cooking fire, do not pour water on it. Of course, if you are in a situation where water itself is already on fire, it follows that it would at best be useless to add more.

I flipped off the power to the burner and (either bravely or foolishly) reached around the flame and whisked the pot off the burner.  There was a pot lid nearby, so I slammed that down on top of the burner.  Then I prayed that the fire would go out, and I would not have to figure out how to use the fire extinguisher.*

The flame did go out, as quickly as it had first appeared.  I thought for sure that some pasta had sloshed out of the pot along with the water, and that this would be what had actually caught fire.  But all that was in the drip pan was a pool of cloudy pasta water and a light scorch mark.

When I told the story to Shaun that night, he refused to believe me at first.  “You can’t light water on fire!”

I conceded that it was, probably, the high concentration of dissolved starch that had actually caught fire when it came into contact with the heat of the burner.  Or perhaps it was a combination of an electric appliance and water which caused the flame.  But I still prefer to think that I flummoxed chemistry in some way.

And did we have toast for dinner that night?   After ascertaining that the fire was truly out, I continued cooking the pasta (on a different burner) and went about making dinner as usual–while keeping a wary eye on the stove.  You get back on the horse, and all that.

This probably should have been a clue that I cannot be trusted home alone.  Ever.

*I have no idea if I actually did the right thing in this situation, so don’t use this as a blueprint for putting out kitchen fires.  In fact, just try to avoid kitchen fires in the first place, okay?  Okay.

Almost There…

Great Lent is nearing its end, and apparently having fish on Annunciation really spoiled me, because I have started smelling phantom meat everywhere.

Last night, while making photocopies at work, I could have sworn someone was cooking chicken nuggets (seriously…chicken nuggets, of all things?  That’s stooping pretty low).

Later, at home, when turning off lights and heading upstairs to bed, I caught a whiff of frying bacon.

And at this very moment, sitting at my computer, I can clearly smell steak marinading.

It’s bizarre, especially since I’m not even that much of a meat-eater.  But you wouldn’t know it from the way my nose has gone rogue.  Does this happen to anyone else by the end of Lent, or am I some sort of meat-freak?

On the other hand, as my first priest said, “The smell of a cooking ham on Holy Saturday is enough to break a man.”

So I guess we’re all turning into raging carnivores by Holy Week.

Hang in there…Pascha is coming.

It’s the First Day of…

So far as spring goes…it’s NOT snowing, the sun is shining, and my neighbors’ daffodils are six inches tall. Granted, the daffodils are plastered up against the house foundation, in the half-inch of yard that isn’t buried under a foot of snow…and they haven’t grown perceptibly in about three weeks…and they are starting to have a desperate, “man, we were WAY too early to this party” look to them, but….

…Yeah, okay, it’s still winter.

My First (and Last) Valentine’s Date

Shaun and I have a running joke that we just can’t do things the easy or normal way.  We met in college and then dated long-distance for four years, first between Ohio and New York, and then between Texas and New York, while I finished up school.  With inter-state travel being a necessity, we were bound to have a few travel-related mishaps along the way.

It also meant that “dating” was a bit of a misnomer when it came to describing our relationship.  E-mailing, AIM-ing, phoning, skype-ing, even letter-writing, yes–but actual dates were a rare thing.  In fact, we didn’t have our first real date until we had been “dating” for about a year and a half.  I suppose we could have tried a candlelit dinner via Skype, but I doubt a glowing computer screen would have created the same ambiance.

When Shaun surprised me by visiting for Valentine’s Day weekend my sophomore year, we were eager to try out this long-heard-of-but-as-yet-untried relationship ritual.  The college was set in a rural part of New York, and the campus and surrounding hamlet offered no appealing venue for such a momentous occasion–being not only our first date, but also the most romantic day of the year, at that.  The nearest large town, which was half an hour away, boasted an Italian restaurant, and we decided that this would be very suitable.

Being winter in New York, it was getting dark by the time we set out along the winding county routes.  We were excited and a little nervous and relieved that, finally, some part of our relationship would conform to the prescribed pattern.  Lacking a car, I was also excited to get off campus and at least see some different trees than everyday.

Everything had been going smoothly by the time we arrived in town, and we were basking in the rosy romance of being together, on a date, on Valentine’s Day.  At the first stoplight, Shaun got into the left-turn lane and waited for the light.  The light glowed green–and the truck stalled.

He turned the truck off and back on, and nothing happened.  He tried again.  Meanwhile, the line of vehicles waiting to turn grew longer and longer.  Giving up on getting the engine to come back to life, Shaun found the AAA card in the glove box and called the number.  The cars behind us also gave up on waiting, and started using the center lane to turn left around us.  After waiting through several “press one” thresholds, a recorded message politely informed us that the AAA offices were closed that night.

We looked at each other in dismay.  There was no other service number to try, and we were blocking traffic.  “I don’t know the local police number, but there’s always 911,” I suggested. Shaun apologetically explained our non-emergency situation to the 911 operator, who dispatched a police vehicle to assist us and told us to sit tight.  We sat in the dark and watched as annoyed drivers navigated around us.

At last we saw flashing lights and an officer pulled up behind us.  Shaun demonstrated the stalled engine to him.  He had Shaun put the truck in neutral, and pushed the vehicle across the intersection and onto the shoulder.  Then he offered us a lift to the police station, where we could try and figure out a way to get back to campus.

I sat in the passenger seat of the police car, while Shaun had the notable experience of riding in the back, on the hard plastic bench, behind a metal grate.  When we arrived at the station, the officer said to me, “You can go ahead and get out, but then you’ll have to let him [Shaun] out, because the back doors don’t open from the inside.”   So I ended up chivalrously holding the car door open for my boyfriend.

Inside the police station, we tried to figure out what to do next.  The other officers offered us coffee, and a few jokes about our situation, and looks full of pity.  At the time I did not have a cell phone, and had none of my friends’ numbers.  In any case, few of them had cell phones, and even fewer had vehicles.  Thankfully, Shaun’s phone still had numbers for some of his fellow ROTC cadets, from when he had attended the college the previous year.  He started working his way down the list.

Not surprisingly, most everyone was out for Valentine’s Day.  At long last, he reached someone who wasn’t out on a date, and thankfully, who had a car.  Forty-five minutes later, our ride pulled up outside the police station door.  We rode back to campus in awkward silence.  So yeah, thanks for picking us up from our date at the police station–so glad you didn’t have a date yourself tonight….

Our rescuer accepted our profuse thanks and some money for gas, and dropped us off at the campus center.  It was late, and we still had not eaten, so we made our way to the campus snack shop, where we ate wraps and curly fries at a booth, surrounded by students doing homework, goofing off, and ogling this poor couple who had to have a date at the snack shop.

The bright side of this situation was that Shaun had to stay over for an extra day, to wait for his truck to be repaired.

We never did get to that Italian restaurant.

But Shaun did propose two years later, so it must not have been such a bad first date, after all.

In the Grip of the White Witch

Originally written on December 28, 2017.  I couldn’t quite bear to post it until we had passed the half-way point for winter.

I was dozing this morning when I half-heard a loud “bang.”  A few seconds later, the water in the bathroom abruptly stopped.  Shaun, who was brushing his teeth, moaned, “Oh, no.”  That really woke me up.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, as he came into the room and started throwing on layers of clothes.

“The water stopped,” he said, putting on his third shirt.  “And there was a bang.  I’m going to see if one of the pipes burst in the basement.”

I followed Shaun downstairs, which was markedly colder than the upstairs, and waited anxiously as he went into the basement.  I could feel the cold seeping into the house.  The furnace had long given up on keeping the house at our set 64-degrees, and had settled for 59 instead.  A few minutes later, it gave up on even that, and the thermostat registered 58-degrees in our living room.

Shaun returned from the basement and reported that no pipes had broken, thankfully, and that he had stopped up an old, broken basement window, in an attempt to keep out the frigid air.  A little later, our water started flowing again.

Disaster averted.

After consulting the weather conditions posted online, Shaun finished dressing for work. He often spends a great deal of time working outdoors in a warehouse and supply yard.  -21-degrees merited long johns, a long-sleeve tee and two sweaters, two pairs of pants, wool socks, and a fleece jacket to top it all off.  This was before he put on all his outerwear, mind you.  I imagine him toddling around work looking like the Michelin man.

A little before 7:00AM, in a fit of perverse curiosity, I checked the online weather report.  Weather.com was cruel enough to initially pull up the stats for Miama, FL, where it was a tropical 60-degrees.  I checked our town again, which had fallen to -22-degrees.  The local news station reported that Watertown, NY, had set a state record that morning for -25-degrees–not factoring in wind-chill.  This comes directly on the heels of record-breaking snowfall in the Tug Hill region.

Fairbanks, AK, on the other hand, was reporting a balmy -1-degrees.

While I was on the computer, I was startled by several more ominous-sounding bangs coming from the house.  This is my fifth winter in New York’s North Country, so I am no longer a stranger to sub-zero temperatures, but this is the coldest I have yet experienced.  After checking the house, I settled down the conclusion that the house was merely “creaking with cold.”  The whole morning has been an unnerving symphony of structural pops, bangs, creaks, and crackles.  As I was eating breakfast in the dining room, a small older window suddenly started crackling–the very sound ice or glass makes in the movies when it is cracking and about to shatter.  It looked fine, but I finished my bagel while watching the window with suspicion.

It’s not even January, yet.

(Not long after, in January, I set a new personal record for Coldest Temperature Experienced, at -30 degrees.  That was quite cold enough, thank you.)

 

Come soon, Aslan.

 

Why Punxsutawney Phil lives in Pennsylvania…

After living in New York’s North Country for five years, having Groundhog Day on February 2 seems rather pointless to me.

At this time of year, a groundhog’s burrow is still deep under multiple feet of snow.  Forget the groundhog seeing his shadow–you can’t even see the groundhog.  Or his den.  I doubt he even wakes up long enough to consider attempting to dig his way out.

Of course we are going to have six more weeks of winter.  At least.  There’s even two snowstorms on the way to prove it.

Having Groundhog Day on April 2, though…that would make more sense.

Dear Groundhog, is it going to snow on Mother’s Day?

That’s the question everyone around here would like answered.

 

Winged Futility

He beats himself against the window
framed in a square of watery winter light
while behind him
stretches the wide, wide-open door
but he
is futility, winged.

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(A note for animal-lovers: he did eventually find his way out…cupped carefully in my hands…and flew away into the great outdoors.)