Monday, May 28, 2012


On a scale of one – ten, rate your level of pain?”
“Fifteen,” she replied.
The nurse made a note on her clip board. “I’ll see what I can do.”
A young man clad in green scrubs entered as the nurse was leaving.
“I’m Trent McKay. I’ll be performing the surgery.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mary forced a weak smile in reply.
“Right now, I am planning to tack you on at the end of day, which should be around 9:00.” He paused, “It could be later. We’ve been running behind all day. Can you tell me how this happened?”
She gave him the short version; he didn’t need - nor she suspected - had the temperament for the long one.  “I fell off the bulkhead and landed on my hip.” As soon as she said it she regretted it as the look that passed over his face told her what he was thinking. Middle aged female, fragile bones, foolish for sure; maybe feeble minded!
“Do you think you had a stroke?” This came out as more of statement than a question.
“I am quite sure I didn’t!” she emphatically replied, fixing him with the look that had unnerved her high school students years ago.
Dr. McKay’s pager went off; he looked at it, waved and left. “We’ll talk about this some more - later.”
The nurse returned with the morphine and as it began to work its way through her system, Mary closed her eyes reflected on the events leading up to this moment.

After weeks of unrelenting rain, January 13th had dawned dry and sunny.  To celebrate their good fortune, weather-wise, she and Barley, a notquitetwo–year-old golden retriever set off for the beach, he with an acid green canvas lunker in his mouth and Mary with a smile on hers. Heavy rains and high winds the winter before had taken out the last 35 feet of stairs which had been repaired and replaced with a series of new stairs and switchbacks. They paused when they reached the bulkhead and realized that the final four feet of stairs that would put them on the beach was missing.  Clearly, this was more of a problem for Mary than for Barley, who flew off the bulkhead, dropped the lunker, and then turned and looked at her expectantly – let’s get this show on the road! At one time Mary might well have followed suit but a torn anterior cruciate ligament and ragged meniscus that led to a total knee replacement a few months previously had made her more cautious. As a consequence, a more circumspect approach was called for. She knelt at the edge of the log bulkhead with her back to the water; intent on down climbing, she gingerly extended her left leg, seeking a foothold on the logs below. She shifted her weight over her left leg, but when the foothold failed her, she slipped backward, landing with all her weight on her left hip. The sand at the moment of contact felt more like cement than sugar. A flash of light behind her eyes accompanied by sharp pain and a momentary loss of consciousness suggested the possibility of a serious injury. Her first thought was a concussion but given the point of impact that seemed unlikely.

Regrettably, this beach-induced insight that something serious had happened was fleeting. Once she got back in the house, she felt euphoric and downright smug about her achievement, so that she carried on as if nothing had happened. She got out the broom, swept the floor and built a fire to take off the chill. Even though the day was sunny, it was still January with high temperatures cresting in the 40’s. Besides, she felt clammy. When she discovered that she was out of Advil she called her neighbor Pam. There might be some upstairs but at the moment tackling yet another flight of stairs didn’t appeal to her. Pam arrived, located the Advil, helped onto the sofa and promised to check back with her in an hour or so.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine. Ibuprofen is the wonder drug!” she assured her. For the moment, ‘denial’ was clearly in the ascendancy, though, in a matter of hours, it would crash to earth.

Around 11:00 P.M. a tired looking Dr. McKay returned to her room “We can operate now,” he glanced up at her,”but I’d rather wait until tomorrow.”

“That’s fine with me,” she replied, now that the morphine was coursing through her system, there didn’t seem to be any rush. By the time her hospital stay was over she would arrive at a heightened appreciation of pain. Medication might dull the pain but didn’t obliterate it; she realized, however, that she had the power to control it to a certain extent; to move it off center stage to the wings, as if it were a vase of cabbage roses blocking the view of her dining companion. It remained there in her peripheral vision but no longer front and center.

Dr. McKay continued, “Let me give you an idea of what you can expect following the surgery.” Nothing that had happened to her so far was as scary as what followed.
“Expect to spend four to six days in the hospital following the surgery and then another six or seven days at a rehab center.”
“Real-ly?” she replied, her voice dropping on the second syllable.
“Of course, if things go well, those times might shorten up a bit. But that’s the schedule I prefer and the one you should plan on.” He rose, smiled tiredly, “I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”
We’ll see about that! She congratulated herself on keeping her mouth shut. Going forward there would be ample time to straighten him out. She smiled to herself, and then lay back against the pillows of her hospital bed.

In her living room, she had adjusted the sofa pillow as she took in the view of the Olympic Mountains and the Sound that never failed to soothe her; today was no exception.  The wind had picked up so the water was rougher, but still it looked much the same as it had an hour ago. How long ago was it that I went to the beach? She had no concept of time anymore. More than an hour, she concluded. Maybe two?

She remembered that she and Janey were meeting at Casa Mia for dinner tonight and then going to the library to hear Garth Stein talk about his book they both had loved, The Art of Racing in the Rain. She and Janey were ‘dog people’ and had laughed and cried in the same places in the book.
She was annoyed that she hadn’t asked Pam to bring a phone into the living room. As it was, she would have to get herself to the kitchen in order to make a call. She was beginning to feel antsy anyway; she couldn’t stay on the sofa all day!  She tried to sit up and fell back against the cushions. Ow!  A violent pain took her breath away and left her feeling faint. It was hard to sit up without bending at the waist but she would have to find a way. After a few more painful false starts, she managed to get upright by planting her right foot firmly on the floor and pushing off with her right hand. A graceless gymnastic vault – but it worked.  She made it to the phone and called Janey.

“Oh hi Mary, what time should we meet tonight?”
Mary paused. “Um - I hate to do this but I don’t think I can make it.  I had a little tumble on the beach this morning . . .”
“Oh dear,” Janey broke in, “did you hurt yourself?”
“That remains to be seen. I slipped off the bulkhead and landed with all my weight on my left hip.” She paused, and then added. “It feels like a bad sprain.”
Janey chuckled. “Mary, you know you can’t sprain your fanny!”
“I know; it feels like it though.”
“You need to go to the hospital.” Janey said matter-of-factly. Mary was beginning to agree with her but by now was pretty sure she couldn’t drive herself. Janey interrupted her thoughts.
“You don’t sound like yourself. I’m coming out and can drive you there. ”

After a hard landing, she didn’t feel much like herself. She began to straighten herself out of the crumpled position she had landed in. In a rush, everything that she needed to do occurred to her. For starters, she couldn’t continue to lie on the beach much longer. The tide was coming in fast and she had to get a move on. She wiggled her fingers and toes; relieved that everything seemed to be in working order, maybe I just have a bad bruise - a hematoma - her doctor daughter would have called it. She took a deep breath, exhaled as she rolled over, and then pushed herself up on all fours.  About that time, Barley pressed the lunker, wet and coated with sand into her face.

Unlike Lassie, Barley didn’t have rescue on his mind. Retrieving was in his DNA and she had a necessary role to play. From the crouched position she was able to lob the lunker a short distance into the water distracting Barley long enough to crawl to the bulkhead and pull herself up. She leaned against it until the dizziness went away. In between lunker launchings, she calculated her next move which, all things considered, was the most challenging. She had to get back up on the bulkhead in order to access the stairs to get back to the house. Climbing back up the slick logs was obviously not an option.

On the other side of the boathouse there was a jumble of rocks and logs that had ridden in on a high tide and stayed there. They formed a rough ladder that she managed to scramble up. With that task behind her, she steeled herself for the hardest part - walking along the eight inch concrete wall in front of the boathouse.  Several seasons worth of high tides had long since washed the sand away between the concrete wall and the building, making the crossing treacherous, even in the best of circumstances. She paused and let Barley go ahead of her – she was feeling unstable enough and didn’t need a wet impatient dog pushing her from behind.

She braced herself with her hands against the weathered double doors and cautiously side stepped the distance that was no more than fifteen feet but seemed like half a mile. She made it and buoyed by her successful crossing, she began the ascent of the final 85 feet with marked dispatch. She thought it would be harder than it actually was and before she knew it she ‘summitted’. Along the way, she employed whatever technique seemed to work - in some places, she could pull herself along, hand over hand using the railing. Where the stairs were the steepest, she crawled on all fours, crab-like. It wasn’t until afterwards when people would ask her how she did it that appreciated the difficulty.

“I didn’t have any options – and of course, I was in shock,” became her stock reply.

Later, after she was long gone from the hospital, she learned that medically speaking ‘shock’ was not the correct term. It was her hypothalamus that saved her by signaling the pituitary, which signaled the adrenals to send out the advance party in the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, that motley crew of hormones that came into their own at a more primitive time and fortunately can still be called into service to suppress pain and boost energy – at least temporarily.

Mary decided to make tea before Janey arrived. The electric kettle was in the kitchen, one short step up from where she now stood and she found she couldn’t manage it.  In hindsight, it is quite likely that the prospect of facing the rest of the day without tea is what finally brought her to her senses.

“I don’t think I can get into your car Janey,” Mary told her, as she hung over the barstool, to take the weight off her hips. Comfortable positions were becoming scarce. 
“I’ll call 911. What do you think?” Mary didn’t say anything while Janey picked up the phone and placed the call.
Then Mary said, “I need to call Kate and leave a message that I won’t be home this afternoon.”  Kate had promised a chat that afternoon when she got home from work. Kate was a third year anesthesiology resident and the weekly phone call that Mary unapologetically lived for required considerable advance planning.
She punched in the number and spoke to their answering machine, advising Kate and her husband that she had ‘taken a spill’ at the beach that day and was popping over to the hospital to have it checked out.
“Don’t worry; I’m sure it’s nothing serious.  I’ll call when I get back home this afternoon and let you know what I find out.” Before she could sign off, she heard the wail of the emergency vehicle careening around the corner. Most likely their answering machine heard it as well.
“Oh shit!” she said and hung up the phone.

Janey followed the emergency vehicle to the hospital and sat with her in the ER. There was a shortage of gurneys in the emergency room but no shortage of emergencies, so Mary was offered a wheel chair instead. She knew she couldn’t sit in it but with her legs stretched out in front of her and her back where her bottom ordinarily would be, she was reasonably comfortable.

I have been moving around like a crab all day, she thought to herself as she rolled into the cubicle marked ‘admissions’ where the woman asked for her medical insurance card. After that she crab-walked her way to an examining room. X-rays followed. During the interval, she thought about calling her daughter but was told that cell phones didn’t work in that part of the hospital. Just as well, she thought as she still didn’t have much to report.

The young ER doctor who introduced himself to her in the examination room returned - ashen after seeing the x-rays - and informed her that the ball of her femur had broken off, and was floating around in her hip. She imagined a golf ball, bouncing back and forth between her femur and her pelvis. She winced at the image.

“You’re probably experiencing significant pain,” he volunteered, nodding as he did so.

“Yes   I   am.” She spoke deliberately but she tried not to sound cranky. After all, none of this was his fault. “Please call my daughter and explain this to her. You speak the same language.” She handed him her cell phone. By now, even if reception was possible, she didn’t want to make the call. He took the phone and left the room.

She left the examining room herself shortly after that and was taken to the sixth floor of the hospital, the orthopedic wing she remembered from last year’s knee replacement. Sometime, after the doctor’s first visit and the nurse’s second that introduced morphine to her system, Kate called.

“I’m flying out tomorrow morning and should be there by early afternoon.”
“Oh honey, you don’t need to come. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure you will be mom, but I am coming anyway. Where’s dad?” she added.
“He flew to Texas a few days ago, in order to go to Padre Island and Port Aransas.”
“What’s the attraction?” Kate asked.
“Spoonbills and whooping cranes. They winter there, I guess. By now, he ought to be in Belize.” When Mary and Barley returned from the beach that morning, there was a message from Fred calling from the Dallas – Fort Worth airport, en route to Belize.
“Does he know you are in the hospital?”
“Gosh no – and I really don’t want him to!” Mary paused; actually, she didn’t know if there was a way to call him. Mary and Fred were appalling casual about that kind of information, much to their friends’ and family’s frustration.
“I really don’t want dad to know about this. Promise me you won’t tell him.” It was Kate’s turn to pause.
“Okay,” she finally said. “I won’t.” They chatted a bit longer and then rung off with “see you tomorrow.”

As it turned out, she wasn’t taken into surgery until close to seven the next evening so Kate was able to be with her in the pre-op room. “I’m sorry you felt had to come," Mary said as she held her daughter’s slender hand, “but I am glad you’re here.” Mary looked over; Kate’s eyes were brimming with tears.
“Oh honey, don’t worry about mom. You know how tough I am. Everything is going to be fine.” Even while she said it she realized that her daughter’s perspective would be altered by their relationship as well as her work. Kate bit her lip and nodded but the tears still spilled down her cheeks. She wiped them away with the back of her hand, sniffed and then laughed at herself.
The nurse arrived to take Mary into the surgery room. Kate kissed her cheek and followed the nurse’s directions to the waiting room.

The procedure went smoothly and by the time Mary was brought back to her room Kate was there waiting for her with a smile on her face.
“How do you feel?” she asked her mother.
“Great. I feel great!”Mary waved her hand to emphasize her point.
Kate confirmed that they had given her mother a regional block in addition to the general anesthetic. “You should be pretty comfortable for the next twelve hours, maybe longer if you’re lucky.”
“I don’t expect my luck to run out anytime soon.”
“Dad called a little while ago from the airport. He should be here in half an hour or so.”
Mary’s eyes took on that hard look that signaled her displeasure.
“You promised you wouldn’t call him!”
“I didn’t. Somebody else did.” Kate looked away and then back at her mother. "I told them to."
“He’s going to be mad that I ruined his dive trip.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Not as mad as he’d be if he hadn’t been told!”

Three days later she was discharged from the hospital, not to a rehab facility but to home. Fred and Kate had put an extra mattress on the Murphy bed in the computer room so that she could get in and out of bed without lowering her hip below her knees. Kate worked up a spread sheet for ‘Mary Care’ assigning friends to drive her to physical therapy and doctor appointments until she could drive herself.

In the days and weeks that followed, Mary retold the story many times, shamelessly basking in the wonderment of her audience. “Necessity fueled by adrenalin makes heroes of us all!” she often concluded, pleased with that particular turn of phrase. Kate informed her that ‘epinephrine’ was another word for adrenalin. Epinephrine – epinephrine.  She liked the sound of it, the way it rolled off her tongue. 

Over time, she came to realize something about the heroes of the story as well as the extent of her indebtedness. Of course there were the medical heroes –not just the surgeon and the folks at the hospital, but the surgical pioneers who had figured out how to do this procedure in the first place. If this had happened thirty years ago, I’d never walk again! she reminded herself.

Most of her heroes, however, were closer to home; they were the friends and family members who looked out for her; who ignored her when she told them to stay away.

They were her girlfriends who met Kate in the surgery waiting room, took her to dinner then stayed with her, distracting her with laughter and stories until Dr. McKay arrived to tell her that her mother was out of surgery. Then the friends went home; they hadn’t come to see Mary - they had come to be with Kate.

“How did they know I was even in the hospital?” Mary asked her when Kate told her about it.
“Oh mom, this is Olympia. Everybody knows!”

Maureen and Don were special heroes; they sat with Mary in her room, and fixed her tea or found saltines for her if she asked for them. But mainly, they just sat quietly, bringing serenity in with them, like a cashmere throw over her shoulders.

Fred was  a hero as well,  for when she apologized for ruining his dive trip, he smiled and shrugged. “I didn’t miss much. The storm had stirred up the water so the visibility would have been lousy.”

Epinephrine may have made Mary look like a hero, at least momentarily; but it was the unfailing loyalty of her noble family and friends that made her feel like one.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dust Mites
"Couldn’t you hire someone to do this?”Fred was standing in the bedroom doorway watching his wife rip up the carpet. She had that determined look that was all too familiar to him.
“Nope. I tried. Everyone I talked to either said they were too busy or it sounded like too much work.”
Last night, he had helped her dismantle the bed and move the dresser and bed out of the guest room so she could start taking out the carpet first thing this morning.
 “What’s wrong with the carpet anyway?” She gave him an incredulous look, by way of reply.
“I just wondered. It still looks pretty good to me.”
“It’s old,” she said as she ran an Exacto knife along a seam. “And dirty.”
“Not that old, is it?”
“Twenty-six years,” she paused, “and four dogs.” She pointed to a greenish stain in the tan carpet that faded to yellow in the center.  Looking up at him she said. “That’s 182 dog years in case you are wondering. Besides, this carpet is infested with dust mites!”
He looked more closely at the carpet.  “Dust mites?”
“Oh, you can’t see ‘em but, trust me, they’re there.” She sat back on her heels. “They’re gross looking. I bet you’ve seen pictures of them in the Sunday supplement. They look like lobsters. ” She rocked forward and went back to work.
 “Oh, and they’re really bad for anyone with allergies.” That pointed remark was intended for him; he had allergies and she didn’t.
So throughout the weekend, the dust mite driven project continued apace until the three upstairs bedrooms had been stripped of the carpet, along with the pad and the wooden strips filled with sharp staples. Fred made three trips to the land fill and each time he returned to find another pile of carpet or padding on the ground waiting to be hauled off.
On Saturday evening he said. “You work harder than any woman I know!” It was true and he meant it as a compliment but he immediately regretted saying it.
“Is that so?” Her eyes narrowed as she fixed him with a penetrating look. “Well just name me one man you know who would take this on.”
She was right and that was part of the problem. Actually, it was the problem - with the project specifically and with his wife in general. Once she made up her mind there was no dissuading her. If he brought up the matter of expense, he knew she would dismiss it by informing him that one’s children and one’s home were the best investments you could make. Frankly, though he’d never admit it to her, he wasn’t really sure he agreed; still he knew it would be churlish to suggest that a nice vacation and some well chosen toys should be right up there.
Mary was as strong as she was fearless – qualities that he couldn’t help but admire. It was just that sometimes he wished he could admire these qualities at more of a distance - say in somebody else’s wife. Besides, all her work made him feel guilty. He really didn’t like that.
On Sunday, after the second run to the landfill, he stopped by the marina to commiserate with his friends. It was Labor Day weekend, warm and sunny – perfect conditions for fishing or sailing or just hanging out.
“Where’s Mary?” someone asked. “Is she still taking out carpet?”
“Yah. When I left, she had started on the master bedroom.”
“You camping out tonight, Fred?” Everyone laughed. His wife’s affinity for projects was the stuff of local legend. Everyone in the neighborhood knew of the time the contractor came out to confer with her on repairing the flat roof over the family room and they ended up with a major remodel.
“Well,” Mary later explained, “when he told me he wouldn’t guarantee his work on a flat roof it only made sense to go up.” So up they went with a new bedroom over the family room that now was part of a fully renovated kitchen, topped off with a new roof that matched the pitch on the other half of the house.  

By Monday afternoon all vestiges of the carpet were gone, exposing the plywood subfloor. On Tuesday, they both went back to work, and the following weekend Fred packed up his truck and headed down to Death Valley on what Mary referred to as his ‘fall migration.’  When he returned ten days later, cork flooring that mimicked burled maple had been installed. The new floor felt cold when he padded into the bathroom in the morning in his bare feet.
“This isn’t a criticism, but I just wondered why we didn’t just put down new carpet?”
“Dust mites. Cork is hypo-allergenic and it will last forever.” She brought him a cup of coffee, then enlightened him further. “You know, there are wineries in Italy and France where the cork floors have been down over a hundred years.”
“Well, I don’t expect to be here another hundred years but in the meantime, I am going to have cold feet in the mornings.”
“Wear your slippers.”
Fred sighed and returned to the Sudoku. In most respects he knew they were compatible. Everything would be great if it weren’t for her penchant for projects.  As it was, he could never fully relax, knowing that just when it seemed that there was nothing left for her to tamper with, he would come home and be met by workers. Several times he had tried to talk to her about it.
“I really like change,” she always told him. “I think it’s fun and exciting.” When he pressed her on this, she replied. “Of course, I don’t want to make major changes – don’t want a new house, don’t want to switch you out. But when it comes to the “little stuff “– well, it seems as if there is always some room for improvement.”
Naturally, he was relieved that she didn’t have him on her ‘punch list.’ Of course, he didn’t want to move or get remarried either, though if he had to choose, marriage would be preferable, provided he could stay put! He admitted he didn’t like change. He couldn’t think of anyone, except Mary, who did. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ carried the day for him.
Once these projects were over with and the workers had gone home, he always came around. Further, he made a point of telling her how much he liked the end results.  But getting there was so painful – the mess, the delays, the hammering and digging that often was still going on when he got home from work. That was by far the worst part. It threw his routine off and made him feel guilty to boot, like he should grab a hammer and join them when what he wanted to do was put on his shorts, crack a beer and sit in the front yard and read Sports Illustrated.
Besides, he took issue with her idea of what constituted ‘the little stuff.’ Surely the new roof/remodel couldn’t be classified as ‘little stuff’ nor could the front yard renovation that followed the Nisqually Earthquake. ‘Sod to Slate’ he had dubbed the undertaking. The quake left cracks in the basement retaining wall which seemingly could only be repaired by digging up a large part of the front yard.
“Are you sure?” she frowned as she looked at the flower bed whose days were evidently numbered. “What a pain,” as she dug up the lilies and peonies and put them in pots until they could be replanted.
One evening before the anticipated digging had begun, she came out to where he sat  reading.  “You know I’ve been thinking . . .”she began.  At that, an alarm went off and Fred closed his eyes, as if that might block out her voice. Pretending not to hear her was a ruse he’d employed in the past with limited success.  When making her case, Mary never hesitated to repeat herself if she suspected she didn’t have his undivided attention.
“I’ve been thinking that while we are at it, we might as well take out all of the grass.”
“So, what would we have in place of grass? Asphalt? A deck?” She ignored his attempted joke with the asphalt and went right on to the deck.
“Well, I considered a deck but I don’t think it would look right. Too modern looking for this old house. Besides, decks get slicker than snot when wet and we both know it’s wet a lot of the time.”  Well, that’s a relief, he thought to himself.
“I’m thinking about putting down flagstones.”
With that, she set a couple of books in front of him with pictures of patios and terraces created with large flat stones. They looked heavy and were referred to as “hardscape” he learned as she turned the pages, showing him more designs. “Hmm. That’s interesting,” he said wishing he could just get back to SI and the NBA.
The contractor and his crew showed up a few days later to tackle the wall repair. That night Fred got home from work first and was informed that it wouldn’t be necessary to dig up the front yard after all. Once the men got into it, they discovered they could manage the repair working from the inside. Wow! For once, a reprieve. He could hardly believe it.  No real mess involved and they promised to be in and out in a couple of days.
“That’s great!” Mary said when Fred gave her the good news. He could hardly believe his ears. At last, a project she would back away from.
“But the grass is history. I’ve just talked to Mark Osborn and we’ve got a plan. He’s never done flagstones before – just pavers, but is willing to give it a try. I know it will look great.”
As an afterthought she added. “It will be a lot of work to install the slate but once it’s in place, it will be really low maintenance. You’ll see.  No more mowing.”
“It only takes Wes ten minutes to mow the grass now.”
“Wes is getting too old to mow.”
“Surely we could find somebody younger then,” he said to her back as she went into the kitchen.  But by then it was too late and he knew it; he was just pissing into the wind.
And so the sod came out, the yard was scraped and leveled, a drain system installed and then gravel mixed with sand was smoothed across the surface. Finally, the slabs of Montana Blue slate were put in place. For the rest of the summer Mary spent most every evening and weekend, kneeling on the stones planting moss, thyme, and Corsican mint between the cracks as well as other plants whose names he promptly forgot.
“It’s given me a new appreciation of the term ‘stoop labor’,” she told him one evening at the end of the summer when the planting was complete. By this time, new flower beds had emerged around the perimeter of the slate patio and colorful ceramic pots were placed strategically along the fence and by the front porch.
“It looks great, honey,” he said as he took her hand while they surveyed the front yard. “But you have to admit it took a helluva long time and a lot of work to get here.”
“So did the Sistine Chapel.”
And she was right - it was more practical than grass, where the legs of the lawn chair always sunk in and the picnic table cut deep ruts. But when it came to her claim of low maintenance, she was off the mark. The first year the slate had to be watered regularly to insure that everything took off. From then on it required annual power washing and whenever they threw a party, it had to be ‘vacuumed’ with the blower set on reverse.  

A couple of weeks ago, she picked him up and they drove out to the mall. “Tell me again why we’re here?” he asked as she led him past the sofas and entertainment centers  to the mattress section at Macy’s.
“We’re getting a new mattress.”
 “What’s wrong with the one we have?”
“It’s old,” she replied as they turned the corner and were met by a saleswoman who introduced herself as Elizabeth.
“So? Not that old. It was an expensive mattress, I seem to recall.”
Elizabeth smiled at the two of them. Most likely she had heard this conversation before. “You really should replace your mattress every twelve to fifteen years.”
“Our mattress can’t be that old. Is it?” He looked first at Elizabeth and then at Mary.
“Twice that,” Mary informed him as she kicked off her shoes and stretched out on one of the mattresses. “It is old and saggy and probably full of dust mites!” 

A few days later, the new mattress arrived. They both had trouble sleeping that night though neither was sure if they could blame it on the new mattress. It was comfortable enough – it just felt different. As he lay there, getting drowsy, he thought about the dust mites and concluded that they were a lot like his wife’s projects- invisible and stealthy, in equal parts. Just because he couldn’t see them, didn’t mean they weren’t there, poised and ready for attack.  On that uncomfortable thought, he rolled over, resigned himself to the inevitable and went to sleep.

Long Hair Like Abby

It’s not fair!” she said as she climbed into the back seat and pulled the door shut a little harder than necessary.

“Pardon me?” her mother said, catching her eye in the rearview mirror as they drove out of the school parking lot.

Fairness was something Katie understood, even if she was only seven. Fairness was when a grownup said that if you did something or quit doing something then something good would happen. Unfairness was when you did the something you were supposed to do and the grownup forgot all about it.

Just yesterday her mother had told her that she couldn’t have long hair until she stopped dawdling in the morning. So, this morning she got right up, dressed and came downstairs before anyone even knew she was awake. She pulled on her socks and her cords and her turtle neck, which she had to take off and put back on again because the first time she got it on backwards.

But now they were on their way to see Dee to get a haircut!

“Mom, why are we going to Dee’s?”

“It’s time for a haircut. Your bangs are too long for one thing. Remember last week when you went swimming? You told me that the reason you lost every race to Michael was because your hair was in your eyes.”

“I know.” Katie wished she’d never told her mother that, but she was mad about losing.

“I know I said that, last week, but, yesterday you said if I quit dawdling in the morning I could grow my hair out . . .  and this morning I didn’t dawdle. I got up and got dressed and came downstairs right away.” She paused, then wrinkling her forehead and looking at her mother in the mirror she continued. “Remember? You said you were proud of me.”

“I was proud of you.” Her mother smiled at her in the mirror. “’One swallow does not a summer make,’ my dear. Besides, I made this appointment weeks ago.”

Katie stared at the back of her mother’s head. Some of the things her mother said didn’t make sense. “I am not talking about birds. I am talking about having long hair. Like Abby.”

Abby and her cousin Shannon both had long hair.  Sometimes they wore it in a pony tail, and sometimes their mothers braided it. And sometimes it was just parted in the middle. That’s the way Katie liked it the best because when they bent their heads over a worksheet or spelling paper, it fell down on either side and hid their faces.

Katie did have another friend with short hair: Jocelyn. She and Jocelyn often talked about growing their hair out.

 “Jocelyn says she’s going to grow her hair out so long that it comes down to her feet.” Katie reported to her mom, who rolled her eyes. “That’ll be the day.”

“I just want my hair to be long enough so that when I swing my head from side to side, it swishes back and forth.”

The haircut proceeded as planned. After Dee cut her hair, Katie swung her head from side to side and back and forth and nothing happened. Her hair just stayed put. 

“It looks nice honey” said her mom. Katie gave her a wary look.

They got back into the car and drove to the swimming pool. Katie’s mother just didn’t like long hair. Every morning while she was growing up she had had to sit on a stool while her own mother braided her hair. She told her it was braided so tight that it hurt but she couldn’t move or it would mess up the braids. The first time she went to scout camp, her counselor couldn’t braid, so by the end of the week, her hair was a snarled mess and she didn’t get to go back to camp for a long time. Finally, when she was twelve, she was allowed to get her hair cut. Now it seemed like Katie would have to wait until she was twelve before she could have long hair. Twelve, Katie thought. She didn’t even know anybody who was twelve. The oldest kid in her school was only eleven.

When they got to the swimming pool, Michael was waiting for her. “Wanna race?” he asked. Michael always wanted to race and last week he won every time. This time, her hair didn’t get in her eyes and she didn’t have to stop even once. She won two of the races, Michael won one. 

“I got there first!” Michael insisted after the fourth race, but his mother called it a tie.  “How come you were so fast today?” Michael asked her as they left the pool.

The next day when she got to school, Jocelyn and Shannon were talking to a new girl – with short hair. Katie put her book bag in her cubby and ran right over. The new girl turned to Katie and smiled.

“Abby, Abby, what happened to your hair?”

“I got the end of one of my braids caught in my parka zipper so I cut it off to get it out. Then I cut the other one so they would be even. When my mom saw what I had done, she took me to the beauty college. I told the girl that I wanted it real short like yours so I could go swimming!”

Abby ran her hand through her short brown hair, and then swung her head from side to side, and her hair didn’t move. Katie was stunned; then she smiled and did the same.

Monday, April 16, 2012


In the abstract, the “ah ha” moments in one’s life arrive with dramatic fanfare, lights flashing and Beethoven’s Fifth playing in the background. Yet, if my own experience is in any way typical, nothing could be further from the truth. Unannounced, they slip stealthily into the room through a door inadvertently left ajar.

The first of these realizations that I recall with any clarity occurred when I was twenty-two; legally an adult, just not a practicing one. I have always been a decisive person and at that time in my life, if ever I decided to do something, “wild horses,” could not avert me from the course. Some might have considered me stubborn, but I prefer to think of myself as determined. In any case, once uttered, my decisions were edicts, etched in stone. And, since I rarely had a thought that I didn’t express, the stonecutters were kept preternaturally busy.

It was the summer before I got married and instead of my usual job as a camp counselor, I was engaged in Summer Theatre at the University of Idaho. This weekend, I had come home to confer with my mother on various matters wedding related and to pick up the invitations. At some point during the course of the weekend, I had announced my intention to return on Sunday night. We had finished eating and my parents were settling in for the evening.

“Are you sure you have to go back tonight? Why not get up early and drive back in the morning, after you’re rested?” Dad stood in the kitchen doorway on his way to bed. He would be out of the house early the next day, in order to ensure that all the cattle, sheep, and swine that had come into the stockyards over the weekend were in the proper holding pens in preparation for the weekly auction.

“I’ll wake you up when I leave in the morning and you can be to Moscow by 8:00.” It was a reasonable suggestion and he waited for my response with his head cocked to one side, a gesture I knew well.

“No dad. I gotta go back - now.” I answered without making eye contact. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. I didn’t have a rehearsal until 3:00 the next afternoon, but I was antsy and just needed to move. “I’ll call when I get there if you want. Don’t worry.” This last I tossed off as I zipped out the door, clutching my purse and a bag of clean laundry, careful not to let the screen door slam behind me.

“Don’t drive too fast.” Mom called after me from the living room where she sat in her chair reading.

It was still light when I drove out our long drive way, apple trees bearing fruit lining one side and roses and peonies with spent blossoms on the other. The distance ahead of me was about ninety miles, a drive that in summer is neither difficult nor dangerous. The route was a familiar one, as most of my mother’s extended family, both living and dead, could be found either farming or buried somewhere in the Palouse.

At the first intersection, I turned left onto Sullivan, drove past my old high school, and soon the primarily residential areas were replaced by fenced fields, some of them full of corn and cantaloupe others with alfalfa. There was one large dairy farm along the route, flanked by pastures with a few head of cattle and horses still grazing lazily. In a few years, this pastoral landscape would be converted to housing developments, some of them designed by guys I had gone to high school with. But in the summer of 1965, it looked much the way it always had when my brother and I rode our horses out to Saltine Flats or drove my Uncle Alfred’s green Chevrolet out to cut down a Christmas tree and collect pine boughs to make swag for the front door.

At 32nd I turned west and drove another couple of miles until the road intersected with Highway 27, which I would stay on until I got to Rockford, where I would cross into Idaho and eventually turn south on to highway 95 following it all the way to Moscow. On this occasion, I didn’t get that far; I didn’t even get to Rockford, for by the time I reached Mica, about five miles south on highway 27, I turned around and started back. In the twenty minutes I’d spent behind the wheel, I had calmed down enough to realize that I really was tired and the drive ahead of me, which would be sunny and pleasant in the morning promised to be dark and lonely tonight. And so I turned around and drove back home.

“I’m back.” I called as I walked through the kitchen and into the living room.

Mom looked up from her book and held her glass out to me. “Top this up and fix yourself one and come sit with me.”

I took the glass from her hand, and then stopped by their bedroom door on my way to the kitchen, listening to see if my dad was asleep.

“Hi Honey.” He said clearing his throat.

“Sorry if I woke you up.”

“I saw the car lights as you drove in. I wasn’t asleep yet anyway.” He paused. “I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“Thanks dad. Good night. See you then.”

I went into the kitchen and poured a little Johnny Walker into a tumbler then added ice, water and more Scotch into mother’s glass then returned to the living room. I handed mom her drink, then sat down across from her in dad’s chair.

“Thanks.” She smiled and looked at me for a moment. “I’m glad you came back.” Then returned to her book.

“Me too.” I pushed back in the chair so the foot rest came up and closed my eyes.

I wish I could report that I never again felt compelled to blindly follow some rule or convention, mine or someone else’s. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. Nonetheless, it has been instructive, and occasionally it saves me from barreling down a path I have set out to take for no other reason than the preconception that it is what has to be done.

For instance, several years later the memory surfaced when my daughter and I were in a department store. I don’t recall the mission we were on, though it is safe to assume that it was something specific as I rarely undertake shopping unless I have to. Having paid for my purchases, I turned to see Katie, who was three at the time, holding a baby doll. I watched her for a moment, as she cradled the doll in her arms. She must have sensed me looking at her for she looked up, smiling sweetly.

I knelt down to eye level. “That’s a nice little baby, isn’t it?”

“Can we buy it?” I shook my head.

“No honey, we can’t. Now put it back.”

“But why?” She asked as she gently returned it to its display stroller.

Oh honey!, I thought to myself, if only you knew! Because, of course I knew - knew if you ever gave in, even once, when a child asked for something, it would never end. That a ‘given into child’ would morph into a manipulative, spoiled teenager, destined to go straight into juvenile detention. Worse, all of the havoc wrecked along the way would be traced back to the mother who took the line of least resistance and caved to the demands of the child. I was already skating on thin ice as an older mother of an only child. This was one of the principles of parenting that was most certainly engraved in my library of stone tablets.

All this I said to myself as we bustled out of the store into the parking lot. Once at the car, Katie waited by the backseat door while I put the packages into the trunk of my red Dasher. Maybe I would get the doll for her for Christmas or her next birthday. I reasoned. After all, it was exactly the kind of doll that I wanted her to have. A baby doll, without a lot of bells and whistles. The eyes opened and shut but other than that, it was just a sweet little doll, perfect for a three year old. Still – I knew the rules. Everyone did.

When I opened the car door to help her into her car seat, I could see she was crying; silently, holding her body still, and biting her lip while tears welled up in her eyes. I stood there looking at her for a moment. “Let’s go.” I said and she started to climb into the car. I took her hand and pulled her out.

“No. This way.”

“Where are we going?” She asked looking up at me.

“Don’t you think we had better go back and get that baby before someone else takes her home?”

Her eyes widened with surprise and cautious delight.

Together we sprinted though the rain and back into the store. She named the doll Elizabeth after the baby sister of her friend Megan. Katie took good care of all of her dolls, but Elizabeth always received a measure of special attention. She slept in the little blue cradle that grandpa had made and was routinely tucked in with a poem or a song. And Katie turned out fine as well. Didn’t throw tantrums. Didn’t end up in “juvie” and I don’t recall that she ever again asked for anything.

I confess that I still find rules and routine attractive, but I realize they don’t have to be sacred. They often simplify things, “Monday – wash day, Tuesday - Ironing,” helps establish a welcomed rhythm to my life. And there are simply some things that might never get done if they weren’t obsessively observed. Running comes to mind. Inspired one New Year’s Eve by a friend, who told me she had run a five mile race at that day, I got up the next morning, determined to be a runner myself. Once I made the decision, I never again asked myself if it was something I wanted to do; if it was too cold, or too dark, or too rainy. I just got up every morning, laced up my shoes and ran out the door.

Still, that evening in July of 1965, when I managed to throw that stone tablet out the window and turn around, marked a turning point. I realized I could change my mind and my world would not collapse. I marvel at my parents’ wisdom and forbearance – they didn’t know I would pull U-turn and come home on that particular night, but they were willing to let me discover when I was ready to bend my own rules. I will never stop being a decisive and determined person, but as the years go by, I’ve come to value flexibility right alongside structure. Defining oneself and then acting accordingly is a fallacy; it is through our experiences and actions that we truly come to know ourselves.


Jo and I paid for our beers and crossed to the empty table we had spotted when we came into the bar. Soon we were joined by Benjamin and Fred, two 3rd year law students I knew only by reputation. Jo and Benjamin were soon engrossed in a conversation about her former boyfriend and Fred and I were left to get acquainted. He asked about my spring vacation and I regaled him with a martyred account of preparing Easter dinner for the family when mother took to her bed. We must have talked about something else, but I don’t recall what it might have been. It was peanut night at Mort’s, so any conversational lulls could easily have been filled with cracking and chomping. What riveted my attention were the laugh lines on either side of his eyes. I counted them more than once. Ten in all, with deep grooves in the center fading to light #4 pencil lines at the edges. A few weeks later when I told my friends we were getting married, they gaped. “How do you know he is Mr. Right?” Nearly fifty years later, the question has been altered but the answer is the same. “Laugh lines!” I tell them with a smile.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Aunt Mary Knows Best!

Clayann Lankford and Colin Peeples are getting married next week in San Francisco. It is a small family affair which will take place at the courthouse. In August, they are planning to have a party in our yard. In the meantime, Colin’s Aunt Bonnie hosted a bridal shower this week. I have known Colin since he was a baby and I only wish I had known Clayann that long as well. I love them both dearly, which I am sure you will agree justifies the following unsolicited advice I gave them to accompany a gift they didn’t ask for!

Dear Clayann & Colin: When I checked out your wish list I discovered that towels were on the list. White towels to be precise. I am giving you towels but not white towels – indeed these towels, coffee bean brown and sea foam blue, are at the other end of the color spectrum. Well, there is a reason and a story behind it of course.

Six years ago when Kate and Micaiah got married they put towels on their wish list. Just like you, they thought white towels would be nice. As a consequence they received a set of very nice white towels, which are still in good shape – no fraying at the hem or worn spots in the center; however, within six months, they took on a gray patina and six years later, even when they came fresh out of the washer or off the line, they were revolting. Stained and dirty looking, even though they were clean. Not at all the sort of towel you wanted to dry your bum with let alone bury your face in!

So, last Christmas I replaced those towels with colored towels like the ones that I am now giving you and after they raved about them, I got some for us and another set for them. Yesterday, I got this set for you.

Here is the deal on white towels my dears. They are just great in fancy hotels, where despite the rather self-serving notices strategically placed in the bathroom, that the company is “greener than grass” and a "great friend to the environment," in truth those towels are regularly washed in hot water and routinely soaked in bleach, which ultimately breaks them down and wears them out at which time they pitch them. In the meantime, their fluffy feel and pristine appearance fools you into thinking they would look nice on your towel rack.

In the event that you still want white towels I am including the sales slip so that you can take these back and exchange them as white is an option with this particular model.

In the alternative, maybe one of your other friends will accede to your wishes and give you the white towels that you asked for and then you can trade these in on one of the gardening items on your wish list. Just don’t dry your hands on the white towels after you come in from turning your compost pile!

So there you have it – the latest installment in the ongoing saga of why Aunt Mary (and all your other aunts for crying out loud) knows best!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Primal Fear

There I was, perched at a perilous height, with the deafening roar of a tractor coming straight at me, and the barn collapsing before my eyes. It was so loud, I couldn’t even hear myself screaming. The sheer terror of the moment is the only thing I remember with certainty. The rest of the story has been fleshed out with time and retelling. My family insists that I am wrong, that I misunderstood, that it couldn’t have happened this way. “Don’t you see?” they would say. “The barn is still standing.” That may be. Still, however factually implausible my narrative is, it is emotionally true and counts as my first recorded memory. I might have been three, still small enough that when I walked with a grownup and held their hand, my arm was up in the air. My parents, my older brother and I were spending a few days with my Aunt Josephine and her husband Clyde on their ranch in Cottonwood, Idaho. The term “ranch” is used advisedly, for their spread was little more than a few hard scrabble acres of arable land devoted to alfalfa, in an arid mountainous region dominated by Cottonwood and White Pine. Still Clyde, lanky and slightly bow-legged, was a cowboy and not a farmer, so it follows that his place was a ranch and not a farm. Adults may not realize that an unintended consequence of children “being seen and not heard” is that children do a lot of listening, accompanied by their own unfettered and unfiltered interpretation. This practice was, in truth, the source of my undoing. Among the many snippets of conversation overheard during the few days of our visit, which surely included such benign topics as remaking a winter coat or the recipe for tomato soup cake, was the mention of pushing over the barn. It is at this juncture that my family takes issue with my memory. They claim there never was any such discussion. Be that as it may. By anyone’s standard, barns are large structures, and barns remembered from childhood are immense. Uncle Clyde’s barn was two stories high, grayed with exposure, with a door on the second story into the hay loft and a ground level sliding door, wide enough to accommodate a truck or tractor. A circular corral made of peeled poles was attached to the barn, which was entered through a wide gate. That day I had accompanied the men out to the corral, very possibly without an invitation. I don’t know what project they had in mind that morning, but it is safe to assume it was unsuitable for a three year old. As a consequence, someone set me up on the fence, to keep me out of harm’s way. The picture I call to mind is taken from a long way off, peering across the corral. I am perched high up in the air, on the gate post. No doubt, the height of my perch is greatly exaggerated, but relative to my own height, it is stratospheric! I imagine that I liked it at first - heights have never been a problem for me. Soon, however, I realize that I am alone. The men along with my brother had all wandered off. Somewhere out of sight I hear the explosive sound of a tractor starting. The noise increases as the machine rounds the corner of the barn, heading in my direction. In that moment, the raucous presence of the tractor coalesces with my belief that the barn is about to be pushed over. There I am, unable to get down or be heard over the noise of the tractor. Panic ensues. But that is where it ends. The barn didn’t collapse. Someone rescued me from the post. For most of my life I assumed that the source of my terror was the imminent collapse of the barn accompanied by the deafening noise of the tractor. Upon reflection, I suspect that there may have been a more primal fear at work – the fear of being forgotten. I had been placed on the fence post for my protection, but had subsequently been forgotten, like a ring placed on a window sill over the sink for safe keeping and never returned for. Surely this is a universal fear? Years later when I was late to pick up my own daughter, I explained that I got involved in a project and forgot all about her. “You forgot me?” Her lip quivering, her eyes wide in disbelief. “But, how could you?” How indeed.