Ghost of Christmas Past

Family photoBefore childhood memories surface of loading the station wagon with presents and heading up to Green Bay to spend Christmas with a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandmas who cooked delicious meals and my grandpas who complained about all the ruckus, there is this memory:

I am six years old and my parents take my younger sisters, Kelli and Missi, and me to Gimbels department store in downtown Milwaukee. It’s an ornate corner stone building with storefront windows decked out in Christmas scenes. I stand in awe as mechanical reindeer tilt their heads and carolers blink their eyes and part their small, oval mouths in unison as the music, piped through speakers, reaches the streets. We walk in the store where Christmas trees and miles of garland twinkle with lights. I am pretty sure we have arrived at the North Pole.

Gimbels 2We have been promised a train ride, and I’m disappointed because we have to first sit on Santa’s lap for pictures. The line of parents and squealing kids wraps around the cosmetic counter. Missi, who is two years old, sees Santa and starts wailing. My dad utters, “For Christ’s sake,” before disappearing into the crowd of shoppers; leaving my mom alone to tend to the three of us.

After we cajole Missi through a tearful introduction and photos with Santa, it’s off to the train! My dad mysteriously reappears and up a crowded escalator we go. Another line, but this time my dad stays with us. He loves trains and above our heads an engine the size of a sofa followed by four or five brightly painted tin cars jerks and sputters along a metal rail attached to the ceiling by giant bolts. This is an engineering feat, my dad tells us. Kids wave from the train cars. They look scared. My sisters and I are wearing matching Holiday dresses my mom sewed for us. I yank on my white tights. I hate anything confining on my body. Watching the train circling above me, I want to tear off all of my clothes and run out into the cold. I can’t get on the train. It makes no sense to me. Trains belong on the ground. The line is moving and soon my mom will let go of my hand so that my sisters and I can ascend a set of white-washed, rickety stairs that will take me to my death. I pull on the cuff of my mom’s coat. She bends down and straightens the collar on my dress. “What is it?” she asks.

I point to the train. “I can’t go on that,” I say.

She is smiling. “Of course you can,” she says. “You’re a big girl.”

She gives me a little push toward the stairs. I am now in charge of my sisters. I look behind me. My parents are waving. Climbing the stairs brings me closer to the ceiling. I tug again on my tights. It’s very hot and I bite my lip to keep from screaming. You’re a big girl, I think as a lady in a white sweater ushers us into one of the little train cars. You’re a big girl, I reason as the car jerks and I hit my head against the icy tin. My sisters are looking at me. They will cry if I cry, and my parents will blame me for ruining Christmas. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl, I tell myself until it’s over. Family Photo 2

Nearly fifty years have passed since that awful day, and yet I can still smell my mom’s perfume and see my reflection in my dad’s horned-rimmed glasses. It was the early 70’s. A scary time for people like my parents wedged between the moral codes of the fifties and those of a new generation. We were at war in Viet Nam, the summer of love at Woodstock was still fresh in people’s minds, and bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who were rallying young people to do unthinkable things. It would have been easy for my parents to tuck their little family away someplace safe until things cooled down, but instead we were encouraged to be a part of the world rather than hidden from it. We are living in scary times now, and part of me wanted to shut the doors on Christmas this year. Between the political rhetoric, the devastating wildfires in California, and my beloved border torn asunder, it just seemed easier to pull the curtains and turn off the lights.

But then there is Ron’s granddaughter, Ada; a little beam of light who is looking to us to make her world magical this Christmas. Tuesday she and I are baking cookies. I bought all the glitter and sprinkles I could find. We’ll drink hot chocolate and dance to Christmas carols. I can’t think of anything that would bring me more joy right now.

Many of us have a scary train memory that creeps up during the Holidays. If you’re feeling a bit blue right now, you may borrow my mantra, “You’re a big girl”, while you search for that special thing that brings you joy this Holiday Season.

Gimbels

 

 

Every Breath You Take

green heartI had a health scare recently while in bed reading. A heavy pressure filled my chest, my arms went numb, and I broke out in a clammy sweat from head to toe. Given where we live, I knew it would be hours before I could make it to a hospital. As I lay contemplating my options, the symptoms disappeared. When it happened again a few days later, this time while on my bike, I was scared and called a friend and local volunteer EMT, Jared Fralie, who suggested a few options. My mom was in Scotland, and I had planned to go feed her cats in Sierra Vista later in the day. Instead of waiting, I took an aspirin and hit the road, promising Ron I would go to the hospital as soon as I got to town. During the two and a half hour drive to Sierra Vista, I felt fine and thought a trip to the emergency room was a bit dramatic. I called my sister Missi who is a paramedic, and a friend who recently had open heart surgery. Both agreed I shouldn’t wait until morning to see a doctor.

It was after dark when I arrived at the emergency room, which is in a busy, rural Trauma III hospital. The staff and medical team were friendly and accommodating, but this isn’t a heart center. As long as I wasn’t dying, there wasn’t much they could tell me. The no-nonsense emergency room doctor admitted me into the hospital citing an irregular EKG as the problem. I spent the night in observation where I was woken often to be poked and prodded. In the morning, I was delighted to have two of my former college students assigned to me, one a nurse, the other a CNA. I also met a young resident who asked a lot of question and then suggested maybe my problems were hormonal or maybe I had low blood sugar, and as he put it, “If you were my mom (Ouch!) I would tell you to eat a piece of candy.” At this point I seized the opportunity to use the ridiculous conversation we were having as a teaching moment. We went through my symptoms again and this time I asked questions. After we finished, he admitted he didn’t know what was wrong with me.

As I remained calm, the less civilized part of me wanted to throttle him. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African-American and white women in the United States. Our symptoms can often be more subtle than that of men. We may complain of indigestion, or a sore back rather than grabbing our chests as though a locomotive has passed through our bodies. And yet, here was this young doctor parroting the long held attitudes and beliefs of his mentors—beliefs that diminish women in the eyes of the medical community. As recent as the 1970’s, I may have been given a diagnosis of hysteria  or melancholy and prescribed Valium. In 2018 I should expect more and was deeply troubled that, as a middle-aged woman, I had been systematically erased by archaic ideals and practices that date back to ancient Egypt.

I stayed in Sierra Vista for nearly two weeks while I gathered information and made numerous phone calls to find a cardiologist. But the real reason I didn’t go home was that I was afraid. I thought, if I have a heart attack at the ranch, I may not survive given the logistics. This is a real concern for people in rural areas. Country living isn’t for the faint of heart (No pun intended.) and statistics prove it. Our urban counterparts have a longer life expectancy and have more physicians and specialists available. Those of us out in the sticks have more occurrences of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Given all this fresh air and open space, you would think we would all be happy, but unfortunately that’s not true. Young people in rural areas are twice as likely to commit suicide, and we have a higher drug overdose rate than city folks.

Going home meant I would have to face some troubling realities in our rural community as well, and Jared was kind enough to help paint a picture. Our volunteer ambulance service has five EMTs, some with more skills and training than others. Two of them have full-time jobs and currently, one volunteer is unable to work because of health issues. If I had called 911, Jared estimates it would have taken fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get to our house, given volunteers were nearby and available. Depending on my symptoms, I would have been transported to the hospital in either Silver City or in Deming, both of which are an hour and twenty minutes away. Among Jared’s numerous responsibilities, he also has the authority to decide when to Airvac a patient. After he makes the call, it takes approximately forty minutes before a chopper lands in Animas and then another forty-five minutes for a patient to be airlifted to Tucson or to Las Cruces.

Aware of what it meant to return to the ranch, I needed to know with some certainty I was out of the woods. So before I left Sierra Vista, I went for a hike in the Huachuca Mountains and gave it my all racing up and down rocky trails. In the end, I felt pretty good. Good enough to pack up and head home, yet I still worried. Ron was on an elk hunt, which meant I would be alone for a few days, but I wanted to get back to my normal routine and the dogs were getting antsy after being cooped up in the city. When I got home, I was greeted with another reality as two startled rattlesnakes scared me half to death. After barricading myself and the dogs in the house, I contemplated the heart monitor I was prescribed to wear. Is it worth it living out here, so far from town? I don’t know any more.

The last couple of days have been cold and stormy. Today the sun came out and with it dozens of finches that have flocked to the feeders I filled this morning. They will be with us through the winter trusting that the tall lady wearing flannel will keep them fed. For now they are a good reason to stay here. If they can survive the storm, so can I.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird Requiem

Marty and BethMy Uncle Marty, my dad’s only sibling, passed away this week surrounded by family in his home up in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Ron and I went back a few weeks ago to see him knowing the end was near. Marty was the keeper of our family stories. He had a knack of filling in the missing pieces with the best versions of our ancestors and of ourselves. This meant that sometimes the facts were altered like the broad strokes of a paintbrush hiding the dark colors with something brighter and better for all of us.

Unable to make the funeral, I yearned to be connected, so I picked up where Uncle Marty had left off. One of the last stories he shared was about our family’s history with Abbott Pennings, the founder of Saint Norbert College in DePere, Wisconsin. In Marty’s story, Abbott Pennings was a dear friend of my great-great- grandparents, Louis and Pheilomen (François) Colburn. Sometime in the late 1940’s when Louis was an old man, he donated his house and land to the college. The house was turned into a primate lab. Years later it was torn down, and no one seems to remember exactly where it once stood. Over the years I have collected other snippets of information. We were the distant relatives to Enos Colburn who has a park named after him in Green Bay. My great-grandfather Bearl Colburn was an inventor. My cousin Chad is the spitting image of our fifth great-grandfather, Jean-François d’Amours, Sieur de Courberon born in Kamouraska, Quebec in 1791.Jean Francois d'Amoiurs, Sieur de Courberon Past that I didn’t have a lot of information about my Colburn relatives. I grew up immersed in my mother’s big, fun-loving Irish Catholic clan. The Colburns by comparison were quiet, polite people consisting of my Uncle Marty and Aunt Linda and their two kids, my cousins, Tracy and Chad. My grandparents Bud (Heath) and Evelyn Colburn are long gone. Bud had a brother, Lee, and a couple of kids, but I only met them a handful of times. My grandma Evelyn was an only child. I remember her mom, my grandma Mamie, but she died when I was young. There were also two sisters, Verna and Glad, Bud’s aunts, who lived together in Milwaukee in a tiny house on 91st Street with a calico cat named Cookie. I loved all these people dearly, but with the exception of an occasional visit, they required little of me. I didn’t feel the sticky, messy glue of family when I was among them. Marty with his stories, colorful language, and sometimes raucous behavior made him the unlikely super hero that held us all together. In recent years, with the addition of nieces and nephews, and Marty’s frequent calls, I am grateful to the rekindled relationships I have with that side of the family, and with my sisters and their children.

ChadWithin an hour of researching my ancestors online, I traced them back to the early 1500’s, Paris, France. My great-great-great grandparents, Theodore and Célina (Desmarais) D’Amours de Courberon, came to the United States from Quebec to Redford, New York in 1852 (where our family name was changed to Colburn) before they made their permanent home in DePere shortly thereafter. They had twelve children. I learned that Enos Colburn was my great-great grandfather Louis’s nephew. Enos grew up with seven brothers and sisters. The family was huge. A few more searches and I discovered there are still over 100 Colburn relatives living in and around Green Bay. I called my dad to give him the news. He was quiet, which is his nature. Then he said. “My God, I’m seventy-eight years old and didn’t know any of this.”

We speculated why his immediate family had been cut off from the Colburns. He said that when his dad, Bud, was born, my great-great grandma Pheilomen snatched him up and brought him to Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church to be baptized. “You see, Norma, my grandmother, was protestant,” he said. “She didn’t want my dad baptized Catholic. This caused quite a problem in the family.”

After that the two women never got along. It makes sense that Norma circled the wagons around her small family leaving her husband’s people behind. I don’t think my Uncle Marty knew much of this, and though I’m happy I was able to share it with my dad, I feel it came too late.

While the sorrow of my uncle’s passing catches in my chest as I water the garden or cook a meal, a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds have settled in the orchard, scaring off all the other birds. Cowbirds are parasitic. A mama cowbird either eats or kills an egg or two in perhaps a sparrow or a dove nest, then she lays her eggs leaving them to be incubated then raised by the unsuspecting mama bird. But there is another way to look at this. Cowbirds are like the character, Philip Nolan, in Everett Hale’s short story, “The Man without a Country.” In the story, Nolan, a US Army lieutenant, renounces the United States and is sentenced to live the rest of his life in exile aboard US Navy warships. In some cosmic way, God, Mother Nature, or whomever you may pray to, exiled the cowbirds to a life without a nest to call their own. Without a home, Nolan lived the rest of his life with deep melancholy for what he had lost. The cowbirds have found a way to survive as outsiders looking in. I understand these sentiments all too well.

Most of my family is still in Wisconsin, cold country dotted by forests and farmland where lakes freeze in the winter, and rivers cut their craggy paths into the earth like veins. As a kid I complained about the weather and swore one day I would move someplace warm. In my late twenties, I followed through with my threats and moved to Arizona, to the Sonoran Desert with its thirsty earth and vegetation armed with stickers and thorns, blistering sun, and rattlesnakes coiled in the parched grass ready to strike. There is beauty and danger in both places. I was born into one extreme only to seek out the other.

The days are getting shorter and as I reflect on family and my role in it, I feel so very far away from home. My body has never forgotten the change in seasons, the explosion of red, orange, and red wine leaves lighting up trees this time of year, the cool nights, the hunger for stew and mashed potatoes. I miss Wisconsin to my core and yet I belong here, too. Going home means leaving the desert, a place that has settled in my bones alongside the dark, cold winters of my childhood. I would long for the mountains, the sunsets, the open spaces if I left. Marty’s phone calls kept me tethered to another life and to possibilities. I miss him. Right now I feel like a woman without a country, a cowbird without a nest.

Photo #1- My Uncle Marty and me

Photo #2- My fifth great-grandfather, Jean Francois d’Amours de Courberon

Photo # 3- My cousin, Chad

Let it Bee (Whisper Words of Wisdom)

squash blossomThe couple who stayed in the bunkhouse this week were  both PhD students. The woman is studying bees, She was delighted to discover squash bees in our garden working diligently deep in the centers of squash blossoms. Her partner’s focus is insects. I lack the inclination and discipline necessary to be a scientist, but I marvel at folks who have the propensity to hone in on something as specific as bees.

I am hardwired to linger in the grey areas of life. While driving or taking a shower, I ponder the words we use and the context in which we use them. Kismet feels fun on the tongue. It’s Arabic for divide and was adopted into Turkish to mean fate, as in the way we use the word in English. I wonder if the Muslim faith believes in fate and how this word that once meant divide came to mean something that in the end, brings us, the universe, and our faiths together. Looking into a dog’s eyes, I see the reflection of my best self and worry that science and politics has whittled away so completely at the natural world that perhaps I have lost bits of tenderness and intuition along the way. This is how my brain works. The edges are fuzzy and bleed into one another. In short, I’d make a terrible scientist. That said, if I wasn’t deathly allergic, I may have committed myself to the lives of bees as they answer the philosophical, religious, cultural, and political questions that have plagued humans since the dawn of our existence.Inkedbee_LI

On our morning walk down the runway, Ron and I came to the conclusion that honey bees would have been wiped from the planet long ago if the little buggers didn’t sting. Hives would have been robbed clean by cave dwellers and nomadic folks if bees acted more like puppies or butterflies. Their sting reminds us nothing worth a lick is given up freely. I’d never even heard of a squash bee or the 20,000 other species of bees that inhabit the planet until our guests arrived. The honey bees we have here at the ranch are perfectly happy living in cramped, warm quarters of 15,000 to 60,000 whereas squash bees are solitary creatures who nest in the ground. In human terms, I imagine it’s like our small community of say 500 versus the 8.5 million people that make up New York City.

By some metrics, I have the home range of a female black bear. I need 3 to 10 square miles of open space to feel at peace. Some folks I know live in apartment buildings akin to marmot burrows. Whatever the case may be, humans fall somewhere on the home range continuum. How close is too close? We don’t have a great deal of crime out our way, no shootings this year that I know of. Chicago, on the other hand, has had over 1,400 shootings since the first of the year. Does having people crammed into such close proximity increase the likelihood of crime? I have no idea, but I do know this: if bees are in harmony whether living on top of one another or nestled alone in the ground, why is it so difficult for us?

Starry, Starry Night

M 8 Lagoon NebulaLast October we renovated our bunkhouse. At the time I aspired to downsize so that someday I could live in a small space with less to worry about. Then a friend recommended that we post the bunkhouse on Airbnb. Forty-five minutes later we were up and running. It’s been a great experience. We’ve met bikers, hikers, birders, and travelers. We’ve hosted a painter, a filmmaker, a lawyer, and two astrophotographers from Canada who took these gorgeous photos. M 20 The Truffid Nebula

I’ve always had my feet planted firmly on the ground. No skydiving, paragliding, or deep sea diving for me. I prefer the sensation of cool ground and damp grass between my toes and am confident navigating river rocks and trails to get where I’m going. Give me a day pack and a water bottle and, like a Golden Retriever, I’ll follow you just about anywhere.

watertowerWith most of my interests connected to nature here on earth, I’ve rarely caught myself contemplating the night sky. Aside from noticing the moon cycles each month while waiting for my dogs to pee before we all go to bed, I am not one to star gaze. And like most things that have to do with my 1970’s public school education, I believe my lack of interest is directly tied to my junior high years where the sciences were taught by rote using outdated textbooks and grainy filmstrips.Milky Way

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t ask questions while the men set up their equipment outside the bunkhouse. I didn’t even ask to look through their cameras to capture the images in real time. I was too busy just trying to keep our daily lives afloat. There were trees to water, animals to attend to, and meals to prepare. By the time the sun went down, I was too tired to look to the heavens.

IMG_1058After their first night of taking photos, Frank Roberts (gentleman in the blue t-shirt) shared the photo with our water tank in the background. Several days into their stay, Leslie Webb (gentleman in the white t-shirt) had taken the rest of the photos you see here. I was dumbfounded to learn these celestial marvels hover above the ranch while we sleep- a dome of glorious colors, shapes, masses, and gasses. I look up now at night when I take the dogs out and feel connected to the universe. After all, like the soil, plants and animals, it’s nature in all its grandeur. The stars are no longer a million miles away, rather they appear much closer as though they could be plucked from the sky.IMG_1056

Vincent van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” in 1889, a year before he died. The painting depicts the  view Van Gogh had out the window from the Saint-Paul asylum in southern France where he committed himself after cutting off his ear. In 1970 singer/songwriter Don McLean wrote  the song “Vincent” on a paper bag before a public school performance. He had just learned of Van Gogh’s troubled soul while reading a biography on the painter. Maybe if someone had shown me the painting of “Starry Night” or Georgia O’Keeffe’s, “Ladder to the Moon” as a kid, I would have fallen in love with the night sky in the way children learn best- through stories and by instilling a sense of wonderment.M 17 Omega

I am grateful to Leslie and Frank for their photos and the time they took to teach me something about the universe of which each and everyone of us belongs. It is never too late to learn.

Cats Paw jpeg - Copy

Night sky photos beginning at the top of the page:

M8 Lagoon Nebula; Trifid Nebula; our water tower; Milky Way; M17 Omega; Cat’s Paw

Photography 101

Great Horned OwlMy husband recently gave me a Canon Rebel T6 camera as a late birthday gift. I’d been asking for one since I learned birds come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I was thrilled. Now, instead of slinking around my yard to snap grainy photos of birds using my phone, I would try my hand at some half-way decent photos.

The last camera I bought was a Kodak Easy Share C180. Judging by the photos I found on the SD card, I bought it in 2008 to take photos of a family trip I took back to Wisconsin. It was the last time all of my sisters and my mom were together. Before that, my high school sweetie had given me a Kodak Tele-instamatic (circa 1981) with a pack of flip flash bulbs that blinded my unsuspecting kodak tele-instamaticsubjects. My point here is that I am not a photographer. So imagine my surprise when this beautiful Canon camera showed up with all its buttons and lenses. I was more than a little intimidated. But the migratory birds were flocking to our feeders and would disappear soon. There wasn’t time to go through the manual or look online for tips. Instead I attached the zoom lens and parked my butt in a lawn chair I strategically hid under a plum tree to camouflage myself.

Lazuli Bunting 3 (2)Generally this isn’t how I approach projects or hobbies. I am more of a by-the-book kind of gal. I like to know what I’m getting myself into. I prefer having a plan and instructions to follow when I am trying something new. If it wasn’t for the urgency the migratory birds provided, the camera would still be in its box. After taking at least 1,00 photos, I still feel I have no idea what it is I’m doing, but that’s not true. I’ve learned a bit about composition in that I need to focus the center red dot in the camera at the eye of my subject. Shadows cause havoc when photographing birds, so it’s important to make sure the subject is not surrounded by foliage no matter how pretty it might be. Taking photos in the early morning and as the sun is setting creates such beautiful lighting, some of my photographs are lovely. I’ve learned unlike people or objects, birds do not sit still for long. Sometimes it’s best to take an awful photo to identify a bird rather than no photo at all. I’ve also decided I’m more interested in taking photos of wildlife than of people. There’s too much self-consciousness going on there for everyone involved.

My mother has accused me of suffering from Patty Perfect syndrome. Messes and making mistakes have always bothered me, but as I get older, I have a keen sense that I’m running out of time. Leaving the camera in the box until I knew exactly what do with it would have accomplished nothing. All the time I’ve spent in the Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains, at the San Pedro River, and in my backyard just to photograph birds would have been gobbled up by the mundane chores in my everyday life. Sure maybe I would have tackled spring house cleaning and changed out my wardrobe for the summer, but for what?

I like this new me. A middle-aged woman armed with a camera around her neck hoping and praying to get a glimpse of a rare bird that might only be here for a day or two. Let the dust settle on my coffee table and the cobwebs stretch across the beams in my living room. I don’t care. Life really is too short. I only wish my older self could meet up for coffee with my younger self. I have so much I would like to share with her.

She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy

TractorI haven’t been blogging much these last couple of months. Even though I’d like to write about the migratory birds, the orchard, and the honey harvest, we’ve been too busy this spring. Most days I feel overwhelmed with springtime chores and worry I am not going to get everything done.

In an interview with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye, musician and singer/songwriter Neko Case talked about living on a farm in Vermont. When host, Jesse asked her, “Are you comfortable with the kind of like quiet and relative loneliness of living on a farm?” Neko responded, “Oh yeah, I love it. Farms are not quiet, peaceful places at all.”

She went on to mention the constant maintenance and the emergencies that pop up. But she also said living on a farm is exciting. That she notices the first night of fire flies and seeing Jupiter in the night sky.

I resent Jesse Thorn’s choice of words to describe farm life. Though quiet is influenced by our environment, loneliness in some sense connotes sadness and, at its core, desperation—a need for things to change, to get better. I don’t have room for loneliness living this close to the land. And I don’t think nature does either. The quail and coyotes travel in family groups. The migratory birds often show up in pairs or small flocks as they make the harsh trip together to their northern nesting grounds. There is order and dependency, the sense that we are all in this together. It’s a frenzied time of year. I feel it in my bones. I have the energy of a hummingbird right now and find it hard to sit still for any length of time. I am energized by the long days and the constant cacophony of birds.

I agree with Neko’s thoughts on farm life. She admitted that there is always something that demands attention, but she also mentioned the fireflies and clear night skies. There is harmony to country living if you learn not to push too hard. There is also joy, wonder, frustration, and even anger when a pipe breaks or the tractor doesn’t start. But loneliness? No, I haven’t experienced that.

If you find yourself in need of a break from your crazy world, check out Neko Case. While listening to her, take a mini break—a mind vacation to someplace quiet where you can spend a few moments alone. And if you are experiencing loneliness, call a friend or a family member. Believe me, they will be thrilled to hear from you.