A Day in the Life of a Writer Who Is Not Writing

IMGP4191September 6, 2015

I was awake at first light. I made a cup of tea. I did a batch of hand washing and hung it on the line. My washing machine has a cycle for delicates but my washing machine is not working at the moment. I got on the internet and checked the weather forecast with NOAA. I checked incoming e-mails. I told Sally Bob (cat) and Baby (scarlet macaw) that I would be with them shortly. I fed Gray Lady (outside cat). I told Polly and Paco (blue and gold macaws) to just keep their feathers on and someone would attend to them soon. I put up clean dishes and stacked dirty ones for washing.

I made a cup of Coffee for George and then went and shook him awake. He was not happy and I don’t blame him, but the fresh coffee helped. We had a brief caucus about plans for the day. I said there were two hens who were being badly pecked and must be separated from the flock. Where to house them? We figured that out. George was grumpy because every segregated bird means another cage to clean and another food and water bowl to manage. George asked if I had called the washing machine repair man yesterday. I said no, but would start calling daily on Monday. We’ve been trying to get him out here for two weeks. I said I thought I had better set up to do all the laundry by hand outside as there is not enough in this month’s budget for trips to the laundromat. George said, use the washing machine; it works except for the timer. I was doubtful but said I would give it a try. I loaded it and started it. George said he would mind it and advance it manually through its cycles. He then completely forgot about it.

We went out to inspect the work in progress on the back wall of the old chicken house where we are re-building and repairing. We discussed what to do. George said he could not finish without additional corrugated metal. I said we have some. He was not convinced of that so I walked him over to the big barn and showed him. He said that he thought he had enough materials on hand to finish the back wall. We discussed priorities. We decided that he should first carry all the household trash to the drop off point and next get gasoline for the car and for all the various gas cans that constitute fuel for the riding lawnmower and reserve gas for the car. He began loading the car.

I discovered the washing machine stuck on wash and leaking water from the bottom of the machine. I told George. He said that he would move the dryer so that he could inspect the washer. He did that. Dryer is still outside the back door (covered with a tarp in case of possible rain) and it is now 1:28 of the following day. It will stay there a few days as I hate to ask George to move anything unnecessarily; it causes him a lot of pain. George checked all visible washing machine connections and said they are tight. I said we can’t use the machine until it is repaired as I have just painted that floor and don’t want the paint peeling because of moisture.

George did the trash run and gas run and then asked again about priorities. I said stay with the back wall of the chicken house until it is finished. He did the morning animal chores and then started on the chicken house. I went into the house, collapsed, and slept for an hour. I got up, made myself tea and started on kitchen clean up. I can’t let it go; we are afflicted by both ants and mice. I watered all the house plants. That is a big job. They were bone dry. I watered some outside plants. I constantly checked on the drying clothes on the line and got them in as they dried and piled them all on top of my still unmade bed. Over the course of the afternoon I got them all folded and put away. I wrote e-mails. I ordered bird food from the internet. I can’t buy the kind I feed locally. I checked bank balances, credit card balances, and started the work of planning a short trip I will make in October.

George came in, hot and tired and hurting. He has artificial shoulders plus he is 84. He had been knocking bad wood off the back of the chicken house with a sledgehammer. He rested. He promised to water the outside newly planted trees this evening. That won’t happen. He has too much to do and he will be exhausted.

I took a shower, washed my hair, gave myself a very quick manicure and pedicure, very superficial. George brought in the mail and discovered that we have a car safety recall to refit the car with new airbags. That must be done immediately. George tried calling the dealership. No luck. He said he would go to Hot Springs on Monday (fifty miles) and make an appointment for the work on the car and also pick up the dry cleaning. I said I needed the car on Tuesday to go to Mena to deal with my medical records and my insurance problem and that is also something that must be done and cannot be postponed.

I checked on the chickens. They were overheated so I turned on their overhead shower which is an irrigation hose on the chicken wire roof of their outside pen that provides a drizzle in hot weather. They flocked to it. They like the fresh water and the wet ground.

I picked up a piece of unfinished knitting, corrected a mistake, and got the work re-started correctly.

Sometime during the day I ate two plain slices of bread, fixed myself two scrambled eggs, and drank one glass of wine.

I sent more e-mails pertaining to the October trip. I heard from the woman with whom I will be staying saying evrything is cool and come whenever ready.

I got Baby out of her cage and put her on the back of my home office chair, fed her a peanut, and talked to her while trying to figure out why a password that has always worked on a particular website is not working now. No live person is available for help–please go to our forums. I sent a message to said forum.

I thought about re-writing a speech in Chapter Two, writing the Prologue, and about what will happen in Chapter Three, but was too tired to do anything about it.

George spent the evening doing animal work. He fed the cats, cleaned the bird room, sort of, and arranged all chickens for the night. With the back wall off of the chicken house they must be crated and brought inside each night.

I composed a dramatic monologue in my head that should, let us hope, shame the washing machine repair guy into getting himself out here and fixing my machine. Over a lifetime I have had plenty of experience as a motivational speaker getting two kids and two husbands off of their butts and doing whatever they needed to be doing.

I picked up the bathroom and got all damp towels out on the line to dry.

By 10:30 I felt very tired and sleepy. I went to bed. I dozed very lightly until about midnight and then woke up and could not go back to sleep so I got up. I started transcribing a previously written short story onto my website and then I wrote this.

It’s probably a forlorn hope but I will now go and try to sleep.

The Green Satin Dress

June 11, 2015

After I retired I moved to the country. It was a dream come true, but I had a lot to learn about country living. In the big city strangers are strangers but in the country, at least in southern Arkansas, they are neighbors you have not yet met, but you will, and often that happens at the local Walmart. I quickly learned the art of striking up conversations in Walmart and I also adjusted to being asked, “Do you know Jesus?” by people I did not know at all.

I once helped a woman buy light bulbs and we both agreed that this was better done as a team effort and that nowadays it doesn’t hurt at all to have an engineering degree before attempting to buy light bulbs. There’s a solid wall of different kinds at Walmart. That’s a lot of labels to read.

I met any number of seriously pissed of women in the paper products aisle, infuriated by the constantly rising price of–toilet paper.

On one memorable day I was in the sewing section where I met a woman who abruptly asked, “Do you know where I can find a pattern for a dragon costume?” I said that there was a section on costumes in the pattern catalog and added that another possibility would be to find a dinosaur costume and make modifications. “That’s a good idea. My granddaughter wants a dragon costume for Halloween. She asked me to make it and she is convinced that her grandmother can do anything.”

“But grandmothers can do anything.” I said. “Everyone knows that.”

That encounter brought back a lot of memories. Believe me–a lot of memories.

When I was about ten years old my first cousin Shirley got married and I was invited to be in the wedding as a flower girl. That meant a trip for the family and a fancy floor length dress for me. My own Grandmother Alice said she would make the dress. And she did. It was iridescent blue taffeta that rustled delightfully. It had, in the style of that era, a scooped neckline, little puff sleeves, and a ruffle at the bottom. There was also a knot of taffeta flowers in contrasting colors that my grandmother constructed and sewed to the waistband.

That was not all. You won’t believe it to look at me now but at one time I had the most beautiful red hair you ever saw. It was naturally wavy, very thick, and it went almost to my waist. Ordinarily I wore it in two braids, but for the wedding I was allowed to wear it loose. For me that was a great treat. I felt very grown up and very glamorous.

So…..a great many years later my first cousin once removed, whose name is Teighlor Simon, was planning to be married in Shreveport, Louisiana. I thought that my granddaughter Emily would enjoy being in the wedding just as I had enjoyed being in my cousin’s wedding. I asked if she could participate.

Yes, Teighlor said, that would be lovely. Emily was very welcome to be in the wedding and could serve as a junior bridesmaid.

While my cousin Lucienne was busy planning a big wedding in Shreveport for her daughter a lot of things were also happening in my branch of the family. George retired and we decided to move from Fort Worth to Arkansas. I thought we were downsizing but George didn’t see it that way. He wanted to move every blessed thing we owned and that was way too much stuff. Trust me on that one. He is an only child and I am an only child and one consequence of this is that every single candlestick or piece of bric-a-brac that had ever belonged to his mother, my mother, or my aunt, had ended up in our house.

I gave up. I decided to pack everything rather than argue with George. The household was just about two-thirds packed when I received six yards of dark green satin from the mother of the bride with instructions that Emily’s dress was to be made out of this material. The dress could be in any suitable style but it had to have a handkerchief hem which was why she had sent so much fabric.

At about the same time I began to get some very worrying e-mails from my daughter who lived in Oregon with her husband and my two granddaughters. The entire country was going through hard times. Neither she nor her husband had a job. Next thing I knew she had been evicted from her apartment and was living in Portland, Oregon, in a tent behind a friend’s house with her husband Dan, my two granddaughters, and Kona the dog.

My daughter and I had an urgent telephone consultation. Did she want me to send the six yards of fabric? Would she be able to attend the wedding after all?

Yes, she said, send the fabric and she would get the dress made. Yes, she would be able to come for the wedding and bring the two kids because she had formerly had a very good corporate job that involved a lot of travel and she had a huge number of accumulated frequent flier miles. That covered the cost of the air fares.

I mailed the fabric to the address she provided. Now my daughter Dino does not sew at all, but my son-in-law, Dan is a very good seamstress. I’ve seen his work and I knew he was perfectly capable of making this dress.

The wedding was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon in October. We arranged that Dino, Emily, and little Miss Renee would fly from Portland to D-FW Airport the Thursday afternoon before the wedding. Then the five of us would travel by car from Fort Worth to Shreveport and arrive there on Friday in time for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner which were planned for Friday evening. There was also to be a big reception after the wedding and also a very gala party on Saturday night. Those Cajuns do know how to have a good time and my cousin Lucienne had been planning this affair for a year.

I went back to packing boxes.

Let me tell you a little bit about my granddaughter Emily, the girl who was to be in the wedding. From the get-go this was one very serious little kid. Before she started the first grade she told her father that she did not feel at all ready for school. He asked her why. She replied that she did not yet fully understand all of the causes of World War II. To put it mildly, she has more than her fair share of performance anxiety. She is now a student in the film program at the University of Texas and she is the most hard working, conscientious, and over prepared student you will ever meet.

Plus you must remember that her family was going through a very bad time. Neither of these girls had ever flown before. Emily was the quintessential white knuckled flier while her baby sister, Renee, was bouncing up and down in the seat going “Wheeeee-o.”

When the three of them disembarked at D-FW George and I were waiting for them. We had hugs all around and then I said, “What about the dress? Is it ready?” “Well, not exactly.” said Dino.

“Maybe we had better all sit down.” I said. “Come clean. I’d better know what is going on and what needs to be done.”

What I learned in the next quarter of an hour, from my very reluctant and embarrassed daughter, was that the dress was still six yards of dark green satin. I learned that Renee didn’t have anything suitable to wear to a wedding. I learned that neither of the two girls had any shoes other than play sandals and very well worn sneakers. Dino did bring a suit and heels for herself.

On the other hand, Dino did have a dress pattern in hand in Emily’s size. She had not been able to find a suitable pattern with the required “handkerchief hem,” but Dan had figured out how to insert godets–that’s a fancy word for skirt insertions to increase the circumference of the bottom of a skirt–and he had made the pattern for these insertions. These were a diamond shape and gave the illusion of a handkerchief hem.

Dino had never done any sewing but she did have considerable experience helping Dan with cutting and pinning, although he had always insisted upon doing the sewing himself.

“I think I can do this.” said Dino.

“Baby,” I said, “it’s commendable that you want to learn how to sew, but I don’t advise you to use satin for your first project. It’s slippery and it’s mean stuff to work with. For one thing, if you have to rip out a seam the needle marks will always show. Suppose you let me do the sewing and you do the support work that you have always done for Dan and that you already know how to do because we don’t have much time to get this done.”

Before we left the airport I told George to drive to the nearest shopping mall. There I pulled out a credit card and spent money I absolutely positively could not afford to spend. I bought dress shoes for Emily and for Renee. I let Renee pick out a dress to wear to the wedding and the other festivities. I knew that if she didn’t have a dress that she had chosen herself and just loved she was not going to have a good time.

Then we went home. Dino and the kids were exhausted. I fed them and sent them off to bed. After that, George turned to me and said, “What can I do to help?”

“Go to bed and get some sleep because you are going to have to drive to Shreveport tomorrow. I am going to sew all night and the only sleep I am going to get will be in the car tomorrow. Get some rest. I don’t want you fuzzy and trying to drive.”

He went to bed and I went to work. By the following morning I had the dress completely cut out and some seams sewn. I had also packed my own clothes. Next I packed all the sewing pieces, my sewing kit, and my sewing machine, which is a vintage Singer portable that my mother gave me–well, by now it’s fifty years ago. Those old Singers are indestructible–like Volkswagen bugs. George loaded the car. We set off. I went to sleep.

When we arrived in Shreveport we went to the hotel where we were to stay along with all the other out of town wedding guests. The room was not ready. I was very polite. I was very ladylike. In this instance that was a complete waste of time. Dino had worked in the corporate world and she knew exactly what to do. She threw a pie-eyed fit. That got us a room very fast.

We settled into the room. I set up the sewing machine. Dino and I went to work on the dress. Emily and Renee put on their swimsuits and headed to the pool. I sent George with them to sit by the pool and keep an eye on the kids.

I sewed until we had to stop and get ready for the wedding rehearsal and the dinner afterwards.

It was a lengthy evening. Afterwards we went back to our room and everyone went to bed and to sleep except for me. I sat up and sewed. When I just could not keep going any longer I woke Dino, gave her some sewing work to do while I slept for two hours. That was four in the morning on Saturday. I told Dino to get me up in two hours no matter what.

I got up when Dino woke me and immediately started sewing. I think George may have brought me a cup of coffee. It was six in the morning and the wedding was to take place at two. Emily woke up, looked at all the sewing activity, and asked if there would still be pins in the dress when she walked down the aisle.

I didn’t even look up. I said, “Honey, you will have a dress and there will not be one pin in it. It will be finished.”

George asked, “Are we going to tell Lucienne and Teighlor about all of this?”

“Absolutely, positively, no.” I said. Then I read all of them the Riot Act on the importance of keeping all mouths firmly shut about all of the last minute sewing.

“I don’t know Teighlor very well, but I do know my cousin Lucienne. If she knew that her daughter’s junior bridesmaid didn’t have a finished dress four hours before the wedding she would have to be carried screaming to the nearest madhouse and put into a strait jacket and a padded cell.”

Lucienne had told us to be dressed and at the church by one o’clock. At 12:15 I put the last stitch in the dress. Dino pressed it. By 12f:30 I had taken a shower, thrown on some clothes, slapped a hat on my head, and I was ready to go. I certainly did not take the time to fool with makeup.

At one o’clock we were at the church. George, who worked as a photographer before he retired, took some pictures.

It was a beautiful wedding and Emily looked very, very pretty. She did her part perfectly.

My Louisiana relatives really do know how to party. Altogether there was the wedding rehearsal, the rehearsal dinner, the wedding, the reception, and another grand party at a different location later that evening. Cousin Guy wanted us to come by his house for a visit. Cousin Jon wanted us to come to the RV park and admire his new travel trailer. After all that there was a very late night party at the hotel that went on and on into the wee small hours. That was Saturday night.

We did all of it. The excitement kept the kids going. Renee quickly learned how to hold up her wine glass and make a toast. No, she didn’t have wine; she had fruit punch. The food was plentiful and wonderful. Emily and Renee got a lot of attention. After a few hours of sleep between Saturday night and Sunday morning we went to Cousin Lucienne’s house for a buffet breakfast for all the guests still in town at that time. The kids played with her new puppy and climbed into the big magnolia tree in her front yard. Lucienne had a huge quantity of cheese left over. She gave it to George. He loves cheese and was perfectly delighted.

I drank quite a lot of wine and somehow I just kept going. I told George, “If I live through this and get back to Texas I am going to sleep for a week. I am much too old to pull two all-nighters back to back.”

Every story needs a hero and a bad guy. I’m the hero in this tale; I claim the bragging rights. But who was the bad guy? Obviously my daughter and my son-in-law should not have procrastinated getting this sewing project done. But there were mitigating circumstances. They were out of work. They were broke. They were, at least momentarily, homeless. And they were scared spitless, although they would never admit it. They had a lot more serious matters to worry about at that time than a family wedding.

I think the bad guy was Father Time. This one was a straight up race against the clock. I won but only by a whisker. I’m now an old lady. I’m not always going to win against Father Time. He will win the last race.

On the way back to Texas I made George take a detour so that Emily could see Caddo Lake which is a beautiful spot with big old cypress trees and much Spanish moss. After that I went to sleep and I slept all the way back to Fort Worth.

We never told. And unless by some unlikely accident my first cousin Lucienne and my first cousin once removed Teighlor see this they will never ever know.

A Word of Explanation

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February 23, 2015

The picture above really is the view from my back fence, looking across Mr. Spurling’s cow pasture (not visible in the photo) and towards a small section of the Ouachita National Forest. My place is a tumble down shack in the country but I have an enormous backyard. Queen Elizabeth’s 40,000 acres at Balmoral is nothing in comparison.

There really is a Serendipity Trail. It is about two miles from where I live and it is a pretty mile and a half loop with a lovely view at the halfway point. It is only one of innumerable hiking/biking/horse trails in the forest.

I really do live between Ink and Mt. Ida. It just doesn’t get any more literary than that and no, I’m not making this up. My imagination is not that stupendous. By sheer chance I landed in this amazing place. Yes, it was my choice, but I also found more here to love than I expected. I am also very close to Pine Ridge (of the old Lum and Abner radio show fame) and not far from Hole in the Ground.

Yes, there really is a Little Hope Baptist Church and a very lively and friendly group they are.

Montgomery County (named for the general who died at the Siege of Quebec) is about two-thirds national forest. We have lots and lots of trees and about ten thousand people. We are far enough south to grow live oaks and magnolias, although they are not native here, and far enough north to grow maple trees.

From my house it is about a thirty minute drive to the far western fringes of Lake Ouachita, very large and very beautiful as there are no houses on the shoreline, only a few scattered marinas.

We have black bears. We have mountain lions. We have alligators. I see bald eagles every winter although for how much longer I do not know. We are losing the fireflies and the bird numbers are plummeting here as they are everywhere.

The last of the virgin forest in Montgomery County was logged in the 1950s. Greed, greed, greed. We are, as a species, such slow learners that I fear that fact will eventually do us in. Never mind. It will probably be better for the total biomass of the planet in the long run.

The Tale of My Chandelier

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February 20, 2015

First the backstory: In 2005 I spent three months traveling and camping out in the northwest. I visited a number of national parks and a number of places associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I had no RV; I slept in a tent. I was by myself and I had a grand time. But it was in Grand Teton that I met a young woman who had a very large impact on my life even though I only exchanged a a few words with her. On the edge of that park a family has a horseback riding concession that they have operated during the summer months for years. I wanted to ride and, after going down a few wrong trails, I found the place. They had no other customers but they greeted me and I explained what I wanted. The first person who spoke to me to inquire what I needed was a girl in her late teens. I wanted to ride, I said. Yes, I knew how to ride. I had experience owning horses. I was not a beginner. What she said next was, “Oh, you remind me of my grandmother. I lost her a year ago. I miss her so very much.” It was simple and it was commonplace but I was struck by the openness and intimacy with which she spoke to a complete stranger. I had lived in large cities all my life and that was not something one would often encounter in a chance meeting in an urban setting. Years later I realized how very frequent such a response is among country people who grow up in communities where everyone knows everyone, either personally or at least by sight, and where it is still quite safe to treat everyone as a potential friend. “My brother can take you out for an hour, if you like.” she said. Brother was delighted. He would much rather go for a ride than help other family members vet mules which was his assigned task that day; he did not much like mules. It was not a quiet ride as he was one of the most garrulous people I have ever met. I heard his life story and answered innumerable questions as to where I was from, what I was doing traveling alone, my family, and on and on.  Beautiful trail, gorgeous scenery, slow pace on one of the most placid horses I have ever bestrode, but that was okay. There was not much room for a gallop anyway on a steep and winding trail through the lower wooded slopes of the Tetons.

Fast forward a few years: George retired and we moved to the Ouachita Mountains in southern Arkansas. We bought a tumble down house on two acres in Montgomery County. At one point I wandered into a business in Mena that did repairs and remodeling simply to inquire as to prices and the availability of help. The woman in the office, who was, together with her husband, the owner of the business, offered coffee and coffeecake, and visited with me in a friendly manner. As it transpired their services were beyond my budget, but she clearly wanted to be helpful and offered the names and phone numbers of several local carpenters and handymen who might be able to serve me. In country communities one still meets with a strong tradition of helping one’s neighbor and this lady was obviously distressed that she could not do more on my behalf. Suddenly she asked, “Do you need a light fixture?” Now how on earth does one answer that one? The phrase “light fixture” covers a very broad territory and what one person thinks beautiful and another thinks hideous is nowhere more apparent than in the area of lighting. In addition there is the problem of what will fit the style of the interior and the space. However, as she so very much wanted to be useful, and I thought that if the offered piece didn’t suit I could always pass it on to someone who could use it, I said, politely, “Why, yes, that would be lovely.” She disappeared into a back room and presently re-emerged pushing a very large cardboard box along the floor, labeled “Schonbek.” Now those in the know will recognize that name. They make, and have for years, a very expensive line of light fixtures, chiefly chandeliers, most of them hung with cut glass. A bit startled I said, “Surely you aren’t offering me a Shonbek.” She beamed at me and said, “Oh, I knew you were the very person for this; you know the name and what it is.” She opened the top of the box and I was staggered to see a huge, solid brass, traditional chandelier, with a dozen lights. It was also brand new and would have carried a hefty price tag in any lighting showroom.Later I measured it. It is 23 inches wide and has a total drop of 33 inches. That’s huge and ridiculously oversized for any room in my house. Nonetheless I accepted happily and graciously. Together we wrestled the unwieldy and heavy box out to my car and got it loaded.

I couldn’t bear to give it away, firstly, because it is beautiful and, secondly, because it was such an incredible gesture from someone I only met once. Obviously it was not designed for a small country cottage with eight foot ceilings. I hung it over the table in the dining room, which is a misleading description of the small semi-enclosed area off my kitchen where we eat, simply to put it in a place where there would be no likelihood of anyone running into it. Bang your head on that thing and you will be laid out cold on the floor. It’s super heavy and we had the devil’s own time hanging it. George worked for hours reinforcing the supporting ceiling structure to take the weight and getting it up involved both of us, two ladders, and some strong language. It’s completely out of place in my tiny rustic house but it certainly is very elegant. It is partnered in elegance in the dining room by my mother’s gold framed mirror, also large, formal, and out of place in a farmhouse. She bought the frame for a song in NYC during WWII and I can’t remember a time it did not hang wherever we lived. Frame is in the Victorian High Renaissance style and when my Fort Worth framer repaired it he commented, “Looks like it should be holding an Alma Tadema, not a mirror.” Over the past seventy years the mirror has acquired some marvellous vertical streaking as the silvered backing has aged and begun to deteriorate adding to the entire decayed chateau ambiance. Present owner is likewise falling apart but we won’t go there.