Our daughter is now twenty and in her second year at UVA. I find myself missing her more than ever recently. And today, as I look through the charming old cards we’ve saved from her childhood, I wish I were on my way to pick her up from preschool so we could enjoy a celebratory afternoon together. My favorite Valentine’s Days were those when my daughter was a toddler. See Fool-proof Valentine’s Days, a post from 2012.
I also have cozily pleasant memories of making Valentines with my mother throughout my elementary and middle school years. The preparation was the high point. The actual day tended to disappoint. Young love, for me, as for many, was elusive and unrequited. See The Best Part of Valentine’s Day: Before the Day.
On this Valentine’s Day, I wish you comfort, love and happiness. Don’t fall prey to the hype. Those false expectations of perfect romance are set by merchandisers hoping we’ll buy into hollow dreams. Instead, call a friend, make a card, spend an hour with a child or an elderly person. Someone out there may need you to be their Valentine.
It is May, the cherry trees are in blossom, but it is cold in the orchard; there is a morning frost.
–Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
This sentence referring to the setting for Act I of The Cherry Orchard has been snagged in my memory since I read the play during my senior year of high school. A blandly innocuous description, it shouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy. But we were reading Chekhov toward the end of the school year, when the Atlanta heat and humidity were especially intense. The school lacked air conditioning, and the class was in the late afternoon. In that stuffy literature classroom, the idea of a May frost sounded impossibly exotic and refreshingly foreign.
Here in Northern Virginia, it’s not quite May yet. The cherry trees are in beautiful bloom, but the weather continues to feel wintry, prompting me to dig out my ragged, heavily taped copy of Norton’s Anthology of World Masterpieces. As I re-read The Cherry Orchard, I found myself back in that hot third floor room at Grady High. Over the roar of the oscillating fan, our teacher is asking my friend Tedd, seated in the desk in front of mine, which Chekhov play he’d chosen to read. The name of the play, somehow, slips Tedd’s mind for the moment, and we all sit in uncomfortable silence. Our teacher rolls his eyes and prepares a sarcastic zinger. I know Tedd chose The Seagull. “The Seagull,” I whisper to the back of his head. “The Seagull,” Tedd replies, just before Mr. Moate can comment.
Memory is capricious and contrary. My recall of necessary day-to-day details of life management (where did I put my mother’s tax file, did I actually pay that bill, what is that password?) is often hazy. When called upon, my seventeen-year old friend couldn’t recollect the play he’d read the night before. I hadn’t read it, but I remembered then that he did. And thirty-nine years later I still recall that largely irrelevant fact. To this day, I haven’t read The Seagull. But I know at least one person who has.
As for The Cherry Orchard, it spoke to me. That year, in Mr. Moate’s class, I gained a valuable bit of wisdom about great literature: it endures because it offers a powerful expression of enduring truth. As a high school senior, I was impressed by the surprising relevance of this nineteenth-century Russian play. The self-absorbed characters, each engaged in his or her own, if frequently interrupted soliloquy, occasionally approach but rarely connect with each other. I recognized this behavior. In a margin, next to highlighted passages, I’d written: Yes! This is what we do! When we wander too long in the isolated wilderness of our own minds, we let the people and places we profess to love slip through our hands.
It’s been many years since my first reading of The Cherry Orchard. I still play the role of daughter, but now as a middle-aged wife and mother, living in an exotic foreign land of the future. I’ve seen frost on cherry blossoms. And I appreciate the sad, true absurdity of the story all the more. Chekhov’s characters and their perpetual inner struggles still resonate. And if they were to find themselves here in this icy Northern Virginia spring, bundled in their traveling clothes, they could join our dog-walking group and feel right at home.
Five years have passed since I began writing Wild Trumpet Vine. In the space of that half decade, there have been many changes, naturally. We passed some major milestones, we faced some challenges, and of course we grew older. Looking back on the last five years, it gives me comfort to see that our family coped. Maybe we even grew a little wiser. I hope so. We’ll need wisdom. More daunting challenges lie ahead.
In the fall of 2011, our daughter was starting middle school. Seven years of elementary school were behind her, and soon she would be a teenager. Since then, she made the leap into high school. She became a licensed driver. Now, our daughter is a senior, and on the verge of an even bigger leap. We’ve done our family college visits. The ongoing process is in her hands now. Our daughter’s future stretches before her.
As for H and me, we’re all too conscious of seeming more elderly with every successive stage in our daughter’s life. We could consider ourselves young when she was small and looked like a child. Now that she will soon be out of high school, now that she looks like a young woman, our own youth, we realize, is largely an illusion.
But we needn’t act old. About a year ago, H began playing ice hockey once or twice a week, something he’s been wanting to do since he captained a rag-tag grad school intramural team at Princeton. When windsurfing was his only hobby, his free time was spent mostly feeling sad because there was no wind. Few opportunities for windsurfing arise in northern Virginia; it’s a sport that requires long stretches of time in an appropriately windy locale, such as Cape Cod or Aruba. Hockey rinks are more conveniently located. He’s a happier guy these days.
And I’m happier, too. I see good friends on a more regular basis now, and that can’t help but brighten the days. Five years ago, Kiko and I usually began our early morning walks alone. We typically chatted with many acquaintances along the way; sometimes we met neighbors and walked a while together. About two years ago we began walking most weekdays with another neighbor and her dog. Before long, another friend had joined us with her dog. We were having fun, and evidently it showed. A third friend soon joined in. Now there are at least five of us plus our dogs. Because we often run into other neighbors, the dog parade may swell to eight or so. It’s become our morning social hour, one we all hate to miss.
Five years ago, Kiko was four, probably in his prime. Although no doubt it was already far too late, our family continued to argue about training approaches. Overcoming his headstrong nature was still put forth as a real possibility by my husband and daughter. His stubbornness was an ongoing source of family friction. (See An Evening of Discontent and The Joys and Travails of Walking our Strange Little Dog).
In the language of dog food commercials, Kiko is now a senior dog. He’s as determined as always in his absolute, driving need to go this way or that. He has no idea that he’s by far the smallest member of our dog walking pack (which includes a Rhodesian Ridgeback, a Doberman, a Labradoodle and a Golden Doodle). But Kiko is the unquestioned leader; he chooses the path according to the smells that beckon most keenly. Yielding to his iron will is more pleasant that battling it. He’s still fast, although his bursts of speed are shorter-lived. He continues to enjoy wowing the lady dogs with his fleetness of foot and incredible turning radius. But now he’s very likely to plop down immediately afterwards, preferably for a lengthy rest, in the middle of the street, if possible. He’s trim and svelte. His appearance has changed very little. Except for one detail: on top of his head, above the center patch of dark sesame coloring, he has a blurred triangle of lighter fur, as though someone had smudged him with bleach.
Five years ago, my parents were still frequently driving back and forth from Atlanta to our home in Virginia. They were here watching D and her friends head out trick-or-treating, and to open gifts with us on Christmas morning, to celebrate Easter. In attitude, demeanor and appearance, they seemed far younger than their actual age.
Time started to catch up with my father about two years ago. He had two major surgeries in as many years. He’d always been fit and active. He woke up feeling good; he rarely had an ache or pain. But his last surgery left him weakened, almost frail. He was becoming more and more sedentary. When he stood up, he was dangerously wobbly. And it was becoming clear that he was suffering from some form of dementia. We tried to see it as no big deal. It was his short-term memory that was primarily affected. Did it really matter that he complimented me on my sweater every five minutes? Or offered to get me a glass of orange juice even more repeatedly than usual? The disease compounded Daddy’s graciousness. He’d always made kind, sweet comments. We simply heard the same ones more often. But in recent months, the changes were increasingly profound. During one visit he remarked that he couldn’t remember my birthday. Another time he asked if I had any sisters. And was I dating anyone interesting? I told H it was time he got to Atlanta, before Daddy started actively matchmaking. He had never been an overly protective father; he’d always wanted me to go out and have fun. Throughout it all, he kept his sense of humor.
For most of his life, my father had taken care of my mother, and the shift was very difficult for her. He had done the driving, the grocery shopping, the bill paying, the handling of most paperwork, all the car stuff. He had been there with his reassuring presence. Suddenly Daddy depended on Mama to take care of him. But he forgot that he needed her help, and that made it even more difficult. It continually slipped his mind that there were many things he could no longer do. Understandably, he didn’t want to remember. He’d been used to doing so much. Mama worried that he’d go outside without her knowing, that he’d fall on the steps or the steep front bank. When she told him he couldn’t go outside on his own, he pleaded earnestly and poignantly, like a little boy: Why? Why can’t I go outside? The thought of that exchange still brings tears to her eyes. During our final visit in July, H, D and I were doing yard work. Daddy appeared, as if from nowhere; he could still move surprisingly fast when no one was looking. He was poised to climb the ladder, an old, rickety thing propped against the house. We got to him just in time.
It took Mama a while to adjust to shouldering the burden of being in charge. I think she was only just coming to terms with it when Daddy died. My parents would have been married sixty-one years this month. For her, his absence is a deep and yawning void.
So, what will the next five years bring? I don’t like to speculate on the future. Even when I was young, I hated that question: Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten? But looking back on the last five gives me strength to know that we’ll continue to deal with life’s changes as they come. Like the wild trumpet vine inching along the fencerows, we’ll persevere, through grief, through joy. My hope is that we will find the assurance that my father experienced. We’ll see his smile and hear him say: Hey, no need to worry. It’s all going to be OK.
Our home phone was out of order for nearly a week recently. I missed the landline only for daily talks with my mother in Atlanta. What a golden silence ensued, with the absence of calls from Unknown and Unavailable. A mute phone, much like a sleeping child, can be such a pleasure. I could expect no appeals for questionable charities, no reminders to schedule unneccesary service for this or that appliance, no giddy voices informing me of a life-changing message from my carpet cleaning company or that I’d won a Caribbean cruise. No hale and hearty howdy-dos, no manglings of my first name. No calls requesting “The Lady of the House.” She’s not here, Sir, but I can put you on with the Lady of the Lake.
All too soon, and all too often, the phone was ringing again, the same unwelcome numbers popping up. What to do? Try to ignore the ringing, let the machine pick up. Hear our greeting, hear the caller click off, followed by a loud dial tone. No message, of course. Or quickly answer the phone and just as quickly hang up. Or pick up the receiver, say nothing, put it down, walk away. None of these approaches offers much satisfaction, and each time, the call is a distraction. Annoyance intensifies.
It got me reminiscing. During my college days at UGA, a common practice to avoid studying was the group prank phone call. Hanging around the dorm on a Tuesday night, we’d look through the Freshman register, pick out a cute unknown guy, call him up and make outlandish conversation. Typically the boy on the other end was happily willing to play the game, intrigued by possible evidence of female interest. This was, of course, back in the day of the campus phone system, with no caller ID. Another wholesome pastime made obsolete by cell phones. We were often on the receiving end of such calls, and we were more than ready. My friends and I were creative. We were well-versed in winging it. We were experts in nonsensical, playfully belligerent banter.
In my Rutherford Hall dorm room, with resident partners in crime. The black wall-mounted rotary phone at the left was a source of much amusement.
Maybe it’s time to turn the tables on unwanted callers. It wouldn’t be as much fun as in the old days. But nothing now is as much fun as it was back then.
What to do? Telemarketers make unwelcome demands on our time. Why not make unwelcome demands on their time?
Telemarketers’ questions are unfailingly annoying. Why not annoy them right back? Perhaps with a survey. Surveys are ubiquitous, and almost always bothersome. Express interest in a product online, and a survey pops up. Buy an item, and the surveys never cease. Schedule a service call for your disabled washer, and you’ll soon be pestered by recordings inquiring about your degree of satisfaction in scheduling the appointment. If you’re lucky enough to get the appliance fixed, you’ll be endlessly harassed to rate the technician’s promptness, politeness and level of expertise. After our phone service was restored, I received multiple entreaties on both landline and cell phone: Tell us how we did! How can we serve you better? By never calling again, that’s how. If you were doing really well, I wouldn’t have needed to call in the first place.
Another ongoing annoyance is the constant volley of ludicrous comments and claims in this Presidential primary season. What could be more annoying to callers than my asking them to participate in a brief political survey? It’s doubtful they’d listen. They’d hang up on me. Imagine that!
Another photo from the old days. My roommate Pam and I at a Rutherford-Myers red, white and blue party, probably about to respond critically to a remark made by track-suited fellow student.
Back then, we were always honing the craft of repartee.
Today, we’re back to sunshine. Yesterday’s continuous rain failed to wash away fall’s colors; it simply spread them around with an artistic flair. The weather is mild. It’s a perfect day to be outside, enjoying October.
It’s a day that makes me a bit nostalgic for my daughter’s younger years. If she were seven or eight, we might be heading to Cox Farms after school. This family-owned farm puts on a fall festival that really is fun for most ages. It’s one of our favorite local traditions. We discovered it with a group of friends we met through D’s preschool.
If you live in a suburban or semi-rural area, you probably have a place like this nearby. In Princeton, there was Terhune Orchards, which my husband and I enjoyed. If something similar existed in Atlanta when I was growing up in the 70s, we didn’t know about it. Lucky for me, I didn’t know what I was missing. Lucky for my daughter, she didn’t have to miss it.
Cox Farms is a low-tech, homespun, rough-around-the-edges place, just as a farm should be. As a preschooler, one of my daughter’s favorite “rides” involved rolling down a hill inside a big pipe. There are mischievous goats to feed, various baby farm animals to admire, a cow to milk, and lots of hand-painted folk-artsy plywood signs. Naturally, there are pumpkins, apples, cider and kettle corn. On weekends there might be a bluegrass band.
There’s lots of hay: hay mountains to climb, hay bale forts to explore and tunnel through. Of course there’s a hayride, during which aliens and assorted odd but non-threatening creatures appear. There are many slides, some of which are quite steep. When we first started going to Cox Farms, D was afraid to attempt any of the slides on her own, so we went down them together. That’s when I found out how much fun a fun slide can be. Apparently, I was slide-deprived (as well as fall-festival deprived) as a child.
Our daughter’s first-choice activity was the rope swing with a drop into a foam pit. One doesn’t often get a chance to brag on a child’s rope swing skills, but I must say she had excellent form and always managed to sail to a far corner of the pit. The two photos above are from consecutive years, the first in 2006, the second in 2007. Evidently D’s fall festival uniform consisted of a pink shirt and blue jeans.
For several years when our daughter was in elementary school, we had an annual fall festival meet-up with former preschool friends, a brother and sister, and their dad. It was one of the highlights of the season.
Our every visit to Cox Farms ended with the careful picking of a “free” patch pumpkin. D has always delighted in the perfect pumpkin.
It’s been several years since we’ve done the fall festival. But our daughter is now a regular attendee at “Fields of Fear,” held at Cox Farms on weekend nights for older kids and adults. It includes the Cornightmare, the Dark Side Hayride and the Forest: Back 40. As of this year, she and her friends can even drive themselves.
But at the end of the night, D still picks out a little patch pumpkin.
Today is the day for that steady, late fall rain that washes much of the brilliant color from the trees. In tomorrow’s sunshine, many branches will be newly bare. Gutters and lawns, though, will gleam red, orange and gold. One of the brightest patches in our area will be beneath this magnificent tree.
Located behind our church, it’s adorned with some of the most vividly red leaves imaginable. I’d always assumed it was a maple. When someone referred to it as an oak, I knew that wasn’t right. But in September, when Kiko and I were sitting in its shade for the Blessing of the Animals, I realized I was wrong, too. This was no maple. The leaves, still green then, were the wrong shape. And there were berries. Bluish-purple berries, like elongated blueberries.
What was this tree? No one seemed to know. But mention “that red tree by the church” and everyone knew exactly which one you meant. I began an internet search. Googling “trees with blue berries” didn’t provide a quick answer.
Then I remembered my little tree book, which I’d recently brought from Atlanta. As I mentioned in a previous tree post, a neighbor gave me the book when I was a child. She encouraged me to look closely and appreciate nature as we saw it all around us. She was Eugenia Brown, a Southern lady with a Southern name, a proud graduate of Decatur’s Agnes Scott College some decades before. (Daddy thought she was too old to be talking so much about her Agnes Scott days.) Mrs. Brown was a wise woman, and I’ve only recently begun to realize the impression she made on me. She wasn’t particularly religious, but I can see now that when we examined leaves, acorns, pine cones, shells and flowers, she encouraged my sense of wonder for that vast and easily overlooked array of amazing little things God made. His little creations–those unique, tiny masterpieces of design–they have always brought me joy. For that gift, I thank Mrs. Brown.
I found the book, and sure enough, I discovered the tree almost immediately, recognizing it from the handy close-up painting of its red leaves and berries. It’s a Black Gum tree. Also known as Black Tupelo, Sourgum or Pepperidge. According to the concise text, “Black Gum leaves are smooth and shiny, turning brilliant red in fall. The dark blue fruit is eaten by birds and small mammals.” Bingo.
Yet again, thank you, Mrs. Brown. And thank you, God. Had I not known Mrs. Brown, had she not given me the tree book, I might not be able to find such solace in the beauty of little things and the God who made them. How wonderful it is that our God designed bright red canopies with plump blue berries to shelter and sustain His littlest winged and furry creatures! To paraphrase that old hymn, His eye is on the berry, and I know he watches me.
Four years ago, I wrote my first Wild Trumpet Vine post. Like the plant for which it’s named, Wild Trumpet Vine perseveres. There are dry spells, but it hangs on. It’s grown deep roots, and it keeps me rooted to the real, keeps me on track in a world of smoke, dead ends, and mirrors. Life is fragile. Let’s look, live, and love while we can.
Thanks for reading! For more on why I write, see here.
It’s been three years since I began my little blog. Like the tenacious wild trumpet vine for which it’s named, it keeps on creeping on.
Wild Trumpet Vine is, for me, a convenient, inexpensive form of therapy. It’s my way of taking stock of life. It helps me keep my perspective, helps me see beyond the tedious, insistent busy-ness of daily living. It reminds me of what’s real, important, worth contemplating, worth sharing with family and friends, worth remembering, worth passing on to my daughter. Sometimes, as I sit and think and write, I discover something I should have known all along.
Occasionally, I write something that strikes a chord with another person, and I hear about it. I love it when that happens. Sometimes it’s from someone unexpected–perhaps a childhood friend I haven’t seen in thirty years or so. This is a real gift. It’s proof of the resiliency and elasticity of the ties that bind us in a web of community.
Many thanks to all my WTV readers! And many thanks for reaching out!
That day at the Fondation des Etats-Unis, looking up at the balcony of my former room, the life layers continued to flip by. I can see myself back in Paris as a grad student. I’m spending this year primarily in London, researching my dissertation in medieval art. It’s April of 1989, and my friend Laura had joined me in London. Together, we had made our way to the south coast and crossed the Channel.
It’s seven years since my summer in Paris. It surprises me, but I feel considerably more mature. Maybe it’s Laura’s companionship; perhaps her air of confident capability is wearing off on me. The stamp on my forehead that once read CLUELESS AMERICAN COLLEGE GIRL!! has evidently worn away. The throngs of loitering young men check us out but generally don’t pursue us. Shopkeepers treat us with respect. Some even call us Madame. Although this last point strikes me as overkill, otherwise I thank my lucky stars for the perks of aging. Paris is a familiar, gracious presence, and it’s good to be back.
We find a cheap hotel just off the Fontaine Saint-Michel, in the midst of what I think of as the old neighborhood, the Latin Quarter. The hotel is pretty awful, but it’s certainly affordable, the location is great, and its oddities are the source of many laughs. It’s not worth our time and trouble to trudge the streets in search of a new place, so we stay put for five days or so.
When Laura flies back to the states, I’m joined by a friend from England. I have an Apocalypse manuscript to examine in the city library of Toulouse, so we head south. It bothers me that I have no recollection of how we got there. We must have flown. There seem to have been no high-speed trains back then. I have a vague, unpleasant recollection of trying to speak French on a pay phone with the airline. One way or another, we got to Toulouse, an ancient university town of rose-brick medieval buildings and tropical charm.
It’s a bank holiday weekend, so the Bibliothèque Municipale in Toulouse is closed. Throughout this year abroad, bank holidays keep popping up. Many I anticipate and plan for, but others come at me, unexpected. I take them in stride; they offer a good excuse to postpone work and relax. On this occasion, we opt for additional sightseeing in the South of France. We take in the nearby historic cities of Albi and Carcasonne, then head to Provence, where we spend several gloriously unhurried days in Nimes, Avignon and Arles. The gray chill of April is yielding to the sunny splendor of May, and the countryside has an air of lush enchantment.
Atop the hill is the fortified medieval Cité of Carcasonne. Its striking resemblance to a fairy tale village is likely due in part to its comprehensive nineteenth-century restoration by Viollet-le-Duc. The newer part of town surrounds the walled center section.
On our last night in Carcasonne, we seem to be floating in a slightly surreal multicultural soup. At a rustic traditional restaurant in the old town, we eat cassoulet, the area’s famous casserole of duck, goose, pork and white beans. During dessert, an Irish band plays Leonard Cohen songs, the lyrics translated into French.
Once we return to Toulouse, my friend goes home to England, and I’m on my own. The library opens, and I spend a couple of days with my manuscript. One afternoon, I go to the nearby town of Moissac to see the medieval Abbey of Saint-Pierre. The church is adorned with a wealth of Romanesque sculpture, which I’ve studied since my very first art history course. The carving is dramatic, highly stylized and exuberant. What a thrill it is to be in its visionary presence.
I return to Paris by train, stopping for one night in the picturesque town of Souillac on the Dordogne River. The scenery between Toulouse and Souillac is amazing. I’m more and more smitten with each village we pass. Look: there’s the medieval bridge of Cahors, as neat and tiny as a child’s toy. In the distance I spot the perfect hilltop village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. My dog Popi, six years gone now, has his own French town, I think. It’s appropriate; he had such class and style. I’m envisioning future trips to the lovely Dordogne Valley.
I can’t remember why I stopped in Souillac, but I’m glad I did. I find the nicely situated and aptly named Hotel Belle Vue. The day is warm and bright, and I wander the old, narrow streets with no particular goal or destination in mind, one of the great luxuries of leisurely travel. Before long, the buildings give way to flower-filled meadows. I stop to watch some ducks paddling in the river near an old mill. After a while, I follow a grassy pathway winding uphill. At the top of the hill, the path emerges from trees and foliage to reveal the village below, clustered around the domes of the Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie. The scene is quaint, timeless and peaceful. It could be an image from one of the illuminated manuscripts I’ve been studying. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more poetically satisfying finale for my solitary exploration. All these years later, I carry it with me, like a treasure.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.