Like clockwork, every year on October 1, our old friend Slim and his pack of loyal pups emerge from a state of semi-hibernation in the peaceful subterranean depths of my mother’s basement. After eleven months of repose, they traipse back, a bit unsteadily, into the light. Gradually they ready themselves for Halloween, their Big Night. Slim typically spends the first few days roaming the various rooms of our two houses. He reacquaints himself with the familiar and notes even the most minimal changes in décor. The old photos on the desk in Mama’s living room prompted him to hold forth with a wealth of amusing reminiscences. He’s known our family for decades, and his memory is unfailingly sharp. Slim’s a sentimental sort, but his keen wit keeps him from waxing maudlin.
After their long period of introspection and slumber, the dogs take a renewed interest in neighborhood activity. Champ, Elfrida and Rocky keep watch at their favorite front-window perch.
Little Ruth has claimed a perfectly chihuahua-sized chair for her lookout post at the front door.
Slim was so surprised at the mildness of the weather that he thought his dependable internal clock may need winding. The gang enjoys the shade of our back porch on a particularly balmy afternoon.
The pack is poised for the chase. Squirrels, cats and all intruders, beware!
Slim and the gang love mixing with the kids of the community and handing out candy at our church’s annual Trunk or Treat. This year they had the pleasure of hanging with a friendly T-Rex. . .
and swapping tales of patriotic heroism with a young George Washington.
Following a leisurely meal, Slim is persuaded to recount some of his favorite anecdotes of Halloweens past.
And now, on this Halloween Eve, time to kick back for a few winks before the festivities begin!
This October has felt, and until recently, looked, more like late spring. Our pale pink climbing roses usually bloom sparingly after their all-out blast in May. But this year, while the foliage is yellowing and fat red rose hips are plentiful, the flowers continue to pop.
It’s odd to see pink rosebuds intermingling with ripening Nandina berries.
Along the fenceline, our red roses are far more plentiful than is typical for late October.
The deep velvety red of this petunia contrasts sharply with its dry brown foliage.
These candy-striped and purple petunias endure while their leaves wither.
Even our lilac has been confused.
I’m reminded of the unseasonably warm year I spent in England during grad school, when I noted with wonder that the roses slowed their blooming as winter approached, but never stopped.
And I think of Keats’s ode, To Autumn, that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:
. . .how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run:
Another thing about the early-morning bus traffic outside our windows: it has become a source of extreme anxiety for Kiko. The school buses in our neighborhood have a white flashing strobe light on top. I’m not sure if the light is new this fall, or if Kiko’s fear of it is new. Whatever the case, the bright intermittent glare slices through the darkness, looking very much like lightning. Kiko takes it as a sign that a monster storm is coming.
Toward the end of the last school year, he typically snoozed soundly until well after full daylight. It took a while to rouse him for the morning walk. He tended to resist my various entreaties until I rattled my keys and told him, “OK. You stay. I’ll go on without you.” It was only the threat of being left behind that prompted him to relinquish the warmth of his bed, stretch and amble slowly toward the stairs.
So it surprised me, this September, to see my little dog wide awake in the pre-dawn darkness, alarmed and panting, in extreme go-time mode. He’d pace rapidly on my bed, leap off to circle the room, stand on his back legs to peer between the curtains at the window. Then he’d hop back atop my bed and attempt to settle in among the pillows. During a storm, real or imagined, his usual place toward the foot of the bed offers no comfort; he has to be up near the headboard. But even this offers no comfort, and he starts the entire process again. Once I realized that he was seeing the lightning that presaged a powerful storm, I understood.
At the start of the school year, Kiko’s trepidation began with the approach of the first bus and its flashes of light. He’s come to anticipate the threat well in advance. By 5:45 at the latest, he’s up and on the move, much the way he begins to fear a thunderstorm on a vaguely cloudy afternoon. On weekends, when no buses are running, he’s making his anxious rounds well before 6 AM.
It’s notable that Kiko has no fear at all of the school buses themselves. On the contrary, he seeks them out. For many years, our morning and afternoon walks began with time spent at the bus stop with my daughter, neighbors, and their dogs. Still today, if given the opportunity, he settles in for a period of rest and observation near her old stop. He seems to enjoy watching the bus doors open and the kids exit. Many of the neighborhood children have come to expect to find Kiko waiting to be acknowledged and adored. He’d sit directly in the path of the bus if I’d let him. He has no dread of the thing that can actually harm him.
I find it sad that my twelve-year old dog is discovering new causes for anxiety. Shouldn’t he be growing wiser with age and experience? As I considered this question, I found myself contemplating various scenarios in my life and that of my family: what if this happens? Or that? Or, more ominously yet realistically, what will I do when this or that happens?
And just like that, I knew the feeling. My dog has outgrown the false invincibility of youth. He’s grown into the vulnerability of age. And so, I realized, have I. A wave of pessimism swept over me. Kiko is lucky, at least, I thought, in his faith that if he keeps searching, he can find a place of absolute safety. He need never face the stark truth that there’s no hiding from many of life’s storms.
In the last week or so, though, it seems Kiko has been a bit less worried in the mornings. He continues to leave his spot near the foot of my bed well before daylight, whether it’s a school day or not. But the pacing and jumping have lessened. This morning, I awoke to feel his warm little form nestled in the curve behind my knees. From my perspective, he was an image of perfect, cozy tranquility, curled up like a fox. Maybe his fear has vanished, I hoped. Then suddenly, as the first bus of the day rounded the corner, the room was suffused with white flashes. Kiko sprang to his feet, bounded off the bed and galloped from the room.
But he didn’t rush back in. When I got up a while later, he was lying at the top of the stairs. He didn’t appear to be alarmed. He ran past me back into my room, where he found an overlooked mini-treat from the night before. He gobbled it up, then looked at me expectantly, as if to say, “Got any more?” He ran back to the top of the stairs in the way he does when he’s happy and frisky, anticipating the upcoming walk.
At least today, my silent little dog, the four-legged reflection of my hopes, dreams and fears, is not gripped by terror of an unknown Apocalypse. He’s just excited about the promise of a new day. Suddenly, I felt the same way. And from the window, I glimpsed a beautiful sunrise.
As of last week, school is in session here in Northern Virginia. With my only child starting her third year in college, I’m no longer directly involved in the much-ado about back-to-school.
But until I’m deaf, I’ll be well aware of the start of the new school year. Once again, on weekday mornings beginning around 6:30 AM, the school buses make their loud, laborious way down the side street below our bedroom windows. There are so many buses. They swoosh, they roar, they sigh, they creak. They emit piercing back-up beeping sounds for extended periods. We discovered, when we moved here nearly twenty years ago, that we had settled in a pivotal juncture in Fairfax County, a dividing line between two school districts. If we moved across the street, our daughter would have to change schools. There are buses for elementary, middle and high school students for both districts, as well as those for several magnet schools. There used to be a special Kindergarten bus in the afternoon, before the all-day program arrived. Some buses are picking up or dropping off; others turn around, having reached the end of their routes.
The clamor and commotion of the school buses every fall brings back the conflicting and powerful emotions I felt on our daughter’s first-ever school day. The day she started Kindergarten, when we sent her off, parentless, on one of those enormous, monstrous, heaving, yellow-orange vehicles.
Our five-year old put on a brave face that memorable day. My husband and I watched and waved, smiling with forced cheer, trying not to grimace, until we could no longer see her dear little blonde head peering from the window. Then we turned away, avoiding other parents, fighting back tears. H quickly jumped in his car and followed the bus to school. At a distance, he waited until she was safely inside the building. All that morning I wondered: What is she doing now? And now? Is her class lining up to come home yet? Just a few hours later, around 12:30, the Kindergarten bus dropped her off at the end of our driveway. When our girl emerged happy, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The after-school photo I took of her, sitting in our doorway, shows her confidence, her triumph.
Last week I looked back at that photo and compared it with the first-day images preceding it in the morning. They told a different story. The group photos struck me as especially poignant. My daughter, like the other younger children, tries to express a sense of ease, but her anxiety and trepidation show through. The bulky backpacks contribute to the littlest ones’ slightly awkward postures. No one’s clothes seem quite right. Wasn’t our daughter hot in that fall sweater? All the other kids wear tee shirts. And within the group, each child is a little island unto itself. Even the older ones who appear more self-assured, even they look isolated and alone. At least they do to me. Maybe, in a fit of nostalgia, I’m reading too much into these snapshots from fifteen years ago. But I don’t think so.
During the morning dog walk with the pack, I heard the first-day stories from friends who still have kids in school. Later, I saw the photos on Facebook. There are the little ones summoning their courage as they hold up hand-lettered “first day of” signs. There are the older ones glaring sullenly, attempting to shoot poison dart rays at a parent who insists they pose uncomfortably in the gray light of dawn.
Several of my friends are dreading the college send-off that looms in the future. I understand, and I remember. But I will tell them this: it will probably be less painful than that off-to-Kindergarten day.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
May our country continue to uphold and live by these words, as powerful today as when they were composed in 1776.
With the ceremonies attending this month’s 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, my Uncle Bill, a veteran of World War II, has been very much on my mind. Bill wasn’t among those who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Instead, he was a Frogman in the Pacific. But were he alive today, he would have been 93, the same age as many of the veterans who returned to the French coast last week to be honored for their long-ago heroism. Like these now elderly, frail gentlemen, during his military service, Bill persevered in the face of daunting odds and certain danger. Like them, he would likely look back today and marvel at his youthful naivete, fearlessness and fortitude. Also like these aged honorees, he would probably contemplate the accident of his own survival as he recalled friends who were not so fortunate.
It seems fitting, then, to repost an amended version of a tribute to my dear Uncle Bill, written during Father’s Day week in 2012.
William Graham was born in rural Marion County, Kentucky in 1925, the third of five children, the second of my maternal grandparents’ three sons. My mother, the baby of the family, would enter the world ten years later. In physical appearance, temperament and attitude, Bill was very much like his father, who died when I was almost six. For me, Uncle Bill provided a tangible, very real link to my grandfather. (See my earlier post here: A Week of Good Fathers: My Grandaddy. For that reason alone, I would have revered him. For many other reasons, I loved, and loved being around my Uncle Bill.
By all accounts, Bill was so like my grandfather that they were often at loggerheads during my uncle’s boyhood and teen years. Each was painfully honest in every situation, and this may have proved more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone in their relationship. Bill had little interest in becoming a farmer like his father. Fortunately for him, his older brother Leland had followed in Grandaddy’s footsteps and taken over the cultivation of the land by the Rolling Fork River. My grandfather continued to maintain the farm closer to town. When World War II began, Bill saw it as an opportunity to escape farm work and put a stop to conflict with his father. He enlisted at seventeen, just before Christmas of 1943. Although blessed with a keen intellect, a rebellious streak led to conflicts with teachers, and Bill left for the Army without completing his senior year of high school.
Bill wrote home diligently throughout his military service, and we have most of the letters he sent. Never overly sentimental, never self-pitying, his early letters border on heartbreaking. They express the thoughts of a young man who acted in haste and immediately regretted his decision.
These first letters, sent from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, tell of receiving vaccinations, shoveling snow in blizzard-like conditions, and hoping to join the Air Corps but being eight pounds underweight. Bill lists the various articles of clothing he has been issued, remarking with amazement that it’s more than he’s ever seen before. He asks his family to send some shoe polish, because his boots have stiffened uncomfortably from daily wear in the snow and slush. He also asks for a pencil and a few wire coat hangers. The talk in the barracks, morning and night, was that of homesick young men pining for their loved ones and the lives they had left behind. Most, like Uncle Bill, were from rural areas. They had realized, too late, the simple glory of farm life. In Bill’s words, he “never realized how swell home was, but he sure would like to see it now.” His father, he admits, knew more about the Army than he did. His letters are always signed “Love, Billy.”
He was soon transferred to Fort Gordon-Johnston in Florida for basic training to enter an amphibious brigade. At the end of January 1944, he reports getting $39.55 for his first month of duty. Nearly every letter begins with an apology for not writing sooner, but he seems to have written every few days. He often asks about my mother’s asthma, the progress of the tobacco stripping, and he offers hopes that the crop will bring a good price. A high point about army life, he notes, is access to new movies. He mentions seeing Jack London, Swing Fever and later, Double Indemnity. In one letter he writes that he was “feeling fine, and at times, almost happy, but not quite.” That expression of thoughtful, measured restraint is so very Bill.
As the months ticked by, Bill wrote from increasingly exotic places, although his exact location could not be divulged. From Florida, he went to New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, many small islands in the Phillipines, and then on to Hawaii for training in Underwater Demolition. After his return, he talked of being dropped in the ocean, no land in sight, and no special equipment but a pair of flippers. He and his fellow Frogmen were expected to tread water for six to eight hours as they awaited the ship’s return. The Frogmen were the precursors to the Navy SEALs, and I can only imagine the intensity of other training exercises and actual duties. Bill didn’t talk much about any of that.
The tone of homesick regret is gradually replaced by a sense of wonder at the strange beauty of places he could never have imagined. In the Philippines, he buys a handmade mattress from a local woman, tours a ruined city in a horse-drawn buggy-taxi, attends Saturday night dances on base where the “fine-looking” Spanish and Filippino girls “can jitterbug to put the girls back home to shame.” He discovers an injured cockatoo in the jungle and nurses it back to health. He revels in the abundance of tropical fruit and notes that there is no cigarette shortage in the army, unlike in the States. He is surprised by his ability to work all day, on a ship in the equatorial zone, in temperatures up to 115 degrees, with hardly any ill effects. The miserable poverty of some of the native villages affects him deeply. Hospitalized for a while with “yellow jaundice,” he enjoys the rest, as well as the fluffy pillows. When a fellow patient has a break-down and runs screaming in the halls, he remarks that the jungles will do that to you, after two or three years. He laments not being able to write about the most interesting parts of his days, because such information would be censored. Despite his discretion, in several of his letters a line or two has been neatly cut away. How I wish I’d read these letters during Bill’s lifetime. There are so many questions I would have asked.
In Bill’s letter of August 16, 1945, news has just broken of Japan’s surrender. The war is officially over. He begins to believe he will return home soon, to the farm he had so wanted to leave. After several months in the U.S. occupational forces in Japan, he arrived stateside in the winter of 1946. Like his fellow soldiers lucky enough to return, he was older and wiser, and had a renewed appreciation for home.
Bill went to the University of Kentucky on the G. I. bill. His dark hair turned completely silver when he was still in his late 20s, giving him an air of elegant sophistication. My father, seeing Mama with her brother on campus, assumed she was with a handsome professor. Bill was in his 30s when he married a divorced woman with two sons. Margaret was the sister of one of my mother’s childhood friends. Bill never had any biological children, but he was a supportive and caring stepfather. Mama and Bill were close, and they were alike in many ways. As long as I can remember, Uncle Bill was a big part of my life. He often traveled to Atlanta on business. When it was still a rather grand hotel and hadn’t slipped into seediness, he stayed downtown at the old Henry Grady Hotel. He often had a free evening, and he’d treat my parents and me to a festive dinner, somewhere we wouldn’t ordinarily go. Occasionally he stayed at the now long-demolished Admiral Benbow Inn on Spring Street, which had a pool. I remember swimming there a few times with my two best elementary school friends. I always looked forward to Uncle Bill’s visits. I loved his dry wit, which was sarcastic and sometimes biting, but never mean-spirited. He was well-read, reflective, widely informed and inclined to doubt. He shared with my mother and me a love for the melancholy humor of Thomas Hardy novels. As a connoisseur of life’s ironic absurdities, Bill was highly amusing company.
Uncle Bill was empathetic and attuned to the plight of the down-trodden. He was especially soft-hearted when it came to animals. (I sure wish I could have learned more about that injured cockatoo!) Bill always had a dog, or he cared for someone else’s dog, typically one that would prefer to be Bill’s. When a neighbor’s three-legged lab mix made it clear that he would much rather live with my uncle, his owners passed him on. With Bill, Colonel got several walks each day, plus a long car ride. Colonel loved a ride, so Bill made it part of their routine. During a visit after Colonel’s death and not long before Bill’s own, I went with him on his nightly duty to walk a neighbor’s dog. Bill had noticed that the dog’s owner worked long hours, and he offered to provide an afternoon walk. Before long, this had turned into three daily walks. Bill was retired and dogless at the time, so he was happy to oblige. On the night I went with him, he put his raincoat over his pajamas and we walked down the street to the neighbor’s home. He let us in with his own key, and the woman rose to greet us warmly, from what appeared to be a late-night dinner party. No doubt her guests thought it odd that her dog-walker was a dashing silver-haired seventy-year old in PJs. No doubt they also thought she had lucked into a great deal. Bill never cared if people considered him somewhat eccentric.
Bill’s time in the service may have fostered his love of travel. He and Margaret were always setting off for some legendary spot. During my year in England they popped in on several occasions. Our pre-dinner pub conversation was always a particular pleasure. They were my first visitors when I lived in Cambridge. We ate at the city’s best restaurants and took day-trips to Eton and Windsor Castle. Later in the year, we rented a car and drove up to York over the course of nearly a week. Bill and Margaret went on to Scotland and I returned to London by train. And when I was in England for a month the next year, they came back, too. I can still see the look of incredulity on Bill’s face when he saw my tiny, cell-like room in the London House Annex, a dormitory for visiting students.
Uncle Bill died much too soon, at 71. I guess because he was so like my grandfather, who made it to 79, I thought we’d have him around for a few more years. He was there for my wedding, but he never got to see my beautiful baby girl. He would certainly have enjoyed watching her grow into the unique young woman she is now. It’s a great consolation, however, to reflect on the many lives that Uncle Bill touched, with his kindness, generosity and humor. And I have faith that now, in some heavenly realm, he and Grandaddy, two kindred spirits, are enjoying peaceful, yet lively good fellowship.
Over Memorial Day weekend we visited my husband’s family in New York state. Early on Saturday morning, when we woke up in Spencerport, a picturesque village on the Eerie Canal, Kiko and I headed out for our first walk. My little dog was even more headstrong than usual. If I attempted to turn left, he was determined to go right. When I preferred right, he insisted on left. Occasionally his obstinance resulted in a dead stop, as he splayed his legs and I tugged, to no avail, on the leash. Our progress was slow and laborious. The constant battle of wills made it difficult to properly appreciate the gracious old homes of Spencerport. I was annoyed with Kiko, who clearly cares nothing for architecture, or for beauty in general. How disappointing. I tend, however irrationally, to expect more from him. And because I’d given in to his choices, we were heading in a direction that I didn’t intend. But up ahead, on South Union Street, I began to see the entrance to Fairfield Cemetery. We’d passed it yesterday driving in. To me, it looked inviting. Kiko evidently felt the same way. For the first time that morning, we were in agreement.
Except for the exuberant chirping of a great variety of birds, all was quiet. No sounds of mowing, cutting or leaf-blowing disturbed the serenity.
Many of the graves were marked with small American flags. I realized, with some chagrin, that I’d almost forgotten, at least momentarily, the significance of the long holiday weekend.
As Kiko and I wandered the shaded, grassy pathways between the rows of gravestones, I noticed that we now walked together in easy step. My stubborn dog had managed to bring me here, against my will, to this peaceful spot, to contemplate the cost of peace. I thought of the old poem of achingly sad remembrance, of poppies waving in Flanders fields, between the crosses, row on row. And of the vast and ever-growing expanse of white markers in Arlington Cemetery. Not long ago, passing by that hallowed ground on the way to Reagan Airport, we saw the solemn spectacle of a horse-drawn caisson bearing a flag-draped coffin.
Memorial Day reminds us to remember and honor the many lives lost in service to our country. Consider the teenagers, who, like my Uncle Bill, traded the drudgery of 1940s farm work for the unknown adventure of World War II. My Uncle returned from the war. Too many others did not. Think of the young people who drew a final breath in the swampy fields of Vietnam. Be grateful to those whose civic duty cost them their lives in the Gulf War, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in exotic locales most Americans would be hard-pressed to pronounce or locate on a map. Acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died fighting a shape-shifting, ill-defined enemy in our war on terror.
And may we give some thought to those who managed to evade death on far-flung battlefields, only to return home to find the challenge of readapting to civilian life unsurmountable. The deep wounds of war, mental, emotional, and physical, are near-impossible to comprehend for those who haven’t served. Some who fought in Vietnam returned to a society that seemed to regard them as the enemy. Let’s pray for those who survived the war but could not survive the trials of day-to-day life in the very towns they had once called home.
As Kiko and I walked back from the cemetery, we were reminded that the service and the sacrifice continue today. Along Union Street, every lamp post was decorated with a banner bearing the image and name of a current member of our armed forces. Let us not forget the dedication and bravery of such hometown heroes, whether we know them personally, or not. Every day, our brothers and sisters risk their lives in harsh conditions so that we may enjoy the day-to-day comforts of home and the fundamental, essential freedoms we often take for granted. May we recognize the human cost of war and elect representatives who truly comprehend it, as well. May our military men and women feel strongly supported during their deployment.
That morning, I imagined the military men and women of Spencerport engaged in difficult, dangerous, uncomfortable work in a hostile environment. I wondered if their families would gather soon in nearby back yards on this holiday weekend, keenly missing a son, a daughter, a father, mother, brother or sister. I pray that our hometown heroes will be warmly welcomed back again in the near future, by a country that respects their service and provides the restorative care they need. May we honor in memory those who paid the ultimate price in battle, and may we treat with compassion and dignity our soldiers who make it home.
. . . Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
—America, words: Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744
After a sluggish and hesitant prologue, the phases of our Northern Virginia spring have been moving right along at a rapid and regular clip. We still wake up to the occasionally chilly morning, but there have been no recent dips below freezing. Spring now has a spring in its step.
As the branches of the earlier blooming cherry trees were greening, the ground beneath them being transformed into a carpet of pink petals, the next wave of blossoms, darker in color, was peaking.
The bright fuchsia buds of our Appalachian Redbud always take their good sweet time in emerging. When they appeared, they were as brilliant and jewel-like as ever.
Last spring, a bitter cold snap blasted the buds of the camellia that nestles in a corner of my mother’s house. This year we were treated to a show of lush red flowers.
Spring in three layers: camellias and fuchsia blossoms against a backdrop of weeping cherry.
In October I planted some sixty daffodil bulbs in a barren mulch patch beneath a black walnut tree in our front yard. All winter I kept my eye on the area, watching for the first shoots of spiky foliage to emerge from the snow. I love the optimism implied in planting bulbs. It’s assuring to remember that even in the depths of winter, regenerating forces are at work, beneath the ground and even in the frigid air. When I spot those first green tips, usually in early February, I never fail to be surprised, yet comforted by such faithful heralds of the spring. The first daffodils to bloom were the smallest, the Tete-a-Tete miniatures. As their golden heads bobbed in fierce March winds, they were the picture of cheery perkiness. Following soon were the tall, bold Trumpet Masters, the type I remember from old Easter coloring books. Next appeared some fancy double blooms. With ruffled petals in shades of apricot and pale yellow, this variety reminds me of Cinderella dressed for the ball.
The last to join the daffodil band were several pink cupped varieties, simple but elegant with their delicate shadings and crimped-edged centers. The mulch patch has plenty of room for more inhabitants. This fall, if things go as planned, I’ll add another sixty bulbs.
Wild violets tend to pop up fortuitously around the grape hyacinths I planted two years ago. These kindred spirits pair well in mini bouquets.
Our rhododendron is currently putting on an exuberant show.
As are the azaleas. In red. . .
White. . .
On this second day of May, our Japanese maples glow fiery red in the sun. The old silver maples have sent forth their multitudes of angel-winged seed pods. Our trellis roses will be budding any day now. The air smells of lilac, laurel, locust blossoms and honeysuckle. Spring’s final phase is at the ready. The warmth of the morning anticipates summer, and Kiko, still in his winter fur, seeks the shade.