Category Archives: Story

Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 21

San Miguel Desert Botanical Gardens (Click on Photos to Enlarge)

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 21

            For the next three days, we packed as many explorations of San Miguel into our days as possible.  We took another tour of the botanical gardens, this time taking a longer path which wound down to the bottom and to the furthest edges of the ravine.  We explored ancient ruins, watched goats grazing near the water far below, watched boys diving into the water from the muddy banks.  Men stuccoing bovedas on rooftops  across the ravine caught sight of us and waved.  We ended up on the path that wound right up to the huge mansion which clung to the cliffside at the furthest edge of the botanical gardens.  Its inhabitants were the owners of the most popular restaurant in San Miguel.  When other restaurants were empty, theirs was always full.  When the city had prevailed upon him to give the land for the botanical gardens, the owner had complied, but when they had asked for the house, he had refused.  “You don’t give away your dreams,” he said.  Politicians had put on pressure, denied him access to city water for years, but he had held out.  Now the pathways of the desert gardens came within feet of his house, but he was still there.  His view was the best in San Miguel:  The city in the distance, the ravine and aqueduct and ruins below him, around him the beautiful virgin desert, much of it still blooming as we walked its various paths. 

A huge bird circled overhead.  Lizards and a brightly striped snake crossed our path.  Hummingbirds, bees, millions of giant red ants.  The ubiquitous black grackles, moving their widely fanned tails like rudders, swifts gliding and darting,  and those voluminous white clouds in the vivid blue sky.  The neighborhood we had narrowed our wishes down to adjoined the botanical gardens land,  but when we inquired about the price of lots, they were as much as we’d planned on spending for an entire house with lot. What Bob had decided he’d like to spend, that is.  He had settled on $80,000—the price that the stabbed woman had put on her house, lowering it because, after all, who wants to live in the same neighborhood with a man with a knife and a proclivity to use it? I was humoring him, sure that we’d never find anything for that price that we would want to buy. He loved looking at houses, and so did I. I just didn’t want to buy another one before we sold ours!

          A few days later, when Jim offered to rent or sell us his house for a figure within our budget, we switched our focus back again to reality.  We could finish the compound wall, build a studio, finish tiling the house, but when we asked a builder for estimates of what this would  cost, we figured  that it would end up costing about what any of the  places closer to the jardin would cost.  In Jim’s house, we’d have privacy, a larger lot, a bigger studio,  but in a neighborhood where it would be harder to sell in the future.  If we didn’t want to buy, he offered us the option to rent for a year or two so he could go to South America with his girlfriend, and if we couldn’t find another house to rent for a year and a half, this was the option I preferred

            On the plus side, it would get Bob’s mind off wanting to buy a house. On the minus side, our next door neighbors on one side were rowdy, the street in front of their house a gathering place every weekend for men with beer bottles and loud voices.  The neighbors to our rear and other side were both metalsmiths, who often worked into the evening.  One of their sons was a drummer who practiced daily on a large oil drum.  The other was a whistler.  True, so far, we had not been bothered by these sounds of activity, but, who knew how we would feel months or a year from now? 

            We loved the sounds of children playing on the huge empty field across from us.  We loved watching people crisscross the field to and from Gigante.  However, trucks and jeeps also  used it for four-wheeling, and it was strewn with garbage:  Coke bottles, water bottles, plastic bags, old tires, mounds of broken bricks, stone and cement dumped after building projects, tangles of barbed wire, tin cans, burned logs.

             Every unoccupied lot in San Miguel became a repository for the rubbish of the neighborhood.  Everyone drank Cokes and bottled water, and when the plastic bottles were emptied, they were tossed:  out of car windows, into window grids, onto spare lots, onto city streets, into ravines and lakes and rivers.  There was garbage collection and women faithfully walked to the curbs to hand over their household garbage, but when walking or driving or riding, the custom was to toss it.  Highways nationwide––or for as far as we had seen––were rimmed with garbage.  Coca Cola had done more to ruin the scenic beauty of Mexico than any single force.  If it wasn’t their huge billboards or graffiti-like paintings on brick buildings city wide and country wide, it was the solid  expanse of empty plastic bottles which paved the desert, the grass or the shoreline which bordered every road. 

            San Miguel was a beautifully preserved colonial town with strictly regulated ancient buildings, churches,  monasteries and cobblestones.  Its central zocalo––known as the jardin––was the place where lovers met and musicians played and children frolicked.  Here benches lined the square and people sat to watch children, lovers, tourists, toy venders, beggars, neighbors, students, ice-cream eaters, scooter riders, ball bouncers, survey takers, shoe polishers, Spanish practicers and fruit sellers.  Overhead was the dense foliage of trees.  Around the outside of the square were the buildings hundreds of years old. 

            Within the jardin, sidewalks formed a square within a square with intersecting crisscrosses.  Every twenty feet or so there arose a bronze stake.  Antique, curlicued, topped with a rubbish container shaped vaguely like a mailbox, but patinaed, ornamented, lovely until you saw it from the front.  There, emblazoned over the slot where the rubbish went in, in six inch high letters, was that ubiquitous script. “Coca Cola “it said, on each rubbish bin.  Dozens of them marched the jardin like town criers, reminding us, “Never forget.”

             The most constant presence in Mexico was Coca Cola.  On one expanse of road,  I spotted eight building-sized signs for Coca Cola and  two for Pepsi Cola within a one block area.  And in the ditches country-wide lay discarded bottles, like stepping stones between the few blades of grass that poked between them.

            True, there seemed to be some awareness of litter as a problem.  Here and there, you see a sign “No tire basura” (Don’t throw trash) on a spare lot or along the roadway, but  few heeded them.  They had become invisible.  City dumps, more often than not, were located right next to major roadways.  Handier that way, I guess. 

            As we were discussing the possibility of visiting Mexico and then moving there for a year or more, Bob had started reading what material was available in that pre-internet age. In addition to San Migel de Allende, he had been attracted to two areas, mainly because they were situated by very large lakes.  He had often told me that he had always wanted to live by a lake, and now he suggested that in the couple of weeks we had left before we had to be back for my mother’s memorial, that perhaps we should take a weekend off and investigate both of them: Lake Patzcuaro and then the largest lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala, Then, coincidentally, at a restaurant with tables placed too close to each other to avoid becoming conversational with one’s neighbors, we entered into a discussion with a couple from Ajijic who I had heard discussing the fact that public outcry had caused local politicians to decide to move the dump from a much-used cut-off road between two of the most popular towns on the lake to a more hidden location.  They said, in fact, that along the whole expanse of the lake, rubbish seemed to be less of a problem than usual.  As the lake shrank away from its banks, hundreds of yards of lake bottom were exposed.  Here cattle grazed, four-wheel-drive vehicles turned wheelies in the dried dirt, boats lay earthbound, blocks from the nearest water.  On weekends, locals thronged to makeshift palapas constructed on the former lake bottom to drink beer or Cokes or Fanta.  Yet there was very little rubbish.

           In one subdivision, double oil barrels were placed on each block along the road to serve as trash receptacles, but elsewhere, even where there were no rubbish bins, there seemed to be vastly less littering.  Construction crews still piled their leftover stones, dirt, concrete, bricks and rebar  on spare lots, to be dealt with by the next building crew, but piles of stone and brick and wood seemed less intrusive than thousands of plastic corpses of drink containers and shopping bags.  Also in this area, as in the area around Lake Patzcuaro, there seemed to be more people out along the road searching for recyclable bottles.  Why, in this era when so many items––from clothing to deck materials––are made out of recycled plastic, can some program not be started in Mexico, which could make it profitable for people to collect this unsightly litter and turn it from a liability into an asset?
          It seemed a sign. Bob used this conversation as a springboard and once again suggested that we at least quickly investigate the other two towns that had intrigued him in his reading about Mexico.  So it was that we decided to head off for a short sortie into the wilds of Mexico.  First Patzcuaro, then Chapala, before signing the year-and-a-half lease for the San Miguel house. We still had a few weeks before we needed to be back in the states for my mom’s memorial in South Dakota. Why not spend them making sure that San Miguel was really the place for us?


Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 18

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 18: Rooftops

            First of all, in Mexico, almost everyone has them:  flat rooftops.  They are reached by stairs or by wrought iron ladders attached to the side of the buildings or by  tightly spiraled metal staircases.  Many serve the purpose of a security system by serving as home for the family “roof dog.”  These dogs, not as plentiful nor as vocal as in Oaxaca, nonetheless exist in San Miguel as well, where they  live their entire lifetimes on the roof.  When people pass by on the street, they bark.  When fireworks go off and other roof dogs bark, they bark back.  Should anyone attempt to climb onto the roof to gain access to the house, they bark louder. 

            Since we had rented by far the tallest house in the neighborhood, we got to look down on all of the other rooftops.  We tended to go up on the roof at least once a day––usually to observe the sunset, or fireworks, or to just look at the incredible panorama of 360 degrees of blue sky dotted with white clotted clouds.  These San Miguel skies astounded us.  We had lived in the California redwoods for too long.  We’d forgotten what it was like to see the horizon. 

            Other people seemed to use their roofs for other things.  On each and every one, there was a stack of old lumber, twisted wire and bricks.  On many were piles of curved clay roof tiles.  From the tops of the brick columns at each side of the house and at intervals along the walls extended the bumpy heavy wires of rebar.  Like particularly tough bristles, they sprouted  from the tops of the houses in clusters, ready and waiting for the next story, to be added as the money appeared to build it.  This was an ever-present activity in San Miguel.  In no place where we’d stayed in the past weeks had we been freed from the sounds of construction.  After men came home from work, they would go to the roof and add a few bricks.  The pounding of their mallets to set the bricks extended far into the evening. 

            The other purpose of roofs seemed to be to store pop bottles.  On most of the roofs spread below us were case after case of Coke bottles.  Why they hadn’t cashed these in, we had no idea, since a considerable amount of the price of each bottle of coke or beer covered the price of the bottle.  For a liter bottle of Corona, a third of the price was the bottle deposit.  Perhaps this was their bank––hoarded Coke bottles on the roof.  Perhaps they were waiting for the price of Coke bottles to go up––like the peso.  Or perhaps they were waiting to cash them in to buy drinks for their next fiesta.

            Other rooftops displayed geraniums in clay pots.  We never saw them being enjoyed or tended to.  They were just there.  For our pleasure, perhaps, since no one else ever went to the rooftops except to shovel roof dog poop.  One night, as we stood watching the sunset, we saw two women climb the stairs up to their own rooftop.  So people did watch the sunset here, too, I thought, but for the half hour they were on the roof, they sat on chairs talking, their backs to the setting sun.

            Aside from Coke bottles, geraniums and construction materials, rooftops were proper storage places for:  old bicycles, extra flowerpots, broken and sound, shovels,  pickup bed covers, folding chairs, half-used buckets of paint, old bed springs, rain barrels, extra tires and purloined shopping carts from Gigante which were upended and appeared to be used as some sort of kennel, although we never saw any animal inside.  It was well into our second week in the house when I thought to go up on the roof during the day.  It was then that I saw activity, for women had stung clotheslines in the bright late morning sun and were hanging clothes.  From rooftop after rooftop, the bright flags of socks, undershorts, pants and shirts hung like fiesta decorations across half the rooftops within vision.


Photo of rooftop washing day by Gwendolyn Anderson on Unsplash

Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 15

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 15

            Mexico was a libertarian’s dream.  Although major roads were maintained when the potholes got big enough to cause accidents,  government maintenance of lesser roads were rarely dealt with promptly, if at all.  Here, if a neighborhood wanted a paved road, they got together to buy the cobblestones and hired someone to lay them, or pitched in to build it together.  Rules were few.  Although there were stop signs, few stopped at them.  Not even the police.  Here whole families rode in the backs of pickups, perched on the sides or on the floor with grandma on a folding chair.  Here people lit up in restaurants. (Although smoking laws twenty years later have been changed.)  Fireworks went off every night at all hours––the sign of a fiesta, the death of a child, or any public or private celebration.  Downtown, church bells rang loudly throughout the night.  There was a rule that no one could construct a window that overlooked their neighbor’s property, so all windows were on the fronts of the houses, but there were no rules for noise.  Our neighbors pounded anvils, operated buzz saws and set bricks with a mallet far into the night. 

            Last night, there had seemed to be a fiesta complete with music and firecrackers going on into the early hours right by our front gate.  When we returned from the video premiere,  the number of people who were sitting on the curb in front of our house had surprised us, but we had no clue that  the purpose for their being there went beyond a Friday night stroll and gossip session.  Perhaps they were conducting ceremonies to expel the new foreigners.  We had no way of knowing.  When we told Steve about it, he said, “Oh yes, two fiestas a week.”  His meaning was cryptic.  We would, no doubt, find out what he meant. 

            In the mid-afternoon, Bob motioned for me to look out of the second story window.  From our neighbor’s rooftop, strings of flags and fringed streamers descended across the street to light poles opposite.  Perhaps there would be yet another fiesta tonight.  This time, I would go to see what was happening.  

            It began in the afternoon, when I could hear a band some distance away.  It sounded like a group of first year band students who had assembled to practice both their marching and their music with many false starts and stops.  As it got nearer I went out to the street, but saw nothing.  Then I saw them––a strung out bunch in white shirts wending their way through the field that crossed to the Gigante.  A few men sat on the curb to my left as I left our compound, a few women to my right.  A woman passed and I said, “Buenos tardes.”  She answered me, but I could see her glance at my bare legs.  My Sausalito Art Festival T-shirt was extra-large and extra-long, and covered my shorts.  Just as well, as they were covered with smiling skulls, more appropriate for Day of the Dead, no doubt, than whatever festival was going on.  To her, it probably appeared that I had on nothing under the T-shirt.  More streamers with banners had    gone up in the street.  They were strung from the houses on either side of us out to a wire that someone had strung from light pole to light pole.  It was a few feet lower than the electrical wires and seemed to have been strung for just this purpose.  Now several houses up and down the street sported streamers.  As the day progressed, I could hear the band practicing from some direction far to our right––along the main road that led from town, perhaps. 

            In the very late afternoon, the true activities began.  At first, we heard the music––this time louder and more in unison.  We drew chairs out to the sidewalk in front of our compound.  Along the street, a number of our neighbors were assembled.  In the distance, to our right, we heard wild drums, cries and shouts.  The beat was primitive––more Native American or African than Mexican.  Then around the bend in the road they came––young men and old men in pre-Columbian Aztec dress.  Bare chests, leather loin flaps.  The drummer had so much white face paint on that I thought he was Anglo.  Their heels held high, they executed three leaps to the left, then three leaps to the right, then twirled and twisted and yelped.  In the front were the best dancers.  We tapped our feet and moved our shoulders to their rhythms.  Impossible not to.  At the back of the troupe came the young dancers––one so young that his mother marched along at the side to keep watch over him.  She called out to him as one man veered too close to him.  Behind these modern day reminders of the old religions came the new:  six pre-adolescent girls in white dresses carrying a flower-heaped platform.  Rising up from its middle was a cross.  As they passed us, one girl handed over her rear position on the carrying pole to another girl and rubbed her shoulder.  An older woman supervised the hand-over and kept the girls carrying the cross and their relief squadron, who marched behind them, in line and in sync.  When one girl lowered the pole, the woman reached out to raise the platform to even it out. 

            Behind the girls came the band I had been hearing all day.  They were still not perfect in harmony or rhythm, but they were much louder, which did a lot to improve their sound.  The procession moved by our house and down the street.  As we carried our chairs into our compound, Bearcat dashed out into the cobblestoned street––a daring move for a cat who a week ago wouldn’t come out from under the bed. I called him back in and he minded. 

             I spent the day making retablos.  I had purchased the tin and glass boxes in the artisans’ market a few days before, intending to give them as gifts when I returned home.  But after they lay on the living room cot for a few days, I couldn’t resist opening them to see what I’d bought.  The afternoon was hot and I set up my “studio” on the small table of the patio which held the clothes washer.  My tool boxes and cases full of art supplies sat on the patio around me.  By late afternoon, I was surrounded by strips from cut up photographs, cloth, beads, snips of waxed linen.  Each glass fronted box was some degree of its way toward being a retablo.  One was dedicated to Bearcat, another to the Virgin of Guadalupe,  the third a tribute to life in general––seeds, greenery, birth.  With my limited supplies, it became necessary to search the household for things we’d brought that could contribute to the shrines.  A container of popcorn contributed fertility and life bursting forth to the Madonna shrine.  An old peso brought to me by neighbors who visited Mexico in the 50’s, now worthless, was beautiful when the raised parts were buffed with fine sandpaper.  Feathers, beads, charms, seeds, bits of cloth, cut up bits of the photos I’d taken so far in Mexico.  Bob awoke from his siesta in the late afternoon and set up his easel––a tall ladder––in the courtyard.  He assembled his paints, prepared his palette––and the rain started.  Moving his materials quickly to the patio where I sat surrounded by my midden of art supplies, he propped his canvas against the table.  Restful large blobs of color covered the canvas.  They reminded me of the bougainvillea.  His usual bright primary colors had been abandoned for the more subtle colors of the garden and house that surrounded us. 

            By 9:30, we sat on the deck eating our dinner when the band started in again––coming from a direction about half a block away to the rear of our house.  Kids’ voices called out excitedly.  I imagined a pinata being broken.  Then the fireworks started.  They were the spectacular chrysanthemums and huge falling fountain fireworks of  a fourth of July celebration.  At first we went out to the compound to see them.  Then Bob said we should go up on the roof, but by the time we had climbed up the circular staircase with our plates, the fireworks had stopped.  We stood at the edge of our roof, our plates balanced on the adobe pillars on the sides of the patio.  Up here it was cool, and the food lost its heat quickly.  Although it was too dark to see our food, in the moonlight, we could see puffs of smoke ––the ghosts of the earlier fireworks.  We could hear a loud “thwack, thwack, thwack” and children screamed and laughed.  The band started up, died down, started up––like long spaced hiccups. 

            An hour or so later, when we were about to go to bed, the activity again moved to the street in front of our house.  The band, much improved, came marching firmly down the street from our left.  They seemed to have been replaced by another band, for now their music was sure and robust.  They seem to have swelled in numbers, as well.  They came more quickly than before down the street and stopped two doors away from us.  Some of them carried bottles, which they took fast swigs out of before raising their instruments.  They played a rousing song before one of the men pulled a man from the house and brought him out to dance with him.  He encircled his body with his arms and they danced like lovers to the music.  Then the music stopped and the entire band––maybe 15 or 20 strong––streamed into the house.  Earlier, as I stood on the roof, I had seen women in that compound making tortillas in the back yard.  I had wondered why they would choose early evening to do so, then figured it was to escape the heat of the day.  Now I wondered if they were for the musicians, who did, indeed, stay in the compound for the rest of the night, playing music which echoed up the brick walls of their compound directly in through our windows.  It was then that the really loud fireworks started and continued for an hour or so.  We drifted off to sleep.  Was it midnight or 1 a.m.?  It made no difference.  The fiesta was over and we slept.

            Boom!  An explosion like a land mine ripped through our open window.  Then another and another.  Some streamed up into the air, some exploded on the ground.  These explosions were cherry bomb sized, then hand grenade sized, then, to our very early morning ears, \ground-to-air missile-sized.  Amazing that the cat only stirred slightly in the bed.  Just a week ago he would start and run at the rustle of the cat food bag.  Explosion after explosion went off. 

            “What time is it?” I asked Bob, but he couldn’t see his watch.  By this time, at least a couple dozen explosions had gone off.  Since it was still dark, perhaps the purpose was to bring out the sun.  By now the roosters were crowing, so the  fireworks had done their job.  But they didn’t stop.  After one ear-splitting retort, our car alarm went off, adding to the festivites.  Bob rolled out of bed and fumbled in his shorts pocket for the keys.  I moved to the bathroom and by the time I got back, the car alarm had gone off again. 

            “Just turn it off.  I think this is going to go on all day.”  I flipped on the light.  6:15 a.m.  Church bells began to toll. 

            By eight o’clock, all was quiet.  The sounds I could hear seemed muffled––either in comparison with the fireworks or due to them.  Roosters crowing, the acetylene torch sound of the water heater coming on, trucks and buses on the road, the beautiful cries of grackles.  Ceiling fans whirred.  Bob slept on in the huge bed on the balcony across from where I sat in the office.  This bed was the largest either of us had every seen.  It had to be bigger than king-sized.  I could stretch out my arm fully from where I slept and still not find him.  The cat could sleep sideways between us and not touch either of us. 

            “We need another person for this bed,” Bob had said as we slipped into bed the night before. I suggested that we could both just roll over to the middle, so we did.

Chapters 1-14 are availble in daily blogs for the past two weeks. 

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut

Before the below words are imputed to be of my crafting, I must say though I am hugely partisan to their genius, I did not, alas, write them. The story below is full to the brim with creativity and good humor—its word choice both spry and original, and although the plot line may at first seem indecipherable, I trust that your mind will soon snap in line and make transliteration on my part unnecessary.

Although H.L. Chace wrote Ladel Rat Rotten Hut seven years before my birth, my folks were still quoting it when I became old enough to memorize it myself.  After 70 years, I can still quote lines of it by heart.  I want to quote a bit of it here with a link to its online source. Hopefully, it won’t require transliteration:

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut

by H. S. Chace

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist.  Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin, pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.

Wan moaning, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut’s murder colder inset.

“Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, heresy ladle basking winsome burden barter an shirker cockles. Tick disk ladle basking tutor cordage offer groin-murder hoe lifts honor udder site offer florist.  Shaker lake! Dun stopper laundry wrote! Dun stopper peck floors!  Dun daily-doily inner florist, an yonder nor sorghum-stenches, dun stopper torque wet strainers!”

“Hoe-cake, murder,” resplendent Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, an tickle ladle basking an stuttered oft.  . . . .

To read  (and hear) the rest of the story, go to


Prompt words today are brim, spry,  partisan, impute, craft and transliterated.  (Transliteration changes the words from one language or alphabet into another corresponding, with similar-sounding letters with different characters.) Image by Šárka Jonášová on Unsplash.

Doggie Drama

What are the chances that I would capture this action while I was exercising in the pool? But, I had noticed a large golden-orb weaver spider on my neighbor’s wall and although I knew it was too far away to get a good photo, I was listening to an Audible book and the phone was in reaching distance, so I thought I’d try. Coco and Zoe jogged over to check out my action and this is what resulted. Since i was holding the camera in my hands, I captured most of it, other than the recovery action which meant I had to set the camera down. Please click on photos to enlarge and read the story.



Quilting Bee

(Click on photos to enlarge and to read the rest of the story.)

Quilting Bee

I chop my life up into bits, incongruous and varied:
struggles, victories, tragic loves, the day that I got married.
Clashes create beauty as pains mix up with cheers,
making a lovely pattern as each new piece appears.

In stories as in patchwork quilts, all bits are not roses.
Part of the beauty comes from the pain that it exposes.
We put our art together, fragment after patch
and no pattern emerges if all the pieces match.

A convenient truth of works of art as well as that of life:
beauty’s found in perfection, but also found in strife.
Sweet berries come with brambles and each rose has its thorn.
Both great passion and great pain predate the time we’re born.

Perhaps pain is the awful price that we have to pay
to experience the pleasure of when it goes away.
So with the ugly fabric that finds a place to fit
when contrasting beauty is stitched in next to it.

Life is a lovely story, but not all of it is writ.
Why were we created if not to add to it?
In taking all the pieces we’re provided with,
We take part in creation by adding to the myth.



Prompts today are patterns, chop, clashes, cheer, incongruous, convenient and brambles.

Family Reunion

Family Reunion

Thunder crashes, warning that her homecoming will not be ideal. These people know all her dirty little secrets and as is symptomatic of siblings, even those supposed to be mature, they are sure to reveal some of her past sins. She once wrote an award-winning satire based on her family,  but of course the irony was wasted on them. She came from a literal and humorless family. She had actually considered skipping this reunion, but then reconsidered. Once she has sold her newest story to the New Yorker, the trip will be tax-deductible, and where is she likely to find better material?

Prompts today are dirty, symptomatic, waste, satire, thunder and homecoming. Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.


I thought I had told this story before and promised to send a link to the story to  Eilene , but looking through my WordPress files, I can’t find it so I’m sharing it here. This story will also be in my upcoming book, The China Bulldog and Other Stories of a Small Town Girl, but I’ll give you a sneak preview here.


   We were gathered in groups up and down the broad sidewalk that bordered the church windows. The service was over, and people had lingered to talk away ten minutes or so before climbing into their cars and going home to Sunday dinner.

My mom and older sister had gone on home right after church–my mom to make the gravy, my sister to talk on the phone.  I was talking to Pressie and Tina Ivy, but I could overhear my Dad talking to Babe Reynolds. To tell the truth, someone a half block away could probably overhear my dad and Babe talking. They were swapping stories and laughing and trying to one-up each other in both.

Tina Ivy was lying, as usual–telling Pressie and me about a boy she met at the show in White River. Pressie and I could hardly stand to think about boys, no matter how cute they were. The boys we knew were mean and dumb, and they were Murdo boys. White River boys were, everyone knew, even worse. The thing that made it hardest to believe was that Tina Ivy, like us, was only eight years old. It would be three years before any of the rest of us began to think about wanting to meet up with boys, and five more years beyond that before we started to realize the potential of White River boys. Thinking about boys at the age of eight was crazy. It was gross.

The truth was, nobody could stand Tina Ivy. But since we lived in a very small town with a minimum of kids my age, and since I craved variety at any cost, I kept trying to play with her. But she used to pinch––taking real little pieces of skin between her nails and squeezing hard–so she made marks and even drew blood sometimes. And she lied all the time–everything she said. So liking Tina Ivy wasn’t easy. On this particular day, Tina was telling lies about boys and Pressie was rolling her eyes and looking fed up, so I told Tina we had to go and pulled Pressie toward my dad. Babe was talking when we walked up. He was telling about a coon hunt they’d been on the night before–how the dogs had caught the coon and killed it before they realized that she had babies. How they’d taken the baby coons home–three of them–and had them in a box in the kitchen.

Babe is the dad of Lyle, one of the five boys in my class at school. I told you this was a small town, and ours was the smallest class in the school every year. There were just 15 of us who went all the way from first grade through high school together. In spite of this fact, we weren’t a very close class, because even though we saw a lot of each other, we also fought a lot.

Lyle’s family lived four or five miles out of town on a farm I’d never seen. Farm life to me seemed glamorous­­––the travelling to and from, the animals, and farm kids got to bring their lunch and eat at school while the rest of us all had to go home for lunch. The fact that my dad was a farmer/rancher did little to dispel the glamour, since we lived in town and I only got to visit the farm occasionally for very limited time periods.

But my dad did what he could to bring the farm to us. Every night when he got home, we emptied wheat chaff from his pants cuffs, scraped dried mud off his work boots with a dinner knife, dusted the dust off his broad-brimmed straw work hat or billed khaki cap. Usually, we were rewarded for our efforts, because along with grain and dirt and dust, he brought us stories of the feral cats that built their nests in the fields, of mother birds feigning broken wings to lead him away from their nests, rattlesnakes in haystacks or the tiny mole he had unearthed while plowing.

Some of these stories he illustrated by bringing home their principles: three tiny yellow kittens whose mother had been killed by the plow, a blind mole, jackrabbits too small to survive on their own, goldfish from the stock dam where they had thrived and multiplied after someone dumped a bowl of them into the pond, an injured magpie.

But a raccoon I had never seen.

“Ben, promise me that you’re not going to bring home another animal.”  It was my mother speaking. We were at the dinner table.  I’d beaten my dad to the raccoon story, my words stumbling over each other as I tried to give her all the details.

“And we get to go see them, Mom. We get to go see the baby coons.”

My mother, always a sucker for baby animals, protested every time, “Never again.” Every tiny grave, every shoe box lined with dandelions and worn out silk panties and filled with kittens dead from distemper or limp goldfish, every trip out to the farm to release a now-grown baby rabbit, brought these words.

Of course, she said it again. “No baby animals, Ben. No baby animals. You can go see them, but I’m not going. I don’t want to get attached so I’m not going to look and if you’re going to go look, just remember. No more baby animals.”

Five minutes later, my dad and I were bumping down the rutted dirt road to the Reynolds place. I had my feet propped on his old steel water can. It was wrapped in frayed dirty canvas that he wet to help keep the well water he filled the can with cold. The canvas was all dried out now, but I took a drink of the well water anyway, loving its tinny sharp taste. Whenever we went out to the old Millay place, we stopped to fill the can with that water–the best water any of us had ever tasted.

When we got to the Reynolds’ house, they took us into the kitchen, where the baby coons were nested up to each other in a cardboard grocery box. Lyle’s mother let me hold one, and it wrapped its black little human hands around my finger and sucked on it, like I was a bottle. It was warm and furry and gave off a strong odor of milk and wet fur and wildness. It was the closest thing to a monkey that I ever held and my heart turned over. I loved this little thing. It was better than a baby sister, which I’d been told I’d never get. It was so tiny I could hold it in my hand with only its legs dangling over. Its nose was black and sharp, its fingernails beautifully shaped like it had had a manicure, and the skin on its palms was the softest thing I’d ever felt– smoother than the silk inside my mother’s fur stole, smoother than the chamois powder-choked lining in her compact case, smoother than my mother’s face just after she’d washed off the Lady Esther Face Cream.

My mom’s real name was Eunice, but she always called herself Pat. My dad, however, much to her displeasure, never called her this. He called her “Heifer,” which she hated, or, when he was feeling more tactful, “Tootie.”

“ Toooooootie-Wootie….?” he called out teasingly as we slammed in through the back door.

“What did you do?” My mother accused as we walked into the kitchen.

My dad faced her in his innocence. We were empty-handed.

“You didn’t bring back one of those baby coons, did you?” she said.

“Didn’t you tell us not to?” asked my dad, “You did tell us not to bring home any more baby animals, right?”

“So you didn’t get one, then?” my mom asked.

“Well, you told us not to, didn’t you?” This was my dad again. I was just watching.

There was a little pause then as we all just stood there, looking at each other.

“Were they cute?” asked my mother in a softer voice.

Then I couldn’t be quiet anymore. I told her about their fingernails, their breaths, their soft coats and softer palms. I told her how they fit in my hand with only their legs hanging over. I told her she should have seen them and she said she wished she had, but that she’d just get attached and that it would make it harder not to take one and how she’d decided: NO MORE BABY ANIMALS and so she’d just rather not look.

My dad went out then and came back with the cardboard box. I lifted out the baby coon, whose eyes were closed even though he was waving his body around.

“Oh Ben, you didn’t!” She was holding the baby coon, though, and she was smiling.

She sent me for one of the doll baby bottles and when I came running through the kitchen with it on the way from my upstairs bedroom to the living room, where I’d left them, I ran into her at the kitchen stove, warming milk.

His mouth was so tiny that only a doll bottle nipple was small enough to fit. He made hard sucking noises and drained the bottle very fast, wrapping his hands around my mother’s finger as he nursed. I ran back to funnel more milk into the tiny glass bottle, then worked the rubber nipple on as I ran back to the living room. After another bottle, he fell asleep, his fingers still gripping my mom’s hand. When I bent over him, the hot fusty pee smell of his fur mingled with a slightly rancid milk breath. His mouth made little sucking motions, like he was dreaming about even more to drink. My mother was smiling.

“We can take him back if you want us to, Tootie,” my dad said.


We named him Zippy for the way he liked to unzip and zip my dad’s jacket pocket, looking for treats. For the way he moved fast under the beds, up the shelves. For the way his tiny kidskin paws slipped like eels into hidden places. Zippy for the smooth way his mind worked as he figured out solutions to each new puzzle that life presented him with.

My mom used to dress him up in doll clothes and wheel him around in our baby carriage. As he got bigger, he graduated from holding her finger to holding onto her wrist as he nursed. Finally, he got so strong that when she drew the bottle away, he would twine both feet and both hands around her wrist, dragging the bottle back down.

The first week we had him, my sister and I would fight over who got to give him his morning bottle, but after a week, she began to be diverted by the kids swinging in the schoolyard across the street before school started, and she was off like usual to claim the best swing before all the other kids got there. Never having had a baby sister, like she had had, I was not so easily diverted.

Soon he was crawling up the floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves in the living room, maneuvering carefully around Patti’s salt and pepper shaker collection, reaching his hands into the cornflower blue urn on the top shelf.

It was my mother’s pride that every one of her girls had walked by the time she was ten months old and was potty-trained soon after. In like fashion, she had litter-box trained every bunny, puppy or kitten that my dad had carried guiltily home for her to nurse, feed, train, groom, clean up after and love.  Even our parakeet Chipper, the only animal we ever had that was actually purchased in a pet store, had been trained by my mom to fly into his cage whenever nature called.  So it was no surprise that Zippy, from his first week in our presence, was trained to use a litter box.

As he grew, he graduated from doll bottle to baby bottle to milk in a bowl and raisin bran that he mined from “his” box in the row of cereal boxes that stood lined-up on a bottom shelf of one of the kitchen cupboards.  If we didn’t wake up early enough, he knew which of the numerous cereal boxes was his and he would climb up to hang off the side of the box as he reached one arm in to gather raisin bran. At first, he was so tiny that as the level of the cereal went down, he had to reach farther and farther into the box, until finally he was clinging onto the edge of the upright box with his hind legs with most of his body hanging down into the box as he reached for the morsels at the bottom. When we replaced the box, we put his new opened box in the same position–last cereal box on the left–and he proceeded to eat from only it–only the last box on the left and only raisin bran. If we put our own box of raisin bran right next to it, he would not touch it.

When my dad got home from work at night, Zippy would be the first to greet him at the door. Before my dad could get off his overboots or unzip his parka or take off his cap, Zippy would be climbing his pants leg and perching on his shoulder. He’d start tugging at the zipper on the parka, and as my dad took off his coat, he would move to cling from his shirt front as he slid the coat off his shoulders. Then back up to his shoulder he would climb, reaching into his pockets for treats. If the pockets yielded no treasures, he would search ear holes, nostrils, pry open my dad’s mouth and teeth to search even this secret place. Once when my dad squeezed his eyes shut, he even pried open his eyelid.  Always, though, in some hidden place––his zippered coat pocket or the top of his socks, my dad brought some surprise, even if it was a piece of dried cat food picked up from the dish of the outside cat on his way up the backdoor steps. More usually it was candy or gum or, in dire circumstances, a Bisodol antacid tablet.

Every animal that came to our house was my mother’s baby. We had a bunny once who used to hop around under the train of her long robe––a hopping lump of quilted velvet, following her all over the house. Our parakeet learned to speak in her voice, always cued by the school bell which was calling us into the school across the street as consistently as it was drawing my mom with a second cup of coffee and a cornmeal muffin into my dad’s vacant rocking chair––the most comfortable chair in the house––which just happened to be situated right next to the birdcage. Then woman and bird would talk for a half hour or so, using the ever-expanding vocabulary taught to him by my mother.

“Baaaaaaad Benny,” one would say to the other.

To which the other would answer, “Hi, Chipper.  Pretty bird. Gee you’re cute. Gimmee a kiss!” This line was always followed by five kissing sounds.

“ Hello, Betty Jo.”

Would be answered by, “Patti Adair: or “Judy Kay, Judy Kay.”

But Zippy was a baby not only to my mother, but to each of us. He entered my Dad’s stories every day as he took coffee with other farmers and ranchers at Mack’s cafe. His was the first story that was told to each arriving family member at night.

“Know what Zippy did?”

“So, how’s Zippy?”

“Where’s Zippy?”

“Zip? Where are you boy. Here Zip.”

He was only a story to my sister Betty Jo, away at college in a state so far away that she only came home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Summer Vacations. And by the time she finally saw him, he had grown so big that he scared her and we had to lock him in the basement whenever she was around. To tell the truth, it was kind of a relief when she went back to school so Zippy could come be a regular member of the family again. He was friendlier than my sister and more fun since she’d taken on college airs.

When Zippy was a few months old, I came home itching from school. Within the hour, I’d broken into livid red spots which my mom said were measles and which she told me not to scratch. She put me in the only downstairs bedroom—which was my parents’ room––so she could more easily care for me. It was agony as I lay in that dark room so my eyes, made vulnerable by the measles, wouldn’t be damaged and with my arms on top of the covers so I wouldn’t be tempted to itch. Bored and miserable, I begged my mom for constant company––begged her to read to me outside the bedroom door––out in the kitchen, where there was light. This was in a time before television––a time when the only radio was a huge console in the living room––but my mother brought in Zippy, bathed and powdered, and he immediately climbed under the blankets and under the sheets, pushing up tunnels of covers like a mole pushing up dirt. He’d run from one side of the bed to the other, jump down, run under the bed, back up under the covers on the other side, across the bed again, in an ever more frantic cycle. Then he’d poke his head out and cuddle up to my sore face with his soft hair. Reach up to my forehead with a graceful black delicate hand. Touch one red berry on my brow, then another. Then he was under the covers, locating each new red patch on my legs. Itching first one, and then the next, delicately, softly, exquisitely quenching the itching that no amount of calamine could cure. All afternoon long and all the next day, he stayed with me, itching my itches under the covers where my mother couldn’t see. Me with my arms folded on top, as she had directed. She’d bathe and powder him three times a day to keep him fresh, then sponge my legs and chest and arms with water and baking soda. She’d read to me outside the door, or my sister Patti would read. But Zippy was my most indulgent nurse. His hands, ever gentle and curious, ever vigilant, knew where I itched. His soft fur knew where to place itself against my neck and face.  His energetic body knew how to entertain a bored eight-year-old. Outside the door, it was my sister Patti reading to us “The Little Prince,” but under the covers, it was Zippy and me. Our secrets.

When my sister Betty Jo came home for Christmas vacation, Zippy was again relegated to the basement. And this time when I’d go down to look for him, I couldn’t always find him. He’d climb the water pipes and wedge himself into corner spaces between merging pipes right up against the basement ceiling. And even when my sister left, we couldn’t get him to come up again, except for food every once in a while, and then he’d return to the pipes in the basement. My dad explained that he was hibernating, but I was sure that he was miffed. My sister, barely a relative any more, had been placed before him––my ever-vigilant friend. I couldn’t blame him for having his feelings hurt, but I missed him and wanted him back.

In mid-January, we all drove in the car to Pierre and went to a big store that had a room filled with toilets and tubs and sinks and hot water heaters. My mom picked out a creamy yellow bathtub and toilet and sink, and the next week Mr. Chambers came to rip out our old bathroom and put these modern fixtures in. My dad and our hired man, Wes, helped him carry the old tub out and the new beautiful yellow tub in. We were relieved that the new tub fit in the old space–snugly, but it fit. Then we all left as Mr. Chambers climbed into the tub to frame and caulk and tile. Next came the chrome around the drain. I imagine him now as he was then in his pillow-ticking overalls, bending over the drain.

“Jeeeeeesus Christ!” screamed Mr. Chambers, hitting the door full face, then bouncing off it to open it, running through the kitchen and out the front door.

All of us ran from every part of the house we’d wandered to. My mom from the bedroom, me from the front porch, where I was playing jewelry store, my sister from in front of the radio in the living room, my dad from the kitchen where he was sizing up prospects for a snack.

Into the bathroom we streamed, scanning the room with our eyes before focusing on the drain hole in the new tub. Up through it was poking a small black hand–like a devil hand–carefully feeling around the edge of the drain hole, then reaching up to pat the cool enamel–moving in concentric circles: pat, pat, pat. Never the small demon that Mr. Chambers imagined, Zippy had been perched in his pipe maze “tree” when he had seen the light shining from above through the unconnected pipe hole and reached up to investigate.

We found Mr. Chambers in his truck outside. We explained and even brought Zippy out to meet him. Later, he pretended that he was just pretending to be scared of Zippy, but in our stories, every time we told this story, he ran farther, ran faster, yelled louder. Until finally, he never came back.

When Zippy came out of hibernation, he was the same as ever except for the fact that he was very very big. When my sister came home for summer vacation, he scared her so much that she could not even stand to be around him on a leash. This was ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as the letters she’d been getting from boys––letters that she kept in a shoebox-sized locked cedar box that I knew how to find the key for and that I’d begun to be able to decipher, even though they were written in cursive.

When we took her back to school in late August, my mom decided that Zippy was old enough to look after himself. We left him on our enclosed back porch with three loaves of bread, a box of raisin bran and a roasting pan full of water. From the porch, he had access to the basement down the L-shaped basement stairs. We’d be back in three days. Aunt Stella would check on him every day to replenish his food supply. After electing to hibernate for months the past winter, how could he object to a few days absence on our part?

We were ten minutes down the road when my mom remembered something she’d forgotten. This was a family tradition, so there was no question that we wouldn’t simply turn around and go back for it. My dad drove up to the garage, which was behind our house, and she ran into the backyard and up the back steps. Three minutes later, she was back again.

“Come on, everybody, you’ve got to come see!”

We trooped after her, up to the back porch, opened the door.

“Don’t go inside!” she warned, “You might slip and fall.”

We peeked inside to find a floor entirely covered with a thick white paste. In less that half an hour since we’d left, Zip had taken each slice of bread out of its wrapper, dragged it through the water in the roasting pan, and plastered it to the floor, grinding it into a thick mush with his talented hands. Three loaves of bread–every piece applied to the linoleum. Almost every inch of the porch covered.

By the time I was in the fourth grade, Zippy was so well “trained” that I could take him to school on a leash. He would lead like a dog. Do dignified tricks. Sit when I told him to sit. I took the cereal boxes so they could see how disciplined he was. His box was empty. He checked it out carefully, upended it., checked it now and then throughout his entire classroom visit, but never touched one of the “family boxes” full of cornflakes and puffed oats and even Raisin Bran.

When I took Zippy home, I put a new Raisin Bran box in his place, returned the other cereal boxes, ate the big noon dinner with my mom and dad and sister, and returned to school. It was when I got home from school that my Mom and Dad told us about the new house. It was to be a ranch-style house, modern and big and just a block away, in the corner lot kitty-corner across from the school. It would have wall-to-wall carpet except for the bathroom, which was yellow-tiled with turquoise tub and sink and toilet. And the kitchen, of course, which was to have linoleum which coved part way up the walls so there’d be no cracks to collect dirt.

First there was the drama about the fact that I couldn’t have linoleum in my room. I loved my green linoleum, which exactly matched the green flowers on my yellow flowered bedspread, curtains and vanity table cover. I had to have green linoleum. I demanded green linoleum. But carpet it was to be.

Then there was the fact that there were to be no second story rooms with dormer windows to climb out of onto a sloping porch roof. No access to the roof. No place to sunbathe or have picnics or to observe baby birds in eavestrough nests. No high perch to torment Bobby Larkin across the street from or to throw water balloons from or to torture Susan Thatcher from by telling her Pressie could come up, but not her.

Fluffy, our outdoor tramp cat, might not find us a block away, I worried, a fact which turned out to be true. When we finally finished the house and moved, he became the cat of the family who bought our old house.

As it turned out, we all loved the new house–which we moved into a year and a few months later. But one aspect of the new house spelled tragedy. Zippy, I was told, would not be moving with us. He was too big, my mother argued. He needed to be in the wild. Dad knew a family out in the country who wanted him, he said. They had big trees he could climb in, or he could live inside with the family. They had three high school or college-aged sons, he said. They would play with him. They came to see him and admired all his tricks. They were excited to have him come live with them.

I didn’t get my green linoleum. Never again did I taunt Bobby Larkin from the roof of a house. I never owned another cat until I was a home-owning adult with all the attendant powers, and, in fact, Zippy never moved to the new house with us.

His adventures continued for many years, but only one of those adventures was to be experienced in our company–and that final adventure was, alas, a sad one. We were at school. Dad had decided to take Zippy out to his new home before we got home, to avoid the drama of that potential heart-wrenching scene. He had come home in the afternoon with one of the Smith boys and with Wes, the hired man. My mom, in the house, did not know that they were there to take Zippy. Wes had come at him with a gunny sack, lunged for him and missed. My dad had tried and missed, chasing Zip once around the outside of the house. Zippy by now was of a formidable size and weight. In his winter coat, he was perhaps a foot and a half wide and two feet long. He was fat–almost too heavy for me to lift. Yet, although he’d outgrown doll clothes long ago, he would still ride around in a doll carriage in my old baby clothes, and he’d still nurse from a baby bottle, play hide and seek, and try to climb my dad’s leg. He’d never shown a vicious side except in mock play, chasing us in tag from the floor to the bed to the floor–growling in make-believe anger, much as my dad did when he was chasing us around the house–playing troll to our three billy goats gruff.

By the time we got home from school, Zippy had taken sanctuary under our large front porch. Two of the men had rakes and hoes, trying to use the handles to prod him out from under the porch. They were calling out, making what must have seemed to Zippy to be threatening movements, and he was cowering in the far corner of the porch, on the foundation side near the trumpet vine. We could see his shining eyes in the darkness. I yelled, my sister cried, and my mom came running out.

“They’re hurting him!” my sister cried.

“They’re killing him!” I screamed, ever the drama queen.

My mother ran down the steps, scolding, “Ben, you’re scaring him to death. He doesn’t know what you’re doing. He doesn’t even know Hank and Wes.“ She was as upset as we were as she moved around behind Zippy, then reached out for him from behind. His eyes still focused at the two unknown attackers with prods, Zippy spun around and attacked, biting my mother severely on her arm. My mother, a bleeder, was spurting blood, my dad was shouting, we were crying. The minute Zippy recognized my mother, he was out from the porch, gentle again. I held him in my arms as my dad rushed my mom up to Doc Murphy’s office for cleaning, ointment and a tetanus shot. When they came home, my mom and dad got in the car and took Zippy out to the Smiths. All of us were sad, but my parents vindicated in their belief that Zippy was a wild animal that should be in the wild.

That was the last time I ever saw Zippy. For some reason, every time I thought to ask to go visit him was a bad time for my Mom and Dad. And the Smiths lived too far out of town to ride my bike out to their place. So Zippy’s final chapters proved to be hearsay, only. On Saturday nights in Mack’s cafe–after the show let out, or around tables filled with farmers and ranchers in for their afternoon break, my dad heard Zippy stories: new tricks the Smiths had taught him, how he lived inside with them just as he had with us, how smart he was, messes he’d made, new games he’d learned.

It was like we had a brother who’d been given away and never seen again. Yet we accepted it, my sister and I. There was, for a long while, the excitement of the new house–first the long months of the construction, then carpets and curtains and new furniture to pick, colors to choose, flowers to plant. In the sixth grade now, I knew what Tina Ivy had been talking about. Thus, Zippy slipped under the surface of our memories–less clear with each passing year so that I can’t remember exactly when the final chapter occurred. When I was in high school, perhaps, or maybe a story told when I was home on vacation from college. How the Smiths left to go to town. How they unintentionally shut Zippy up in the bathroom with no open window to climb out of. How they had looked for him when they came home, “Zip. Here Zippy.” How they finally found him in the bathroom–hunkered in the middle of the floor over a huge pile of tiny tile pieces. How he’d picked every inch of newly-installed bathroom tile off the floor, tearing off the tiles in quarter-sized chunks. How Mister Smith threw a shoe at him and Mrs. Smith opened the bathroom window, which Zippy dived out of into a nearby tree. How Mr. Smith called him that gol-damned coon ever after. How Zippy lived in the tree for a few months, never again gaining access to the house. How one day he was gone. Coon tracks around sometimes, but they never knew for sure that it was him.

All animal stories end more quickly than we would wish them to. With their shorter life span, it is inevitable. Some stories end with a shoebox lined with dandelion chains, some with a dead goldfish flushed down a toilet, others by watching a grown cottontail disappear into an alfalfa field, but Zippy’s story just faded away without an ending. Like the stories of people we lose touch with. Like the stories of people who move up or move on in life. Like the stories of people who pass from being friends into being just another story in our lives.

It is the difference between a present friend and an old one, like the difference between your next-door neighbor and the neighbor who has moved away, like the difference between the child who lives across town and the child who lives cross country. It is the difference between intimacy and familiarity, acquaintance and crony, the difference between pet and wild animal. How the story ends–with what degree of certainty and truth and detail and affection–depends upon this perspective: how long ago, how far away?



Sue Bee Honey: Wordle 538, Jan 30, 2022

Sue Bee Honey

Once a year, their trucks would leave trails through our fields of sweet clover and my father returned from the fields with  combs of honey still in their wooden frames, dripping rich streams that blackened the dust of  the sidewalk between the back driveway and the porch, where he propped them up against the porch railing to drain into huge clay bowls.

Sue Bee Honey, rich and golden and speckled with tiny corpses of the bees who made it. Those two purloined combs were the price he exacted for allowing them to put their hives onto our land. I swear I could smell that honey on the wind long before he brought it back to share with the family—our year’s supply that we would filter through screens to remove broken bits of wax and bee bodies and pour into bottles to line a foot-long space on the narrow shelves of the pantry.

I remember breaking off a piece of the broken comb to chew like sugared gum—sweet July memories of summer as well as later memories of the silken feel of that honey trailed onto hot buttered corn muffins in the morning. It solved my winter hunger for sweet and fueled me up for a morning of  books and chalkboards and sharpened pencils on blue-lined rough yellow paper.


The prompt words  for  The Sunday Whirl, Wordle 538 are: broken silk dust leaving truck family sign hunger wind books honey and black. Two of the images are by  Alisa Reutova and Mariana Ibanez  on Unsplash.


Family trip to Idaho, 1950


I’m putting the prompt words first today as they include two obscure words and giving definitions to save you the problem of looking them up if, like me, you don’t already know the meanings. Prompt words today are fernweh (a German word that means the opposite of homesickness–a craving for travel or longing for distant places you have not yet visited), facetious, blanket, vellicate (to pluck, twitch, nip, pinch or cause to twitch), and complex.


I miss it, that feeling of fernweh–a craving for travel or a longing for distant places not yet visited that is one of my very earliest memories. I remember standing by the highway that passed through our town just two blocks south of the house I grew up in and longing to be that child with her nose pressed against the window looking back at me as the car she was in whizzed past. Who were they, these people in the cars that passed in strings through our little town each summer? “They are tourists” my mother told me, and I imagined tourists to be perpetual travelers with no homes of their own. What did I want to be when I grew up? “A tourist,” I would reply. Everyone laughed at what they considered to be a facetious reply. They had no idea that I meant exactly that.

Although I had been on short trips before–at the age of three, to visit relatives in Idaho, at the age of 8, to accompany my parents when they drove my sister to college in Iowa, other one-day trips to drive my sisters to summer camp, when I was 12, my family finally took the long vacation I always begged them to take. They left it up to me to decide where we were going, and I declared that I wanted us to start out and then take turns deciding which way to go. When we came to the first crossroads, I said “Left!” At the next crossroads it was my sister’s turn, then my mother’s and finally my father’s for two glorious weeks. We all agreed that it was a wonderful vacation. Because he never knew where we were going, my father couldn’t press us more quickly toward our destination than we may have chosen to go and so we stopped numerous times along the way and spent as long in each spot as we wished to. We saw cousins we had heard about but never met and visited old neighbors in Minnesota, just “dropping in,” but always being urged to spend the night, and doing so.

We wound up on the shores of Lake Superior–which to me looked like one of the oceans I had always dreamed of visiting. I remember sneaking out at night to collect water and sand from the lake in an empty prescription container—the rush of the waves dashing against the rocks, the blanket of stars overhead, that smell of freedom I had been longing to experience my entire life. It would be eight years more before I actually saw an ocean and at that time I would spend four months on it, sailing around the world. My parents thought it would solve my fernweh, but little did they know. The minute I graduated from college, I was off again.. to Australia, and then to parts more wild for four long years before finally returning home.

Life is complex and I have found that I am rarely able to predict what will happen next. That lust for change that has driven me my whole life to leave friends behind to explore foreign countries, to leave houses and careers I’ve spent years building to take off for the great unknown—that need to be the stranger and to face situations I have been in no way prepared for—has taken me to all but one of the seven continents. It is as though those yearnings for strangeness and change were errant hairs that needed to be vellicated and travel was the only way in which to pluck them.

So how does a person like me deal with the forced isolation that the coronavirus has foisted upon us all? Strangely enough, it has alleviated a guilt that has been creeping up on me for the past few years—a strange feeling of contentment regarding where I am and what I am doing. I am taking an intense pleasure in my own back yard, instigating changes in my house and garden that I’ve been too busy to attend to in my past years of going here and there. I am sorting through pictures of past travel, reading disks from long-dead computers that chronicle the adventures of long ago. I am starting to dread trips away from home, to enjoy days where I see no one, go nowhere. In taking off for longer trips inwards, I am perhaps growing into myself, seeking satisfaction there, perhaps because it is a richer place to be because of a lifetime of venturing out.

Heading out into the Timor Sea on a WWII tank barge, 1973