Saturday, August 16, 2014

Once Upon A Mattress

                                                   Once Upon A Mattress
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            I always knew I was a princess. Not any old run-of-the-mill princess, mind you, but a fairy tale princess. Not just any fairy tale princess, mind you, but a princess like the one from “The Princess and the Pea”. None of your Snow Whites or Rapunzels for me. Cinderella came close, but I could never do the glass slipper.
            How did I know my royal roots? When I was a child I could not sleep unless and until I had made the bed conditions exactly “right”. The sheets had to be smoothed just so and the top sheet could not be tucked in imprisoning my feet. The quilts had to cover every inch of me, including my ears. Once I had perfected my sleep tunnel, I slept like, well, like a child. Instinctively I knew that if some evil person such as my sister hid a pea beneath my mattress, I would not sleep a wink, but would toss and turn and wake grumpy.
            This, despite the fact that I slept on a roll-away bed for most of my childhood. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have had that experience, I don’t have to describe it. The mattress is thin, lumpy, and sags in the middle. Fortunately, I also had a down mattress on top of that. Another requisite for princess-hood. Down mattresses and comforters and pillows are de rigueur to a true princess.
            When water beds were all the rage, I was in personal heaven. Except for those times when I needed to rearrange the furniture. Difficult, but not insurmountable. One day twenty-some years ago I went to Nordstroms and bought the most expensive mattress in the store and that was a truly wonderful purchase. I enjoyed it all the years until I moved and left all my furniture to others.
            In my rented furnished apartment in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico, the bed, which sports a headboard so ugly I avert my eyes rather than look at it, but who sleeps on the headboard, has a typical Mexican mattress. I have attempted sleep on many hotel mattresses in Mexico and most of them are kissing cousins to the one in my casa. I don’t really know what is inside for stuffing. I am not sure I want to know. I suspect the innards are chipped from a slab of bedrock and covered with mattress cloth. All these months I have been miserable, sleep deprived and grumpy.
            I’m not at all ready to accumulate furniture, but finally decided that I must at least buy a cheap but soft mattress, if I could find a soft mattress, and plunk it atop the one already on the bed. Maybe two mattresses would do the trick. Then when I went elsewhere, I intended to leave the mattress for the next renter. Notice, I ignored the admonition from the fairy tale. Two wrongs never make a right.
So I arranged to go shopping with Rudy, my interpreter and Carlos, my driver and interpreter. Yes, sometimes it takes the three of us to make me understood.
            The store we entered surprised and delighted me. “I know that brand. And this one. And the mattress over there is much like the mattress I had back home.” In moments I changed my strategy. My mind buzzed with information: Why get another cheap mattress that might be stuffed with pebbles or corn shucks or old newspaper? A third of one’s life is spent on a mattress. Why not get a “great” mattress, one that you know, inside and out? Go for the quality, Girl. Wherever you go next, if you have a wonderful mattress, take it with you. And the clincher—remember who you are, Princess.
            My interpreters each chose a mattress and plopped down for a snooze. I tested every mattress in the store. At one point, I had to bump Carlos off his mattress so I could make sure that was not the one I wanted. Finally I narrowed my choice to three, tested twice more and bought the most expensive mattress in the store.
            That evening two able young men delivered my mattress. They muscled it through the doorway and into my bedroom where they placed it carefully atop the existing foundation mattress. They stood back. I stood next to the bed. We three burst out laughing.
            A ladder would be required for me to climb onto my bed. So the two young men hefted my mattress off the bed, man-handled the old mattress out onto the back patio and repositioned my new mattress. And it is perfect. No matter how soft the top mattress, how could a true princess sleep if beneath the good stuff, lay a lumpy old mattress, stuffed with dry pea pods.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 3, 2014 
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Random Thoughts; Some Senseless, Some Beautiful

Random Thoughts; Some Senseless, Some Beautiful
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            Today is my last day at the Luna Palace. This week I have intensely soaked up impressions along with sun, sand and surf.
            Bird Island has gone from brown to green with our few modest sprinkles. People assure me the rainy season is around the corner. Birds at my feet inspire contemplation. When I breakfast by the pool, the mourning doves diligently search for crumbs, pounding their beaks onto the tiles. Do their beaks wear out? Do you suppose when they snuggle into their nests at night, we might hear, “Not tonight honey. I have a headache. Hard day on the patio.” When I breakfast under a palapa, I watch pelicans dive headfirst into the surf. What keeps them from getting their heads stuck in the sand? Somebody has to think about these things!
            Sadly, I watch young and not-young walk along the beach with ear buds pumping music, drowning out sounds of surf, while their eyes are glommed onto an electronic screen, fingers on keyboards. Do they know where they are? Thumbs seem to be the principal means of communication. Innovations swing to the beat of a pendulum, from one extreme to another, banging both walls. I trust that the pendulum will swing to a center of balance before we lose our senses of sight and sound and human warmth.
            In the weeks I have been here, all the guests are couples, families or groups. I am the only single person, solita.  I am alone but not lonely. I talk and laugh with employees and beach vendors selling blankets, baskets, hammocks, silver jewelry, and coconuts. Everyone, housekeeping, waiters, and groundskeepers, knows my name. I’ve no idea how it happened but I have become Cassandra Juanita. Yesterday one of the housekeeping staff, who speaks not a word of English, but we greet one another daily, took me aside, gently parted the leaves in a tree to show me a nest with  mother dove and two tiny babies. You can’t get that level of communication with a tweet.
            This morning I watched tragedy averted. Two women with their quite elderly mother had settled under the palapa next to mine. We exchanged greetings. They took their mother out into the ocean and supported her while she floated. I felt shamed because I am scared to go into the water past my knees. If I fell, I don’t know how I would get up. I’m not a swimmer.
Mom came back to the palapa to rest while the two sisters swam and played. They are good swimmers. Distance is deceptive at low tide. They swam too close to the rocks by the jetty and were caught in a rip tide. One of the women panicked. Her sister swam to her side to help. The tide carried them further from shore. Both floundered and screamed for help.
Two young lifeguards plunged into the water, closely followed by two beach vendors. People on the shore audibly prayed. The energy felt intense. The swimmers seemed to stroke in slow motion. But the men arrived in time, brought the women to safety and into the grateful arms of their mother; a reunion celebrated with glad tears.  

            One of the beach vendors is teaching me to play conquin, a card game. We draw an audience to watch if I will win or lose. I tell them, “He cheats.” They say, “Look at his face.” He grins. Some mornings, when I am lucky, I win one out of three hands. Then I grin.
            Every day I walk in the surf, careful to not go past my knees. But I get caught by the occasional aggressive wave. I stand still until it passes. I would like to throw caution to the winds and dive in, but I don’t.  
Now and then I have moments of fear. I like to follow my fears to what I imagine as “worst possible scenario”. The latest one culminated in being disabled, on the dole, warehoused in a substandard nursing home, medicated to keep me quiet, cold, alone and friendless. Then I got the giggles. One cannot laugh and stay afraid.
Speaking of worst possible scenarios, I am constantly cleaning my glasses. I’m sure it is the salt air, not my encroaching cataracts. I am terrified of surgery. I can’t even stand to have Dr. Obie, a saint of patience with me, put the puff of air into my eyes. There is no way I can sit still for surgery. So I devised a solution. The doctor can have the mammogram machine wheeled into surgery, clamp my head between the metal plates, duct tape my eyelids open and laser away. Clever, I thought. Someone has to think of these things!
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 26, 2014 
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Wanted: A Horse of Any Color—Giddy-Up-Go



Wanted: A Horse of Any Color—Giddy-Up-Go
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            My daughter Dee is searching for a horse. I offered to help her find one. “How can you help, Mom. You are in Mexico.”

            “Helllooo, Sweetheart. The newspaper. If you ask me, the newspaper is still the best way to spread the word or find what you are looking for. Besides, we have horses in Mexico too, you know. In fact, I think I smell horses now. (A rich odor I happen to like.) Let me look off the balcony. Yes, see, there are two horses trotting on the beach, docile, safe and bi-lingual.”

            “Mom, those horses are too small for me. I’m thinking maybe a Percheron. A horse who is sensible, gentle, has a brain, will let me use stair steps to mount her. A horse large enough that I won’t break her back.”

            Immediately I thought of old plug-headed Duke, a retired workhorse who’d been put out to pasture on our farm when I was a child. My cousin would get the halter, we’d lead him to a board fence, manage to climb onto his tabletop back, our legs poking straight out laterally, and Duke would trot down the lane, dismounting us quicker than we could mount.

            Dee, on the other hand, was in the saddle, albeit in my arms, swaddled in a blanket, before she was two weeks old. She never had a choice. She rode horses. When she was two, we bought Pony, a retired carnival horse. 

            Pony was tough. He had spent his working years walking in circles with small children on his back. He was a black and white pinto with shaggy mane and long tail. And Pony would eat anything: bubble gum, watermelon, corn on the cob, hot dogs with relish, and cotton candy. He loved candied apples. 

            I’d tether Pony to the picket fence and for hours Dee would groom him, pick up his feet and pretend to shoe him, braid his mane and tail, crawl underneath, around and between his legs. Pony ate up the attention. Before long Dee learned to saddle him with a little help and ride around the barn yard. 

            That horse hated my husband. Every spring he thought he should gentle Pony, who’d been in the pasture all winter, before Dee was allowed to ride. Dee and I would stand in the yard and watch that long-legged man, feet dragging the ground, buck out her little pony. It was a snapshot I never dared take!

            Pony would let Dee do anything with and on him. But that stubborn pony would not let us catch him. I’m sure that today the County Child Protective Services would have us in jail for what we did. When Pony was out in a field, we’d drive out in the pick-up and park several hundred yards away. We’d give Dee a bucket of oats and the halter rope and let her out of the truck. We’d slide out the off side and hunker down behind the box watching our little girl walk out into the field and catch her horse. We hid out until she walked him into the trailer. Pitiful, huh. But it beat running that stubborn old pony over hundreds of acres, swinging a rope. 

            In time, Pony retired once more. Dee graduated to a larger horse with fewer dietary quirks. And eventually, life happened and horses were left behind. But now, Dee is living on a small acreage near Glendive and her eight, oh, pardon me, eight-and-a-half year-old daughter Toni gets to ride Grandpa’s horse, Jill, around the corral. Dee wants a horse of her own so they can ride out into the hills together. 

            “So, help me here, Dee. How should I word the ad?”

            “Broad bottomed woman wants broad backed horse. I don’t know, Mom. I want a horse that is going to be gentle with me with my bad knees and who will be good with Toni. I don’t want a knot head horse. I don’t want a horse that has been abused or has bad habits. I’ll have to use steps to get into the saddle. It has to be a steady horse. I just think a Percheron, or a horse like that, might be perfect. It needs to be strong enough to carry my weight and sensible enough to get along with other horses.”

            Wanted: the Perfect Percheron, not too old and not too young. Broke to saddle. Likes children and big people. No bad habits. Bi-lingual a plus. Please respond this ad. Email address follows.  
  
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 19, 2014
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Monday, June 16, 2014

Confessions of a Guilty Woman



Confessions of a Guilty Woman
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            If you grew up Catholic like I did, you were guilty. It didn’t matter how innocent, I still felt guilty. I didn’t need to have committed a crime. When Saturday night rolled around, if all I had for confession was fighting with my sister, I diligently searched my soul for something, anything to make absolution worth seeking.  Impure thoughts was always a good for grabs. I confessed to impure thoughts years before I understood what impure thoughts meant. 

            I wasn’t alone in my guilt. When Sister Mary John entered the classroom, fifty-four ten-year old children leaped to our feet and in unison said, “Good morning, Sister Mary John.” We stood respectfully by our desks, waiting to find out what behaviors we were guilty of committing. We might not know why we were guilty, but we were perfectly clear on one thing—we were guilty. 

            In fairness, Sister Mary John never raised her voice. We never suffered the indignity of a metal-edged ruler blistering a bare palm. Sister had iron control. Sister MJ had perfected the Look. But my Grandma had invented the Look. I grew up with it.  

            I got slammed from both directions, equal opportunity guilt. I’m no stranger to the Puritan Work Ethic. My Dad firmly believed that the only valid pleasure in life was the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment to be found in work. I grew up with knowledge firmly entrenched in my little soul that an idle mind was the Devil’s workshop and idle hands, His tools. Amen. 

            Hundreds of dollars with therapists dulled the sharp edges of free-floating, unfounded guilt. But now and then, I feel a subtle twist of the knife. Not that I don’t deserve it, in this case. 

            Over the last several months, I have completely changed my life. Work was my identity. Now I live a life of idle ease and sloth. Whew! It is difficult for me to even force those words past my throat. 

            To compound my guilt, I decided to use time-share resort weeks to follow my massage therapist’s instructions to “rest”. No matter that I have a perfectly good apartment a mere five or six blocks away. It took me five days to come to grips with lounging around on the beach, to ordering meals at the pool bar, to uncounted hours on my balcony lost in the sound of the surf, to having my suite daily polished to a gleam by Martha in house-keeping. I lift nary a finger. 

            Yesterday I walked to the street to flag down a pulmania so I could take care of a short list of chores. I wanted to check my apartment and to pick up my electric bill, to take some books to the book-exchange shelf at the Sombrero Hotel, get my bangs trimmed, to put credit on my cell phone, to buy a bag of M&Ms. Chocolate is not sinful. 

            A driver at the curb a half block away raised an eyebrow, questioning in fluent cross-cultural language, “Did I need a ride?” I gave a barely perceptible nod, “Yes.” He backed his open-air outfit around to meet me. As he came parallel to where I stood, another pulmania pulled behind him. I recognized Carlos behind the wheel. 

            “That’s Carlos,” I said, pointing my long arm. “He’s my man,” a statement leaving me open to gross misinterpretation. Without further ado, I climbed into Carlos’s pulmania jabbering a mile a minute, and leaving the man I had summoned sitting in our dust. 

            Carlos is a sweet young man around forty, happily married with two teenagers, which says a lot about his disposition. For the last several weeks Carlos has picked me up thrice weekly for trips to my massage therapist, acted as interpreter, helped me with purchases and small business transactions. We have become friends. 

            We checked my apartment and picked up my electric bill, an almost embarrassingly low eighty-four pesos (divide by twelve). Carlos took me to Berthas for my hair cut. She is next door to the Sombrero Hotel where I quickly picked three more beach reads. Meanwhile, Carlos drove away, paid my electric bill, put credit on my cell phone, bought me a bag of M&Ms. He returned and delivered me back to the resort. 

            Something was eating at my conscience. Now that my hair no longer covered my eyes, I could see how rude I had been to the other pulmania driver. Guilt instantly tapped my shoulder. No matter how I try to justify it, guilt won’t go away. This is my confession. In addition to sinful sloth, I was inexcusably rude. I don’t need the added weight of imaginary impure thoughts. There is no absolution. Mea Maxima Culpa. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 12, 2014    
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Build On A Sound Foundation



Build On A Sound Foundation
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            My friend Kathy, who first introduced me to Mazatlan, and I often giggle over the fact that neither of us are “cruise material”. By this we mean, we hardly dress the part. Both of us are pretty casual. Dress to impress, we do not. Clothing is to cover the body; for modesty in summer, to keep warm in winter. Basic stuff. 

            So I was a bit surprised when Kathy sent me an email with the message—“Hit the Beach—Here’s What to Pack”. In old-fashioned paper it would have been a glossy ad brochure. In email form it was a glossy ad brochure. Kathy went on to say, “Okay, we’re not cruise material, but since you will be at a resort, I thought you’d want to look at this. I know you like to keep up with the latest.”

            That last line was a cruel dig. I gave up any sense of fashion in my 40’s when I realized I like blue jeans, flannel shirts and Birkenstocks with wool socks. So that’s what I wear.  

                        And, if you must know, I have been feeling sorry for myself. I have stood in front of the dozen or so items in my closet and realized how old and how shabby they are. One after another, I have tossed garments into the trash bag and have replaced none. Most of my Mexican wardrobe I bought my first year of Mexican holiday, including two bathing suits I had to buy because I forgot to pack any.  I only wear these items in Mexico. None are frost proof, wind proof or mosquito proof.

            The beach? Resort? Oh, didn’t I tell you? My Medicine Woman massage person who has been doing wonders with my leg is going on a two-week holiday to Tijuana.  She said to me, “Walk in sand.” I must obey. The resort is five blocks from my apartment. But I can walk out the entry and onto the sand and take short walks every day. 

            “Kathy, what would I do without you,” I replied. “I’m ready to throw away everything I own and begin fresh.  You must have caught my vibes. Will they ship overnight express? I love the styles and colors. I want to order one of each. And the sandals encrusted with turquoise bling on the first page—aren’t they the wildest! I like the salmon colored ones too. Maybe I need both. You sent me a timely remedy to my dilemma. I want it all. I shall be the best dressed old woman on the beach.

            “I haven’t mentioned this, but Kathy, every morning I have been studying the dozens of beautiful young women who walk by on their way to work at the multi-storied government building on the opposite corner from me. They give me inspiration to change my life.

            “First, I must lose two hundred pounds. No, I don’t weigh two hundred pounds. No matter. I must lose at least that much for that perfect pale-shadow look. Next, I’ll buy all my clothing three to four sizes too small. Claustrophobic—maybe—I’ll deal with it. 

            “Bust enlargement—did I mention bust enlargement? Everyone does it so how hard can that be?

            “Most importantly, bags and shoes. I never, before living here, realized the vital importance of matching bags and shoes; one set for every possible contingency, for every combination of blouse and skirt and pants and those legging sort of things that I’ll be able to skinny into once I lose that two hundred pounds. 

“Oh, for scrumptious bags and shoes! Oversize bags are de rigueur, spangled with plenty of sparkly hardware. It’s all the rage. But the shoes, yes!, the shoes! Platform for height, stiletto heels for sex appeal, and more straps than a set of harness. I shall be the Imelda Marcos of Mexico. Add sun glasses. Add bangles and beads. Oh, the joy!

“Kathy, you’ve seen my place. I’ve been pondering how to create a closet dedicated solely to bags and shoes. The only solution I have come up with is to convert the kitchen. What do you think? After all, in order to lose two hundred pounds, I’ll never eat again, so who needs a kitchen. Not me. 

            “No sacrifice is too great. I can’t believe I’ve been so blind to fashion. I must have skipped a vital phase of my development during my formative years. I hope I’m not too old to learn how to trowel on the makeup. Soon, I too shall look like a toothpick on stilts, but, oh, so elegant.” 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 5, 2014
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Leaping Lizards and Gripping Geckos



Leaping Lizards and Gripping Geckos
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            Lizards startle me. Back in the long-ago days when I rode horseback to check cows, now and then I’d see a flash of movement when a lizard sunning itself on a rock was equally startled by me. My mouth emitted a screech without my permission and my heart swung into overdrive. I couldn’t help myself. Meanwhile the lizard disappeared behind, around or under the lichen encrusted rock, a perfect habitat for its lichen colored skin. 

Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of lizards in eastern Montana. More fortunately, my horse was smarter than me and had become used to my ways. Otherwise I surely would have been dumped into the prickly pear.  To snakes I reacted even more loudly but my horse simply flicked back his ears and carried on. 

            Even harmless salamanders gave me the heebie-jeebies. When I was young, a trip down into the dirt cellar beneath the kitchen for a quart of pickles was an exercise in courage. No, that’s wrong. It was an exercise in fear.  

            It is a surprise to me that I’ve become quite fond of iguanas, not the most handsome of beasts. But you know how we women are; we can become used to anything.

            There had to be geckos in my apartment. Clues were there for me to read. I moved to this place in November. It is hardly airtight. When I opened the door to come in or go out, often a fly or mosquito from outside would, uninvited, flit through. I might spot the insect once or twice and then it would disappear. And I never swept its little carcass off the floor. So where did it go? 

            Geckos have a distinctive chirp when calling to one another. I hear them every day. Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp. I scanned the walls. Searched the corners. Looked behind dressers, into the dark places. I never saw a gecko. Week after week. Month after month. Nada. Nothing. 

            Despite my distaste for lizards, I like geckos. I recognize their service to humanity. Anything that eats mosquitoes is a friend of mine. Bats, swallows, geckos. Bring them on. 

            Now I must explain that mosquitoes here are wimpy. Days go by and I never see one of the little pests. Compared to the mosquitoes-on-steroids we breed in the Milk River Valley, the variety here is the 98 pound weakling. We sneeringly kick sand in its face. However, small and seemingly harmless, it carries dengue fever, which is nothing to sneer at. So bring on the mosquito eaters, I say. 

            Sunday, near evening, I was sitting at my dining table eating pitayas, the fruit of cactus, of which I’ve grown quite fond, when a pale green gecko skittered up the wall and darted behind a painting. “Samantha,” I said, “I knew you were here.” 

            Silently I thanked her for keeping the bug population down. I was nearly giddy with excitement. Monday night I was propped on my mound of pillows, reading before lights out, when across the room a light tan gecko popped from behind the dresser and raced up the wall and with gripping huge foot pads, cut across the ceiling at Interstate speed. I promptly named it “Sam-I-Am.”  

            Isn’t this strange. Two geckos in two nights.   

Tuesday night I went to the kitchen to refill my water glass and a smaller pale green gecko dashed across the floor in front of me. “Samish.” 

Wednesday night, a darker brown gecko made tracks across the living room wall. “Son-of-Sam.” Is there a pattern here? 

My theory is that gecko spotting is much like deer hunting. In my first hunts along the coulees, I never saw a deer. My husband would see twenty. Gradually I learned their habits. I learned to watch my horse’s ears; to watch where he put his attention. It seemed as if I imagined the outline of a deer and the deer would walk into that outline becoming visible. Same technique with geckos.

I have a great “Hands-Across-the-Border business idea—to export geckos to the Milk River Valley.  Customers will line up to buy my little mosquito eaters. Each gecko will come with a name and pedigree, like Beanie Babies. Geckos will become a national craze. They are the perfect pet, quiet, nocturnal, unobtrusive. They don’t climb on furniture. The shed their skin but then they eat it, cleaning up their own mess. Wintering might be a challenge, but, small problem, easily solved. We’ll sell them in colors, stripes or speckles. We will employee hundreds of people. 

Already my friend Kathy and my daughter Dee Dee want a piece of the action. Geckos-R-Us. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 29, 2014
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