Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Five Dollars

It was a five dollar day with five dollars being good value.
Five Dollars

We drove south out of Dodson, up onto the plateau and out toward the mountains. We passed the turn off at the long dirt road to the place where I used to live, a life-time ago. I recognized the same barbed-wire gate. Sun dappled the hills. A slight breeze teased the grasses. A perfect day.

Signs marked “Auction” pointed us in the right direction. Oak pallets, each heaped with an assortment of goods, snaked across the field. Beyond the pallets, lined out like an old-soldiers honor guard at a funeral, slumped dozens of derelict cars and pick-ups, trucks, tractors and machinery. Stacks of lumber, tools, wire, boxes and bins of parts and nails and bolts flanked scattered outbuildings.

I signed in and received the number 100. A good omen. I wandered over to the row of pallets where the auctioneer hawked trash and treasures. I didn’t spot anything I wanted, but, feeling mischievous, I started a bid at two and a half. I was certain somebody else would pick it up from there. Three. Then four. The bid went to five. Why not? Okay. Seven-fifty? Going once. Twice. Sold for five dollars. Gulp! I had just bought a pallet. I had not intended to buy it. I had no idea what was on the pallet other than a large brown boxy thing and an old pressure cooker minus the petcock and handles.

While the auctioneer proceeded along the row, I stopped to paw through my acquisitions. Within moments, I sold a box of dishes and a box of assorted car parts. That paid for my pallet. Soon I had sold or gifted everything but the cooker and a box of canning jars.

An hour passed before I bought another pallet; again, for five dollars. It was heaped with odd dresser drawers, minus the dressers. Some old wood. A mix of cabinet doors. A sturdy box with dividers for storing all manner of things. It could have lived in a tool shed, a kitchen or an office. But what did I really buy? The dresser drawers will be raw material for art projects. Wait till you see what I can do with a dresser drawer.

I set a limit to my bids based on what I could spot in the jumble on the pallet. And no matter how much I desired a particular treasure, I recognized when someone else wanted it more.

An auction is a bitter-sweet place to spend the day. It is a book of somebody’s life, easily deciphered but just as easily misunderstood. This ranch was probably homesteaded, in the last wave of homesteaders, if I read the pages right.

I looked out over the hills. Something within me yearns for this life, isolated as it is, out here on the flat with the snow-covered Little Rockies directly south and the Bear Paws a notch over to the west. I lived out here during the sixties, snowed in every winter. We farmed with horses and an obsolete tractor. We had no running water though we had a good deep well. We had no bathroom facilities. We had no money but we were rich in living.

My friends dragged me away to take a break from my heavy spending. We sauntered over to the cook wagon. Replenished with a generous bowl of hearty beef stew, we marched back into the fray.

We watched buyers haggle over the old car bodies. Much as I might covet an antique auto to restore, if I hauled a junker home I could do no more than watch it continue to rust. The auctioneer, like a mother hen with chicks, herded his brood around some large sheds. We ended up by the ruins where a fire had burned down the main house.

Oh. That answered a lot of questions. A woman I had noticed before, hanging on the fringes of the auction, told me that her uncle had died in the house fire. He was ninety-three. She grew up on this farm. The pain of her loss was reflected in her eyes.

Around the edges of the debris surrounding the burn stood several old stools. Some had three legs. Some had four. Some had legs each a different length. Some legs faced different directions on the same stool. This was not the work of a craftsman. But I recognize treasure when I see it. I piled up six of the stools and bid on them. I’ll paint them each a different color and plant them in my back yard. I’ll surround them with pots of petunias. Five dollars well spent.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
April 22, 2010

In the Spring

Oh, those shameless robins!
In the Spring

In the spring a young bird’s fancy
lightly turns to thoughts of love.

I am writing this with profuse apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose “Locksley Hall,” from which this phrase is butchered, goes on and on, and is not one bit cheerful. I promise not to go on and on that much. Until today I had not read this poem since high school, but, inspired by Tennyson, I give you the following florid prose.

Now that our drifted snow has melted, my tulips bravely lift their fluted arms toward the sun, nubbins of rhubarb emerge like a phoenix rising from the ashy heap of last year’s leaves, the golden light of morning, the slight swell of buds on the naked branches, the V’s of geese honking their way north, all remind me of the simple change in seasons, a warming of the earth and of our hearts. (I warned you.)

This morning, as I stood at my window watching the play of puffy cloud shadows, I noticed a flutter of activity. The robins have returned. Yes, there they were, fat and full of color, flitting from ground to tree to roof to fence to flower pot and back again, hitting the ground in a touch and go maneuver, hastily beak a bug or a worm and up, up into the air once more.

If only the eager robins would keep their activities limited to greedily filling their bellies that would be one thing. But, no, they demonstrate a shocking display of public affection. They throw modesty to the winds, impulsively out of control, billing and cooing, meeting in mid-air, ruffling feathers and teasing, outrageously flirtatious.

They remind me of teens trolling the mall, the same raging hormones on public display, the same fluffing of feathers.

I opened the door and listened; I could hear the robins singing, “Let’s make babies. Let’s make babies.” They dart to the ground, grab a twig or a sprig of dried grass and fly away to weave a tight little nest where fragile blue eggs soon will lie snugged in a puff of down. I admire their ability to combine industry with play. It seems to me like the perfect work ethic.

Of course, we know what comes next. Baby birds with gaping beaks as large as their bodies raucously demand a non-stop supply of grub. Parent birds crisscross the sky, foraging and providing, and at the same time, protecting their young from marauding enemies. Fortunately for robin parents, their babies mature quickly.

In a few weeks, the robins will strip my strawberries in their search for delicacies in a palate-pleasing buffet. This is an annual event I have become resigned to, a rite of spring. By the time the coming prophesied grasshopper plague arrives, entire avian families will be feasting, filling their bellies so full of the little jumpers that for a while they will become unwilling pedestrians.

However much I enjoy watching like a peeping tom as the robins set up housekeeping in my yard, however reluctantly I forego the pleasures of my own strawberries, I draw the line at the currents.

Last year those clever little plunderers stripped my newly-planted current bushes overnight. Oh, those robins are wily. They pointedly pretended to ignore my currents until the little berries reached their peak of ripeness. Then they pounced, mouths like Hoovers , inhaled the fruits of my labor and left me with not even enough fruit for one fresh current pie.

This year I shall be prepared, with scarecrows, whirly-gigs, nets and scattershot. If I cannot have my current pie, I shall feast on four and twenty robins, fattened to perfection, baked into a flaky crust.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
April 15, 2010

Ruth and Knobby

Sometimes I don't even know my own Knee-ds.
Ruth and Knobby

Shhhhh. Yes, you out there. It’s me, Ruth. I’ve been waiting for a chance to talk with you. Sondra’s off in some la-la land daydream and if we are tip-toe quiet, she might stay there long enough to let me speak. I became part of her life in the hospital in Bangalore , India , where I replaced her bungled up right knee. I am state of the art, you know. Without me she wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

How quickly she forgets the day we met. We had been partnered up, so to speak, four days before she finally thought to ask me my name. I forgave her though. She was under some heavy medication. “My name is Ruth,” I told her. The connection with the age-old story of Ruth and Naomi, roaming the land together, pleased her no end. I could feel the muscles in her leg relax. We were off to a great beginning.

Just a short year and a half ago, she used to talk with me a lot. She rubbed me and petted me. I liked that. We worked out together in rehab. That was fun. Well, it was fun for me. She said I was a pain. Time smoothed our differences. She began to appreciate me for all my sterling qualities.

Lately, she ignores me. She doesn’t talk to me any more. She’s forgotten that I want to go places, meet people, explore the world. She promised. This winter we had plans to visit friends—short trips to northern Saskatchewan, Kalispell, Vancouver Island, Lincoln and even Malta and Havre and Shaunavon. But she moped around the house. She cancelled every trip.

I want to re-kindle the flame, the joy we had in the beginning. I want to renew communications. Put zest and zing back into our lives. I am not sure how. I’m considering therapy, the “shrink” kind.

“Pssst. Hey, Ruth. Over here. To your left. It’s me, Knobby. Left knee. Maybe I can help. Sondra and I have been together since birth. I’m a lot older than you are and I know some things about her you don’t know. For instance, Sondra is really stubborn. She’s going through a rough patch. She’ll come around. But if we are going to help her, you and I have to team up. You, too, are a bit hard-headed, so to speak.”

“Oh. I didn’t know you could talk. You are right. I never even thought of consulting you. Do I feel chagrined.”

“Yeah, well, I’m generally the strong, silent type. And I was a bit jealous, Ruth, when you first came along. You two were ga-ga eyed over each other. You completely ignored me while I was doing most of the work. Oh, I understood, but sheesh. Your early love affair was intense. But now you have transitioned into the adjustment phase.”

“Oh, Knobby, you are right again. I can see that we have to be partners if we are going to walk together. I do have a lot to learn. I’ll bet there are other things about her I’ve ignored.”

“She’s ignored them too. Don’t worry. I’ll introduce you to them. Oh, and thank you for showing up to help when you did. We were scared we’d end up in a wheelchair before your arrival. I know this past winter has been particularly difficult for all of us--you, me and her--cooped up in the house all these months. But you gotta remember, we are more vulnerable to the cold and ice than you are.”

“Right again, Knobby. Sometimes I forget I’m titanium. Cold doesn’t affect me much. But I’m also from tropical India . I work better in heat.”

“Hey, Ruth, remember last fall when she took us to Mexico .”

“Ah, daily walks on the beach. Feet buried in sand. Warm breezes. Vendors hawking silver jewelry of dubious value. The wafting smells of rotting garbage. It all reminded me of my old home in Bangalore . I’d love to go back to Mexico .”

“So would Sondra. But she also loves Montana , and that includes the seasonal hardships--freezing winters, broiling summers, and swarming mosquitoes. But sometimes she doesn’t know her own mind. Our job is to take her where she wants to go, whether she wants to go or not. You and I hafta function as a unit. As she continues to heal from the surgery and strengthens her muscles, life will be easier. So what we support her and sneak some flexibility back into her life. Lord knows she needs it. Is it a deal, partner?”

“You bet, Knobby. I can feel the spark returning. Spring is here. We’ll get her moving. We’ll take her dancing. Sailing up in the clouds in a hot-air balloon. Rafting on the Missouri . Let’s rub knees, partner.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
April 8, 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Flocked Dress

Being a Princess is over-rated.
The Flocked Dress

My Grandma, who raised my baby sister and me, had made matching dresses for us from sheer white organza flocked with sprinkles of yellow flowers flanked by green leaves. Grandma, an accomplished seamstress, made all our clothing. She also stitched beautiful white under-slips, the tops smocked in a cable stitch with white embroidery thread, the skirts gathered, the perfect background to float the flowered dresses.

It was early spring, the air redolent with lilacs. My sister was nearly two years old and I had either just turned five, or would soon have a birthday. The memory of the dress, the dress that would make me a princess, carries me back to that day. I could hardly wait for Grandma to finish combing my unruly hair and jab in yellow ribbon barrettes. I tugged on new white anklets with a lace edge at the top and shiny white patent-leather Mary Jane shoes. I tried not to fidget, but she grabbed my shoulders and planted me to the floor. She lifted the dress over my upraised arms, settled the bodice into place, buttoned up the back and tied the wide sash into a beautiful bow. She spun me around to make sure everything was straight and told me to go get in the car. I’m certain Grandma had sewed these wonderful new dresses for Easter Sunday Mass. But on this day we wore them to Other Grandma’s funeral.

Other Grandma used to be plain Grandma, the only Grandma I had known. But when my baby sister and I became motherless, this new Grandma, one I did not remember, arrived on the train, and moved in to help my Dad raise us girls. She now became Grandma and the one we drove to visit every week or two became Other Grandma.

I don’t remember feeling any particular sadness over Other Grandma’s death. We lived on a farm. Birth and death were part of everyday life. I remember watching the birth of baby calves, slick and wet, pink new piglets rootling at their mother’s teats, fuzzy chicks tap-taping through the shells. Nearly every Sunday Grandma grabbed the hatchet, snared a fat hen and marched her to the chopping block out back. Then she dipped the hen in boiling water and I helped pluck the feathers. And nobody held me back from watching hog butchering. It was life on the farm.

On the short drive to the cemetery, I began feeling sick. I rolled down the window and leaned my head out. I could feel my hair coming loose from the barrettes. Scared as I was of a scolding, I was more afraid of throwing up.

Other Grandma’s funeral service was held outdoors at graveside or I might never have made it as long as I did. I remember chairs lined in rows, the casket, open, on a stand. We sat up front, with all my aunts and uncles and cousins. I kept my chin raised into the slight breeze. Just enough wind moved to rustle my dress. I had a strong sense of what was proper, even that young. I did not dare throw up. If I got sick, I knew I would be knocked into next Sunday and that without anybody raising a hand to me. My Grandma had that kind of power. My mouth began to water in that warning way. I swallowed hard, held my breath, lifted my face into the wind, as far from the neck of my dress as possible.

In my young eyes, Other Grandma was horribly old when she died. I recall a solemnity to the day, though not any particular feeling of loss. At the end of all the talking and reading, everybody stood up. We marched past the casket to say our good-bys. One of the men dressed in a black suit closed the lid. They lifted the box and lowered it into the grave.

Dad lit a cigarette, offered one to Uncle George and lit his too. I knew from experience we would not leave until they finished smoking. I stood with my lips clamped shut, tears leaking from my eyes, shifting from foot to foot. My Grandma hissed at me to “be still.” Finally my Dad shook hands with Uncle George and turned to leave. I ran over to our gray Pontiac coupe, held onto the door handle, leaned over and spewed and spewed until my stomach emptied.

My beautiful dress, now soiled, lay folded in the trunk. I rode home, alone in the back seat, wearing only my slip and my shame. Easter Sunday I wore my winter Church dress, utilitarian green plaid cotton with a huge white round collar. I never wore my beautiful princess dress again. I was allergic to the flocking.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
April 1, 2010