Friday, June 18, 2010

Our Day at the Centennial

Our Day at the Centennial
My friends, David and Vidya from Washington State , are visiting me. You might remember them from a column I wrote last year in which they were almost stranded in Saskatchewan , frantically searching for their passports at the Monchy border crossing. Well, they are back again.

One morning David was paging through the Havre and Hi-Line Visitor’s Guide. He said, “Where’s Gildford? It says here they are having a Centennial celebration on Saturday. I bet that’ll be fun.” So we decided we would go.

Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed out to Gildford, excited as all get out. We like town celebrations. We aimed to arrive in time for the chili feed and the historic tour. David speeded up so we could beat the crowd.

Gosh. Gildford was empty. Not a human in sight. We couldn’t find the celebration. No cars were nosed up the restaurant. The bar sported a “For Sale” sign. A black and white cat lay in the middle of the street. The museum looked like it might be locked up for the day. This did not make any sense.

“Maybe the functions are being held at the school or the community center or the park. Everyone could be there—wherever “there” is,” David said. We drove slowly up and down every street in Gildford, searching for a crowd. We saw a woman in her yard, watering flowers. A couple streets over, a man pushed a lawn mower. Two small girls pedaled by on bicycles. Another black and white cat crossed the street. Or maybe it was the same cat.

We sat idling at an intersection for several minutes, contemplating what might have happened. We had searched the entire town and could not locate the festivities. Maybe everything had been cancelled at the last minute. Maybe we had grabbed last year’s visitor’s guide. Maybe the venue was moved to Kremlin. Maybe UFO’s had abducted everybody. Maybe the Rapture had occurred and only we and the two cats were left behind.

“Let’s head back to Havre,” Vidya said. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” David agreed. “I could almost taste the home-made chili. Chunks of succulent beef, spicy peppers and beans, dipped steaming out of a giant kettle.”

Over the chicken-fried steak special at Wolfers we continued to puzzle out the mystery of the empty town of Gildford . Without success. We shrugged, paid the bill, and left the diner, picking our teeth. We ambled down the sidewalk just because it was there. The sun was shining. There were a thousand things we could do, but we were lazily content to enjoy one another’s company.

Somehow, scavengers that we are, we ended up at the Salvation Army thrift store. An hour, nineteen books, a coffee cup, and half a “new” wardrobe for Vidya later, we lugged our bounty out the door.

On the way to the car, we passed the Book Exchange. For a long time I had been hunting for an early novel by Wayne Ude, a friend from Harlem school days. There was nothing for it but to go upstairs in the Atrium to see if they had the book. Susie and I disappeared into the office to look it up on the computer.

David idly flipped through a copy of the Havre Daily on the counter. From the office I could hear him sputter. Vidya cackled. They raced in and shook the paper in front of my face. The front page of the second section was filled with photographs of people enjoying the Gildford Centennial—pictures taken the previous Saturday. Oh. Mystery solved.

On the drive back to Harlem , Vidya said, “So, tell me, what was your favorite part of the Centennial?”

I mulled over her question. “The hot-air balloon ride. Definitely. I have wanted to do that for years. What a thrill to glide over the town, up in the air so high.”

“That was your ride. For me, it was to fly, sitting snug behind the pilot in the yellow bi-plane,” David said. “It was just wood and canvas and wire, held together with glue. I couldn’t believe it when the pilot did the figure 8 loops and the rolls.”

Vidya and I giggled. “We saw you throw up after you landed.”

“I loved the turn-of-the-century costumes,” Vidya said. “And that the entire town was in character, as if it were 1910.”

“Yeah, the old cars and the horse-and-buggy rides and the steam threshing machine and the honky-tonk piano and the old time music.”

“And best of all, the chili feed.”

We were a week late. We had missed the whole thing. But we sure had a good time at the Gildford Centennial.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 17, 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010

Life is Big

Chance encounters of the close kind.
Life is Big

I met Sharon at a workshop at Mt. Shasta , California in 1992. We all sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. The workshop leader asked us to buddy up, explaining that we were to work in teams of two. Sharon and I looked across the circle, nodded and grinned. Instant buddies. That week we forged a friendship.

Our lives were vastly different. I lived in a house in the woods in rural Poulsbo , Washington . Sharon had an apartment in the heart of downtown Vancouver , British Columbia . Sharon, a single woman, had traveled all over the world. She was intensely interested in alternative medicine and the healing arts. I had children, owned my own business, wrote poetry and painted. But we shared one common experience: we were both women of the prairies. Sharon grew up in Watson , Saskatchewan , just a little east and north of my own home town of Harlem , Montana . We frequently shared stories of our growing up at the end of the road, in small town isolation. We had been near neighbors and never knew it.

Over the next several years, we visited back and forth. I loved Vancouver . Sharon took me everywhere. We walked barefoot through the goose poop in Stanley Park . We explored Granville Island , its Public Market and the galleries. As time passed, our lives changed. Sharon married Ron, a chef and restaurateur from Singapore . Ron is a whirlwind of energy, full of plans, with the skills to carry them out. I liked him immediately. I became an empty nester. My children flew off into their own lives. I found myself doing something I had never thought I would do. I entered the world of theatre. Sharon attended my first play. O ur friendship grew.

One Friday Ron and Sharon surprised me when they drove up to my house in their big red pickup. They burst through the door. “Guess what we are going to do. We are leaving Vancouver . Ron sold the restaurant. We are done with the hustle and bustle, the pressures of the big city,” they announced, both talking at the same time. “We came to share our excitement with you.”

Amidst hugs and kisses, I managed to squeeze in a query, “What are you going to do?”

“We’re off to check out restaurants for sale in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland . We’re going from the west coast to the east coast.”

The weekend passed too quickly. Monday morning I waved them off with tears in my eyes. I wondered when, if ever, I would see Sharon again. I wanted to pack a bag and go with them.

A few days later, Sharon called. “Guess what? On our way east, we stopped to visit my Mom in Saskatchewan . You won’t believe this. We bought a restaurant right here in Watson. It’s called the Quick Stop. Ron has big plans for it.”

Our visits became less frequent but our phone bills increased. Five years passed. One day I called Sharon , “Guess what? We’ll be neighbors again. I’m moving back to Harlem .”

“Sondra, I am not one bit surprised. You always talked about going home. So when are you coming up here. We have a room waiting for you.”

And so we have resumed our cross-border trips, only now a thousand miles to the east. I like Saskatchewan . I feel at home up there.

This morning I called Sharon . She and I talked for an hour. We caught up on recent details of our lives. Ron has expanded the restaurant again. He added a room to house their new machine to manufacture perogies. They also bought the five acres of brush-land they took me to see on my last trip. They’ve cleared a patch and planted spruce and irises.

After our call, I stood in my doorway and watched the puffy clouds roll north, listened to the rain beat a tattoo on my red metal roof, inhaled the aroma of wet mud and lilacs, conscious that Sharon was unlocking the front door of the Quick-Stop and smelling the same fragrances. We are both back where we started. Prairie girls again.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
June 10, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Pink Frock

I hated that dress after the first day.
The Pink Frock

Today in Harlem , I attended a rite of passage, eighth grade graduation. I am a sucker for ceremony. As the young people promenaded two by two through the decorated arch and up the aisle, tears rolled down my face.

I felt as if I had stepped into a time machine. Long buried memories of my own eighth grade graduation flooded my mind. I leaned over to Karolee, “When we were in school, was graduation held in the cafeteria or the pit? I can’t remember.” The pit was a sunken gymnasium in the old section of the grade school, a place where we were sent for punishment. All of it long gone.

This year’s crop of eighth grade girls all looked so pretty. The boys moved with sporty grace. I glanced around at the proud families. Cameras flashed to document the moment.

“Look how assured and confident they stand. We were not so sophisticated,” I whispered. I remembered how uncomfortable I had felt. Fidgety. I had kept a nervous eye on the boy who walked next to me, trying to match step. I was paired with either Bob Neely or Big John Longknife, our tallest boys. I, myself, was eight feet tall. With feet twenty-four inches long. I could not keep my feet out of the way of my legs. My arms were so long that my hands hung near my knees. None of us knew what to do with our platter-like hands. I was as thin as a steel fence post and with as much sex appeal.

And I remembered the pink dress. Somewhere in my boxes of photos, filed by chunks of time, I had a photo of myself wearing the dress, taken with my own Brownie Hawkeye. I had posed in front of our house, out on the farm, in a corner by the porch steps. As soon as I got home, I dug my storage boxes out of the cupboard, tore through the files, and found the picture stored under the heading, “Sondra—young”.

Even in the black and white photo, it looks pink. It was my first semi-formal frock. It was horrid. I don’t know what I was thinking to have chosen such a dress. I must have thought it was pretty. Pink is a beautiful color. I love pink. Just this week I bought an entire flat of pink petunias. But I cannot wear pink, especially light pink. I fade away to nothing.

I wish I could show you the photo I have propped in front of me. No, that’s a lie. I am glad you cannot see it. There I stand, posing awkwardly, feet encased in white flats to hide my height, a white pop-bead necklace around my scrawny neck, hair straight as a stick, eyes squinting into the sun, trying to look happy. The dress is a wonder, satin with a scratchy lace over-layer. The piece de resistance, that which sets this dress apart as “special”, is a giant bow stitched smack in the front. The bow extends beyond the width of my waist (metal fence post) and the tails hang down to the end of the skirt. Beneath the skirt, I wore three starched, ruffled net petticoats.

I had to wear that pink dress to formal dances until my junior year. Finally, in time for the Junior Prom, I had saved enough money to buy the only other semi-formal dress I ever owned, a white froth of beauty that could have been inspired by “Gone With the Wind”. I loved that white dress. In my white dress I shrunk to five-foot eight, my arms became proportionate, my feet fit into size eight shoes, though I still wore flats. In my white dress, I felt like the girls looked at the graduation today. Assured. Confident. Graceful.

I know dresses have nothing to do with either sophistication or awkwardness. It just took me a while to grow into myself. These young people have a head start. They, every one of them, are beautiful.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
June 3, 2010

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Solving the Housing Shortage

Soon to be famous! Or: Move over, Shirley Jackson.
Solving the Housing Shortage

Last night our Harlem Housing Study Committee reported their findings to the Planning Board. They had spent months assessing past reports and studies. Then they counted the current dwelling units, identified the rentals, the owner occupied units, and the mobile homes. They compiled this and more information and identified trends from the past fifteen years. They also amassed information about housing help programs. In short, their study was comprehensive. As is true for most communities, housing needs in Harlem cannot be shoved under one umbrella. The study group identified the three most pressing wants: more rental houses, group housing for seniors, and a plan/program to aid renters to become home owners.

Among these many items of information, we learned that a surprisingly large number of single elders rattle around alone in three and four bedroom houses. These houses could be freed up for young families who need the space. Many of these houses comprise the more desirable homes in town. In fact, some of us hoarding these houses are on the planning board. We talked about it. Some of us have whole rooms devoted to knick-knacks. Some of us agreed that we would gladly transition to a nice shared-living space with a gardener to mow the grass, a maintenance man to fix the faucets, and somebody else to shovel snow in the winter.

That was when I got my brilliant idea. This idea is Big. Harlem ’s housing problems are not unique. Small towns throughout Montana share our plight. We could institute a pilot program. Here it is: We would hold a lottery. We would draw numbers, to match a single elder woman with a single elder man, one of whom must be able to fix a leaky faucet. The matched pair would then draw for a two bedroom home. This pairing would free up two larger homes for families with children, homes they might either rent or purchase. We would continue the lottery until all the elders in town are matched and moved. Just this one program alone, a program which would not require federal funding, a program which would not require a preliminary engineering report, a program which would be locally managed, would solve the majority of our communities’ housing problems.

The thoughtful reader may have noticed one small difficulty. Demographically, there are more elderly women than there are elderly men. Fortunately, I have the solution. The women would be paired, as long as one of them could fix faucets. If neither could, they would be matched with a couple with faucet fixing ability and all would live in a three bedroom home.

Another problem is that in each community a small number of persons, of either sex, could be classified as crotchety curmudgeons. These people would be identified in the initial pre-lottery assessment and would live alone in a single bedroom unit. If said curmudgeon lacked faucet fixing ability, an on-call fixer would be provided.

One question you may have is this: Is a lottery a fair way to pair a man and a woman to live together? It is far more fair and equitable, a much less chancy arrangement, than the hormone-driven process younger people commonly use. This is not about romance. This is a communal-living plan. Each pair would share a house, much like college room-mates. Each would have his/her own bedroom with shared kitchen privileges and would rotate taking the garbage to the alley.

Should fate draw together a compatible couple, they might consider marriage. This could present a problem of a different sort which is not covered under my plan. I strongly advise that they be required to first undergo a minimum six months of intensive marriage counseling before they be allowed to take this step. In addition, all their living children must approve the match.

Here’s another benefit. The pre-lottery assessment will identify mentors to coach young renters and homebuyers, now moving into their former houses, in the essential skills of changing light bulbs, hanging the screen door, and fixing the leaky faucet. Everyone wins.

Who knows, my Harlem Housing Solution Lottery could spread nationwide. I am polishing my speech for the moment when the Governor hands me the Montana Humanitarian Award. Who knows, this plan may lead to my Nobel Peace Prize.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
May 27,2010

Disaster of the Moment Club

Let me tell you what happened to me!
The Disaster of the Moment Club

Last week I rode the Iron Horse from Havre to Spokane to care for Antoinette, my four-year old granddaughter, while her Mom attended a conference. We had a great time exploring the walking trails and the playgrounds at Riverfront Park . She especially loved the giant Radio Flyer wagon slide and the fountains. I indulged her every whim. It was hard to say good-by.

But at 1:30 Saturday morning I boarded the Empire Builder, tucked myself into my roomy coach seat and closed my eyes to sleep what was left of the night. At first call for breakfast, I scurried to the dining car. I love riding Amtrak. I meet people from every corner of the nation and the world. The attendant seated me at a table with three other women.

As I sat down, I rubbed my right knee which was feeling a bit stiff. The woman seated across from me, whom I will call her Ms. A, asked, “Are you handicapped?” I pondered her question. Physically? Mentally? Financially? But I needn’t have bothered. She was fishing for a chance to tell her own woes. “I can’t hardly get around at all,” she began.
“Nine months ago I had stomach surgery. I lost 145 pounds. But I got gangrene in my foot because of infection from the surgery. So they amputated two of my toes.” We all murmured words of sympathy.

Since the lead-in topic at the table seemed to be surgery, Ms. B, sitting to my left, spoke up, “I’ve been in Seattle to help my sister recover from surgery for cancer. She’s doing well so I’m on my way home to New Hampshire .” Ms. A promptly countered, “Speaking of cancer, I buried my sister last week. Tumors throughout her body. Worst they’d ever seen. Not only that, on the way to her mom’s funeral, my niece was killed in a head on collision. Drunk driver. Orphaned those three little children.”

We sat in a puddle of stunned silence. Then Ms. C spoke up, “Who is taking care of the poor children?” Ms. A sighed loudly, fiddled with the rings on her fingers and fluffed her hair. “I guess I’ll just have to take them in. There is nobody else to do it. That is, once I get back from my vacation. I’m going to meet an old friend in Tennessee where the horrible floods are. We’re going gambling on a Mississippi Riverboat.”

Bad things do happen to good people. Perhaps Ms. A is one of those good people caught up in a web of bad things. But I felt we all needed to come up for air. So I decided to shift the subject to the fun time I’d had with my granddaughter. Ms. A stopped me mid-sentence, “Shut up. You are such a loudmouth. You don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t care. Now, I don’t hold that against you. I’m just telling you.”

Well, that did shut me up. I recognized then and there that Ms. A was a dues paying member of the Disaster of the Moment Club. Not only that, she needed to have the worst disaster going. She was a master of one-downmanship.
I thought about some stories I had heard, like the one about an entire accident-prone family. One day the mother showed up in a wheel chair because she had fallen through the kitchen floor. Don’t you just itch to know the details?

But a man who grew up in Whitewater told the best disaster story. His large family was dirt poor. As a youngster, he worked summers on a farm in Malta . One year, when it was time for school to begin, he hitch-hiked back home to Whitewater. He walked into an empty house—no father, no mother, no brothers or sisters, no furniture. Nothing. Imagine that.

If I had been quick enough, or mean enough, I could have adapted those stories as my own, just to hear Ms. A try to top them. Instead, I gulped my coffee and hurried back to the comfort and safety of my seat.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
May 20, 2010