Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Your driveway misses your truck"

Shrug, what can I say.
“Your driveway misses your truck”

I got an email from a friend in Harlem . I walked outside in the misty rain and leaned against Roshana, my truck. “Jane said to tell you that your driveway misses you,” I told her.

A wistful look passed over her windshield. “Ah, I miss parking in front of our home, playing lookout, waiting for you to get in and go.” She smiled at me and nudged my shoulder. “I miss going to Havre and Malta and Turner and the post office. But I don’t want to go home yet.”

I puzzled over this, then noticed a blue smudge on her left front bumper. Ah ha, I thought. I had seen that outrageous blue Lexus flirting with her from the neighbor’s driveway. “Has that masher next door been putting the moves on you?” I asked.

Roshana blushed and blipped her horn.

“Don’t get too attached, my girl, because soon we will head across the mountains to home. These quickie love affairs are hard on a woman’s heart.”

She sighed, shivered in the rain, and when she thought I wasn’t looking, the hussy winked at the Lexus.

I understand her quandary, torn between two places with people we love at each end of the road. I lived in western Washington many good years. My children, my grandchildren and numerous friends live here. It is always a joy for me to return. Once here, it’s hard to leave. At the same time, I yearn for my own routine, to be back with my Montana friends, to breathe the air of home.

“Look,” I offered, “Let’s drive the North Cascades Highway home. We’ll stop in Ione, visit old acquaintances. You remember that cheeky camo jeep you liked so much, the one that’s always parked in front of the bar? He’s so funny and you two can catch up on old times while I attend the poetry reading.” She brightened right up, even shot an apologetic “love ‘em and leave ‘em” glance next door.

My truck and I seldom choose the same route. One memorable winter trip, we began in Vancouver , British Columbia , traversed the Canadian Rockies into Calgary , then crossed the border at Sweetgrass. My favorite is Highway 2 all the way from Harlem to Everett . No matter which route I choose, miles of empty road stretch between here and there. And something about crossing those lonesome miles satisfies my soul.

It would be hard to choose a more spectacular road home than the North Cascades Highway in September, the turning leaves splashing red, yellow and orange with abandon. In honor of novelist Tobias Wolff, who grew up in Concrete and wrote about his youth in “This Boy’s Life”, I will drive beneath the High School which is built with the central portion of the school spanning the road. In Omak I like to cross the Okanagan River on the foot bridge to visit the site of the annual Stampede and Suicide Race. I imagine the powerful horses plunging down the steep slope, swimming across the river, lunging up the other bank and around the track.

I plan to spend the night in Republic, a spunky little gold mining town where stores and houses perch on steep and crooked streets. I’ll get up early and stock up on treats for the road at Anderson Grocery, an old-time general store, over one hundred years old. Roshana and I will greet the sun when we top Sherman Pass and head down the twisty road to Tiger, a crossroads with a gas station, sometimes open, sometimes boarded up.

A left turn detour will point us north to Ione, a town not much larger than a smudge in the road, where a dozen residents meet every Thursday morning to share their poetry. They gather in the back room of the cafĂ© where I stopped for breakfast one Thursday morning several years ago. I happened to have some of my own poems with me and asked if I could sit in. They welcomed me and made me an honorary member of their group. I’m looking forward to sharing a couple of my latest poems with them over a hearty north-country breakfast.

Roshana, left on her own for a couple hours, will have time for all kinds of hanky-panky with the battered camo jeep. I’ll bid my poet friends a reluctant farewell. Roshana will beep-beep the jeep and we will head to Newport , Highway 2 and home.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 16, 2010

Further Adventures With A Toddler

Further Adventures With A Toddler

With my first newborn I acquired a gift, hyper-auditory sensitivity, which I call “Mothers Ears”. It seems to be an automatic side effect of giving birth. When each of my children was an infant, I could hear every breath and the tiny whish of a wave of an arm from the crib, even when I was busy at the opposite end of the house. Once they were toddling around, poking screwdrivers into electrical outlets, ripping labels from all the canned goods and dunking the kitten into the toilet bowl, I developed an auxiliary function, “Eyes-in-the-Back-of-My-Head”, useful for alerting me to exactly what each child was up to that he shouldn’t be. My x-ray-like ability extended to detecting teenagers sneaking up or down the stairway. When they reached adulthood and left home, the gift atrophied and disappeared.

Imagine my surprise, when I signed up to care for my granddaughter Lexi in Issaquah, Washington, while her parents tour Italy, to discover an unknown but related gift, “Grandmothers Ears”. The very first night alone with Lexi, I could not sleep. I heard every sound from her room across the hall from me. Gift or affliction? There isn’t an “off” switch.

Then one night this week neither she nor I slept. Or perhaps she slept. I did not. Lexi tossed and turned like a fish on the end of a line. I heard mutters of her dream conversations. I considered bringing her to my bed. Then the sounds abated. I began to drift off. Before I could fall asleep, Lexi began a re-run of restlessness. I wondered if she might be coming down with something. Probably a cold. Or possibly a dread disease. Or maybe something so rare as to have no name. And all these while she was under my care. Her parents would never forgive me. What should I do? I put off making a decision and floundered in worry.

At 2:00 in the morning a storm blew in. Rain pounded the roof, tree branches scraped the windows. Wind threatened to strip the siding off the house. Thunder crashed. Lightning flashed. Holding my breath, I listened. Every ghost the house harbored was up and about.

Finally, wide-awake and exhausted, still aware of Lexi’s restlessness, I said, “Enough of this foolishness.” I got up, hovered over her and rubbed her back. I felt each muscle relax. I tip-toed to the door. Her little voice stopped me, “Grandma, don’t leave me.”

So I brought Lexi to my queen-size bed. We had plenty of room. I rolled into a comfortable position and willed my own muscles let go. Then I had to get out of bed and go to the bathroom. When I returned, I rearranged Lexi, who had stretched crosswise in the bed. Again, sleep approached. Two little feet, one after the other, landed smack in my face. I straightened out her little body, rubbed her back, rolled over and prepared to finally get to sleep. Lexi flipped around and plopped her feet on the back of my head. I cuddled around her. Her feet landed back in my face. No matter in which direction she flopped, like homing pigeons, her feet found my face.

By this time I knew I would not get enough sleep. The next day, which it already was, I would be tired, which I already was. Finally I gave up, lay my head against her feet and prepared to wait out the last hour before 6:15, her usual wake-up time. As I was about to sink into that nebulous state prior to dreaming, General George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton’s Seventh Army Tank Division rumbled and crashed through the front line of 249th Avenue . One after another three tanks reconnoitered into our cul-de-sac. The first tank screeched and clanged to a stop at each house, scooped up the garbage container, ground gears and dumped the contents into its gaping maw. The second picked up the recycle bin. The third crunched yard refuse. One at a time, they attacked at each and every house. Rumble. Clank. Grind. Rumble.

“Grandma, what time is it? Grandma?”

“It’s only 5:30, Honey, go back to sleep.”

“Grandma, I want a snack.”

Grandma wanted a drink.

But we rolled out of bed, ate breakfast, and played quietly indoors all day. The rain fell steadily. We both took a three-hour nap. And when bedtime finally came, we slept through the night.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
September 9, 2010

Please Send M and Ms

And send them NOW!
Please send M&Ms

Greetings from Issaquah , Washington . I am staying at my son Ben’s home while he and his wife Shea are exploring Rome . I am the keeper of my two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter Lexi--the designated Granny-Nanny. It is my official duty to foil her parents carefully laid plans for Lexi’s development. My job is to find her every action pure delight, to let her have her way at all times, and to sneak in such contraband items as chocolate milk and cookies. After all, what are Grandmothers for?

When Lexi is older, I intend to be a Grandmother on the edge. I will tantalize her with temptations. I will expand her mind with live theatre, music, dance, demolition derby and rodeo. I will float in like a good fairie, wave my magic wand and whisk her off to the opera, to the ballet and the symphony, things her hard working parents won’t have time for.

But for now, Lexi and I stick close to home, build castles in the backyard sandbox, walk to the park, the wading pool, and Starbucks. Oh, heavens no, I don’t give her coffee. Starbucks concocts a dynamite chocolate milk. And they make a parfait that is so good, so exploding with sugar--you won’t tell her parents, will you? All these delights are within a two-block walk. Our days are simple.

Our favorite pastime is playing on Grandma’s bed. We do this several times a day. Here is how it goes: Lexi says, “Let’s go play on Grandma’s bed.” Grandma smiles indulgently. We tromp up the stairs singing Frere Jacques. Lexi loads the bed with books, climbs up the covers hand over hand, jumps up and down a few times and lands with a plop on her bottom. She scoots up to the pile of pillows and hands me a book. “Read to me, Grandma.” Grandma reads. Already Grandma has memorized twenty-three books and counting.

There is a bonus to this job. I have become proficient at a plethora of electronic gadgets. Right now i-tunes play on one computer, I write at another, record PBS Kids on yet a third, while at the same time Lexi watches Nemo swim across the screen, via video. Ah, the wonders of modern science.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? And it is fun. But, I am at the front end of this run. I am not sure how the seventeenth day will find me. Seventeen days of living in a two-and-a-half year-olds world. Seventeen days sans adult conversation. Seventeen days of pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, “Dragon Tales”, “The Little Mermaid” and potty training. Seventeen days before Mom and Dad come home.

In imagination I picture the return of Mom and Dad. Here they come, lugging luggage into the foyer. And there sits Grandma, her hair chopped off, her eyes like pinwheels, draped in a stained bathrobe, tied to a chair, forced to watch her three-hundred-eleventh viewing of “Sid, the Science Guy”. Picture Lexi running circles around the chair like a wild creature, stark naked, eating forbidden cookies right out of the bag. “Hi Mommy. Hi Daddy. Grandma and I are having fun.” I will hug Lexi, give her a huge bye-bye kiss, head out the door and vanish back to Montana, leaving Mom and Dad to clean up the mess.

Meanwhile, please send M&Ms. I can’t find any in the cupboards. They are not for Lexi. They are for me. I assure you I will eat them only after she is sweetly asleep for the night. Fortified with enough M&M’s, I can promise to persevere with Lexi’s potty training, to keep sugared treats to a minimum, to feed her wholesome foods and to uphold discipline to the best of my ability. I don’t need the M&Ms to promise to love her to bits. But please, please, please send me M&Ms.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 2, 2010

Tourists Move In

The new wave of suburban homesteaders.
Tourists Move In

August in Montana . Harvest is in full swing. Hay, neatly compressed and bound, tumbles forth from balers. Combines fill trucks with record-breaking yields of wheat. Fat, contented cattle stand hip deep in ripening grasses.

Multitudes of ducks and geese paddle across lakes and ponds in places where no lakes or ponds or even puddles have been seen in living memory. Green grasses peek through the golden hue of ripening grains. Flowers are bigger, leaves heavier, robins fatter. The countryside is lush.

This is not normal. This is August. This is the dry-land of Montana . Our gumbo soil should be hard as concrete with cracks gaping down to bedrock. Usually, by now, cottonwood leaves hang wilted and listless in the unrelenting sun, edges brown and curled. By now, everything should be brown. But look around. Beautiful hazy shades of green blanket the rolling hills. Golds are brighter. Blues are deeper. Greens are greener.

Usually, in August the tourists stream across eastern Montana on their way to Glacier and Yellowstone , speedometers on the red line, grimly eating the dusty miles. Cranky kids, hot and sweaty in the back seat, punch each other. But this year is different. This year rain fell in abundance. This year tourists slow down. They stop to look. They see. They linger. They camp in spots in which no tent has been erected since the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “Honey, why do we have to keep driving? Let’s stay here. Little Johnny and Susie are having fun wading in the creek. I didn’t know prairie country was so peaceful, so beautiful. I thought the only things in Montana worth seeing were the mountains. I wish we could live here.”

A hundred years ago dugouts, shanties and sod houses dotted the Montana plains and short grass prairies. Several years of plentiful rainfall had prettied up the land. Our semi-arid country exploded into spring bloom. Professor Wilbur’s much publicized, hopeful and dead-wrong theory that “rain follows the plow” lured thousands of homesteaders to the erstwhile “ Great American Desert ”. Men and women unloaded their wagons, hitched plows to oxen and dug furrows into the deeply grass-rooted soil to plant foreign crops. Pioneers could look across their free acres and see smoke from several neighbors’ chimneys. In a few years, those who hunkered down and toughed it out watched most of their neighbors load household goods onto the same wagons and roll back down the road.

There is a lesson here, folks. Thousands of tourists have experienced this year in our region as, indeed, “The Last, Best Place .” There is a danger that ill-informed easterners will be so taken by this lush and lovely rain-drenched summer that hundreds of them will descend upon us. A new wave of these pioneers sell their suburban ticky-tacky back in New Jersey for a few acres of prairie. Couples lie in bed at night sharing dreams of starting a new life Our West. Children argue over what to name the new horse.

Developers, one step ahead of the new wave of homesteaders, buy up hundreds of acres of alkali-laden soil, divide it into five-acre lots, and truck in the bulldozers. From temporary trailer offices, names are invented, streets are platted and advertisements go out to major newspapers across America . Soon, in places named Lone Pine or Cactus Flats, five-acre ranchettes will sell like, well, like dreams. Horses will hang their heads over white board fences while their new little owners play computer games in their new four-bed, three-bath plus, because the great outdoors is scary and Trigger is large and alive and has huge feet. Mom and Dad sigh over memories of sushi bars, latte stands and bagels and lox.

Four years; give them four years. Their covered wagon is the Mayflower Van or the U-Haul Truck but the effect is the same. Montana is a land of Promise . There is Gold in these here hills. But the gold might glitter differently than what most people expect. Our riches include the solitude, the empty hills, the slower pace of life, the look of peace in your neighbor’s eyes, the time to talk with strangers, the contentment with what each day reveals. New homesteaders who find these things are likely to stay. Welcome home.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 26, 2010