Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Plastic Halloween

The Grinch of Halloween Rides Again
Happy Plastic Halloween

What a curmudgeon I have become! Halloween used to be so much fun—back when I was a kid. The holiday was all about us scaring ourselves. Ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. I remember crouching out behind the wash house with my Bierly cousins, under a table covered with a sheet, the moon throwing shadows from the trees. We told ghost stories, each one more terrifying than the last. Over at my other cousins, the Bells, we huddled around a piano in the dark, the base notes drumming up the drama as we took turns topping the last tale of terror. We sure knew how to have fun. I wonder what it was in our makeup as children that we enjoyed deliberately setting out to feel scared.

I lived in the country, so going door-to-door trick-or-treating was not an option. My favorite Halloween memory was the year when my Grandmother took us to the Rehobeth Club, a kind of community center out in the country, for a party. All our neighbors were there. The clubhouse was decorated with corn shucks, straw bales, orange and black crepe paper streamers. Scarecrows were propped in the corners with jack-a-lanterns leering at their feet, candles throwing fluttering light from within—now that really should have been scary! Think of the liability!

We created our own Halloween costumes, of course. My cousin Shirley and I pawed through the attic, dragged possibilities into the hallway, and cobbled our costumes together. I went as a hobo. We stitched patches onto some of my fathers discarded work clothes, already ragged. My mask from the dime store was made of rubber. Shirley dressed as a great lady, draped in lace curtains hung together with plenty of safety pins. Her mask was a molded form that fit over her eyes. She sneaked make-up from her older sister and troweled it on heavily. We worked all afternoon making huge papier-mache ghost heads that we attached to broom handles. At the party we gobbled donuts, drank punch, dunked for apples, played games, danced and, to our astonishment, won a prize for our costumes. When the party was over, all the children were given small brown bags of hard candies and a popcorn ball. That Halloween was wonderful!

When my children were little I never had money for store-bought costumes, cheap and shiny though they were. They begged and pleaded. I said no. So I taught them to be creative, to search out materials to build new personas. One particularly lean year we all became ghosts, wearing thrift-store sheets with holes cut out for the eyes. We made a walking tour through the neighborhood, bags in hand, gathering loot. I waited in the dark at the end of each driveway for their return. Now and then I talked them into giving me a treat. We always returned home tired and happy, faces smeared with chocolate.

Times, they are a-changing. Several weeks ago, while visiting at my daughter’s house, I watched her cruise through an on-line costume shop, dithering over a choice from costumes with sixty dollar price tags. I, of course, was appalled. If I lived anywhere nearby, I would take my granddaughter in hand and we would make a costume with found objects. Of course, she’d probably balk. She likes and wants the plastic “princess” look, just like every other modern four-year-old girl. They will drive to the brightly lit mall, go store to store, holding out a shopping bag for the clerks to dump in handfuls of candy. With not even a walk through the dark and spooky night, ghosts and goblins lurking behind every bush, won’t they be bored out of their little minds? Poor kids.

I’ll buy candy for the children who might come to my door Halloween night. But I’ll choose the candy that I like best because I might be stuck with most of it. There are several more kids in my neighborhood this year than last year though. So maybe, if I am lucky, some ghoulies and goblins and long-legged beasties will knock at my door to scare me silly.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 28, 2010

Our Retractable Umbilical Cords

Our Retractable Umbilical Cords


Arlene, Leanna, Sharon and I sat around the table in Arlene’s kitchen in Watson , Saskatchewan , drinking tea and wine and comparing our lives. I grew up in eastern Montana , the others in eastern Saskatchewan . We are all women of the Prairies. We all left home vowing never to return. We each opted for a complete cultural change and each landed in a Big City . We made our lives, were happy, and now, here we are, back home again.

Sharon was the first one of us to respond to the subtle but definite pull back to our roots. Ten years ago, she and her husband Ron were on their way from Vancouver to Newfoundland to seek adventure on the opposite coast and to look over a restaurant which sounded promising. They stopped in Watson to visit Sharon ’s family. Sharon ’s mother Sophie was beginning to need extensive care. And the little café at the intersection of the two highways just happened to be for sale. Figuring one’s fortune was where one found it, within days Ron closed the deal on the café and began work to expand and rebuild. Over the years, on their rare days off from the restaurant, the couple began making Sophie’s house into their own home.

Because Sharon and I are close, you could say we are sisters of the chosen variety. Arlene asked, “How do you two know one another?” We laughed and our answers tumbled out. “We are buddies.” “Yes, we met in 1992 at a workshop on Mount Shasta where we were paired up.” “As buddies, we were responsible for one another, had to know where the other one was at all times.” “And since part of the experience was in the wilderness, this was important.” “We discovered we have common interests plus shared geography.” “And you oughta hear our coming of age stories.” “And we were the only two at Shasta who grew up in isolated country. It’s a bond of understanding.”

During the time I lived in Seattle and she in Vancouver , we continued our friendship, visiting three or four times a year. “Once Sharon moved back to the Prairies, our visits were infrequent. So the first person I called to announce my return to Montana was my buddy Sharon.” “Doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “I’ve been expecting this.” “Now we try to get together several times a year.”

Arlene, Sharon ’s cousin, returned to settle in Watson following several life changes, which included the deaths of her parents and a brother. Leanna is Sharon ’s hometown friend whose Mom had died only two months previously. That week she was stacking up piles and making keep-sell-toss decisions over her mother’s lifetime collections which filled every shelf, closet, wall, room, nook and cranny in the house. If Leanna finishes sorting, dispensing, and disposing in her own lifetime, we will all be surprised. The stuff could fill the Museum of Kitsch .

What brought us back? How did we each land in our parents’ houses? Never once did one of us say, “Gosh, I would love to live in my hometown in my parent’s home.” Sharon and I even paid good money for these houses which we did not want. Bit by bit, room by room, we have turned these old-fashioned but well-built houses into homes that fit us. Now Arlene and Leanna are beginning the process that Sharon and I have nearly completed: pitching, patching and painting. We all had sworn that we would never return. Yet, here we are, living fully and happily.

Each of us had a theory to explain what drew us back: family duties, a personal need to start over, a quest to rediscover familiar values, love for the land, insanity (?). As we sat around the table, we developed the answer to our questions. We are born with an invisible but retractable umbilical cord. It stretches to allow us every experience we choose. Then at a certain time, un-definable, it reaches its limit and begins retracting, pulling us hand over hand back to our beginnings.

Will we stay put forever? Are we stuck here? Who knows? The answer will be different for each of us. Maybe the umbilical cord will stretch again. But we’ll never go far away in spirit. The distance back will never be as long.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 21, 2010

A Satisfying Day

A Satisfying Day


About thirty years ago I found myself wallowing in emotional pain over something I can no longer remember. But I know that night it was of extreme importance. Kind friends advised me, “Listen, Stupid, don’t you understand. Tomorrow you will feel Different.” Then laughter. Lots of laughter. “Maybe not better, but Different.” More laughter.

My distress must have been over money or a man. These are the only things back then that would have had me sitting in a smoky café at three in the morning in tears, ready to gnaw on table legs.

My friends taught me about change. I change. You change. The circumstances around us change. These changes are neither good nor bad. They’re simply changes. And, always, tomorrow we’ll feel differently.

With the recent deaths and serious illnesses of friends heavy on my mind, a few days ago I decided to jump-start change. I skittered out of town to visit an old friend near Great Falls .

Nothing we did that day was particularly earth-shattering or even special. She introduced me to 2 J’s where we stocked up on spices from the bulk bins. At the Habitat for Humanity Restore we poked around the building materials and imagined possible remodeling projects. I found the perfect “crystal” chandelier to hang in a dream gazebo. Since I can’t build my gazebo this year, I reluctantly left it. We wandered the paths around Giant Springs. Then we drove back across town to Gibson Park where we surreptitiously harvested a few flower seeds and watched the squirrels feed.

By now it was well past noon and we were hungry. As we discussed various places to eat I reminisced about a restaurant where a friend and I used to have lunch when I lived in Great Falls . “Lunch at Eddie’s was special. We saved up for it. We always ordered this burger that had a unique smoky flavor. I have never had another burger that good anywhere. But that was forty years ago. Eddie’s is probably long gone.”

“No, it’s still there,” Karen told me. “Let’s go. That burger sounds good.” So we headed back over to the east side near Malmstrom Air Base.

I recognized Eddie’s instantly. We walked inside. I surveyed the tables and booths. “Looks like the same arrangement, same décor. It feels like nothing has changed,” I told Karen as we took a booth. I laughed as I looked around. “Including the people. These seem to be the same people who were eating here forty years ago.” The waitress brought menus. I immediately spotted the Campfire Burger. “There it is. It’s still on the menu. The best burger ever!”

“The owners added rib steak to the dinner menu,” our waitress told us. “That’s the only change since the place opened. We even still have some of the same waitresses.” Karen and I grinned. We could believe it.

The hot beef sandwich lunch special sounded good enough to seduce us away from the Campfire Burger. Our meal arrived and all chatter ceased. It had been a long time since I had wanted to pick up my plate and lick it clean. “Best roast beef I ever ate. It is so good. It is so tender. It is so juicy.” I said. “Aged to perfection,” Karen agreed. “And real gravy, made from the beef juices.” I told her, “I don’t know if it is true, but the rumor forty years ago, was that they raised and butchered their own beef.”

It’s seldom one gets to step into the past and have the experience be as good as the memory. Nothing at Eddie’s had changed. But I had changed. The day left me feeling grateful for my friends, the ones that I have and the ones I have lost. It was a good day. Karen said it best, “Today was satisfying.” There is much to be said for a satisfying day. Thanks, Karen.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 7, 2010

The Iceman Cometh

The Ice Man Cometh


Is the hair thick on the cow’s neck? Are the worms burrowing deeper? Are the birds flocking south sooner? Is winter galloping in on icy hoofs?

All I know is that when I left Kalispell early Friday morning on my trip home from the balmy shores of Puget Sound , the sky was overcast and the breeze pleasant. I was barely out of the city when my phone rang. I pulled off the highway.

Karen: “It’s snowing heavy in Great Falls .”

Me: “This is the middle of September. It can’t be snowing.”

Karen: “Well, it is.”

I eased back onto the road. As I entered the city limits of Columbia Falls , my phone rang again. I pulled onto a side street to answer.

John: “It’s snowing in Havre.”

Me: “This conversation sounds familiar.”

John: “And in Chinook and Harlem and Dodson and Malta .”

By the time I reached Essex the snow was coming down at a good clip, roads were slushy, the foothills were wearing a light blanket of white, and the high mountains looked like they were socked in for the winter. The east-er I drove, the harder it fell. My first inclination was to sink into a morass of morose. But my face betrayed me with a grin. It was so incredibly beautiful, my first sight of winter wonderland this year. I tried to shut down the other part of my brain, the part that wanted to remind me of what comes next. You know, snow tires, snow shovels, winter coats, studded grips for my boots, insulated mitts, sky-high heat bills, my back door drifted shut, warming up the car for ten minutes to drive four blocks to the post office, and weeks, nay months, of cabin fever.

This year, it was back in July as a matter of fact, for the very first time, I made a prediction. I do not make predictions because if I don’t make them, I can’t be wrong. But this year I took a chance. I predicted another hard winter. Out loud. To several different people. I randomly scattered my prediction around like mosquito bites. With me, it is a kind of superstition in reverse. If I say it, it will not happen.

So as soon as I got home, after driving in snow past Shelby , I checked the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the one true forecaster of winter. It predicts a “Numbingly Cold Winter”. From The Weather Space I read, “A temporary ice age is coming for the western United States . Record cold temperatures will hit Montana farmlands.” Hey, that’s us.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The Farmer’s Almanac has compiled a lively list of harbingers of winter. These signs are fun to read. They include the usual things, like extra thick sheep wool, horse hair, raccoon fur and corn husks (corn husks?). Early migration of birds, geese, ducks, butterflies. Early arrival of fogs, owls, crickets. The march of the insects. Mice and spiders invading the house in great numbers. (Are you listening, Stephen King?)

But my favorite sign of winter from the Almanac’s list is “pigs gathering sticks”. I kid you not. Pigs gathering sticks. We already know that a straw house crumbles in a heap when the wolf of winter huffs and puffs. But as I remember the story, only the brick house prevails. And whoever heard of a brick pig-house? But why would pigs gather sticks? Tell me truly, have you ever seen pigs gathering sticks? Sober, I mean. I’ve never seen one pig picking up sticks. And if you see any, please tell me, and I will escape south with the birds post haste, before winter ices us in for good.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

September 23, 2010