Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Christmas Babe in My Family

The Christmas Babe in My Family
Nearly every family has a Christmas baby, the baby born in December. It might be your grandfather. It might be your aunt. It might be your brother. It might be your second cousin twice removed. It might be you, a child whose annual birthday is nearly forgotten in the bustle of celebration surrounding the birth of the Original Christmas Babe. I have several friends who were born in December. They all say the same thing. “With all the fuss about Christmas, I might as well not even have a birthday. My birthday present and my Christmas gift seem always to be lumped together.”

In my family, the story of our Christmas Babe is a different story. She was born the first day of December, six years ago, in Yokosuka, Japan, where my daughter Dee Dee’s husband, Chris, a Navy man, was stationed. Antoinette Jean Marie Robart, was an early bird. She was born in trauma, not breathing, diagnosed with a brain bleed, and a concern of cerebral palsy. The Navy doctors rushed her to the neo-natal intensive care unit at the nearby Japanese hospital. There Toni spent her first weeks. Although she was still in danger, the doctors released her, figuring she had a better chance of recovery at home with her mother. Dee Dee, who had spent every moment at the hospital with little Antoinette, was physically, mentally and emotionally depleted. She needed help.

Fortunately I had planned to be there for the birth and had my airline ticket. I arrived in Tokyo late on the night of Christmas Day. I expected Chris to be the one to pick me up. Instead, the whole family arrived to meet me. Antoinette, swaddled in a pink blanket, nestled snugly in her mother’s arms only as long as it took for me to dislodge her into mine. That fragile little girl immediately stole my heart.
We rode the Navy bus back to the base where they lived in a high-rise apartment overlooking Yokosuka Bay. I had arrived with no agenda for the next month but to help whenever and however I could. Being there with my daughter and her family was my best Christmas present.

What do babies do? Babies cry. But the doctors had ordered that this little baby, who was in constant pain, was to be kept from crying. Crying could induce bleeding. We needed to avoid that at all costs. We took turns walking the floor with the little mite in our arms. Chris, when he did not have duty, could induce her to sleep against his chest. We were jealous that Chris had that magic touch. Jessica, just entering the terrible teens and gone a lot, took her turn when she could be corralled. I was the newly arrived helper. We took turns spelling Dee Dee, who though still exhausted, bore the brunt of baby duty. We sang to Toni, lullabies and love songs and rock and roll. We told her stories. We watched soap operas in Japanese and made up the plots, laughing as we inserted our own dialogue. Sometimes we quietly watched the twinkle of the Christmas tree lights.

Every day it was touch and go. Once, in a moment of insight, my daughter said to me, “Mom, I feel like she is trying to make up her mind whether she wants to stay or not.” I could only nod my head that I understood. We constantly told our baby that we wanted her and loved her.

The Japanese health care system is phenomenal. Every other week the hospital sent a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and other health care personnel to the apartment to work with our little baby. When I had been with them three weeks, it seemed that Toni had turned a corner. She seemed stronger. She slept more. She seemed to be in less pain.

By the time I had to leave Yokosuka for home, we could coax the occasional smile from Toni. Dee Dee was still exhausted. I knew it would be months before she got to have proper rest.

Thanks to the constant care and therapy, both in Japan and Stateside, today Toni is healthy and happy. As a precaution, she is periodically checked for any symptoms of cerebral palsy. Toni has one speed and that is full ahead. She runs to meet life fearlessly.

Our family will always have two big December birthday celebrations, one for our special little girl on December first and the other for The Special Little Boy on the twenty fifth.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

‘Tis the Season: The Magi, the Santa and the Jaguar

‘Tis the Season: The Magi, the Santa and the Jaguar
One night last week I risked the icy streets and walked downtown for the Harlem Christmas Stroll. The Harlem Civic Association sponsors this delightful annual event enjoyed by the entire community. It was a perfect night, neither too cold nor too windy. Harlem streets, stores and homes were festive with decorations. Chestnuts roasted over an open fire. A gentleman from out Chinook way had brought in a matched team of horses and a hay wagon and treated the children to rides around town. What most delighted me were the kids dressed up as Christmas presents. Businesses held open house. Several places served food. Over at the library a book sale was in progress. Many people had come garbed in costume. A group of children enacted a live nativity scene. And Santa held court at KB’s Deli.

Santa was the reason I walked downtown. Lately I have been yearning for a special gift. There is scant money in my “car jar” (a line item in my budget). So I reasoned that Santa might bring my heart’s desire and leave it parked in my driveway. I stood back in the corner and waited until there was a break in the line of youngsters who, perched on Santa’s knee, tried to pry loose his beard or eyebrows, yanked his cap, giggled, cried, wet their pants and otherwise created mayhem. They were darling. A young woman took pictures of the little ones with Santa. Everybody beamed.

When my turn finally came, I scooted close and whispered, “Santa, I want a Jaguar. Bring me a yellow Jaguar.”

“A what?”

“You know, the car, a Jaguar. It is the car of my dreams. I want a yellow one.”

Santa held his fingers about two and a half inches apart, raised his right eyebrow, and asked, “Do you mean . . .”

“No, Santa,” I interrupted. “Not a Matchbox toy. I want the car, the real thing.”

Santa shrugged. A wild look came into his eyes. He frantically gestured for another baby to hoist on his knee, a distraction to rescue him from the predicament in which I had placed him. A young mother with a toddler stepped forward and placed her little boy in Santa’s clutches. I slunk out the door.

I am back to plunking spare change into my “car jar”. Many long years ago I learned that if I want a gift of impeccable taste, a gift of unparalleled beauty, I will have to buy it for myself. I cannot rely on someone else to give it to me. Then whatever gift I do receive is a bonus, a surprise. I am not disappointed if I receive an electric skillet instead of an agate ring, because the agate ring already decorates my hand. I bought it myself, just the one I wanted.

Listen closely, you Wise Men, muddling over what to get the special woman in your life. Seldom do I give advice, but since I am on the subject of gifts, I cannot help myself. I give you two rules. Don’t buy an item for her because it is something you want for yourself. Never will I forget the Christmas I received camping gear of the meal preparation variety. I don’t camp. But he did. And, secondly, don’t buy it because she will find useful. In other words, not the electric skillet, the new set of steak knives or the tire chains.

A good rule of thumb is, the more impractical, the better. One can hardly go wrong with gold (in any form), frankincense (translate that into a rare and wondrous perfume) or myrrh (although it might be rather hard to find around these parts and she’d probably rather you bought her cashmere).

Flowers are a great gift for any day. Always choose cut flowers over a potted plant. She might say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have. These blooms won’t last any time at all.” But you know that the center of her heart of hearts just melted into a puddle because you, possibly the stingiest man on earth, would buy for her, the one you love, a gift of such fragile beauty.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep dreaming of my yellow Jaguar. For my own practical present under the tree, I bought myself four pairs of woolen boot socks. And for my impractical gift, the gift to warm my heart, the gift of exquisite taste and unparalleled beauty, I robbed my “car jar” and splurged on an airline ticket to Mazatlan, Mexico.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
December 15, 2011

The Christmas When It Was More Blessed to Receive

The Christmas When It Was More Blessed to Receive
The year was 1980. I was recently divorced. I had been through a few rough years. I sold everything I owned and moved myself and my children from Chicago back to Harlem to make a fresh start. Ben was two, Esther four and Dee thirteen. I rented a tiny house in town, furnished it with items scoured from friends’ basements, attics and barns. A one pound Folgers can propped one corner of the broad-armed mohair sofa. Dee and I each slept on lumpy rollaway beds. The babies had bunks. A friend sold me, for fifty dollars, a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville, the size of an ocean liner, which I quickly dubbed the “Queen Mary”. Of all the things I have let go in my life, I wish I still had that sofa and the Queen Mary.

For Christmas I had just enough money to buy one special gift for each child and a turkey for our dinner. I wrapped the gifts and hid them in my closet high on the shelf. I would not start work at my new job in Chinook until after the holidays. We would have to do without a tree, I figured. Our lights and ornaments were among the things we sold so we could move back to Montana.

On Christmas Eve we went to church. When we returned home, a huge tree was propped against the front door. We eased it inside. I borrowed a stand from the neighbors and we set the tree in front of the living room window. The pungent evergreen smell permeated the house. Dee had begun popping corn to string when we heard a knock on the door. On the steps stood Blue Bear, her arms piled high with boxes of lights and ornaments. “I bought all new Christmas decorations this year,” she said. “I thought you might be able to use these.”

I thanked her profusely and explained that without her gifts, popcorn was the only thing we had to put on this beautiful tree that some anonymous person had generously given us. I told her that I had been unable to buy Christmas decorations this year because my new job would not start until January. The kids and I hung bulbs, icicles, strings of lights and popcorn on our new tree. I still have ornaments that Blue gave me that long-ago night.

Later that evening I opened the back door to check the turkey thawing on the porch and walked smack into the branches of another tree. This is too bizarre, I thought. I dragged the second tree into the house. We hacked off the branches with an old butcher knife I found in the basement, decorated each room with pine boughs and formed a wreath for the front door.

Christmas morning our gifts were piled under the tree. Santa had left for Ben, the baby, a set of giant Lego blocks and a plastic tool set, for Esther, a play kitchen just her size and for Dee, a longed for radio/cassette player. My friend Gail had mailed each of us an entire outfit of clothing, including shoes and coats for the children. She explained that when her mother was struggling to raise five children alone, a friend had done the same for her.

While the turkey roasted in the oven, Esther made “dinner” with her play kitchen. Dee and I prepared the rest of the Christmas feast while we listened to music on her boom box. I looked around to see what Ben was up to. He had quietly crawled beneath the Formica table and, with the plastic screwdriver from his tool kit, removed every screw from the legs. It is a wonder the heavy table top did not fall and squash him flatter than a bug.

Dee and I had just finished screwing the legs back on the table when we heard a knock on the door. It was Blue Bear once more. She balanced a tall stack of clothing in her arms. “You said you are starting your new job soon so I wondered if you could use some clothes for work. These are just some old things I don’t wear anymore.” When I invited her for dinner she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t stay. My family is coming over.” And off she went. Later, when I looked through the clothing she had brought me, I saw that everything was in perfect condition.

When my children and I sat down to eat turkey and all the trimmings that Christmas Day, we bowed our heads in full gratitude for the gifts we had received. Our festive little home was truly blessed. I never did find out who gave us the two Christmas trees. Must have been Santa. I suspect he had too much eggnog that night and came around twice.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
Dec. 8, 2011

Holiday Traditions—We Create Our Family Culture

Holiday Traditions—We Create Our Family Culture
My father, who dreaded Christmas, was happy to turn all the Christmas chores over to me, his elder daughter. I was a motherless girl. We lived far from the possible help of cousins, aunts and uncles. The first time Dad took me to the store to buy Christmas presents, I was seven years old. I had to choose gifts for everybody, including myself. So much for Santa.

I was in charge of everything. Decorating the tree meant I perched precariously atop a ladder. I placed the ornaments and layered on tinsel until the tree shimmered with silver. I was a little tyrant. I insisted that each strand be pulled out of its cardboard holder one by one and placed evenly over the branches. If I had to do the job it was going to be done my way, the right way. I stayed up late nights struggling with gift wrap, tape and curly ribbon. I kept the list and wrote a personal note in each Christmas card and addressed the envelopes. For days my fingers were smudged with ink.

As time goes by we change our family patterns. We move. Children marry. Babies are born. People die. The good news is that we replace old ways with new practices, some of which stick year after year, becoming tradition. Like me, my children also spent their holidays far from extended family. Unlike me, my kids never had to shop for their own presents. In an unspoken family agreement, we keep the myth of Santa alive. Ask them. To this day they will tell you, “Of course, Santa lives at the North Pole with his elves, busily making toys in his workshop. He’ll be coming down the chimney Christmas Eve. He’ll want his glass of milk and plate of cookies.”

Our family Christmas trees have not always been traditional. Sure, we decorated the usual cedar, pine or fir; then one year a naked Alder branch, and another year, a gigantic tumbleweed. In search of the perfect tree, we tromped through the woods, ax in hand, or drove to the Christmas tree farm. Other years we picked trees from the Boy Scout lot on the corner. All were glorious. Perfect, no. I lost my need for perfection somewhere along the way. Each child decorated the branches he or she could reach in a rather random way, tossing on handfuls of tinsel. The bottom of the tree was every bit as wonderful as Mom’s precise branches at the top. One lean year, our tree was a construction paper cutout my son had made in Head Start. For decorations he had pasted on confetti-like bits. I treasured that tree. After my son was married, I gave it to him. He still has that faded tree, and in the tradition we began years ago, tapes it to his refrigerator door every Christmas season.

Once my children were grown and on their own, I enjoyed dipping into our family past at our holiday celebrations. I gathered my adult kids around me and read to them their favorite childhood nursery rhymes from Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child”. I have made sure my grandchildren have their own copies of these treasured books.

Even when I could, I never heaped gifts beneath our tree. But each child always had a gift Santa had left on his midnight run through the heavens, usually a much-desired toy. And a gift or two from Mom, always including clothing and some item I had made myself. The paper and ribbon were never perfectly done. Today my children are as apt as I am to wrap gifts in newsprint or brown paper bags decorated with crayons.

Our most memorable Christmas, the time I chose the very best gifts, was the year I sorted through my boxes of photographs and divided them into piles for each of my children, now adults with partners. I purchased albums and photo file boxes for each, put all this into larger boxes, wrapped them and placed them beneath the tree. When assembled for breakfast, I read those old favorite stories. Then we opened our presents. My kids spent the entire rest of the day sharing their photos. “Remember the day this was taken?” And “Oh, I’d forgotten about that.” Or “Look at the expression on my face.” Each picture triggered recollections. They especially loved their baby pictures, which gave me a chance to tell them about times they were too young to remember.

We are now scattered to different parts of the country. But I know each of my children carry on those family traditions that they loved most, blend these with the customs generated from their spouses’ families, and create their new customs along the way, continually building a living family culture.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
December 1, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How I Won the Football Pool

How I Won the Football Pool
As I walked into city hall for a Monday night council meeting, Richard, our Public Works Director, said to me, “Did you know you are tied with Reece for first place in the football pool this week? Who wins depends on the final score of the Green Bay game tonight.” This news excited me. Week after week, I had come close, tied for second place with two or three other people. Tied for second is meaningless. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Last year I never came close to winning. Week after week I contributed my two dollars to the football winner’s fund. It was discouraging. So this year I determined on a strategy, a method, if you will. It was “make” or “break” time. I figured if I didn’t win at least once this year, then I would withdraw from donating my money to the guys.

These men take the football pool seriously. They actually watch the games. They study statistics. They compute probabilities. They know if a team’s best quarterback is nursing an injury. They note if a team’s head coach is involved in a scandal, or when a valuable player is traded, or if the pizza delivery is late. Although they may think I am sitting in my corner filing my nails, I pay attention to everything they say and do. What I have noticed is that after all their conjuring, they vote for their favorite teams.

One man always avoids selecting a team from any town beginning with the letter “C”. How is that for the scientific male mind? Kim comes to coffee with his picks on a sheet of paper in his shirt pocket. I presume that is what is on the paper. For all I know it’s his wife’s grocery list, for he takes a minimum of half an hour to mark his teams, all with great frowning and mumbling and choosing and erasing and choosing again. The other men are quite voluble about who should win and who should have won and why, but, when it comes their turn to mark the paper, they huddle over it like it is a secret ballot.

I raced home after the council meeting that Monday night. I called a friend. “What is the score?” I asked him. If Green Bay scored over forty points, I would be the winner.

“How did you know I am watching the game?” he countered.

“Who is winning? I gotta know the score. What quarter is it?” I battered him with questions.

David has known me for years. He figures I have not watched an entire football game in my life. That is not true. Well, maybe it is. “You must have some heavy money riding on this game,” he guessed.

“Just let me know the score. Then call me back when my team scores again.”

He told me to set my phone on speaker function and gave me a play by play. When Green Bay scored another touchdown, I let out a shriek.

“Sounds like you won,” he said.

The next morning I floated into the city shop at the pre-workday coffee hour to pick up my winnings. Did I hear any hearty congratulations? No. I was assailed with “I suppose you came to gloat?” “We generously gave of our good advice and now she is going to lord it over us.” “You sure don’t do humble well.” “This is what we get when we let women in the pool.”

I offered to teach a workshop on my methods. The response was a chorus of boos and hisses. But I will share my genius with you. First I wait until most of the men have made their choices. I average the results. Then I look to see if the favored team is “home” or “away”. I add that into my computations. I weigh other factors. For example, I always choose Green Bay because I spent several enjoyable weeks in Wisconsin many years ago and Green Bay is in Wisconsin. I select Seattle out of misguided loyalty to my old stomping grounds. If, after all this, I still have doubts over which city’s team to pick, I pretend I have to take a trip to one or the other. The city I choose to visit determines the team I mark. And, of course, womanly intuition adds an important element to the mix. That, however, cannot be taught.

Winning is a powerful feeling, a fever. I am hooked. I will hone my best strategies. I will perfect my skills. I intend to win and win and win again.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 23, 2011

My Aunt Dixie and the Kentucky Jam Cake

My Aunt Dixie and the Kentucky Jam Cake
“It is most logical,” I said out loud to myself while snipping the recipe for Kentucky Jam Cake from the Havre Daily News. You have to understand that I never clip recipes from newspapers or magazines. I have a few treasured cookbooks; some of which I seldom open, some with pages so spattered with batter or stained with vanilla that one can hardly read the directions. No matter, I hardly ever follow the directions anyway. I regard a recipe as a guide. The genius of the dish is up to me.

The logic that moved me to cut out this particular recipe began with my Aunt Dixie. Aunt Dixie bakes the best cakes ever baked. At family reunions, and my family reunions revolve around mountains of good food, everybody lines up for a slice of Aunt Dixie’s cake, whether she brought chocolate butter cake, or caramel, or ginger spice, or hickory nut or plain old homemade angel food. It is a simple fact; nobody tops Aunt Dixie’s cakes. My favorite is her coconut cake. She heaps it high with boiled icing and sprinkles it liberally with shredded coconut.

Here’s my reasoning: Aunt Dixie bakes the best cakes. Aunt Dixie lives in Louisville, Kentucky. This recipe I am cutting out of the newspaper is Kentucky Jam Cake. Therefore this cake must be good. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Logical?

The recipe sat on my kitchen counter for a couple weeks. I wanted to make the cake but I just didn’t have time. I moved the clipping from here to there and back again as I needed the space. But I never threw it away. How could I toss the “Aunt Dixie” connection into the trash? Finally, Saturday morning I figured I could carve time out of my day to bake a cake. I dumped a can of pineapple over a cup of Craisins to soak and went about my business. (The recipe calls for raisins, but as I said, a recipe is a guide, not a dictator.) At eight-thirty Saturday evening I was finally ready to mix my cake. This is a high maintenance cake, requiring several bowls and spoons and much mixing, dumping, blending, seasoning, and folding. It calls for two sticks of butter and five eggs and more ingredients than it took God to create the earth. I dumped in a cup of blackberry jam and stirred it around. The batter looked disgusting. I hoped I would not have to throw the whole mess out.

Nevertheless, I filled my cake pan and slid it into the heated oven. The recipe called for baking sixty minutes. That can’t be right, I thought, as I set my timer for forty. At forty minutes I opened the oven door and peeked. I gently closed the door and set the timer for an additional twenty minutes. When, at ten thirty that evening, I pulled the cake from the oven, the smell was overpoweringly heavenly. I gathered all my resolve and resisted cutting into the warm cake right then and there.

Sunday morning, contemplating my cooled cake which still exuded an irresistible smell, I read the frosting recipe, discarded it and made my own. I confess to cutting a hunk for breakfast with my morning coffee. The flavors exploded in my mouth, a perfect blend. I immediately determined that this cake will become my own special holiday cake. It is the cake I will bake for family reunions. I will take it to pot lucks. Aunt Dixie would be proud.

Friends came that afternoon for spaghetti dinner. I surprised them with my Made-in-Montana Kentucky Jam Cake. “This is so good, so dense, all these flavors—what is in it?” one of the women asked me. Modestly, I lowered my eyes, and like God when he created the world, I answered, “Oh, not much. Just a little thing I threw together.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 10, 2011

Victory by a Landslide

Victory by a Landslide
Back when I lived in Washington, a theatre group of which I was a member met every Tuesday morning for breakfast at Sheila’s By the Bay, a local café. That’s where we made the day-to-day decisions of running our theatre. And we also discussed a wide range of current topics. One morning Gayle, a retired government spook, leaned across the table and said, “Sondra, you are the most apolitical person I know.”

“Why, thank you,” I replied. I was pleased to accept the compliment and to ignore the hint of frustration in Gayle’s voice. So it is hard for me to explain how I have ended up in city government.

It was five years ago in January. I had just arrived in town. Unopened boxes cluttered my living room, rows of paint cans lined the floor, lighting fixtures gathered sawdust while waiting to be hung, and a miter saw held court in the middle of the dining room table.

I wanted to get involved in my new community as soon as possible. I believe in community service. So I responded to a notice in the post office and wrote a letter of interest about filling a city council vacancy.

I considered my letter to be a simple test run. No way was I, a stranger in town, going to be chosen to fill a vacant council seat. Also, I knew nothing of city government. Frankly, I had about as much interest as the average citizen, which seems to be very little indeed. (I find that people expect things to run well and complain when they don’t.) So, my letter was an exercise, practice until something more interesting came along.

It was the evening of the council meeting. I did not realize I was supposed to be at city hall. I had just sat down to dinner with guests when the phone rang. It was the mayor. “Aren’t you coming? We are waiting for you. We have to choose the new councilperson before we can hold the meeting.”

“Oops, I mean, of course. I’ll be there in four minutes,” I said while I struggled into my coat, ran a comb through my hair and slammed out the door.

Oh, dear. Things did not go the way they were supposed to. A half hour later, I found myself raising my hand, promising to do my duty to the best of my ability and seated in a chair behind the long table. The meeting started. I was terrified. I voted on things I had no notion of at all.
This would not do. That week I began my intensive education into city government. My first six months in office I felt like I didn’t understand a thing. I listened a lot. I read a lot. The more I read, the more interested I got. I attended a wide range of meetings and trainings. The next six months I knew enough to begin asking questions. By the following year I dubbed myself the Queen of Dumb Questions. I have proudly held that honorable title ever since.

When the year of my appointment was up, I had become fascinated with city government and eager to learn more. So I ran for election. I am not a political-type person. To be in city government in our small town is very much a volunteer in-service position. I did not come to town to “change things” nor to “make things run the way they did back where I come from” nor to recreate life “the way it used to be when I grew up around here”.

Yet this year when my term was due to expire, I had a hard time making the decision to run again. Maybe, I thought, five years is long enough for me. I mulled it over. I talked with a lot of people. I even tried to convince a couple other citizens into running. Both of them responded, “Better you than me.” In the end, I drove to the court house in Chinook and registered to run.

I like the people I serve with. I feel we make a good team, despite the rolling of eyeballs when I say something like, “I’ve been thinking. . .” What we do makes a difference. And, how else would I get to meet stimulating people throughout the state, many of whom have become friends.

So I am proud to announce that last Tuesday on Election Day I won the race for my council seat by a landslide.

Oh, I forgot to mention. I ran unopposed.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 17, 2011

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Mystical Experience with Birds and Other Flying Objects

My Mystical Experience with Birds and Other Flying Objects
I consider myself to be a somewhat mystical person. Some days I am opti-mystic and other times I revert to pessi-mystic.

Last Friday I drove to Conrad to visit friends. It was a Friday much like any other Friday. I had not even crossed the county line when a gull flew at me, skirted my windshield and flew on. I thought it looked me in the eye as it flew across the hood.

I have long had a special relationship to many birds, but especially crows. Once when I had been having a rough day and was driving along in a dark mood, thinking grumbling thoughts, a clownish looking crow flew in front of my van and paused directly in front of my windshield. The crow did not try to get out of my way, but as I drove down the road, stayed ahead of me for several moments. Then it flipped and flew upside down for nearly thirty seconds, flipped back up, ruffled its wings, winked at me, and flew out of sight. I got the message. This crow told me to lighten up, to play. I learned my lesson.

Another time, at Pacific Beach, I was walking along the edge of the winter surf, when a flock of sandpipers performed for me. In perfect unison, they turned and dipped, each little bird a part of the larger whole. I felt the same way I feel when sitting in Benaroya Hall, watching and listening to the Seattle Symphony. The sandpipers made a living picture of the symphonic sounds. Their lesson—look for the music in all things.

So last Friday I paid attention to my gull friend. Its message wasn’t clear to me, but it seemed to be sending a warning. Then as I passed the outskirts of Chester, a magpie flew at me with a frown, turned at the last second, and also dashed across my windshield. I always drive with an eye to wildlife alongside the road, but now I
felt I needed to be extra alert, not only to animals but to all things on the road.

After my visit with my Conrad friends, Jesse and Sharon, I was not fifteen miles out of town headed back to Shelby, when a hawk flew up and across my windshield and grimaced, same left to right pattern as the gull and the magpie. I thanked the hawk for reminding me to be cautious but, I admit, I felt apprehensive. This was not a “feel-good” message. I drove on, scanning the roadsides as well as the road to the front of me and behind. My trip was uneventful all the way to Havre, where I stopped at the IGA to buy Halloween candy for the little neighborhood spooks and my own big spook sweet tooth.

Nightfall slowly descended as I pulled out of Havre, and by the time I passed Zurich, it was nearly dark. I was about six miles from home, when, as a pick-up truck coming from the opposite direction passed me, something hit the left side of my van with a hard thunk. I pulled into the first farm lane and got out to check my front end. It was banged up with missing parts, but I could still drive. I noticed that the pick-up driver had also stopped. Before I could go back to see if he had been hit, he took off.

So I’ll never know what hit me. It’s a mystery. Maybe an animal had unwisely chosen that moment to stroll down the center line of the highway. Perhaps a raccoon. Or a pheasant. Or a grouse. If I were being pessi-mystic, I might think the flying object was something the other driver threw from his vehicle—a cigarette butt? A beer bottle? A loaded diaper? A dead refrigerator. I’ll never know.

I am opti-mystically grateful for my feathered friends, the gull, the magpie and the hawk, who warned me to be alert, to hold the wheel steady when I saw the brief flicker of motion and felt the thunk of impact. Beyond that, it is my own mystical mystery. Thankfully, I was not hurt. My vehicle is drivable. The damage is fixable. To my feathered friends, my thanks.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 3, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why there is not a man in my life

Why there is not a man in my life
I am a single woman. I live alone. Ordinarily, I don’t give my situation much thought. I am reasonably happy in my solitude. Oh, there are times I would love to turn from the doorway where I am admiring a particularly spectacular sunset and say to my partner, “Oh, come look.” I miss sharing the simple pleasures of the day.

At other times I wonder about my single state. I am an intelligent, gentle and good person. I am neither cross-eyed nor pigeon-toed. From time to time I do notice a glint of interest in a man’s eye. But nothing ever comes of it.

Now, at last, I know why I don’t have a man in my life. I discovered the reason quite by accident. Some mornings I have coffee before work with the guys down at the city shop. They are a great bunch and I enjoy their company. The other morning I mentioned that on Saturday I just might drive down to Grass Range for a burger and piece of pie.

In unison the men turned puzzled faces to me and said, “Why?” Then they erupted in a series of other questions.

“You would drive all the way to Grass Range for a hamburger?”


“Why Grass Range?”

“Why not?” I countered. “These are the last precious days of autumn. It is a stunning drive. And a hamburger and homemade pie at the Little Montana Café is a treat. I don’t just sit at home all the time. I go out and do things.”

“You could be watching good stuff on cable instead of running all over the country. We’ve been telling you that you need to get a television,” one of the men said to me. He shook his head at my obtuseness. “HD, maybe even 3-D, big screen. My cable package costs me only seventy dollars a month. I have unlimited choices, anything I want for entertainment. And you will . . .”

“Yes, I will spend seventy dollars on gas to drive to Grass Range for lunch,” I interrupted him. “I get more pleasure from that than I would from any amount of television.”

“You’re missing some really great reality shows.”

“But driving to Grass Range is reality,” I argued.

“How can you live without television?” another man said. “I get home from work, kick off my shoes, grab a beer, sling back in my recliner with the remote and watch all the football games. That’s real living.”

“You know, when you finally see the light and go shopping for your new television, you gotta get a recliner too. You can’t have one without the other,” another voice jumped into the fray.

“Make that two recliners. One with a man in it,” yet another snickered.

Something about their teasing conversation stayed with me. I made an informal survey of the average Montana home. Sure enough, they all had the two things that my home lacks. Big screen television and recliners.

I walk into the center of my living room. I like my living room. It is inviting. It offers a pleasing balance of warmth and comfort and beauty, a relaxing place for visiting friends and stimulating conversation. I snuggle into my overstuffed chair, put my feet up on the ottoman, and grab a book. My cat jumps into my lap, purring. I shudder at the thought of television muscling into my space. I despise recliners.

And that is why I live alone.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
October 20, 2011

All I Want for Christmas is a Tri-cycle

All I Want for Christmas is a Tri-cycle
My friends Dick and Jane motored over from Havre on their motorcycles. Jane had recently traded her old machine, which was quite nice and not old at all, for the spiffiest looking new bike. It is a stunning shade of red. Jane said wherever she goes, men drool over it. I have known Dick and Jane for years. Dick and I went to Harlem schools together, rode the same school bus. Then he and I lost track of one another. Since we got back in touch, he has become one of my best friends. I heard great things about Jane long before I met her. I knew I’d like her. Dick is a veteran biker from way back. When Jane got together with Dick, she took to motorcycles like a pro. Jane was instant biker babe.

Ever since my first ride on the back of a motorcycle, my chin pressed into the leather-clad back of the man with his hands on the controls, I fell in love with riding. Through the years friends would pick me up for a jaunt around town or up into the hills. Despite my infatuation, the only long bike trips I have taken were in my fantasies. I’ve never owned a motorcycle.

A few years ago I came to grips with the fact that if ever I were to get a cycle, it would have to be a three-wheeler, a tri-cycle. Whenever I would meet a tri-bike on the road, I would wave enthusiastically if maybe a bit enviously. But when I went looking and saw the sticker price, I put my dream way up in back on the top shelf. Watching Jane standing next to her new red bike adjusting her jacket and gloves, my dormant dream re-awakened and caused me to pull it out of storage and dust it off.

I was telling another friend, Kathy, about Jane’s new bike. Kathy lives in British Columbia. She and her husband Richard rode their BMW cycles cross-country to visit me a couple years ago. They got to meet Dick and Jane and talk bike talk. Kathy had all kinds of questions for me about Jane’s bike, like, “What kind is it?”

“Red,” I answered. “But not ordinary red. It is the most beautiful red I’ve ever seen. It shimmers with red. Jane’s bike has given me a bad case of motorcycle lust.”

“I put my bike up for sale,” Kathy said. “But if you get your three-wheeler, I’ll have to keep my bike so we can tour the country together.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” I told her. “I can’t afford a bike today. But who knows about tomorrow. I am surprised how strongly I feel about what I thought was a long-gone dream.”
Kathy and I have traveled together for years. We like to drive the blue highways, poke our noses in out-of-the- way places, stop to see the mystery vortex house, buy lemonade from kids at road-side stands, find mom and pop cafés for breakfast, turn down unmarked side roads, check out yard sales, begin each day with no agenda and no idea where we will spend the night. We search out the adventure of the moment.

When I get my tri-cycle, I picture me and my friends tooling down the highway to Sturgis, South Dakota, to mingle with bikers from all over the country. Dick and Jane will lead the pack.

They’ve made the trip many times. Richard and Kathy will zoom along next in line. I will bring up the rear on my nifty yellow three-wheeled motorcycle. Yes, I definitely can see it, daffodil yellow. In our meandering pace it probably will take a week to get to Sturgis and then two weeks to get back home, sun burns, crazy tee shirts, tacky souvenirs and all. There is a lot of country to see and nobody to tell us we have to go straight there and straight back.

Oh, the sights we shall see. Oh, the people we shall meet. I’d better begin shopping for my leathers. Do they all come in black? Black is not my best color. I’m visualizing rusty-reddish-brown. I’ll probably have to stitch up my own leathers. I’ll need kerchiefs. Definitely a Harley kerchief. Boots. Saddlebags and such. A discrete tattoo. I wonder if I might need a trailer.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
October 13, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Look Out Techies; Here I Come

Look Out Techies; Here I Come
Back in high school, many a year ago, I took an aptitude test. I scored off the chart in mechanical ability. That made no sense to me. I could change a tire if I had to, but I wouldn’t have known how to change a spark plug or identify a distributor.

Four years later, when I lived on a ranch south of Dodson, we had electricity but none of the other niceties. No running water. No bathroom. No bathtub. I did have a precious electric wringer-washing machine. It sat in a corner of the kitchen. I hauled buckets of water from the pump out at the corner of the yard, heated it on the wood stove, then hauled more water for the rinse and poured that into a galvanized tub. In the dread of winter, with my brand new baby in diapers, my washing machine quit. Back then all diapers were cotton. So every day I had to wash by hand. Diapers, sheets, towels, my husband’s work clothes, everything—on the scrub board. My husband teased me that if the creek wasn’t frozen I could pound diapers on the rocks. I did not find it funny. He was a cowboy, not a mechanic. He knew better than to dig into the machine. Since we were snowed in, there was no way to bring a repairman out from town.

The daily scrubbing had me in tears. One night in a dream I saw how to repair the washer. The next morning I gathered tools. I lay on the floor, head tucked underneath the washing machine. I took it apart, following the steps that I remembered from my dream. I placed the parts in the order I removed them. I found the disconnected whichit and put the whole thing back together with only three extra parts. I plugged the washer in and it worked. The aptitude test proved right. I was a mechanic.

Fast forward to the brave new world of the computer. Electronics terrify me. Computers are mysterious. My children freely experimented and learned. I was afraid if I touched the wrong button, the computer might go up in smoke. Eventually my eight-year old son, who was already writing programs, taught me a few simple functions. Over the years I learned more. But when I had a problem, I called Ben to rescue me. Then I moved to Montana. Now we live a thousand miles apart. So I have been forced to learn more computer skills.

Today I am ready to dust off my resume and enter the no longer daunting field of computer repair. Here is how it happened. I was racing a deadline for my column in the Havre Daily News when my computer turned itself off. In a panic I called Ben. “It’s okay, Mom. One of the fans malfunctioned. You can use your computer for short periods, but turn it off when you are done. If you leave it running it will overheat. I’ll ship you new fans.”

Sure enough a few days later two fans arrived in the mail. Ben called and said, “Let’s fix your computer.” So I unplugged it, hauled it over to my work bench and set my phone on speaker. First he told me to take off the side panel. You push a button down and the panel slides off. It’s quite slick. Then he told me to unplug the skinny fan on the back of the computer. Next, remove the screws. I untangled a nest of wires and quickly installed the new skinny fan. Next Ben had me work on the larger clunky fan. “This one is trickier. Carefully lift the fan straight up. Don’t jiggle it because the CPU might be stuck to its bottom.” I tugged. Tugged again. “It won’t budge.” “Lift harder. Be careful though because the CPU has little prongs made of gold and if you bend them, you will be in big trouble.” I squinched my eyes shut and lifted harder, harder, harder, straight up and the fan released with the CPU stuck to it.

“Remember exactly which direction the fan came up. Carefully remove the CPU from the bottom of the fan, and put it back on the mother board. Don’t touch the sticky stuff,” he told me as I swiped my finger across the goo. I marked the edges of both the CPU and the new fan so I could remember which direction they went and placed the precious little prongy unit back where it belonged. I found the tiny lever which allowed the thousand gold prongs to slip into the whatchajiggy and took a deep breath. Following Ben’s directions, I replaced the new clunky fan. I plugged in the computer. Both fans whirred.

As I hooked my computer back up, I thought, hey, I could start a new business: Sondra’s Repair Shop—Computers and Wringer Washers, Our Specialty. But I still don’t change spark plugs.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
October 6, 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Completely Harmless Horsehair Worm

The Completely Harmless Horsehair Worm

As one of my duties as a Harlem City Councilperson, I serve on the Unified Disposal Board. Every fall this board meets at the Landfill rather than in our usual meeting room at the Court House. This fall, we met at the new Landfill. After the meeting, while we were putting away chairs and wandering around admiring the pristine new facility, occupied with chit chat and discussion of the football season, Clay Vincent spotted a cricket skittering across the sparkling new floor, deliberately stepped on it and smashed it dead. I have no problem with that; I probably would have done the same had I seen the cricket first.

I have a quasi-Buddhist attitude toward animal life. I suppose all might have purpose. I try to be respectful. One of my fondest memories is of a bee which landed on my forearm when I was sitting on my deck, watching the hummingbirds dart about the flowers. The honey bee, attracted by the same flowers, was momentarily distracted, sniffed and began licking my arm. For several minutes it wandered across my arm licking the sweat off my skin. As the bee’s admiring hostess, I found great beauty in those precious moments.

I will cheerfully pick up Madame Spider and escort her outdoors and send her on her way with good wishes for a long and felicitous life. On the other hand I just as cheerfully swat flies and mosquitoes into kingdom come. I do not tolerate ants in my kitchen. Nor do I easily accept the harmless box elder bugs, though there seems to be little I can do about them.

Moments after the death of the cricket, Clay dropped to his hands and knees, excitedly exclaiming, “Would you look at this. I’ve always wanted one of these.” From the look on his face you’d have thought it was Christmas. “One of these” was a wriggling, looping, swirling life-form emerging from the rear end of the squashed cricket.

We three women emitted an appropriate, “Ewww! What is that?”

“It’s a horsehair worm,” Clay explained as he searched for a pencil with which to pick up the creature, thin as a hair from a horse’s tail and just as long. He inserted the pencil through one of its loops, raised it off the floor and deposited it into a styrofoam cup. “It’s a harmless parasite. Crickets are often the host and when one dies, the worm emerges. They live in grasshoppers, too. I’m going to put it in a bottle and display it on my desk. Which one of you ladies wants to hold the cup on the way back to town?” As a unit, we clasped put our hands behind our backs and convinced Clay to put the cup in a box and lock it in the trunk of the car.

And that should have been the end of the story. Except for one word that Clay uttered: grasshoppers. My yard, and probably yours too, has been full of grasshoppers since mid-summer, chomp-chomping away at the most tender greenery. Since the horsehair incident, I feel as if I have been suddenly cursed with X-Ray Vision. Inside each grasshopper stomach, just waiting for me to step on the grasshopper and liberate it, lies a long thin horsehair worm, curled in a ball, eating away at its host. Difficult as it has been, I have gone out of my way to avoid squishing grasshoppers.

Last night at dusk I stepped outside to cut a spray of tarragon to dry for my larder. When I came inside and closed the door, I noticed a super-sized grasshopper clinging to my shirt sleeve. Before I could ensnare the creature, it jumped off and away. Search as I might, I could not find it. I tried to reason with myself. Now, really, what are the chances this one grasshopper is host to a harmless, emphasis on harmless, little horsehair worm. And so what if it’s crunchy stomach is a worm hotel? It cannot hurt me.

After a restless night, I wandered through my house sloshing my first cup of coffee, when I spotted the fiend beneath a table. I gingerly enclosed it in a Kleenex, and feeling less than virtuous, escorted it and whatever parasites it might host, back into the great outdoors, perhaps to live, perhaps to die, but not in my back room.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 29, 2011

Work makes you happy

Work makes you happy; I read it in a magazine so it must be true!
My appointment was for one o’clock. As I walked over to Marcia’s for a haircut I knew I would be a few minutes early. But I also knew if I stayed home I would dig into another phase of my current project, forget the time, and be late. It suited me to while away a few moments in somebody else’s space. I let myself in Marcia’s shop door and wandered to the window to admire the new patio her husband had recently built. I sat down and picked up the top magazine from the stack on her table. I had idly flicked through several pages when this title, “Work Makes You Happy”, or something to that effect, caught my eye.

Though I snorted with derision, a quick scan of key phrases plunged me into agreement with the article’s main premise. Marcia walked through the door so I put the magazine down. But the idea of work equating with happiness had become glued to my brain.

My Dad would have loved this. Dad was a worker. If you grew up in my family, you worked. My Dad once told me that work was the only thing that gave him satisfaction. He did not know how to relax, how to find enjoyment in idle pleasures. He worked and he gardened, which is work in disguise, and I think he found equal enjoyment in both. He taught me to do whatever I did with all my heart; to do my best. I thank him for that.

I certainly never knew a moment of boredom. Nor, once they were older, were my children ever bored. One look at the gleam in my eye and they quickly found multitudes of fascinating things to do.

I grew up with too much work. Today many of us don’t have enough work. With such a plethora of labor saving devices, with whatever one desires (for a price) at one’s fingertips, with jobs structured into meaningless fragments, one might find oneself longing for the days one left the cabin in the quiet rays of dawn and returned at dusk dragging a moose, walked through the door to the pot of stew bubbling on the hearth and sour dough biscuits steaming in the dutch oven and the candle flickering on the table. I have lived too close to that and it is romantic hogwash.

My premise is that if one is going to open the door to happiness, balance is the key. I learned work from a master. Other pleasures I had to learn on my own. It took many a year for me to realize rest and relaxation are just as important as work. But they don’t negate it nor should they replace it.

The past several weeks have been filled with more work than usual. While I long for a short trip to Lincoln or Kalispell or north to Saskatchewan to visit friends, right now I must content myself with mini-vacations during each work day. So I take time out to make a batch of dill pickles. Or bake bread. Or read another few pages in my much-neglected book. These things give me great satisfaction. A knock on my door is not an unwanted interruption but an opportunity to visit with a neighbor. A trip to the post office, four blocks from home, often consumes an hour. Filling my short list at the grocery store can take even longer, with folks to chat up in every aisle.

As I work I am entertaining the thought of a real vacation at one of my favorite get-away spots, Quinn’s Hot Springs north of St. Regis. It will be a multi-purpose vacation, melding work with play. The work agenda will include planning a job with my son and his wife; play will be splashing with my granddaughter Lexi, plus hours of soaking in hot water. I envision Lexi squealing with joy as I point out the lofty mountain goats clinging to precarious perches. When she splashes water on me, I’ll pretend to be properly annoyed. Then we will giggle together.

Meanwhile, I am content with a vacation on my back steps, sitting in the sun, with cats curling their tails around my legs, blissfully aware of leaves jiggling in the slight breeze, admiring my apples hanging on the trees, redder and juicier and sweeter each day, wondering if I should harvest the potatoes today, watching the bees gathering the last sweetness from my patch of mint and the gold finches cavorting among the remnants of sunflowers. Just a few minutes more, and then back to work.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 22, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bag Balm, Health and Beauty Aid

Now and then I walk down to the city shop early in the morning to have coffee with the men from Public Works. They meet an hour before work to drink coffee and tell lies. It is kind of like they unwind before the work day starts rather than after it is over. Although I can’t join them every day, I enjoy feeling accepted as one of the gang. I am honored they invite me.

So the other day when I hobbled into the shop more crippled than usual, Richard frowned and asked me, “What’s wrong with you today?”

“I think I broke my toe,” I answered. I pulled my sock off and bared my foot for all to see. “I stubbed my toe on the frame of an Amish buggy seat that I had just recovered. I thought I’d set it out of the way. But I turned around and ran right into it. Blood flew everywhere. I will lose my nail for sure.”

“Did you put Bag Balm on it?” Richard asked.

“Well, sure. Don’t you put Bag Balm on everything?”

“The pharmacist said if he didn’t carry Bag Balm, he’d probably go out of business,” interjected Vic.

At my house there has always been a square metal can of Bag Balm. When I see the level drop near the bottom of the can, I hurry to buy a replacement. I have a can for my shop, a can in the bathroom and I keep an extra can for when I travel.

Nowadays the Bag Balm comes in three different brand concoctions. I’ve tried them all. I call them gooey, gooier and gooiest. I prefer gooier. You can buy one in a tube. Or a giant economy size. Or in a cute little teeny baby can. It’s all pretty much the same thing—glommy yellow salve.
I’m not saying it’ll cure whatever afflicts you. But it sure works for a lot of things. For example, when my son Ben was a baby he broke out with a severe case of baby eczema. The doctor prescribed a marvelously expensive medication made mostly of lanolin and sulfur. I know because I was chatting with the pharmacist while he mixed the stuff and I knew that whatever he was cooking up, it was almost Bag Balm. After I used up that small jar, whenever a lesion would break out on Ben’s skin, I smeared on Bag Balm. It cleared his skin right up. Of course, with Bag Balm my baby smelled like coal tar. Maybe the stink is perfume to cows.

Dry skin has always afflicted me. In winters my skin would break and bleed. I remember as a small child getting ready for bed, smearing Bag Balm on my legs and pulling my dad’s long socks up to my knees. I wore my own socks over my hands and up to my elbows to keep the salve on my skin and off the sheets. Today I don’t wear the socks. Bag Balm keeps my skin soft, but the stuff gets on my clothes and on the sheets. Fortunately it washes out.

Cuts? Bag Balm. Abrasions? Bag Balm. Rash? Bag Balm. Sun burn? Bag Balm. Calloused feet? Bag Balm. Fever blisters? Bag Balm. Leather softener? Bag Balm. Shoe polish? Bag Balm.

In addition, I have used Bag Balm to prevent stretch marks during pregnancy, smother warts, and loosen rusted bolts.

Bag Balm healed the cut on my toe. I will still lose the nail. Like I said, it doesn’t cure everything. If you see me in the store clearing the shelves of Bag Balm, you’ll know that either I suspect I have a dread disease or it is winter and my dry skin is driving me nuts.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 15, 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dining Out at the Senior Center

My friend Katie recently became manager (that is probably not her official title) at the Little Rockies Center here in Harlem. The Little Rockies Center houses the Sweet Medical Clinic in several rooms, a number of apartments for senior residents, and a gathering place for senior citizens and other community members. The facility includes a well-stocked kitchen and large dining room with comfortable chairs around huge tables.

Although Katie had insisted that I am welcome to come to lunch any time, and several others had invited me, I never thought of going until Saturday. That morning Katie’s son Trent came by to help me with some heavy garden work. Trent is a husky sophomore at Harlem High. He is a good worker and has done odd jobs for me since he was in sixth grade.

Together we pruned my raspberry jungle. The raspberry bushes had sneaked across the enclosing path and invaded the southeastern corner of my yard. I think they did this in the dead of night. One day I had an orderly grouping of raspberries along the eastern wall of my garden cabin. The next day I had a plantation. ‘Tis the season and they desperately needed pruning. Trent began whacking at one end and I attacked from the other. We met in the middle. Without Trent’s help, the job would have been overwhelming.

Next we tackled the hollyhocks. Without hesitation I claim to grow the most beautiful hollyhocks in town. They flourish around the house in several groupings. They tower eight, nine and ten feet high with elephant-ear leaves. The flowers bloom in a profusion of colors I have seen nowhere else. In the fall the pithy stalks bow to the ground heavy with seed. By this time of the year they are unsightly and benefit from a thorough chopping.

We finished the hollyhocks. It was nearly noon. Trent had worked hard but we were not done with my list for the day. First though, I needed to feed the young man to keep up his strength. I had nothing prepared. No restaurants are open on Saturday in Harlem. “Want to eat lunch at the Center?” I asked.

“Good,” Trent replied. “Want to know what is on the menu today?”

“No. I’m sure it will be good. Let’s go. You drive.”

“I’ll give you a clue,” he said. “I was there early this morning and smelled cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven.”

The dining room was packed. Trent led me to the sign-in book. Next to it sat a coffee can with a slot in the lid for donations for the meal. Had I been unable to pay, no matter. They would have fed me anyway. I knew many of the people there and they greeted me. Some diners come regularly for the lunch and also volunteer their help with serving and clean-up afterwards, just like at home.

I spotted an empty chair between Mary O’Bryan and Mary Calvert, women I have known since my childhood, when they owned and operated the Merry Market where we bought groceries. We were eight women at the table. Our talk was cheerful and lively. I knew all but one of the gals. Everybody assumed I had met Ellen, the new pastor at the Lutheran Church. By mid-meal I felt like she was an old friend. She made that easy for me by wearing a tee-shirt which proclaimed her to be a fellow bibliophile. In keeping with her profession it read “Lead me not into Temptation—especially bookstores.”

We feasted on roast beef, potatoes and gravy, peas, a salad, fresh dinner rolls, and grapes. Sure enough, Mrs. Herndon plunked a huge platter of enormous fresh-baked cinnamon rolls on each table. I groaned. I was too full to eat another bite. Evelyn insisted I take a cinnamon roll home with me for later.

Lunch was a treat but best of all was the camaraderie. I had not realized our little community had such a wonderful gathering place. When Trent and I left the Center to return to garden work, a dozen people called after me, “You be sure and come back now.” I know I will.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 8, 2011

All in the Family

I waved as my daughter and her family backed out of my driveway on their way back home to Marysville, Washington. The whole family, Dee Dee and her husband Chris, their daughters, Jess and Toni, dogs Cutie and Daisy, spent the last several days at my home. Well, almost the whole family—everybody but Burli. Burli, the one hundred fifty-five pound English mastiff with the self-esteem of a lap dog. Burli, who could pin me into my chair and make me laugh. Burli, with her massive face, beautiful with all its folds and wrinkles. Burli, with her drool.

Burli had been put down. She had been in continuous pain. In her last month she had lost twenty pounds. The vet figured that on top of her long list of ailments, she probably had a cancer. It had been a sad day. Everybody cried. Burli was family. Many times during their visit, our conversations turned to memories of Burli.

As a farm girl, I had ample opportunity to become fond of an animal only to discover it had disappeared from the barnyard and through a circuitous route, ended on the table. Because of this, I never had a chicken as a pet. I had much too active a role in the process of their transition from fluffy yellow chick to pullet to Sunday dinner.

However, my first experience with losing a pet was my own pig, Jasper. I killed him. I was eight years old. It was a rainy day in early spring. We lived on a small farm in southern Indiana with several acres of woods. Mayapples, with leaves the size and shape of small umbrellas, grew there in profusion. I asked my dad if I could gather mayapple leaves to feed my pet pig. The mayapple is also called the hogapple. Their little fruit ripens in early fall and the hogs seem to find them a delicacy. My dad said yes. I made trip after trip into the woods, gathering armloads of mayapple leaves and tossing them over the fence into the pigpen where Jasper lived with seven other handsome Yorkshire weaner pigs.

I loved Jasper. I would hang over the fence for hours scratching Jasper’s pink back and talking to him, unloading my eight-year-old troubles. Jasper wriggled in appreciation, grunted, sighed, and burped. Once I had heaved a small mountain of leaves into the pigpen, I headed to the house to peel potatoes for supper, leaving Jasper and the other seven porkers noisily rooting through the tender green delicacy.

The following morning my dad woke me early and motioned me to get dressed. I followed him to the barnyard. There lay my own Jasper, bloated, belly up, legs in the air. Around the other side of the leaf pile, the other seven pigs sprawled in the same position. All dead. I had killed them.

I cried and cried. My Dad stood with his hand on my shoulder. He never said a punishing word to me. After all, I had asked and he had given me permission to feed the mayapple leaves to the pigs. He had not known the leaf of the mayapple was poisonous.

I have had pets much of my life. Pinky, my first cat. Flopsie, my first dog. Pete and Repete, my daughter’s Chinese hooded rats. Houdini, my son’s gerbil,which I nearly killed one night when he escaped his cage and snuggled under my chin to sleep in my warmth. Horses, more cats, more dogs, and even more rats. Some died. Some disappeared. Twice I held dogs in my arms while the vet put them down. Whether we intend it or not, our pets become family.

My own two cats, Penguina and Fat Louie, did not welcome our visitors, especially five-year old Toni and the dogs, with the same enthusiasm I did. Penguina holed up beneath my garden cabin and only emerged in the dead of night to come to the house for a bite to eat. Fat Louie eventually tolerated the children and the dogs. Now my kids, grandkids and their pets are gone. The house is awfully quiet. Penguina is peacefully asleep beneath the cutting table in my shop. Fat Louie is curled in my garden basket, under the bench out my back door.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 1, 2011

Stealing from the Birds

I planted chokecherry bushes in my yard. I don’t know what I was thinking. Certainly I had not intended to create a chokecherry plantation. They were given to me, those desiccated branches. I stuck the dozen bare-naked sticks into the gumbo. I wasn’t sure any would survive. I hoped one chokecherry might live which I would keep pruned into a bush. Each August I would be able to go out into my back yard, fight off the birds with flailing arms and pick enough of the puny little fruits to make a single batch of jelly, nostalgia jelly, essence-of-memory chokecherry jelly.

When I was a child my grandmother always snorted at the idea of harvesting chokecherries. The miserable little fruits consist of nothing but skin, a drop of juice and a large pit. Back on our farm in Indiana, before we moved to Montana, we had pears, apricots, peaches, persimmons, plums, cherries and several old-fashioned apples. Real fruit. Nevertheless, desperate for sweets, every August Grandma and I crossed the river, tromped down into the barrow pit and emerged into a thicket of scrubby chokecherry trees. We worked hours to fill our pails. Sweat poured down our backs. Mosquitoes feasted unmolested on our flesh as we held the bucket with one hand and stripped the fruit with the other.

In our steam-filled kitchen we simmered the fruit, strained the juice, cooked it to the jell stage, washed, scalded and filled jars and carefully ladled melted paraffin over the hot jell. In September we tackled the native crab apples in much the same fashion. Come winter we treasured those jars of shimmering jelly.

Today at the market one may buy bushels of peaches or pears or apples. It’s all trucked in from Yakima or California or South America. One knows neither where the fruit originated nor when it was picked. Eating store-bought fruit is like playing the lottery. At times the pulp is woody and tasteless. When you pick a winner, it is sweet and juicy. Yet it is undeniably easy to buy fresh fruit in the produce department and jelly in brightly labeled jars on aisle three.

Ah, my chokecherries! Six lovely, low spreading bushes survived both late frosts and hailstorms. Every branch is loaded and bent to the ground. Some branches are so heavy they broke off at the trunk. All summer I guarded the bushes like a hawk. So did my cats. They lounged in the shade of the little trees, twitching their tails, ready to pounce on any unwary bird dumb enough to come near. The cherries prospered, grew plumper, fleshier and juicier than any chokecherry in my previous experience.

Finally picking day arrived. With my blue colander in hand, I stripped the heavy fruit from one branch. I grabbed a stool, sat down and reached into the drooping branches. In minutes I had heaped my bowl. I emptied it into a bucket and continued picking. When I had picked the ripest cherries from two of my bushes, I went inside to the kitchen. I processed a batch of jelly for myself, a batch for my children and a couple batches to give to visitors.

Now I was in a quandary. Sure, I could let the birds take the rest of the cherries. But surely there must be other women in town like me, hungry for chokecherry jelly but unwilling to head out into the country and battle through the brush. I made some phone calls. Marsha came over. I handed her a stool. She chose her bush, sat down and in minutes filled her bucket. I called Evelyn. She said she would love some but didn’t think she could pick them. So I picked her a bucketful and delivered it in exchange for a cup of tea, a cookie and conversation. Mary said, “Sondra, you know I don’t can!” Sandy said her fruit shelves were overloaded. Jane said, “The thought of canning anything makes my stomach hurt.” Lois said that she didn’t think she’d have time, but thanked me for calling. I’ll keep asking. Somebody will want to share my bird cherries.

Everything has been ripening late this year. One of my bushes is still covered with little green fruit. Give it another week or so of sunshine. Maybe I will generously leave the last cherries for the birds. Maybe.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 25, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Only in Our Small Towns


I got into a squabble with UPS this week. Not with our local driver, Dale. He’s great and always takes time for a friendly word. No, my squabble was with an anonymous cipher at UPS dispatch headquarters.

It all started with my new job. Several times while he was growing up and later as a young adult, my son Ben worked for me. Now our roles have reversed and I am doing a menial sort of job for his new business. When Ben asked me if I would like to help, he warned me the tasks were ‘mind numbing’. However, I find them somewhat akin to Zen meditation. I told a friend about it and he pointed out that it probably indicates the vacuity of my mind. I argue that it is Zen.

But the point is that the end result of my menial-labor fits into a small box which must be shipped via UPS. The process is quite easy. I punch information into my computer program and my printer spits out a pre-paid label which I attach to the box. I pat myself on the back for a job well done. Then I call UPS.

UPS is huge. They list no local telephone number. They publish an 800 number, which I called. The computer-generated voice ordered me through an endless number of options. I tried several, some twice. None fit my needs. In frustration I found myself arguing with the computer-generated voice. The voice continued undaunted. The voice never changed inflection. The voice carried on. My own voice changed inflection. My own voice got louder and it got faster. Finally the computer-generated voice took pity. Evidently something in my agitation activated their computer’s ‘pity’ chip which shunted me to a real human.

“Ah, ha,” I snapped. “Look, mister. All I want to do is have somebody pick up my pre-paid package.”

“Yes,” the gentleman who I pictured huddled, chained to a desk, surrounded by the latest in computer communications technology in a cubicle buried deep in the back room in the basement of UPS headquarters said. “I have your order up on the screen. That will be fourteen dollars and yadda yadda cents. Do you want to pay by credit card or set up an account?”

“This shipment is pre-paid,” I countered through clenched teeth. “I want you to pick it up. I do not want to pay for it again.”

“Yes,” he said. “I see here that your package is pre-paid for shipment. To have our driver pick up your box will cost fourteen dollars and yadda-yadda cents. How do you wish to pay?”

“I do not wish to pay twice for a pre-paid shipment,” I began. “This is insane.”

“I can see how you might think that,” he said, polishing his mollify-the-customer skills. “As an alternative, you can take the box to the nearest UPS drop station.”

“The UPS place is in Havre. It is a ninety mile round trip. One way is a two hour drive through road construction. I just want to ship my box without paying even more than the shipping charges just to have it picked up.”

“I understand,” he said. His voice dripped oil of sarcasm. “If you don’t want to pay anything, I guess you could try to find your driver and hand him the box. That will not cost you anything. Good luck.” I could hear him cackling loudly as he clicked off. I’m sure he pictured me driving aimlessly around a city for hours, vainly searching every street and alley, hunting a UPS truck, any UPS truck.

But he didn’t know Harlem. I looked at my clock. 11:05. I knew that Dale was probably at the post office. I hustled out to the PO. “Jan, has Dale been here yet?” “He just left, Sondra. You might try the Clothing Company. He drops a lot of things there.” “Thanks.”

Nope, Dale wasn’t at the Clothing Company. Who else might get a lot of shipments? The High School! I whizzed around the corner. And there it was, the familiar brown truck, headed in my direction. I waved my arm. Dale stopped. I handed him the box. I had the last laugh. Only in a very small town.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
August 18, 2011

I Started Out with Nothing and I Still Have Most of It

And I Didn't Plan It This Way!

Without trying to eavesdrop, it is funny what one overhears. A couple weeks ago, on my way to Washington, I stopped for a fish sandwich at a diner in Ritzville. As my order to-go was being prepared, I stood back out of the way. I wasn’t really paying attention to anything, when I overheard a conversation from behind the counter. The pony-tailed manager harangued his youthful employee, “The orders are backing up. Ya gotta work harder. How ya gonna get anywhere in life. Ya gotta work harder.” Youthful Employee stood with his mouth open and his knuckles dragging. The words washed over him. I saw him glance at the clock.

At that point the manager looked up and caught my eye. By this time I was rather enjoying the scene and had a grin spread across my face. “You heard that, didn’t you?” he asked. “I’m right, aren’t I?” I nodded my head. He rolled his eyes and shrugged. As I drove down the road with my sandwich, I wondered if Youthful Employee would last through the shift.

Ritzville is a rich place for being a party to other’s conversations. On my way back to Montana I stopped at Jake’s on the west end of town for a sit-down meal. This time I found myself listening to a good ‘ol boy with a rich North Carolina accent. He was wearing overalls and cowboy boots. I’d say he was in his eighty’s and definitely hard of hearing. Sitting in the farthest corner of the joint, I could hear every word he said. I tried to block his voice but some things came through anyway. “If folks would just stick to the ways we always done things, we wouldn’t be having troubles in this country,” he enlightened his wife, his daughter and all the rest of us. “I seen one of them bumper stickers on one of them new cars. It said ‘Green and Clean’.” He said the words as if they were dirty. “’Green’ is nothing but a waste of our good hard-earned money.”

Yesterday morning I walked into Jean’s Bakery in Chinook. The men’s coffee group was gathered around a large table and the first thing I heard was “Now that we’ve solved all the world problems , we can fix the economy.”

“Oh I don’t know about that,” was the reply. “We’ve been broke all our lives. I see no reason to change anything now.”

“We’ve just got to work harder,” another man said. Everybody laughed.

About then my friends Dick and Jane walked in and sat down. They’d been stuck behind a long line of cars waiting in road construction. Dick is a walking billboard. Every jacket he owns is adorned with embroidered mottoes. Today’s jacket announced “I started out with nothing and I still have most of it.”

Maybe it was the jacket or maybe it was my recent collection of overheard conversations that reminded me of a treasured postcard that I found in Missoula during another recession in the early 1980’s. It shows a bulldozer rooting in a hill of dirt with a coffee stand off to the side bearing the sign: “Fred’s Fill Dirt and Croissants.”

I asked Dick about how I should repair the driver’s seat of my van. He said it would be easier to get a new one. That reminded him that he had a biker buddy who owned a junkyard. Dick said, “You should meet him. He is looking for a girlfriend. I know you’d like him.” For a moment I actually considered it. It’s been a rough year for everyone.

Sondra Ashton
Looking out my back door
August 11, 2011

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

All I Need Is A Good Book
My home resembles a library. I am a reader. Books control my life. Books line my shelves in every room. For a long time when I wanted to find a favorite book I found myself wandering from room to room searching the shelves. Finally I organized them by authors’ names. What a monumental job. It took days. Now poetry lives in one corner. Theatre holds forth in another. Fiction authors A through C are in the living room, along with most non-fiction. The rest of my fiction resides in a room dedicated solely to books. I cannot resist a good book. I buy books new. I buy books used. When I accidently purchase a book I already own, I pass it on to a friend. I read for pleasure. I read to learn. I read for the beauty of language.

Typically I kick-start my day with coffee and my current book. In the summer I work in my garden in the cool morning hours. In winter I head for my shop. When I take a break, it is with book in hand. Sometimes I read a page or two—sometimes soar through several chapters. I’m disciplined. I have rules. I don’t read at the dining table. One day while hovering over a page-turner, I discovered my plate was empty but I had no recollection of eating. Also I don’t read in bed. The first book I remember staying up all night to finish while lying in bed was “Gone with the Wind”. So I read in a chair and reserve my bed for sleep. Neither rule is ironclad. I have been known to falter and fail.

If I am not busy I often read a book a day. I read eclectically. Classical literature. Novels. History. Poetry. Physics. Art. Trash. I love it all. Therefore these last three weeks have been unusual. I actually quit reading. Cold turkey. By necessity, not by intention.

Why did I quit reading? I simply over-scheduled my life. Not on purpose. I am a busy person. In these three weeks I had an opportunity to take a financial education workshop. A three-day class reunion immediately followed. Then company arrived on my doorstep. My garden suddenly burgeoned forth with bounty. Strawberries insisted on being picked daily. Raspberries ripened in time for me to take a batch to the reunion. I had a sudden opportunity to take a trip to Washington to visit my grandchildren. The day before I took off, I picked both red and black currants, Saskatoon berries and four more gallons of raspberries. I cleaned them all and bagged them for the freezer to await jelly making on my return. Work projects needed to be finished. So many things to do and I needed to do them all.

Everything seemed to happen at once. Each morning I prepared my to-do list for the day. Each evening I fell exhausted into bed, list unfinished, too tired to read. I pined for my books. The stack next to my reading chair accumulated a thick layer of dust. I a newly arrived box of four books, lingered over the titles, ran my hands over the covers and reluctantly added them to the pile of unread books on my footstool. I prepared a bag of books to take on my trip.

When I arrived at my son’s home in Issaquah I selected the book I most wanted to read next and set in on my bed table. But life is full. We crammed our days and nights with activities. Whenever I glanced at my book I broke into a cold sweat. No time to read. In my sleep I dreamed about reading. Four days later I still had not cracked the cover.

This morning I drove to Marysville to spend a couple days with my daughter and her family. When I walked in the door she hugged me and handed me “Heaven’s Prisoners”, a novel by James Lee Burke, a favorite author of ours. “I can’t start this. It’s a library book. I can’t take it with me. And I’ll only be her two days. How will I finish it?”

“Go ahead, start,” she tempted me. “You’ll not be able to put it down.” She pushed me into a chair. My hands shook. I caressed the cover. I lingered over the title page. I could no longer control myself. I read the first page, then the next and the next. And the next. Doomed. The End.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 4, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Weekend at Fort Peck with Friends

Friends and Food
A Weekend at Fort Peck with Friends


We were planning our annual Harlem High Class of ’63 reunion when we got a phone call. Actually we got two. They sounded something like this, “Can some of our class join you this year for your reunion? Your class has more fun.” And that is what led to a blended Class of ’61-’63 Gathering at Ft. Peck . It must be true—we, like blondes, have more fun.

Early Friday afternoon, along with driving rain and golf-ball sized hail, our group pulled into the Buckhorn Lodge at Fort Peck Lake . Some of us beat the stormy winds and black clouds, some rode the deluge in fear and trembling, and others followed behind, assaying the damage in Glasgow . Meanwhile, out at the Buckhorn, it rained a bit, hailed a bit, and the sun beamed until nightfall--true Montana weather.

One thing about our class, we eat well. Every fresh arrival brought more food, enough to pack two refrigerators and crowd the tops of two tables and the kitchen counters.

Friday night dinner came off with barely a hitch, although at times it resembled a fire drill. Jim had volunteered to man the grill, cooking the prime rib brought by Fred, possibly from his own beef. Whenever I glanced out at the back patio, I saw what looked like dinner by committee. Jim, Fred and Jess each had strong opinions about the best way to cook the cow, but true friends, they worked out their differences without resorting to fisticuffs. Once the flash-fire seared (don’t ask) rack of beef was sliced, the chefs plunked a huge chunk of perfection on every plate. Unanimous in our accord, we agreed—this was without doubt the best prime rib we’d ever eaten. The accompanying baked potatoes and pasta salad were perfect, the huckleberry-topped cheesecake divine.

Before and after the meal we played cards, poured over photo albums and school annuals, snacked on salmon, told stories, and soaked up being together while the tunes we had enjoyed in our high school days played in the background. We had come from California , Washington and Oregon ; from Harlem, Chinook, Conrad, Billings and Glasgow . And if you weren’t there, we talked about you.

Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast of country sausage, eggs, sourdough waffles and fresh garden raspberries with whipped cream, we waddled out the door and caravanned across the four miles of earth-filled dam. We viewed the lake from the overlook, then we drove on to the spillway where we stood in awe, feeling the sheer power of the rushing water. We went down the hill to the Interpretive Center where we were captivated by the story of the building of the dam. From there we continued on to tour of the fish hatchery. Not wanting to miss a thing, we took in the vintage car show and Art in the Park on the grounds of the old Fort Peck Hotel. I bought a wonderful wooden pink flamingo (I named him Floyd, of course), with a strip of flexible metal for a neck. Floyd now resides in my chokecherry orchard, feeling quite at home.

We wandered back to the Buckhorn to rest, tell more stories, and get ready for a dinner of sautéed shrimp and steak grilled to order. Fat and happy, those who chose went to the Fort Peck Theatre for an absolutely stunning performance of the musical, “ Chicago ”.

Sunday, after sour dough pancakes, so light they floated off the griddle, ham, fruit and gallons of steaming coffee, some of our friends gave us a farewell round of hugs and headed down the trail to home. A few of us went for a ride on the lake in Jim’s boat. When we returned I realized I had sacrificed my favorite best green sweater to the spirits of Fort Peck Lake . I didn’t mean to but I guess the lake wanted it. Those things can happen in a boat.

Stuffed with food and stimulated by our activities, we slept well each night. I know I did. After I arrived home in Harlem , a friend asked me what I liked most about the weekend. That was easy. Friends. Being with friends. Reconnecting, deepening our relationships, strengthening our bonds. I have a rather simple belief—life is about friends. Friendship is what’s important—not houses or cars or money. Not stocks or bonds or clothing or jewelry or awards. Simply friendship.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 28, 2011

Who’s That Cat in the Hat?

Out of the closet and onto my head!

Who’s That Cat in the Hat?


“You know, Sondra, we’re going to take up a collection to buy you a new hat.”

I was drinking coffee with the guys at the city shop.

“I don’t know. I’m used to seeing her in that hat; I think it is who she is.”

“Old and wrinkled?”

“I was thinking ‘eccentric’.”

“Wait,” I protested. “I like this hat. It keeps the sun off my face and stays on my head in the wind.” My straw hat has survived many summers. It is, I admit, a little bit stained, a little bit crumpled. Okay, it looks like it has been stomped on, slept in and dragged through prickly pear. The left brim is rolled tightly. The right brim sports splotches of blue paint. The crown is smashed. The whole thing resembles a warped UFO. “Why, this fine hat is just getting broken in. It’s comfortable, like my favorite pair of Birkenstocks.”

I eyeballed my three friends in their baseball caps. “At least I don’t have hat head,” I said, maliciously.

I love hats. Over the years I have accumulated a modest collection. When I was preparing to move back to my childhood hometown, my sister asked me, “What will you do with all your hats? Women don’t wear hats in Harlem .”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t wear hats. People will stare at you. You’ll feel ridiculous. You’ll see.”

“That’s silly. I’ll wear my hats wherever I feel like it,” I said. My sister just grinned and said, “Uh huh.”

Sure enough, after I had lived here a few months, without realizing it, I had conformed to the prevailing fashion. I often scanned the closet shelves for the right hat to wear, only to close the door, and leave the house bare-headed. My hats sat lonely on the shelves, collecting dust. I bought a couple baseball caps to wear on windy days, but I never wear them.

One day I was gathering clothing and household items for the Salvation Army. I have a loosely held rule that if it hasn’t been used in the past year, it becomes a serious contender for the donation box. I opened my closet and there they sat, abandoned and forlorn. My straw hats, my wool hats, my felt hats, my cloth hats. Silk hats, velvet hats, tapestry hats, fur hats, feather hats. My designer leopard hat. My fiberglass hard hat that an artist friend had made for me. Vintage hats, knit hats, grass hats, winter hats, summer hats. Expensive hats. Hats I made myself. Hats from junk stores. All unworn.

My poor neglected orphaned hats. I took them in arms. I heard the echo of my sister’s voice, “You won’t wear hats in Harlem .” I stared at the visible evidence of my foolish attempt at conformity.

Since that day my hats are out of the closet and on my head. In the summer I often wear my battered favorite straw. In the cold of winter I especially like my fleece-lined hat with ear flaps. This morning I plucked my red straw hat, circa 1960, out of the pile and popped it on my head. I wore it to the post office and I wore it to the grocery. Nobody pointed and snickered. One sweet gentleman smiled, winked and complimented, “Nice hat.”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 21, 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

Over the mountains and ’cross the plains, to Grandmother’s house we go

The house feels so empty now she's gone!

Over the mountains and ’cross the plains, to Grandmother’s house we go


My granddaughter Jessica is visiting this week, her first visit to Grandma’s Montana house and her first train trip. She rode the Empire Builder from Seattle . Jess is eighteen, in love, and planning a wedding.

When Jess was eight she lived with me for two months. Her mother, a Red Cross Emergency specialist, slogged through the pile in New York City counseling rescue workers after the Towers went down. Jess’s best friend Clarisse lived a short run down the path through the woods, so I generally had two girls who kept each other entertained. If it was quiet at my house, they were off terrorizing Clarisse’s little brothers.

One nice thing about my grandchildren is that I am able to have a more relaxed relationship than I had with their parents. Parenting comes with a burdensome weight of responsibility. I have come to believe that we parents suffer the blood, sweat and tears of raising our children so we can have fun with theirs. It means we get to spoil them. It means we let them get away with things we wouldn’t have dreamed of tolerating from their parents. We can sympathize with the little buggers when their parents are being “mean”. “You want me to spank Mommy for you?” I ask. Her little lip quivers. “Yes,” she says. Then we both burst out laughing.

Grandchildren are fun. Last summer I spent three weeks taking care of Lexi, my son’s three-year old. She and I had a great time. Our days usually consisted of a walk to the park, two hours on the swings, numerous snacks, dressing dolls (I dressed them and Lexi undressed them), playing in the sandbox, riding the trike, an hour on the tube with “Dinosaur Train”, unnumbered hours of “The Little Mermaid”, M&M’s whenever she wanted them, and best of all, jumping on Grandma’s bed and reading books. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. (With my grandkids I can be silly in a way I could not have been with my own children at the time I was raising them.)

I haven’t been able to as spend much alone time with Jess’s sister Toni. Her mother has always been there to spoil the fun. Toni at five, has a lively imagination. When she was born I flew to Japan to spend a month helping her mother take care of her. We took turns walking the floor with Toni bundled in our arms while she made up her mind whether to stay and play or leave us all too soon. Today she is a whirlwind of energy and a budding entomologist.

Before Jess arrived I had planned a week of activities. We haven’t crossed many items off my long list of possibilities. Remember, Jess is eighteen. In my experience, when my own children came of age, teenage, that is, they either vanished or were otherwise vacant. Out with friends. In their room, door closed. On the phone. Down the street. Any activity which did not include Mom.

Mostly Jess and I just hang out. I go about my own business. Jess spends a lot of time in my backyard garden, or playing with the cats, or in her room, apparently quite content. We spent hours at the Sally Ann in Havre one day and then drove to Chinook where we poked around in Goodies Galore for another hour. (Jess and I share a delight in second-hand stores.) We went for ice cream. We hauled groceries home. She worked with me in the shop.

This morning we picked strawberries. She helped me wrap nets around the Saskatoon berries and the currant bushes in hopes of keeping the robins away long enough for me to get a harvest. We sat beneath the poplar trees and watched the clouds move in. This afternoon, if it doesn’t rain too hard, we will drive out Wayne Creek Road and hunt agates and other pretty rocks.

Jess and Marcus plan to be married in October, when he has finished with his Navy schooling. The time apart from him has been hard for her. Once they are married, she will get to go with him, as long as he is stationed Stateside. Meanwhile, she and her beau spend every possible sweet moment on the phone. I wish them the best. I am glad I got to spend this week with her. I’ll miss her when she is gone. I like Marcus. Maybe next year they both will visit Grandma. Great-Grandma? Not for a while, I hope.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 14, 2011