Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Floundering Through the Crevasse

Another chapter in our never-ending winter!

Floundering Through the Crevasse


A few days ago I was dragging a sack of garbage across my backyard snowfield to the alley for pick up, when I fell into a crevasse.

That sounds melodramatic. But there have been weeks this winter when I could not get to the alley. When our daytime temperature rose above freezing for several days, the snow drifts had settled somewhat. In fact, there were indications that soon I would be able to see benches, flower pots, rocks and currant bushes which have been buried since November.

So I laced up my Sorels , grabbed my walking stick, shoved the snow away from the back door, and eased over the icy embankment and up, up onto the snowfield. Carefully, I probed my way with my walking stick, testing the depth of the mounded snow, dragging my garbage sack behind me. When I came to where my “path” skirted the cabin, I faced a quandary.

My house is centered on the front of my lot. At the back, in a corner, sits an old cabin, the original home of the family who once lived here. The snow, which had melted off the cabin roof, had formed a small pond. During the night the pond had frozen, creating a skating rink of some size. The skating rink blocked several feet of my path.

Rather than risk the rink, I ventured out into the garden on the other side of the path. I use the term “garden” loosely. In this area I cultivate volunteer lettuce, onions, Canada thistle, pig weed and kosha. But I digress. I ventured further up onto the snowy plateau which hid all but the memory of a garden. I found the mound to be quite solid.

I also saw my little world from an unexpected perspective. In ordinary times my yard is flat, with nary a distinguishing vertical feature. Never had I viewed the roof of the cabin, my neighbor’s houses and the full reach of the alley from this heady elevation. I looked out over a brave new world. I took another step and plunged into a crevasse. With one leg. My other leg stayed on top of the drift. My buried leg was tightly encased with crusted snow all the way past mid-thigh. I could not move either leg. I could not get purchase to lift myself from my icy prison. I could not go forward. I could not go backward.

A gray car drove by on Fourth Street . The people did not see me. I pondered tying my garbage sack onto the end of my walking stick and waving it in the air, a distress signal. I also considered that my garbage weighed at least forty pounds. My neighbors across the alley hurried out of their house, jumped into their car and drove away. I waved. They did not see me. Or they pretended they did not see me. Well, what would you have done?

First of all, I looked pretty funny, anchored in my snow bank. It is not polite to laugh at someone in distress. I know my neighbors to be very polite. Besides, they were on the way to work, probably already five minutes late and they wanted to stop at the new coffee shop in town to order caramel mocha-rocas, venti, three shots, skinny, extra hot, whipped cream, coco powder, a chocolate covered coffee bean and no straw, please.

So I sat down. I was mostly sitting down anyway, with my leg stuck in the ice. Very slowly, on my bottom, I scooched myself backwards out of the jaws of the icy trap. Still sitting, I dragged me and my garbage bag over the snow field several feet to the distant edge of the bank. There I swung my legs over and jumped to the “ground,” grateful that we do not live in avalanche country.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February 24, 2011

Winter Jelly

Like a fine wine

Winter Jelly

I woke in the night to the howl of the wind battering the west wall of my house. A Chinook wind, the warm wind. I snuggled beneath my quilts and went back to sleep with a smile on my face. The first sound I heard when I awoke was the call of a mourning dove, the first dove of the year. I stuck my head out the door. Yes, the thermometer actually registered above freezing. Then and there I underwent a definite change in mind, body and spirit. Spring fever flooded every iota of my being.

February’s mail had brought seed and garden catalogs. Lovingly, I spread them out on my dining table and began dreaming of the day, still months ahead, when I could be digging, once again, in the dirt. I read my new herb book, purchased from the library’s discard rack for twenty-five cents, and planned another herb bed, or maybe two. I was restless. I looked around the house. Spring cleaning might be in order. I quickly buried that thought.

I paced from front door to back door, stopping at window vistas. The snow-banks did not magically disappear. I yearned for spring, longed for summer. Then I had an idea. I would make a batch of jelly.

Few sights are more beautiful, more satisfying to me than rows of canning jars filled with summer bounty lining the shelves of my basement pantry. Now you must understand, I have put up a life-time supply of jelly. It doesn’t matter. I love making jelly. I give it away with abandon, knowing that each year I will make more. How much more depends on the summer’s yield of fruit. Last year I had abundance, more fruit than time, more fruit than jars, so I stored bags of apples, raspberries, rhubarb and June berries in my freezer, some for pies, some a hedge against a sparse harvest next year.

I poured a bag of June berries into my kettle. I chopped up some juicy apples from the bowl on the counter, remembered a nearly empty bag of raisins, tossed them in. I thought cranberries might add an interesting element. A couple of handfuls, not too many. Then I noticed, in the lost and found department of my freezer, a pint of choke cherry juice. In it went. I set the pot on the stove to simmer.

Jelly making is a lengthy process, but well worth the hours of preparation, the trips up and down stairs for jars, ingredients, tools and kettles, followed by boiling and stirring and pouring and filling and processing.

Now rows of jars cool atop towels spread over the garden catalogs. I set one jar aside for tasting and immediate use.

I lift the jar and turn it, watch the sun’s rays enhance the brilliant ruby jewel tones. I hold the jar to my nose and sniff the earthy fragrance, elegant and flowery, with an explosion of spring. I dip in a spoon and lift the rich jell, lively with a perfect rounded shimmer, smooth and vigorous, clear yet velvety, noble. I rest a taste on my tongue. I find the blend complex, mouth filling and robust. Fruity with full-bodied balance, a vibrant banquet in a jar. Oh, what jelly!

This jelly could stand next to the finest wines without embarrassment. This jelly deserves the Grand Prize Purple Ribbon. I generously slather a slice of toast and savor a fruity bouquet of summer.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February 17, 2011

Reading Little Women

On a more personal note.

Reading Little Women

Our northern world lies encased in snow and ice. The mercury on my thermometer has plummeted to the bottom of the bulb. On long housebound evenings I comfort myself with hot tea and a stack of classics, re-reading old favorites. As I slotted The Great Gatsby back onto its shelf, I felt a yen for lighter fare. I wandered over to the corner of my living room where I have a bookshelf dedicated to and stuffed with children’s books. I picked out Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

My father gave me Little Women, wrapped in brown paper and tied with cotton store string, for my birthday when I was in the second grade. I treasured that book. I read it five or six times a year until I was half way through high school.

I sank into my favorite chair intending to escape into the pleasures of childhood. Instead I found myself pondering Alcott’s story with a growing sense of horror. I realized that at the impressionable age of seven I yearned to be a part of this fictional family. I judged myself by constant comparison. Following the philosophy it set forth, I understood that with proper effort I could attain perfection of character. If I could just be “good enough” my life would be better. People would notice and they would have to love me. This book became a guidepost, a report card, a measure of my life. I took the way the girls lived their lives as the way I should live mine. Couple this with my own families’ rigid values for behavior plus our inflexible religion and I doomed myself to fail.

Had I read Little Women only once and moved on to other things, Archie or Little Lulu comics, for example, I might have escaped. Or had I had the March sisters’ enlightened parents to help and guide me along my path, I might have had a chance, for even with their constant love and wise teaching, pleasure-loving Meg, quick-tempered Jo, vain Amy and saintly Beth had a hard time conquering the vicissitudes of life.

But I was half an orphan, raised in a motherless family by my farmer father. We were a family that didn’t talk. He expected me to figure out how to be good and then do it. Now that is not altogether a bad thing. But I had set unreasonably high expectations for myself. Had I communicated with others, enlisted the help of aunts and elder cousins and asked questions, I might have lived my life differently. But as I said, as a family we were not great at communication.

In Little Women, the March girls used John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a roadmap. In that book when Christian sets off for the Celestial City , he encounters guiding signposts along the way. I thought about that. I remembered seeing similar signposts along my road. But I must have been born with a contrary nature. If one sign beckoned “Freeway” and the other pointed to “Obscure road—destination unknown, probably dangerous” I seemed to have be drawn like a magnet to the latter.

After years of making messes of my life, of bounding over cliffs and miring in the mud, I fell in with a group of people who taught me to consider the road signs before heading into the unknown. They listened to my fears. They picked me up when I fell down. They laughed at me. They cried with me. They mothered me until I could mother myself.

My life became more settled. I’ll never attain the sainthood I sought as a youngster. But now I no longer worry abut being good enough. Now I see goodness all around me. I’ll not always stay on the Freeway. I’ll continue to explore the scenic routes of life. But I’ll try to avoid the road marked “Danger—Bridge Out”.

Sondra Ashton

Havre Daily News: Looking out my back door

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Super Bowl XLV

Super Bowl XLV


I’m excited. I have been invited to a Super Bowl Party. So I called a friend (male) to get some basic information. He lives several states from here. I didn’t want to call somebody local and display my ignorance.

“That’s nice,” he said. “But why are you going? You don’t watch football. You don’t even have a television.”

“I haven’t been out of the house since it began snowing.”

He said, “I was just heading out the door to stock up on beer and chips for my own party. “Be prepared. The game will last at least four hours. Sure you can do this?”

“It’s not like I’ve never been to a Super Bowl Party before.” I thought about it a moment. It was back in the mid-80’s. “The last time I went to one I got married.”

That shocked him into silence. “Not at the party,” I explained. “Do you think he’d give up football for a wedding? It’s where I met him. We went together for a year before we got married.”

My friend on the phone wanted to know what teams had played that year. “Why would I remember that? That’s guy stuff. I want to know who’s playing this year. The Green Bay Packers? Yes, I know who they are. I spent two weeks in Wisconsin in the autumn, football season, 1973. I loved it. People there are all about the Packers. Who is the other team? Oh, Pittsburgh . Steelers, huh? So what are the colors of the uniforms? Green and gold for the Packers. I remember that. Black and gold, Steelers. That should be easy enough for me to keep straight.”

He went on to inform me that this was the forty-fifth Super Bowl, pretentiously spelled X—L—V, for those who flunked Latin. Oh, yeah, I remember that, I told him, rolling my eyes. He offered to look up Super Bowl trivia so I could dazzle everybody at my party. I declined, sensing the imminent danger in displaying too much information when I don’t know a goal post from a putting green.

“Hey, if you want to show up in person, you can still get tickets. I looked on-line. The cheaper seats are going for a mere $1,985.00 today. If you want to sit down front on the fifty-yard line, they are a bargain at only $23,729.00.” Again, I declined.

“I’m still not sure why you are going to a football party.”

“It’s about being with friends, talking and laughing, eating and drinking, isn’t it? I think I’ll make soft pretzels and hot mustard to take along.”

“Who are you rooting for?”

“ Green Bay , of course. I’ve never been to Pittsburgh .”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door
Feb. 3, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In Search of a Cure for the Common Cold

Same with this one. It might be going out today.

In Search of a Cure for the Common Cold


My all-too-few weeks in Mexico were wonderful. I did all the things one is cautioned against. I ate food from roadside vendors. I drank tap water. With ice cubes. I downed raw oysters prised open by a twinkly-eyed man with dirty fingernails. I gorged on cerviche made with unknown ingredients. I consumed my first-ever octopus. I never had a twinge of the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge.

One thing I neglected, the piece of advice I never heard, my downfall, in short, “don’t breathe on the airplane”.

The day after my return, I began to cough. My nose created perilous situations. Streams of unsolicited tears gushed from my eyes. Within two days I had lost my voice. I didn’t just misplace it. It went on holiday for an entire week.

I have an unusual number of physician friends. Dr. LGT brought me huge bowls of homemade chicken noodle soup. I wasn’t hungry. “Eat anyway,” she insisted. I ate.

The common cold is a treacherous foe. I downed bottles of nasty green cough syrup, sucked on cough drops until my mouth was raw. Ate enough chicken soup to cackle. Vitamin C? Yep. Hot tea with honey? Yep. Gargle with hot salt water? Yep. Saline nose spray? Yep. Aspirin for my achy-break-y heart? Yep. I smudged with sage. Waved an eagle feather in the four directions. Slept with my feet pointed east. Crossed my heart and hoped to die.

My enemy hung on with variety. Some days, fits of sneezing. Some days, lethargy. Some days, the glands in my throat the size of tennis balls. Always the annoying drip-drip down the back of my throat. Day after day after day.

So last night I called Dr. LG and described my symptoms. “The common cold,” he said, telling me nothing I didn’t already know. “Drink a hot toddy,” he prescribed. “Drink three. Then in the morning if you don’t feel well, you’ll have a good reason.”

“Ewww, I hate whiskey.”

“Then make it rum or brandy. It’s the alcohol that works.”

So this morning I told another friend, Dr. KGB about the remedy. She suggested I substitute lemon juice for the whiskey, add a dollop of honey and fill the mug with hot water.

Then Dr. KDW got into the act. She thought the salt-water gargle worked better than the whiskey, but “Whiskey does have other positive effects.” She recommended Laphroaig Scotch whiskey as the best. “It will warm anything that needs warming!”

Dr. EPL heard of my plight and offered to fly up from California with Southern Comfort, for medicine and for pleasure. She recommended it straight from the bottle.

Then I plunked yet one more chicken into the soup pot, gargled again, made a hot lemon toddy. I called a friend who works at an office in Chinook not far from the nearest liquor store. I asked him to buy me a small bottle of medicine, something of good quality, please, and drop it off on his way home tonight. I told him not to fear. I will meet him at the door with rubber gloves and a face mask.

The next time you fly, don’t breathe the air.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

Never-Ending Party

This one we can definitely date. It was published Jan 20.

Never-Ending Party


We six women grew up, left home and dispersed around the country. In 2005 we came together in reunion. Then and there we made a commitment to stay in touch by email and to visit whenever possible. We live vastly different lives but have been pleasantly surprised that our early years had created such a strong bond. We are still scattered. Ellie lives near San Francisco . Cheryl is on the coast of Oregon . Denise is in Washington, a small town north of Kettle Falls . One Karen lives in England (I’ll call her English Karen); Other Karen in Floweree. And I’m here in Harlem . When I wake up in the morning to the same light and sounds and smells of my childhood, it makes me smile.

Our commitment has held. Our bond is strengthened. We are old friends and we are new friends. We email frequently, sometimes daily.

The other day Cheryl and English Karen were having an intense online chat about the recent tragedy in Arizona . The rest of us chimed in, grieving.

The following morning, English Karen message was headed: New Topic. Good news, she reported. The broken pipe no longer gushes. The river in our back yard is gone. The yard is a normal rain puddle.

Good news is, well, good news. If we were all together, I typed, we would celebrate your fixed pipe. Let’s have a faux party. I’ll simmer a vat of my famous vegetarian chili. It’s always a hit on a cold winter’s day. And I want to share some new music with you. What do you fine ladies want to bring?

Ellie piped right up, I’ll bring dessert. Apple cake and brownie cake. And several bottles of good wine, both red and white. And I’ll bring my good mood. We won’t talk about the world and its deplorable problems. And would you like Irish coffee?

Mmmm. Apple cake and Irish coffee, I responded. I see that our celebration will take hours. We’ll not just eat. We’ll dine. I’m lighting candles for comfort against the blowing snow and bitter cold.

There’s no such thing as too much, English Karen said. I’m on my way with Laphroaig Scotch and sticky toffee pudding topped with fresh whipped cream. Since it’s a virtual party, we can eat and drink as much as we want. Listen, I’ll pop over to the Taste of India takeaway for onion bhajis and vegetable samosas and prawn karahi.

Let’s eat and drink ourselves into oblivion. We’ll be oblivious to the world and its problems. Let’s enjoy one another to the fullest. I added smoked salmon to the feast.

Other Karen dropped in with fresh rolls dripping with butter, so hot out of the oven we had to blow on them before we could bite into them, a perfect accompaniment to her ham and bean soup and an entire selection of homemade jams, which reminded English Karen to bring crumpets and clotted cream.

Denise brought daal made by her husband, the adventurous chef, and cous-cous and garlic naan bread. Cheryl was the last to show up. We made a special request for her clam chowder and Tillamook ice-cream, several flavors. She said she couldn’t stay long. She had a second party to attend that night to cheer on the beleaguered Ducks.

I had to skip out for a city council meeting but asked the others to keep things hot until I got back home. I think it was Ellie who said we should raid the fridge at midnight.

The next day Denise wrote to say, The party was terrific, the food delicious. I am still full. Thank you for a wonderful time.

Our celebration was divine. Nothing went to waste. And nothing went to waist.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

January 20, 2010

Things I Think About

This is the other contender for this week. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Things I think about

I was taking a break from work. I had just brewed a cup of Lapsang Souchong, my favorite tea, when the phone rang. “What are you working on?” my friend asked.

“A pair of Victorian chairs,” I answered. “A Lady’s Chair and a Gentleman’s Chair. His chair is larger and has arms.”

“You mean the kind that sat in the parlor and were seldom used except when one had visitors. They were most uncomfortable.”

“Yes, can you see it? A young lady perches on the rim of the chair, her back ramrod stiff, voluminous skirts artfully arranged in a fan around her legs, the toes of her boots peeking demurely from beneath the hem. In one hand she holds a bone-china cup of tea, honey and lemon, near her barely parted lips. With the other hand she balances the saucer beneath the cup. A velvet cloche, trimmed with ostrich feathers and a skiff of veil adorns her carefully coiled curls. Her hands are chastely covered with proper lace gloves, lace that she tatted herself. The gentleman caller balances his cup of tea on his knee while trying to get comfortable on the other chair. Her eyes are modestly downcast, her voice low as she inquires about the health of his mother and his sisters. The fire in the fireplace crackles but does not dare spit out an errant cinder. The young woman hears a rustle and hides a smile, knowing that her little sister is spying behind the parlor curtains, barely able to hold back a tide of giggles.”

“You really get into this, don’t you?”

“When I’m working I like to think about the life the furniture has seen, the home it is returning to and the people who will be using it. This job goes to a young couple who are restoring one of the historic homes in Havre. My woodworker had to do extensive repairs on these. I removed two layers of musty fabric, cotton stuffing filled with a century’s worth of soil and broken springs. I am covering the set in the traditional wine-colored velvet.”

“Working on anything else?” my friend asked.

“Yes. The next one is large, overstuffed, and cushy, sort of a Joe Beer-Can chair. A man could almost hide in it. It belongs to an old cowboy, lives on a ranch east of here. Picture this: it’s nearly time for supper. He sluffs his coat at the door, hangs it on a peg, crosses the scuffed hardwood floor, sighs heavily and plunks down into his chair. He tugs off his boots, one at a time, feeling the pull in his aching back with each motion. He can smell steak sizzling in the kitchen. He’ll just sink back a minute and rest his eyes while he waits for his wife to call him to the table.

“She told me the chair was in the house when they got married. It had belonged to his parents. They had no idea how old it was. But I can tell a lot from the construction. This one is early Twentieth Century, probably the 1920’s, built for comfort and durability. If I were to compare the two jobs, this one would be a Clydesdale plow-horse. The Victorian set is like a matched pair of Arabian carriage horses, elegant and high stepping. I won’t need to do any frame repair on this one but I’ll replace all the insides and cover it with a handsome wool plaid.”

“Do all your chairs have stories?”

“No, well, maybe. I’m looking forward to working on the wagon wheel chair—that’s what I call it. To me it is pure western nostalgia. We had one exactly like it with a matching couch in our living room out on the farm. Dad bought it at Valley Furniture in the 1950’s. I used to lounge in it, blue jean-clad legs slung over the wide wooden arm, Leave it to Beaver on the black and white TV screen, my algebra book in my lap masking the copy of Forever Amber I had sneaked out of the library. That’s a true story.”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

Application for a Job

This one got put in the wrong file: Someone saw the word "application" and put it in the publisher's file as a real job application. I hope they publish it sooner or later because it is brilliantly funny. Just leave it undated.

Application for a Job

Martin Cody, Publisher

Havre Daily News

Dear Mr. Cody,

I’m writing about your ad for a freelance writer for the new lifestyle magazine. I know I am perfect for the job. In my experience writing a column for your newspaper over the last two years, I have written about people, home and garden, decorating, remodeling, food and wine, home furnishing and a plethora of other topics. In fact, I can write about any subject. I am not sure I have written about real estate in my column, but I can. I know I can. We have met so I am not including a letter of introduction. You already have my story portfolio in your files.

However, I do have some concerns and questions.

Your ad mentions writing “personality profiles”. As I understand it, a “personality” is someone who is famous for being famous; those whose pictures grace the tabloids one scans while waiting to check out at the IGA. I write about my friends and other people I know. Most of them are “characters”. Or they have character. Or they live life fully, often in strange ways. Characters abound on the Hi-line, but personalities are rare. Personalities tend to live where the weather is better, like Hollywood or Kalispell. But, I am sure I can make the transition to “personality profiles”. I will write it like I see it. Will that create a problem?

The home and garden stuff is easy. I took many of my interests and skills learned growing up in rural Montana and melded them into a viable business that fed me and my family for many years. I am a whiz at decorating, remodeling and home furnishing. You should see my house. But if you need an urban pitch, I have also lived in Salt Lake City , Portland , Denver , Santa Cruz , Chicago , Seattle and Great Falls . I can urban with the best.

You must want to know about my education. I have degrees in history and political science, neither used. Those two topics make me so mad I could spit tacks. In my business, spitting tacks is an old and valued skill. However, if my mouth is full of tacks when current news upsets me, I am dangerous. I don’t want to see anyone impaled. Would you please have somebody else cover politics?

I have a concern about writing food and wine articles. Food is easy. I can do food. Unfortunately, I will have to rely heavily on research for the wine. Just this fall I sipped an expensive wine that my friends raved about. To me, it tasted like kerosene. While I don’t make a habit of sipping kerosene, it may take me a while to get the hang of wine connoisseur-y. I can make up things like “this is a full bodied wine, with a hint of sagebrush and soupcon of cowflop”. Does the job include an allowance for food and drink? This is important if you want me to develop a discerning palate and be able to discriminate between kerosene and the nectar of the gods.

I also wonder about the time commitment. Will I have to show up at the office at zero dark thirty like everyone else? I live in Harlem . In the summer this is not a problem, but winter tends to overwhelm with snow, wind, and dangerous temperatures. I also am on several community committees, such as the land-fill board. I would hate to have to give that up.

I am confident I can shoehorn this freelancing job into my busy schedule and will do a bang-up job for you.

Eagerly awaiting my first assignment,

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door