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

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Reach Out and Touch Someone


A friend and I were having lunch. “Listen, I’ve got to show you this.” From his pocket he extracted a slim rectangle, about the size of five credit cards clumped together. “My new smart phone,” he bragged. “I’ve joined the brave new world of multiple communications. I can know immediately what goes on anywhere in the world. Let me show you the things it can do. The only thing I haven’t figured out is how to get it to serve me breakfast in bed.”

“With your job that makes sense. But I’m not that important,” I offered. “My cell phone is the dumbest one I could find. I think it takes pictures but I’ve never tried. I only use it when I travel. Most of the time it is stashed in the cup holder of my van, turned off. When I need it, I turn it on.”

The first phone I remember, an oak box which hung on our kitchen wall, looked to my young eyes like a bug-eyed face. The “nose” was actually the mouthpiece and the two bulging shiny “eyes” formed the ringer. When you needed to make a call, you turned a handle on the right side of the box to alert the operator at the switchboard so she could put it through for you. The ear piece hung on a hook on the other side. You removed it from the hook, held it to your ear and spoke into the “nose”. We, like most rural people, were on a party line. Our ring was two longs and one short. Everybody back then thought they had to yell into the phone to be heard.

The party line had its own unwritten rules of etiquette. There were eight families on our line. The rings for each neighbor sounded in every home. We knew who was getting a call but did not dare listen in. Not often, anyway. (There was one woman on the line who listened to everything.) I remember once picking up the phone very slowly, very carefully, not breathing. I thought Charlotte might be on the line with her boyfriend. I must not have been careful enough. Her mother barked at me to hang up. My face burned bright red with shame. My worst crime was doing homework by phone. I did Jerry’s English and he did my Algebra. Sometimes we hogged the phone for an hour. But if we heard a clicking we knew somebody needed the line and we hung up.

Our next phone was a modern desk style made of Bakelite. We had a choice of colors, black or black. Its innards were built to work forever. To make a call, you had to stick your finger into a round hole and manually twirl the dial around the circle. Each finger slot in the circle had its own number with corresponding letters. My Dad still thought he had to yell into the phone.

Today’s new phones certainly are a marvel. One can twitter and tweet. Surf the net. Read a book. Watch a movie. Make a video. Txt msg. Send and receive email. Balance your checking account. Work up a power point presentation. And on rare occasions, speak with another human, voice to voice.

For many people, cell phones have become their only phone. Out here in isolated Gopher Prairie, where we still holler over the back fence, we have spotty cell phone service, so I am not ready to give up my land line. However, in the last few years service has improved. I no longer have to go outside and climb onto my roof to use my cell phone.

New-fangled phones certainly have created a mess of controversy. Take the current hot issue of driving while using a cell phone. I don’t dare do it. When I am on the phone with a friend, I have a tendency to go to a place deep within, to focus on our conversation. Lord knows what would happen if I were trying to maneuver through traffic at the same time. Imagine the carnage I could cause. It is not a good idea for me to multi-task while moving down the road.

With all the brilliant advances in communication gadgets, I wonder if we have truly improved our ability to communicate with one another. We have such a variety of ways to get in touch that we rarely need to speak. I can now have new on-line “friends” scattered around the world, whom I will never meet. I can’t figure out how people find the time to feed these friendships. As for myself, I like to call my friends and arrange to meet for lunch so we can talk across the soup and sandwiches, face to face, catching every nuance of expression, every twinkle of eye.

Meanwhile, your call is important to me. Your waiting time is approximately six hours and eighteen minutes. Please enjoy the music while your party is being reached.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 7, 2011


Where the Grass is Greener

It always looks greener and lusher and higher on the other side of the fence.

Where the Grass is Greener


“This morning I outwitted the robins and picked a bowl of strawberries for breakfast.” I giggled. “I sliced each juicy ruby globe, sprinkled them lightly with sugar, poured on a drizzle of heavy cream and holding each bite on my tongue before swallowing, I savored every morsel.” My listeners groaned with envy.

We six women, whose strongest bond is our shared experience of growing up in Harlem , were nattering about our yards and gardens. Depending on where we lived, we grumbled over the late spring, the over-abundant rain, the prolific weeds or the overwhelming heat.

Montana Karen, our master gardener from Floweree, said her strawberries were still green. Ellie, who divides her time between Turlock and Pleasanton in California , raises flowers but buys her luscious strawberries year-round from local market stands. Denise in Laurier, Washington and Cheryl in Tillamook, Oregon both garden but neither raises strawberries. England Karen gardens in pots on a tiled patio in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire . Unlike our mothers and grandmothers who gardened from duty, we garden from love.

“How I miss having a garden with flower beds and vegetables lined up in rows,” mourned England Karen, formerly from Hardin where she taught school for twenty-five years. “I had lilac bushes from my Dad’s lilacs in Harlem and a round rose garden in the back yard. When I moved to England I didn’t mind selling the house but I hated selling the yard.”

“I feel the same way. I could let my house go, but the dirt is in my soul,” I said. The girls laughed. Ellie replied, “Sondra, you won’t move. You have such a passion for your home. You’re where you are supposed to be.”

“That may be,” I replied. “But it took me a while to love this place. I’ll never forget the day my family moved here from the rolling hills of the Ohio River country in southern Indiana . We left on April Fools Day. I was ten years old, a week away from eleven. The spring flowers were blooming, daffys and tulips and violets and lilacs. The air was balmy.

“On April third we drove into Harlem . Remember how the road used to come straight through town from the east? The highway was the only paved street. The first building I saw was the squat old potato cellar, half buried in the ground, snow piled to the eaves. Rotten snow, blasted with dirt by the ever-present wind lay brown and ugly in every corner. People on the streets in their parkas with hoods, black rubber boots and fleece-lined mitts huddled against the wind.

“Every surface was rimed with ice, piled with snow or wind-scoured down to rock. The Milk River creaked and cracked as it broke up, shooting blocks of ice twenty feet into the air. I was terrified. In school, I thought my classmates loud, rough and bold. When summer finally came I was new blood for the mosquitoes. I hated this place. I thought I had landed in a Siberian gulag. I catalogued every flaw, made continuous comparisons to the wonderland I had left behind. Every night I cried myself to sleep.”

“So what broke the evil spell?” asked Denise.

“Our second summer, the day after school was out, Dad sent my sister, Grandma and me, back to Indiana for a vacation. He thought we’d be gone a couple weeks. However, we didn’t return until the day before school started. It was a long summer for my Dad.

“The funny thing though, it was like getting a new pair of glasses. Our old house was gone, torn down by the young couple who had bought the place, leveled the fields, filled in the sinkhole in the woods and built a brick house up the hill where our barn used to be. The air was so humid, I felt like I was breathing underwater. My grade school crush, Dickie Knear, had erupted in pimples. My girlfriends were glad to see me, but they all had moved on with their lives. The old brick school building in Elizabeth stood empty, abandoned for the new modern consolidated school out in the country. Nothing looked the way I remembered it.

“When I returned, I had grown into a new perspective. I was happy to be back. I was excited to start school the next day. I was eager to be with my friends. Montana was my home and it was beautiful.”

“It’s a good thing we are not the grass is greener on the other side of the fence people,” said Cheryl. “It sounds like we are all blooming where we are planted and planted where we are blooming.”

Several times a day I tour my yard, talk encouragingly to my new rosebush, lament that the late frost ravaged what would have been my first crop of sand cherries, cheer on the currants. I stoop to pluck a tender thistle. I check the potatoes emerging through the heavy mulch. I smile out loud, proud of the work I’ve done, dazzled by the beauty. Home.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

June 30, 2011