Friday, December 28, 2012

End of the World Soup and a Happy New Year

End of the World Soup and a Happy New Year

What better way to spend the last evening before the end of the world than with friends at the North Harlem Colony for their children’s Christmas musical program. And a musical extravaganza it was, topped off with good food, hugs and fellowship. Had the world ended the next day, as feared, it would have been a good way to go, filled with love and joy.

In the days prior to the projected end of the world, I heard stories about people preparing for the dastardly event, stories that baffled me. What part of “end of the world” did they not get? Am I wrong or does the end not mean THE END? When the world ends, are we not gone? Kaput? So why prepare?

I find it hard to believe how many people swallow these end of world prophesies. What makes one think some kind of Prime Mover sets up a Doomsday calendar with X marks the spot? A Cosmic Game-Master?

If you were in outer space watching the earth’s demise, would destruction roll around in an orderly fashion, from time zone to time zone? Would it look like a crumbling popcorn ball? Or more like an interstellar pizza, devoured slice by slice?

Tell me how stockpiling water and C-rations will allow one to survive the end of the world. Explain why I should rush out and buy my own personal AK-47. What am I supposed to shoot? I don’t get it. If the planet goes “Poof” would you really want to “survive”?

We are not forewarned, for the most part, when our own personal world will end. But in the event the Angel of Death swooped down and announced, “You’re next,” would you rush out to buy Spam for your last meal? Not me. Seriously, what would your last wish be? Wouldn’t you more likely want to hug your children, hold your loved ones in your arms, and tell your special friends you love them?

As it turned out, the world did not end last Friday. Guess what—there’s a whole New Year ready to be born. So why not make sure that everybody you love, that every friend whom you hold in high regard, knows without doubt how you feel. Why not start today. No, not under the mistletoe. Use some discretion, you.

I was raised in a family that seriously lacked communication skills. In the beginning, tossing around the warm fuzzies made me uncomfortable. I persevered and the rewards far outstripped the initial cringing.

Loving the lovable is relatively easy. But what about that one old sorehead in Rudyard, who lives surrounded by all those nice people? It may be hard to out-and-out love such a person, but one may regard him with compassion. We have no idea what it feels like to live in another’s skin. Each life holds formative stories that we’ll never know. Everybody has such stories, even you and me.

I don’t make New Year resolutions. I used to. But they were unrealistic and I never kept them. Instead, I hope to find adventure (and/or fun) in each day, to find worth in every person, to find beauty in the ordinary and to be kind to myself. With love, respect, compassion, tolerance—that’s how I want to engage the world; that’s how I want to be treated. For my own self-respect I try to invest each day with those qualities. I have no guarantee that I’ll reap dividends. Often I fail to put the right coins into my account. But I don’t quit.

The world didn’t end and we have a New Year. So just for fun, let me share a dish of my end-of-the-world soup with you. When my children were young, I served it once a week. I kept a glass gallon jar in the refrigerator into which I poured such things as water drained from boiling the potatoes, leftover vegetables and meats. On soup day I supplemented this with onions, garlic, seasonings, perhaps rice, lentils or pasta. Generally all I needed to do was pour the jar full of goodies into a large pot and heat it. There was nothing “Doomsday” about the soup. No matter what it contained, it always tasted good. It had only one drawback, from which it took its name; it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was quite ugly. But we were poor. It was our way to squeeze every bit of nutrition from every bite of food. I don’t remember who named the soup. No doubt, one of the kids said, “Yuck—this soup looks like the end of the world.” The name stuck.

So join me for a bowl. The soup’s not pretty but it’s full of Happy New Year.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 27, 2012


Dear Santa, I’ve got a hankering. . .

Dear Santa, I’ve got a hankering. . .

I generally accept what is rather than focus on what isn’t. But every now and then I get a hankering to have a man around the house. The way I figure it, it’s like a disease, neither all pervasive nor life threatening. It’s more like a nebulous yearning for someone with whom to share experiences, someone to whom I could hand a “honey-do” list. My wanting comes and goes, doesn’t stick around long; often months pass between attacks.

Maybe the approaching Holiday season is a factor; another could be that I continue to be disabled after eight weeks with my wrist in a brace. Might even be that this onslaught of desire was triggered when bulbs in three overhead light fixtures burned out within days of one another. With my broken paw, I can’t drag in the ladder and unscrew the globes to change the bulbs, a simple task that ordinarily I would have finished before you could say “Snap!”

Over the years I have found that if I talk about a problem, I can laugh about it and get on with life. So when my daughter phoned, I said, “I’m having an I-want-a-man attack.”

She said, “I have the cure, Mom. Let’s not even talk about the state of the commode. But remember the nasty build up of whisker stubs around the faucets? The top left off the toothpaste tube? Smelly socks slung under the bed? Or dirty shirts tossed on the floor, nowhere near the hamper? Besides, just think about it, Mom. In pioneer days, you would have been in the grave long before now. Your man would have already used up a younger woman, looked around and said, ‘next.’” My daughter is real cheerful that way.

Sure, my house stays neater than if I weren’t the only person rattling around in it. Sure, the only muddy boot tracks are my own. But at times I would trade.

Work is my best friend. I looked around for a one-handed chore to distract me. I needed to whip my fresh pumpkin pulp into a puree and had just the day before unpacked my new food processor. I’ve never had one so I sat down to read the instructions and watched the video that came with it. I scrubbed all the parts and put my new machine together, dumped in the chunks of pumpkin, plugged it in and flipped the switch. Nothing happened. I emptied the pumpkin, washed the bowl again, checked everything out and turned it on empty. No go. Just in case I missed some secret step, I watched the video twice more. I memorized the manual. Back to the kitchen for another attempt. Nada. I studied my machine carefully. It is brand new. It can’t be defective. I realized that if I have to send it back, I’d already recycled the shipping boxes. They were the perfect size in which to send Christmas gifts to grandchildren.

At a certain point, when it seems like everything I touch falls apart, I’ve learned to stop for the day. It is hopeless to continue efforts in futility. I know to do something different, like grab a book or take a walk. So I set aside the processor project for morning, slapped together a sandwich, heated a mug of hot chocolate and snuggled in to watch “The Full Monty”.

Early next morning I called the manufacturer. A nice young man named Dan said he’d help me. First he had me get a pen and push a black dot on the back of the base, sort of a reset button, I suppose. Then he asked me if I had a credit card.

“I used the credit card to buy this machine that won’t work, you fool,” I told him.

To his credit, Dan laughed. “Please, just get a credit card. Now put the bowl in place on the base. In the shaft on the back of the bowl, there is a slot. Place the credit card in the slot and while pressing inward, turn on your processor.”

“Hot dog! Can you hear it working?” I said. “Thank you, thank you, a million times, thank you.”

I’m in love. No, silly, not with Dan. With my food processor. With my new little kitchen wonder I pureed my pumpkin pulp, mashed my persimmons, chopped pecans, sliced carrots, shredded cheese and made salsa.

It can’t change a light bulb but it won’t muddy my floors. Sure a man is a handy thing to have around if you train him right. But as a consolation prize, a food processor is nice.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 20, 2012

Winter Bounty—Baskets of Goodness and the Football Pool

Winter Bounty—Baskets of Goodness and the Football Pool

Winter sports do not excite me. In my daydreams I do not yearn to plunge down ski slopes, roar astride a bucking machine through snow-clad hills, or etch figure eights over the frozen river. As the daylight hours diminish, I harbor no nostalgia for mounting winter tires, finding the window scrapers or digging out the snow shovels. A roaring fire in the fire place, a pile of books in front of me, a steaming mug of hot chocolate at my side—that’s a picture to paint a smile on my face.

That doesn’t mean I consider winter to be eight months of confined inactivity. Impossible; there’s too much going on. As I see it, Halloween ushers in winter with witches and goblins—too much fun and too much candy. Hard on the footsteps of Spook Night, though a few leaves still cling to trees, though the last pieces of candy lodge hidden behind sofa cushions, Thanksgiving takes over. Families and friends gather ‘round dinner tables over-laden with platters of munificence. Every community, our larger family, opens hearts and doors to a neighborly feast. Nobody should feel left out. Then we munch turkey sandwiches while setting up the Christmas tree. As Christmas approaches, we can fill every weekend with bazaars, parades, festivals and celebratory events, all free for the showing up.

I haven’t bothered with a tree for several years. Last week, I set aside my “bah-humbug” and dragged my hat tree, the trunk of a juniper mounted on a horseshoe stand, adorned with vintage hats, from my bedroom to my living room. I wound the stubby branches with colored lights and shrouds of tinsel. Who knows—Santa might bring me a granddaughter or two for a visit. If so, they will collapse in giggles at my “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree.

While my garden snoozes beneath a blanket of snow, I decided to venture into the unknown and signed up for a cooperative program which periodically delivers fruits and vegetables to its subscribers. When, every other week the basket arrives, you never know what it might contain. It’s like Christmas. Since I live alone I had to justify this step to myself. If I buy it, I have to use it. I reasoned that I would feed myself a more nourishing diet. I figured I might juice, can, or freeze the overflow.

A tisket, a tasket, my first basket more than met my expectations. This week the basket exceeded all reason, heaped with Romaine lettuce, salad onions, radishes, green peppers, mushrooms, yellow onions, a wad of cilantro, acorn and butternut squash, broccoli, summer squash, a bowl of limes, a half- dozen avocados, a dozen bananas, heaps of tomatillos, cucumbers, dried red ancho chiles, jalapenos, limes, a lovely papaya, two chayote and a peck of persimmons. All that goodness.

Last winter I never ate this well. I’m not sure what to do with the chayote but I’ll figure it out. I’ll bake a couple of the persimmons and make jam with the rest. Meanwhile, I arranged the orange persimmons in a brown and yellow pottery bowl, art on my table. Papaya has never been my favorite tropical fruit, but I’m going to experiment with papaya pie. I’ll make salsa and freeze some of the squash. I wish I could roll back the clock and be cooking for my family. Instead I’ll invite friends to share a meal or two.

While I’m wallowing in all this seasonal bounty, I figure it is not unreasonable for me to wish for one more win of the football pool. Never mind that two of the men at the city shop, where we gather for coffee and fill out our predictions, have yet to win this year and give me the stink eye. I’ve won twice. They can’t stand it. They’ve threatened to ban me. Although I never watch football, I have a system, brilliant in its simplicity. Of each two teams playing, I choose the city I would rather visit. Plus I have four picks cast in concrete based on past connections. I always choose Seattle, Green Bay, South Dakota (SD) and Nebraska (NE). I have generously shared my system with the guys, but they ignore me. Three wins in one year would be mighty impressive. I figure if I win one more pool, I will have earned a place in the Hall of Fame with a plaque on the wall of the city shop above the coffee pot. I have three more chances.

Bountiful good will should carry me through Christmas and into the New Year and the depths of winter. Eventually the days will lengthen, gardening catalogs will fill my mail box, I’ll muddle through snow and cabin fever, and if the world doesn’t end, my early tulips will herald spring.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 13, 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mighty Mouse—Here I Am To Save the Day

Mighty Mouse—Here I Am To Save the Day

When, day after day, I use a particular tool, I develop a fondness for it. Take my van, Roshanna, for example. You might say she’s my twice bought van. I bought her fresh from the factory in 1997 and over the years, piece by piece, I have purchased most of her parts again. Roshanna loves a good road trip. Together we have racked up two-hundred six thousand miles. I take care of her and she takes care of me.

Then there is my favorite staple gun—the one I reach for first. I call her Miss Kitty. She’s light weight and faster than Matt Dillon, my backup gun. I own a dozen hammers, each for a different use, but the one I call Hank has the most balanced heft in my hand.

So imagine my consternation when Monday morning early I sat down at my computer to compose a report and discovered that my mouse, if not dead, was in a state of stupor. I wiggled it. The arrow on the screen refused to move. The cursor was cursed. I checked its cable, yep, plugged in solidly. I tugged on all the cables, just in case. Everything was plugged in and turned on. Yet I could not open any window, program or file.

I heard my Son the Computer Geek whisper in my metaphorical ear, “Reboot the computer, Mom.” That is what he always tells me when in desperation I phone him with a computer glitch. I shut everything down, turned off the switch, and pulled the power cord. I said to myself, “Don’t panic.” I walked away and made the bed.

When I returned and reversed the above process, my mouse, which looked perfectly normal, still would not scitter across the page. So I repeated all the above. I plugged, unplugged and re-plugged. No change.

Mic, my mouse, is special. I’m quite fond of him. I remember years ago griping about my previous mouse which I neither liked nor named. We had a personality conflict or the vibes were not right or our signs weren’t compatible, something. Ben hooked up Mic and said, “Try this one.”

It was love at first touch. Mic has a lovely curved body which fits the exact shape of my hand. At the front, he has a large beautiful red ball which I can manipulate smoothly—zip-zip—all over the page. Most of my friends don’t care for this type mouse. For me, Mic is perfect.

I needed my mouse. My son, Ben, was a time zone away. I hate to bother him on the job unless I have an emergency. This was an emergency. I had to write my report for a meeting. Ben did not answer my call. I left a message.

Ah, ha! I remembered I had a back-up mouse, the ordinary push kind. My computer sits on an ancient library table with three drawers. I found the mouse, a gift from Triangle Communications, in the third drawer. It had a three-foot cord. Grrr. I needed six feet to reach the computer tower under my desk. So I had to shift everything on my desk in order to lug the tower up onto it. I had to re-route all the cables. All this with a broken wrist, blood, sweat and tears. Still no call from Ben.

I was writing my report with Awkward Ugly Mouse when a friend called me. I told him my sad story. I mentioned that “one time my mouse had quit working when a piece of lint was trapped beneath the ball. I’m sure that isn’t the problem this time. Besides, I’d have to turn on my air compressor and build up the pressure just to get a fifteen-second blast of air and then drain and bleed it again. Too much bother.”

He must have been sitting by his computer at the time because he asked me for Mic’s model number. I gave it. He whistled. “That IS a special mouse. Listen to this. On this website you can get a new one for five-hundred dollars but there is only one left. Or you can buy from the eight used ones at one-hundred forty and up or get the refurbished one for two-hundred thirty.”

“That can’t be right. It’s just a mouse. They’re cheap,” I argued.

“Look it up yourself,” he said.

“Good-by,” I said. I fired up my air compressor, took Mic over to my work table and blew all around the ball with my air tool. I went back to my computer, unhooked Awkward Ugly, hooked Mic back up and he worked like a charm.

Now, what would you do?

For Sale: Used Trackball mouse of a certain model, perfect condition, charming personality, not a scratch, ding or blemish. A bargain at $250.00.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 6, 2012

Framed by Vintage Technology—Shades of 1922

Framed by Vintage Technology—Shades of 1922

My needs were simple enough. From time to time I make custom lamp shades. Recently two different people brought me two sets of lamps for new shades. Unfortunately the old shades were missing. Most lamps come to me with their old shades, ragged and pitiful, but the frames are usable once I strip them down. I have a generous collection of my own vintage frames but as I sorted through them I discovered that I had none that could be used for these jobs.

So I fired up my computer to search for wire lamp shade frames. For a couple hours I browsed through sites but did not find the exact sizes and shapes I wanted. I was busy so I put the task off for later. Then I broke my wrist so I was forced to set all my projects aside in favor of reading stacks of books.

As my healing progressed, I realized that the first jobs I could physically do would be those lamp shades. Light work but good therapy for strengthening my arm. So I got cracking to find a supplier for my frames. Eureka! I found a company that offered a generous selection of both shapes and sizes. Carefully I measured, chose, rejected this in favor of that and decided to order extras—why not. With my lengthy list in hand, I tried to contact the company to negotiate a wholesale deal. I tried to place my order on their web site. I tried to email. I tried their phone. Nothing was in service. The lights are off. The door is padlocked. The shades are pulled. The perfect company is defunct. I felt bummed out.

I had made a thorough search. There are not dozens of companies out there making wire frames for vintage lamps. Unless I wanted to shell out outrageous sums and order from Outer, Inner, Upper or Lowest Slobbovia, delivery by dog sled, why, there’s nothing to it but to do it. Myself.

What is a frame but a few yards of wire and a washer? I can measure. I can snip, shape and solder. I can do this. I know I can. I’ll do it, by gum or by golly.

But just in case there might be some hidden step, I went back to the internet to see if I might find a “how to” book. Boy, howdy, right away I discovered the perfect book. “Wire Lamp Shade Frames and How To Make Them” by A. W. Dragoo. I could tell by the picture on the website that the book was old. But I put it in my cart and agreed to pay a hefty chunk of money. What better way to make vintage frames than with instructions from a venerable master.

The book arrived. A pamphlet, actually. The author, Alva William Dragoo, taught Manual Training and Mechanical Drawing at Illinois State Normal University in Normal, Illinois. Imagine living in a town called Normal. My new-to-me manual was published in 1922. It smells like old brown paper with an overlay of moth balls and a mere hint of mildew. It was written to teach seventh and eighth grade boys to make wire lamp shade frames.

The opening sentence is instructive: “Few problems in the manual training shop possess greater interest to boys than the making of an electric lamp.” (Not any of the boys I know.) The third paragraph addresses the covering of the shade: “Most mothers, or sisters, in the home will be found capable of doing a satisfactory piece of work.”

When I was in school I would have given anything to have been in the shop welding with the boys rather than in Home Ec, bored with cooking and sewing, tasks I had been doing for years. I was not given the choice.

I finished reading the manual and indeed discovered that with a few simple tools and wire, even I, a mere female, can make frames. I could have bungled my way through most of the process without Mr. Dragoo’s instructions. But I learned one vital piece of information, how to curve the wire. I had imagined that would be the most difficult part of the job. But Mr. Dragoo showed me that the solution is simple. Over the years I have learned that simple does not always mean easy, but I’m in for a penny, in for a pound.

Meanwhile, if you know any seventh or eighth grade boys or girls chomping at the bit to make wire lamp shade frames, send them to me. I’ll teach them everything I know.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 29, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The First Thanksgiving: A Historical Retrospective

The First Thanksgiving: A Historical Retrospective

Before I reveal the little known details, details concealed in newly discovered parchment scrolls long buried beneath Plymouth Rock, of the first Thanksgiving dinner, it is important that I establish my credentials lest you think I made this up. I have a hard-earned college degree, hard-earned while raising a toddler, in history and political science. I learned to skillfully negotiate the twisted labyrinths of research.

Potential starvation has been known to motivate creative solutions. The Pilgrims, and here I must entertain an interesting digression—along the ever-shifting American frontier the word “Pilgrim” has denoted a tenderfoot, a naïf, one ill-suited to the rigors or conditions of life, yes, that definition aptly describes the subjects of our disquisition, these first Pilgrims were indeed ill-prepared for the rigors of life on their New Frontier.

Let’s dispense with the riff-raff of detail and cut to the chase. The little band of settlers was desperate. Winter, due to arrive any day, galloped down from the north. Their store house, built in haste in anticipation of the fruits of the first harvest, held no fruits, no vegetables, no smoked or salted carcasses. No moose, no deer, no succulent beef, no pork, no chickens, no eggs. In greed or in haste, the seed for crops, the few chickens and pigs that accompanied the settlers on the long voyage across the vast Atlantic had been devoured.

The men, devout in every fiber of their being, sought solution in their house of prayer, where every community issue was debated and every decision hard fought. One might speculate that the men might have put their energy to better use beating the brush for the abundance of wildlife inhabiting the woods. But who are we to sit in judgment.

The women, huddled together in a lean-to shelter, took turns stirring a watery broth in a huge iron kettle over an open fire, trying to coax a rag, a bone and a hank of hair into an edible soup.

“Oh, woe is me, what shall we do. We shall starve while our men spend endless days in yon Congress endlessly devising laws and establishing political parties and the NFL.”

“Dame Verity is right. We are doomed. Why did we ever leave yon golden shores of home, the true land of milk and honey and Walmart and Hostess Twinkies.”

Up spoke Dame Goodheart, “Fear not, my brave sisters for I have an idea. “We shall announce a pot luck dinner and invite our neighbors.”

“What is pot luck? What neighbors? Surely you don’t mean those fearsome savages? “

“While we waste away to skin and bone and no decent cannibal would give us a second glance, we are surrounded by well-fed, vigorous warriors, their women strong and healthy, their children fat and full of laughter. These be our neighbors. We will send word on the moccasin telegraph of our huge celebration and Christmas Crafts sale. They will bring to the feast haunches of venison, canoes full of squash and corn, rafts of prairie chickens, Indian tacos, tobacco, chips and beer. That will be our pot luck.”

Now, of course, it was not quite as simplistic as all that. Whether we are willing to believe it or not, peoples everywhere are much the same. Back in their village the chiefs and warriors assembled in the long house to argue the fine points of the invitation, to consider whether “pot luck” was the same as “pot latch” or should this be considered a “pow-wow”.

Meanwhile the tribal women quietly gathered baskets of food, star quilts and beaded moccasins in anticipation of many days of feasting and trading, ceremonial singing and face painting. They packed the canoes for the journey down river.

The day of the big feast arrived with much posturing and pomposity among the men of both cultures, with much speechifying and jostling for place and recognition. Among the women there was much oohing and aahing and pinching of babies, trading of recipes and exchanging dress patterns. Young and old, each and all, ate their fill from tables groaning with the weight of basted turkeys and pumpkin pies. Old Uncle Ebenezer over-imbibed in home brew and fell face first in the mashed potatoes, thereby setting the precedent for following generations of impaired Uncle Ebenezers.

While the women scrubbed dishes and made sandwiches from the leftovers, the men scrambled out in the back yard and invented football. A good time was had by all.

In fact, so much good came from Dame Goodheart’s pot luck that the participants, wiping grease from their well-fed faces, agreed to meet again for the harvest celebration next year and marked the date on their calendars. While the men wanted to name the celebration The Super Bowl, it is rumored that young Tiny Tim, in his piping voice, was heard to exclaim, “Let’s call today ‘Thanksgiving’!” And so it is.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 22, 2012 ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The First Blizzard of Winter, the Goodness, Soup, Bread and a Bossy Cat

The First Blizzard of Winter, the Goodness, Soup, Bread and a Bossy Cat

That morning when I checked the NOAA weather map, the entire northern tier of Montana blazed scarlet for “Blizzard”, poised to pounce mid-afternoon. I walked to coffee and the post office, knowing I would not see my friends or my mail for days. The heady wine scent of fallen leaves dominated the air. Negative ions foretold the approaching storm, shifted and danced to the slightest breeze, kissed me with an overwhelming feeling of well-being.

Back home, I watched as the red line on my thermometer dropped, the sky darkened, and wind chased leaves down the street. Early in the afternoon, school busses, engines belching fogs of diesel, lined up in preparation for early dismissal. For an hour the sky drizzled rain, refreshed the thirsty earth. The wind picked up, transformed each raindrop into fat flakes of snow, flung them to the ground to melt. School buses returned and disappeared into the maw of the storage barn across the street. Another hour passed. Ice coated every surface. Flakes piled, drifted, and buried the world outside my windows. I set a kettle of beans to soak.

By evening the ever-deepening snow piled helter-skelter like mounds of meringue. I stood in my open doorway to test the violence of the wind-swirled white, to breathe deeply the clean wet smell. Falling snow, even in the storm, dampened other sound, isolated me in silence. That night with my cat draped over my feet I slept peacefully.

The next morning I put my pot of beans on the stove. I still battle each chore with a wounded wing. I awkwardly gathered ingredients for bread and in a ludicrous comedy of flying flour, assembled a blob of dough, later to be one-handedly pummeled into ill-shaped loaves. My kitchen resembled the great outdoors. Once the dust settled, I cleaned for an hour. The beans gently simmered. My cat pasted herself over the heat vent in the dining room. Snow continued to fall.

I could afford to watch this storm through the eyes of a half-full glass. I don’t have to fight through the drifts to pitch hay to the cattle or bust through ice-crusted water troughs or haul arm-loads of wood to fill the kitchen wood-box. I could be reasonably sure that the sun would melt the snow, would turn it into sloppy slush. From the warmth of my living room chair I could imagine the drought-thirsty ground drinking each drop of moisture.

I live on the street in Harlem known as the old highway. Parallel to this street are the railroad tracks. In a real way every train rumbles through my living room. On the second day of storm I could not see beyond the willows along the tracks. The hills disappeared. There was no sky. There was no horizon. The skeleton arms of cottonwoods grabbed the lowered sky and clutched it to them like a blanket. The roof of the bus barn across the street showed no edges, no definition. Snow sifted down like dust.

Cars accelerated from the stop sign at my corner and slick-slid past my house. Each train chuffed through wearing a wind blasted shirt of snow and ice. Well-bundled youngsters raced screaming snow mobiles down the center of the street, some pulling sleds, both passengers and drivers screeching and laughing. My cat nudged me away from my post at the door, led me back to my chair, so she could stretch along my lap.

For supper I slurped my soup and tore chunks of hot bread from the misshapen loaf. I wished my granddaughters were here so I could treat them to snow ice-cream. When their parents, my children, were small we would scoop bowls of snow, add spoons of sugar, vanilla and heavy cream. We shoveled it down quickly before the snow could melt. I chose to ignore the superstition I learned from my grandmother. She said to wait for the second snow, to let the first snow clean the air. Clean the air of what, I wondered.

My cat begged to go out so I opened the door to show her. She sniffed and said, “Oh.”

Before winter is over, I fear I will come to view each storm through a half-empty glass crusted with dregs of cabin fever. But that day I saw the goodness. I knew that tomorrow or the day after, the blue sky would hold us under its bowl. The sun would turn the air to diamonds.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 15, 2012


My Ten Cent Spangled Knit Cap, Circa 1960, and Assorted Head Coverings

My Ten Cent Spangled Knit Cap, Circa 1960, and Assorted Head Coverings

While she shampooed my hair, Marcia and I giggled over hats. Hats atrocious. Hats ridiculous. For my walk to her shop, I had tugged on a tasteless floppy felt turquoise hat festooned with a pink “rose”. I wear it because it is warm.

“I have a more outrageous hat than that in our garage sale,” said Marcia. “It was my mom’s. I’ll show you when we are finished.”

I’ve always liked hats. On second thought, I’m not sure that “like” is the right word. I have an affinity for hats. I see hats. I notice them. I wear them. Winter or summer, I seldom leave home without one. Or even two, if the weather is iffy.

Or perhaps my hats are simply habit. Used to be, in my pre-Vatican II Catholic church childhood, all girls, young and old, were required to wear a hat. Tenderness of age brooked no exception. Sin was evoked; maybe not hell-fire-and-burn-forever sin but certainly an increase to my daily mounting time in Purgatory. Forgetting your head covering was not a tolerated excuse. Sister Mary St. Something-or-Other would snare your arm and affix a handkerchief to your scalp with a sharp bobby pin.

No matter what the weather, every Easter Sunday a new hat adorned my head, topping off a confection of a dress. I fondly remember some of those hats, made variously with straw or tulle, decorated with wire covered flowers, sprigs of leaves or even bright red “cherries”. I particularly recall a distasteful number, constructed of pink fuzzy stuff over ice tongs which gripped each side of my head. I suffered that torture the entire season, offering my pain to Jesus without complaint, shortening my days in Purgatory.

In winter we broke out the scarves, blessed scarves. Wool, cotton or rayon. Patterned or plain, all fringed. Tied snug beneath my chin. I looked like a Russian peasant girl.

Even as a child I recognized the power of adornment, the theatrical value of hats. While I had to wear the same hat each season, many of the grown women and even some of the luckier girls owned a variety of head coverings. I hated those girls. But the women’s hats offered many hours of delightful diversion. In particular I recall Mrs. Jim McCann, tall and stately, to my mind the most beautiful woman in church. Her hats, broad brimmed with bits of lace or fur and net, were wonders. She did not buy her chapeau from JC Penney. Most other women in church wore grown-up versions of my own dreadful hats.

Years later, as I searched through second-hand and vintage stores for garments from which to cobble together period costumes for plays, I began buying hats that caught my eye. I’ve garnered a small collection: hats elegant, practical, foreign, beautiful and ugly. Designer hats. Straw, silk, ribbon, fur, cloth, felt, lace and feather hats.

Today my headgear tends to be about survival; protection from sun, rain, winds and cold. Practical. However, from time to time, I grab a frivolous hat on my way out the door.

When she finished my hair, Marcia led me to her garage. “Here it is.” She held up a blue yarn, crocheted, bowl of a cap, hung about with pearlescent disks the size of miniature satellite dishes. “Doesn’t this just remind you of Catherine Wilson?”

Catherine Wilson has been gone for years. But I was immediately transported to St. Thomas Catholic Church in 1959. It was winter. Outside the wind fisted the walls. Rubber overshoes dripped small puddles of melted snow on the oak floor. I sat mid-way up the aisle, on the left side, snug in a green wool, knee-length coat with a heavy cotton print scarf over my head. Catherine Wilson sat further up in a pew on the right. She wore a mid-length navy cloth coat. The twin sister of this hat, a hovercraft of blue loops and pearly bangles, overlay her tight gray curls.

The scene evoked by that truly ugly hat was too real. I left Marcia’s shop, walked as far as the end of her drive, wheeled around and went back. “Marcia, I have to have that hat. If I don’t take it, it will haunt me. How much is it?”

This morning I wore my new hat to coffee with the boys at the city shop. They howled.

“I bought it at your yard sale,” I told Richard.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You paid money for that,” asked Charlie.

“Ten cents,” I said.

“You paid too much,” said Chuck.

It was worth every penny.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 8, 2012 ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Take A Break: Survival Manual for the Fractured Woman

Take A Break: Survival Manual for the Fractured Flippered Woman

I stepped out the back door of the Senior Center kitchen, headed for the dumpster, tripped on a leaf-covered three-inch-high door-stop jutting up in the center of the narrow sidewalk, and for a short while flew through the air. While I seemed well-schooled in take-off, I had completely neglected the instructions on landing. I flopped face first, taking most of the impact on my right side. Among other injuries, I broke my wrist. I’m right-handed, of course. Decidedly right-handed.

This is not the end of my world. This is a mere intermission. I’m a stranger neither to shattered bones nor to casts. In the long-ago I have endured plaster for weeks, even months at a time. What surprised and amazed me, once I emerged from shock, was my emotional reaction.

I felt angry, stupid, guilty, ashamed, clumsy, worthless. From where? From what? For why? Feelings circled like a maelstrom, sucking me into the center of its turbulence. I gritted my teeth and repeated like a mantra, "This is not rational. This is not rational" Eventually, the storm calmed, leaving debris in its wake.

"All I do is sleep," I complained.

"Good. Sleep heals," my friends replied.

"But I can’t do anything."

"Uh,huh. You’re not supposed to. Enjoy it while you can."

Enjoy. Right. Ha. I mean I can’t do any simple thing. Brushing my teeth with my left hand requires a towel slung ‘round my shoulders to catch dribbles, drools and splatters. Getting dressed is interesting—rather like The Three Stooges production with only one Stooge—Me. I quickly abandoned a certain feminine garment. Elastic-waist sweat pants, while not haute couture, are practical. I hate them but I wear them. Shoes are impossible. I resort to my Birkenstocks with wool socks. I can’t sign my name to documents, checks or my absentee ballot. Using the keyboard with one hand drives me nuts. I can’t feed myself a balanced diet, can’t slice bread and cheese or chop onions or a carrot.

Life is simple these days. I sleep a lot. I read books. I scramble eggs. I read books. I eat with a spoon. I read books. I ask for help. I read books.

Dick Francis, in one of his novels, wrote that in the first eight or nine days the break in a bone fills with soft tissue and then begins to harden. I figure Dick Francis should know because his heroes break multiple bones in every book, climb back in the saddle and finish the race. They don’t sleep for days, whine, or lay about. But I’m not a character in a Dick Francis novel.

While my bones must have begun the process of knitting back together, there are things I have learned.

My left arm, awkwardly attempting the unusual and the impossible is getting stronger in inverse proportion to the atrophying muscles of my right arm.

If I hold a pencil immobile between my right thumb and forefinger, by moving my entire arm over the paper, I can scrawl a large-lettered note to myself, much more legibly than my left-handed scribbles.

Before attempting any chore, stop and think the process through in minute detail. Note what parts must be done with two hands. Discard the attempt at the chore. Take a nap.

In the kitchen, wear an apron. Make this a bibbed, bakery-style apron rather than the ruffled, waist tied handkerchief of tulle worn by June Cleaver and our mothers in the 1950’s.

Keep the same apron on while you eat. Use a spoon. Spoons are safer.

Dishes can be washed with the left hand only. Awkward, but do-able.

Lotion cannot be applied with one hand to same one hand.

Have your hair washed by the nearest hairdresser. It feels good and it is worth it.

Friends and neighbors will flock to help. Let them. Thank them.

Never worry about doing something with your damaged wing that you shouldn’t. Trust me, the pain will stop you. You are not a hero in a book.

Let the undone chores pile up. They are not important.

Take walks. Get some fresh air. Drink lots of water.

Chocolate is good. Indulge.

Keep a blanket on the couch. Stay warm. Call friends. Read books.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 1, 2012
The True Story, As Told By Penguina The Cat

My human calls me Penguina for my alleged resemblance to a penguin. That silly name is not my true name but, never mind. I write this with keyboard assistance from Dee Dee, Sondra’s daughter. We cats have a superior means of communication. But that is another story.

The first clue I had that something was up was when my servant, Sondra, was late coming home from work. Work, hmmm, something I don’t really understand. But she smells so delicious when she comes home. Sometimes, chicken, sometimes, fish. Mmmm. Oh, I’m forgetting where I was. Anyway, we have a system I worked out. Immediately after work she comes home and lets me out. Oh sure, I could use the "litter box" but really? I am much too refined. I prefer to refresh myself in nature. Anyway, that day the sun went down, it got cold, and she still wasn’t home. I do not like being kept waiting. Have I said that before?

Let me establish a few home truths right off the bat to avoid confusions later. Sondra calls me her cat. It is quite the other way around. Make no mistake, I own her.

After dark, Sondra finally rolled into the house. I elegantly and briskly marched outdoors. But, when I finished my toilette, I had to stand at the door and call for her to let me back in! Such rudeness! Such indignity! She ignored my complaints and sat down in my favorite chair. She thinks it’s hers. You humans are under the misperception that you own it all. I jumped up on her lap to be petted in that perfect way I taught her. What was that thing on her petting hand? It was hard and it smelled like medicine. She used her other hand. It does not pet as well. I endured. Hmpff. I wasn’t sure how she was going to do for me with one hand. I could see that I would have to take control here.

Sondra put me down and phoned her daughter, Dee Dee, my co-author. Dee Dee was my first servant. Oh, that is another story. Anyway, she told her daughter she had fallen and broken her wrist, banged her knee, bruised her face, chipped her glasses and ached all over.

Next she went to the bedroom to change into pajamas, which she lived in the next few days. She tried to pull her clothes off with one hand. And get dressed. I took pity on the poor old girl and grabbed an arm of her pajamas and handed it to her. You would have laughed to see the look Sondra gave me. Didn’t I already say we cats are the superior species?

Sondra clearly thinks she rules the roost. Roost, really, why do they call it a roost? We live in a house. No chickens here. Unless Sondra bakes a chicken. Yummm. I love fresh baked chicken when Sondra makes it. She always honors me with a giblet or special piece. Oh dear, I lost my train of thought again. Hmm, which makes me wonder why humans call it a train of thought? Oh well, I will worry about that later.

When the sun goes down, Sondra likes to brew tea to sip with a slice of toast. That evening was different. Did I say Sondra makes her own bread? She has to slice it? With one hand? I had to snicker when the loaf flew off the counter and landed under the table. I still find crumbs to lick up. Why she doesn’t buy sliced bread at the supermarket, like most humans, I don’t know. Sondra claimed she couldn’t open my cat-food can or make her usual home-cooked meal. So we had to make do with a little dry food for me and a glass of milk for her. I was so happy when she later called her friend Mary to bring her English muffins and a soft snack for me. I was afraid we might starve, but I guess that we will be fine.

As a rule, before bedtime I jump into Sondra’s lap. Usually she rubs me like a good servant and makes me so calm and relaxed I go to sleep. But since her good hand is useless, now I rub myself all over her and purr until her blood pressure goes down and she forgets her pain.

I can see that our roles will have to change for a while, a little while, just for this emergency. I would say this constitutes such. However, discretion is in order. Please, do not even hint to my fellow cats that I am serving a human. I would never live down the shame.

Penguina, for Sondra Ashton, by way of Deborah Robart

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 25, 2012

On Your Way to Heaven, Grab the Cash Box

On Your Way to Heaven, Grab the Cash Box

A couple weeks ago I went to Floweree to spend the weekend with Karen. Our friend Luana joined us for lunch. After we ate, we piled into Karen’s car and explored the back roads, down to the Missouri and the Carter Ferry. If black clouds had not been roiling over the mountains, we would have crossed the river on the ferry, driven dirt roads to Highwood and circled into Great Falls. Instead, we back-tracked through Carter, dug out a yucca plant we spotted along the roadside for me to add to my garden, and then headed north for several miles of sightseeing along the Teton. We wound up in Fort Benton, strolled across the walking bridge, took pictures, cruised the streets. We each had memory stories of times past, some good, some bad. As darkness fell, we headed home for pizza.

Sunday morning Karen invited me to go to church with her. It would be the first Sunday she had been back to church since her husband died. The women of the Carter Methodist Church had provided strong support for Karen during Don’s lengthy illness. They catered food for the funeral held among the flower beds in Karen’s spacious yard. They kept her freezer loaded with casseroles for those first empty days alone. In this country we do know how to love with food.

If I sent you to the Methodist Church in Carter, you would identify it instantly; the little white clapboard country church with the bell in the steeple. You could cut it out and paste it into any small town in Montana. The bustling congregation enfolded Karen and greeted me with warmth, hugs and handshakes.

At the beginning of the service, Evelyn, the minister, gathered the younger children around her on the steps below the pulpit. There must have been a dozen little kids. I’m sure Evelyn intended her lesson about Heaven to be interactive because she started with questions, a tactic not without inherent dangers.

I don’t have her questions in any correct order, but this is the way I remember it.

"What do we have to do to get to heaven?" Evelyn posed.

"Die," answered a dark-haired boy, leaning against her on her left side, wildly waving his arm in the air.

That threw Evelyn for a moment, but she gamely waded back where angels rightly fear to tread. She tried to steer their little minds in a different direction by re-wording the question.

"Who gets to go to heaven?"

"People who die," answered a little girl sitting on the step slightly behind her.

"But does everybody who dies get to go to heaven?"

"Yes," the youngsters all agreed, vigorously.

"But what about BAD people; what happens to BAD people when they die?" And with this question Evelyn pointedly jabbed her forefinger downward toward the floor. "Where do they go?"

"Into the ground?" answered the little boy. He was obviously a creative thinker.

Evelyn attempted to reroute the discussion onto a safer road. "What do you think heaven will be like?"

Silence for a full minute. We adults ruminated on angels, harps, saints and clouds. The kids were mum.

"Will we need anything when we go to heaven?" Evelyn continued bravely.

"Cash," shouted the same little boy. By now I had fallen in love with him.

Evelyn asked no more questions, wrapped up her lesson, sent the children elsewhere to color pictures, and painfully got up from her perch on the low steps.

"I’ll bet you thought I lost control there for a minute," she said to us, revealing a wry sense of humor.

On my long drive home to Harlem, I thought about this fearless little boy. When I was his age, I certainly thought my own original thoughts. But, unlike him, I felt I had to keep them to myself. I spoke only the rote catechism I had memorized. I would not have dared be impertinent, to ask the questions I held in my mind, to risk the wrath of Sister Mary Francis or the fury of my family.

That evening I planted my yucca in a corner of my yard. I surrounded it with a blanket of gravel. It looks quite content in its new home. Maybe it thinks it died and went to heaven.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 18, 2012

In the Café of My Mind

In the Café of My Mind

I always thought what fun it would be to run a restaurant. No, I’m not going to do it. I know better. The idea is irrational at this time in my life. But "rational" has never been a great deterrent to my decisions.

Whenever I dine out, I toy with the idea. I assess the menu, the floor plan, the ease of operation, ambiance, lighting, colors, and of course, the food. I can’t help myself.

The closest I have come to running an eatery, was back in the early eighties when I taught school at Hays. For twelve solid weeks my home-ec students and I ran a restaurant. These kids were great. They planned menus, figured how much food to prepare, what products we would need, drove with me to Havre to buy groceries, planned the budget, and priced the menu. They cleaned, chopped, sliced, mixed and cooked. Each week we transformed our home-ec room into a gastronomic center of world cuisine. Following each week’s theme, we decorated with table cloths, candles or flowers. Every Thursday evening we opened our doors to the Hays community. We served an average of one-hundred ten meals a night to parents, grand-parents, aunties and uncles. The community loved it. My students loved it. I nearly collapsed from exhaustion.

As I said, I don’t always make rational decisions. I have few illusions. Yet this week I let myself get hooked into a decision that is, at best, as twisted as my famous pretzels with homemade jalapeno mustard. Here’s what happened.

The Senior Center in Harlem is the heart of our community. In addition to housing about a dozen residents in the Little Rockies Retirement Apartments, it serves the community in a variety of ways. The Sweet Medical Center has a satellite clinic. The County Health nurse, a dentist, and the Northern Montana Hospital Foot Clinic regularly provide additional medical services. The activity room is open for community use. Several groups hold monthly meetings. Men and women from Harlem have regular coffee hours. At any time one might find people at the center walking laps, working jigsaw puzzles, using computers, meeting for weight loss, playing cards, singing, and even experiencing harp therapy.

The Senior Center boasts a well-stocked kitchen with a commodious dining room. Lunch is served six days a week. Wednesday and Saturday are the big days as forty or more community members join the residents for lunch.

About three months ago the cook, Barbara, needed to quit so she could care for her ailing husband. Rose, one of the residents, stepped into Barbara’s shoes to temporarily fill the need.

But week after week the position remained unfilled. Rose continued to cook the meals. Katie, the director at the Center, approached me to see if I would like the job. My eyes glazed over. "No!" I said.

Then one morning, Chuck, a board member of the Center, cornered me one morning after coffee at the City Shop. "We still don’t have a cook. Sondra, do me a favor. Would you just think about it?"

On the basis of my pie, Chuck thinks I’m a good cook. "Why me, Chuck? I’m a plain farm cook," I said.

"Just think about it."

Every other day it seemed I heard from either Katie or Chuck. "So, have you thought about it?" I began ducking around corners to avoid them. I also noticed that various folks around the community were going out of their way to be nice to me—the same folks who eat lunch at the Center.

To my relief, the job was offered to an applicant. She accepted. I celebrated. The following day she took a different job.

Katie accosted me. "Look," I told her. "The only way I would even consider it is to job share."

"That’s perfect. Rose will stay on. You can share the job with her."

"I’ll think about it."

A young woman applied. It seemed like she was a good fit. Once more I was off the hook. Then, on what was to be her first day at work, the gal got a better offer.

"It’s just a few hours a day," said Katie.

"We need you," said Chuck.

Both, "Aw, come on, give it a try."

I felt like a ping-pong ball. Or the butt of a cosmic joke.

I capitulated. Rose and I will cook alternate weeks. I have no illusions. I’ll be serving meals to women who have spent a life time in their kitchens. "Well, she sure didn’t fix that meatloaf the way I make it." I’ll never be good enough.

I’ll make mistakes. The Seniors will set me straight. But this is not the café I had in mind.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 11, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Gone with the Winds of Worry

Gone with the Winds of Worry
I’ve been a bit down in the dumps this last week, entertained by garbage mind.  Well, maybe not crouched in the absolute bottom of the pit. More like I stood on the edge of the dump, toes hanging over, wondering if I should just go ahead, jump in and wallow around a bit. Maybe emerge sprinkled with coffee grounds, decorated with potato peels, a rotten cantaloupe shell for a hat.

In the movie, Scarlet O’Hara said, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” I decided I would think about it today. I generally don’t get too upset when today looks like doom and gloom. I know that in the morning I will have a different outlook. As a friend of mine says, “Tomorrow will be different; maybe not better, but different.” I’ll take different.
These past couple weeks have been filled with sorrow. I lost four friends to death. On top of that six other friends face serious medical problems, hospitalization and surgery. They refuse to worry.  They told me. Without my conscious knowledge, I volunteered to worry for them. I didn’t realize that I’d stepped up to that plate until I was a week into the game. 

Work generally gets me out of any slump. Work is my best medicine. But I found myself toeing the pitcher’s mound in some sort of World Series of Worry. A task I should have knocked out in an hour, took all day. I would pick up a project, set it down and wander out into the yard, seduced by the warm sunshine.
Finally I quit pushing against the river’s flow, tossed worry out the window, crawled out of my gloom. I phoned my ailing friends, told them how much their friendship means to me, how I want to see them home and healthy.  I went to breakfast with Bill and Mary John. I harvested the rest of my tomatoes. They lie scattered across my kitchen table in varied shades of green. I took baskets of garden produce to Peg and Karl. I dug up some of my snow-on-the-mountain, and with a shovel and the hardy plants, drove across town to my cousin’s place and planted them for her.                  

My fruit trees need pruning. I went to my garden shed, found my whicker-whacker and my snipper-snapper, put them in my wheel barrow and set out to trim trees. I wheeled over to my sand cherry. I couldn’t do it. “Maybe next spring,” I whispered. “Let’s see what kind of winter we have.”

I want my lilacs along the fence to spread their branches and fill in the space, so I rolled past them and parked my wheel barrow by the currants. They definitely should be trimmed back. I snipped off two “dead” branches, saw that they weren’t really dead. I heard the bush cry out in pain. I felt awful.  I apologized and decided to wait, to see how the currants wintered. Moved on to the choke-cherries, stood in front of one bush that desperately needs to be shaped.  Stood there five minutes. I couldn’t do it. Gave up, put away my tools.
These bushes have become my friends and right now, I simply cannot chop away at my friends. Winter is coming, bringing with it a long dormancy. Maybe my young bushes will be stronger for another season of full growth. I know that in my imagination I am making up a false connection between my human friends and my fruit-tree friends. No matter.

The next day Shirley, Bev and I drove to Lewistown for lunch, expecting an opulent seafood meal. Never trust the food editor of a rival newspaper. (Rule of thumb: Never order seafood inland. Never order beef on the coast.) We poked around some unique stores on Main Street. On the way home we stopped at Slippery Ann on the CMR Wildlife Refuge to take in the annual gathering of the elk, all the bugling and prancing and sniffing and flirting. It’s like a Saturday night dance at a country western bar. A few hours of elk watching and we had worked up an appetite for dinner. Since we were close, we continued on to Zortman for a burger at the bar.
In jigs and jogs I’ve nudged myself away from the garbage pit of despair. I’ll keep telling my friends I love them, tell them how much I care. My shop work will wait. Today I’ll grab the warm sunshine. Tomorrow I’ll get back to work.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
October 4, 2012

Heritage Seed Club Meets at Zurich Spa—Top That, New York City!

Heritage Seed Club Meets at Zurich Spa—Top That, New York City!
Last night I accompanied Kim and Renee Hansen to garden club. Renee invited me to join this group of avid gardeners a year or maybe two years ago. Officially known as Zurich Seed Savers, somewhere along the line they abandoned the formal name and call themselves “garden club”.

Evidently, when she asked me to join, Renee could tell by the skeptical look on my face, that I was picturing a group of cutthroat women vying for the title of Master Gardener of the Year. So she explained, “Look, we’re only a bunch of men and women who like to dabble in dirt. We’re not formal. We meet once a month at the Spa Bar in Zurich for potluck. We share our garden successes and woes, exchange plants, seeds and seedlings. Sometimes we invite an expert to speak. But mostly we eat good food. We laugh a lot. Come on, try it. I’ll pick you up.”

So Renee and her husband Kim have been taking me to garden club ever since. Nobody calls the meeting to order. No committee reports. No budget headaches. No policy and procedures. We gather around the food, dig in, and talk about our gardens. Doesn’t get any better than that!

Last night, our group faced a crisis. Well, maybe not exactly crisis, but we had to make an important decision.

Several years ago Hillary Maxwell had gathered a group of fellow ground grubbers with the purpose of saving and propagating heritage garden seeds. She had written a grant which provided money to buy starter seeds of varieties of garden produce seldom seen in markets today.  Commercial fruits and vegetables are grown for uniform size and ease of shipping.  If it doesn’t transport easily, it doesn’t get grown. Ugly or misshapen gets discarded. One consequence of genetic uniformity, is that fruits and vegetables have lost their old time flavor. 

“After all these years of sharing plants, we pretty much have the same kind of seeds,” explained one member.

“I keep the seed bank,” said Jeanne, “and some of the seeds in it are getting old.”

“I’ll take those old seeds,” volunteered Ralph. “I have an extra plot of ground I want to work up.”

A few years ago Ralph cultivated part of his yard, mixed several seeds together in the same pot; peas, beans, beets, corn, everything. He broadcast the seed. Stuff came up side by side, helter-skelter. Sounds like he plans a repeat performance.

Here’s what the crisis was all about. This summer Hillary and Bob Maxwell sold their place in Zurich and moved to Landusky.  Garden club had a tough decision to make. How could we keep going without the leadership of Hillary, the backbone of our group?

Last night I asked the fifteen or so members gathered around the table, “How many years has this group been meeting?”

“A long time.” “Hmmm. Fifteen?” “Seventeen?” “Well, it was back before so and so moved away because they were with us at least two years, when was that, honey?” Mentally, I did the math—less than twenty but more than fifteen.

Shy though I am, I opened my mouth. I urged the group to continue to meet monthly.” In my experience with organizations,” I told them, “anything less frequent and the club would wither away.” I confess that this was all selfish on my part. I want garden club to continue because I need their help and wisdom and encouragement with my own garden. Besides, garden club is fun.

After lively discussion, the group put together a schedule of monthly meetings through May when we knock off for the summer to tend our garden plots. By then we will know if we want to resume in the fall.

Gaye, who opens the bar on a weekday evening so we can have a meeting room, quickly agreed to our continued schedule.  “You gardeners bring wonderful dishes for your pot luck. Where else am I going to get such a good meal,” she added. The Spa, a roadhouse bar closed most nights, has become a community center, a gathering place for events and celebrations.

For two hours we sat around the potluck feast, ate and shared yarns about gardens (the good, the bad and the weedy), skunks (how to build a live trap without stink), spiders (huge spider spun web in the garden shed—shades of Charlotte) and potato bugs (first ones in years—picked them off by hand).

I carried home five kinds of heritage peppers you will not find on any grocery shelf. To mariachi music, I chopped the peppers, added tomatoes, onions and cilantro from my garden and canned salsa to last me the year.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

September 27, 2012

That Which We Carry With Us

That Which We Carry With Us
This is a poem. A poem that was pushing at me to be written. I sat down to write it. This is what came out. A prose poem.

I ask myself, “Why did I move back to Montana?” I fish the waters for an answer. Sometimes I haul in a trout or a salmon. Often my line hooks seaweed or a sucker. I would like a rational answer. Even to my mind, decisions based on the smell of bruised sage, the open bowl of forever sky, the gathering of elk at Slippery Ann or the first crocus at Snake Butte do not seem rational.
Good sense would have anchored me in Washington, in the community where I carved a niche of belonging, where I came into my maturity, raised my kids, developed my talents, earned respect. But something elusive compelled me to come full circle, to return to my earlier place, my native ground.

Even clockmakers know that time does not run in a straight line. Time is a wheel, a circle, rolling ‘round and ‘round. We try to bury the past. The past still happens. It never leaves us. The wise elders know. Sit and listen to any old-timer tell his stories. Even my four-year old granddaughter knows this. Somewhere in the middle, we lose it.
It is the stories. It is those who know our stories. The people who know our goodness and who know our failings. The people who knew my Dad, my sister, my husband and his family. The people who knew me then. When those people are gone, our stories live on. Those stories live on in the stones, in the dirt, in the rush and lap of the river. That is what is important, the stories. In them we are known.

We often feel alone. We pretend nobody knows us. We don a mask to get us through each day. We try to hide our warts. We fear if people see the warts, we will not be loved. We reveal more story by what we hide than by the words we choose. But someone listens. Someone hears. Someone loves us.
When I was growing up, when I felt sad or in distress, I ran into the woods along the Milk River and climbed into the crotch of a huge cottonwood and nestled hidden in the branches. Nobody could see me. Nobody knew I was there. I cried or daydreamed or planned and they are all the same thing. I held my sadness close to me. I didn’t want it to show.

Years later, before my Dad sold the farm, I came home for a holiday visit. Dad took me aside and quietly told me, “Your tree came down in a storm. You might want to walk out to say good-by before I haul it away.” I cried and cried, not for the tree, but that my Dad knew. My Dad had kept my secret.
I wrote my first Montana poems in Chicago. I wrote my best Montana poems in Poulsbo, Washington. I pulled my poetry from a bag slung over my shoulders, a bag filled with each sense memory, each life experience. Often I pretended my bag was empty. I did not want to look at what I carried, at what weighed me down, slowed my step. I closed my eyes to the root of my sadness.

The mind pretends but the heart knows. For me, here beneath the slant of autumn sun, there is no room for pretense. My stories surround me. I listen. I learn. In each story is lodged a piece of me. I am not alone. Each story also holds a piece of you. Each story heard lightens my burden. The circle turns.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 20, 2012

Lessons Learned on Hollow Days with a Four-year Old

Lessons Learned on Hollow Days with a Four-year Old
A week and a day. I’m not counting, but if I were, there are only a few days left until Lexi’s Mommy and Daddy come home. I am in a suburb of Seattle babysitting my granddaughter, Alexandria. Lexi’s Mom and Dad are in Italy, so I get to stay and we get to play.

My granddaughters have permanent hooks into my heart. I tell the little darlings, “Anything your heart desires, Sweet Puss.”
They teach me new worlds. My formal re-education began the first Friday afternoon (day three). We headed out to visit cousin Toni and her family in Tulalip for the long weekend. I made forty-two trips to the car with clothing, necessities for every eventuality, toys to entertain during the trip and a tray of chocolate cup cakes, made (with Grandma’s help) and decorated by Lexi. I strapped Lexi into her Big Girl car seat for the trip of an hour and a bit from Issaquah. Lexi sang to while away the time and brighten the trip. I soon joined her. This is the song she taught me:

I used to be hot, hot, hot,
And now I’m not, not, not.

This from the sweet mouth of my beautiful four-year old. For an hour we sang. I thought about the meaning of those words. I thought about it a lot, lot, lot. Horrors! I was singing rap music. Her dad likes rap; he probably corrupted his own child. Finally I asked, “Where did you learn this song, Lexi?”
“From the Cat in the Hat.” My first conclusion—as usual—wrong.

Toni, now six, and Lexi played beautifully ninety-six percent of the time. In between their play and laughter we adults heard variations of “You’re not the boss of me,” “Quit following me,” and “Don’t touch me.”
On the way home after our first weekend visit, Lexi taught me another song, this one crowded with creative animals, all down by the bay, where the watermelons grow and bears comb their hair, mooses kiss gooses, bees sunburn their knees and whales have polka-dot tails.

Day six, Labor Day Monday, we walked to the ice cream store, down the hill in the shopping center, for a treat. This was our second visit to the ice cream store. I did not intend for us to go every day. I asked Lexi, “How often do you get to go to the ice cream store?”
“Only on Hollow Days,” her honest answer.

Day seven, Lexi bouncing like Tigger, started back to school. I learned the route with Lexi telling me where to turn. I entered the wrong street only once, when I failed to ask her first. She dutifully reported my error to the delight of Mom and Dad when they called.
Day eight began woefully. Mom and Dad made their daily visit via Skype. Lexi was not ready to blow kisses and say good-by. When they cut short the call, way too soon for her, Lexi had her first minor meltdown, curled on the couch, refused to put on her shoes and declared she would not go to school. I called school, said we might dawdle a bit and would be late. I left Lexi, generally a joyful child, alone for a while to feel her sadness. Then I wheedled her into her shoes and manipulated her out the door. After all, I am smarter than a four-year old.

I lost track of time. We spent weekends with cousin Toni. We picked blackberries. We went to a “Fifties-Sixties” dance, in costume. We baked bread. We canned sweet-potato butter. We celebrated an occasional Hollow Day at the ice-cream store. We took a jammie walk (not my idea), a stroll around the block after we brushed out teeth and wriggled into our jammies. The evening air was mild, neighbors were out grooming lawns. The big kids played ball or rolled past on scooters. Once one gets past the initial discomfort of walking around a suburban neighborhood in night wear, it is quite relaxing. Try it some time.
This much fun is hard work. If I were counting the days, I would tell you that I’ll be home none too soon, exhausted, my eyes like pinwheels, with my world greatly expanded. If I were counting.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

September 13, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Moral Tale of Bags and Rabbits—Recycle, Reuse, Refuse

A Moral Tale of Bags and Rabbits—Recycle, Reuse, Refuse
“Recycle? Are you kidding? I don’t have room to store a bunch of junk. How would I get it to wherever it’s gotta go?  It’s too hard.”

I understood her objections. Where I lived in Washington it was easy. The mega-giant Waste Management distributed recycle bins along with the garbage bins and emptied both on pick-up day. We paid for recycling as part of our garbage bill. I sorted aluminum and metal into one bin, cardboard and paper into another and glass into the third. Since then, WM has simplified the process. Everything recyclable goes into one bin. Their recycle bin is three times the size of the garbage bin. This means three fourths of what we throw away could be recycled and reused. Think about it.
It is different out here in eastern Montana, out here where distance is measured in hours. My friend is right. Recycling is harder here. “How often do you go to Havre,” I asked her.

“At least once every couple weeks,” she answered. “Why?”

I gave her a brochure from Recycle Hi-Line. It lists businesses and organizations in Havre that work to help minimize waste in our landfills. “Why not start with just one item, say, plastics or newspaper. Take them with you whenever you go to Havre. And if you happen to go on the first Saturday of the month, well, you are in luck. You can drop all you’ve collected at the monthly Recycle Drive. There is one this Saturday.”

Recycling or reusing is mostly about paying attention. Take plastic bags, for instance.  When did retailers begin stuffing every purchase into plastic bags? I defy you to drive any public roadway, no matter how isolated, without finding flapping bags twisted onto barbed wired fences or blowing across the prairie like non-biodegradable tumbleweeds.
If you have a strong constitution, take a trip to the landfill. Contact Clay Vincent, Hill County Sanitarian; he’ll take you on tour of our new facility. Be sure to go inside the shop to see which caterpillar tractor has been immobilized by clumps of balled up plastic bags in its tracks.  Yep, the same bags we carry home from the store. And say hello to the gal whose sole never-ending job is to comb the landfill, chasing down runaway plastic.

My solution to the plastic bag problem is to refuse them. I began recycling plastic bags by saving them and taking them back to the retailer. Some I reused as can liners. Even when I had no purchases during the week, the bags seemed to multiply. I suspected the worst. Bundled together in a small space, they did what anything else would do—breed. Worse than rabbits, they multiplied exponentially.
I had to re-think my tactics. For years I have used cloth bags for groceries; that is, when I remembered. I am embarrassed to tell you how long it took me, once I made the decision to refuse plastic, to remember to carry cloth bags into the store. Now, how hard is that! All I had to do was pay attention. Eventually, I automatically assessed my grocery list, determined the number of bags I would need, added two more bags to carry the items I might purchase that are not on my list, and grabbed that number of cloth bags and headed into the grocery store.

Did I say “grocery” store? Modify that, please, to include hardware, plumbing, clothing, library, book store, any and all retailers. Again, pay attention. How often do you go into a store for one item which you can easily carry out in your hand, minus the ubiquitous plastic bag?  
Cloth bags are easy to come by. Out of idle curiosity, I took a break, went to my van and counted my cloth bags. I counted twenty-seven. I get them from all kinds of places. Of those twenty-seven bags, I paid for two, a total cash outlay of two dollars. I can only conclude that my reusable, washable cloth bags, in the privacy of my closed van, just like their evil kin, the plastic bags, just like rabbits, breed litters.

Gazing at my reusable bags, a feeling of righteous saintliness came over me. I know I am taking a stand on this blight on the environment, that my small efforts help decrease the total cost of maintaining the landfill and ultimately, increase its lifespan. What if we all did this one small thing? Think about it. It is an easy place to begin.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

August 30, 2012

Nature or Nurture?—The New, Improved Kochia

Nature or Nurture?—The New, Improved Kochia
Recently I have been re-thinking my personal war against kochia, a common noxious weed, otherwise known as tumbleweed, romanced in song by the Sons of the Pioneers, engraved in our western history by Zane Gray. One day the thought tumbled into my head, at that moment vacant and dreamy, that nobody ever wins a war. How true, I thought. So why do I stand out in the blazing sun, my hands encased in protective gloves, ripping kochia up by the roots? Oh, my aching back!

Year after year, since I moved back to the Milk River Valley, I have, armed with spades, hoes, poison and my own two hands, pulled, hacked, drowned and tried to banish this weed from my yard. By the time I have cleared the front yard, the back yard is overgrown. I attack the back yard, clean it and clear it, to then find a new healthy crop thumbing its nose at me from the front yard.

From early spring until snowfall, this has been my battle plan. No more. I declare an armistice. From now on, dear kochia, along with nature, I shall nurture you. Well, maybe I won’t go that far. There is a better way to spend my days than fighting this ever-present weed . . . er, plant. Surely I have more brains than a bit of vegetable matter. Especially a specimen that dries up and gets prickly in the winter.  I, on the other hand, in the winter . . . oh, never mind.
What makes a plant adapt to a new environment? Why will it, poor unloved orphan, cling to its adoptive mother earth when all it receives is kicks and scorn? These are serious questions.

Kochia, detested weed, was originally brought to the plains from the steppes of Russia, to be used as an ornamental backdrop in landscaping projects. I can well imagine its puny green brain cells peering out and thinking, “Dude, I like it here. Not much rainfall—perfect. Hot sun in summer—perfect. Cold wind in winter—perfect. Open plains upon which to spill my prolific seed once the wind has uprooted me and sent me tumbling, wending my way across country. It’s home away from home.”

Yep, brought here to be landscape backdrop. And why not? In season, kochia fills out, round and bushy, green as can be, and grows about seven feet tall if left to its own devices. If you squinch your eyes just right, it’s kind of pretty. Plant your day lilies and peonies in front. Take photos to send to all your relatives back east. They’ll think you live in paradise. And, best of all, you never have to plant it year after year. Who could ask for anything more?
So the kochia, which was never asked its opinion, was reluctantly dragged half way around the globe, transplanted to the new world and flourished. Soon, too soon, it found itself in laboratories, the victim of science, desperate experiments contrived to discover a means to eradicate the subject of the experiment.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the weed was perfecting its life cycle. Emerging in spring, tall and full in summer, turning brilliant fiery red in autumn, dry and tumbling across the plains in the winter, insuring a lively crop of offspring to green up the next spring. Soon kochia achieved its destiny—it filled the valleys and liberally sprinkled the hills. In a good year, it ignored fences, tearing them down from sheer weight and volume. In a bad year, desperate ranchers cut it, baled it, and fed it to starving cattle.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, chortling scientists developed a killer, the gardener’s friend. They called it, in true western fashion, “Round-up”.  All through the prairies, gardeners, ranchers and farmers suited up, grabbed the sprayer and headed out the door to cut the kochia off at the pass, yelling, “Kill! Kill!”

Until one day, kochia, its nature outwitting deadly science, sucked in the poison, licked its lips and grew eight feet tall. It’s here. It’s now. It’s won.

So here’s my plan, now that I’m no longer at war with a weed. When visitors ask me to identify that beautiful tall, green bushy plant behind the baby’s breath and iris and poppies and daisies, I’ll mumble and hang my head and say something like, “It was here when I got here. Grows real pretty, don’t it?”
Then in the winter, I’ll drizzle it with tinsel and twinkling lights and sell it to my relatives back east as Prairie Christmas Trees. Whadda ya think?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 6, 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Make a Difference—Do What One Person Can Do

Make a Difference—Do What One Person Can Do
When I first joined the City Council in Harlem, my friend Victor Miller, Blaine County Commissioner, told me to go to meetings, all kinds of meetings. He said that I would eventually settle into one or two organizations which most interested me. So when I saw a meeting announced, I showed up. Why? Education. I learned a bit and knew where to go when I needed more information. Consequently, a potpourri of meeting schedules began to show up in my monthly Council packet.

One afternoon I drove to Havre for my first Unified Disposal Board meeting. Within minutes I knew I had found my abiding interest. Garbage. And if you saw my home, you might think, “Uh huh, I can see that.” My entire house is furnished and decorated with junk, albeit revamped, refurbished, gussied up artistic junque. But this isn’t about me.        
At that point I was still painting and flooring and otherwise working on my house, one room at a time. As I finished each room, I unpacked the hordes of cardboard boxes holding furnishings and furbelows, broke down the cardboard to recycle, and . . . here my story gets ugly.

“Where do I take this stuff to be recycled?” I asked around town.

I heard: “We don’t recycle.” “What is recycle?” “Maybe in Havre.” 

“You mean I have to drive to Havre to recycle?” My question was answered with shrugs.

Meanwhile I had purchased several thirty-gallon trash cans in which to store assorted plastics, aluminum, metal and paper. I planned to periodically haul them to, you guessed it, Havre.
By the time my house renovations were nearly complete, I had accumulated a small mountain of cardboard, about the size of Saddle Butte, flattened, stacked and sorted by relative size. I loaded my van and drove to Havre. I stopped at the various places that had been suggested as possibles and maybes.

I heard, “No, not us.” “We used to but it is too expensive.”  “Maybe later but not now.” “You best take it to the dump.”

In the wind and the cold and the drifting snow and flapping plastic bags, I sailed cardboard after cardboard into a garbage at the Havre landfill, flinching with each toss of a box. Later, people in Harlem laughed at me for driving all the way to Havre when I should have known there is a perfectly good container site up the hill in Harlem. Ha, ha.
Several months later I loaded up my thirty-gallon cans, now full, and hauled them to Havre. The story was a rerun. My carefully sorted recyclables landed in the landfill. I felt defeated, my efforts gone for naught.

At the same time, unbeknownst to me, a woman named Candi Zion and her friends were gearing up for a new venture. They call it Recycle Hi-Line. With unrelenting dedication, these tenacious pioneers have paved the way to “recycle heaven” in Havre. They have partnered with various local businesses and the Unified Disposal Board to make “recycle” a household word.
Today, a mere six years later, my story would be different. Pacific Steel, the Havre Day Activity Center, and Battery Warehouse at Havre Muffler and Brake, all accept cardboard. When I drive out to the landfill south of Havre, thanks to the efforts of Recycle Hi-Line and the UDB, I can find containers dedicated to tires, metal, and wood. Throughout Havre I can easily find places to dispose of all my recyclables, including eye glasses, batteries and phone books. For a complete list, check the latest at

So a couple weeks ago, I figured it is time somebody in Harlem started talking about recycling.  Not being interested in re-inventing the wheel, and in order to gather more information and to elicit help, I showed up at a Recycle Hi-Line meeting. These folks made me feel like I was coming home. I was warmly welcomed, immediately given a task, included in all discussions and knew I had signed up for a lifetime membership.

Saturday I am hauling, among other things, my old computer to the corner of 1st Street and 5th Avenue where Pacific Steel and Recycling will be accepting E-waste free of charge from 8:00 to noon. You can be the first person on your block to recycle monitors, copiers, keyboards, game boxes, scanners, printers, flash cards, TV sets, towers, cell phones, rechargeable batteries, cable boxes, laptops, ipods or any similar electronic device. Candi says, “If it runs off electricity or has memory, bring it.” 
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 2, 2012