Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Homecoming

My Homecoming
Mom decided to take off for the balmy warmth of Mexico and left my brother and I to fill in for her. There is no way I can fill her creative shoes, but I’ll give it a try.

This summer I came back to Montana for the first time since I graduated from college. Oh, I’ve been back for visits, but flying in and out is just not the same as driving. Driving makes the experience more solid for some reason.

I loaded the typical mom van with husband, 2 daughters (18 and 5), luggage for 2 months (after all we would be gone 2 weeks) , toys, games, movies to entertain, snacks to feed an army, and 3 dogs. Picture one of the dogs being a petite English Mastiff. Yep, we were loaded to the gills for this adventure.

As soon as we got out of Seattle snarling traffic and crossed Snoqualmie Pass it was a heavenly drive. I never really notice how wound up tight I am until I get out of the traffic in this region and get back to normal drivers. I love when you meet in the middle of a lonely stretch and both drivers give a friendly finger lift of acknowledgement. They do that in Seattle also, just with a different finger.

After seeing 17 deer on the sides of the road and a semi grill, I decided St. Regis was a grand spot for our first night. We camped in a cabin built at the turn of the last century with a spent rifle casing in the yard. Enough said.

The next day began bright and early and we hit the road. After living in Seattle for 4 years, it is amazing how fast one gets acclimated to 45-68 degree temps year round. 104 when we hit Glendive was a little bit of a shocker. It’s a dry heat I told the kids. Somehow, I had forgotten about all the bugs. Dogs and kids had a great time chasing all the grasshoppers.

After the sun started to head to bed, my youngest couldn’t contain herself any longer and had grandpa out saddling his newest horse, which became hers. For the week in Glendive, daily rides were a must. She even rode the second day, right after breaking her arm at the family picnic. Glendive has a beautiful hospital, full of very nice people.

It was sad leaving family and friends in Glendive, but we headed to Harlem for the next leg of the journey. The road was mostly empty, with occasional semis until we hit Highway 2, then we saw a vehicle every half hour or so. My favorite part of this journey was seeing the billboard for Ft. Belknap Casino stating “It’s more fun than feeding the cows”. I took a picture and sent it to my friends at Tulalip Tribes where I work. They have a huge casino and I asked whether they thought this might be a new advertising trend.

We arrived at Grandma’s and took over. Her cats, formerly ours, hit the old shed and didn’t come out until we went to bed every night. The mosquitos all welcomed us and feasted at every opportune moment.

I have so many memories from Harlem and Hays. I couldn’t believe how many changes there were, and how much was the same. I took the kids on several drives and I would tell stories as we went about my different memories. I had always talked about the tree where I used to go to smoke cigarettes because I figured the leaves hid the smoke when I was 9. I was sad to see it had been cut down and is now just a stump. I wondered where the young went to be sneaky now.

All these memories got me really thinking about what I want to do with the next 20 years of my work life. I am a mental health therapist and was planning on finishing my doctorate in the hopes of getting that “I can conquer the world” feeling back. After sitting around the campfire with a friend I had graduated with, she said she had the same reason for getting her doctorate, and it didn’t work. I thought of what I really had always wanted to do, and it was law school. I stayed up all that night thinking of how I would love that.

I drove through the rest of Montana, Browning, to Idaho, and back to Washington in a fervor of excitement. As soon as I got back I jumped online and signed up to take the Law School Aptitude Test. I believe 50 is not too old to start my new career.

I’m not going to law school to work in a big law firm or make millions, I want to move home. I feel the need to move home and let our youngest grow up in a place with strong community values. I want to wave at neighbors and bake when someone is sick. I grew up with that. My children have been all over the U.S. and Japan as a military family. They know what’s out there in the world, but they don’t know what it’s like to have roots. Now that my husband is out of the military, it is time to get back to my roots. I’m ready to come home. So watch out Montana, the Robart’s are headed back home.

Dee Dee Robart (Rattey) for Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 26, 2012

When Our Children Are the Age We Are in Our Minds

When Our Children Are the Age We Are in Our Minds
Remember when we were six going on seven. Remember when birthdays were a joy, a cause for celebration, awaited with keen anticipation. Remember the excitement of twelve going on thirteen, becoming a teenager. Or counting the days until we passed that major milestone and turned twenty-one. Ah, the sweet expectations of youth. Then suddenly we were twenty-nine and heading over the hill.

A few weeks ago I enjoyed the Christmas feast with my cousin Shirley and her older son, Tim. While sewing gift pillows for Shirley’s grandchildren, Truth and Titan, sons of her younger son Terry, I pondered all the lost years when Shirley and I lived a thousand miles apart. We never got to watch our children grow up as playmates and friends. So I made Tim a pillow too, a quite large pillow, a consolation gift for the five-year-old Tim I never knew.

In the course of our conversation, Shirley mentioned that Tim had turned fifty. My head whipped around for an astonished look at Tim, who nodded his head, then back to Shirley. “No,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. With my keen analytical mind, I instantly did the math and agreed, “Yeah.” My oldest is forty-five. My youngest is thirty-four. How can that be? I myself have barely reached forty-five. Right?

Wrong. Oh, so sadly wrong. How can my daughter be forty-five? I think I am forty-five. I feel forty-five. I walk into my bathroom. I contemplate the stranger in my antique mirror, faded and spotted with age. The mirror. The mirror is faded and spotted with age. I don’t recognize the stranger standing on the other side looking back at me. The fat old baggage. No, I don’t know that strange woman. I know me. And she is not me. I know what I look like. I remember perfectly well.

I have not changed a bit. Well, maybe a little bit. But just the other day, let me tell you, I felt carried back in time. It happened like this. I was leaving the Big R pushing a cart full of cat chow and wool socks. As usual, the wind at the top of the hill was blowing, teasing my hair and mussing my clothes. But the day was balmy for December, almost like spring. And suddenly I was filled with such exuberance, such a feeling of vibrant youth that I wanted to run across the parking lot. So I did. I jogged behind my cart, hanging on, in case I lost my footing. For a few paces I ran. I laughed that I could do such a thing. Okay, so maybe it looked pitiful. But what if I had ignored the urge and walked sedately to my vehicle? I would have missed the joy.

Remember how our parents used to admonish us, “Act your age.” Did you ever answer back (silently in your mind, of course, so you wouldn’t be backhanded into next Friday), “But I am acting my age.”

A couple years ago I was in Mazatlan, Mexico, with my friends Kathy and Melanie. I wanted to go parasailing. I wanted to parasail so badly that in my imagination I could feel the sensations of flying as though they were real. My friends put up a fuss. “You can’t,” they said. “Remember your banged up leg. If you go, you are on your own. We are not going to nurse you when you break your bones.” Finally the day came when I could put it off no longer. I went up, up in the air, tethered by a long rope to a boat way down there on the water. Oh, it was the most beautiful sensation, flying with the pelicans and frigate birds, just like I had imagined, times twenty. I’m glad I didn’t let my dear friends mother me. Now I parasail every year.

I’ve got to confess this. Sometimes I see a handsome young man and I think, “Oh, if only I were twenty years younger.” Somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my mind the gears whirr, “Look again, Chickie.” “Okay, so what I meant is, if only I were forty years younger.” Thank all the gods that ever were that nobody can read my mind.

So enjoy your gift, Tim, you hunk. Listen, kids, we are not ready for the nursing home yet. Maybe when we are really old, like about one hundred twenty.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 12, 2011

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Today I Received a Love Letter

Today I Received a Love Letter
Sunday, the first day of January. Today I received a love letter. It didn’t arrive in the conventional manner, tucked in my box at the post office, enclosed in an envelope with my name in the center and a cancelled stamp in the upper right-hand corner. It fell out of a book I was reading, a used book, “Garbo Laughs”, a novel by Elizabeth Hay, a writer from Ottawa, Canada. Who knows how long it had held a place between the pages.

I turned the page and a small piece of paper fell onto my lap. I instantly recognized it was special. I picked it up. “A love letter,” I said. My insides went warm and fuzzy and my face relaxed into a smile. A love letter meant for me. I wondered who sent it.

What conniving of the gods routed this special missive from a previous reader into my hands.

What other book lover knew that I would find “Garbo Laughs” entrancing, sweet and romantic. How did he know this copy would travel its circuitous route to me. Did he suspect that I might move the book from pile to pile for several weeks before I picked it up, opened it and settled into my chair to read. Did he know it would be days before I would reach the particular page, before the slip of paper would fall into my lap to delight me.

The paper is plain, ripped from a three by five spiral-bound notebook and measured by aqua blue lines. The spirals bind the top of the pages which then flip open from bottom to top. The page is unusual. Centered below the ragged spiral shreds and the first blue line is a hole. The page is from the kind of notebook that my father carried in the left pocket of his chambray shirt along with a stub of pencil. Several of these notebooks, tattered and smudged, hung from nails in Dad’s machine shop out at the farm where I grew up. Do notebook makers still make this old fashioned notebook, with the center-punched hole designed for hanging from a nail?

I have an embarrassingly large collection of notebooks, every style and size. They are everywhere, in every room, on shelves, a stack on my desk, in my purse, in my van. I make sure paper is at hand if I want to write down a thought, an idea, a task, a poem. Yet none of my notebooks are like the old-fashioned one from which my lover ripped this page so that this morning I could receive his tender thoughts.

There are no words on the paper. The page is blank. So how do I know it is a love letter? I know in the same intuitive way we know when the phone is about to ring. The way we know one of our children a thousand miles away is having a bad day. The way we know rain is over the horizon although the sky above is cloudless blue. This scrap of paper is a love letter. I know.

Does anybody write love letters these days? I doubt it. We should. An expression of love doesn’t come across the same way in an email or text message. No, a love letter, to convey the proper emotion, must be handwritten. It requires the movement of one’s hand holding the pen to translate thoughts and feelings from one’s heart onto paper. With a handwritten letter, the reader can tell from the slant, from the speed of writing, from the clarity of the letters what mood the writer was in; whether happy or angry or sad or exuberant. Even a scrawled note can be beautiful, a paper to treasure, to bind up in ribbon with other such letters, to be saved in a shoe box and hidden beneath the shawls on the top shelf of the closet.

Today, the first day of January, 2012, the day of my love letter, I walk with my head in the clouds. I put the milk carton in the bathroom medicine chest and my hair brush in the refrigerator. My socks don’t match. I burn the soup. I hum sappy tunes from old musicals. I’m in love with my unseen lover.

Somebody out there loves me. Somebody sent me words of love, unwritten, on a blank page, but easily read nonetheless. I love romance.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 5, 2012

Resolutions, Judgments and the “Could Have” Game

Resolutions, Judgments and the “Could Have” Game
Once again we tuck Christmas back on the top shelf of the closet as the New Year gallops closer by the minute. These few festive days between the two celebrations I find to be a good time for reflection.

But I don’t make New Year resolutions. Why would I want to set myself up for failure? I know that I am unlikely to get gentler, younger, richer, skinnier or more beautiful just because I mouth the words that I will do (insert resolution here) and some magical something will change my life. I learned long ago that if I don’t get up and change what I’m doing, I will keep on getting what I’m getting. Frankly, right now I can think of nothing I am motivated to change.

My friend Chuck said, “But if you were going to make a resolution . . .”

“Chuck, I don’t need a resolution. When I want to change something in my life, I change it. Take this year. I walk a bit every day. I feel stronger than I have in years. I have made up my mind to not fear winter the way I did last year. I refuse to hole up in my house until I succumb to a virulent case of cabin fever. I’m active. I’ve joined a garden club. I have new friends. Life is good. I give myself a gold star.”

“Uh huh. But if you were going to. . .”

At that point, the telephone rang. Saved by the bell. It was my daughter. I decided to do something dangerous. I asked her, “If you were going to give me a resolution to follow in the New Year, what would it be?”

She hardly paused three seconds. “I would have you resolve to stay longer when you visit. At least a week with each grandchild.” I reminded her of the guests and fishes three-day rule. She growled at me, “That’s not long enough.”

Another friend called a few minutes later. I asked him the same question. “That’s easy. Work on your stubbornness.” He laughed so hard he dropped the phone. I thereupon resolved never to ask friends or family to make resolutions for me.

The truth of the matter is that I am a reasonably happy person, not perfect, but happy. I spent a lot of years striving to make myself better, to make my life better, to be “more”, to do more, to have more. What a lot of wasted energy. I know now that all I have to do is accept myself as I am, appreciate my life as it is and to do, as well as I know how, whatever is in front of me to do. How simple is that.

Despite what my children and my friends say, my greatest character flaw is not my stubbornness. It is my tendency to be judgmental, to label events in my life as “good” or “bad”. I have a hair-trigger judgment gene. Later, when I see the big picture, I soften my judgment. When something interrupts the flow of my day, I tend to immediately say, “That is bad.” Or if the interruption is welcome, “That is good.” In reality, an interruption is simply an interruption, neither good nor bad.

For example, on one of my trips back to Montana after visiting my children in Washington, my car broke down. It was mid-afternoon, mid-winter. I didn’t have a cell phone to call for help. “This is bad,” I said to myself. But three hours later I was in a tow truck on the way to Moses Lake. “This is good.” The driver deposited me at the repair shop. They closed in ten minutes. “This is bad.”

“The dingy-whichadoodle is shot, but I ordered a new one for special delivery first thing tomorrow. We will give you a lift to a motel and pick you up when your van is ready.” This was such a mix of good/bad even I couldn’t figure it out to label it. I could have been stuck on the road all night. I could have broken down over Lookout Pass. It could have taken the shop three days plus the weekend to fix my car. It could have cost more than the thousand dollars I paid. I could have played the “could have” game a long time. The reality is that my car broke down. I got a tow. The men fixed my car. My trip took an extra day. No good. No bad.

Like my broken car, I am neither good nor bad, I just am. I think I’ll leave myself alone and enjoy my day. Happy New Year.

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