Monday, July 16, 2012

The Geography of Love; Back Home in Indiana

The Geography of Love; Back Home in Indiana
I am an incurable romantic. I fall in love too easily, both with people and with places. Wherever I travel, I daydream myself a new home.  
While in China, I fell in love with Souzhou, a magical city of formal gardens and temples. The people were warm and welcoming. Many stopped me on the street to talk, each “conversation” rich with waving hands.  One elderly gentleman shared his lunch with me. I wanted to stay forever.

Mazatlan, Mexico, a place I return to again and again, calls to me. The people I have come to know treat me as if I were a relative. I feel at home there. I could easily live in the historic center of that ancient city. I have to force myself to board the plane to fly home.

One day I stopped in Ritzville, Washington. I parked on Main Street, hunting for a mom-and-pop cafĂ©. I felt an unmistakable energy in the air. Rather than give up their downtown to the nearby freeway, folks had restored their classic old brick buildings, opened new businesses and dignified the street corners with sculptures. I sat a few minutes, transported by a daydream of creating a new life in this little farm community.  

I could name a dozen such places where I have left a piece of my heart. So is it any wonder that, after returning from a recent trip to the Indiana of my early childhood, I began to entertain dreams of moving “back home”. My yearning for the rolling hills along the Ohio River is based on more than idle wanderlust.

This feeling is familiar to me. It is the same desire for home that plunked me back in north-central Montana after my twenty-five years in Washington. The land pulled me back, the smell of sagebrush, the forever sky and upland plains.   
My first full day in Indiana, my cousins, Roger and Shirley, asked me what I most wanted to do that afternoon. “The cemeteries,” I said. Wandering among our gravestones gives me a strong physical sense of my family history. We talked about our ancestors, how they traveled from England to southern Indiana. How they, merchants and farmers, made a life in the New World. How we inherited their traits. Here lie my beginnings. These people anchor me. I come from strong stock.

Most of my Indiana family lives within spitting distance of the cluster of small farms where we each grew up, where we jumped rope, played Andy Over, Hide ‘n’ Seek, and Red Rover on the lawns in the dusk. They look after one another.
In Montana I have no family ties. I need my history. I need the continuity. I need my family.  I love those wooded hills and red clay of my childhood as much as I love the grassy plains and gumbo where I now live. I know if I lived back home in Indiana, we might not be together for huge family dinners every Sunday. But caring family would be near-by.  Oh, I am torn.

Then just yesterday I drove with friends out to the camp grounds at Montana Gulch.  While southeastern Montana burned, our green hills were alive with blooming wildflowers and yucca. It made one want to break into a chorus of the “Sound of Music”. We lounged beneath the pine trees, munched fried chicken and watermelon, while the youngest generation splashed in the creek. Later, after her daughter and family packed to leave, Bev and I meandered along the one dirt street of Landusky. I told her tales from my past and pointed out what I remembered of who used to live where way back when.
On the drive home we fantasized how we each could move from Harlem and build our little nests in Landusky. We would still be neighbors. By the time we arrived home, our castles-in-the-air were constructed, furnished and we were ready to welcome guests. In our dreams it was Christmas. Snow blanketed the ground in soft drifts, the lights on the Christmas trees glittered, grandchildren stamped snow off their feet, propped skis and snow shoes in the corner and plopped down in front of our fire places with steaming mugs of chocolate.

Back in Harlem, after eating another slice of rhubarb pie, I went into my back yard and harvested my first ripe currants to make jelly. Then I sat under the Canadian poplars and watched the setting sun. Indiana? Oh, I know how I am. It doesn’t much matter where I land—there I make my home. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 12, 2012 

Please Speak Loudly So I Can See What You Say

Please Speak Loudly So I Can See What You Say
What a wonderful week we had with my Aunt Mary in Indiana. Her ten children and other family gathered for her ninety-eighth birthday celebration and reunion.  Aunt Mary no longer hears so well.  She has hearing aids, but she says, “These things don’t work.”  She puts them in, fiddles with them, removes them in frustration and lays them on the coffee table.
Imagine a large living room with two dozen cousins holding one dozen conversations, all trying to be heard.  In the small sitting room around the corner are another ten to twelve people doing likewise. Aunt Mary sat, enjoying watching us enjoy one another, unable to hear a word. When one of us wanted to speak with her, we leaned forward toward her rocker, opened our mouth, paused a moment to get her attention, then shouted. 

I went to an audiologist once. She said I was beginning to lose the upper ranges of my hearing. I knew that. When people are talking, music is playing and dishes are clanging, I have to listen hard to hear you.  She advised me to be fitted with hearing aids. I passed. I wasn’t that bad yet.

In all honesty, I suspect many of my contemporaries strain our ears and listen hard to hear less. We are of the age when hearing devices begin to look more attractive as the television volume creeps ever upward.

One afternoon at Aunt Mary’s, Cousin Shirley brought out a little thing that looked rather like a Bluetooth device and said, “Mom, try this. I saw it advertised in the Sunday supplement. The ad says it’s the latest breakthrough in sound amplification. And it only cost twenty-four dollars.”

Cousin Roger, one of Aunt Mary’s younger children, scoffed. Roger is sixty-five and also has a hearing problem.  His normal voice is a soft shout. He watched as Shirley inserted the device into one of Aunt Mary’s ears. “How does that sound, Mom?” he bellowed. She nodded to affirm she could hear him. (Neighbors three blocks away could hear Roger.)  The thing fell out of her ear.  Aunt Mary tried it in her other ear. It fell out again.

“I can hear with this about the same as with my own hearing aids,” she said, “as long as I hold it in place.” Then it fell out from her ear once more and that ended the great experiment.

“I admit I can’t hardly hear,” Roger told us. “But I’m not going to spend thousands of dollars on those things. Nobody I know is happy with their hearing aids. People buy them, try them for a while, then give up. There they sit, on a shelf in the bathroom, gathering dust. Why, if there were a real breakthrough in hearing aids, word of mouth would spread the news like wildfire. We’d all be lined up to buy one. Think about it. I’d be first in line.”

“Those hearing aid salesmen are slick,” Roger continued. “They know everybody wants to hear. I’ll bet none of those things work any better than Shirley’s twenty-four dollar gadget yet they cost hundreds and thousands. I know one woman who walked into a sales office over in Louisville. She said she wanted the best; she wanted the most expensive one they had. You know the price instantly went up another thousand dollars. She said it didn’t work any better than her old one. Hope is what they are selling. Hope is what we are buying. We hope this one will work.”

I laughed along with everyone else, but I wondered if he might be right.

When I returned home I told a friend about Roger’s opinions. “How many people do you know who really like their hearing aids,” I said.

“Nobody I know has them,” he replied.

This man is ten years my senior.  “Oh, come on,” I said, “I know you know people with hearing aids.”

“Nope. None of my friends wear them,” he insisted. “I’m glad I don’t need them.”

I zipped my lips before I could tell him the truth. Unless one stands directly in front of him, he can’t hear a word.

This afternoon I had lunch with friends. One wears hearing aids in both ears. So I mentioned Cousin Roger’s theory that hearing aid salesmen are recruited directly from used-car lots. “Nope, I love my hearing aids,” he said as he removed one from his ear to show me. “I have a twelve thousand dollar set of ears and I wear them all the time. I couldn’t hear you at all without them.”

I know that is what he said. I’m pretty good at reading lips.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 28, 2012

Kiss a Canadian and Look Out for the Fireworks
I correspond with a small group of Canadian women. There are six of us. We exchange stories, news, and encouragement in facing the vicissitudes of daily life.  We look at each other as sisters; sisters by choice rather than by birth and blood. I am honored to belong to this group and, if asked, claim quasi-citizenship in Saskatchewan South. After all, I live barely a hop and skip from the border.
My Canadian sisters celebrate Canada Day on the first of July and we on this side of the line celebrate Independence Day on the fourth. Fireworks boom and bang on both sides of the border.

Just yesterday, Arlene up in Watson, Saskatchewan wrote, “Kiss a Canadian tomorrow.”
“I’d have to drive up to Climax to find one,” I wrote back. “But the picking might be better in Shaunavon.”

“Uh, I meant us do the kissing, not you,” said Arlene.
“What do you mean? What are you saying?”      

“Well, Sondra, we watch your television programs. We see your country ramping up for another election. The political ads are appalling. Everybody is attacking but nobody says anything positive.  On the whole, it is great entertainment. Sort of stupid, but funny at the same time. Still, it is a bit frightening, eh? I hate to be the one to say this, but before we invite you to kiss a Canadian, we’ll need to know if your countries’ negative politics are contagious, you know, like swine flu.”

“Yesterday I was one of you,” I responded. “So what am I today? An untouchable? I am not amused. A lot of us down here don’t pay attention to that stuff. We hunker down and consider those attack ads to be bullets flying over our heads. We study the issues. We study the candidates and we cast informed votes. We don’t all bleat like sheep on the path to the polls. I thought I was your friend. I thought I was your sister.”
“You are our sister. Calm down. I was just afraid you might have become infected by all that nonsense. Just consider this like a security check at the border.”

“Yes, well, my feelings still hurt. I thought you knew me better than that. So you all laugh at us for our political shenanigans, huh? I already knew that. Sometimes I can laugh too. But often I cringe.”
“It’s not just your politics and slimy politicians,” she said. “Our news is full of your news. Your TV seems to be mainly about violence, disasters and the love life of movie stars . . .”

“And sports heroes and the obscene amount of money they make,” I interrupted. “And wars and rumors of wars. I’m scared half to death at where we seem to be heading.  My solution is to block it out and focus close to home. All around me I see good people doing good things, helping one another and working to build a strong community. These little things make up our local news but rarely land in national headlines.”

“I have to admit, I often get afraid too, said Arlene. “We have many of the same problems you have. You just make a bigger splash. You hang it out for everybody to see. We tend to be more discrete.” 
“So now can I be your sister again?”

“Of course, silly woman.”
“You are always our sister, no matter what,” chimed in Sharon, also in Watson.

“Then is it okay if I kiss a Canadian?”
“I’ll loan you my Canadian for a kiss,” offered Sue from Vancouver.

“Next time you visit us, stock up on kisses,” suggested Renee in Saskatoon.

“Kiss a Canadian and enjoy the fireworks,” said Bonnie from  Alberta.
Wanted: One Canadian of the male variety who is amenable to a kiss from a mouthy Montana woman. Will also accept a Yankee-Doodle Dandy. Be prepared for fireworks. Reply immediately.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 5, 2012

The Case of the Disappearing Socks, Another Wash Day Mystery

The Case of the Disappearing Socks, Another Wash Day Mystery
Everybody has had this experience. You fill the washer with soap and water and stuff in a load of dirty clothes. The washer chugs, agitates and spins, rinses and spins again, finishes the load of wash. You pull the clean damp clothing from the washer, give each article a brisk shake and throw them one by one into the dryer. You turn on the dryer and go sit with a cup of coffee while it to tosses the clothing around through the heated air like bingo balls in a cage. When the dryer shuts off, you clean the lint tray and remove the warm dry articles. If you iron shirts, you pile those shirts over there. Then you begin folding the rest of the laundry into neat stacks over here. Last thing, you tackle the pile of socks, pairing each with its mate, rather like arranging marriages. But this is not romance. This is laundry.

My washing machine, though on its last legs, seldom eats socks. I have never understood why washers often develop a voracious appetite for socks. They never eat sheets, or towels or shorts—just socks. And they never eat a pair of socks. They seem to like variety in their diet, one blue and one red, for example. Everybody I have ever spoken with has had this common experience. Washers eat socks all over the known world. Why is this, I want to know.

Four days ago I washed a load of clothes. I had several pairs of socks in the laundry. I had been working outside in my yard, planting, pulling weeds and generally getting dirty and sweaty. So I changed clothes two or three times that day. In the old days we didn’t do it that way. We wore our work clothes all week. But this is not the olden days—this is now. I don’t have to wait for Monday wash day. I change clothes when I want to because I can. At least I can as long as my washing machine holds up. I sent my laundry through the whole process from washer to dryer to table for folding. Finally I got to the part where I mate the socks. I ended up with one blue sock and one gray sock left over.

I searched for the missing socks. I opened the washer and ran my hand around the empty inside, just in case the socks had become invisible. The washer was empty. I opened the door to the dryer and turned myself upside down and inserted my head inside. No socks. The dryer was empty. I walked back to my bedroom and looked under the dresser, beneath the bed, in the empty hamper and along the barren hallway. No strays.

I returned to the kitchen table where I had folded the clothes, unfolded every article and shook them, convinced that sooner or later a clinging sock would fall to the floor. I was wrong. I retraced my steps from washer to dryer to bedroom to hallway once more. Finally I shrugged and gave up the search. I put my clothing away. Usually I throw away socks without mates. But this time I saved the singles. After all, I reasoned, the gardening season is upon us. I am the only person who will know if I wear mis-matched socks to work. I put the orphan socks away in the left side of my sock drawer, since they were left-over.

This morning before I got dressed, I planned another day of gardening. I opened the sock drawer and pulled out the waifs, a blue and a gray, put them on my feet and never gave it another thought. Later a neighbor came by and suggested I meet her for lunch at the Senior Center. While I was out in public nobody pointed out my sartorial faux pas.

This afternoon I sent another load of laundry through the washer and dryer. I finished folding my clothing and mated up my socks. I had two left over, a blue and a gray. I looked down at my feet. I wore the same mis-matched set, a blue and a gray. They immediately began to dance with joy at the return of their missing mates.

Now I ask you, where did they go? Where have they been? How did they get back? Why did my washer spit them up? My feet are happy. But I’d like to know.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

June 21, 2012

Celebrating Family, Aunt Mary and Southern Indiana

Celebrating Family, Aunt Mary and Southern Indiana
My bag is packed. Soon I will be on an airplane with my cousin Shirley from Harlem and my cousin Maxine, who lives in Helena. Our destination is Louisville, Kentucky. We’ll pick up a rental car, cross the Ohio River and drive the winding River Road to Elizabeth, Indiana and out into the country toward Laconia and our Aunt Mary. We go to join with Indiana family to celebrate Aunt Mary’s ninety-eighth birthday.
When I return to Indiana, I return to my first home, to a reunion with Indiana kinfolk, and to refresh my love for southern Indiana.  Southern Indiana is different from the flat land of the industrial north and the agrarian center of the state. Geography here centers along the rugged hills above the Ohio River, the red clay countryside, dotted with tobacco fields, small subsistence farms and tiny towns. The land makes the people and these people are warm hearted and friendly.

Traveling with my Montana cousins is a bonus. Uncle Jim was the first of our family to discover Montana. My Dad, Paul, followed a few years later. My northern cousins and I did not grow up together. By the time my family moved to Harlem, they were off to college. I was still in junior high. Our travels to reunions with Indiana family have given us a chance to know one another. On the road we exchange our own family stories, compare notes and speculate about our fathers’ growing-up years.
Our Aunt Mary, a gentle lady, has long been the family matriarch. When she was a child, her farm family always had food but no money. She wore clothes to school made from my Grandmother’s dresses and cut-down coats. But she and every one of her siblings finished high school. Graduation from high school during the Great Depression was a major accomplishment. After graduation she married my Uncle Paul. They bought a near-by farm in the hills near the Ohio River and raised ten children.  Aunt Mary is the repository of our family history. She holds a wealth of community stories, and is murder at the card table. This week she marks her ninety-eighth birthday.

On Saturday, family and friends will gather at the grade school cafeteria. All Aunt Mary’s children, grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great- grandchildren will be there, along with many nieces and nephews and their families. We’ll fill up on mountains of fried chicken, steaming corn on the cob and Aunt Dixie’s famous coconut cake. We will swill gallons of iced tea, partake of hugs and kisses all around, pose for hundreds of photos and afterwards collapse back at Aunt Mary’s brick house on the hill.
There we will do what we all do best—talk, eat and play cards. We’ll ask questions and soak up the clues to family mysteries.  Aunt Mary thinks it is her job to feed us more than we can eat. We will revolve around the card table where sweet Aunt Mary, showing no mercy, regularly whomps our butts, no matter what the game. Even when we deal from a stack of five decks, Aunt Mary knows where every card lies, who played what and which card has not yet been played.  During our last visit we Montana cousins struggled to learn the rudiments of Euchre. This year we intend to master the game.

We’ll talk family. And we’ll talk politics. Or perhaps I should say we’ll listen politics. Aunt Mary knows the history of every president, who was in Congress, what bills were passed, the goofs and the goods on all. This woman with a high school education regularly shames us with her knowledge and her memory.      

We’ll spend time with our Indiana cousins, cementing those bonds more tightly. This year my Indiana cousin Shirley and I have arranged to spend special time renewing our own ties. Although only two years my senior, when I was a rather lost little girl, Indiana Shirley took me in hand and taught me family values of responsibility and service; basic tenets of life.  Through distance and time we drifted apart, so I am excited to have this chance to reconnect with her.
We will pile into cars to visit King’s Cemetery where many of the Ashton family pioneers are buried.  It sits above Tobacco Landing, a post established by our merchant ancestor. We’ll go on to the Dogwood Cemetery where my Grandmother’s family rests. Far from morbid, these tours of the countryside graveyards are joyful. They trigger memories and elicit more stories.

Indiana is the first country I loved. It holds my first family. It nurtured me. I’m going home for a visit. Happy Birthday, Aunt Mary.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 14, 2012