Friday, March 29, 2013

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

The Special Ordinary Visit

The Special Ordinary Visit

My granddaughter Jessica tootled in on a Thursday in February for a short spur-of-the-moment visit. Jess is my first grandchild. She will soon be twenty. Last fall she married a young man in the Navy. They live near Oak Harbor, Washington. This was not Jess’s first visit to Grandma’s house, but the first since she had left the terrible teens behind.

I entertained a brief moment of dismay, a flutter of what-will-we-do. When people come to visit, I enfold them into my daily life, whatever that includes. Grandma’s house is admittedly not a hotbed of lively activity. I scanned my week for something fun or exciting. My list included three trips to Havre for physical therapy, water the house plants and bake bread. Rousing, right? I wanted Jess to take home special memories. I concluded that she would have to make do with whatever came along.

So we had ordinary days. Two evenings we watched Netflix movies, neither of which Jess would have looked at on her own. One was a French spoof on the 007 James Bond films. It is hard to beat a spoof on a spoof. We laughed, we cackled, we looked at each other, we snorted. The next night we watched the classic, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. “Thank you, Grandma, said Jess. “What a great movie—one of the best I’ve ever seen. I need to call Marcus and tell him we have to watch it together. What was the name of it again?”

Jess seemed quite content to putter around with me. She helped cart boxes of paper and cardboard over the ice fields in my back yard to my cabin for storage. I had saved them for the monthly recycling drive. At this point I probably won’t get them to Havre until spring. June? Jess helped me make catsup from a peck of tomatoes I got from Bountiful Baskets. She took two jars home with her. She found a small basket of embroidery thread and began to weave a bracelet. We read. We sketched. We talked.

“I love your house, Grandma. It is so peaceful here.”

It was fun for me to observe, through the eyes of a young person, the things I take for granted. On Saturday we drove to Havre early to have plenty of time to poke around the Salvation Army and get lunch before the Empire Builder would take my granddaughter away.

At the Sally Ann, while we ranged through aisle after aisle of this and that, we heard the friendly clerks greet everyone who came in the door, most of them by name. “Hi Helen, did you ever find the whitchywhatsit you were looking for the other day. There might be one back on the shelf in housewares.” “Mary, did you want to take these with you now? If you have other shopping you can pick them up on your way home.” “Hey, Joe, nice shirt. You’ll look good in it.”

Then in the fast-food eatery of Jess’s choice, we eavesdropped while we waited for our order. Two men at the next table were talking about the Class C Tournament. When others came in, they jumped into the discussion. “Hi, Sam.” “Hey, Joe, nice shirt, how you been?” “How ‘bout that basketball, both girls and boys, real champs.” And that exploded an entire conversation about the intricacies of basketball, the merits of each team, and their hopes for next year.

Back at the depot, we had about an hour before the train arrived. I took out my book and Jess worked on her bracelet. We watched people come and go. Nearly every person greeted someone in the room with waves, hugs or handshakes.

Jess leaned over and whispered to me, “Grandma, everyone in Montana knows everyone else.”

A man and his wife walked in. I whispered to Jess, “I know that man but I can’t place him. He is someone famous, I know it. Maybe a movie star.” I groped around in my brain. Everything about him looked familiar, his walk, his stance, his facial expressions. About that time the Empire Builder came chugging in.

I walked Jess out to board the train. I kissed her good-by. We waved. I watched until the train pulled out. I will miss her. It was an ordinary visit. We didn’t do much. Our time together was special in a way she and I will lock away in our forever box.

While I was driving home the “movie star” popped into my head. He is famous. He is an actor with Montana Actors Theater. I have seen him on stage at Northern. I particularly remember him in his role as Uncle Peck in “How I Learned to Drive.” He did an outstanding job.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

April 4, 2013


Making Hay

From September, 2009

Making Hay
There is no finer perfume than fresh-cut hay. When I reached the age of seven, my dad introduced me to work in the hay field. “Come out to the field with me and help me drive the tractor.” I thought he meant for me to sit in his lap, his arms around me, his hands on the wheel, me nestled safely against his warm body, smelling his salty sweat and the sack of cigarette tobacco tucked into the left pocket of his chambray shirt, the tag hanging out.

We walked out to the field where the flatbed trailer sat hitched to our scarred Farmall tractor. Dad hefted me up onto the wide metal seat and placed my hands on the wheel. My eyes must have been ready to pop off my face. My heart began to pound in my ears. He shoved the lever into the lowest gear and told me to hang on to the steering wheel and keep the tractor pointed between the rows of bales. Although I was tall for my age, my feet didn’t reach the pedals. As we rode one length of the field, he gave me pointers on steering. When we reached the end of the row Dad grabbed the wheel and turned the corner for me. Then he jumped off the back of the tractor. I was on my own. I nearly peed my pants. As we chugged down the next row, Dad walked alongside and lifted bales onto the trailer. Now and then he climbed onto the bed and neatly stacked the bales. When I reached the end of every row I’d hold my breath, terrified that I’d run us into the ditch and through the fence. Dad always leaped onto the hitching bar in time to turn the wheel and point me on my way, back and forth across the field.

In time, once I could reach all the pedals, Dad promoted me to drive our old I-H farm truck, with a contraption for lifting bales that hooked to the side of the truck bed. But first I tromped the entire field straightening the bales into long lines. Then I walked back to the truck, picked up my Dad from the shop where he was repairing the baler, and drove along the rows, scooping the bales onto the elevator. I liked to watch through the rear-view mirror as each bale pitched off the top of the incline onto the truck bed. Dad sank his bale hooks into the hay and stacked a neat pattern which tied the load so the bales wouldn’t shift.

When I had finished my first year of high school, Dad hired my cousin Jim and his buddy Larry to harvest the hay. Jim and Larry were two years older than me and about twenty years smarter. They told me that if I would drag the bales in line and be their water-girl, they would pay me a generous ten percent of their earnings.

Whoopee! I would actually get paid for work I had been doing for years as a family chore. In my mind I spent that money over and over. New boots, school clothes, ice cream sundaes, the movies. Every day I dreamed up a new list. Early each morning I doused myself with 6-12 mosquito dope, pulled on my leather gloves and hurried out to the field. I always had the first rows of bales in line before the boys arrived with the truck.

Once the truck bed was loaded high with hay, I rode in the cab with Jim and Larry back to the stack. I liked this because I got to listen to their dirty jokes. I felt like one of the boys. I laughed, even when I didn’t understand. Jim always knew when I didn’t “get it” and called me on it. When we arrived at the stack, I scurried to the house for jars of iced tea and platters of cookies. Then I’d sit on the truck, swing my legs, and wait for the boys to finish unloading the hay.

When we were just a couple days into the first cutting, the boys suggested that the job would go faster if I could pull the bales over to the edge of the truck so both of them could throw bales onto the stack. That made sense to me. I quickly agreed. So now I not only lined out bales in the field, performed the chores of water-girl, but I dragged the hundred pound bales across the truck bed so the boys could easily snag them with their hooks. Three days into our new routine, a summer shower ended work for the day. I stood in the rain and watched the boys drive off toward town. Something about our arrangement had been bothering me. I mulled it over while I walked out to the river-bend field where Dad was irrigating sugar beets.

I told Dad, “It isn’t fair. I’m working really hard. I work just as many hours as the boys do and I’m only making ten percent. I’m not asking for the same wages. I know I can’t throw the bales up onto the big stack like they can. They have more muscles than I do. But for all I’m doing for them, I think they should pay me twice as much.”

My Dad leaned on his irrigating shovel, studied the ground and gave my tale of woe his full attention. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “You agreed to the deal.” He turned back to his work.

I finished out the haying season, first, second and third cuttings. I did my job. I pocketed my ten percent. I never forgot.

Sondra Ashton

Havre Daily News: Home Again

September 17, 2009

The New Economy

Re-run: Jan 2009

The New Economy
The dog showed up on my doorstep, shivering and whimpering, lost and hungry, minus collar, tags, or known history. Yes, I know. I know. Wisdom says, if you feed him, he will never leave. But what would you do?

The leaves had fled the poplar trees in my yard. The rime of frost was thicker each morning. Day light was migrating south. The mercury plummeted. Snow flakes gathered, reading for the long-dark-night-of-the-soul Montana winter.

I am a cat person. I do not want a dog.

The dog wagged his tail, sat on my foot and leaned into my leg. He said, “I am here to work on your relationship skills.”

Fool that I am, I opened the door and he walked in. I laid down the rules: You will not lounge on the couch. You will not track mud over the floors. You will not put your paws on me. You will bathe frequently.

But true to form, the only one making any lifestyle changes is me. I learn new habits. I make space for him. I buy and prepare special foods. I provide treats, toys and a new bed. I use a term of endearment when I call him for dinner. I change my routine. I check with him before I make plans for the weekend. I say to myself, “This is really sick.”
One day, while sitting at my desk paying bills, I say, “Dog, it is time you start to carry your own weight around here. There will be no slackers in this family,” I say this sternly. “Everyone contributes, each according to his means.”

The next day, Dog, after an expedition roaming the neighborhood, drags home the thigh bone of a tyrannosaurus rex. I heave a sigh. I imagine mountains of debris that I will have to pick up when the yard next appears, probably in May. I know Dog isn’t going to clean it up. I watch as he buries the bone in a mid-size drift, then sits, tail gouging angel wings in the snow, altogether pleased with himself.

Then I have an ‘ah-ha’ moment. That is when our relationship began to turn around. I wait until dark. I don’t want the neighbors to see me. A sliver of moon guides me to the spot marked in my memory. I pry t-rex from its frozen grave and drag it into the house. I fill the stock pot with water and boil the bone with the butt of a celery stalk, a couple onions, a few cloves of garlic, some carrot tops and assorted dried herbs from my garden. I simmer the bone about thirty hours, strain the whole mess and put up six quarts of prime soup stock. I toss the boiled bone back into the yard.

Several days later I serve dinner to friends. They rave about the soup. I smile sweetly and say, “The secret’s in the stock.”

Every few days, Dog drags home a new animal part. I note where he hides it, and under cover of night, slip outside and dig it up, throw it in the stock pot and simmer a new batch. I pat Dog on the head. Best relationship I ever had.

Sondra Ashton

Havre Daily News

January 26, 2009

Remembrance of Things Past—A Packet of Letters—Ha! Ha!

Remembrance of Things Past—A Packet of Letters—Ha! Ha!

When I was seven years old, somewhat of a lost child, uncertain about every aspect of my life, my Indiana cousin Shirley, two years older, took me under wing. Shirley spoke with firm confidence and sureness, always. She quickly became my mentor, my hero. For the next five years she was my best friend.

Then my family moved to Montana. Shirley and I wrote frequent letters until she left for college. Over the years and over the miles, our lives split onto widely divergent pathways.

At previous reunions, we had exchanged greetings and superficial small talk. I’d had more intimate conversations with strangers on the Empire Builder. Last summer, for the first time since high school, we spent a week together. We took long walks down back roads. It seemed we never quit talking.

Both of us stayed at Aunt Mary’s home, her mother, my aunt. One morning, when we met in the kitchen for breakfast, Shirley handed me a small packet of letters. A second-grade school photo fell from it into my lap. In the picture my sweater, buttoned to my neck, covers my best dress that I wore for picture day. My lips are closed to hide the gaps of missing teeth. My hair is cut across my forehead and with another straight line below my ear lobes, bowl cut by my Dad with shears from his home barber kit.

When I opened the earliest letter, I burst out laughing. I instantly felt like the gangling young colt of a girl who had written it. Across the top of the first page I had scrawled, “Fred, Fred, You’re weak in the head. Ha! Ha!” I had sprinkled ha-ha’s throughout the four page letter. In proper letter form, I had included the date, June seventh, 1957. I had just finished sixth grade. I reported that our end-of-year tests were “pretty easy. I made the highest marks so they must have been easy. Ha! Ha!” I also wrote, “Don’t let anyone read this.” Who would have wanted to see my scribbles about school, church, weather and “mosquitoes, terrible, I have bites all over”?

I was a pious young thing. I concluded my letter with prayers and enclosed a Holy Card of the Infant of Prague. I tagged on a post script, “Do you still like DK?”

“DK” had lived up the hill from my Indiana home. I don’t recall that Shirley liked Dickie Knear; I liked Dickie Knear. Had Dickie even glanced at me, I would have been mortified. He was my secret fantasy boy-friend until two years later when I spent the summer back in Indiana. Shirley and I slurped root-beer floats in the Barnes Store in Elizabeth when Dickie and a couple buds sauntered in for Cokes. He looked like a hood, hair slicked back in a DA, cigs rolled into his white tee-shirt sleeve, pimply-pocked face. I plummeted from puppy love into disillusion.

The last letter from the packet, dated the summer of my sixteenth year, is eight tightly written pages. Right off the bat, I wrote, “Don’t you dare get married until I meet him. He looks nice but looks aren’t everything. It may not be true love. You’re my godmother and I feel it is my responsibility to see that he isn’t a wolf or somebody infatuated by your great beauty and wealth. . . I think you should wait a year but if you want to rush into it, it’s your neck.” She ignored my advice. Shirley and Nick are still married.

Much of my letter was filled with social life and plans for my future. The last page brought tears to my eyes. “I told Father Pauson and he just stared at me with a ‘heaven help them’ look on his face. Brace yourself. I’m serious. I’m scared. I’m happy too. I’m going to be a nun. I’ve been thinking about joining a cloistered order such as the Carmelites. But my friends think I’ll be the first girl in my class to be married.”

My plans also included a dream to study journalism at IU but I didn’t think Dad could afford to send me. Two years later, while the ink was still wet on my high school diploma, I walked down the aisle with a young rancher.

Had my dear best friend, cousin and godmother rushed to Montana and waved the pages of this letter, filled with my unwitting wisdom, in my stubborn face, how different my life might have been. I doubt I would have joined the Carmelites. Maybe I would not have married so hastily. But she was the only person who could have talked to my scared, confused self.

But I’m puzzled. Who in the world is “Fred, Fred, weak in the head? Ha! Ha!”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

April 11, 2013

Crazed With March Madness at Kennedy’s Bar

Crazed With March Madness at Kennedy’s Bar

Ordinarily I don’t hang out at Kennedy’s. But the Civic Association served up a free dinner. Ordinarily I don’t bet money on anything. Even when I play poker I refuse to bet anything more than a pile of beans, especially after the time I lost my shirt. But it was for a worthy cause, a fund-raiser for the Civic Association which does good things for Harlem.

I reasoned that I had done quite well at the City Shop morning coffee group’s football pool—a three time winner. So how challenging could a Calcutta Auction be? For me, basketball is much more fun than football. The coffee guys were all excited about it, so hey, I thought I’d go check it out. I called my cousin Shirley. “Have you ever gone to that basketball thing at Kennedy’s? Uh huh. No. Me neither. Wanna go?”

So that is how Shirley and I ended up at the NCAA Tournament Calcutta Auction at Kennedy’s on a Monday night. The guys said the way it works is you buy a team. I knew that some guys had bid as high as three and four hundred dollars. I kind of envisioned a small group of die-hard, gun-slinging Doc Holiday types, spit in their eyes, hunched over wads of dollar bills. Beyond that, I had no idea what to expect when I walked in the door.

Supper was scheduled at 6 PM, so Shirley and I sauntered in (I was trying to get in character) about 6:05. The place was packed. All the movers and shakers from Harlem sat around wolfing down stew and all the fussins. Every white-haired lady in town was there. Along with several young couples, tomorrow’s leaders.  I even spotted a local pastor in the crowd.

I no more than stepped foot over Kennedy’s threshold than I was tripped up by Gerald “Bear Shirt” Stiffarm, station manager for KGVA FM, which that evening broadcast pre-auction entertainment. I knew Gerald from the olden days, from school. I’m older but Gerald is smarter. He asked if he could interview me on the broadcast. So I said a word or two about how the City Council and the Civic Association worked together with common goals to make our little town the best it can be or something like that.

Shirley had worked her way to the back of the room and rounded up two empty chairs at the very last table. We filled our plates. As people finished eating they milled about the room greeting friends, placing side bets. Somehow, it didn’t feel like we were in a bar, certainly not a Gunsmoke-type bar. It felt more like a family reunion.

After we sang in celebration of Chuck’s birthday, his third twenty-second birthday (think about it), Joe Brown, another Harlem fixture, took over the mike and tossed the ball up to start the auction. Joe knew everyone in the room and where the bodies are buried. In his repartee nobody went unscathed, in a good-natured way, of course.

“What a kick!” I said to Shirley. It quickly became apparent that this year the action had heated up beyond that of former years. The higher ranked teams were nailed down for seven, eight hundred dollars and more. The highest bid came in around eleven hundred dollars. But there were sixty-eight teams, so some went low, even as affordable as twenty dollars.

Rich or poor, everybody could get in on the fun. Whole tables full of fans pooled their resources. At the table next to Shirley and me, five or six of our friends put their heads together and, with finesse, bought more than one team. Called “The Ladies”, they were well-known veterans at the game. Boss bid against employee. Neighbor bid against neighbor. Harlem bid against Chinook.

At one time auctioneer Joe Brown didn’t see a man’s arm raised to bid. Another man across the room raised his arm to point out his friend’s missed bid. “Sold,” yelled the auctioneer. The flustered friend bought a team, whether he wanted it or not.

Shirley and I watched closely. We talked it over. We decided we could afford to chip in twenty dollars apiece to buy one of the lower ranked teams. Who knows, in college basketball, anything can happen. We could even come out flush. But every time we were ready to jump into the fray, the bid went up to forty-five, fifty, sixty. Or a thousand! Finally, toward the end of the evening, we bought Pacific University for thirty dollars.

“Where’s Pacific,” I asked.

“Stockton, California,” somebody answered.

Miami, the team slated to play Pacific, was bid in at a thousand-seventy-five dollars. We got whomped, 78 to 49.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

March 28, 2013


Monday, March 25, 2013

I Got Those Low Down, Mopping Water, Monday Morning Wash Machine Blues

I Got Those Low Down, Mopping Water, Monday Morning Wash Machine Blues

Almost a year ago my washing machine started to lose its bearings. I first noticed the noise. My nearly new washing machine began to rumble-grumble like an antique steam tractor. The agitator sounded agitated. The spin cycle cycled like a dervish. Once it got up to speed the quivering machine tried to buck out of its stall in the laundry room. I did my due diligence, made phone calls, talked with washer repairmen who told me the bearings were going kaput.

“But it’s only six years old,” I protested.

“Oh, well, yeah, plastic bearings. You know. Plastic.”

So I asked the repairman, “How do I know when it’s totally broken down?”

“Water all over the floor.”


I shopped. Checked top load versus front load. Modern versus conventional. Big bucks versus wash tub and scrub board. I had nearly settled my mind on an old-fashioned wringer washer. I calmed down and decided to keep the one I had until the bugger died. I’d think about it tomorrow.

I eeked out another year of service from my gasping machine. At times, while it racketed around the room, I considered going to the Laundromat for peace and quiet.

One day last week, when I went to my downstairs bathroom to shower, I stepped into a puddle of water in the middle of the rug. Coincidentally, the upstairs bathroom where I tub bathe is above the downstairs bathroom. I mopped up the water and propped the rug to dry. I figured maybe the drain in the horse trough I plumbed in for a tub upstairs was leaking. So I decided to refrain from tub baths until the drain was fixed, maybe by a real plumber. I further figured the water must have found its way through the hole covered by the light fixture and onto the rug. These were not real thoughts but more like fleeting impressions. Strangely, I didn’t bother to look up—up at the ceiling.

A couple days later I noticed that the light fixture in the bathroom downstairs had a strange look, like it might be full of bugs or something. David and Vidya had arrived for the Seed Show so I asked David if he would take down the fixture so I could clean out the bugs. “It’s full of water,” he said as he climbed down balancing the globe like a fish bowl. And it was, full to the top with rusty, scummy, mineral-rich several-day-old water.

Still not putting two and two in a row (math was never my strength), I then asked him to re-caulk the tub drain, which he did in generous gobs. Leak now, you sucker. He also re-attached the downstairs light fixture once it had dried.

Fast forward: my company left, I put a load of sheets in the washer. Once the racket stopped, I walked into the laundry room to shift sheets from washer to dryer. In my sock feet I splashed through a small lake. Two and two suddenly equaled four. I raced downstairs to a sure-enough waterfall cascading from the light fixture.

I called a friend whose wife generously allows him to help women in distress. He came over, put a bucket beneath flood phase two, this time the rinse cycle deluge, and removed the globe and fixture. He handed me the two light bulbs. You know that tinny part on the small end of the bulb, the part that screws into the contraption to accept the electricity, that part was eaten through with corrosion.

An epiphany moment! A horrifying moment! A light-bulb moment! All those days from when the globe first filled with water until now, every single one of those days, my guests and I had used the downstairs bathroom, with the lights on, of course. At any one moment the house could have caught fire and burned down around our ears. (Do wet wires burn? Would the water have dowsed the fire? Spare me the physics.)

I drove down to Charlie’s Lumberyard and bought a new light fixture. Then I made a phone call to order another machine. Reluctantly I discarded my notion to buy a wringer washer and bought another conventional top loader.

“It’s criminal that my washer lasted only seven years,” I told the owner of the store.

“Some last five. Some will go for twenty. Plastic bearings.” He shrugged.

I stuffed my new washer full of towels, the towels that I had used to sop up the water from my failed machine, and pushed go. I’ll find someone to install my new light fixture downstairs. Meanwhile I’ll shower in the dark, glad to still have a house to shower in, glad to have a water-tight washing machine, at least for a few years.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

March 21, 2013

We Drove A Thousand Miles to the Seed Show

We Drove A Thousand Miles to the Seed Show

My friends, David and Vidya from Port Townsend, Washington drove to Harlem to stay the week with me and attend the Seed Show. We covered every event. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“Sondra told us so much about the Seed Show. We just had to come see it.”

Our first event Thursday was the wool judging. Vidya knits, so she was particularly interested. “I was surprised to see so many varieties of wool on display, to get to talk to the judge about the wool. I was amazed at the different breeds of sheep. The judge was so knowledgeable, so thorough and conscientious as she handled the fleeces. And it was a special treat to see the young girl who won the Youth Division. She was so delighted with her ribbon.”

Thursday evening we sampled Death by Chocolate. David said, “That event was well named. It was very hard to place my vote. I had to sample some a second or third time to make sure I had made the right choice.”

After fasting the requisite twelve hours, we returned to the High School to have our blood drawn at the Health Fair, an annual event arranged by Fran Hodgson, Blaine County Health Nurse in conjunction with Western Health Screening of Billings. Vidya said, “I’ve never been any place where the health department makes something like this available. Look how it draws the people. The Seed Show is the perfect place to do it. We are happy to be able to take advantage. I’ve put it off, having my blood tested, for years because it is so expensive.”

After having our blood” vampired” out into tubes, we devoured a delicious breakfast served by the Harlem Civic Association. Then my friends and I helped Kris Shaw hang her own art along with a display for Art Duff, an artist from Chinook who died in November and for whom this year’s Show was dedicated. There is nothing like volunteering to make a stranger feel like “part of”. By the time we’d finished, my Washington friends knew Kris, her husband David and many of the “neighbor” artists.

David commented, “I couldn’t believe how many artists were here given how lightly the area is populated. Art seems to be an important part of the Show, on equal standing with other endeavors. The gallery was always packed. The number of people who attended and bid at the Friday night auction is further evidence of the importance of art in this area.”

Vidya added, “I loved the quality of the children’s art—that had to be due to the encouragement of their teachers. What a gift that the kids can display their work where the whole community gets to see it.”

“One thing that disappointed us, we expected to see more ag exhibits, more agricultural influence,” said David.

“We wish we could have seen all the exhibits judged like we saw the wool judged,” added Vidya. “We learned so much listening to the judge’s feedback. I wanted to see everything in depth, to hear all the details. We are impressed by the number of loaves of bread, the pies, cupcakes. We would have liked to hear all the judges’ comments.”

“Pie should be the state food of Montana,” added David. “A real staple of the diet, based on what we see wherever we go, like at What the Hay and the Seed Show. The money the pies brought at auction! That really demonstrates support. People come prepared to buy. They know they will spend a hundred dollars—some high price—for a pie. They are donating for their community. Amazing.”

After the pancake supper Friday night, served by the FFA, my friends told me, “We get a real sense of community here. Look at how hard everyone works to make the Seed Show happen. Everyone, the kids and the adults, together. The pancake supper is great, the whole community, all ages, all the diversity, whole families gathered. Every time we come to Harlem some community thing is going on and we get to go. Like the benefits for the Volunteer Firemen or the Ambulance Crew. There is always something going on that says ‘community’.”

After the banquet Saturday night, weary and sated as we were, I asked “So, is there anything you’d like to add, final impressions?”

“It’s kind of what we expected. Kind of not what we expected. All the stuff that goes on in this area, this empty land, here in Harlem, the county, the region. Basically it’s all home grown. The car show in Turner. The Blaine County Fair in Chinook. The Fall Festival in Havre. Everybody participates, whole families. Where we live, there are cities nearby. So kids, and adults too, go to the city to do city things. Here it’s a long way to the city. It’s all home grown.”

“Yet the pace is leisurely. It’s relaxed but things get done. I know there is stress. Of course, you have stress. But it’s not the same kind of stress. People don’t rush. People take time out to talk to you. They don’t act impatient, brush you off. People like to talk. It’s not such a stratified society like most places. There are so few people, everybody’s job is important to everybody else. Everybody counts. It’s good.”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

March 14, 2013


A Horse Is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course

A Horse Is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course

My daughter Dee Dee sent me pictures of my granddaughter Toni , now seven years old, with her new horse, Jill. Toni’s grandfather thinks Jill is still his horse. From the evidence of the photograph, a girl and her horse, cheek to cheek, eyes closed in blissful rapture, this horse belongs to Toni, no question.

Back in October my daughter and her family moved “home” to Montana. Dee Dee had lived in Washington several years. Toni was born in Japan and the family ended up back in Washington, stationed for discharge. For my son-in-law Christopher, home had been Florida and aboard Navy ships, so Montana is a fresh new experience for him.

The family now lives near Glendive, on Grandpa’s ranch, in an old farmhouse across the way. Toni slams out the back door, races over to Grandpa’s house, pulls him out to the corral to saddle up Jill and go riding, a lead rope between them. The picture I like best shows Jill and Toni, nose to nose, gazing with complete adoration into one another’s eyes. Both creatures smile.

Grandpa figures he should buy Toni a pony. Dee Dee laughs. Six hours distance away, I laugh too. At seven, Toni is already too tall for a Shetland. Dee Dee and I both know that Grandpa is remembering Pony, a retired circus horse we bought when Dee Dee was two years old. Pony was one belligerent, ornery cuss of a Shetland. Before he’d let Dee Dee ride, Dad would climb on the saddled pony, his feet dragging on the ground, to “buck him out”. This became ritual for a while, especially in early spring, when after an idle winter, Pony had plenty of pent up snort and energy. Every time Dad straddled the saddle, Pony bucked his unwanted rider onto the hard rocky ground.

Then two-year old Dee Dee, little girl that she was, would walk up to Pony, pick up the dangling reins, hand-over-hand herself up into the saddle and ride all around the barn yard. Dee Dee lived and breathed horse. She crawled over, under, around and between Pony’s legs, braided ribbons into his tail, fed him watermelon and bubblegum. We adults could not get close enough to throw a loop on that stunted black and white devil-horse.

When we needed to bring Pony in from the pasture, it turned into a most pitiful sight. We’d drive out into the field and stop at a distance. We could see Pony, already aware of us, squaring off, spraddled legs ready to spring away. We’d give Dee Dee, now about four, a bucket of oats and a halter and set her off to catch her horse while we hid out, crouched behind the pickup. Pretty soon, here she’d come, little boots crunching through the short grass, Pony following on the lead.

I’m delighted Toni gets to ride. I’m extra delighted Toni has her own horse. At seven, all I wanted was a horse. All I got was want.

I didn’t get to ride until I was married. Even then I never had a horse of my own. I learned to ride on my husband’s rope horse. I could not have had a better teacher. Sputnik was soft-mouthed and gaited, traits I was too ignorant to appreciate until much later. Sputnik was smarter than I by a long shot. He loved to work cattle. All I had to do was hang on, hold a loose rein, pay attention and follow his movements with my legs. Even if we’d been working horseback all day, often in the evenings, my husband and I would saddle up again. We’d head out along Deer Creek, ride through the coulees and across the pastures. I loved every minute.

The thing I miss most about ranch life is having a horse. Sure, I suppose I could figure out a way to ride now and then. But it would not be riding with a purpose, working cattle. Not to mention, it’s been how many years since I was horseback and I’m stove up to boot. I’d need a stepladder to mount. These years later, while maybe an old plug would be the smart thing for me, it would not do. Sputnik spoiled me.

I love to picture Toni racing Jill across the open fields. She’ll smell the mingled sage brush and sweat of her horse, feel the warmth of bunched muscles beneath her seat. She already has the heart for the life. She and Jill share a bond, a trust that cannot be taught. In Grandpa, she has a trainer who will teach her most of what she needs to be a good rider. Jill will teach Toni the rest.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February 28, 2013

Pye, Pye, Miss American Pye

Pye, Pye, Miss American Pye

“Our church has lost so many of our bakers this year that we may have to forgo serving pies at the Seed Show luncheon,” Bev told me recently. “We might have to substitute cheesecake or something.”

“No! No! You can’t give up pies.” I lined up my arguments. “It wouldn’t be the same. Pie at the Montana Seed Show is a tradition. Pie is expected. Pie is an institution. Besides, what about Arnold? He hangs out at the Seed Show just for pie. That’s what I’ve heard. Sometimes he has six pieces a day. That’s what I’ve heard.” I went into a state of minor panic. I really didn’t care about Arnold. I cared about me!

The Lutheran Ladies have served homemade pie at the Seed Show forever. Whatever else they serve is incidental; people show up for the pie. Why else would hundreds of people stand in a line which winds twice around the hall and through the cafeteria, if not for homemade pie. Once the Civic Association finishes serving breakfast, the Lutheran Ladies set out mid-morning pie and coffee. And they serve mid-afternoon pie and coffee until the pie is gone.

As you stand in the lunch line, listen to the conversations around you. The merits of pies are debated, discussed, decided, studied and re-decided. “I want blackberry this time.” “Not me. My favorite is chocolate meringue. I hope they’re not out.” “Mmmm. I like apple.” Finally the line moves forward into the serving area and there you are, standing in front of at least fifty delectable slices of pie. The choice is overwhelming. Just as you decide on peach, the man in front of you snatches up the last slice of peach pie. “Dang napple-snapples.” Now what. Oooh, the coconut cream looks rich and, well, creamy. You point, “That one.”

I can’t imagine being at the Seed Show without a slice of pie. In my consideration, cheesecake is not a viable alternative. Now I make a mean homemade cheesecake, fresh and high and light and rich. It is expensive to make, takes forever and dirties every dish in the cupboard. And I’ve had cheesecake at a few doings, fundraisers for one event and another. What Bev was talking about as an alternative to homemade pie was the insipid cheesecake made from the easy-squeezy store-bought mix. I won’t say they are inedible but they don’t make me want to go back for more, especially when they are topped with plops of glommy pie filling straight from the can.

Pie is considered as American as the Fourth of July. But, actually pie is universal. Historical evidence points to numerous versions of “pye”, mostly filled with meat, as in four and twenty blackbirds. But during the early lean and hungry years in the colonies our pioneer mothers turned to baking pyes with the simple foods at hand. They lopped the tops off pumpkins, scooped out the seeds and stringy stuff, filled the pumpkin bowls with milk and set them on the open hearth to bake. In later years they added spices and put them in a grain-based “coffin”. The first pye pans these pioneer women devised were round “to cut corners”. Flour was expensive and less flour was needed to make a round crust. These pans were flat and shallow so the “pyes would go a long way”.

“There’s got to be a solution,” I told Bev. “I’ll become a volunteer Lutheran for a day and help bake pies. I bet you can find several others in the community willing to pitch in and help you through this desperate situation. How many pies do you want me to make, two or twenty?”

Yesterday I donned my Lutheran apron, the one I wear when I roll out lefse, and made two apple pies. I like a fat, fruity pie with a thin flaky crust, even though they always bubble over in the oven. After I baked the pies and let them cool, I wrapped them tightly so they wouldn’t lose moisture and popped them into the freezer where they will be safe until the Seed Show. Then I had to clean the oven.

Later this week I’ll bake a couple rhubarb pies and next week I’ll make Juneberry. As a lapsed Catholic helping out the Lutherans, does this doubly fulfill my obligation for Lent? After all, I’m baking them, not eating them. At least, I’ll abstain from pie until the Seed Show when I plan to stand in the slow-moving line along with everyone else, thinking about which pie most makes my mouth water. I sure hope somebody bakes peach.

Easy as pie. Crisis averted. Well, yes, but I will have to clean the oven again.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking at my back door

February 21, 2013

She Flew the Coop—In Search of My Imperfect Chicken

She Flew the Coop—In Search of My Imperfect Chicken

Today I lost a chicken. I mean I misplaced a chicken. I don’t mean a live chicken. I misplaced an ugly, misshapen, ceramic chicken. This unfortunate bird is no poultry beauty. No self-respecting ceramic rooster would give her a peck.

She came into my life, my odd little chicken, from a display at one of the stops along the What the Hay route between Lewistown and Hilger a couple years ago. Her oddity is what drew me to her. She is so droopy of aspect, so overfed, so worthless looking that whoever made her didn’t bother to sign a name. Perhaps this hen had been cranked out on an assembly line in China, one in a long line of ugly chickens. I can’t imagine why anyone on a good day would buy her.

But I was full of chokecherry pie and good will and could not leave her abandoned on the midden heap. The vendor snatched the money out of my hand before I had the wisdom to reconsider. Once I got her home I wondered, why, in all the world of wonderful stuff, why this little beast. But, she made me smile.

If my chicken were real, she would be a setting hen. Too small to fry, beyond the age of a decent layer, too tough to bake. A bird useless except to tuck eggs beneath her feathers and wait for the hatch. I went down to the basement, found a basket, lined it with a linen napkin and snugged my little bird into her nest. My setting hen.

I get nostalgic for chickens. I think how nice it would be to have a dozen hens in my back yard laying fresh eggs with rich yellow yolks. Then I remember. Growing up, one of my responsibilities was the care and feeding of five-hundred layers. Of all the farm animals, I hated chickens, the nasty, dirty creatures. They are sloppy eaters with no manners. Chickens will stomp down the length of the feed trough, scratching feed onto the floor and like as not, drop squirts of manure in the middle of dinner. With seemingly no provocation, chickens are prone to peck one another naked unto death. The flock habitually squawks about in panic, scattering feathers, certain the sky is falling. Every week I had to scrape the chicken house clean, shovel droppings out the door, lime the floor and nests, and spread every surface thickly with new straw. Tomorrow that which I had cleaned yesterday would smell like an ammonia pit. Egg gathering was a pecking, scratching fight. Roosters, territorial tyrants, I don’t even want to talk about.

But that is moot. I have one chicken. This chicken is ceramic. I dust her once a week and ignore her. Now she’s missing. I had wanted her basket for a prop in a painting. When I removed her from the basket, my mind was on the painting, on making a pleasing arrangement. The napkin from the basket lies on the kitchen counter. The chicken is nowhere in sight.

There are only so many places I could have set my chicken. In my soul I am a minimalist. I dislike clutter. I abhor collections. What I have is arrangements. I have vignettes, specifically and artistically arranged. I looked around. Where could I have mindlessly put her in that moment of inattention.

I had set up my easel in the dining room to use the angled winter light against my large cream-painted table. The chicken is not on the table. She isn’t on the shelf of teapots. She is not on the kitchen counter, not camouflaged on the buffet. She’s not on top of the fridge. She’s not in the kitchen sink.

I tried to back-track my steps to when I emptied the basket. I might have been doing two things at once and inadvertently set her down when I opened a drawer or reached for a sweater. I expanded my search. I looked through the bedrooms, no chicken. She is not in the bathroom. Not in the library (although that might be the easiest place to lose her). Not in the living room. I took a gander through the shop. Back to the kitchen. Not in the cabinets. I opened the refrigerator and checked the shelves. And she’s not in the oven.

I give up. This is ridiculous. I’ve spent more time looking for this piece of misbegotten pottery than on my painting. I know she’ll show up once I quit looking. I’m a logical person. She must be in plain sight. She should be within arm’s reach of the table. She has to be near. Oh, bother, I’ll just search one more time.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February 14, 2013

Life Lessons at the Point of a Paint Brush—A Little Dab Will Do You

Life Lessons at the Point of a Paint Brush—A Little Dab Will Do You

About a month ago, after a hiatus of several years, I began painting. I hadn’t meant to give it up for so long. I missed the feel of the wooden brush between my fingers. I love to grab globs of oil paint and smear the paint onto stretched canvas. I like the sound the brush makes, the soft sweep. I like the smell of turpentine. It is thrilling to watch the first lines form into recognizable shapes and objects.

When I am painting, something magical happens. The process takes me over and will not let me go. The clock quits ticking. I forget to comb my hair. I miss meetings. I forget to eat. With three brushes in my hand, I scratch my nose and give a whole new meaning to face painting. I reach out with my finger to smooth a line. Absently, I wipe my finger on my shirt. Later I see that I have ruined my second best shirt.

Are you any good, a friend asked. It doesn’t matter. It’s not important whether I’m good or not. I paint because it’s fun. Every canvas is my teacher and that’s a bonus.

Let me explain. Sometime in the last century I realized I had missed a lot in life. For years, I was hesitant to join in any activity unless I knew I would excel or at least do a tolerably good job. I sat on the sidelines and made excuses. I’m busy. I don’t enjoy that kind of thing. I don’t have time. I’ve got too much on my plate. Maybe later, I’d mumble. I thought that to try and not do well revealed some sort of character flaw. I would find myself almost paralyzed thinking about the risk. It was excruciating. So I didn’t try.

I suffered from a twisted flaw in my thinking. I felt no competitive need to be the best. But I was afraid to fail. I admired others for getting out there and doing, regardless. Until one day I had a light bulb moment. Someone’s first. Someone’s second. Someone’s last. It is a mathematical certainty.

That simple understanding freed me. Now I could try new things. I gathered my courage, said to myself, remember, somebody has to be last. I’m willing to be last in this new thing.

And that enabled me to paint. I don’t have to be invested in the outcome. I took a few lessons several years ago. But life kept interfering. You know how that is. I painted maybe a dozen pictures over four or five years. Some were hopeless and landed in the landfill. But when I finished one that showed promise, I framed it.

So last week I took two paintings for framing to the High Plains Gallery and Frame Shop. One is an arrangement of jelly jars and the other an interior scene with a balcony overlooking the sea. I had another painting, a still life I wanted critiqued. I had gone as far as I could go with it. I liked the individual parts, but as a whole, the painting didn’t work. I needed help. I took a deep breath and showed it. Do you know how hard that was? This was my creation, my baby. And I was asking that my work be judged. I was willing to risk the possibility that an expert would say it’s no good, that she would trash it, and by extension, trash me. But I remembered, it is okay to finish the race dead last. Even when I lose, I win.

I could tell Kellie was hesitant. “You can tell me if I should just throw it away,” I told her. “Be honest. I can take it.”

She pulled out an easel and set my canvas on it. “I like this and this and this,” she said.

“Me too. So, tell me why the whole thing doesn’t work.”

“Well, the wall in the background needs to have a corner about here. And you might want to make the walls darker, so the foreground pieces aren’t lost. You need to bring the light around from the other side. And make the shadows deeper.” She said some other stuff too, but that was all I could retain. As I left the shop Kellie called out, “Keep painting.”

So I took my baby back home and repainted the background. I brought the light around from the opposite side and added a corner. Which meant I had to repaint the figures in the foreground; in other words, I changed everything. Kellie was right. Now it works.

As soon at the paint dries, I’ll take it in to be framed. Next I’d like to do a winter landscape of my cabin in the snow-filled yard. I’ll keep painting. This is fun.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February 7, 2013