Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Old, Used and Flawed


            Old, Used and Flawed 


A few weeks ago, well, several weeks ago, well, a whole lot of weeks ago, Michelle ordered a throw or small bedspread made from pieces of used saris.

She spread out the throw for show and tell, differently patterned on each side, stitched together with white cotton thread, in a long running stitch, lines spaced a half inch apart, a very light quilt. I guessed the sari throw to be about 60 X 90 inches. Despite being made with used saris, the colors were vibrant, the patterns strong. What I saw was not a blanket or wrap for cool nights, but dresses and blouses and all manner of possibilities.

I went online, the usual place, which has a .mex option. There they were, crying out to me for adoption as well as adaption, and dirt cheap. Not that dirt is necessarily cheap, but, you understand, it’s an expression indicative that I could afford one.

My sari throw arrived on a cold January afternoon. I inspected it. Each side wonderful with different patterns. I loved it. I wrapped myself in the soft, comforting folds of cotton and sat down to read.

An hour later, I was in the bathroom, violently sick. You know what my first thought was? First thought after throwing up for three hours, that is? Small pox blankets. I kid you not. After all, it is a tried and proven method of population control.

I had neglected to wash my new-to-me item before wrapping myself head to toe, I was so entranced. I always wash before I wear. Always.

Morning came. I donned nitrile gloves, finger-tipped my throw into the washer, hung it on line, the other online, in the sun to dry and bake.

Undaunted, when evening came I wrapped in my quilted saris and imagined what they might want to be.

Meanwhile, I had other projects going, so continued to dream, continued to wrap up when cold. Until one day, a warmer afternoon in February, I said to myself, “Self, I really love this as a wrap. Let’s order another and then choose which to use for garments and which to keep for a blankie.”

Immediately upon arrival, my new throw got a baptism in sudsy water. I lay the throws side by side, over and under, contemplated for several days, and chose one for dismemberment. Have you any idea how long it might take to pull running threads from a 60 X 90” garment. Long, that’s how long. Long.

Once dismantled, I discovered I had not two layers of sari pieces but three. Oh, the possibilities multiplied. Suddenly I had six large and one small piece of fabric with which to play. Greed set in. Oh, you sly computer, seducing my shekels from my pocket. I ordered another.

The third arrived on a warm day in March. I’m pulling the stitches, a few rows a day. While I pull stitches, the old saris talk with me. I get a definite sense of the women who patiently threaded their needles, over and over, stitched together used pieces of still-usable gauzy cottons.

This is intimate work, pulling out the stitches so patiently placed. Stitches take on voices, talk to me. One woman is younger, very precise, a perfectionist. Lentils and curry with a handful of rice burbles over a small flame.

Another, the eldest one, while not so precise, knots both ends of threads, wants it never to come undone. With her foot, she rocks a grandbaby in a cradle. The toddlers whimper for lunch.

The other woman is just getting through the day, tired, doing her job, adequate, impatient, cuts blind corners. She worries, worries she won’t make her quota, worries about the rent, wonders if she’ll make it to the market before the food stalls empty.

I am connected with these three different women. I am connected enough to feel guilty. This is sweatshop work, piece work, paid in pennies. Each woman works in her home, sitting by a window maybe, perhaps out under a banyan tree, or beneath a bare 25 watt bulb. Piece work. If you finish one, you get paid for one. If you finish ten, you get paid for ten. I imagine the gnarled fingers, cramped and needle-pricked, pushing the needle down one more row.

Is it wrong of me to buy these goods? Wrong to support the evil overseer? Or does my purchase mean the woman and perhaps her family eats tonight? My question has no easy answer; it is an age-old quandary.

I wish I could talk with these women, tell them what pleasure their stitchery brings me. We are connected, kindred souls, old, used and flawed, bound together by color and tradition and love of fabrics, also old, used and flawed.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

End of March which must mean something.


The Onion Fairy and Other Tales


            The Onion Fairy and Other Tales


I grew up reading Hans and the brothers Grimm and Aesop. I love fairy tales and fables. Back then we had the unexpurgated versions, full of blood and guts. I’m not saying that was better. I’m simply saying that is how it was.

The stories, which I read over and over, never gave me nightmares nor did they leave me pining for the handsome prince to hack his way through the brambles and rescue me from the wicked step-mother. Naïve as I was, I knew that wouldn’t happen.

A few months ago, in a set-apart corner of my garden, I made a compost pit. Frequently, a couple thoughtful neighbors contribute their kitchen parings to my pile. If my kitchen door is closed, I often will find a bag of bits hanging on one of the fussy details of my wrought iron gate. When I take my own kitchen debris out to the pit, I grab theirs to dump also.

We all win. Our kitchen trash cans never stink. In a turn-about I cannot explain, the compost pit smells like fresh new earth.

The other morning, going out for my walk, I found a bag hanging on my gate. I gave it nary a look nor a thought.

Later, I grabbed the bag, and instead of carrot peels and over-sprouted potatoes, I found a perfectly wonderful bag of onions. My very first thought was “The Onion Fairy came by and gifted me.” Similar to the Tooth Fairy. Except I didn’t have to sacrifice something in return.

Speaking of the Tooth Fairy, my daughter told me that children are getting $10 and $20 dollar bills in return for their baby teeth. Inflation. Crimininaly. (Root word—crime) I’ve lost two adult teeth. They should have been worth a few thou. I saw nary a penny. But, in all fairness, neither did I put the well-used teeth beneath my pillow in hopes. Now there is a fairy tale that should be re-written.

Onions and tomatoes. My kitchen is overrun with onions and tomatoes. Tomatoes are from my own vines. They are so heavily laden that I’ve had to pick green tomatoes so the weight of the fruit doesn’t tear down the whole vine. I gave away two large colanders of green tomatoes last week. Tomatoes ripen quickly, so every day, tomatoes sneak into my meals.

Living alone, I have no restrictions or restraints on meals. I eat what I want when I want. I had a couple days when I didn’t feel like cooking. I made tomato sandwiches. Tomato and onion. Tomato and mayo. Tomato and lettuce and onion. Tomato and jalapeno and cheese. Tomato and re-fried beans and onion.

My favorite sandwich I concocted with a smattering of peanut butter, mayo and thick tomato slices. All my friends said, “Ewww.” I didn’t say it was gourmet. Think outside the box. It tasted surprisingly good enough to make twice and again.

Here in this area of Mexico we have an expression, “to cut face”. It is easy to figure the meaning.

My neighbor Lani had surgery. The bottom part of her eyelid was falling down and needed to be clipped and stitched up. Lani looked like a raccoon which had run into two doorknobs.

When I went to around visit her and saw her face, I figured she needed to be cheered up and what better than a session of cutting face. I told stories and we laughed. We laughed a lot. Most of the stories were on myself. But not all. When I walked home, I thought, not all that we label ‘bad’ is bad. That hour of cutting face was the best medicine. You just never know.

One of my stories involved a huge fifth-wheel camper which looked like it was going to park itself in front of my wall. This is not the campground! I got on my high horse, got quite volubly territorial, pacing my living room, keeping an evil eye on the camper plus a couple cars and the truck pulling it. I mean, I was in a huff.

I was on the phone with my daughter while this beast invaded “my” back yard. Shame on me, to think it “mine”. Lola was outside pitching a fit. Dee Dee told me I sounded more territorial than my dog. That burst my bubble and brought me back to earth. The evil machine finally got turned around and found the campground. I blamed Lola for spinning me up.

Today I have a bowl full of ripe tomatoes. Wonder if Lani would like to find a bag of tomatoes hanging on her gate.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

The Springing Week of March


An Interrupted Peace, Or, Lola the Wonder Dog


An Interrupted Peace, Or, Lola the Wonder Dog


Lola is a dog. See Lola run. Lola barks. Hear Lola bark.

Lola is a working dog. She takes her duties seriously. She makes sure her master (Mistress? Mattress? Whatever.) goes outside her garden gate for regularly scheduled walks along with frequent unscheduled walks. Lola sees that I get regular doses of cool wet nose on my knee. She assures that I sink my fingers into her thick neck hair with great regularity.

Lola keeps me safe. As Lola became acquainted with my friends and neighbors, she took on the job of also keeping them safe.  In return, they sneak her chicken skins and leftover beef bones and gristles.

When Lola and I go walk-about, she knows where I am at all times. She is vigilant.

We all, the neighbors and I, have learned to interpret Lola’s language, her barks. She uses one bark for a strange car on our lanes. She doesn’t bark at regular cars. She has a different bark for campground people walking through our section of rancho. She has a bark for possums and snakes. And a really irritating bark for stranger dogs.

I listen. I interpret. I pay attention. Sometimes I check to verify unusual activity.

And then we have . . . Drumroll, please . . . Lola, the Wonder Dog.

Lola’s normally mild-mannered Clark Kent (Look it up. That’s why Google was invented.) brown eyes turn into rolling fiery pinwheels, able to penetrate the thickest barriers. Her normal doggy teeth grow into enormous blood-dripping fangs. Without stepping into a phone booth (Google it, I said.) she wears a caped leotard with an enormous S front and back: Super Bark, her voice of rage striking fear into the most evil heart.

1:30 in the a.m. Everybody on the Rancho woke to Lola’s Super Bark. She sounded ready and willing to rip off somebody’s legs. Two somebodies. Two prowlers were scoping out our casas, looking for cash, jewelry, cell phones, laptops; anything easy to grab, transport and turn into pesos.

These young men had split up, communicating by text. Listen hard and you could hear the ping of a message arriving.

Listen harder and you could hear my heartbeat thumping against my rib cage as I pulled the covers over my head. I do not claim super powers.

Normally, Josue would be outside, weapon in hand, ready to intercept the intruders. Thanks to Lola, the Wonder Dog, Josue knew we had prowlers.

Unfortunately, Josue is still recuperating from a fall from 6 meters up a ladder, in which he dislocated his ankle and broke his arm in two places. Josue is wheel chair bound, recuperating, but still burdened with casts, slings and braces.

All Josue could do was stand in his doorway and listen. He knew we had invaders afoot. A couple years ago, a young man broke into one of the houses. Thanks to Lola’s alter-ego alert-the-neighborhood cacophony, we all knew.

Erika called the policia who drove through the adjacent campgrounds but soon showed up with flashing lights. By that time, the menacing thieves figured the jig was up and had disappeared over the fields.

The following day, my neighbors, one by one, just happened by my gate with, you know, a handful of crispy chicken skins or bits of barbequed beef. Lola licked her glistening jowls. I pretended to not see the transactions.

A couple neighbors are installing extra security cameras. I’m not too worried. No stranger is coming through my gate in the middle of the night.

I’m waiting for movie producers to show up. Lola the Wonder Dog should be good for at least a Netflix series. Perhaps II, III and IV.


The Worst Possible Scenario


The Worst Possible Scenario

“The pain ran from the outer edges of my rib cage, across my diaphragm, here to here,” I told Kathy. “It started right after I got out of bed and got worse during the morning. It hurt to move.”

“Sondra, you had a heart attack!” she said. “Did you go in to the hospital? What did you do?”

“Funny, that’s what Dee Dee said too, but I didn’t tell her about it until yesterday evening when it was all over.”

“What happened? Do you still hurt?”

“I figured it was a pulled muscle, probably the way I sleep canted on my side. I slathered it with the gel everyone in Mexico uses for pain and took an aspirin. The pain began going away a couple hours after I self-medicated. I felt a little nauseous, but nothing serious. By five, I felt fine. I had a good night, slept well. I feel good today.”

“That is a heart attack symptom,” Kathy repeated, in case I hadn’t heard her the first time. “You should go see a doctor.”

“I promised Mother Leo I’d go today if I still hurt. He must have checked on me eight times yesterday. It’s strange. I never even considered a heart attack. It’s the first thing you thought of.”

I should explain. Leo mothers all us old people. We tell him our woes and he mothers us.

“Kathy, your reaction reminds me of when I began “to be a woman”, using the euphemism of our day. “In health class we’d learned the The Seven Signs of Cancer. One sign was unexplained bleeding. I thought I had cancer and surely was going to die soon. I never told anyone and was quite resigned to my fate. Rest in Peace.

“Later that year we girls were herded into an empty classroom. Must have been the County Health Nurse who spoke to us. I remember her asking if any of us knew what menstruation was. The room went dead silent.”

I’m sure some girls knew but some of us were pretty ignorant.

“Finally Donna raised her hand. ‘I don’t know what that is,’ she admitted. My respect for her raised a thousand points. She was so courageous.

“Then the nurse gave us The Booklet and showed us The Film. I will never forget my relief. There was an explanation. I was not doomed to die from cancer.”

When we girls were shuttled back into our classroom, the boys wanted to know where we were, what happened? That day another euphemism was born as Karen, without a blink of hesitation, said, “We saw a film of Glacier Park.”

“Glacier Park” thereafter always had a special meaning to us girls.

It is strange how our minds work. I have never once considered having a heart attack. It just isn’t on my agenda. And once I understood with huge relief that my bleeding had a natural explanation, that pretty much wiped out cancer. Yet both Kathy and I each had first entertained the worst possible scenario.

Did I tell you about the paper cut I got on my finger the next day? I wanted to call the ambulance but I was on the phone with Dee Dee when I did it and she was laughing at me and giving me grief.

I slathered my finger in Bag Balm. I keep a weather eye on it to make sure a red line doesn’t streak up my arm. I learned what that means in Seventh Grade Health Class.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

March 10, Spring, Glorious Spring, 2023

The Path Math Hath


The Path Math Hath 


Back when the earth was still cooling, back when I was a student at Harlem High, algebra was a high school subject. Now they start the kids learning simple equations in pre-school. Or near enough.

Up until Algebra, I’d made A’s in math. Our algebra teacher was an aerospace engineer the year the field was overbooked, clogged, with aerospace engineers and those who could not follow that path, taught math.

Class consisted of Mr. X, or was it Y, ordering us to memorize the equations and work the problems. Then he gathered the boys in a circle at the front of the room and talked sports until the bell rang.

I’m the type of learner that wants to know why, to follow a to b to c to x. This man said, “That is not important. Just memorize the equations and work the problems.”

I’d sit at the dining table at home, brown paper grocery bags for scratch paper, penciled with numbers run amok, until I’d get the right answer. And I could show how I figured it out. But it wasn’t the way Mr. X+Y wanted. So I’d get my papers red-marked, even with right answers.

When I’d figure the answers to the problems my way, convert them to his way, all was well, on daily assignments. Then came the dreaded tests. I didn’t have time to figure, then convert. So I’d fail the tests. Didn’t matter that I had the right answer and there was my figuring on the page to support the answer.

From then on I was soured on math and avoided it when I could. I’m not saying the teacher was wrong. Maybe further on in higher algebra there was a reason to do it his way instead of the way I’d figured out how to do it on my own.

I am the first to admit I had a certain amount of stubborn resistance going on. That same stubborn resistance has landed me in quicksand, metaphorically speaking, but has also come to my rescue in equal part. Using it as a tool, I’ve learned how to do a lot of things.

Take sewing, for instance. A similar situation happened back before I’d moved to Montana. I was nine or ten, joined 4-H, a great organization, my only year.

We had to make a fringed scarf and one other item I don’t recall. Grandma looked at the directions, frowned, said, “Why do it that way when it is easier and just as nice this way.” She showed me how. Made sense to me. Needless to say, I won no blue ribbon.

Maybe it’s all Grandma’s fault, my life, and all, even algebra.

Okay. Nice try, but I know to own my own actions and reactions, dang.

Still on the subject of sewing, when the pandemic hit, my wardrobe was showing signs of wear, tear and shabbiness. I began to revise, revamp, rebuild and repurpose my entire wardrobe.

I’m living a pared down life. I have a simple portable home sewing machine and a dozen spools of thread, scissors, the bare basics. I have no supply of fabrics, no patterns. I am creative. Once I have an idea, can see it in my imagination, I can usually figure out how to make it happen. You know, ab over c minus y equals x. I’ve made clothing from sheets and shower curtains. You’d never guess.

People know I love to sew. Several neighbors bring me mending. They also bring me, well, let Julie tell you. “Nancie gave me this piece of cotton. I’ll not use it. Maybe you can do something with it.” Just when I wanted a new tablecloth, Julie brought me that lovely curtain which made the tablecloth plus napkins.

Kathy brought me a traditional Indian (India) outfit that a patient had given Dr. Richard, her husband. I ripped the whole thing apart and created a lovely shirt plus a set of handkerchiefs.

So the other night lying in bed, I thought about a pair of jeans I’d bought online. I hate shopping. I know better than to buy clothing online. I have to touch, to see, to hold, to try on for fit. I dislike those pants.

That night I could see those jeans reduced to strips of denim married to another piece of fabric given me by Crinny a couple years ago, to have and to hold, I mean, to create a lovely blouse. I can see it. I can do it. I’ll let you know if I get a pass or fail. It’s all about math. Measure twice, cut once, I was taught. 

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

How can it be March?


Monday, February 27, 2023

Spring, Sprang, soon to be Sprung


Spring, Sprang, soon to be Sprung


Please don’t grimace like that, Mrs. Hunter. I’m drunk on spring love and language is ours to play games.

Spring arrives quickly here in Jalisco, the Garden State of Mexico. I declare, we are definitely in the Sprang stage of Spring. Boing. Boing. Boing. What fun it is.

Light opens the sky a little bit earlier. Not much, here closer to the Equator, but a little. And it stays around a little bit longer in the evening before it drops behind the mountains. And the day warms up sooner, stays warm longer. Ah, Spring.

Yesterday while talking with my neighbor Janet, we saw a Crimson Collared Tanager. I looked it up in my handy bird book. We have a vast variety of tanagers and this type is a new-comer in the neighborhood.

Three days ago I saw a butterfly I’d not seen before. It was the deepest, brightest, most pure yellow, large, not as large as a bed-sheet butterfly, but larger than the more common yellow butterflies that are always with us.

This morning I came nose to nose with a dragonfly on my clothesline. She had the sweetest face, like a miniature ET. We stared at each other for an actual two minutes, nose to nose, and she showered me with love. Allow me my notions, illusions, delusions, please. Spring is Sprang. Love is Sprung in the air.

For the last two weeks I’ve been eating zucchini and/or squash blossoms every day from my own garden buckets. By the weekend, I’ll be eating my own tomatoes. Tomatillos, kissing cousins to tomatoes, already are hanging lovely green Japanese lanterns on every vine. The larger ones are filling out nicely.  

I miss my lettuce salads but I had such a good crop, fed me and my neighbors for months, so I let it go to seed. In a week or thereabout, I’ll be able to replant the baby bathtubs, the containers I use for lettuce beds. Lettuce does not require depth.

Janet’s Jacaranda tree, always the first of this tree to show color, is bursting with purple blooms. Mine is still shedding leaves like rain. The trees seem to have jumped the season by a month. But I assume they know their schedule better than I do. Lani’s tree will turn purple next. Then mine. John’s tree is last. The strange things I notice.

Seasons seem so different here, to me. Spring springs sudden out of winter, admittedly a mild season, morphs very quickly into Summer, which I’ll call mid-March to mid-June. The next season is the Rainy, through into October. October and November are autumn. Then December and January round out winter.

Birds are building new nests or repairing winter damage on the old homestead. They have absolutely no morals, billing and cooing shamelessly, especially the partridge doves who act like love birds year-round but go nuts in spring.

I have to be careful when picking zucchini, gathering , pruning or tending flowers of any kind, including tomato blossoms. Bees. Oh, the bees. They are, oh, well, busy as . . . bees. They live their own cliché. Gathering honey. Carrying pollen. Making sure life goes onward, sweetly.

I just returned from my evening walk with Lola. This week a huge bull has moved into the field with the horses, a temporary pasture he uses during Mardi Gras. This animal is huge with great horns and giant lop ears. I know it is Spring. The bull was leaning over the fence, licking the small horse’s face with his great larruping tongue.

The horse would move her head forward for a lick, then back. Then forward, then back. A dance. Love is strange.

Me, I’m having a heart attack, falling in love all over again, with everything I see.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

Plowing through February


Tuesday, February 14, 2023

To the tune of, “Will you still love me, when I’m ninety-five!”


               To the tune of, “Will you still love me, when I’m ninety-five!” 


I went to Oconahua to Jane’s birthday celebration for cake and homemade ice-cream. Ninety-five full years. From the stories Jane has told and from stories her daughters told with great glee, that woman was a pistol. She’s still a pop gun.

She lived fully and outrageously, a Registered Nurse, from NCY to Alaska to Washington to Mexico. In what order, I don’t know. There are chapters I’ve not heard.

Jane is Michelle’s daughter and has a casita on Ana and Michelle’s land a short ways from the Big House. Michelle is her primary care-taker. Ana is taking nursing classes, in order to be a better-educated helper.

I enjoyed an enlightening talk with Ana. She explained how Mexican culture doesn’t see anything wrong with senility. It is a natural part of the life cycle and is treated as such. That is refreshing.

The party was a small gathering compared to what Michelle and her sister Susan, in Mexico for the event, had envisioned. They had wanted all of us, everyone who knows Jane, to be there, a catered dinner, a mariachi band, the whole big blow out with fireworks and all things glittery. With all the various plagues in the land, the family chopped the party back at both ends and in the middle.

Meanwhile, back at the Rancho, Josue, checking in at a youthful and invincible thirty-five years old, seems to be trying to foreshorten his days. Picture this: Josue was working at a friend’s hacienda, up six meters (that is about 20‘ high) on a ladder, swinging a paint sprayer attached to the air hose, when the ladder slipped.

When the ladder slipped, gravity took over, the ladder hit the ground, the man came down, broke arm and leg but saved his crown, so he said, barely coherent through the pain, “At least my head is okay.”

“Josue,” I said, “If your head was okay, you would never have been that high on a ladder without a harness, with an air-tool in hand.”

I must explain that when one needs a ladder that tall, here in Mexico, one takes two or more ladders and ties them together end-to-end. Just picture that.

Josue laughed, so we knew that even though he wasn’t ‘okay’, he will be. After surgery and three months recuperation.

Not to be outdone by others’ drama, my bank card quit working. I bank at Bear Paw, now called something else. At first I wasn’t worried. It happens. The bank machine is maybe out of money. Three tries in town later, three weeks, plus a denial in Guadalajara, I figured panic was appropriate.

Finally, I called the bank and after waiting in a long queue, got a voice I’d not heard before. The young man was quite nice, explained that my bank card would never work again. I explained that I live in Mexico and that is my only access to money.

I knew there were changes at the bank because I saw an article in the Havre Daily. I know changes never go smoothly as envisioned in an office somewhere else. The nice young-male voice assured me that he’d issue a new card and new checks to be sent to my daughter at my Montana address, her house.

Bank cards are not allowed to be shipped across the border. So if my daughter receives my card as assured, she will have to then mail it to the next person coming here from the US. Whenever. Do you see all the opportunities for disaster?

Lent is around the corner. I confess that I have not seriously observed Lent in a whole lot of years. However, when in the trenches, one calls on Greater Powers. I’m going on short rations, not from a renewed sense of devotion, but from a severe shortage of pesos.

Which brings me back to Jane’s birthday party, a sweet affair at which we all agreed, none of us really want to live to ninety-five, not unless we can still have all our physical and mental functions. Of course, we also want to die peacefully in our sleep, a dream as likely to happen as me getting my bankcard without a hitch and a hiccup.

We know that Josue will, in a few months, be back up high on a make-shift ladder.

Jane is planning to make ninety-six years.

I’ll let you know how Lent goes for me and if I live to enjoy my own next birthday in April.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

Three weeks into February and warmer