A Birthday Tale


Several weeks ago, the tail of my favorite horse, Miracle, disappeared.  When she died from colic after giving birth several years ago, one young lady at the vets took hairs from her tail, made a braid, and gave it to me.  Since then, it had hung in the hallway next to Dad’s spurs and a photo of the family farm above Dad’s parade saddle. Suddenly, it disappeared.  Where could it have gone?  No one had recently been to the house except Martina, my Italian exchange student, and me.  My daughter and grandson had stopped by, but no one else.  Nothing else had disappeared.  It was a mystery like the time I found a handful of dry dog food under the saddle.  I never solved that one and had given up on solving this one.  I had even considered looking for something else to hang in its place.

On my birthday yesterday, the principal walked to my room with a bouquet of flowers and a package.  The bouquet was from my grandson.  I opened the package. Much to my astonishment, there was Miracle’s tail, the top of the braid carefully and colorfully wrapped, a thin copper wire winding through it, and and then wrapped around the bottom.  My daughter had managed to take it without my seeing her do so, took it home, and had wrapped it so it would not come apart.  When I originally told her about it, she and my grandson commented how strange it was and made note of the dog food incident as if some mystery lurked in that particular place in my house.

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My grandson had picked out each individual flower.  He obviously knows my favorite color is orange.

Then to top off the day my son also sent flowers.  It dropped 50 degrees from yesterday afternoon to late last night, the wind shrieks, clouds loom dark and ominous.  It is a good day for bright flowers.

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The Christmas Tree


In childhood, no fake tree for us.

Just after Thanksgiving, the family search transpired.

Mom and Dad preferred Douglas fir, six feet tall.

Dutifully, we kept the tree holder filled with water,

never used real candles.  We put on lights, big ones,

blue, green, red, an inch long, then carefully hung on delicate,

colorful, round balls.  The most difficult task: the icicles,

long, silver, reflective.  They had to go on just so.

Years later, children gone, Mom and Dad bought an

artificial tree, fake Douglas fir, incredibly real in appearance.

 

When they left Missouri for Arizona every winter after harvest,

they abandoned Christmas trees, gave me the fake Douglas fir.

I still have it.  How long?  Decades, several at least.  State of the art

when they bought it, it requires work, assembly, strings of lights.

Every year, I tell myself it is time to get one of those new trees with lights

already installed, so much easier to take up and down.  I never buy one.

I cannot bear to part with Mom and Dad’s tree.  One year, annoyed with

putting on lights, I decorated it lightless.  I missed the lights.  Now every year,

decades later, I assemble it, take the time to string the lights.  Some of the lower

branches no longer stay, but I work around that, hang the colorful, delicate

Christmas ornaments I love, collected over years and years, wrap the base in

the red and white cloth given to me from Africa. On cold evenings, like this one,

I turn off the other lights, drink tea like my mother did, and remember my

childhood.

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A Letter to the Man I Loved the Most


Today is your birthday, June 6.  I cannot wish you Happy Birthday because you fell into a coma a year and 1/2 ago and died several months later.  Our daughter came over and over to see you, unconscious, eyes staring into empty space.  She drove the five hours back and forth repeatedly.  Sometimes I came with her.

What happened to you?  Your mahogany hands and arms looked as they did when I first met you decades ago.  I looked at the signs of aging on my own; yours seemed so young, ageless.  But not your face.  I wonder if I would have recognized you on the street.  I remember the first time I saw you, sitting on a sofa–fancy, engraved silver tipped cowboy boots, shirt open half way down your chest, and your smile radiating across the room.  I knew immediately I had to have you.

What happened to you?  How could I have guessed I could be so wrong, decades of believing you just left, no explanation, nothing.  Then after you are comatose and I cannot talk to you, I learn a far different truth, a truth that never leaves me, a truth from which I will never totally recover.

What happened to you?  Charming, laughing, the man so many loved.  That you.  Did the other you finally dominate–the sad, disappointed, angry you?  The you few knew, the hidden you, the one I often held, tried to protect. Now I talk to your cousin, the one you forbade to tell me the truth I never knew, the friend I thought I had lost forever.  Yesterday we talked.  Today she left me a message.  She and I will never be the same, she filled with irreparable loss, your company, your mutual love, and I with a hole in my heart that can never be filled because I cannot talk to you.

What happened to you?  A decade ago when you came to see our daughter, it was like I had seen you only yesterday, in so many ways as if we had never been apart.  It haunted me.  You could have told me then, the truth.  But no, I had to learn it by accident from our daughter.  She thought I knew, that you had told me.

What happened to you?  I look at photos of us, young, filled with hope and love and promise, smiling brightly toward a camera.  I wonder how different my life might have been.  I will never know.

 

 

 

Memorial Day–Memories


While I was growing up, my mom grew peonies by the side of the vegetable garden.  Red, pink, white, huge spectacular blooms that always arrived around this time of year just in time for Memorial Day.  We would pick many, put them in mason jars and take them to my father’s and her family’s cemetery plots.  She has created a metal apparatus to hold them so the wind would not blow them over.  We took water to fill the jars.  We did this every Memorial Day always.

No one lives close any more.  There is no one left to take flowers there.

My mother’s family members are buried in the Mound City, Missouri Cemetery.

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My mother’s parents’ gravestone.  She was Nellie Narcissus Kaiser before she married rather late for back then–in her late twenties.  I never knew my grandfather.  He was so much older than she that even though he lived to be 80, he died long before I was born. My great-grandfather Kaiser was born in Switzerland and brought here as a child.

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The gravestone of my mother’s grandmother.  I know she lived with my grandmother and grandfather a lot of the time from family photos, but I also know that she died in San Diego.  No one ever told me how she got there or why.

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The gravestone of Aunt Julia, Mother’s sister.  She never married, loved fancy antiques and china.  I frequently use some of what she left me.  She came to see me rather often and we visited antique stores when she visited.  To say she was an independent woman is an understatement.

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My parents’ gravestone is on the right and Dad’s parents’ on the left–in the cemetery in Fillmore, Missouri.  My grandfather, Pleasant Lightle, had walked from Illinois to Missouri as a child according to family stories.  My parents met dancing. I always smile when I see the peonies planted at their graves.

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This is the gravestone of my great-grandfather, Dad’s mother’s father, who came to the US from Switzerland when he was 18.  According to my dad, he did not want to be conscripted into the Swiss army because at that time Swiss soldiers were being hired out as mercenaries.  His mother stood on the roof of their house waving until she could see him no longer.  They never saw each other again.  I grew up on the land he homesteaded in Andrew County, Missouri.  Andrew County is filled with descendants of immigrants who came from Switzerland.

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The old carriage house near the house where Dad spent the first ten years or so of his 90 years.  It is all that is left standing.

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The house where Dad lived the last 80 years of his life and where I grew up.

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When I was a child, the building in the foreground was used at various times as a farrowing house, once for Rhode Island Red chickens, and to store various farm supplies.  When I went to visit Dad after Mom died and we were at the cemetery on Memorial Day, a man came up to Dad and asked if he was Doyle Lightle.  They started chatting and I learned that when Dad first built it during Prohibition times, he held dances there.  The sheriff would send deputies to watch and make sure no one was drinking.  I had lived there and visited there for decades and had never heard this story.

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I took this photo standing on the levee next to the Missouri River looking toward the Rulo, Nebraska bridge.  This is the land my mother’s family owned.  On some Sundays as a treat, we would cross the bridge to a restaurant on the Nebraska side.  It was famous for its fried catfish and carp.

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This is country with lots of water and trees.  This picture was taken near Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.  Several times in my life, I have seen flooding from the bluffs on the Missouri side all the way to the bluffs on the Kansas and Nebraska side of the river.  When I was a child, my uncle and aunt lived on the river farm until a flood reached half way up the second story of their house.  They gave up and moved to town.

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When I was a child, there were trees like this in lots of places on Mom’s family’s farm.  About this time of year we would hunt for morels and often pick a bushel basket full.  Mom dipped them in egg and cornmeal, then fried them.  We practically lived on them for week or two.  I was shocked as an adult to go into a fancy market and discover that dried morels were 95 dollars a pound.

 

 

 

 

My Mother–Barbie Doll


Barbara Lewis Duke, pretty petite, blue-eyed and blond, my mother, one fearless, controlling woman.  Long after Mother’s death, Dad said, “Barbara was afraid of absolutely no one and nothing.”  They married late:  34 and 38.  He adored her unconditionally.  She filled my life with horses, music, love, cornfields, hay rides,      books, ambition.  Whatever she felt she had missed, I was going to possess:  piano lessons, a college education.  Her father, who died long before I was born, loved                 fancy, fast horses.  So did she.  During my preschool, croupy years, she quieted my hysterical night coughing with stories of run aways horses pulling her in a wagon.      With less than one hundred pounds and lots of determination, she stopped them,               a tiny Barbie Doll flying across the Missouri River Bottom, strong, willful, free.

Note:  this poem is in my book “On the Rim of Wonder” and was also recently published in “Inside and Out”, a collection of writings by women.  It is available on Amazon and published by the Story Circle Network.

Addendum:  My mother loved horses and flowers.  When I look at the flowers around my house I think of my mother.  And, yes, I have horses.  The following photos are dedicated to my mother’s memory.

 

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My mother’s mother and father.

 

Mom’s Pumpkin Pie


Mom made fantastic pies of all sorts so much so that when she took a pie to a potluck, people would rush to get a piece even before they acquired any other food.  The only pumpkin pie my grandson likes is Mom’s.  He seems to like the idea that he is eating something his great grandmother created.  Today, I taught him to make homemade pie crust and Mom’s pumpkin pie.  Here he is crimping the edges after rolling out the dough and placing it in the pie pan.

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We made two pumpkin and one pecan today.  Here is the recipe for Mom’s pumpkin pie.  He ground the cinnamon–pieces of bark from a friend’s mom’s tree in Ethiopia–using an old fashioned, wooden grinder.

1 1/2 cups cooked or canned pumpkin

1 1/2 cups milk and cream or evaporated milk  ( I use 1 can evaporated milk)

3 eggs

3/4 cup brown or white sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg ( I grated this fresh)

1/2 teaspoon ginger

Dump everything in a blender.  Place your hand on the lid before starting the motor.  Blend a few seconds, until smooth, and pour into pastry-lined pie shell.  Bake at 450 for ten minutes, then bake at 350 for 30 minutes longer or until firm in the center.

Placed with Mom’s original typed recipe is this note:  “Juliana, if you use half evaporated milk it gives a wonderful flavor and I like white sugar best.” I use white sugar.

The finished product looks like this.

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This recipe makes a lot of filling so if you do not have a large pie pan, you will need to bake some of the filling in another pan.  Since we made two today, we baked the left over without a crust in another oven proof dish–pumpkin pudding.

I Watched Movers Box Up a Life


Saturday, February 18, 2017

I watched movers box up a life today, a life I thought left me thirty some years ago.  I was wrong.

When our daughter and I cleaned out the refrigerator, we found a large pot filled with egusi stew, remnants of the last meal he cooked. I took the footlong, hand carved, wooden spoon, scraped the dry bits clinging to the sides of the silver pot.  Scrubbing it clean, smells of memory flooded my nostrils–cayenne, bitter leaves. It took me ten minutes, ten memory laden minutes.  Even after scrubbed and dried, the pot’s cayenne smell filled my nostrils, the distinct smell of West African food.

I watched movers box up a life today, a life I thought left me thirty some years ago.  I was wrong.

Our daughter and I found papers and photos, items her father kept all these years, detailed memories of our life together.  I could barely look at them, throat constricting, tears welling in the eyes of this woman who never cries.  Our daughter, dismayed, told me to go outside.  I walked down the quiet street, brown leaves scattered from autumn, unraked, a strange street both urban and rural inside a city of nearly half a million residents.  Is this where he walked, attempting to improve his health?  Was I walking in his footsteps?

I watched movers box up a life today, a life I thought left me thirty some years ago.  I was wrong.

Isabella–En Memorium


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The crematorium handed me the 6″ by 4 ” dark brown wooden box.  I knew it would be heavy; Isabella was an eighty pound wolf dog. I thought I was prepared.

Driving home, memories:

March 2006, daughter calls; two year old grandson wants a beta. I drive to PetSmart.  Daughter tells me I must see these unusual, incredible seven-week-old puppies.  Alert brown eyes look at me.  Too big, black ears wiggle.  The label says wolf, German Shepard, Blue Heeler.  The two remaining puppies look like light colored German Shepherds or Belgium Malinois.  I had not planned to get a dog, not yet.

Two years later I move into my new house:  canyon edge, horses, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, road runners, mockingbirds, rattlesnakes.  Isabella guards her property, sits on the patio where she can check for invaders.  She rarely barks, growls.  When she does, high alert–I check.  Neighbor dogs, coyotes, foxes, chased off–not bobcats.  She watches them.

I remember the day she dismembered a skunk, drug the carcass everywhere.  After eleven baths at PetSmart, the skunk smell remained.  The one day she growled, I shocked, investigated–a man walking down the arroyo toward the house.  Growls became increasingly loud.  Out on the patio, she stands, the man sees her, turns and runs.  I feel safe, Isabella guarding, telling me if something unusual occurs.  She’s mixed breed; I think she’ll live long.

Every morning, evening, she completes horse chores with me, chases bunnies, roadrunners.  Two months ago, I, mesmerized, watch her catch, gobble two half-grown bunnies in less than one minute–nothing left.  Mixed breed; I think she’ll live long.

Friday morning she helps me with chores, chases bunnies.  Friday afternoon she can hardly move.  At the vet, blood work like a four year old; x-ray shows a little something wrong.  They give her two shots, schedule an ultra-sound for Saturday morning at another vet’s.  Meds working, Saturday morning she’s her usual lively self, eager to travel in the truck, nose wet and cold.

Ultrasound vet tells me there’s little hope.  Shocked, I stand there.  “If she were your dog, what would you do?”

“Put her to sleep.  She’s not in pain.  She has a tumor the size of your small fist on her intestines–might be cancer, hard to operate.”

I look at the vet, frozen.

At 8:00 Wednesday evening, I open the box, take out the bag of Isabella’s steel grey ashes, walk out to her patio spot, the place where she guarded her kingdom, toss a handful of ashes into the wind, watch them float and scatter down into the canyon, tears tracking down my face.  I close the bag, walk to the place where our long yearling colt, Star, is buried, dig an eight inch hole, bury another handful of ashes.  I take the one tablespoon of ashes left back to the house, put them back in the black velvet bag and into the box with the card with her paw print, the crematorium certificate, the sympathy card signed by all the employees where they euthanized her, place it on top of a stack of old magazines in the Chinese cabinet.

At bedtime, I forget, go to call her in.  This morning I find her hairs–she shed so much, wolf undercoat.  Evidence of her presence permeates.

It will never end.

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Ethiopian Journey–The Beginning


Two years ago today, two friends and I flew from here to Dallas to Dubai.  The final destination:  Ethiopia, where I spent nearly three weeks with them and my friends’s family plus a road trip through the north.  Ethiopia was nothing like what one sees in the news, in famine photographs, nothing like the image most people in the USA have of it.  My main goal when I returned home was to show people photos and inform them what it really looks like, how incredibly beautiful it is there.  This mission continues two years hence.  For the next several weeks I plan to relive this journey and share it on my blog here.

It is a short trip from Amarillo to Dallas via air.  In order to carry the baggage allowed on Emirate Airlines, we first flew via Southwest to Love Field, then took a taxi to Dallas International.  If you plan to fly long distances, I highly recommend Emirates Airlines.  Compared with all the others I have experienced even coach class is wonderful:  bigger seat room, more than a hundred movies to watch, good food, an area where you can help yourself to fruit and snacks, unlimited wine and beer, and an international group of flight attendants.

From Dallas to Dubai is fifteen hours of flying.

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People wonder why they fly over Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe to get to Dubai.  Do not look at a flat map.  Get a globe and trace the route.  It is the shortest way to go.  Dubai is not like many think here.  No, I did not see endless lines of Lamborghinis and Ferraris.  In fact, I do not recall seeing any at all.  Tomorrow, photos of Dubai before heading on to Addis.

The Girl and The Woman


The Girl

She stands alone by the train tracks.

Watching and waiting and dreaming.

Hobos no longer exist.

She remembers reading stories of life

when her great grandmother lived:

hobos begging for food, gypsies stealing

children and telling fortunes, long days

working in the corn fields, chopping weeds.

Her own family praises:

tractors, riding lawn mowers, herbicides, pesticides,

electricity, TVs, dishwashers, muscle cars, MacDonalds,

diet Coke, cell phones, computers, DVDs, iPADs.

Now the only excitement lays in Grand Theft Auto,

guns, and sex.  She watches and waits and dreams.

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The Woman

She stands alone on the rim,

watching the moon rise,

wondering.

Life flies by on wings

outstretched.

She remembers rich years

filled with long joys, living,

loving,

and temporary sadness, divorces,

moving here and there,

Narrangansett Bay, Utah mountains,

Veracruz,

babies held to breast,  blond

and chubby, cafe con leche.

She remembers girlhood longings

for far horizons, traveling

around the world, lovers,

husbands, shades of brown

beauty.

She’s learned to make

her own excitement,

singing Goddess songs,

dancing on the rim of wonder.

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Photograph by Anabel McMillen and Painting by Lahib Jaddo