If I believed spirits walked the land

samandalex_200Morgan and I are planning a camping trip on our fragment of abandoned orchard in Moultonborough.

Both my sons are exceptional and they fill my heart with happiness.  I emphasize my love for them both so Alex doesn’t read anything into our not inviting him to join us.

We three have good, hard, simple, strong memories of this tiny spot in New Hampshire.  A lot of memories for the little amount of time we spent there.

People who have orchards write about them — indexJane Brox for one.  It would be hard to capture the struggle and resolve of working an orchard and the struggle and release of letting it go better than she has, and I’m not going to try. Rereading her books now, after putting our remaining 2.65 acres with apple trees up for sale, has rekindled memories and given words to many feelings never expressed.

Buying this orchard was really a crazy thing for us to do.  My husband Clark had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  He was feeling good after his bone marrow transplant and wanted to spend his last years working for himself, with me, at home.  He wanted a bed and breakfast.  We looked at other b&b’s but kept coming back to the first one we visited — Olde Orchard Inn.

I’m not sure what he hoped for at this point in his life, but I like to think he found it.

On move-in day we stepped into the kitchen and the house gave me a warm, firm hug as if it were waiting for us for a long time. That feeling never wavered, even when I was alone in it day after night after day in the coldest of winters, with the snow piled high over my head, and the wind wailing outside the bedrooms windows.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHThe land took a little longer to get to know, but after our first harvest we knew we had chosen wisely.  It was hard work, but there was constant reward.  I still wonder about the people who lived and worked there before us and what they left behind.  If I believed in spirits or fairy godmothers or guardian angels I might be able to explain it better.

There were two or three innkeeper/owners before us.  But before them there were only the Young’s, the Larson’s, the Brown’s, and the Abenaki’s.

White settlers drove the Abenakis from their land around Lake Winnipesaukee in the second half of the 17th Century.

Larson era brick house (1)We know that Batchelder Brown bought 50 acres from the colorful General Jonathan Moulton in 1783 for 5 pounds.  General Moulton received a large tract of land as a reward for his successes in the American Revolution and sold parcels to Brown and others who served under him.  The Browns bought abutting property in 1791 and 1803 and members of their large family lived there for over 150 years.   One of the Brown men made bricks from clay by the stream, and built the brick addition when the family outgrew the original center chimney wood structure.  Mildred Carter (a Brown through a second marriage) married Peter O. Larson.  They bought the home and land from the Browns, planted the orchard, and gave it the name Homestead Farm. They shipped apples all over the country and sold them at a farm stand on Route 25.

The Youngs, who bought the farm from the Larsons in 1968, perhaps like my family, loved the land too much. Kate Young Caley writes beautifully of her love for the farm in her memoir.  Unfortunately as I read reviews of her book, this part of her story seems overlooked and unappreciated.

At some point lands were sold off, and houses were built on Orchard Drive.  Homestead Farm became Olde Orchard Inn in 1987.  I’m not sure of all the owners but one of them, was the town building inspector, and that may account for why the tiny bathrooms in some of the guest rooms and a good deal of the wiring look like they couldn’t have passed code!

We bought the land from the Senners who ran the inn for several years.  Grandma Mary, who would ride in the bucket of the large tractor and pick the apples high on the trees, was sad to go.

admin-ajax.phpPeople with connections to the land would visit. A Brown descendent sat down in the old kitchen and and spent some moments in the past.  Two Larson women visited and told me that as children on very cold nights they would sleep on blankets on top of brick ovens behind the central fireplace. These pilgrims would walk the orchard and visit the family cemetery.  We all agreed that there was something special about the house and land.  Guests would ask me about ghosts and tell me they felt a presence. One couple came back to renew their wedding vows because they felt the orchard a spiritual place.

100_0674The 1790 house came with a barn built even earlier, and over 500 trees on twelve acres. We spent our first months there fixing pipes and moving snow and figuring out how to keep warm. But once spring arrived the apple trees exploded with a flowery welcome.

We learned how to care for the orchard by trial and error. We joined Beginner Farmers and went to workshops at the Carroll County Extension.  We tried our best to figure out which apple was which, when to prune, how to keep the apples crisp for as long into the winter as we could.

hat rack treesThe orchard was rather comical. The trees had buzz cuts. Old huge trees were mixed in with newer, younger, smaller  hybrids. Some were espaliered but neglected. Others had grown so many suckers and water sprouts they reminded me of banyan trees.  We found cherries (the birds always got them before us), pears, and a few peaches scattered throughout. The pears did very well, perhaps because there weren’t enough of them to attract their own pests and diseases. The peaches withered away.

You cannot imagine my delight when I discovered the gorgeous raspberries galore —enough to make the richest raspberry ice cream and still have plenty for muffins and kuchens. I liked them because they practically took care of themselves.

There were special moments. We were picking up drops one autumn afternoon.  The sun hit the maples just right, and we sat down and took in the colors, said how lucky we were, and stopped work for the day.

100_0770We saw bear curled up under bushes; a baby cub up in the crab apple tree outside our window.  Sleeping deer left matted ovals in the grass.  Wild turkeys strutted across the field picking up whatever goodies they could find.  Fox would jump up and dive into the snow coming up with a snack every time.

wild turkeysPepper, our dog, would walk along with us plucking dandelions off their stems without missing a beat. He would pick the apples off low hanging branches.

Our second year’s harvest was our best.  I doubt we had one apple that didn’t have a blemish or a hole, but that didn’t matter to us.

Apple Tree, written & illustrated by Peter Parnall

From Apple Tree, by Peter Parnall

The following winter Clark started to fail quickly. He continued to plow but I did the shoveling.  We drove into Boston in early spring to meet Morgan for a Red Sox game, but Clark wound up in Dana Farber.  He went home to hospice. The apple blossoms came and went and the grass grew up to my hips. One of my first mornings alone a mourning dove called to me from the top of the barn.  A weight lifted off my shoulders and Clark was now free.

Mowing took 18 man hours.  When Alex was up, they shared the work, one on the tractor, the other taking the lawnmower up close under the trees.  It was my job now and it was when I really started to love the land.  I understood why Clark gave up when he no longer could manage the mowing.

The new Woodshed -- April 2015

The new Woodshed — April 2015

It was too easy to stay put, protected and comfortable on this magical land, to be the widow at the old orchard who only went into town to buy cheese at The Olld Country Store, or walked across the street for takeout at the Woodshed.  Too easy to create my fantasy of being the crazy lady standing at the door with rifle in hand, dressed in calico and little brown boots, telling the tax collector to get off my property.  Too easy to imagine a slim handsome stranger with a cigarette in a pickup driving up and staying on as the live-in handy man.

I put the inn on the market, split off a small piece in the back orchard for myself, and sold the house to a a woman who had spent some time at the house before it was an inn and had felt the pull of the place.  She and her husband moved over from England and  immediately hung a Union Jack from the flagpole.  Batchelder might have shuddered in his grave.

winter apple treesNow these 2.65 acres are on the market. My sons and I are ambivalent. We want to enjoy the land but we live too far away.  My neighbor who lives in the former apple storage building is under the spell also.  He mows the orchard while he can.

Perhaps someone will buy the property, put up a sweet little home, care for the pears, choose a few apple trees to pamper back to health, steal a few of the raspberry plants from the inn’s property, spend a few years carving out a tree from a behemoth gone wild, and find peace.

But if it doesn’t sell, that’s okay.

She had a big breakfast, lay down and . . .

Mom, 2009?

Mom, 2009?

My mother died November first. She was 98 years old, though she looked younger. Yesterday her death became one of the stories Lee tells to people — at dinner, parties, breakfast, or whenever they seem appropriate. This telling was at Crafts People in Spillway, according to Lee, or Hurley, according to their business card.

When we walked into the first building — Jewelry, Lamps and Toys — the man sitting at the door, the owner, recognized Lee. We wandered a bit about until we were in different places. I was kneeling at a counter with barrettes and hair ribbons, sticks and such, hoping to find just the thing for my niece for Chanukah, when from the other side of the aisle came the words: “She had a big breakfast, and lay down for a nap, and . . . .”

He may have already told the story to Derrick or Eric or others of his men buddies separate from our life together, but this was the first I heard him tell it and it shook me a bit.

Only those few words. I quickly moved into the little room at the back which held the toys, in order to avoid hearing more. If it becomes part of his repertoire, it may acquire embellishments, and I’m looking forward to them.

But this telling was, like her death, quiet, peaceful, simple. I wasn’t at her death and will never know if she died as peacefully as the woman who sat with her told me. She said it was beautiful and the way she said it and looked at me and cried, there is no reason not to believe her.

I would have liked to have been with her.

She was in her own world these past few years or so. For the most part they seemed comfortable, content, healthy years, although I have no idea at all of what was going on in her mind. Did she know that she was and yet was not the woman she used to be? that she was unable to communicate? that she no longer could walk? that her sister had died? that her grandson got married? that people still loved her? Did she really just exist in the moment and did that moment ever seem much too long or meaningless? What did she do in-between those moments?

Did she recognize me as her daughter, did she recognize me as someone who came to visit every now and then, did she miss me when I wasn’t there?  Did I disappoint her by not doing whatever she might have wanted me to do, or not saying whatever she wanted me to say? Did she want?

redheaded woman illustrationMy presence during these later years may have had no impact on her happiness. My presence at her death may have been the same. Her last thoughts may have been of those who died before her — her mother, father, husband, or maybe no thoughts, only a longing to be finally free of the confines of her wheelchair and her own mind, or maybe no longing but just a blissful nothingness.

Is it a gift to be present at death? My husband Clark told me of how he held his father’s hand and felt his spirit pass on to him as he died. I wanted so much to give Clark the chance to be on the giving end when he died but I made a mistake and I’ve never forgiven myself. The night of his death was a nightmare that still continues to haunt me, all the layers of which I have yet to explore.

Perhaps being at the side of my mom when she died would have helped me.

It’s been written that

            “when Mister Death come, the living couldn’t see him, and wept and wailed,
            but the folks that was dyin’ rose up to greet him, and smiled at him on their way,
            like they knew him for a friend.”

I like to think that is true, but its simplicity makes me cringe when I think of those who lose loved ones, especially young loved ones, to accidents, gun shots, cancer. Who gives a shit about this Mister Death coming and taking our innocents away?

           “Well son,” said granny, “here’s another question she asks of you. Why did you take             away her baby sister from the cradle?”

           Then Death twisted and turned in his sleep again. “She was sick,” he said, “She                  was full of pain. I took her so she need never cry again.”

Life, death — it’s all a burden and a blessing.

*

redheaded woman cover

Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman, by Helen Eustis, with illustrations by Reinhard Michl. A Star & Elephant Book published by Green Tiger Press, 1983, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1950 under the title “The Rider on the Pale Horse.”

Fourteen joys and a will to be merry

IMG_0067Tuesday morning the flag that flies in the park outside my kitchen window was flying at half-mast. It was important to know why.

Two of my friends had died quietly the day before: one was more like family. Although they lived next door to each other, near the park, neither of them had any clout in town. The flag wasn’t lowered for them. It was eerie.

My friends were in many ways similar.

Both spent a lot of time by themselves. It seemed by choice. They did enjoy socializing, and each of them could be great company.

Both loved the Hudson. One kayaked on it, the other swam in it.

IMG_0062They both spent a lot of time gazing at it from their back porches, and they knew that it was forever changing, and that it would always be revealing more but not all of its secrets.

DucksThey loved the birds – the birds in the air and on the water. They watched each other watch a duck family that crossed through our contingent yards several days in a row on their way to the water. We never did find out where the ducks were coming from. Perhaps they nested at the pond down the road. It seemed a long walk for little ducklings, but one theory is as good as another for the story.

foxBefore&AfterTuckThey both observed the animals that darted out from the lilacs and sumac that bordered the tracks – mostly bunnies, but there were others. One took a picture of the sickly fox that roamed the shore, the other took the fox out of its misery.

They both were survivors. She fought breast cancer and was determined to beat it. She reminded me of my husband Clark who fought until he didn’t have the strength to sit on the tractor and mow the orchard anymore.

My other friend’s body was full of buckshot. We knew it was in his ear, but not until the xrays the day he died did we know that his body was riddled with shot, especially in one leg. He started gagging and gasping for breath on Thursday, and by the weekend Lee and I knew that he deserved a better life than the one he would have if he started the regimen to cure himself.

IMG_0055They both were creative. She maintained beautiful gardens, mostly in large planters. I like to look down on them from my top deck. We talked plants a lot, and also animals, and neighbors, and always the river. Her husband gave me one of her pottery pieces for our “tower toasting” just a few days before she died. It is next to me on my desk. Lee and I knew when she went into the hospital the last time she might not make it to our celebration.

Tuck 2 062013 LeeMy other friend, whom if you haven’t guessed was my dog Tuck, was creative too. He could find a way to get out of anything – almost. She called him Houdini. I think she would have loved to find a way out of her body and run with him.

What does one do when two friends die on the same day? I got into the car and drove to see my mother. She has had to depend upon someone for help in her daily life for the past ten years. She acknowledged me and smiled and I told her the news of the family, and in five – ten minutes she dozed off again. I held her hand drawing in whatever motherly comfort I could.

When in transit, I’m nowhere, a good place to be when you don’t want to be anywhere else. I sing with favorite music or listen to books. This four-hour round trip the book was A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of my Father by Augusten Burroughs. I hurt for the little boy who longed for his father’s love and had created a reality where he and his father shared a special relationship complete with little rituals. Finally Augusten discovered how wrong he was.

The tape kept running. I was no longer listening, but had had my own breakthrough. Life, death, love, loss, yesterday, tomorrow had all come together and I was happy to be alive. The memories of these two friends, whose times were up, were now part of me, along with the memories of others who had touched me in one way or another.

At home I read the blurb on the audiobook cover: “. . .Though harrowing and brutal, [the book] will ultimately leave you buoyed with the profound joy of simply being alive.” Come on, I thought, this is ridiculous.

It’s now Thursday and I’m somehow picking away at this feeling of joy by wondering if I should feel guilty for loving life while others are struggling just to live another day. Every now and then this pesky theme of mine surfaces and Lee, bless his heart, tells me it is good to enjoy life. I always come up with qualifications.

But here’s to a great neighbor and my dog Tuck, and here’s to my neighbor’s husband who shall grieve as long as he needs, and here’s to Lee, my constant companion and our lost spouses, and here’s to my mother, my sons, my friends, my extended family, Tuck’s vet, and here’s to you.

Love,

Spoonbeam

Tuck loved to be free —

Tuck 4 062013 LeeWatching him bound across
the field by the creek made
my toes curl.

Even when he bolted
it was impossible to scold him.
He always came back – full of burrs
and sticks and leaves,
soaking wet,
satisfied and glad to be a dog.

We’d leave the gate open if he were
still out when
we went to bed.

Sometimes I secretly really wanted him
to break away,
squeeze through the fence,
escape the leash,
chase a bunny,
but I
wouldn’t admit it.

What if he
frightened a child?
dug up a garden?
snatched a chicken?

What if he were
hit by the train?
attacked by a coyote?
snagged on a wire?
shot by a neighbor?

He had no use for treats or bribes,
could take or leave his meals,
didn’t sleep on a pillow,
fetch sticks, bother with toys.

He had been wild once,
I was told, in his life before
I knew him

but it must not have been all good

because always he came back to us,
because he always tried his best
to be a loyal, beloved pet,
extending his paw to all, and
keeping an eye on Jaxon,

because he walked proudly at my side,
tail tall and curled,
fluffed like a drum major’s feathers,
on lookout for suspicious dogs on leashes,
and people who might hurt me.

At least that’s what people told me —
that he would protect me.

He was a proud descendant of wolves:
his body peppered with buckshot,
he preferred to sleep outside.

He had a fierce bark, which he didn’t use often,
and it surprised me each time I heard it.

His ballsiness was well noted:
his kennel name was Manly.

His last few days were Hell.

We said goodbye.

He closed his eyes
and went to sleep.

It wasn’t all roses

Today is Fathers Day and I had a show-stopping conversation with Morgan.  His dad, my husband, passed away in 2006, when Morgan was 22.  We were talking about choosing a partner for marriage.

Mom & Dad at JFK 1990

Morgan said a thoughtful, tender thing to me, at least that’s what I heard.   He said that he and his younger brother Alex have an idea of what a good marriage can be because of the way their parents, Clark and me, stayed together and remained committed to each other for over 25 years.  That’s the model they have in mind, and they are looking for partners with which to do the same.  But oh, my words are so clinical and cliché.  His words were so very much more human, more Morgan.

Clark and I were truly each other’s best friend, there for each other, no question.

Morgan and I spoke about other things too – work, the addition, his cats, air conditioning, July 4th weekend, the cicadas.  And then we hung up.

And then I began to worry.  

In my efforts to make sure my sons are certain that Lee does not mean more to me than their father, have I led them to believe that Clark and I had a fairy-tale marriage?  Will they be endlessly looking for fairy-tale relationships?  As a young girl I believed in fairy-tale romances and marriages.  As an older woman I believe in fairy-tale romances and marriages.  But in-between I learned that it isn’t all lovey-dovey and happy til death do we part. 

There were days during my marriage, and sometimes there were weeks or months when I wondered why or how or when.  Do I really love him?  Would I be happier with someone else?  Am I trapped?

We never fought and I can’t remember ever raising our voices at each other.  I’m pretty sure that is true.  Two of the men I dated after his death, and the one that I am living with now get to that frenetic, shouting state so quickly. 

Arguing with men, with anyone actually except my mother and a few employees (I loathe being in a supervisory position) was new to me, and very uncomfortable, and so I talked about it, trying to understand this hurtful dynamic in a relationship.  One of my “dates” thought that Clark must have been hen-pecked.  How else could he not have gotten angry with me since I was such a controlling, demanding woman?  I don’t see that. 

Clark was level-headed, calm, comforting.  When I totally crashed the computer in our bookstore, leaving us without any inventory or purchase and sales records, he treated me gently and with concern as I walked around constantly crying, mute, and in a shadow for three weeks.  Even when he was hurting with cancer, he found the way to help me through my anxiety and craziness over my mother’s violent and ugly onset of Alzheimer’s and the difficulty of getting her, her friends, and her independent living facility to accept the fact that she needed help.

Another one of my “dates” thought that Clark must have been a saint.  I don’t see that either.

Lee doesn’t analyze.  He just knows that we are both a little bit (hah) high strung, and get frustrated easily.  Of course, I think he is the provocateur, but we won’t go there.  If we’re not laughing at ourselves in an hour, we kiss and make up in the morning.   We know we’ve got a good thing going and we aren’t going to let our big fat egos and our insecurities mess it up.

Clark and I may have talked and discussed, compromised, but I don’t even remember doing that.  We just thought the same way.   We successfully owned and operated two small businesses together.  We built one house and did major improvements on two others.  I guess we were a good match.  

He wasn’t very exciting though. 

When we were courting he had a dream of sailing around the world.  This sounded like heaven to me.  After several years I realized this was definitely just a dream.  He was much too cautious, too responsible, and he had a nightmare of an experience sailing the Marion Bermuda Race in 1979.

Only once did I see him lose it.

That was right after Morgan was born.  He had recently changed jobs, and had given up smoking.  Who knows exactly what brought on the anxiety attack that sent him to the hospital and then to bed for months.  If ever I would have left him, it would have been then.  But somehow both he and I got through it.   Yes, he did get stuck when he was diagnosed, but who wouldn’t, and he soon started looking for answers.

Later on, as he got sicker and weaker with his non-Hodgkins, our life got smaller and smaller, but it was actually a dream.  We were living in a 200 year old home that smiled on us.  We hardly ever left it.  Our children were off on their own. 

It felt to me as if I was getting to know a new Clark.  We spoke of what was happening to him and what would become of me.  We were delving into places that we never had entered before. We were falling in love again. 

Perhaps I have rewritten history for myself and for my boys.  It is hard when you are juggling jobs and children to take the time to love each other.  As I look back now, which I am so lucky to be able to do, I wish we had taken more time for ourselves and were more expressive of our feelings.  At the time I was proud of our stoicism.  It seemed to me that we just understood we were with each other and we didn’t have to prove it to each other over and over.  And I think he felt the same.  We never doubted. 

We were fortunate we had a quiet, close time at the end of Clark’s life.  He made it possible.  He is the one who wanted us to buy that big, rambling house – a bear to maintain – on nine acres which needed constant mowing and care.  I wanted to say “No.  We don’t need an apple orchard.  What are you crazy?   All that spraying, all that work?”

But because I knew I had another life on the way, I would have done anything with him.  

And we did good