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Category Archives: home

Before and After and After That

What are you painting now?

One of the appeals of my house when I first saw it was the guest suite. Up the stairs, around the railing, past the doors to the family bedrooms, and tucked back in the corner is a large square room with two windows and a small full bathroom. Nineteen and Very-Nearly Sixteen were Two and Five when we moved into the house. With five bedrooms to choose from, they each had their own room—they shared in Bethesda—with a Jack-n-Jill bathroom in between. Over the years Two asked for her room to be painted first ballet pink and then, when she was a pre-teen, teal. Five chose an ocean blue for his room. I painted their bathroom butter yellow.

After her brother had been at college for a year, Very-Nearly Sixteen and I had gotten used to each having our own space. I considered the squabbles over bathroom time and the guest room mostly idling on its own. After consulting with his sister, I offered Nineteen the option of the guest room for his summer home. He accepted readily.

If that sounds like a no brainer, consider the room’s décor:

 

Other than a tedious hour spent sitting on the floor of the bathroom rubbing the spots of nail polish that speckled the tile everywhere with remover, I had never done anything to the room. My theory was that it was reasonably cheerful for a guest room. Once my son was installed in the room, I felt bad about the flowers but knew nothing would happen during his summer stay.

He lived in the room again for five weeks at Christmas, taking video conference meetings with his employer and never once mentioning the backdrop. When his summer internship appointment promised he’d be home this summer, I resolved it was time to make some changes.

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During … after the prime coat, featuring Katy, who is not yet sitting on the wet paint can lid, but would soon after this.

After spring break, without breathing a word to Nineteen, I launched my covert redecorating operation. It took a day to prep the room, including fixing some rather large drywall blemishes. The next workday was a prime coat and two more days went to painting two coats of paint. A well-timed visit from Nineteen and Very-Nearly Sixteen’s father meant that we were able to update all of the fixtures—the overhead fan, the towel bars, even the doorknobs. During it all I had a terrible time not telling Nineteen, or texting him a photo of the cat with paint in her fur, or explaining why I was sore and tired after consecutive days of going up and down my stepladder. But I kept my excitement to myself until his birthday.

Gone are the days when the first thing a friend who comes to the house wants to do is see one of my teenager’s rooms. So when Nineteen brought eleven friends from college home for his birthday dinner, even though I had hidden his gifts on the bookshelf in his “new” room, he didn’t have any reason to lope upstairs. After dinner, I asked Very-Nearly Sixteen to tell him he had to get his gifts from his room. Finally, it was time for the big reveal.54794275878__85C83B44-B86E-45A1-9FC8-C8A07136BEE7

Nineteen found the door closed and recognized immediately that the knob was different. Opening the door he was amazed and delighted. “You managed,” he said to me, “to give me a new room two years in a row!” And later, when he was leaving, his car packed full of friends, “I’m now really looking forward to summer. It’s so nice here.”

He moved home after finals and almost immediately launched into his summer internship. From somewhere in the three carloads of rubble that landed on the floor of his room, he extracted his suit and set off for his first day. During the first getting settled week he forgot his badge once, fell asleep after work before dinner, slept through his alarm, and didn’t seem to mind at all if his mommy packed his lunch. It’s a big lunch, far more food than I used to send with him to high school, but I’m glad to do it.

A few days late for the full moon, instead I’ll wish you Happy June! With much love, Rxo

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On his way to his first day

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Yardbird

Yardbird

Did the roses win?

My over-sized house has a super-sized yard, a playground, I imagined, when we moved in nearly fourteen years ago. I didn’t even begin to fathom the yard work required to keep it up—in fact, the former owners showed it off with pride all the while insisting it was fairly self-maintaining. That sounded good to me. Later we learned that they would routinely hire grad students to keep the weeds at bay, the leaves raked, the gardens mulched, and the trees and shrubs trimmed. These are tasks I abhor.

In the time I’ve lived in my house, I’ve—ahem—simplified the overly complicated plantings and let the areas around the trees go quite wild. I’ve hired the trees trimmed and said farewell to four tall beauties, the tree contractor showing me how they were strangled by their own roots having been planted too deep by the property’s developers. Flanked by museum-quality lawns on all sides, my yard is untreated and thus the one with violets and marigolds and, more and more, a carpet of creeping Charlie whose purple flowers I find pleasing.

This year, determined to do what I can, I purchased the “premium” yard waste sticker for the brown bin that’s been languishing in my garage. I set the goal to fill the bin once a week during the yard-waste collection season, about forty-five minutes of yard work, hoping it would be tolerable.

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My weekly challenge completed again!

The first week I cut back the bush that charmingly turns red each fall but less charmingly has grown higher than the outdoor light between the garage doors. It scratched back, leaving a four-inch trail of scarlet dots down my arm. The second week I raked leaves out from around the boxwood hedge that lines the front. I was not wounded, but I was grimy and sweaty when I finished. The third week, on Earth Day, I recruited Fifteen to help me—she cut out volunteer trees while I raked leaves. It was nice to have company. The fourth week I kept working around the side of the house, trimming the honeysuckle that has grown higher than the window line. Per usual, I was completely and utterly miserable. I hate this, I thought. I really hate this. I cut another branch. I don’t want to do this. My brain whined. I’ll never fill this damn bin. I thought, as I often do, of friends who love to work in their yards. I thought in particular of three, each of whom at one point or another has voluntarily worked industriously in my yard. Why do they love it? I thought, shoving more branch trimmings into the bin. What is there to love?

My musings rambled. When I was about nine, Sunshine and Diana, our ne’er do well goats, got out, turned their backs on 500 acres of tasty edibles, crossed the road and ate to the ground new plantings in our neighbors’ yard. My parents, muttering mightily about the costs, replaced the shrubs and trees. I remember thinking the whole thing was funny, even as I wondered why anyone would plant expensive cultivars when the world grew lush all around us.

On our farm we mowed around the barn a few times a summer—the four-acre yard more frequently, but not before it was more like cutting hay than trimming the grass. Tractors cut through the overgrowth in the woods, keeping the long-established paths clear enough for trail rides and nature walks. Occasionally we would plant bulbs in the fall, and these would go wild and spread, popping up in unexpected places. Every summer we put in a huge garden, fenced to keep out the bunnies, the rows three-feet apart so a tiller could detain the weeds.

Stewardship of that land took on a very different feel, with the woods enrolled in forest preserve, the once-cultivated fields turned to pasture, the state’s big machinery brought in to build ponds where runoff washed out culverts. It was these maneuvers that turned the once heavily farmed land into a haven, now public lands administered by the state of Iowa.

Back in the suburbs I stuffed my bin full of trimmings, remembering the farm where I grew up, and I tried on the word steward, a word I really like. Could I be a steward of this yard? Would that help? I looked around mentally cataloging all of the work to be done. Not really, I sighed. I still felt intense resentment for the fact that I am required to spend time pruning and shaping, raking and trimming. And it was then that I realized why: to me, land in Iowa, was meant to be like the land on our farm. We didn’t have to rake up the leaves in the fall—they mulched where they fell. We let trees grow, taking those that eventually toppled over for firewood. We had no need to plant flowers—the woods were full of them. There was natural beauty at every moment of every season anywhere you looked.

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My attempt at adding a little cultivated beauty.

Thinking all of this through helped, a little. At least I now understand where my intense dislike of my required forty-five minutes a week comes from. (Mowing is more tolerable and in summer months can be passed off to my teenagers who enjoy zooming around on the lawn tractor.) Then again, after last week’s wrestling match with the leaves and ivy that converged in and around the back patio, my forearms are covered in the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had. I may have killed the roses, but the overgrowth continues to fight back hard.

Every once in a while there’s a product that changes everything. Zanfel changed mine. If you are so unfortunate to get into poison ivy (or oak or sumac) this summer, don’t walk, run to your nearest pharmacy and get a tube of this magic. Made here in the Des Moines area, it will reduce your symptoms and help manage your outbreak swiftly. May you enjoy your gardening chores hundreds of times more than I enjoy mine. I am so much happier pruning words from sentences! With much love, Rxo

My Number One Son

What did you serve?

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Nineteen!!

Between us, my son and I never acknowledge that there is, in fact, only one son. The boy formerly known as Eighteen, now Nineteen, goes by many terms of endearment. He was certainly my Number One Son when we planned that he and some college friends would come to the house for dinner to celebrate on his birthday.

 

Although most of the time I pretend he’s five or six hours away from home, it’s incredibly convenient that his college is just sixty-three miles door-to-door. The hungry hoards would arrive in three cars before six. Anticipating the crowd, Fifteen and I prepped the dining room ahead. It took my table on a slant across the room, both of the extension leaves, and two six-foot folding tables to get enough chairs—dining and folding—arrayed around for all of the guests to have a place. We decorated with BB-8 paraphernalia from the party store—hats, blowers, and cutouts. The Lego BB-8 Nineteen received and built on Christmas Day was the centerpiece. In the brass goblets my mother purchased in Mexico fifty years ago, goblets that have been making party memories ever since, we placed “light saber” party favors—Quasr bars from Trader Joe’s.IMG_9948

 

Decorating wasn’t nearly as challenging as menu planning. What do you make for fourteen? Consider that among the guests there was one nut allergy, one lactose intolerant, two vegetarians who eat fish, one meat lover who doesn’t think much of vegetables, and one young man who believes potatoes are not just a food group of their own, but food sent from the gods above. Midweek before the party, I got a call. The vegan friend could come too. Toss into the mix that I was working out of town the two days before, so the shopping had to be done in advance, with last-minute items added on Sunday, cutting down on cooking time. For inspiration, I borrowed heavily from Thanksgiving.

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Snacks:
Deviled Eggs
Olives, Pickles, Cheese Cubes, and Cherry Tomatoes with toothpicks

 

 

 

Dinner:
Salmon Stuffed with (nut-free) Spinach Pesto and Roasted Red Peppers
Quinoa and Black Bean Salad
Roasted Chickens (from Costco)
Scalloped Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin with Fresh Herbs
(A recipe that was a “let’s try it this year” Thanksgiving addition years ago and immediately earned a permanent spot: https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/scalloped-yukon-gold-and-sweet-potato-gratin-with-fresh-herbs)
Roasted Carrots, Green Beans, and Asparagus
Fruit Salad
Bread and Butter and “Butter”

IMG_9914Dessert:
Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies (a Cook’s Illustrated recipe)
Cheesecake with Fruit (made in a crowd-accommodating tart pan)
An Assortment of Frozen Vegan Treats from Trader Joe’s

Beverages:
Water infused with Lemon, Cucumber and Blackberries
Sparkling Berry Lemonade and Sparkling Limeade

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BB-8 is Nineteen’s Spirit Droid

When they arrived, I rather wished I’d thought of a piñata or created a pin-the-tail type game as they aren’t yet a cocktails before dinner crowd. But when invited, they stopped standing awkwardly around in the kitchen and lined my sectional, making pre-dinner chatter. Their spring semester is rapidly drawing to a close, their summer plans and finals anxiety making up a large part of the conversation.

These young women and men are undoubtedly heading toward remarkable lives. They’re talented, articulate, attractive, opinionated, loving, grateful, and sparkly brilliant. They hail from parts far and near—my son’s roommate comes from Russia, but in every other way is his brother from another mother. All together, they made this mother’s heart happy by eating nearly every last bite, enjoying all of the details, and wearing their hats all the way through dinner.

The full moon shone on the carloads as they drove back east to their ivy-covered oasis. I’m told the dinner is a capital T topic of conversation. I couldn’t have pulled it off alone and am grateful to Fifteen and her father for all of their help.

In honor of Star Wars Day, May the Fourth be with you! Much love, RxoIMG_9927

Hope Fatigue

Now what are you going to do?

I pull my car into the garage following another showing, gather up as much as I can carry, and head inside. After dumping my armload on the kitchen island, my first stop is the back door. More than once one of our kitties, usually Katy, has been trapped in the three-season room, the door closed firmly and locked from the inside. Several times the cats have been in, but the backdoor has been left unlocked. If I turned the ceiling fan on to swirl lazily, it will still be on. I snap it off and take a detour on my way to the basement to turn off lights and fans in the tea, yoga and rumpus rooms.

As I make my way through the basement, I guess at the response to my house. If none of the lights have been turned off, then I imagine the showing was brief and the clients turned on their heels, causing their agent to hasten after to the next place. If there’s a blend of lights on and light off, usually the case, I wonder if maybe the family took a more careful look and the agent was flummoxed about what to turn off and when. Often I find telltale debris from the backyard, so I know that the showing group went out through the back, came back in, and then tracked around taking another look here or there. Then again, perhaps it’s just the agents who track in seeds and leaf litter from the back as they’re moving through after, trying to intuit light switches.

On the few occasions when most to all of the lights have been off, I envision the people standing in the dining room or the front hall talking about the house while the agent walks back through more carefully. Agents almost always lower the slider in the exercise room, what we call the health club, but I’ve learned to check that the lights are really switched off and the doors that I want closed are closed. It takes about five minutes to fully check and reset the house.

Somewhere in the basement, or maybe as I’m climbing up two flights to shut down lights in the bedrooms (my closet door is open again, really?), a flicker takes up residence—hope. Could this be the showing that finally nets a decent offer? After all of these months, after so many strangers walking through my house, after keeping everything so clean and put away, after the painting and the decluttering and the stowing of valuables, could this be the family that answers our half of the conversation with their enthusiastic yes?

Some thirty times over the past six months the beep of my phone has notified me of a text message from a 312 number. 312 is the inner loop of Chicago, but in today’s cellular world that doesn’t mean much. In this case it’s the number of origin for house showing requests through an app that realtors rely on. I used to get really excited when I saw the number pop up. Now I roll my eyes and sigh. Then I type a very reluctant “Y,” accepting and confirming the request.

There follows the mental shuffling of my activities over the next twenty-four hours, so that I might primp and fluff the house and be out at the appointed time. For the past six months Fifteen and I have kept it clean, but lived-in clean and showing clean are two different standards.

I still don’t really have a consistent cleaning routine, just an awareness that the laundry has to be managed, the floors clean, the bathrooms spotless, the kitchen sparkling, and our personal effects put away or tucked into the trunk of my car. In April and May and June I tackled these tasks with gusto, convinced that this next buyer would be the buyer, the people who would walk in and fall in love.

It’s possible the initial arranging was too spare; in mid-summer a talented designer and house stager named Becky came through and helped us warm up the space. About that time Fifteen and I stopped saying we lived in the “Pinterest” house and started “beckifying.” Alongside making the beds and lowering the toilet lids, I’ve also done everything everyone has suggested—released the house to love another family, buried St. Joseph upside down in the back yard, smudged, written the house a letter, walked the perimeter drawing Reiki symbols in the air. In spite of it all, we’re still living here at the end of our listing period.

When my realtor and I set our contract, I never imagined it would take six months to find a buyer or, worse, that we wouldn’t find a buyer at all. Four months in, though my cleaning was no less thorough, it was much less enthusiastic. The sense of dismay and audible sighs when the phone pinged a showing request got stronger and were accompanied by far more eye rolling. I vacuumed and dusted and wiped and tucked away, but it was all just a chore. There was no longer any spring in my step.

Turning off the lights after what may well have been the last showing this fall, I registered again the unavoidable flicker of hope in my heart. Maybe, maybe, maybe …

Having a house on the market isn’t unlike being pregnant—people kindly inquire about progress. The difference is there is a baby at the end of the pregnancy, one way or another. When I tell people the countdown to the end of the listing period, everyone wants to know what I’m going to do. I don’t know, I say, with what I’m certain is a pained, conversation-ending look on my face.

It’s a few days later when I learn that the most recent party isn’t interested. The flicker that I felt, the spark I barely breathed into but couldn’t help but feel, the hope dies.

What I’ve come to realize is that the jacking up of hope in my heart, the coiling sense of maybe this time we leap to this next chapter, the inkling of a launching into the succeeding step, all of which is summarily crushed by the letdown I feel when I learn that it’s another no—after six months, it’s too much. I’ve self-diagnosed my spirit as suffering from hope fatigue. Hope is fundamental. Hope is one of the things that makes life divine. Hope also makes us fragile. That’s where I am—worn all the way out by hoping for a change that I haven’t been able to manifest.

What am I going to do? Take the house off the market. Live and breathe a little. Move things to where I like them. Reinstall the trash in the kitchen and the dish drainer on the sink. Take a bath in my bathtub without having to clean it immediately after I’m done. Build a fire in the fireplace on the first truly chilly fall day. Invite my friends in for food and call it a house warming party. And send a cordial invitation, engraved even, to Hope—please move back in too.

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I never imagined we’d celebrate another holiday season in this house, and I sold all of these lights in our spring garage sale. 

Wishing you well on this full Harvest Moon. Namaste, xoR

During the Between

During the Between

What did KatyDid?

After the before and before the after, there’s between. There’s during, too, but during doesn’t pinch the way between does. During is easy to miss, caught up in the doing of it all; between is easy to mess up and a place it’s all too possible to get stuck.

In a world of hurricane travesties, political miasma, raging wildfires, and terrible disease, whining about being wedged in the between isn’t an option. Nevertheless, like Anaïs Nin, I write to “taste life twice.” Even when the moments are bitter, it’s through the retrospective that I can begin to learn something that maybe just maybe makes the next between a little sweeter.

Mid-summer, my Craig’s List ad finally netted a customer for the gorgeous china cabinet in the dining room. I so liked the people who disassembled the whole thing carefully and, with great padding and not inconsiderate effort, loaded it into their truck and drove it away. In the wake of another large item’s exodus from our household, Fifteen opined that it was time to paint the dining room.

Painting the dining room was top of my list when we moved into the house a dozen years ago. The color palate throughout the house made me feel old, but the dining room was by far the worst, beige above the chair rail, mottled deep blue below. We are a family that sits together in the dining room to eat, that hosts small and large dinners, that pushes the table to the side of the room and invites people in for a buffet. Through every occasion, the colors I loathed remained.

Fifteen enjoys removing wallpaper, and that’s where we started, stripping the painted paper that was more plastic than paper from the thirty-inch span below the chair rail. To our dismay, removing the deep blue revealed a hideous bright blue paint that wasn’t fully applied, as though someone thought better of the color only after it was mostly slathered on the wall. To our further dismay, not one but two showing requests beeped onto my phone when we were in the midst of removing the paper, the torn curls all over the floor and sticking to our pants.

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Yikes … during we found blue. Starling (pictured) thought nothing of the open air-return duct. 

During the dining room renovation: Fifteen left for a week away at the National Scholars Institute; Eighteen went to and arrived home from work and took his first solo road trip; I left for a weekend of yoga teacher training; and groups viewing our house were greeted by a “Please pardon the mess” sign.

Our smallest cat, Katy, was fascinated by the air-return opening where I had removed the grill. I blocked it variously with a box, paper, the drop cloth. She pawed at these, determined to inspect the mysterious hole in the wall. A couple of times I scolded her away from it, in the same “angry mommacat tone” that detours her from going into my closet. Then I was painting. The cats paraded through—Leo playing slip-n-slide in the drop cloth plastic, Starling running her usual commentary about all of the unfamiliar activity, and Katy finding any kind of trouble she could, jumping onto the table, inspecting the open paint can, and tearing at the paper covering the air return. I scolded her, turned back to my paint, and wouldn’t have even heard her as she quietly slipped under the paper and into the dark beyond, but turned to look just in time to see her tail disappear.

Just like that, we arrived in the between.

Eighteen’s response, even as I was shining a flashlight into the hole, wondering how far it might go, was to race to the basement to figure out where we could take the ductwork apart. Then he brought a dangle toy, something we use to lure kitties out of the garage. Katy, looking miffed, haughty, and scared as only a not-quite seven-pound cat who thinks she’s in charge can look, reappeared briefly but slipped away when I reached for her. I discovered then the air-return duct dropped down more than a foot, and the pathway in and down was not as large as the opening suggested. As I sat quietly and watched, fishing with the toy and waiting to see if she would get herself out, it became clear to me that she both wanted back out, badly, and hadn’t yet figured out the maneuver that would allow her to escape. Occasionally coming close enough so she was illuminated by the light of the flashlight, she blinked up at me.

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That’s my arm disappearing down the hole to above the elbow.

This cat arrived in our lives a tiny kitten, one of a pair of litters of barn kitties of very young mothers. Early on one mother stopped nursing and the other was making a gallant attempt to feed both broods. We had picked Katy out just a couple of weeks before, but I wasn’t yet expecting the phone call to bring her home until she was eight weeks. “Come get her,” urged the landowner’s voice on the phone, “one died of starvation and an owl got another. I’m worried your kitten won’t survive.”

Armed with kitten formula and kitten litter, we brought her home with trepidation. We named her KatyDid, both because she was as tiny as a bug and because that way when she was naughty we could say, “Who did?” “KatyDid.” Over the years we’ve added the ungrammatical but fun to say, “What did KatyDid?”

And while she only grew up to be tiny in stature, she is large in personality and adventure. Thus it wasn’t a surprise to find myself looking at her delicate face peering up at me, the haughty turned all worry and struggle, especially when the air-conditioning cycled on.

Outwardly I was saying soothing things, to Katy, to Eighteen. Inwardly I was calculating the options—which professional to call, whether to try taking things apart myself, how long she could stay there. I watched her attempt to climb out a couple of times and realized that she needed leverage. “Go to work,” I told Eighteen, who was still contemplating disassembling the ductwork, “I’ve got this.”

“Okay,” he said, his relief at not having to call-in for a feline emergency was palpable. “I was wondering how I was going to explain being late.”

In spite of intense minimalizing, I’ve held on to the children’s building blocks, a wonderful wooden set that gave rise to all manner of temples and sculptures when they were little. I went to the basement and selected enough to build a staircase, remembering that when we had the ductwork cleaned, it had been full of twenty-year-old chunks of wood and other construction debris. I worked each block through the narrow opening and set them up in what I hoped was a staircase for Katy. Soon, I saw her face at the return. And then she was higher, her back paws standing on the block stairs, her front paws clambering for a foothold. She got the paw nearest me up and over the ledge, back into the room. Her other front paw seemed stuck, and after several attempts to squeeze her shoulders through, pushing as if to jump with her back paws, she instead opted to roll her spine out of the opening toward me, freeing her front paw just in time to turn, gain purchase on the floor and struggle her hips and hind legs out of the opening. I reached for her and she ran, so I left her alone, cleared out the blocks and quickly screwed the air return grill back into place. I knew Katy would want to “talk” about her trauma, so I finished painting for the day and took my lunch up stairs. Katy, nearly always affectionate on her own terms, immediately curled up in my lap and stayed for nearly an hour.

The between was over but the during went on longer, through painting above the chair rail and then painting the chair rail itself. With the only very recent arrival of a new rug and a tablecloth, the dining room is finally in the after.

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Ta-dah! After!

The larger between—the one in which we are waiting for the right buyers to walk in and realize that their family’s stories can bloom in the space so that our stories may move elsewhere—carries on.

Living so very much in the large between has been a challenge in many ways, not the least of which is to writing regularly. This story has been waiting for a couple of months, but then again, maybe it was waiting until the rug and tablecloth arrived, just this past weekend. Thank you for connecting with me, with the corn moon that was full recently, and with your own betweens. My favorite part of posting to overneathitall is the way that it closes those gaps between us some. With much love, Rxo

Remembering Redbird

Remembering Redbird

Have I been here before?

The weather Friday was an unexpected gift, a perfect summer day neither too hot nor too humid, in the midst of a slew of days with temps in the 90s and nights that never cool off. I jumped through an open window, turned south from the interstate ahead of my Iowa City destination to collect Fifteen from her summer writing institute, and carved out thirty minutes to walk on the farm where I grew up, ten miles southeast of town.

I had wanted to go the weekend before, when Fifteen and I converted the two-hour trip to drop her off into a girls’ night replete with shopping, dining out, people watching, and crashing in a hotel room. But the heat held me back—there’s a very real discomfort that I remember from growing up on the farm. In summer we got up with the sun to ride and groom the horses, garden, and complete other chores before the heat set in. Our afternoon cooling system was floating in an inner tube on the pond or, on special days, retreating to a movie theater in town for a matinee. At night we slept directly in front of fans, the whirr of the motor playing with a background chorus of crickets and cicadas, occasionally punctuated by the hoot of an owl. Day or night in July, it was rarely cool.

There was more to the discomfort—summer meant briars tore at bare legs and arms and bugs bit and stung. The first sunburn peeled, but then our skin became dark and leathery, itchy and scabbed. When I was young, I never minded—it was simply the way of it all.

I’ll just stop and say hello, I told myself. The drive from the interstate to the farm revealed Iowa at its best—rolling green hills dotted with bustling farmsteads. The roads and the views are as familiar to me as the back of my hand, even as a new house or shed has sprouted over the years, I can picture the way every turn will look before I arrive.

The farmland now belongs to the state of Iowa, managed by the DNR. An official government sign marks the turn and more signs instruct users as to regulations. I park and register as I always do, the absence of the buildings I expect to see. There is no more welcoming mailbox, no garden fence or pole barn. I even miss the failed hydroponic unit that was a misguided business venture in the mid-seventies. The little house across the road and all its outbuildings I once spent a whole summer painting are gone, as is the one-room schoolhouse, the last place I lived on the farm. The hillsides are overgrown with no domesticated animals to mow the grass, but there’s a path I follow, walking toward the pond where we used to float just down the hill from where the schoolhouse once stood.

In no time briars indeed tear at my legs and I am dive-bombed by more than one bug. I’m picking my way along the path, pushing brambles aside, but to my delight it’s edged in ripe blackberries. For berry picking we used to have buckets made from olive oil cans on strings around our necks so we could pick with both hands. I regret having no way to carry the berries now as I tentatively nibble on first one and then another and another. They are crunchy with seeds and taste like sunshine and dirt, not excessively sweet, nothing like the enormous plump berries in the market. My path all the way past the first pond to the second is lined with these treats.

The patterns I learned on this farm are still very much in play, such that I prefer to travel in a circle rather than go out and back the same way. I’d like to make the big loop, going west to the very top of the farm through the woods and back through the pasture, but I only have a little time before parents are invited to a presentation about the institute week, so having threaded my way through the overgrowth past the Schoolhouse Pond and the Woods Pond, I cut right to cross the dam of the Lower Pond. Here I catch my breath at the vibrant green duckweed that grows virtually shore-to-shore. More than one bullfrog croaks its displeasure at having to leave its log perch, casting ripples from its departure as I pass. The breeze catches the Queen Ann’s Lace and Black-Eyed Susans and an orange flower I don’t recognize. Mixed in the tall grasses is a carpet of Trefoil and Crown Vetch, the former I remember used to founder the horses when they ate too much and the latter my mother encouraged to slow erosion of the hillside.

Passing the spit that once used to be covered in sand my parents had trucked in, I can almost see a toddler me sitting at the water’s edge with a swimsuit full of sand, happy voices around me. I hear the joyful calls of my brother and his friends out in the middle playing a game they called “mudball,” the objectives of which involved covering each other and the ball with as much of the soft black mud from the bottom of the pond as possible. Far up the neck of the pond, my father casts and recasts his fishing rod. On the beach my mother passes grapes and watermelon to sunbathing friends. The memories preserved here come alive.

I’ve been thinking about memory this week, concerned, actually, that I’m forgetting important things. Fifteen has been visiting my hometown of Iowa City since she was ten months old, and though she claims not to remember the town much, everywhere we went on our girls’ night we were both startled by sudden memories: a hair scrunchy she bought herself at Iowa Book & Supply, playing on the downtown jungle gym, a meal neither of us remember liking very much at a restaurant on the Coralville strip. Maybe none of these are much more than incidental, but it’s a mental scramble to put them into a chronology, and these small memories make me wonder what I might be forgetting.

Walking down the pasture hill from the former beach, I come to a tiny pond engineered in what was once a washed out low spot. IMG_8576I like the way the prairie grasses and flowers frame the little watershed, and I stop to take a couple of pictures. Suddenly there’s a great commotion. A little wood duck hustles her brood away from me as fast as she can go. In her haste, she has left two behind and she calls them so urgently that they run across the water to her, peeping, peeping, peeping. I stay still until the family is reunited at the far end of the pond from me, apologizing to the little mama in what I hope is a soothing voice.IMG_8580 (1)

Still downy, her ducklings are months from leaving her side, but my fledgling is expecting me to collect her. Reluctant to leave yet eager to hear stories of Fifteen’s adventures, I pick my way back to the car. My legs are scratched and several bug bites are already itching and swelling; weed seeds are in my shoes and clinging to my pants. Even on this temperate day, I’m looking forward to cranking the air conditioning in my car for drive into town I’ve made thousands of times. Before I go, I walk into the embrace of the weeping willow that still stands sentry at the bottom of the hill. There are no buildings anywhere on the property any longer, but the birds and the flowers and the trees and the ponds and even the summer discomfort assure me that this is and always has been and always will be … my home.

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Among the branches of my favorite tree.

I heard recently that it helps to look down when you’re trying to remember something, look up when you want inspiration and to feel more joyful. Redbird Farm is a place where I don’t have to try to remember—the memories are everywhere alongside the new experiences. Who knew that ducklings could run on water? xoR

 

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