Saturday, June 20, 2009


As the end of August arrived, we had a better mix of heat and cool, including a few truly chilly mornings. Maples were showing signs of turning to fall colors. And young goats were coming into heat.

Meanwhile, we were enjoying a bounty from the garden. Tomatoes were inundating us, as were zucchini. Our favorite bounty, though, came in the form of purply shiny-skinned eggplant, which we used at virtually every meal but breakfasts.

There was of course fufarah, now full of green peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and big chunks of eggplant. We also had eggplant sandwiches made of fried eggplant slices, goat cheese, and fresh-picked lettuce. But perhaps our favorite was babaganoush, a mixture of cooked eggplant and sesame tahini, mixed with lemon juice, garlic, and a bit of salt. The fact that all this sumptuous eating was for free was hard to comprehend.

Another garden treat was jerusalem artichokes. We had discovered these in the food boxes we got each week from the coop, and though it was expensive to plant them instead of eat them, we were reward by a long row of tall sunflower-like stalks with small flowers on top. And all we had to do to add a sunchoke to the meal was to dig about their roots and pull up as many as we wanted.

We had to learn a few tricks about cooking them: to saute them in oil takes a while, until they give up and soften, then brown. Before they brown, they taste like oysters, while afterward more like potatoes. They could also be steamed and eaten like potatoes, or mixed with potatoes and mashed. But our potatoes were still in the ground, and we were happy enough to cut the sunchokes in discs or strips and add them early to the pot that would sooner or later contain all the components of fufarah.

So we ate well. A slice of our beloved pure-white goat cheese went on the top of almost everything. There was never a food as glorious as our homemade whole-wheat bread toasted, a thick slice of tomato still hot from the garden added along with lettuce, the bread spread with butter or good mayonnaise, and then goat cheese in its 1x3 inch slices aligned across the top so that a knife-cut would not disturb it. It was a bit messy to eat, but accompanied by mint 'tea', it made a 100% satisfying lunch. Or we'd just eat it in hand, or crumbled into fufarah or onto a garden salad.

So harvest brought a lot of joy, and it was just beginning.


Much to think about

By the end of August my thoughts were full of four pressing and painful issues:

1. What to do about the neighbor Nancy.
2. The meaning of my father's passing.
3. Whether to try for another baby and risk more sorrow.
4. Money.

Money was the constant theme. How to survive, really. The economy was a mess: inflation was upwards toward 20% a year, more in some spheres. Taxes were up and up, as were groceries and gas. Everything but our income, which was not tied into the cost of living. We were slowly slipping into financial doom.

As for Nancy, I held a lot of affection for her in my heart. I thought she could be a neat friend. The strange things she had said and done were mysteries to me, and didn't stick well to her in my mind. I thought maybe it was all due to her husband, who was a strange character we seldom saw. He had set up a leather-working shop in the old carriage house, but when the kids were over there playing, they never saw him do anything but lie on the couch he'd moved in there. So as thoughts of Nancy went round and round in my mind, I alternated between feeling mystifed and loving. Very confusing. As for what I might do to ensure the better outcome, I had no idea.

My father's death caused me primarily to think more of my mother's welfare. She seemed happy enough, and in one way we were all relieved: she had much more freedom to come and go and visited us much more frequently, sleeping in our family room off the kitchen, where the kids loved to visit her. Of course she was not confined there but she carved out a little niche in that spare room and often had her knitting out and a cookie for the kids. So his loss was not ours, not in any immediate way.

But then there was the loss of my little ones. The tiny body I had held after my body ejected it caused a constant underlying ripple in my awareness still, after nearly a year, and that was just the first. I had wanted a large family, and somehow I was failing to fulfill that dream. I had failed to provide 9 months of nurture for these two eagerly awaited new members of our family while they built their little earthly homes deep inside of me, and it all seemed so wrong. The emptiness was filled with the doctor's ringing voice: you will never bear another child.

But I didn't feel that way. I really felt I could bring a new baby into the world, as I had 3 times before.

I was still in the 6 months of rest that doctor's partner had recommended before I should try again, that tumultuous late August, so I didn't need to make any decisions. But it weighed on me like poverty and loneliness and death.

So my mind was filled with much to think about, and my heart stood on the precipice of deep pain. There was nothing to do but keep doing, and loving those whose care I had successfully found myself entrusted with. Time would do something with all this...


Friday, June 12, 2009


Thunder is the sound of hope to me, of change and relief. It doesn't always work out, but usually thunder comes with rain and cooler air, blustery squally air, breathable bug-free air.

And so it was in August 1977 that with the death of my father and the unfathomable ways of my neighbor came blessed thunderstorms.

They heralded fall, and school days, and goats in heat. But more than anything, to me, they heralded hope.

I had made it through another summer, and though more hot days would visit us, they would not stay. There would be no more relentless stretches of misery.

Thunder also heralded watermelons from the garden, and a harvest of corn, which was waiting for us as we got back from the funeral.

And soon the squashes would be ready, and the potatoes big enough to dig for.

Life was good. The trials of spring and summer were yielding to the turn of the seasons, and I was filled with such optimism that I couldn't help but stand out on the porch and breathe deeply.

I searched the maples for signs of color and found tell-tale yellows dappling the abundance of green in their crowns as if the sun were shining on them.

But there was no sun. It was gone behind roiling black clouds that fulfilled the thunder's promise. I ducked back inside as huge drops soaked the porch in moments.

I shivered with delight and a welcome chill, and watched the barn disappear behind a sheet of steel that connected the silvered earth with the steely skies. The children poured in soaked and huddled with me, their puddles mingling with mine till the kitchen was flooded. The thunder rolled and rolled and rolled. The lightning smashed against us, bringing the dogs to tremble against our legs. We sighed and shivered until we were actually cold, then ran for towels and dry clothes. The thunder rolled away.

The garden leaned. The beans looked beaten, and the potato vines dashed to a pulp.

But then the sun came out, the air dried out, and the garden righted itself. It was time for harvest. Summer would no longer press against us with its thick white air and too bright yellow light. Tomorrow when the furrows were no longer filled with rain, we would reach into the ground and gather the goodness.

Our reward was a upon us. My hope was fulfilled.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Adjustments and renewals

For years my mother had kept the peace, and the past year had been stressful, but from the time my father had stopped drinking 6 or 7 months before his death, her days with him had become sweet and companionable.

Such was the irony of the peace and loneliness she felt in his absence.

I called her often just to keep her company. And she came for prolonged visits, which we all enjoyed. And she enjoyed her grandchildren and singing with John at night while they did the dishes together.

We watched August evaporate and looked forward to the first days of school, then the first fall colors.

And all the while I thought about my sister, whose baby was due in 6 months, then 5. And I began to believe again that I could have a baby, too. No matter how discouraging the doctor had been.

The thought brought a bright smile to my inner person. It felt right and good, and I was willing to give it a try.

I felt renewed. The experience of my father's death might be the beginnings of a new life.

Funeral days

My father's body was cremated. My mother was annoyed by the call she received to bring his perfectly good suit that someone else might be able to wear to the funeral parlor for the cremation. She resented that it would go to waste. But they insisted that he had to be cremated in a suit.

So that was the end of the old wool suit and the body it had housed for years and years.

The ashes were placed in an urn, which had somehow arrived at the cemetery. A tiny hole had been dug and we stood around the urn and the hole and shared a few thoughts. Then in the sterile way of modern burials we left. Later the urn with its spent ashes magically found its way into the hole and was covered, but we were saved having all that disturbing sort of memory.

As if we could think of anything else.

Later that day we had the memorial service. My brother had come, and his wife, and my sister was there still. And the five of us were there. We shook hands with old friends and acquaintances after a routine service in the bright sanctuary of the Presbyterian church I had grown up in. And later that my parents had joined and served in.

And then we went to the home of the friends who had picked me up at the train the week before. Everyone sat around talking about my father, and how alcohol had killed him. Their grieving was made tolerable by a round or two of drinks...

I didn't drink. I had, until I had wised up, but that was well in the past. So I was jarred and unsettled, and was glad when we had to leave for the three-hour drive home.

The goats needed to be milked, and we needed to regroup as a family in our own way, with soberness and also sobriety.

Turning points

The next days were full of turmoil and turning points.

We took care of the neighbors' goats while they were away. I went over and got my instructions, and then for the next three days I followed those instructions. But when Nancy got back she accused me of stealing half a bag of their feed. And no thank yous.

I got a call from my mother. My father wasn't doing well. As soon as they gave him a treatment - draining his belly of excess fluid - he deteriorated again. And each treatment left him without energy. Back in the winter the doctor had said that if he had one more drink it would kill him and he never had another, though he continued to smoke. It looked like it might already be too late.

The last days of July sweated themselves away with mosquito-y milkings at night and fly-hazed chores in the morning. Milk filled the fridge and the freezer, and on the counter the new wheels of cheese tended to mold in the unrelenting 90-degree temperatures and over-abundant humidities.

Then the call came. My father was in the hospital. The last treatment had been too rough on him. I needed to go home.

I left by train that night, and prayed the peculiar prayer that he would die before I got there: I was too afraid to see him weakened and dying. Lifelong friends were to pick me up at the Stamford station and take me straight to the hospital. When I got there he was alive, and I did see him. He was comatose.

His arms were bruised. Propped up, he half-lay under the white sheets. Mercifully he had no tubes: he hadn't wanted them back a few years before when he made those kinds of decisions, calmly, unconcernedly, in happier days. He had wanted nothing extraordinary and he had nothing extraordinary now.

I drove home my mother and my sister, who had come, and talked about this and that. I slept fitfully in the heat with the big old window fan blowing on me, the same as had kept me sane in the miserable summer days of my childhood. I consumed quantities of cold water and thought of my father with no tubes. How thirsty he must be! When morning came, we drove back to the hospital.

My sister had come in some days before, and together we visited and held vigil. My sister was a few months pregnant. Her enthusiasm about having a third child was under control. Her bump made me envious, and also hopeful that someday we too might have another child.

But we were there to be with my father, and I was not content to turn my back on him. I went to his bedside and talked to the unconscious familiar and unfamiliar face.

He responded with a grunt.

So I talked some more. And I asked him if he wanted some water.

He nodded vigorously, so I used a straw to dribble an inch or two of water at a time into his dry mouth. He scared me by choking on it, so I asked if he wanted more. He nodded earnestly.

So all afternoon I dribbled the life-giving water into his eager mounth and talked to him. He didn't say anything, but expressed his interest with small nods, all the while receiving the next inch of water eagerly.

He knew I was there, and I wondered if that worried him. We had a deep communion during those hours. I was able to give him that life-sustaining potion, water. Or love.

The next day I needed to hurry back to take care of family and farm. I was there a day when the call came: he had died. My mother and sister had opted not to go early to the hospital the morning after I left, and a few hours into the day they received the dreaded call. It was August 19, 1977. My father was dead at age 68 of liver disease. And kidney failure due to dehydration.

I ran next door and asked Nancy if she could take care of the goats while we went home for the funeral. She refused.

I got on the phone and could find no one home. All were on vacation. I begged Nancy.

Finally she relented. I thanked her and we piled in the car for the three-hour drive to Connecticut and the intense days ahead.