Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sometimes life really IS for the birds

Published May 28, 2007

A fashionable socialite is standing near a school in Bodega Bay when all of a sudden, she looks up and the sky is filled with fluttering, squawking, dive-bombing birds.
They swoop down and start pecking and grabbing at Tippi Hedren in "The Birds."
Well, in my story, the fashionable socialite is my husband and our Bodega Bay is our backyard pool.
The birds here aren't vicious seagulls, they are blackbirds and they don't get in my husband's hair - they just get on his nerves.
One day last week, when my husband was lying next to the pool with his hand down in the filter he was trying to fix, he watched as one bird after another came from the front of the house, swooped down over the deck, released droppings, pulled back up and flew away. Bird after bird, swooping and dropping over the same 10-foot runway on the deck.
The next day, when my husband was again next to the pool, this time on his hands and knees, one arm in the still-broken filter up to his elbow, he looked up to see the same irritating little airshow taking place. Like little feathered airplanes, the birds would zoom in, dip and drop.
The deck was turning into a sea of white bird-droppings.
Why were they doing this? It was as much of a mystery as in the Alfred Hitchcock movie. Were they aiming for the pool and missing? Who was drawing up the flight plan for these winged creatures?
"What's with all those birds?" he asked me. "I hate birds. They sit up in those trees watching me. It's kind of creepy."
Me? I'll take the blackbirds and their white droppings any old day. The blackbirds only threaten my husband and he can take care of himself - and the deck. But the hawk that hung around our old house threatened everybody. He terrorized the other birds because he stole their eggs or their babies, and when he swooped down, it wasn't to drop something; it was to pick up something - like a baby squirrel.
Now, those are the kind of birds I hate.
But anyway, a bird problem is a bird problem, and we had to figure out how to solve it before an unsuspecting sunbather got pelted with little white bird bombs.
The third day my husband spent a couple hours with his arm down the pool filter, he watched how the birds swooped underneath the Japanese maple just beyond the deck in the side yard before hitting their favorite dropping place on the deck. He had an idea. He yanked his arm out of the filter, walked over and closed the gate into the side yard.
Voila. Runway interrupted.
He got the filter fixed shortly after that, probably because he was able to concentrate on the matter at hand instead of the matter overhead.
So, the next day he was in the flower garden, pulling weeds when he heard a loud splash.
He turned around, and there bobbing around in the pool as if he owned it was a mallard duck with a bright green head.
"Hey, get out of there," my husband yelled.
With that, the duck stuck its webbed feet deeper into the water and paddled around a little faster.
"Hey!" my husband said again, this time a little louder.
The duck flapped its wings, splashing before taking off over - except in the opposite direction - the same runway the blackbirds had used.
My husband watched it fly away.
"Geez, I do hate birds," he muttered.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Jim's flying higher than any old airplane

Published May 21, 2007

A huge cake with gobs of white frosting proclaimed, "Congratulations Jim."
It was on the pastry table in the dining room.
Along the opposite wall was a long table weighed down with roasters filled with chicken and scalloped potatoes and other party food.
The room was packed with people heaping food onto paper plates.
And one of them must have bumped into the picture frame that was lying in front of the big white cake because there was frosting on one of its corners.
The frame with one white corner contained a photograph of my brother, Jim. He was wearing his graduation cap and gown, and he had a huge smile on his face.
The picture had been matted with a wide white board, and there was a pen next to the frame so people could sign their names or write a sentiment to Jim.
"Best wishes, Jim."
"Finally," wrote his twin, Tim.
"Congratulations Dad. Love you, Lauren."
"Luv u, Morgan."
Lauren and Morgan are his daughters.
For you see, my brother didn't enter college right out of high school.
He's 42 years old, and he just earned an associate's degree in applied science. He's an ultrasonographer - a person who does ultrasounds - and his degree got him a job in a hospital. He starts next week.
Jim was one of those people you read about. He had worked for almost 20 years as a baggage handler at the airport. It was a job he loved even though his elbows hurt most of the time, a vestige of his high school pitching career. He didn't complain much. It's not in his nature.
But then the airline started cutting his hours. It was OK for a while. His wife is a nurse so at least they had one steady income. But three kids aren't cheap. Finally, after yet another cut in his hours, he knew he had to find another job.
What could he do? He had some college but not a degree. He knew no other job than the one he had held for two decades.
So he went back to school - to Lorain County Community College - to learn a new profession. To be retrained.
That was two years ago, and we haven't seen much of Jim since then. He studied hard - and he studied a lot.
"Where's Jim?" someone would always ask at family gatherings, many of which were to watch big Ohio State or Browns games.
"Studying," would always be the reply.
"Jeesh," someone would mutter. "He's always studying."
"It's hard," Jim would tell me. "And I have a lot of stuff to do."
The classes may have been grueling but they seem to have paid off, not just for Jim but for the other 10 applied science ultrasonographer graduates in his class. Nine of the 11 have landed jobs in their field.
Many of his classmates were at the party yesterday to help him celebrate. Many of them added their signatures to the mat around his photo.
"Where's Jim?" I heard someone ask at one point.
For the first time in two years, the answer wasn't "studying."
"He's out back," someone answered.
I looked out into the backyard and there he was, looking a lot like he did in the photo.
Of course, he no longer wore his cap and gown.
But he did wear that same great big smile.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A house where 2 boys and their parents grew up

Published May 14, 2007

A year ago this month, we planted a "For Sale" sign in the front yard of our beautiful old house on a tree-lined street in Amherst.
All last summer that sign was there, except when it was plucked out and leaned against the sandstone steps so the lawn could be mowed.
We saw that sign standing there every time we pulled out of the driveway, including the time last August when we hauled the last of our belongings from the place.
The sign was still there in the fall when there was no one living in the house to hear the roar of the crowds at football games on Friday nights, when no one was there to hand out candy to trick-or-treaters.
And it was there through the winter, although by that time, it was leaning a little.
I didn't drive by it much. It hurt my feelings to think that no one wanted the house that was our home for 22 years. I wanted my house to be like the prom queen - pretty and popular - but she was the girl who wasn't even asked to the dance.
The "For Sale" sign remained there in the spring as the rains fell and made the grass around it grow faster than its absentee owners could mow.
Finally, after almost a year, the square metal sign's sentry duty is over. Someone has bought our house.
We haven't met the new owner, but she must be someone who looked beyond the flaws of something that has been standing for 117 years (like creaky floorboards and wavy window glass).
I plan to write her a letter, passing down stories of the house, the way we pass down stories of our ancestors.
I want to tell her about the day my husband announced - and I panicked - that he was going to tear the shingle siding off the house and restore the cedar boards underneath.
I want to tell her there is a baseboard heater in the smallest bedroom because that's the room my baby slept in when I brought him home from the hospital.
And then I'll tell her the wall behind the bedroom door is patched because that baby grew into a teenager with a temper and one day flung the door open with such force that the doorknob punched a hole in the wall.
I'll tell her that the cracks in the grout in the tile floor of the kitchen are there because the people who installed it - my husband and I - didn't know what we were doing. But she should probably be thankful she can even see the tiles because I remember crying while on my hands and knees because the grout was drying faster than I could wipe it from the tiles.
I'll tell her how the fireplace mantel in the family room addition came from a salvage yard in Ohio City and the big oak columns came from an auction.
I'll point out the tree in the backyard that came from my grandma's yard, and I'll show her how she can hang an Ohio State flag from the two cup hooks that have been screwed into the ceiling on the wraparound porch.
And maybe I'll even apologize for that smelly skunk and its smelly family that most likely will wake her up some nights - even though I did everything in my power - except convince my husband to shoot them - to get rid of them.
And if she doesn't believe me, she can ask the neighbor - the one who drove me and a cardboard box filled with five baby skunks out in the country to find them a new home.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Almost sleepless in St. Louis

Published May 7, 2007

The plane was about to land in St. Louis.
The muffled voice of a flight attendant was coming in over the music on my iPod. I pulled out my earplugs, and yep, the mom behind me was still loudly encouraging her baby to continue his squealing.
I was that cranky business traveler unnerved by an assuredly first-time mom and her assuredly adorable baby.
I unfolded myself and got off the plane.
I had come to the Gateway to the West for a newspaper conference that was being held in a hotel right across the Mississippi River from the famous shiny 630-foot arch.
The hotel had two round towers, a tall skinny one and a short squatty one. I checked in, and the clerk pointed me toward the short squatty tower.
With my laptop and my carry-on on my left shoulder and my large rolling suitcase in my right hand, I went looking for my third-floor room.
The circular tower was set up so that the core was open from floor to ceiling. I got off the elevator and circled around until I found my room.
I was so anxious to see the arch, I let all my bags fall when I got into the room and ran over to the window.
I looked out. There was an arch, all right, the slight arch of a rather ugly bridge beyond the brick walls of rather ugly buildings.
Oh, well. I won't be in the room much anyway, I thought.
Might as well take a quick shower. I went in the bathroom, only to find a pool of water standing over what appeared to be a clogged tub drain.
Back to the front desk.
"My tub is clogged," I quietly told the desk clerk.
"Oh, there are always drainage problems over there. I'll put you on a higher floor. Those seem better," she told me.
Dreaming of my new room on the fifth floor - this one surely with a view of the arch - I hauled my repacked bags out of my room - and into the roar of dozens of teenagers pouring into the common area of the tower. A man was telling them to go find their rooms.
When the elevator came, about 10 of these teenagers dashed past me. I got in, looked at the "5" button but pushed "1."
Back to the front desk.
"Um," I said to the clerk who had accommodated me earlier, "there seems to be about 500 children in my tower."
"They're here for a retreat," she said.
I found myself wishing for the single noisy baby on the airplane.
I walked away. I had to think. I had to figure out if I was being difficult or if I was entitled to not only a tub with a working drain but also some peace and quiet.
Ten minutes of pacing in front of the hotel convinced me.
I went back to the front desk and chose another desk clerk. I explained - nicely - what I had been through. He not only put me in another room in the other tower, he also gave me some coupons for free cocktails.
I was tired as I got in an elevator for the third time. I had no expectations as I pushed "17" and the elevator carried me up.
I slid the card into the slot on my door and pushed it open.
There, before my eyes, stood the great arch. I walked over to the window and pulled the sheer drapes. Wow. What a view. I looked around. Wow. What a room.
Now this was the kind of place a girl from out of town could sleep in.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

There must be some spread in heaven today

Published April 30, 2007

"I love stories. Stories keep alive those who have gone before us."
And with that, jazz singer Dianne Reeves launched into a song about her grandmother during her appearance at the Tri-C Jazz Festival this weekend.
I couldn't help but think about the stories we will always have about my mother-in-law, June. She died last Friday, after being sick and bedridden for more than a year.
She would never recover to come to live with us in the house we bought with her in mind, a house with a kitchen big enough for her to work her magic.
And "magic" is as good a word as any to describe what the former school secretary and mother of three sons did with food.
God love her, she may have been the worst cook to ever put a head of cauliflower in the oven.
It's true. One of her favorite dishes involved coring a head of cauliflower, pouring milk over it, sprinkling nutmeg on the top and then baking it in the oven.
Then she would proudly squeeze it on the table between a roast, a pitcher full of "gravy" (grease drippings) and candlesticks, a centerpiece, and salt and pepper shakers in the theme of the nearest holiday.
Add a bowl of pureed coleslaw - she made it in the blender - and champagne glasses filled with still-frozen mixed fruit to the crowd in the middle of the table and you had Sunday dinner at June's house.
But her love of cooking wasn't limited to Sunday dinners; she baked, too. And it didn't matter that anything she baked had the consistency of the nutmegged cauliflower.
When my husband and I were first married, she invited me to help her bake Christmas cookies. I'm no whiz in the kitchen myself, but I didn't want my new mother-in-law to know that - at least not yet - so we set off to holiday baking.
Three hours and batches and batches of cookies later, the kitchen was as white as the snowy backyard. There was flour everywhere, even on the ceiling, but it was all in a day's baking to June. What she lacked in culinary skill, she made up for in enthusiasm.
She loved holidays. Maybe it's because she was born on the Fourth of July. Every day had holiday potential. What better time for a Thanksgiving feast than a hot July day?
In a beach house. In New Jersey.
Why wait until a cold November day when you can cook up a turkey and all the trimmings any day of the year?
When my boys were young, we would join my in-laws for vacations on the Jersey Shore.
Imagine my surprise when I came up from the beach one day to find a 20-pound turkey thawing on the counter. For three days, that bird sat there slowly becoming unfrozen.
I don't remember how the meal went, but I do remember fearing for the life of my young son. But we all survived, just as my husband had survived a childhood of living in a house where "refrigerate after opening" was seen as an option and not a mandate.
We'll miss all those Sunday dinners with June. We'll miss her company and her joy in putting them on for us.
And some of us will even miss her cooking. My younger son told me not to forget to mention how good her "rolled meat" was. In this, another of her specialties, she took some sort of beef, rolled it around onions and raw bacon, cooked it in her favorite cast-iron pan and then served it with the grease from the pan ladled over it.
Hmmm. Greasy beef of undetermined origin.
Would someone please pass the coleslaw?