Andes Mint #20: Haiku Friday!

Your friend Absalom
vows Haiku Friday! Feeling
lazy, so do you.

Did you manage to
write your chapters? Yes. Good girl.
Now you can go hike.

Tromp up the mountain,
tromp back down. Same mountain, same
tromp. Never gets old.

Stay back, rocks. Don’t roar
down just as I’m climbing up.
I don’t want to die.

Altitude brings stars.
Swimmy head. Laboring lungs.
Up and up and up.

Hard to write haiku
about the wind this high, the
way it blows so strong.

Or how other sound
fades. Come. Stand with me here, on
the roof of the world.

Here, the trees are thin.
Here, the sky lifts and stretches.
I could float away.

Andes Mint #13: Walk slowly.

Walk slowly. All you can ever come to is yourself. (Middle Eastern proverb, at least according to the Reader’s Digest magazine you read it in, back when you were in middle school)

Three decades after you both graduated from that high school in the foothills, you feel a tap on your shoulder and turn to behold him, smiling, having recognized you in line. You’re back, from a thousand and more miles, to that place that you still call home, while he never left.

?? and !! and ?? and !!

And the whole time you’re smiling at each other and small-talking, a whole other conversation is taking place deep inside: that night you slow-danced together at the bar, when the drinking age in upstate New York was 18 and that’s how old you were, that summer after senior year, year of cut-offs and baby doll shirts you made by cutting up thrift-store nightgowns.

Dreamweaver on the radio. Roller skates around and around the gym on Saturday nights. Fribbles and blue cheese salads during your break at Friendly Ice Cream. Boys who pressed coins into the chocolate fudge in their sundae glasses for a tip, printed their phone numbers on paper napkins. The red Datsun pick-up that shifted like butter, that you drove up and down Glass Factory Road, Route 12, Route 274.

Sun-drenched days and long nights of crickets and mosquitoes and goodbye parties.

You were leaving soon and you would never return again for longer than a week. College for you, a carpenter’s toolbelt for him.

Now you get out  your old yearbook and flip through its pages. Feathered bangs. Turtlenecks. Serious eyes, composed smiles. Walk slowly. All you can ever come to is yourself. Decades later, you would still choose the same quote, still put it beneath that photo of you standing by that tree.

6 Mile

Some of the things it’s possible to do while walking the six-mile block you walk every day when you’re back in the land where you grew up:

Look north to the foothills of the Adirondacks and think, as you always do, how cool it is that a fifteen-minute drive behind the wheel of a car will bring you into the six million-acre Adirondack Park itself.

Lift your hand in greeting to each and every car that comes toward you, and watch as each and every driver lifts his hand back to you.

Observe all the Amish laundry hanging on Amish clotheslines. Decide, based on your observations over all six miles, that Amish men do not wear underwear and Amish women do not wear bras.

Notice that a few pairs of underwear are colors other than blue, black or white. Wonder if these colored undies are breaking a covert Amish rule. Decide that the answer is no, because otherwise they wouldn’t be hanging on the line for all to see.

Take a left on Crill Road and wait for the flock of wild turkeys to cross. Take your time, wild turkeys. Note a line of them in a distant field, walking single file with their heads bobbing up and down. Recall that your father told you they follow the manure spreader, picking out the corn that the cows didn’t absorb.

Think about all the wild turkeys you’ve seen lately: walking down the sidewalks in northeast Minneapolis, flocking on either side of the road the entire length of the Natchez Trace, and now here in upstate New York. Decide that wild turkeys are taking over the highways and byways of your fair nation, and wonder where it will all end.

Walk past this barn, which is the barn you grew up playing in, and think of all the hours you spent in it. Hayforts. Hay tunnels. Hay rooms underneath haystacks, in which you read by flashlight. Years of trying and not always succeeding to avoid the gaping holes in the floorboards. Think how great it is to be in your unsafe homeland, how great it is that those gaping holes are still there in the barn, along with the wide-open rectangles in the far wall. Decide that your nephew, the one who “fell” twenty feet to the ground out one of them and came up laughing, didn’t fall but leapt.

Count the number of Amish baked goods signs along the six miles and wish that it were Friday. Consider the spelling of “donut” as opposed to “doughnut.” Come down firmly on the side of “doughnut” but recognize wearily that you are out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to doughnuts.

Ask yourself: if this were Friday, which kind of Amish do(ugh)nut would you buy? There is no question: Cream Filled. The minute you decide on Cream Filled, immediately change your mind to Glazed. Decide that if this were Friday, you would buy four of each and take the whole box –wait, do the Amish use boxes?– home to your parents.

Wonder why, in recent years, you crave the wide-open west so much instead of these foothills and mountains you grew up in. Wonder if you’ll someday trade your one-room plumbingless shack on the slope in Vermont for a one-room plumbingless shack in Montana. Realize, as you walk the six miles of this block, that the wide-open west and the land where you grew up have much more in common than you ever thought.

Stop by and say hi to a friend. Wonder why the photo of his grave is so much bigger than your other photos.

Keep walking. Walk to the house where your friend and his wife lived. Walk across the grass and sit on the front steps of their house. Look out over the fields stretching south, the fields and the woods, and talk to him. Charlie, I’m sitting on your front steps. I’m looking out over the valley. Remember how you always told me it was God’s country?

Keep walking. Walk down the road to where your friend’s brother lives. See him coming out of the barn. Start to run so that you can catch up to him before he goes into the house. See him stop walking when he sees you coming. Listen as the first thing he says is, “I like your sneakers, Alison,” with his head down. Listen to yourself say, “I’m so sorry,” as you both start to cry. Sit on the porch with him and his wife for a long time, talking.

Stay up late with your father, sitting across the kitchen table, talking. Get up early and go to the diner with him next morning. Ride shotgun in his car as he drives you down the dirt road to the ten acres they’re having surveyed, because you can’t stand the thought of not having a piece of this land once the Amish have bought their place and they leave it. Stand with your father by the edge of the ten acres and point to a knoll that would be a pretty place to put up a plumbingless one-room shack.

When you leave next morning, have a hard time leaving.

Things of this world

Last week you had a vivid dream in which the lyrics to a beautifully sad Willie Nelson song you’d never heard before went scrolling through your head. When you woke up you went to the computer and googled the first line: I have a thing for the things of this world, but no such Willie Nelson song exists. You took this as a sign that you needed to write a poem that began with that line. But you put it off.

Yesterday, while you were driving in the pre-dawn dark to a tiny airport on the Panhandle, you went through a drive-through to get a cup of coffee. You took the coffee from the nice girl, so sweet and patient there at the drive-thru window at 6 a.m., and said thank you. Before you got back on the road a message ticked into your phone. You checked it. Then you pulled off the road and sat there and read it again. You sat there and thought, no. Not possible. This was a man you have known all your life. He and his wife knew you before you were even born.

You sat there in the car and called your parents.

? you asked your mother, and . . . was her answer, and ? and . . .

I’ll put your father on, she said, he’s right here.

— and then your father was on the line, your father who managed to say He was my oldest and best friend before he burst out into those awful, heartbreaking sobs when he heard your I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, and had to hang up the phone, and you sat there in the car for a while before you started it up again and pulled back onto the road.

Why is this so hard to write? Because it’s not a poem, you can hear your father’s oldest and best friend saying, although he was far too gracious ever to say such a thing. Poems rhyme, you can hear him saying, although that, too, he would never say. You think of that sad song you dreamed last week, the one you put off writing.

On the way to the tiny airport, there in the pre-dawn dark, animal eyes glinting from the ditches the whole way, you could picture them in your head: her, short and stout and devout, and him, smiling. You could hear his voice, hear the sound of his car door thunking shut in the driveway of your parents’ house, hear the songlike melody of his deep voice. You could hear the Swiss relatives yodeling down the valley when you were a child lying awake at night. You could see their Christmas tree, lit and glowing through the window. You could see him in the barn with the baby calves, in the farmhouse before it burned down that awful year. All the way back to the frozen north, from airplane to airplane, he kept appearing in your head.

There he is, walking through the kitchen door. Walking into the diner because he heard you were home. Behind the wheel of a big old car on a dusty rural road, pulling off to the shoulder and waiting for you, the eternal walker, to run up to him so he can roll down the window and find out what you’re up to. Telling you how special you are, how beautiful you are, things you know damn well he says to everyone he loves but which always, somehow, when you hear them from him, make you feel that way.

This is hard to write. It’s not a poem unless it rhymes, you can imagine him saying –he never would say something like that, but he wrote a lot of poetry, and every line of it rhymed.

There is no time of your life that you can remember without him in it. He is threaded into everything that has to do with the place you still call home. There he is dancing the polka with your mother on the dusty second floor of the dusty rural dance hall. There he is standing in the field, telling you about the beaver pond and how gradually, over the years, the beavers have come to trust him, and how he will take you out to see them one of these days. There he is showing you the soft ice cream maker that they kept in their pantry, the magical soft ice cream maker that used to make a half-gallon of vanilla every night until he had the emergency triple bypass. After the triple bypass you wrote him a letter that must have said other things but all you remember is the one line that made you sit down and write it: Do you have any idea how much I love you? You remember how tight he hugged you next time you saw him.

When was the last time you saw him? Last fall, it must have been, when you were sitting in the booth at the diner with the men, all his friends –was anyone not his friend?– while he sat on the red stool opposite you until you got up and sat next to him on another red stool so you could talk just to him. Oh this is hard to write. You have begun and erased this at least ten times since you sat down at this table.

Poems aren’t big blocks of words, Al, you can hear him saying, even though he would never say such a thing. Poems rhyme. This isn’t a poem, Charlie, you imagine saying to him. Make it a poem, Al, you can hear him saying.

Long ago there was a silent rift between you and someone dear to him, and you didn’t know he knew about it, and you would not ever have brought it up, and you retreated, you backed up and away, you thought you might not have anything other than polite conversation with him for the rest of your life, and that should be all right, that should be enough, you were a grown woman for God’s sake, you lived a thousand miles away for God’s sake, but late one night when you were home visiting your parents you saw his car pull into the driveway and you leapt into bed and told your parents I can’t talk, I’m asleep already, tell him I’m asleep, but –so utterly uncharacteristic– he went past them and came into the room where you were hiding and told you how sorry he was, and you could see it in his eyes, on his face, in the way he leaned toward you, huddled stupidly on the bed with the blanket pulled up around you. You hadn’t ever seen a look like that on his face, his always-smiling, always-interested, always-calm, never-judgmental face.

This taught you something, which is that when you see a rift, repair it. Or at least try. So that you know that at least you tried. This is very hard to write because there is too much to say. There is too much to protest. Is there anything good here? you said to one sister last night, anything at all? You could feel her silence over the phone. Um, they were not young? They never saw it coming? They went together? They went instantly? No. None of these are good enough to make anything about this good.

This is going to be the biggest funeral that Steuben has ever seen, you said to her. There will be no place big enough to hold the mourners.

You want to write about him, to honor him, but you can’t do a good enough job. Try some rhyme, Al, you can hear him saying, although he would never say such a thing.

Okay, Charlie, I’ll try some rhyme. Here you go. This one’s for you.

The news came that Charlie had died
his loved wife – his “bride”– by his side
I tried to write a poem in rhyme
but I knew there was not enough time
to say anything that needed to be said.
Too sad. Too many memories in my head.

Portrait of a Friend, Volume IV

Unlike most friends, this friend has been part of your life for as long as you can remember. He figures in your earliest memories, and there hasn’t ever been a stretch of longer than half a year when you haven’t been in his presence.

That hat and shirt in the photo to the right stand as evidence of a rare instance of fashion coordination. The hat: plaid. The shirt: plaid. Two plaids = a well-matched outfit.

He’s a tall man, a big man. He has a big presence and a giant voice. His laugh, when he gets going, will fill a room and make all those around him shake their heads in admiration. This is a man who likes to tell a story.

He’s good at telling them, too. At the diner, where he goes every morning to meet his buddies for coffee, and where you go when you’re visiting, they sometimes egg him on.

“Did you tell Alison about the woman who propositioned you at McDonald’s?” one will say.

“Jesus H Christ!” he’ll say. “No I didn’t!”

“Are you kidding me?” you’ll say. “A woman propositioned you at McDonald’s?”

He will shake his head, that mighty laugh beginning to rumble out of him.

“Tell her,” his friends will say. “Alison needs to know.”

They will wink at you, and grin, while he looks down at the formica diner table, still shaking his head, still laughing. And then he’ll tell it, in that giant voice, so that the whole diner ends up listening. And laughing. And shaking their heads.

He is a man who has never been accused of political correctness. Nor has he, unlike most people in the world, ever tried to be anything other than exactly who he is.

Sometimes he would come to visit you during the four years you spent at that little college in the mountains, where most of the other visiting adults wore pearls and linen dresses and suitcoats and polished shoes.

Over the Adirondacks and into the Green Mountains he would come, cresting the hill in a big old station wagon. The door would open and he would haul himself out. Those were the years of the neon orange polyester shirt and the polyester pants with the grease stain. Those were the years of your friends, unused to big men with giant laughs, unused to hearing “Jesus H Christ!” so frequently and happily roared out in public, looking forward to his visits.


Despite a lifetime of knowing you, and despite the fact that your name is simple to pronounce, that is how he pronounces it.

“Alison,” you sometimes say, even now. “A-li-son. Emphasis on the first syllable. Try it again.”

He looks up and smiles, a gleeful little grin from a big man.

“Jesus H Christ!” he says. “I know how to pronounce your name, Al-oh-sun!”

This easy give and take, this banter, this happiness, wasn’t always there. When you were little, you were often afraid of him.

Was it that big voice, his height and his bigness? He was a man of enormous physical strength. He often spent entire days chopping down trees, chainsawing them into big chunks, then smaller chunks, then splitting them into smaller and smaller chunks that, finally, were small enough to fit inside a woodstove.

So tough and stoic is he in the face of pain that he once had to lie down on the floor of a doctor’s office and refuse to move in order to convince them that something –which turned out to be an appendix that had ruptured more than 24 hours previously– was seriously, terribly wrong.

You remember him once pouring Clorox over his bleeding arm: disinfectant.

Unlike now, he was often angry.

Like most children, you assumed that his anger was directed at you. That you were the cause of it. That you must have done something to bring it on.

Like most of the grownups close to you, he was a familiar mystery. In retrospect, you didn’t know him well. How could you? Each of you kept things hidden from the other.

You remember late nights when you were a girl, him working at the kitchen table, head bent over complicated graphs and charts, filling in tiny boxes with penciled numbers. He worked for a dairy farmers’ cooperative; he was keeping track of milk counts at various farms. Or he was charting milk tank truck routes; milk has to be taken to a processing plant within a certain number of hours, and winter in upstate New York is fearsome and unpredictable.

You remember him figuring out other numbers, bent over a checkbook, writing check after check, paying bills.

“Where does it all go, though?” you remember saying once, when you were in your teens.

You were talking about the money that he made. It was an honest question, an idle question.

“Where does it go!” he roared. That anger again, or what you interpreted as anger, anger at you. “Where does it go!”

Later that night he called you out to that kitchen table. On it was a piece of ruled notebook paper. BUDGET at the top of the page. Underneath, line after line with things like Mortgage and Taxes and Food and Gas and Car Payment, each with a dollar amount jotted next to it. Exact dollar amounts, written from memory, subtracted and subtracted and subtracted from that single figure titled “Income.”

“Now do you see?” he said. “Now do you see where it goes?”

Yes. Now you saw.

You didn’t, not really. But later, many years later, when you yourself were sitting up late at night, your children asleep upstairs, dividing a small number over and over again, trying to make it come out differently, you remembered that night so long ago. That piece of lined paper titled Budget.

He was a young man, back then, which is something else you didn’t know. Grownups, those mysterious beings. To a child, a grownup is born a grownup. Could you have imagined him, back then, as a child himself? No.

When you were a little girl you had no idea how young he was. You do now, though. You look back and you wonder at his youth. What went through his mind? What were his dreams? What had he put aside, for four children and the responsibilities that go with them?

Once, when you were about twelve and he was, what, 36, someone asked the people in the kitchen in which you were both standing this question. “If you could start your life over, would you?”

Almost everyone in the room answered immediately: “No.”

But not him. “Yes,” he said. “I would.”

And not you. “Yes,” you said. “I would.”

Looking back, it seems impossible that you, at that age, could have answered that way. How in the world could you have lived long enough, lived through enough, to want the chance to do it over? But the memory is perfectly clear.

You remember looking at him –that big, tall man, often angry the way he was back then– and recognizing that something in him, something he had never talked about, was in you too. Even if neither of you knew what it was.

If he never talked about the big questions, he was full of small ones. When you would return from a day or overnight at a friend’s house, for example, he would quiz you.

“What did you have for lunch?” he would say, “and what did you have for supper? Where did you sleep? How warm do they keep their house?”

He would lean forward so as not to miss anything, and you would describe it all.

“Jesus H Christ!” he would interject, fascinated and needing more details, which you would supply.

He loves a good story, and so do you. He will happily exaggerate if it will make a good story better, and so will you. His love of a good laugh, his keen interest in the people around him, his frustrated anger at his young children when he was a young man, his deadpan humor, his fierce need to make his own schedule, to be free, to get in his car and drive?

All these are in you too. Early on, you felt yourself so different from him. Not anymore.

You remember him coming out of a gas station on a summer day, somewhere in the middle of the two-week road trips that were your family’s annual vacation, his hands full of candy bars, one for each child.

You remember a dusty wooden-floored building out in the country, where every once in a while a polka band would set up. You remember setting your then-small feet on his enormous ones and holding on while he danced you around the room.

You remember a day in a restaurant with him and his mother, whom you adored, and the rest of the family. You remember his mother losing her balance and falling flat on her back and him, then in his 60’s, silently and swiftly scooping her up in his arms and setting her back upright.

Now, these many years later, you sometimes get eight or nine emails a day from him. Almost all are forwarded posts that he’s gotten from others: astonishing or weird sights, political jokes, cute pictures of animals, unusual historical facts. Jokes, off-color in the extreme, that almost always make you laugh.

Usually, the mere sight of a forwarded email, with those telltale and dreaded endless lines of recipients and senders, means an automatic delete. Not so if he’s the sender. You read them all. You respond to the ones you like best.

He likes late night solitaire. Sometimes, when you’re going to bed, you picture him, far away in that house in the foothills, his still-big body perched on a small chair, gazing at the green screen, seven vertical rows of cards.

The sound of a baseball game turned low on a television in the background of a room, or a baseball game on the radio in a car, any car, brings you back to childhood. When you visit you sit and watch with him, arguing about the Yankees.

You’re lucky people. Lucky to have both lived long enough to live through the storms. Not a day goes by that you don’t get up in the morning and sit and bow your head and thank the world for that. For having come out on the other side. For the loss of fear and the gain of love.

In your 30’s you read a poem, this poem:

* * *

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

* * *

You memorized it.

Portrait of a Friend, Vol. 2

You must have known her from kindergarten on, although it was in middle school that you became close friends.

She lived in a small bright green ranch house right across the street from the middle school, which was right next to the high school, which meant that all she had to do was walk out her front door, cross Route 365 –the main street of the town– and there she was, at school.

Unlike you, sitting on that accursed bus, groaning and lurching its way around endless curve after endless curve, down from the foothills, 45 minutes or more to school.

In your memory she is always smiling. She had silky dark brown hair, parted in the middle, falling over her shoulders. Her nose was sharp and red and a bit hooked, and her eyes, in your memory, are blue, blue, blue.

And the smile. A big, merry smile that showed off her high cheekbones. You can picture her in the yearly school class photo. She would have been in the back row, with you, because when you were kids she was tall, too. She would have been smiling that big happy smile.

In middle school the two of you used to escape at lunch and walk across the street to the bright green ranch house. She lived there with her older brothers and her older sisters and her mother, who was, you’re pretty sure, a teacher down in Utica. Her father had died when she was a baby.

Her sisters and brothers were in high school, unimaginably older and cool. They were hippies. You and she were too young, you missed out on that. But often, when you walked into that little house with her, they and their friends would be there. Lying on the old couch, sitting on chairs, laughing and talking and wrestling and making offhand comments and jokes about things like sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Had you been alone you would have been stunned and cowed and half-paralyzed by their coolness, their easy laughter. But you weren’t alone. You were with her.

Why did she like you? In retrospect you were quiet and reserved and an observer and not much fun, although maybe you’re not the best judge of that.

But one reason she liked you is easy: she liked nearly everyone. She had a huge and generous heart. She was also unafraid of things that you were afraid of, like saying out loud that which scared you, hurt you, made you angry. She was honest about things. She saw life clearly, and stating the obvious didn’t scare her.

The boy you had a crush on used to ask if he could have a punch off your lunch ticket.

“Sure,” you used to say.

“I’ll pay you back,” he used to say.

You would watch him run across the grass, back into the school. You and she were nearly to Route 365 now, ready to zip across and into the safety of that little green house.

“He won’t, you know,” she observed. “He won’t pay you back. And you’ll give it to him tomorrow if he asks.”

You looked at her. She looked at you and smiled. She was wise. She was honest. She stated things the way they were. And she was unjudging.

Into her house the two of you would go, breaking the school rule, although in retrospect it’s hard to imagine that any number of teachers didn’t see you zipping across that street every day and mentally shrug.

The cool older siblings and their cool older friends might be lounging about. She would greet them all, smiling, and then the two of you would go into the tiny dark kitchen and pour enormous glasses of milk. Stir in the Quik with tall-handled spoons. Dig the knife into the big jar of peanut butter and spread giant swaths of it on slices of Wonder bread.

You’d sit eating and drinking, trying to overhear the conversations in the other room. Trying to get some sense of what life could be like, were you cooler and older and wore tight bell bottoms and peasant shirts.

She was one of the few friends you kept in touch with after high school. She stayed there, in the tiny town, population 300. She went to college, sure, but she never wanted to leave the town.

You? You left at 18 and never went back other than to visit your family. Not that you didn’t, and don’t, love it there, love the way you grew up.

But staying there never felt like a choice. For her, there was no other.

“I love it here,” she said. “I want to live here my whole life.”

She got a degree in gerontology and worked with old people. She loved them too. People on the fringes, people unnoticed, people quiet and shy, she saw them. She noticed them.

Twice that you know of, because she told you, men asked her to marry them.

“I said no,” she said. Smiling that big bright smile.

You asked her why. She shrugged.

“Didn’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m happy just the way I am.”

She was Catholic and that, too, was something she loved. Hers was a happy Catholicism, a big bright generous religion whose God was always with her.

Everyone in the town knew her. At the drugstore, at the one tiny bar, at the church, in the one tiny grocery store, at the bank. She was one of those rarest of creatures, a human being completely comfortable in her own skin.

She’s been gone twelve years now, but you think of her every day. Every morning, you talk to her. Picture her.

When she appears in your mind, it’s always in winter. She’s always brushing up against you, wearing a bright blue nylon parka. That dark hair, those blue blue eyes, that grin.

When you pour a glass of milk and stir in some Quik, you make a toast to her. When you and some of her other friends organize an annual fundraiser in her name, for an annual scholarship in her name given to a high school kid in that little town, you do it for her. When you write your annual check to the food bank in that little town, you fill in the “in honor of” box in her name.

If she were still here, she’d no doubt be running the place.

You wish you could go home and see her again. Walk into that bright green house and have a peanut butter sandwich. You’d go to the bar with her, let her introduce you around.

"The Bluebird Carries the Sky on His Back"

min-watertowerSomeone told her once that everyone corresponds to an element, and that all you have to do is ask yourself the simple question, “Which element am I?” and the answer will come to you.

She loves simplicity – “simplicity is complexity resolved” after all – so she asked herself the question. Even though she didn’t need to. She already knew she was air.


Closely followed by water.  Air with a rising water moon, or however the astrology people would term it.

She might like to be fire, because she thinks it’s beautiful, and she’s always cold, and she might like to be earth, because then she would be solidly held to this planet, but the elements are not to be argued with, so she doesn’t bother regretting that she is neither fire nor earth.


She has a friend who at times believes himself to be in danger of floating off the planet. Yet when she asks the question “What element is he?” the answer is immediate: fire.

She has another friend whose laugh she loves, the kind of friend she wishes lived on her block. It seems as if this friend should be air, like her, but ask the question and the answer that comes back is water.

Her son? Air. Double air. Triple air with an extra scoop of air.

Her older daughter? Water with a rising air moon.

Her younger daughter? Earth.

Her mother? Water.

Her father? Earth.

And on and on it goes, some more intensely so than others.

If you’re air, you have to work to stay on the ground. Breathe in and push that breath out down through your feet. Imagine your feet growing roots down through the earth. Imagine that every breath you take, every step you take, stitches you to the earth so that you can’t just float away, the way you dream of doing.

Literally dream, at night. Her dreams are filled with air. She drives a car around and around and around a road of hairpin curves that leads up and up and up a mountain until suddenly the car, with her one hand on the wheel, is airborne. She’s floating above, looking down.

Air people need to eat a lot so that their bodies don’t turn themselves back into air.

When air people think hard they can feel themselves evaporating. This is why she shovels spoonfuls of peanut butter into herself on a daily basis. Things like sweet potatoes are important for air people to eat.

ADD and ADHD are most prevalent in air people. (She just made that last one up.) (She’s kind of making all these up, but they all feel right.)

It is hard for air people to focus on one thing for a period of time. Activities such as knitting, quilting, washing dishes by hand, folding laundry and vacuuming slowly all help to keep an air person from floating away.

Long-distance walking, running, hiking: these are good activities for air people. Rhythmic motion that helps keep their thoughts from spiraling up and away.

Heavy blankets and quilts are important, especially in winter.

Whiskey is better for air people than wine.

She’s rocking on the porch swing as she writes this. Her dog, who is a fire creature if ever there was one, is perched at the door, crying for the neighbor boy. The neighbor boy is earth, as is his father.  His mother is water with an earth moon rising.

Her cat, who is an air creature, just leaped from the open window to the ground below, there to prowl about before skittering up the steps and yowling to be let back in.

It does not surprise her that in all the accounts of near-death experiences she knows of, the near-death people rise above their bodies and survey the scene below. It does not surprise her that long ago, at the moment her grandmother Reine died, her mother sensed her flying above and away, calling her name in a young and happy voice.

When she was little, maybe five, the sky outside her house up there in the foothills filled with a wild wind. She ran outside with an umbrella and stood on the top of the small hill that she’d learned to ride a bike down. She opened the umbrella and held it above her head and the wild wind lifted her off the ground an inch or two and she dropped the umbrella immediately.

She has wondered ever since if it might actually have carried her off.

Eagles and hawks can carry off small animals, and back then she was a smallish animal. So it seems entirely possible that she might have been carried away that day, up into the dark and wild sky.

Here on her porch swing, in freakishly warm weather for October, she’s wearing a t-shirt. She can see the bones of her rib cage, expanding and contracting. The air smells like leaves and grass and dust and heat. She is in her element.

You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

03_slides_043Last weekend she found herself behind the wheel of a medium-sized automobile, driving north an hour and a half from Westchester County Airport to Route 22. She had a sheaf of directions with her, because she had only been to the cemetery, Irondale Cemetery, once.

“It’s a quick left,” she had been told. “Keep a sharp eye out. We usually miss the entrance and have to turn back.”

She kept a sharp eye out. On the way up Route 22 her sharp eye saw a sign on the left that read “McGhee Hill,” so she spun around and took the left. She remembered being a child, and asking her grandfather why that road was  named McGhee Hill.

“Because I live there,” he said.

He was washing up after his chores, at the little sink in that dark back entryway. Lava soap. Coveralls. Washing the manure and hay and dairy farm smells off his hands, splashing water over his balding head. How many times did she see him wash up after chores?

She took the left and she was determined to find the old farm, which was still there. She drove up and down a couple of times, searching for the driveway. But she couldn’t find it.

She did drive all the way to the top of McGhee Hill, and there she found the modern house that her grandparents had built when they sold the farm, long ago, when she was ten years old.

Her grandmother had loved the new house: it had an electric stove, as opposed to a woodburning one. It had wall to wall carpeting, as opposed to linoleum and  hardwood floors. Everything in the old house was old, and everything in the new house was new, and her grandmother loved new.

Someone had built a small white house directly next to her grandparents’ modern white house. It did not look right.  She was annoyed, and she reminded herself that her grandparents had not lived there for many years, and that whoever owned the house now had a perfect right to build a small white house directly next to it.

Maybe it was a son or daughter, living there next to them. She thought about that. What would it be like to live directly next to your parents?

She drove back down McGhee Hill and took a left onto Route 22 and continued north.  She kept a sharp eye out for the cemetery and she did not even have to backtrack.

In she drove, down the dusty dirt road, peering for the markers. So many McGhees in this cemetery, good Lord. Who knew there were this many McGhees anywhere, all spelled correctly, with the “h” that gives pause to so many?

Oh, but there were her grandparents, the both of them together.

She parked down the way a bit and walked back. She was the only person in  the cemetery. She sat down on her grandmother’s grave and brushed the few blades of mown grass and leaves from the sunwarmed  tops of the low markers. This was a well-kept cemetery; there was nothing for her to clean or pluck or tidy.

It had not been that many years since she stood here watching them lower the casket into the ground at her grandmother’s funeral. It had been much longer since her grandfather’s funeral, a funeral that she missed and will always regret missing.

She spent the next hour talking to her grandparents and watching the squirrels running up and down the nearby tree. She thanked her grandparents for loving her exactly as she was and for giving her so many happy memories.

She remembered their dog, Jody, whose clownish black and white face she could conjure so vividly. Every night her grandmother had stirred the leftovers of the evening together in a large clean pan, Jody’s frying pan, and made a rich gravy to cover them, and set it down outside for Jody’s dinner. Her grandmother had been an incredible cook. Jody ate what they ate, and he was a happy dog. Why wouldn’t he be?

It was getting late and she still had a long drive ahead of her, almost four hours further upstate, to where her parents lived and where she had grown up. She went back to her car, but she didn’t want to leave her grandparents yet.

So she took out her Wallace and Gromit stationery and wrote her grandmother a note. Her grandmother would have liked that stationery. She would have liked it better if it were covered with little flower and star and heart stickers, but she herself is not the type to carry around flower and star and heart stickers.

She sealed the Wallace and Gromit envelope and went back to her grandmother’s stone. This was an extremely well-kept cemetery, and whoever kept it so well would not approve of a letter left on top of the stone. He – she was certain it was a he – would remove such a letter immediately.

So she folded it into a slender lozenge and tucked it down into the dirt behind the stone. She arranged a few leaves over it in a haphazard-looking manner. With any luck, the letter would remain where it was until the rain and snow dissolved it.

As she left, she asked her grandmother please to stay with her, and to give her a sign that would let her know she was there.

Back into the car she went, and north she drove. As she is a woman of diners, who has spent her life eating in them whenever possible, she stopped at the  West Taghkanic Diner in Hudson, New York. She partook of the pot roast dinner special, which came with a cup of split pea soup, and she finished it off with a large slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie.

The extremely nice young waiter talked to her for a long time. She revealed to him that she had always dreamed of a) converting a classic diner into a home that she could live in, or b) living on a moored houseboat, or c) living in an Airstream.

He told her about another classic diner, the Diamond Street Diner in the next town up. The Diamond Street Diner was currently for sale, he said, and he sketched out a map so that she could check it out for herself.

What would it be like, she wondered, to sell everything, move to upstate New York, convert a classic diner into her house, and begin a brand-new life?

Since this would require her to leave her children, something which would kill her, she quickly adjusted the dream, as follows: What would it be like to sell everything once her children were all grown up, move to upstate New York, convert a classic diner into her house, and begin a brand-new life?

She drove on,  north and north and north, through the tiny towns, around the winding roads, until she was driving into the driveway of her very own house, where her father was watching the Yankees on a muted television, her mother was next to him playing solitaire on the computer, and their sweet dog was waiting to jump on her.

Over the next few days she went to the diner with her father, planted a food shelf garden with her mother, sat on the porch, watched the Yankees and cheered for the other team, walked around the 5.8 mile block, petted the dog, and talked with her parents.

A hummingbird kept buzzing up to the feeder, alighting, then buzzing away. Her mother encouraged her to get a hummingbird feeder of her own, and told her the recipe for hummingbird feeder water: two cups water, a quarter-cup sugar, bring it to a boil and keep it in the refrigerator.

She agreed that it would be an excellent idea to have one of her own. She pictured it hanging outside her front porch, where she could sit on the swing and watch the hummingbirds buzzing up to it.

On each of her walks around the block, the cows grazing in the pastures came running up to her. Have you ever seen a herd of running cows? Truly, it’s not a common sight, at least in her experience.

“Why are you running to me, cows?” she asked them. “I have nothing for you. I am a peaceful hiker with no ill intentions.”

She told her parents that the cemetery was in good shape. They told her that they would be driving down there themselves, for the funeral of another McGhee, one that she herself remembered from her childhood visits to her grandparents.

“There’s a hell of a lot of McGhees in that cemetery,” she informed them, and they agreed. There certainly were a hell of a lot of McGhees there.

On her way around the 5.8 mile block, she stopped in at the little cemetery down the dirt road. There was her childhood friend’s stone, the first boy she ever kissed, in the barn, during a game of Truth or Dare. Someone had put a teddy bear on top of his gravestone.

There was the grave of her sister’s classmate, buried here in the tiny cemetery next to his family farm. Someone had placed a small red tractor on top of his stone.

She had asked her grandmother for a sign, and she kept looking for one. She didn’t see any, but she didn’t feel alone and sad about it either.

Then she thought of the running cows, and the hummingbirds. She thought about the squirrels at the cemetery, and how her grandmother’s nickname had been Squirrel. None of these were signs, and yet all of these were signs, weren’t they?

Abide with me, grandmother.

And that was her Memorial Day weekend.