Cats Were Another Story

FullSizeRender (1)Mildred Sneigel liked dogs. She had always owned at least one dog, even before her husband had died. Her dogs tended to be lapdogs, smaller, terrier-sized breeds that she could easily care for, groom, and converse with. Cats were another story and the two little girls who lived across the alley knew it.

One morning, on the kind of lazy summer morning that allowed them to stay in their pajamas longer than they should have, the younger of the little girls was playing with her older sister in their backyard when they heard the old woman across the alley talking. They dropped their spoons into the mud and crawled on the damp grass each to the base of a skinny poplar tree. They listened. The old woman said “Good doggy,” and “Be a good little doggy.” She carried a shovel and took small steps around her own backyard in her gray rubber rain boots and long, floral raincoat. Her head bobbed among the wisteria and rose bushes and was enveloped in a clear plastic headscarf, the kind that folds up into the size of a business card and then has a little snap to keep it all together.

The girls, who were not naturally inclined to torment others, nevertheless chose to torment Mildred Sneigel on this particular morning. If only they had known her better. Their plan: crouch beneath their respective poplar trees, send meows into Mildred’s backyard, wait for her response.

At first, the sounds they made were the tiniest, tenderest of mews, the sort you might hear from a three-day-old kitten. Mildred scraped at the topsoil to the right of the iris patch with a rusty, claw-shaped hand rake. No fun. Then, their mews became bolder, less tender, akin to the sounds one might hear from a gangly, mildly dissatisfied teenage cat. Mildred paused and looked into the branches of the elm tree above her. That was better. The girls’ eyes met and they stifled their mouths into shrugged shoulders.

Then, the older sister took the lead and lobbed the final grenade. What began as a tiny kitty mew lengthened into a quite realistic, prepubescent meow, which evolved into the gruff, gravelly howl of a geriatric feral tomcat. The duration of the meow was impressive. Its tone rose and dipped and curlicued around the older sister’s tongue, into her chest and then out through her mouth, which guzzled with silent laughter as she collapsed into a ball on the dewy grass.

By that time, her younger sister was also engulfed in secretive, red-faced laughter. Her cheeks streamed with tears. Dirt plastered the two sisters’ knobby knees and legs, grass clippings mingled in their bangs, and tears and dew dampened their pajamas. That final lob did the trick. Mildred’s eyes tore over her shoulder, she raised her claw, and she stomped in her rubber boots to the back edge of her yard, headed directly for the girls’ poplar tree seclusion.  She scanned the length of the lot, and stooped to peer into the darkened rows of shrubbery, weeds, and decrepit lawn ornaments frosted with molds and lichens.

“Out of my yard, you cats!” she barked. “Out.”

Seeing no feline trouble-makers, she stood back up, transferring the hand rake to her other hand. “Leave,” she spoke quietly into the shade. She returned to the iris bushes and settled to her knees. She patted the soil with her hands, and leaned into the earth.  The girls, who had by then righted themselves to their spy positions, watched her pull two wooden paint-stirrers  from a nearby bushel basket. She arranged the slats into a cross and then held it together with one hand, while the other rummaged through the basket and pulled from it a length of wire and a pair of wire cutters. She wound the wire around the center  of the cross several times to secure an “X” and then with a click, snipped the wire in two. She gently submerged the base of the cross near the far end of the little plot of soil. “Good doggy,” she said. “You were such a good little doggy.”

The girls watched in silence, then glanced at each other. Their glee turned to regret, and grief, too, since they had remembered seeing Mildred’s little dog prancing about the yard following its owner. They stood, brushed off their dirty knees, straightened their pajama tops, and went back inside their house to change. They left their spoons in the drying mud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exactly Why You Should Be Aware of Your Surroundings

 

rafal-buch-111460 (2)
Photo by Rafal Buch on Unsplash

Maybe it’s just me, but I really need to have things explained fully. Don’t just give me advice. Explain the advice. Tell me why you’re giving me the advice. Exactly why. Draw me a picture, if necessary. Otherwise, because I’m such a know-it-all, I might disregard it and not completely think through the point of your well-meaning and sound wise words. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

 

During my growing-up years, I had always been taught by good parents to be aware of my surroundings — whether at home or out on my own. And while I heeded that advice, I needed my parents to complete the thought. I needed to hear why: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.  I finally figured that out after college when I was living on my own and running daily near my apartment  in Topeka, Kansas and had a “close call” with a stranger in a car.

My route, which I ran alone and required about thirty minutes to complete, took me through a recreational complex across the street that contained what was known then as The Gage Park Zoo and a well-landscaped public park. My route then continued on into an adjacent neighborhood clustered with middle-class homes, and finally back to my apartment community. Everyday without fail, I would get up at 6 a.m., walk through the zoo and park, run through the neighborhood, have some breakfast, shower and get ready for my 8-to-5 job at the Kansas Press Association, which was a short five-minute drive away.

One fresh, quiet morning as I entered the park, I noticed a car in a parking space near the front edge of the zoo. As I walked by, I saw that a man was sitting inside the car. Strange, I thought, for six in the morning. Suspicious. It was light out, but barely. A humid haze hovered over the park grounds and the only sounds you could hear were the whir of traffic on the distant freeway, the chirps from a few songbirds, and the drowsy mumblings  of teenagers catching up on the previous night’s news at the park’s swimming pool.

I continued to  make my round-about way through the park: past the central square lawn, right at the rose garden, then another right back down the other side of the square lawn. When I rounded this last corner, I noticed the car again. It was backing out of its space. Good, I thought. It’s leaving. But then, instead of turning toward the way out, the car turned into the park, and made a right onto the lower edge of the square lawn. Our paths would intersect, I knew,  if he made a left at the corner of the square lawn. Which he did.  Now it was inevitable: we would meet. He was up to something. Was he going to stare at me? Was he going to kidnap me? Would this be an abduction?

Keep in mind that this was in 1989. Before cell phones. Before pagers. If there was trouble, there was no way to contact someone. These were the days of the pay phone, but I was unaware of any pay phones in the  park.

With the car approaching, I glanced over at the pool and knew I could cut across the lawn and find refuge there. But my independence didn’t allow that.  I stayed on the paved road and continued heading straight toward the car, which was now approaching me. I eyed the car. I told myself to make eye contact with the man. Make good, solid eye contact when he gets here, I thought. Even though I was terribly afraid, I was not going to appear to be that way. So I would maintain my stride, look him in the eye, and keep walking. I would walk strongly, confidently, quickly. This is what I do everyday of my life, mister, and you aren’t going to stop me, I grumbled under my breath.

Soon, the car was upon me. Driving slowly. Five miles per hour, if that. The muffler on the older, metallic, olive green sedan hummed and coughed. All too quickly, he was upon me. We made eye contact. I looked at him clearly, intently, and held my stare. He was white, unshaven, sun-tanned, with hazel eyes. His gaze met mine for a long, tense moment, all the while driving slowly, window rolled down, his left arm lazily resting along the top of the door. He drove on by. I had previously decided that I would not turn and watch him continue through the park. Didn’t want to provoke him. Didn’t want to make him suspicious of what I might do. So I kept walking and heard the car gradually accelerate behind me. And he was gone.

I never saw the man again, but I did change my routine. I started running in the evenings around six o’clock when there were more people out and about. Before the incident, I had known that keeping to a set workout routine (same route, same time everyday) was ill-advised for a woman, but I obviously didn’t take that advice seriously enough either. At least not seriously enough to change my all-too-predictable behavior.  Again, perhaps I wasn’t told exactly why I should vary my schedule. After all, it’s hard to do, and in my opinion, an unreasonable expectation for women.

Wasn’t it enough to just be aware of my surroundings? Apparently not. Because even though my parents had already taught me that, my Gage Park “close call” taught me the point of that advice: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.


Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/51278955@N00/8730099535″>Driving a car</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

 

 

Watching and Waiting at Persimmon Hill Berry Farm

FullSizeRender

My husband wants to pick some blackberries, so he gets another bucket from the shed and heads to the ten or so rows of blackberry bushes toward the less-frequented part of Persimmon Hill Berry Farm in Lampe, Missouri. I wait for him under a cedar tree at a picnic table with our two one-gallon buckets brimming with the blueberries we just picked. It’s a sunny, humid day. Among the rows of Collins, Northblue and other varieties, the air is thick and still. Oppressive. But while I sit in the shade, a gentle breeze chills the dampness on my neck and arms.  I observe and listen to the mid-morning activity of blueberry pickers.

A mother walks purposefully by. She is wearing a stiff, white Anabaptist bonnet and a long, navy blue cotton dress that covers her neck, shoulders, arms. Its hem reaches to her mid-calf and draws my eye to her footwear: hot pink, sparkly flip-flops. Her son wears long shorts, a plaid shirt, and a gray cap. They chatter in a loose and quiet German. The woman’s daughter, about four years old and the younger of her two children, wears a burgundy dress in the same style as her mother’s. Her blonde pigtails bounce with every step she takes in her sandals. She lags behind her mother and brother, dawdling to carefully study three little girls sitting at the picnic table to my right. Like baby birds, they perch atop the table, lifting their freckled cheeks to their mothers to be evenly coated with  sunscreen and dutiful vigor.

The bonneted mother turns for the daughter and curtly calls her to hurry. Drawn to attention, the little girl’s eyes dart upward and her mother grasps her hand, pulling her alongside. The girl stumbles, hops, and dances to catch up to her mother’s long, deliberate strides. They turn into a row and disappear among the bushes near the far-end of the acreage where the berries are at their heaviest and sweetest.

My husband returns with a bucket half-filled with shiny, bumpy blackberries, many the size of elongated golf balls. It won’t take many to make a pie, which is what he intends to do this evening. We gather up our buckets and head for the house to pay our bill. I glance back across the valley of blueberry bushes. I see the mother’s starched white bonnet hovering over bushes and I appreciate her determination to accomplish the day’s tasks with her two little ones in tow.

Behind-the-Scenes in a Clay Studio

IMG_4527

This is a photo of a kiln shelf. It’s a one-inch thick, 12-pound shelf made primarily of mullite high-alumina clay that will withstand the 2,350+ degrees (F) of a gas-fired kiln. The shelf holds pottery and other items that are ready for their second and final firing. In the photo, the brown “paint” is actually kiln wash that I painted onto the bare spots of about 20 kiln shelves today.  After firing, it will appear white as shown in the photo. Without this kiln wash, the glaze on the pottery would adhere to the shelf during firing and then likely chip from the pot as it is removed from the shelf after the firing. I say likely because before you set pots into the kiln, you must sponge off the excess glaze that lingers on the foots of bowls, plates, cups, vases. However, occasionally, a small drop or drip or smear of glaze escapes the sponge and necessitates applying kiln wash to the shelves.

I’m a middle school language arts teacher, but during the summers I often find myself back in my husband’s ceramic art studio, doing some of the unglamorous tasks involved with, but absolutely critical to, the making of ceramic pottery, sculpture, and the like. Many think that “making pottery” primarily involves that spinning thing (the potter’s wheel) and paint (glaze), and clay. However, the behind-the-scenes work of a potter is much more mundane, complex — and more quietly beautiful, even — than those moments that some readers may recall from the movie Ghost.

I Cut the Grass Today

 

gaelle-marcel-90060 (2)
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

I cut the grass today. I cut the grass with one of those old-fashioned rotary cutters that require nothing more than two legs and two arms to maneuver. No jerking on the starter cord. No gasoline. No loud engine noise.  A cool breeze stirred the humidity of the afternoon and tiny brown needles sprinkled down from the cedar branches. I looked up into the tree to see two steel hooks that in past summers held the blue plastic seat that my son and daughter swung in when they were babies and toddlers. The yard was lush then, twenty years ago, when the tree was small. Over time,  as the cedar has inched skyward, its toxic needles have infected the grass below, causing it to thin, grow scraggly, and yet still require a trim. The cutter jammed, shoving the handlebar against my hip. I stepped back and tugged and twisted the machine to jar the immobilized blades. Out dropped a twig, and I finished cutting the grass.