Wet Willies December 20, 2014

In December 2014, my Aunt Jane died at the age of 89. She died right before Christmas, which, if you knew her, made sense. My Aunt Jane and her husband, Uncle Bob, were the best parts of our family. Because of them, we grew up with laughter, joy, and stories. When I was young, our family would gather at their house for Christmas. I would see cousins and friends from all over who would come because Aunt Jane invited them. So, it makes sense to me that she died right around Christmas, and all of us would gather to remember her. I saw my sister, and finally met her husband. I met the wife and children of a cousin I babysat. I visited with my mother. We were together at Christmas once again.

http://www.obittree.com/obituary/us/pennsylvania/ephrata/the-stradling-family/jane-w-mentzer/2009539/

aunt-janePhoto source unknown

Wet Willies

I’ve been trying to write what I remember about my Aunt Jane and Uncle Bob. The dogs keep interrupting, and when I think of it, that seems about right. The Mentzer household always had at least one dog, whether it was Daffy who was growling, or Gidget who constantly needed attention, or Jenny or Trixie, there was almost always a dog underfoot. I have four, and right now they are having their final romp of the day. This usually involves blocking the two youngest ones in the kitchen – where they sleep, and blocking the more vocal one upstairs. Grandma Mae has taken to playing “King of the Mountain” with the kitchen pups, so there is more than the usual mayhem downstairs. I am upstairs, in my office, surrounded by Christmas presents and books, trying to figure out where to begin.

I started writing a list of all the significant and special things Aunt Jane made possible – sleeping out in the backyard underneath a blanket thrown over the wash line; sleeping over in a bed with Daffy who snapped at me if I tried to roll over; playing with Wizard of Oz puppets that came in the laundry detergent she bought; going to the beach with Floss and the Gang; taking the bus to the “city” to Christmas shop, and have lunch at Watt and Shand – the list goes on.

Many of my childhood Christmases were spent at 443 South State Street. I was always amazed that my cousins were able to wait until Grandpa Fassnacht handed out presents to be able to open theirs. Afterward, the grown ups would sit around the round oak table and tell stories. I’d stick around, knowing that Aunt Jane would eventually sigh, and tap her shoulder, “Amy, Do you mind rubbing my neck? I’ll give you a penny a minute.” I didn’t mind at all. I earned my quarter, a penny a minute, and she always included a tip. I was a very rich kid.

I thought for years that my Aunt Jane knew all there was about finances. She had an envelope system that was just fascinating. There was an envelope for every expense, and she would sort out her money every pay check. Of course, she had a bank account, but her savings system was more remarkable, as it included tucking dollar bills here and there. On one occasion, when we were housecleaning her bedroom, I found a ten in the powder box. Who would ever think to look for money in a box of face powder?

Aunt Jane always smelled of Tou Jour Moi or Estee Lauder. She was the one who tried to instill in me the desire to have manicured nails. Sorry, it didn’t take. I still pick ‘em. But she tried.

She and Uncle Bob and their kids would call every birthday to sing to me. And, for many years, they took me out to a “fancy” restaurant of my choice. We went to the Glass Kitchen, General Sutter Inn, and on more than one occasion, they arranged for the server to sing Happy Birthday to me in the dining room, in front of God and everybody.

Aunt Jane really loved the old horror movies. Many an afternoon I’d be tucked up on her couch, my knees under my chin, and a blanket around me for comfort watching some hair-raising feature that included Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, or Peter Lorre. To this day, I have a dread fear that a head is going to come bouncing down a staircase, like it did in Hush, hush, Sweet Charlotte. Why? Because, just as the head was descending on the screen, one of the dogs knocked something down the steps next to the sofa. Yeah. Too much realism for me!

My Aunt Jane and Uncle Bob were from an era that knew hardship and struggle. But they also knew how to laugh, and enjoy life. One Christmas, they were in the living room listening to a compilation of Tommy Dorsey tunes while I was resting on the couch in the front room. I could hear them talking about the music, and the memories they shared. They both seemed suddenly younger.

While thinking about my Aunt Jane the one thing I notice is that I am smiling. Whether it is remembering the day I ran away from her because I didn’t want to take my medicine (she bribed me with Juicy Fruit and Cherry Lifesavers), the wet willies she’d give me if I fell asleep on her couch, or sledding down the back alley, and then coming into her house for hot chocolate and butter bread, the thing that strikes me the most is, Aunt Jane made things fun.

My mom used to chide me for being a lot like my Aunt Jane. Boy, I hope so.

Rambling through Autumn and Winter 2014

Rambling  through Autumn and Winter 2014

“Home.” What a word. Is it the car I share with my dogs? Perhaps the motels and campgrounds where we seek shelter? Or maybe the wood? The ocean? The desert? Where we find ourselves feeling healed and whole? Is it the house I shared with a husband and foster child? The town where my parents live? Home is an odd word, as it means everything, and nothing. Here I was, at home, in New England. Familiar with the house. The neighbors. The woods. I know where to shop for groceries. Where the doctor’s office is. What to expect at church. I am home. But it isn’t home. It is where I used to live before I went to Arizona. The dogs and I went to familiar woods. I took them to Mount Greylock. We visited Savoy Mountain State Forest. I walked along the sea with a friend. Everything was familiar, and everything was different. Have you ever pulled your favorite hiking boots out of storage only to find they don’t fit the same anymore? They may hold the memories of a thousand miles, but they pinch, and don’t give the way they used to. They don’t fit because you have outgrown them in some indiscernible way. You sigh and wear them, anyway, because nothing else fits, either.

Welcome “home.” Never mind that you invested more of yourself than you knew you were for the short time you spent crossing the continent, twice, and living among a completely different culture. Overlook the trite comments about “the pictures of the desert are beautiful”. Pictures? They convey nothing of the dimension of antiquity and distance one feels at the Homolovi  Ruins. ‘A horse is a horse, of course, of course,’ but wild horses are nothing like Mr. Ed, the lean and muscular beasts in Pennsylvania farming communities, the Letter Sweater runners in western Kentucky. Guardians of the high desert, wild horses can not be imagined. One has to see them, to be welcomed by them, to be protected by them. That is not a movie, not a photograph. That is life, on the hoof, in the neighborhood, down the road, under the monsoon, in the early morning, everyday.

Yes, there are beautiful photographs of the desert. I suggest Arizona Highways magazines for some spectacular shots. But you can read them sitting still, with no fear of stepping on a snake, brushing against a plant only too willing to share its spines. Turn up the heat in your house, and you will still not bake like you can bake on a sunfilled day in the desert. There is no substitute for life. Reading a passage, admiring a photograph is not the same as being there, seeing that, understanding this. I love New England, and driving across the country suits me more than I expected it to. But I wasn’t finished with the desert just yet, and the desert wasn’t done with me. Nonetheless, I wandered around Winter 2014, downsizing my expectations, kicking my way through depression, sorrow and loss, clarifying who and what I am. I was homesick for a place I never expected to call “home.” I did not understand. I needed to go back.

 

Mr. Ed: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054557/

Homolovi Ruins: http://azstateparks.com/Parks/HORU/index.html

Arizona Highways: https://www.arizonahighways.com/

 

 

“Now is the winter of our discontent” William Shakespeare

“What are you doing here?” She blurted. “You’re not supposed to be here.” A hint of a pause. “No, that’s not what I mean. Why are you here?”

I  understood her questions, her confusion, her mixed emotions. They were the same as mine. Depressed, self conscious (by the way, my keyboard is dying and some of the keys don’t work anymore, like the hyphen), uncertain, lonely. What could I say? I value my dogs more than I value the education of children in a society that values neither? My dogs are worth more than your children because I have more faith in my dogs being better people than I have faith that your children won’t grow up to be meth addicts, drunks, and abusive, like their elders? I had nothing to say, so I just smiled, and said ‘Good morning’. What could I say?

I learned that those who admire the traveler for leaving are often the same people who would never dream of leaving the comfort of the familiar, but, boy, are they ready to be mean to those who go and come again. It was a hollow sort of welcome, and the beginning of a very fretful time.

I worked part time as a substitute teacher. Education in the United States is reason to pray. The local paper ran one of my letters to the editor: When are parents, teachers, administrators, and other adults going to make children accountable for their behavior?, I asked. If kids do not have proper social skills, they should not be allowed to participate in social privileges such as public schools. Give them three chances, then, if they still act out, drop them off wherever their adults are, be that the job site, the bar, or the local prison. Let their adults take responsibility for the behavior of the young, and let teachers do what they are called to do: teach.

I received an anonymous thank you letter, admiring my courage for daring to speak what so many feel. They remained anonymous, lest the local regional school administration find out who they are, and take recriminations out on their students.

I also got a call one day from my employer. She had received word that “language” had been used in my class. Yes, indeed, there was language. Lots of it. One of the students who would have been happier in a psych unit was having a day. The student and her posse used lots of language, at high volume, for about fifty minutes straight. I had been informed that one of the security guards had been dismissed, so please do not ask for help unless it involves blood, guts, or broken bones. Profanity qualifies as neither. When I flat out told my employer that I wasn’t the one who said, “….”, the phone went dead silent. She was put out when I spoke candidly with her.

Students in the district where I was working learned some words early on. And I heard it first thing out of my car in the pre K parking lot, and last thing at the end of the day in the high school parking lot. Apparently, though, my employer was unfamiliar with the daily usage of the word.

What am I doing here?

I forgot Ohio, but we made it back to the woods

There were many things I thought about on the way across the United States. But when I finally visited familiar places and met with old and trusted friends, I realized the only thing I could remember between Kansas and Pennsylvania was the KOA in Indiana, and breakfast at the gas station/diner in Columbus. Otherwise, I forgot completely about Ohio. It is a peculiar feeling knowing I actually drove, in daylight, hundreds of miles across two states, but only retained scarce memories. It is a good thing the woods welcomed us, as we were free to run and sink our feet into cool autumn waters, and think only about the joy of being together and being alive.

“It’s a twister!” or not

We headed out Route 70 East, through the grasslands of Colorado, and  into Kansas. Being a lifelong fan of The Wizard of Oz (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032138/), I, of course, continually scanned the sky for signs of approaching tornadoes. I also kept a sharp eye out for turn offs, ditches, and bridges to race to if a twister suddenly materialized in front of us, and I had to get to safety. For good measure, I turned the radio on to a local station. Sure enough, the announcer was just in with the latest on the damage in southern Kansas from this morning’s …. earthquake. Earthquake? Here I am, scanning the sky for pea green clouds and funnels, when I should be looking below my feet to be sure the earth is really still there. Earthquakes in Kansas? Time for me to revisit my geology  and to quit worrying. Running for a turn off, a ditch, or a bridge isn’t going to stop a twister or an earthquake. Time to just relax and enjoy the company of my dogs. I changed the radio station back to something uplifting.

Earthquakes in Kansas October 2014      http://news.lalate.com/2014/10/02/kansas-earthquake-today-2014-strikes-harper/

Boulder 2014

Boulder, Colorado 2014

We eventually turned north and headed toward Boulder, Colorado. My brother used to live in Boulder. I visited him several times, and spent a summer there. You should see the smile that accompanies “and spent a summer there.”

I wanted to go and see if I could find his house. My brother died a few years back. I have not yet forgiven him for his illness, nor his dying. I’ll get over it some day. Spending time in Boulder helped.
I drove through town, recognizing a building I’ve been dreaming about, one I suppose I saw when I lived there. I couldn’t find my brother’s house. I couldn’t find my brother, either, but at least there was proof he had lived. Pearl Street remains. So do the Flat Irons.

I knew then I wanted to spend more time in Boulder. More time seeking out places I had already seen.  Getting acquainted with the foothills again.

That didn’t happen until this past summer, 2016. But it happened. And it will again. There is a place that feels like home, somewhere where my soul thrives. It is along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

Durango, Colorado Autumn 2014

Durango, Colorado Autumn 2014

 We spent the following day in Farmington, New Mexico. I toured the Chamber of Commerce museum, bought a CD of local music at the gift shop, and then took the dogs to the local dog park. From there, we headed toward Durango, Colorado. Along the way, I stopped at the Ute museum.

Places to see along the way:

http://www.gofarmington.com/#

http://www.southernute-nsn.gov/southern-ute-museum-and-cultural-center/

I love Colorado, she says with a sigh. Why I don’t live there …

Anyway, we stayed at a KOA in Durango, and then had a conversation with the locals about snow. Yes. Snow. It was better, I was told, to stay south of the Rockies and travel up the Front Range from there because several of the passes were already closed.

I love having conversations about mountain passes closing due to snow. It makes my heart sing to know the mountains, the snow and the wind are still stronger than I am. This is especially true as I grow older and my elders die. I do not want to be the oldest one I rely on. That’s where mountains come in at. They are older, stronger, taller, and wiser. And I will never grow older than they are.

From Durango we did, indeed, stay south as we traveled east. And, we did, indeed, travel through snow up in the mountains. Now, you should know I have always threatened to spend my last days in the San Juans. What I was hoping as I drove higher through the mist and snow was that this wasn’t my last days. Snow I love. Evergreens, too. But as stressful as Arizona had been, I didn’t think I wanted to say good-bye just yet. One prays while traveling switchbacks and climbing and descending among mile upon mile of dense green forest.

I pulled off into the parking lot of a cabin-restaurant in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. The menu was simple. Help yourself to what is on the cafe hot plates. Dessert was sold-out earlier, but would I care for something else? I would.

The rain falling outside chased a few of the road crew inside.

“You didn’t eat her food, did you?” I was asked. Too late, I told him. He shook his head. “Just don’t eat the cobbler.” I got pie instead. He thought maybe that would be my saving grace.

It feels good to be included in local good will when you have been trembling and praying for the last hundred miles or so.

The dogs and I continued on.

Around supper time, we drove past a barbeque in progress. A half mile down the road, I turned around, and headed back to the barbeque.

Apologies, but they were preparing for a catering event. So sorry, the restaurant is closed. What am I doing with four dogs in a car with Arizona plates?

I told them.

Ram asked the owner if she needed any help. I could stay at his place. He already had four dogs, so dogs were not a problem.

Who are these people along the road who look for ways to offer a good meal, pleasant and peaceful conversation, a safe place to stay, and a future to be part of? Why are we not like this to people every day? Or is it just here, in this place, where strangers are ignored, and friendship is held hostage until someone “earns” our respect?

I appreciated the offers, but I needed more than a place to stay. I needed a real, cash-paying job, not just room and board in exchange for housing. But thank you, sincerely, for the offer.

 

Remembering why I left in the first place

Higher Ground

Amy Lynn Reifsnyder

April 15, 2014

 

If I am not fighting how I feel

about my losses.

If I let the pain and sorrow wash over me,

I will not drown completely.

I will be able to tumble in the white wash,

amid the backwash

and the rubble

but eventually

-perhaps bruised and raked raw –

be safe on solid sand,

rinsed by receding water.

 

If I stay in that place,

I will either sink or drown

with the incoming tide.

So, even then, I must collect my newly baptized self

and move

to higher ground.

Farmington, New Mexico 2014

Farmington, New Mexico 2014

The road home was long. I didn’t take photographs. I barely stopped to sleep. I cried a lot. I wondered about many things, not the least of which was where we were headed. I also met some very generous and caring individuals. Yes, they are everywhere. You just need to be in need, and not so gosh-darn independent to meet them.

Farmington, New Mexico

Walmart

I had heard that it was legal to spend an overnight in a Walmart parking lot. What I didn’t know was how many people do. It was early evening, and I was tired, but not ready to call it a night. Instead, I pulled into the Walmart in Farmington, New Mexico. After seeing to the dogs, I tucked us in for what I hoped would be a short nap. My shoulder hurt from all the tension, and I could not get myself situated enough to sleep. A few hours later, after tossing and turning, and rearranging the jackets in front of the window one more time, I heard a gentle tap on the window. Oh, great.

I pulled down the shirt, and opened the window a crack.
“I was watching you and I could see you can not get comfortable,” said a man outside my car. “Are you hungry? I know it is hard to get comfortable if you are hungry.”

I wasn’t hungry, thank you, just sore.

“Well, I am in the van over there. If you are sure you are not hungry. I will gladly share my dinner with you. We can eat outside, so you don’t have to think I’m up to something.”

No, thank you. We are tired, and sore. Even the dogs didn’t bark at him. I wondered about his meal though, having had experience with loaves and fish before.

“Ramen noodles and anchovies.”

Close enough.

Thank you, but no, we are tired, sore, and heart-broken. I appreciate the offer.

 An hour or so later, I drove toward the Walmart entrance. I stopped beside the cop on patrol to ask about motels in the area. It was late. He gave me directions to a Motel 6, and then suggested that if that didn’t work, I should head to the Walmart on the other side of town, as it was a little safer.
Midnight, and I’m having conversations with police officers about which parking lot to sleep in.

Who would have ever guessed.

We slept in a hotel something that night. Hannah peed on the floor, as was her custom as soon as she met a rug. We got up early, and headed into town.
Farmington, New Mexico.

Along the way Autumn 2014

Along the way Autumn 2014

We meandered through the desert, and on into New Mexico. A sunset shower and a rainbow through the darkening sky offered promise of a brighter future. I was dubious and uncertain. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why I had been promised the desert, and then why I had failed the speaking exam, and why I had to leave. I was sure I was supposed to be in Arizona. This departure felt like I was a failure, and that didn’t suit.

Traveling ancient roads with three dogs – wait, four dogs, Mae, Nala, Freckles, Hannah – who understand but do not speak English gives a person ample time to contemplate their universe. I sought answers through prayer, and scripture. I know I can speak Spanish. I’ve been studying, and speaking, for years. Why freeze up during the certification exam? And not just once, but twice? I routed around the Bible. Jesus instructed his disciples to not worry about what they should say. When the time was right, He would give them the words. Gee, thanks, Jesus. All I got was Silence and some stuttering.

I kept looking.
There is more than one story in there about Silence. I read about Elizabeth’s husband, the priest who went silent upon hearing about Jesus’ pending birth. I read about Jonah, who wasn’t exactly silent, but it’s kind of hard to be heard from inside the belly of a whale. Even Jesus went silent when he was before the High Priest the night before his crucifixion. So, maybe I had something in common with people greater than I am. Things to consider.
But if the Silence was from God, what was I supposed to be doing now?

About two thousand miles and several rest stops later, I figured it out: a woman traveling across country with four dogs is a conversation starter. So, at every rest stop, at every meal stop, at every gas stop, I had an opportunity to share my experiences, and to ask the stranger before me to continue to pray for the Apache, the dogs, and our journey. One man, in particular, perked up when I began to share our story. I got the impression he was a man who knew a thing or two, as he asked specific questions, and for names and locations. One continues to pray. You never know who it is you’re speaking with, or why it is you are called to go – and to come again.