Backyard Spring

I turn the top of the concrete birdbath over to face the sky and fill it with a milk jug’s worth of water. Within minutes, a goldfinch arrives along with several of his wren buddies. They perch on the rim, taking furtive sips and cocking their heads at me as if to say, “It’s about time, sister.”

I remove the empty suet feeders, greasy with residue from the nut-encrusted fat cakes meant to entice woodpeckers and chickadees. The squirrels will now have to give up their pole-dancing and content themselves with cast-off seeds under the birdfeeders, listening for the slam of the back door which means a white dog is on its way, intent on their destruction.

The bluebird boxes have been swept clean of the remains of last year’s nests and are ready for new tenants. I don’t remember seeing bluebirds in February before, but they were here. I assumed they traveled to warmer climates over the winter but maybe not so much anymore. I’ve heard the distinctive call of the red-winged blackbird (we name them all Freddie) and the peepers are back in the little stream that flows behind the grove of trees at the foot of the yard. The finches, having shed their drab winter grays and browns, cluster in yellow pops of color around the thistle seed feeder, the upscale restaurant of birdseed offerings.

Goldfinch with seeds (2)


I will look for the cardinals to build their nest in the flimsy branches of a rhododendron bush outside our dining room window. There have been tragedies over the years, yet they insist on returning to that same spot. Another bird, perhaps a mockingbird, frequently constructs its nursery high up under the eaves of the house, where it is warmed by resting on the spotlight that illuminates the backyard.

The lawn is just starting to show light green, and here and there, patches of yard garlic poke out like shocks of unruly hair. I remember spending time with my grandfather in his backyard garden where we would pull spikes of that wild garlic and eat it, coming back into my grandmother’s kitchen with pungent breaths and cheeks ruddy from early spring’s cool breezes.

I planted cold-weather vegetables yesterday—broccoli, cabbages, and kale. The garden has already been tilled and bathed in a few bags of organic fertilizer, and each thrust of the trowel brought forth fat worms, happily burrowing through the compost of last year’s harvest. When I came in, I noticed a small itchy bump on my wrist, so some biting insect is awake and hungry. The chicken-wire fencing will need to be erected soon to prevent rabbits from making a salad of what I’ve planted.

winter garden (2)

The dogs share the porch with me, noses quivering with scents carried on this first breath of warm air. Winter brought miserable bathroom visits in cold rain, when they had to find a spot on frozen mud and leave trickles of yellow against jagged shards of old snow. I hook Stella’s leash around a chair leg because otherwise she will run like the wind, squeezing her chubby body under the neighbor’s fence and peering down dangerous groundhog holes in pursuit of her prey. Vinnie dozes on my lap while Stella remains vigilant, cooing and whining as she scans the yard for chipmunks and squirrels. I suspect this may be Vinnie’s last spring. His broken liver, which a brilliant veterinary specialist has kept going for the last three years, is showing signs of exhaustion. He still chases the occasional squirrel on his good days, the days when steroids trick his body into thinking he is young and healthy and that he still has many springs ahead of him.
I wait anxiously for my hummingbirds to return, following the tiny colored dots on the online migration map. When I see them populate into Maryland, I will boil sugar and water down into simple syrup (never the red pre-mixed stuff) and hang my feeders where I can see them from the kitchen window. Sometimes it takes weeks of cleaning and refilling the feeders until my first hummer arrives, usually a female. She tentatively buzzes around the nectar holes at dusk, when the other birds are starting to settle into the trees in the fencerow, gradually quieting as another day filled with nature’s renewal of life comes to a close.

hummingbird professional


St. Patrick’s Day on the Square

If you’re not stirred by the sound of a drum cadence bouncing off city buildings or watching forty horns simultaneously burst into glorious sound, you’re not quite alive. Today I watched the Lancers Drum and Bugle Corps play a concert before the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown York. The corps (never call it a band—oops, learned that early on) is stunningly good. They are clean, precise, incredibly musical and smash the stereotype of drum and bugle corps as a bunch of old guys honking horns, pounding on drums and drinking a lot of beer.

The corps members are from all walks of life—some professionally trained musicians and some not, but they come together to create well-executed performances played to the absolute best of their ability. For the Lancers, it’s all about the music and the music is serious business as is their dedication to each other. Their theme, emblazoned on their jackets, is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and I’ve seen corps members live that theme many times over. I don’t just say these things because I’m married to one of their leaders and to be perfectly honest, I’m not a big drum corps fan. But I am a huge fan of music lifting people up out of the muck, even if it’s for just a few moments.

And lift them they did today. Wow. People were smiling and laughing. People were joyful. When’s the last time you stood in a crowd of people who were joyful? Everyone cheered and clapped, and the little kids waved and danced to the drumbeat. It was a glorious March day, cold and windy compared to the brief taste of spring we had earlier this week, but no one cared. People bundled up and wore their green scarves and shamrock sunglasses as they hurried up the street towards the sound of the music. There was energy and anticipation of something wonderful happening that they didn’t want to miss. How often do we find ourselves, especially these days, filled with excitement and running toward something wonderful?

Sometimes you need to see vendors creating balloon animals for kids who are wearing leprechaun hats. Sometimes you need to smell Bricker’s French fries and watch news anchors from local TV stations handing out promotional materials and spinning prize wheels. You need to see a man getting out of the car parked next to you who’s wearing a kilt and adjusting a set of bag pipes over his shoulder. Elderly ladies in wheelchairs sporting green tinsel necklaces clapping along with the music. A little girl hoisted up on her dad’s shoulders so she could watch mommy playing her horn. A teenaged boy with an instrument case on his back (my guess is a trumpet) staring spellbound at the corps. (Yes, you can play that trumpet even after high school.) A former teaching colleague who has struggled with serious health issues absolutely beaming between tunes as he performs for the first time with the Lancers.

Parades are small-town throw-backs to another era. They’re more Norman Rockwell and Andy of Mayberry than they are hipster cool. But they draw all of us in and make us feel good regardless of our political persuasion or the color of our hair. They make us look up from our screens long enough to enjoy the dancers and the bands and the floats and talk to the people standing next to us on the sidewalk. So here’s an Irish toast to those who make it all happen—the planners and the fire police, the musicians and the majorettes, the float-builders and the bagpipe-players, the ones who scrounge for the funding every year and the ones who sweep the streets after it’s all over. Because now more than ever, we need to gather in our town squares accompanied by the sounds of blazing brass and thundering percussion and celebrate something wonderful. Together.

My Phone and Me

My phone has become like an extra appendage, and I don’t go anywhere without it, even around the house. I use it constantly and should probably be in some kind of twelve-step program for addiction to Scrabble and Solitaire. I respond like Pavlov’s dog to notification alerts from the local TV station or my weather apps. If I have to wait somewhere or I’m a passenger in the car, I check email, scroll through Facebook or try to up my Scrabble game.

I deposit a check through my banking app and think about how far we’ve come from handing checks to the bespectacled lady behind the window at our local bank who knew us by our first name. I google the done temperature for what I’m cooking (often from a recipe found on the phone), instead of consulting a well-worn cookbook lying on the counter. My phone has become an integral part of almost every aspect of my life and that’s coming from a somewhat tech-phobic dinosaur who probably only uses a tiny percentage of her phone’s capacity.

My parents told me that one day they discovered me chattering away on the phone (one of those big old black behemoths with a dial that made that lovely whirring sound) when I was barely three. My mother assumed I was just talking to myself until she realized I had correctly dialed the number for my grandmother and was happily conversing with her. Now three-year-old’s are downloading their own games in between google searches.

Both my parents and grandparents worked from offices in their homes, so phones rang constantly. My grandfather was a small-town doctor whose patients called at all hours of the day and night and most of the time he or my grandmother answered. There were no answering machines or annoying automated gates to prevent you from reaching the help you needed. My father sold insurance and it was years until he finally had a separate phone line installed to stop dinnertime calls from clients who just wrecked their car. His first answering machine for the office came with a tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder inside.

As a teenager, the phone was a source of recreation and romance. We would gather at slumber parties and make prank calls to unsuspecting businesses. “Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can? Yes? Well, then let him out.” We’d call nerdy guys we didn’t like, enticing them with lascivious invitations to meet us somewhere and then slamming the phone down and erupting into gales of laughter. Cruel, yes, but, come on, we were fourteen. We would sit by the phone for hours hoping the guy we did like would finally call, and in those days before caller ID, it was a mystery (and usually a disappointment) to discover who was on the other end of the line. We would make furtive calls to our best friend when some soppy song came on the local radio station’s late-night broadcast. (“Oh my God, do you hear what they’re playing on “Rendezvous” right now? It just reminds me so much of last summer…”)

On a girlfriends’ trip to the Outer Banks in the early 90’s, one of us had a CELL PHONE! Wow! If we connected its tightly coiled cord to the cigarette lighter, we could actually make calls from the car in case there was an EMERGENCY, because why else would you need it? The phone came housed in its own rectangular box and we treated it with great reverence, as though we were transporting the Holy Grail.

Cell phones grew smaller and flatter. Then they flipped open and took pictures like a camera and suddenly we started doing this thing called texting. I remember a younger teaching colleague hesitantly asking me, “Do you text?” as though it was a skill reserved for those under thirty. When smart phones first came out, most of us in my generation shook our heads in amazement. Why would we need one of those? We’re too busy to be watching movies or playing games on our phones. What will they think of next?

Now here we are with phones that are like umbilical cords connecting us to the world. We text and face time, we stream our Hulu movies, and research our latest health worries on Web MD. We scan ourselves into the gym or the movie theater. We commiserate instantly with friends when there is pain and loss and celebrate their joys and accomplishments. Like it or not, our phones, despite the idiotic behavior of some of the humans using them, have completely revolutionized our culture.

Today on my writers’ Facebook group I learned about another publication looking for personal essays from older writers. I listened to several arrangements of choral pieces we’re working on for this spring’s concert. I found a cartoon that made me laugh out loud and wished some Facebook friends a Happy Birthday. I checked to see if I could substitute asparagus for green beans in the recipe I’m making for dinner. My life is infinitely bigger and better because of how easily I can access information and connect with other people, despite the amount of time I waste trying to remember words that use Q without a U.

smart phone (2)




Picking Paint

Right now there are pieces of poster board painted in varying shades of gray lying all over our kitchen. On the floor, against the countertop, beside the cabinets. There are stacks of  tiny paint swatches  everywhere I look. We’ve been to the Sherwin-Williams store more frequently than the grocery store, carrying in our floor sample, a piece of granite and a drawer from the cabinets. This has been going on for close to three weeks, because I can’t decide what color to paint the walls of our kitchen and sunroom. Repose Gray or Agreeable Gray or possibly Requisite Gray lightened by 25%. Or Malabar, but that looks too much like the tired beige that’s on the walls now. The sunroom should be a lighter color but not too light or it will wash out. And then at night, all the samples look completely different. I found a nice Benjamin Moore color, but our painter doesn’t like that brand of paint, and it’s hard to get locally. On our last visit to Sherwin Williams, we were told they can create another company’s colors, so then that color is still in the game.

Arggghhh!!! I am normally not so angst-driven about decisions, but I despise picking paint colors. This color thing simply escapes me. I tend to choose too cautiously and then wonder why my room doesn’t look like the pictures on Houzz or Pinterest. We’ve been through this before without any major fails although there is a bedroom at our beach place with walls that look more like lime sherbet instead of the intended golf course green.

This project started because we needed to replace a kitchen floor gone buckled and limp from fifteen years of absorbing dog pee. Now that a new floor is going down, I thought it would be nice to freshen the walls and put in a backsplash behind the counters. Home projects never have clear margins. They tend to metastasize and grow into financial and logistical malignancies.

Oven out pictures

The paint trend these days is toward gray neutrals but there are literally hundreds from which to choose. (And does gray really go with cherry cabinets? Oh yes, say all the Pinterest queens.) We have painted visual pictures on Sherwin Williams handy little color snap visualizer, but I don’t know that what you see on the computer screen accurately shows the color.

I invite my friends with good visual sense to come over and we hold the samples against the granite, the wood trim, and the flooring sample. We take them over to the windows, fretting about undertones and light reflection, carefully weighing one greige against the other. I even got a color analysis from an online decorator. She was wonderful but almost gave me too much information in her perky little online voice. “Now that floor would prefer just a tinge more purple and at night, I see just a wink of green in those undertones.” Huh? Purple? Who said anything about purple? Isn’t gray just gray? No, apparently not.

Paint sample 2

I don’t know how this is all going to end up. Right now a plumber is here attempting to disconnect our downdraft range so that the floor can be installed, and I hear grunting and muttered curses from both he and my husband who just announced that this is the last project we’re ever going to do that involves moving that stove. Meanwhile the paint swatches remain on the counter, staring back at me, daring me to pick the wrong one. “Thought I was neutral? Gotcha’. I’ll look blue once you get me on the wall.” I haven’t even started to think about the backsplash.
Oven open space


New York State of Mind

My husband and I just returned from a wonderful (albeit, cold) winter getaway in New York City. We heard a glorious Carmen at The Met and saw Network and Come from Away on Broadway. I have a special affinity for Manhattan because nine years ago, a brilliant surgeon there rebuilt my back and gave me a new life. Ever since, small-town dweller that I am, I occasionally need to ride the subways and walk on streets surrounded by tall buildings and by people who don’t look or sound like me, dine in interesting restaurants and feel part of a bigger world than the one I live in most of the time. Aside from being a Yankees fan, (which would not be welcomed in our house), I love New York.

NY subway

This was an entertainment-driven visit and I didn’t expect to be so moved by things that we saw and did. We visited the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side which is a collection of buildings once inhabited by immigrants who came to this country in the 1800’s. This is not a “famous place” museum but one that immerses visitors in the culture of the times, that opens a window into the lives of our intrepid forbears who did the jobs no one else wanted to do. Who were subjected to hardship and discrimination because of what they looked like or how they spoke or how they worshipped.

NY tenement museum

The individually guided tours here are slow-paced and invite conversation and thought. A gentleman on the tour with us who was a civic leader in Louisville, Kentucky shared that he had just received a text that a Hindu temple there had been graffitied and defaced, but he was confident the people of his city would come together immediately to undo the damage. I couldn’t help but think that nearly two centuries later, sadly, we’re still at it.

tenement museum 2

That afternoon we watched Brian Cranston in Network, a Broadway remake of the 1970’s movie about the decaying values of television. The famous line from this show occurs when Howard Beale, the aging anchorman played by Cranston, has a full-blown meltdown about the state of the world and screams, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Some days, I feel exactly the same way. The problems and frustrations of that era seem almost quaint compared to what we’re living with now, and I think many of us are madder than ever, but like Howard, we feel thwarted at every turn.

NY Network

And then there’s Come from Away. Wow. The story takes place on 9/11 when planes headed for the United States were forced to land in Gander Newfoundland, a sleepy little town on the far eastern tip of Canada. Played on a sparse stage with twelve actors who effortlessly switch roles to portray different characters, it is a story of ordinary people coming together to deal with an extraordinary situation. 7000 people housed and fed for several days by a town a little over twice that size in population—loaves and fishes 2001. The night we were there, the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations gave a gracious introduction at the beginning of the show. He received a standing ovation.

When I visit New York, I remember my experiences there as a patient. Listening to the many different languages and accents spoken by the nurses and staff in the hallway outside my room. The two lovely eastern European nurses who hugged me the day I left and told me I was just “the best patient.”  The delightful Hispanic gentleman who cleaned my room, complaining to me about a patient who yelled at everyone. “I no’ go in there anymore. She batshit, man.” The African-American nurse who said, when I looked at my post-op face in the mirror one morning, “Don’t worry honey, you’re still beautiful. That man of yours is still going to love you.”

NY Empire State Bldg. (2)


When are we ever going to figure out that we’re in this together? That we are connected, no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise. As I have grown older, I have developed a profound respect for other ways of looking at the world and living in the world. A trip to New York reminds me, once again, that we are all “from away.”


Libraries and Real Books

A few weeks ago, I drove past my hometown library which has recently undergone extensive renovations. In a town that’s seen its share of struggles, this library is a stunning jewel, a symbol of hope, education, and an opportunity for a better life. Like many of today’s libraries, it offers everything from knitting classes to career counseling and has become the hub of the community. As the friend I was visiting at the time said, “Sometimes I go there just to sit and read and catch my breath.”

My grandmother introduced me to the wonders of that library. We started with Saturday morning story hour, presided over by a rather intimidating librarian named Mrs. Eisele. When Mrs. Eisele said “Shh!” she meant it, and no one made a peep. I moved on to getting my own library card and going every other week to pick out two books, shyly handing them over the counter as my card was stamped with a satisfying, metallic click. The library smelled of fresh wood and paper and was gently quiet—the only sound the murmur of whispered voices and the crinkling of those plastic covers that protected the books from sticky fingers and spilled drinks. Later, I would come to the library to do research for school, using the card catalog, encyclopedias and actual books and magazines, the only options available in those pre-internet days.

I grew up listening to, and subsequently reading, good stories. My mother would read Uncle Wiggly and little Golden Books to me, but my dad was more likely to read Dr. Seuss and occasionally, Edward Lear limericks, not all of which were appropriate for young ears. (I loved them and would laugh hysterically.) My grandmother would read from The Book House, an exquisite six-volume set of children’s stories that had belonged to my dad and which still graces a bookshelf in my living room. No electronic means of communication can ever replace wonderful tales read by the voices of people who love you.

Mrs. Cleland, an elderly woman who lived across the street from us, was a retired English teacher whose family owned the local newspaper. I would dutifully take a small poinsettia and plate of cookies to her at Christmas and she would gift me with whatever book had won the Newberry Award or Caldecott medal that year. She would say, “I know this one’s a little advanced, dear, but you’re ready for it. Let me hear you read the first few pages.” I would rip off the wrapping paper to reveal the cover with its shiny gold embossed seal, crack open the spine and in the fading light of a December late afternoon, begin to read to Mrs. Cleland.

When our second-grade teacher started reading The Secret Garden to us, I couldn’t wait to get to school each day to discover what was going to happen to Mary. The Secret Garden inspired my lifelong passion for literature set in Great Britain. Always an animal-lover, I wept over Lassie, Come Home and Albert Terhune’s Lad, A Dog, and read every book in the Black Stallion series. I read biographies of Helen Keller and FDR. I read classics like Heidi, Little Women and Black Beauty in versions with shiny covers and pulpy pages that in those days, you could buy at almost any five-and-ten. When our Scholastic Book orders arrived, I would rush home with a stack of fresh paperbacks, anxious to dig into the latest and greatest “young adult” mysteries and novels. I developed a taste for books filled with beautiful language, interesting characters and a dramatic storyline. Trite and hackneyed didn’t do it for me, (even then, and nothing’s changed) so I was not a Nancy Drew or Bobbsey Twins fan.

Today I enjoy the convenience of my e-reader, but I still occasionally like to hold a real, hard-copy book in my hands. I love the sensory experience of breathing in the smell, feeling the texture of the pages, and using a cardboard bookmark. I love when a good story takes hold of you to the point that everything else falls away and that seems to happen more frequently with a real book—maybe because it evokes memories of reading with a flashlight under the covers. I’ve noticed that I occasionally forget the titles of books I read on my e-reader and I think that’s because I don’t see the cover looking back at me when I put it down. Holding a real book takes me back to my hometown library, to Mrs. Cleland’s living room, to the magic of The Secret Garden. To the places and people who introduced me to the love of words.



The Thirteenth Month

When the department stores were in their heyday, the week between Christmas and New Year’s was promoted as the “thirteenth month” as in “Shop our thirteenth month sale for all the gifts you didn’t get under the tree.” It is an odd week for those of us with vacation at this time of year. Every day feels like Sunday, we tend to over-indulge a bit in food and drink, but we also permit ourselves more Netflix time or uninterrupted reading time or even just a snuggle with the pets on the sofa. We actually see family and friends instead of texting them, we go out to lunch or host dinners in and maybe do a little post-holiday retail therapy. When I was teaching, it all came to a screeching halt on New Year’s Night with the realization that MY GOD, I HAVE TO GO BACK TO WORK TOMORROW.

A friend of mine told me recently that she has come to appreciate the word “allow.” As she put it, “reluctantly removing my super-woman cape and allowing things to take their course without constantly feeling as though I have to intervene or control.” She was recovering from a knee surgery where she had to allow her body to heal on its own time schedule, not hers. I think that idea of “allowing” and giving ourselves permission to ease up a little is what makes the thirteenth month so enjoyable.

Even though I am no longer working, I still savored recent evenings when I simply sat in the chair next to the Christmas tree and read a good book or watched a favorite television show without feeling as though I should have been doing something more productive. There are more desserts and cookies in my house now than at any other time of the year and I’m flat-out enjoying them just as I do my annual Christmas Eve glass of high-test eggnog spiked with a shot of rum. I tell myself it’s ok because it’s Christmas, but it really is ok.

I’m not suggesting that we throw all of our healthy habits out the window or become couch-dwelling sloths, but I think sometimes we need a respite from the constant pressure to achieve– whether it’s a slimmer body from carb-free eating or becoming more intentional (a buzzword I have come to detest) about some aspect of our life. I love social media, but the posts showing off kale soufflés made in an instant pot or testimonials about new-found serenity resulting from an hour of 4 am meditation can send waves of guilt through those of us happily watching Homeland while nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie. We who thrive on to-do lists and structure, on responsibility and taking care of business, (yes, even after we’re retired) have a hard-enough time extricating ourselves from the hamster wheel and when we do, give us a break already!

Today I made a wonderful butternut squash soup, watched the Penn State game, ate unhealthy kielbasa, sauerkraut , and mashed potatoes laced with butter and half-and- half, laughed and cried through the 2018 Call the Midwife Christmas special and topped off the evening with a piece of leftover gingerbread. I thought about starting to clean up some of the Christmas decorations and I have a pile of essays and pieces under construction that need to be polished and submitted and I probably should have at least gone out for a walk. But I didn’t. I allowed myself a perfect thirteenth month day.

Stella on chair 4