Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Between Week

The table at Matt and Gina's, ready for Christmas dinner.

The week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day has always, for me, had an odd
 out-of sync quality.  Not in a bad way, not as a 'let-down', but a time rather less purposeful than usual.
As a girl, involved in programs and choir performances for school and church, I experienced  December laden with heady anticipation--words and melodies, light and color, propelling me through cold snowy days and purple star-pricked nights.

My Mother was a church organist and choir director, [although she would have chaffed at that formal title] some years she was teaching music in the public schools as well. 
Seasonal music was selected and practiced at home, verses memorized, melodies and harmonies perfected.

It was an era when families in our small New England hamlet hurried through evening chores to gather at the Town Hall for the annual school Christmas Program--whether or not they currently had children or grand children attending school.
Likewise, those who seldom 'darkened the church doors' made a point to appear on Christmas Sunday, drawn by the traditions of a sanctuary decked with greenery and the sound of a choir in full voice with pipe organ accompaniment.

I had a gift of song in those years and no sense of unease when I stood, hands clasped against my best winter frock, to sing a solo.

One of several gifts brought by the dear neighbors who spent Christmas Eve with us.

Marriage and motherhood expanded the traditions of Christmas. As with many young families, frugality was a necessity. A carefully chosen toy, a needed warm garment, perhaps a new book for each child;  for the adults it was more important to be together, to share special meals, to exchange homemade treats. 
Always for me there needed to be moments of sitting quietly, good music in the background, only the lights on the Christmas tree glowing in a house settling for the night.

The week following Christmas unfolds with fewer demands than usual.  No school for children, often a shortened work week or 'time off' for those who go out to a job. When the last of the leftovers have been re-purposed and trotted out, simple meals suffice. 
There are gifts to be stowed away, decorations to dismantle.

There is time to read a new book; time to linger at the table with hands clasped around a mug of tea; there is time to connect with friends and family who live far away---or next door. 
There is time to stand at a window, to watch the play of winter light and shadow, to note the grey smoke that curls from the chimney and drifts before the wind.

I choose my church music this week from the less familiar carols--winter music that speaks of frost, snow, starlight, the drawing in to home and hearth. 
I drift through this between week, contemplative, appreciating the familiarity of home--of winter-blooming plants on a windowsill; the company of my cats, the warmth of scarf and sweaters for the walk down the lane to the mailbox. 

The first of the amaryllis to bloom--an early Christmas gift from Dawn and Howard.

I line up the special moments of this nearly finished December, adding them to a treasury of past years: the rehearsals with two gifted flautists, the precision of our performance on the day, each note falling sweet and clear. 
The easy company of dear neighbors on Christmas Eve, telling tales around the wood stove;
 the generosity prompting unexpected gifts so wisely chosen; 
the scent of good food-- roasting meat, onions, herbs, sugar, spices.

A box of Vermont-made treats from dear friends 'back home.'

The restful pace of the between week is welcome, a small span of days to complete the circle of another year, marking time even as my mind trips ahead, moving steadily toward fresh projects 
and renewed creativity.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Day to Be Outdoors

I stepped out the back door early this morning into a strangely balmy warmth.
The sky still held the milky grey of dawn with a sickle moon caught in the top branches
 of a bare tree.

As the sun rose over the creek, a tinge of blue announced a fair day.

I served breakfast to the outside cats who eat on the front porch, stirred the coals in the wood stove, adding only a few slender sticks of wood to ensure that the fire didn't die.
I opened the door to the sunroom, watered the Norfolk pine which winters in there, noted the beauty of the amaryllis opening on the pantry shelf.

Breakfast was light--a banana, cold cereal with cream and a tub of yogurt.
The thermometer outside the kitchen window was already registering 70 F.

I collected banana skins and some stale bread for the dry goats. 
They recognize the purpose of my red scrap bucket and hurry along to their feeding trough by the gate. By the time I had poked letters into the mailbox, the goats had processed back up the lane and were having a snack of brambles.

Wooly bears who sought shelter in the woodpile and clumps of dried grass during the colder weather of mid December have come out to stretch and enjoy the warmth.

I walked slowly up the lane, tipping my head back to better appreciate the shapes of the trees against the background of blue.
The clouds were rolling along so swiftly that I began to feel as if the ground under my feet was moving with them. 

 I picked my way along the edge of the perennial strip, too sodden with recent rains to permit digging.
I checked the rose which I  tucked into the ground last week.
The root came from our nephew's wild property on the other side of the county, carefully brought to me by his wife. It spent the summer in a large pot of good soil, languishing through the heavy heat of July, reviving to thrust up new leafy shoots as the weather cooled. Through the long dry fall I waited for a favorable time to transplant. It went into the ground with the pot full of loose rich soil, then I tamped the garden earth around it.
I think it will do.
I tugged at a few clumps of weeds which have burst through layers of mulch. Only those with slender wiry roots can be tweaked from the wet soil.

I settled for pottering along below the retaining wall.
This delighted the boy-cats who collected to 'help.'
Bobby marched behind a barricade of thorny stems.

Willis prowled along the wall, getting in my way as I attempted to clip the dry plant stalks within reach. He swatted playfully at my hand, smacked the clippers.

Charlie clambered onto the wall, nattering and purring.
Willis announced that the wall belonged to him and that Charlie had best get down!

Nellie claimed the fence.

He struts along the board, executes a tight turn at the corner post, sashays back, plumy tail swishing in the breeze.
Fending off cats, I began snipping tangled stems of nepeta, releasing a cloud of fragrance.
Next to fall to my clippers were the prickly seed heads and dried stalks of rudbeckia. 
Greyed stems were all that marked the clumps of monarda and platycoden.

In the corner beneath the butterfly bush a mound of lemon balm lay frost-bitten, but with green growing rosettes tightly folded close to the damp ground.
I have cultivated a variety of herbs in greatly differing landscapes and climates.
Lemon balm for all its delicately crinkled leaves is a hardy plant.
Its distinctive scent whether fresh or dried is a scent of cherished antiquity, a plant grown and loved for centuries. 
I never handle lemon balm without feeling a momentary wave of peacefulness.

The wind was increasing, whipping my hair into my face, stirring dry leaves, soughing through the branches of the bare oaks and ash trees that line the ridges on either side of the house.
In the north brilliant blue was leaching from the sky, giving way to a pewter hue. 
I judged it was time for the cats' 'tea.'
Brushing damp soil from my hands I headed up the steps toward the side porch.
Nellie dropped from the fence, barreled past me at speed, bolted through the front door.

The cats had their 'tea'--Jim and I made a meal of assorted holiday left-overs with slices of fresh pineapple for 'dessert.'
I pulled up a song on you-tube suggested by one of Jim's musical cousins.
You tube always ropes me in--2 hours later we were still in front of my PC, Jim singing along with Hank Snow's train songs.
Now at nearly 11 p.m. the thermometer still stands at 67 F.
The house feels overly warm--except to the cats!
I need to peel off at least one layer of quilts from our bed.
The calendar registers bleak mid-winter, but for a few days it seems we have a remembrance of springtime. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Pleasure of Unexpected Gifts

The past week has brought a spate of surprises.
I usually walk down the lane for the mail [delivery time is quite undependable] but Jim picked it up one day having driven out on errands. When he put a little packet on the table, I asked, "What's that?"
'Don't know--its got your name on it.'
The cardboard mailer had a faint flowery scent when I picked it up.
The return address identified it as coming from Jim's younger sister.
She remembered my love of roses and chose the bars of soap for me when shopping at an emporium that specializes in natural foods and toiletries.

I was working upstairs yesterday at noon when I heard a vehicle approaching up the lane.
The car, a faded red Jeep Cherokee, had a US Mail sign on top.
[Yet another unfamiliar mail carrier.]
I met him at the front door and brought in a brown paper wrapped parcel.
This one bore the return address of my son and daughter-in-law.
My family think it odd that I don't tear into a package, wrenching at tape, pulling off the paper.
This package had been wrapped by a master hand, paper neatly folded and tucked at the corners, the seams liberally sealed with wide tape. I ran a sharp knife under the bands of tape, picked at the edges of the flaps. In the end I had to tear the paper!
Inside, a box layered with bubble wrap and tissue, held a beautiful card, a wrapped and be-ribboned package for each of us.

I placed Jim's package on his desk, rescued mine from Teasel who sniffed it over, then turned to thrash the ribbon with her tail.
Jim already knew the nature of his gift--he helped Howard choose it. 
He ripped off the wrappings with no ceremony and gloated over the high-powered compact light he has been coveting to add to his collection.
I have my package propped on my desk where I can enjoy the shiny gold ribbon and anticipate the joy of opening it. 

I had served the cats their 'tea' and was tidying away the dishes when a diesel truck lumbered up the lane. Jim was on the phone, but peered out the window and announced, "Andy's here!"
Andrew Beachy is the older son of  the Beachy Amish family who have a produce farm and sales barn several miles up the ridge. In addition to selling their own fresh vegetables, potatoes and such in season, the Beachys offer quite a few varieties of apples brought in from Pennsylvania, special order citrus fruit, and recently, overstock items such as frozen meats, cheese, yogurt, butter.
It has become a shopping 'treat' to rummage in their big walk-in cooler whenever we are alerted to a fresh shipment of goodies. We enjoy doing business with them.
Andrew has recently gotten his driver's license and is the delivery person.
He emerged from the cab of the pickup, smiling and holding out a covered plate.
The dinner rolls, still warm from the oven, are the best I have ever eaten!

My sister, C. has long been the family photographer.
She enclosed this in her Christmas card.
I scanned and shared it on my Face Book page, but include it here as one of the week's most astonishing surprises. 
I have gotten so used to my older grey-haired image reflected in the mirror, that it was a jolt to recognize myself with my late father.
I calculate that the photo was taken circa 1990--give or take a year.
I was in my late 40's--Daddy about 74.
I am feeling warmed and blessed by the kindness and generosity of the gift-givers--hoping I can find creative ways to pass on such unexpected pleasures.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Winter Solstice Walk-About

Freezing fog has been a presence for three mornings, legacy of the weekend's erratic weather changes. Opening the curtains at what should be daybreak merely invites a spill of grey into the room.  The cats rumble down the staircase ahead of me, clamoring at the front door. They hesitate on the brink of stepping out into the heavy December dampness.

By the time I have poked up the fire and shrugged into warm clothes, the white blur outside has intensified.
Munchkin, the Great Pyrenees in charge of the dry goat pasture, bounds up to the fence, woofing a token alarm when I walk to the side porch, camera in hand. Her moving body is a more substantial mass of whiteness in the milky landscape.

We dawdled through breakfast--French toast served with maple syrup and a sauce made from blueberries cached in the freezer. By the time I had tided the kitchen a wintry sun was burning away the chilly fog and the sky had brightened to a promising shade of blue.
I rummaged out my fleece-lined boots, found a ridiculously large sherpa hat which has a tendency to ride on the bridge of my nose. A down jacket which has seen better years and warm gloves completed my mid-winter outfit.
The dry goats greet my progress down the lane with enthusiasm, hoping that I have banana peels or apple parings. Today I have only a handful of stale crackers and the end crust from a loaf of bread which they share with Munchkin. 

Betula, one of the friendliest and most photogenic of the goats. 

We recently sold the fields along the road to a local young couple.
They graciously gave me permission to continue walking there. 
Overnight a skim of ice formed on the pond, and its surface is crinkled with delicate ridges.

A bird's nest is revealed in the forked branch of a slender pond-side willow.

The new owners have begun their stewardship of the acreage, trimming hedgerows below the pond, cutting smaller trees along the edge of the creek.

The recent midnight downpour revived the creek, dry since August.

Cardinals and sparrows bounce in the tangle of shrubbery and vines that defines a corner of the field and parallels the deep drainage ditch that slices down from the road.
The birds' voices are subdued and they are too busy for photos.
A crow announces my intrusion with a raucous shout.

The flowers of woodland and verge are gone. Seedpods rattle and dry leaves whisper beneath the fragile weight of the hedgerow birds. 

Bleached sycamore leaves lie like crumpled linen on the rough grass edging the harvested fields.

I turn back, retracing my route along the creek. My gloves are stuffed in my pockets, my padded jacket unzipped. A faint but noticeable warmth glances over my shoulder and my shadow, fore-shortened, stumps along beside me.

The milk goats and the young doelings have been turned into their respective areas, each policed by a huge white dog. The dogs bark and dash along the fences, letting me know that they understand their duties.
As the lane slopes uphill toward our house the valley narrows, the steep ridges edge closer, holding the buildings in a wedge of open space.
Jim has built a fire in his shop and the smoke rises to mingle with the grey plume drifting from the house chimney.  

Nellie-cat, sprawled in the pool of sun-warmth on the side porch, hears the crunch of my boots on the gravel, stretches and strolls down the hill to meet me, tail held high in greeting.
Indoors I note the hands of the kitchen clock are folded at noon.
 By the time I have pulled off my boots, hung my jacket on the peg by the back door, the sunlight has faded, the sky has resumed the pewter tints of morning.
At 3 p.m. when I start to prepare our early supper, the kitchen is dim.  I hesitate before flipping the light switch, thinking of the generations before me who might have frugally delayed the lighting of candle or lamp, straining to see in the enfolding dusk. 

I note each Winter Solstice, not as a pagan affirmation, but in remembrance of my late father Larry's observance of the changing seasons with their complexities of weather. He greeted December 21st as 'the first day of winter'--braced for the extra labor and the watchfulness that a long Vermont winter would surely bring. 
I have honored this shortest day by walking in a brief hour of sunshine, by layering four paperwhite bulbs in a pot lined with pebbles and peat moss in anticipation of winter bloom.
  As early night gathered outside, my kitchen has been light and warm, filled with the aroma of soup and golden cornbread.
We have carried in firewood, served the house cats their afternoon 'tea', tallied the small accomplishments of this first day of winter, 2016.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Burnished Autumn to Bleak Mid-Winter

Autumn lingered long this year, with cool fog-laden mornings giving way to 
warm mid-day sunshine and blue skies.

Pasture and roadside grass turned tawny from lack of rain.

Wooly bears stretched on the warm cobbles of the drive.

A young local couple have purchased our fields by the creek. 
The land, rented out, was not providing the income that we hoped for, with maintenance and taxes a yearly need.
I asked if I might continue to walk there and was graciously given permission.
The acreage behind our house is heavily wooded and demands a steep climb up the ridge--stout exercise rather than a meandering stroll.

The field just before soybean harvest, with the view up the valley.

Finally, in late November, a frost that touched the herb garden.

A tangle of thyme, purple-tipped by the frost.

The nasturtiums planter lugged into the sunroom rewarded me with a dramatic burst of bloom before going shabby and yellow-leaved. I clipped them back and have noticed tiny new leaves emerging near the base of the stems. Perhaps they will bloom again.

When we were in Tennessee over Thanksgiving [already seeming a while ago]
my daughter-in-law and I browsed through the indoor garden center at Lowes while the men sought tools and other practical items. I pounced on several displays of amaryllis bulbs and Dawn generously insisted on purchasing two for me--as well as a package of paperwhite bulbs.
I'm thinking to plant the paperwhites this week. 
This amaryllis has stretched up several more inches since last week's photo, the second one is awakening more slowly.

A week of cold and dreary weather changed on Saturday to an uneasily warm and windy day.
By evening tree branches were clashing, dry leaves were flung in swirls onto the front porch. Rain came in brief bursts, pattering against the windows.  The temperature began to drop from an unseasonable high of 60 F. 
I went upstairs to bed about 11, listening to the whine of wind in the bare upper branches of the oaks.
As I settled under the covers [having displaced Nellie-cat] the velocity of the gale increased to a roar. Lightning blazed beyond drawn curtains, thunder muttered. Rain pounded the metal roof in a fury that lasted for 20 minutes. For the next hour brief spells of astonishing silence were interspersed with squalls of rain and renewed howling of wind.
When I came downstairs this morning at 7:30 the thermometer outside the kitchen window stood at 29 F.  A crust of pebbly ice coated the car's hood and windshield. 
The cats rushed out the back door--their usual morning explorations were quickly discouraged by the raw, damp chill of the day. 
They tried again an hour later, wisely decided that it was a day to huddle inside near the wood stove.

A few bronzed leaves still cling to the oak saplings on the ridge above the retaining wall.
The brook, long silent and dry, rushes noisily beside the lane.
B. and F. have been constructing end walls for the goat huts, creating three-sided enclosures.
On bitter days the goats will remain in the stable. 
The barn cats picked their way across the wet yard to greet me when I walked down at noon, but scuttled quickly to the dry refuge of the barn without escorting me back up the lane.

We've not been ambitious today. 
We tended to the necessary chores--litter box duty, bringing wood into the kitchen from the back entry. Lunch was reheated lentil soup, thick and savory.
I made a large bowlful of tapioca pudding--eaten warm with a dollop of cherry dessert topping.
Comfort food. 
I do not approve of cats reclining on the table [although I don't go to pieces over it!]
Feline rationale would seem to be that it is warmer at this elevation and the homespun tablecloth serves as a bathmat. Beyond the table is the small counter where we deposit bundles, or sacks of groceries on entry via the front door. There is a folded towel there for the convenience of the cats. 
I continue to shoo the boys off the table--but there are moments when it is easier to ignore.
Cats rule!