Thursday, March 29, 2007

In memoriam -- 21st century style

Some time ago, while doing genealogical research, I came across a webpage dedicated to one of my great-great grandfathers. The site included a photo of his gravestone, at the bottom of which was engraved this phrase:

1st Line: Gone but not for
2nd Line: gotten

Huh? Did the person who carved this gravestone at the end of the 18th century think "forgotten" was two words, or did he just not plan ahead? Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking if I'd had the job of carving a permanent inscription on stone, I might have laid out the whole message with a piece of chalk before I started cutting.


It's not the stone I want to talk about but the phrase, "gone but not forgotten," which is apparently a timeless sentiment. As a matter of fact, I saw it again today, painted professionally in large script--stretched out across the width of the dark-tinted rear window of a pimped-out ride.

If you think "Gone But Not Forgotten" is a catchy slogan for a fast, flashy automobile, I'd have to agree with you. That's what I thought it was, too, but I was mistaken.

Centered directly below "Gone But Not Forgotten" was a saucer-sized white dove, and on each side of the dove was a different nickname. (At least I hope they were nicknames; one of them was "Toxic.") Below each name, in the same meticulous script, was a date of birth and a date of death. These two people died about two years apart, both at relatively early ages. I hope they were young enough that they'd have thought it cool to have a car window dedicated to their memory.

The car, which appeared by its squared-off shape to be an '80s model, was in immaculate condition with a gleaming new paint job. The bottom third was the same bright white as the memorial message, and the rest was cherry red. The windows, all tinted way darker than I believe the law allows, provided the touch of black that HGTV designers tell us is needed to "anchor" a good design. And the dazzling spinners on the wheels? Well, they probably cost more than the whole rest of the car.

Shoe-polish messages on car windows are common in this sports-minded part of the country. Usually it's "Go Tigers!!!" or "We're No. 1," so I didn't pay much attention to this one at first. Then I did a double take.

I don't know what to think about this. Part of me thinks, Oh, how sad, he misses his loved ones so much that he painted their names on his car. And another part of me is thinking, HOLY CRAP! HE PAINTED THEIR NAMES ON HIS CAR!?!

I wonder if people in my great-great-grandfather's day ever painted the dearly departed's epitaph on the back end of a wagon and drove it around from farm to farm and into town and back. I like to think not.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Words from the daughter who did not become a music critic

Subtitle: Famous musical groups of the '70s

I have no idea why this conversational tidbit from long ago popped into my head today, but I've been chuckling at the memory for a couple of hours now:

Younger daughter (at age 10): "Hey, Mom, do you know if the John that sings with Elt is the same one that sings with Olivia Newt?"

"And in my heart you will remain forever young"

I have so many pictures of my first child, portraits and snapshots that show her looking like a tiny angel or a little doll, every hair in place. That’s why this one, taken by a photographer who didn’t show up until after recess, might be my favorite:

It’s hard to believe how long it’s been since that beautiful baby girl arrived. She was six weeks earlier than expected, probably the last time she was early for anything until a few short years ago, when she made peace with the process of evolving into a "mature woman."

Don't let the maturity fool you. She's still youthful in appearance, young at heart and free of spirit, preferring to beat her own trail through the tall grasses of life rather than follow the trampled path of those who came before her. On the wings of her artistic temperament, she has soared to heights the astronauts may never reach and plummeted into the earth's deepest chasms, all in the interest of whatever she's passionate about, and she's brought back souvenirs for the rest of us.

She's a dreamer, an artist, a writer of infinite skill, a loving daughter/sister/aunt. She’s an intensely private person who thrives on quiet, yet it wouldn’t even occur to her to tiptoe through this world.

Happy birthday, Sweetie. I'd never have imagined I could love you as a grown woman even more than as the precious infant you used to be, but I do.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Duck love

Working with the duck photos in my last post made me think about the flock of Mallards that lived on the lake behind our home in Georgia in the early '70s. There were so many of them that they sometimes became problematic. They were fond of snacking on expensive, freshly-sown grass seed, and their per-unit output of slippery duck poop was phenomenal.

The ducks gave my daughters, then seven and nine, quite an education. My girls saw eggs hatch into sweet, fluffy ducklings. They saw mother ducks fuss tenderly over straight lines of babies, and they saw the ranks of those ducklings thin alarmingly as some of them became lunch for the lake's population of snapping turtles.

The ducks' mating rituals were a particular source of awkward embarrassment for the parents of young girls. Each evening we'd have a nice family dinner, sitting around the dining table next to glass doors that offered a clear view of the backyard and the lake beyond it. And each evening during mating season, our yard was full of lecherous drakes. As we ate our pork chops and mashed potatoes, they'd work in pairs to corral an available female, then take turns having their way with her, one mounting her enthusiastically while the other darted from one side of her to the other, pecking at her to keep her in her place. Ahem...pass the gravy, please, and tell me, how was your day?

You might think that this "drakes-gone-wild" scenario would top the list of my duck-related memories, but it's another, more tender one that always comes first to mind. One special pair of ducks we knew shared a fairy-tale kind of story: a damsel in distress, a prince who rescued her, and a love strong enough to take on the world.

The feminine half of this pair was a Plain-Jane kind of a gal, neither more nor less attractive (at least to my eyes) than the rest of the mottled-brown females on the lake. On top of that, she was crippled. One of her feet had been mangled, her leg twisted, probably by a snapping turtle. The injury was an old one, long-since healed, but it left her with a severe limp. Though she swam with apparent ease, walking was a struggle. She lurched along at a much slower pace than the rest of the ducks. The good news was she didn't walk alone; her prince was right beside her every difficult step of the way.

The prince was a handsome fellow, as all Mallard drakes are. As he strolled with his lady, he held his brilliant green head high and moved it slowly from side to side, watching their surroundings closely, protectively, always alert.

Sometimes we threw breadcrumbs to the ducks. When one of us stepped outside with the bread bag, the ducks came running. That's how we became familiar with this particular pair, because that's when the prince went into action.

When the food came out, he left his lady. Half running, half flying, he raced to the front of the flock. Once there, he turned and faced all the other ducks. He made himself as tall as possible, flapping his wings and stretching his neck forward in a menacing manner, quacking loudly, running back and forth in a semi-circle to drive the other ducks back away from our steps. His display was so ferocious that the other ducks respected it. They stayed back, looking like a crowd of spectators at a rock concert, all eyes focused on the star of the show.

As the prince staged his spectacle, his lady quietly and slowly made her way into the space he'd cleared behind him, the space where the breadcrumbs fell. He kept up the commotion while she ate her fill. When she finished, then--and only then--he dropped his aggressive stance and let the other ducks move forward. He ate while they did, with his well-fed lady waiting off to one side.

Time after time we witnessed this display of protective love and affection, and every single time, I had the same thoughts: This is the kind of love every girl grows up wanting. This is the stuff of which dreams are made. This little speckled brown girl is one lucky duck.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Fine-feathered fen friends

After this post, I'll stop swamping you with swamp photos. I've saved the bird pictures for last. (I had to print them all out first, so my boss could identify them for us.)

First up is the American Coot. It looks like a duck and swims like a duck--but it isn't a duck. We saw dozens and dozens of these birds.

See what I mean?

Next we have a pair of ducks of the Blue-Winged Teal persuasion. I don't know whether the distinctly marked male was a) foraging for food or b) hiding from the paparazzi.

These beauties are Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks. I love their red bills. You can't tell it here, but they have legs and feet to match.

This is no doubt a happy couple. Reportedly, these ducks pair up for the long haul, sometimes even for life.

It was fairly amazing to see large white blobs scattered among the treetops. This is a Great Egret sitting conspicuously on her nest. I guess this mother-to-be is large enough she doesn't feel the need to hide from predators.

For the grand finale, here's my favorite photo of the whole batch, featuring another Great Egret. I love the way this beautiful bird stands out against the background of Spanish moss, cypress knees and periwinkle.

There you have it, folks. Thanks to digital technology, I can share these "swamp samples" with you fairly easily. If I could figure out some way to share the spiritually restorative quality of that single hour in the swamp, you know I'd do it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Scary swamp creatures

Several of you mentioned the snakes that live in the swamps, but I didn't see any on Tuesday's tour. Nor did I see any bugs, not even the mosquitos that are the bain of every Louisiana citizen's existence. But you also mentioned alligators. Gators, I've got.

These guys (there are two of them lying side by side here) weren't big as alligators go. I'd estimate they were about six or seven feet long, still big enough to make me glad I was in the truck with the windows rolled up. Click the photo to enlarge it, and while you're looking, tell me if you think that "stick" in the water on the lower-right-hand side of the picture could be a third gator--a submerged one. I didn't see it when I took the photo, but it appears to have bumps on it exactly like those on the backs of the other alligators.

This one, on the other hand, was enormous. He had greenery hanging on his nose, head and shoulders, which made me feel a little sorry for him. It must be awful to have those short, stubby legs that won't reach high enough to pick the grass off his nose. Maybe the camouflage benefit makes up for it.

Here's another shot of the big guy from a different angle. His tail was doubled back, making him appear shorter than he actually was--about half again as big as the other gators we saw. I'm not sure my arms would have reached around his neck even if I'd wanted to try it.

And here we have some black vultures, scavengers rather than predators. The fence in the photo belongs to an oil company that has a small station and a few wells smack in the middle of the swamp. These guys, along with a large group of others on the ground and in the trees, appeared to be hanging out, passing the time until the lunch bell rang.

"Did you get any of that nutria yesterday? Man, that was delicious! I hope another one gets killed today."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Swamp tour

My boss is back at work, not full days yet, but he's feeling much better and getting back into the swing of things. It feels good to have his company again.

For the past week he's been telling me about short trips he and his wife have been taking into a nearby swamp. He's offered several times to take me there on a lunchtime photo tour, and today was the day.

Oh!My!God! The beauty! And the wildness!

This particular patch of swampland is less than a 15-minute drive from the office, but it's on back roads no one driving by would ever notice. It's the kind of place that's familiar to hunters in this area, but the rest of us usually see places like this only in the slick pages of coffee-table books.

I'll stick with scenery today, and save the wildlife photos for later in the week.

Be sure to click on the photos to enlarge them.

Life is fickle...

...and when we least expect it, the world can turn upside down.

A good friend, one who inspires love and respect in all those who get to know him, is in the middle of the crisis of his lifetime. There's nothing I can do to help him right now, nothing any of his friends can do.

I know the good people who read this blog, and I know you care, but I'm turning off the comments feature on this post. This one isn't about what you think or I think; it's just for him, and I want to keep it that way.

If my friend ever finds this blog and reads it--and I hope someday he will
--he'll read about a lot of happy moments that happened in my life while his was in turmoil. That juxtaposition has been on my mind all day, reminding me once again that life isn't fair.

If my friend ever reads this, I want him to know I was thinking about him. I want him to know I cared enough to put it in writing.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The best part of last week...

...without a doubt, was the visit by my aunt and uncle from Springfield, Missouri. What a charming pair they are! I know their age in years (thanks to my handy-dandy genealogy database), but their energy and good looks defy how old I know them to be. I feel decrepit sometimes, but these delightful folks are young!

My dad was one of nine children, and this particular uncle is his youngest brother. This photo is how I remembered him for almost 40 years, from the time I left Missouri until I saw him and his lovely wife again at a family reunion in 1996.

It means so much to me that these warm, beautiful people took the time to travel all the way here, and to my sister's home in Texas, to check on the two "little girls" who moved so far away so many years ago. It was a long way to go, especially since my aunt wasn't feeling so well.

I grew up without my father. In fact, I was almost 50 before we communicated frequently enough that I felt I knew him fairly well. Needless to say, there are a lot of gaps in my knowledge of him and his birth family.

By visiting us, my aunt and uncle have given my sister and me the gift of a piece of our father, a piece of our history, a piece of our family.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Headlines from the last lost eight days

Friday, March 9:
Allergens Declare War!
Local Woman Felled by Attack
Sleeps Away Vital Writing Time


Saturday, March 10:
Area Spring Cleanup Begins!
Adult Children Beautify Yard
Woman Hides Indoors from Pollen


Sunday, March 11:
Local Woman Desperate for Haircut
Takes Scissors to Own Head!
Early Daylight Saving Time
Takes Toll on Anti-Morning People


Monday, March 12:
Multiple Power Surges Terrify Homeowner!
Electronic Special Effects Declared “Award Winning”


Tuesday, March 13:
Electrician Named Hero!
Homeowner "Happy and Relieved"
Despite Costs Exceeding One-Week's Pay

Special Afternoon Edition:
Insane Woman Invades Law Office
Forces Stand-Off with Sleep-Deprived Office Worker


Wednesday, March 14:
Moved-Up Reunion:
"Wonderfully Successful Event"

Missouri Family Members Arrive Two Days Early
2007 Anti-Clutter Campaign Declared "Lifesaver"


Thursday, March 15:
New Episodes!
Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy
Claimed Essential to Restoration of Mental Health


Friday, March 16:
Large Blind Dog Sleeps
More Than Two Hours on Woman's Lap;
All Hopes of Blogging Thwarted
as Same Sleepiness Overtakes Woman


And one additional headline (which I hope will suffice until I run some errands and catch up on reading everyone else's blogs):

Saturday, March 17:
"Life Affirming!"
Local Woman Describes Nature
Observed While Standing in Own Yard

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Things that go bump in the night twilight

The house was quiet except for the clacking of the keys as I typed my last blog entry, and my dogs and granddogs, exhausted from a long outdoor play session, were sleeping soundly. The light that filtered through the blinds was fading fast. I'd need to turn the lamp on soon, then think about making some dinner.

THUWAAAAAAAAACK! Something hit the house, something bigger and heavier than the neighbor boy's basketball, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Inside, the dogs went nuts. They ran to the door, digging at the bottom of it, climbing on top of one another in their urgency to get outside and see what was going on. Outside, the neighbor's dogs raised an equally loud ruckus. I looked out the window and saw them behind the fence on the other side of the driveway, crouched in attack position, barking, snarling, eyes fixed like lasers on the roof of my house.

In that instant, I knew what made the noise, and my spirit soared!

I let the dogs out into the backyard, then grabbed the camera and hurried out the other door to the driveway. It took only a split second to confirm the source of the disturbance. I aimed the camera and took a dozen shots over the next few minutes, hoping to get some good pictures to show you (especially Sister-Three).

Unfortunately, all the photos turned out blurry. Low-light conditions might have been the problem, but it's more likely that my excitement caused my hands to shake. I'll post this one in spite of its fuzziness:

Welcome back, old friend. I've missed you.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

You'll always be my baby

Tomorrow will mark 15,695 straight days -- plus a few more, considering leap years -- that you’ve made me proud to be your mother. Even though I'm the parent and you're the youngest child, the baby, there are still things you teach me. You set the bar high with your sweetness, your kindness, and your natural gift for making others feel comfortable. Those qualities, plus a good head on your shoulders and a terrific sense of humor, make you quite a package -- beautiful inside and out.

Happy birthday, baby girl! I hope you're as happy as you've always made me, and I hope you know how much I love you.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Something in the way she mooooooves...

I've only ever known one cow up close and personal, but I thought of her the other day as I passed this pasture on my way home from work. Her name was Hoover.

When I was 18, sometime in the eight weeks between the date of my first marriage and the discovery that I was expecting a baby, my husband bought a little patch of land he called "the farm." I never really knew what his plans were for the property (I never knew much about any of his business), but it came with a wire fence around it, an open-sided animal shelter, a white Shetland pony named Silly, and Hoover, a very pregnant Jersey cow.

I don't know what arrangements my husband had made to see that the animals were fed on a regular basis, but occasionally, on weekends, we'd ride out to the farm together. While my husband did whatever it was he did on a borrowed tractor, my job was to stay out of his way. Hoover was usually at the far end of the field, and Silly, whenever I'd get close to him, would try to bite me, so I couldn't occupy myself with the animals. Not one to insist on helping with farm chores, I'd walk back into the thick woods that covered a portion of the property and read in the shade.

By the time I found out I was pregnant, my new marriage was already in trouble. Still, I was happy about the news. I thought a baby might be just what we needed to help us focus on working out our differences. Unfortunately, I was not one of those lucky women who look and feel wonderful during pregnancy. I was sick all day every day, with no time off for good behavior. On top of everything else, we were far away from friends and family, and I was working at a job I didn't like. I was lonelier than I'd ever been.

A few months later another young woman my age came to work in our office, and she and I became friends. One Sunday she rode with my husband and me to the farm. He got busy, and my friend and I headed back into the woods. We walked until we came to a little gully, dry at that time from the lack of recent rain. We climbed down into it and sat with the gentle slope of the opposite bank against our backs.

My friend was funny and bright, also a newlywed, and we had plenty of things to talk about. She was a pretty girl, and as we sat there talking, I began to mentally compare my swollen middle to her slender figure. I wondered if I'd ever feel pretty again. I didn't want to burden our budding friendship by talking about my pregnancy issues, so we chatted about other things instead. Even with her good company, I felt lonely. I longed for someone in whom I could confide, someone who could relate to the way it felt to inhabit such an alien, bulky body.

That's what was on my mind when we heard a rustling in the trees. The sound that broke the quiet was unfamiliar and a little frightening, until we looked up to see Hoover coming toward us at a steady pace. Even then, we didn't know what to expect.

Hoover's big belly, heavy with calf, swung from side to side as she walked. At the edge of the gully, she stopped abruptly and stood there for a moment, looking from one of us to the other, as if she were sizing us up. Then she began moving again, ever so carefully, down the slope and across to our side of the gully. She turned herself around and heaved her huge body onto the ground beside me. For the rest of the afternoon she lay there, watching and listening and chewing a little grass...just one of the girls.

From that day on, I loved that cow.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

I'll have the escargot -- a small order, please

A while back I mentioned the tiny snails that cling to my dogs' fur if they lie down in the backyard for more than a couple of minutes. This one rode in on Kadi's belly this morning, and I thought you might like to see how small they are.

Credit for this shot goes to Sister Mary Katherine, who was patient enough to lie on her back, paws in the air, not only while I washed mud off her feet, but also while I went to get the camera, a dime and a little piece of doublestick tape.

Note: No animals were injured in the making of this photo.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Trading Pooches

If you visit here often, you know I share my home with two big dogs. Both of them are getting old, as I am, and mostly we like to do quiet things. Butch, my blind, mixed-breed male is the one pictured here on the sofa, his upper lip succumbing to gravitational forces and his tail tucked protectively over his private parts. Kadi is the Yellow Lab shown sleeping contentedly on the floor (at least she was sleeping until I made intrusive camera noises). I love these dogs almost as much as I love my kids and grandkids.

You might also know, if you've been here before, that I have two daughters, each of whom also has two dogs. My older daughter, Kim, is a beadmaker. She brings her dogs with her to my house five or six days a week because her glass studio is set up in my backyard shed. Winston is her little male Yorkie, shown here in the driver's seat, and Lucy is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel stretched out tall to keep a lookout. Kim loves her dogs as much as I love mine.

Most evenings Kim waits here until her beads are ready to come out of the kiln. We often eat dinner together, almost always in front of the TV, and then it's playtime with all four dogs. I love Kim's dogs and she loves mine, but, to be honest, each of us is partial to her own set of dogs. I look forward to time at the end of the day with just Butch and Kadi, time for snuggles and belly-rubs before bedtime. Kim, naturally, prefers the company of her own two pups and can't wait to get them home and get some cuddles as they all settle in for the night.

Since each of us humans likes our own dogs best, you might think the dogs would have a similar affinity for their respective mistresses. Not so. Two of our four dogs seem quite willing to make a swap.

There are patterns to our routines, patterns the dogs know better than we do. When Kim gets ready to go home, there are certain things she does, in a certain order, that set off an unwavering chain of events.

Butch pretty much doesn't stop whatever he's doing. He's alert, and we know he's paying attention, but it's no big deal. Kim's going, she's taking the pups, they'll be back tomorrow, whatever. Butch is content.

So is Lucy. She trots with her mom to the table where the leashes are kept. She waits patiently to have hers hooked to her collar, then wraps herself and the leash around Kim's legs two or three times in her haste to leave. It's time to go, what's taking so long? Let's get this show on the road.

Kadi -- my sweet Kadi whose big yellow head is allowed to rest on my pillow -- also follows Kim to the table where the leashes are. And every single night, she pants, she barks, she tap dances from the living room to the den and back again to dance in place, right under Kim's feet, tappity-tappity-tap, woof, woof. She stares into Kim's face with raw eagerness in her eyes. Oh, please, please, please, get my leash, please, please, take me just this one time, oh, please, please, I'll be good, just let me go with you, oh, please, please, puhleeeeeeeeeeeze!

Kadi's nightly betrayal would hurt my feelings if Kim's little Winston didn't show the same kind of disloyalty to her. In fact, if we were handing out Infidelity Awards, Winston would win in both the comedy and drama categories.

Winston is a young dog. He can be leaping and bouncing with reckless abandon -- playing tug-of-war with Lucy as if he'd just consumed large quantities of sugar and caffeine -- but the instant he senses it's time to go home, he shrinks inward, trying to make himself disappear. He flattens himself and slinks along the edges of the furniture, then jumps onto the sofa and tucks himself into the crevice where my thigh meets the sofa cushion. If there isn't time to make the leap to the sofa, he hides behind my feet. Wherever he holes up, he peeks out cautiously and watches. He conceals himself in the same places night after night and still holds out hope that his mom won't find him. When she does (after we play the "where's-Winston?-I-don't-know" game for our own amusement), Kim snaps his leash to his collar and he flops flaccidly to the floor. Urged to stand, he refuses to walk and has to be dragged the first few inches. When he decides to move on his own, he assumes the body posture of an old, old man, head down, shoulders hunched, poor and dejected, without a friend in the world. I don't wanna go home. I'm too tired. I was sooo comfortable, and I don't like to ride in the car. It's too much trouble. Just leave me here, okay? You and Lucy go on without me. I'll be fine, and I'll see you tomorrow. Awwwwwwww, no, no, no! I can't believe you're making me do this. Life is soooo hard.

Fortunately, after we've dashed Kadi's and Winston's dreams once again, it's easy to win back the kind of affection a dog should have for its designated person. All it ever takes is one rawhide chew.