“The coldest May since 1948,” said the weatherman this morning. We pile into car under chilly fog.
Once on the freeway we pass the mall, the miniature golf course, and the windmills in Altamont Pass. Then off the freeway, we ride through Patterson, Turlock, pick up highway 99, head down the spine of California, through Delhi, Livingston, Atwater, and Merced.
On the way, the sky clears to high, thin wisps of cloud. It’s windy in the Central Valley; the Sierras are a blue rumple in the east, piled high with spring cumulous clouds. Ancient wooden farmhouses pace along the road. They sag among apricot orchards, cattle farms, corn, strawberries, and indiscernible crops of mystery. Goats and horses graze behind fences along the road.
My husband’s oldest sister’s ashes are in the back of the car. We are on our way to meet up with the rest of the family to inter her in Madera, in the very center of California.
We float our hands out the windows, my sock feet are on the dash, we moo at the cows and sing. My husband reads all of the signs aloud like a tour guide calling out local points of interest: “Feed and Grain. Log Cabin restaurant. Sherriff’s Office.” Important information. My younger daughter pokes my arm from behind and I turn my head and shoot her an eye roll.
Then he begins to tell of how, when he was very small, he and his sisters slept in the back of the station wagon in their pajamas while their dad drove through the night on two-lane roads, long before freeways were built through the Valley. We dream along with him as he tells of road-side fruit stands, parades, and Uncle Bill’s and Auntie Eileen’s old house in the hot, hot summers.
After two hours on the road, we pull into a local restaurant in Madera to meet up with the rest of the in-laws who also drove from the Bay Area. We split meals and share food and light chat.
At the cemetery towering trees shush back at the wind. Fresh flowers, silk flowers, and flags decorate many of the graves. The grass is plush and green, like a golf course. The cemetery worker places the ashes deep in the ground. My sister-in-law sets a sheaf of tender ivory roses in the water-filled hole by the headstone. We stand close and pray together over the grave.
We drift with my husband’s mom when she turns to the other graves. The family tree is laid out in the grass, the names carved on stone. My daughters’ great-great-great-grandmother is first. Her name, 1839-1911, and “A Mother.” Beside her lies one son, a sergeant in the Union Army, no dates. Then her other son and his wife, then my father-in-law’s parents, his brother and brother’s wife. In the next row lies my father-in-law’s grave.
After a little while of murmured conversation, we all kiss and hug, then climb back into our cars for the ride back. Red-tailed hawks float over the freeway. The morning’s trip rewinds until we pull into the driveway, tired and slightly achy of heart.
When I lived on Coronado there was a store, the most amazing and wonderful store ever seen off the continental United States. It closed in the early nineties to the great sorrow of all Coronado Islanders, many of whom still weep at the mention.
Cora Mart was a small to medium-sized general store on Orange Avenue, the “Main Street” of the island. The owners stocked dress patterns, dishes, greeting cards, small appliances, house paints and stains, fasteners, curtains, yarns, fabric and notions, tools, floating things for the beach, cheap lotions and cosmetics, bricks of cocoa butter, plastic bowl covers, cheap costume jewelry, art supplies, glassware, lampshades, shoes, shower curtains, candles, and everything else you might need but didn’t want to go off of the island to buy.
But they stocked no food. Unless you count the candy.
They had the old candies of my east coast early childhood: Sugar babies, Sugar mommas and Sugar daddies, Chick-o-stix, Abba Zabbas, Big Hunks, Red Hots, Jujubes, Tamales and Good and Plenty, Good and Fruity and Tootsie Rolls in three sizes, and west coast specialties that were new to me like Jolly Ranchers and flavored Stix.
Cora Mart sold all your basic candy bars and had a never-ending supply of PIXIE! STIX! They had purely chocolate rolls of Necco wafers, they stocked Ice Cubes but not in summer, sadly, for the chocolate was too creamy to ship well in the heat.
And they had Chocolate Babies.
My first summer out of high school I had only just turned seventeen. I babysat nearly every night for locals or for guests at the Hotel del Coronado. Many days I went to the beach. I’d mosey on down to the water at about ten o’clock with a towel, book, lotion, soda, lunch, and one candy. I’d alternately nap and body-surf until almost dinner time.
Chocolate Baby days at the beach were a solemn, celebratory affair. I sat up to eat them and held each one to the horizon until it matched the island in the above photo which has the exact same profile as the chocobaby. From the beach…it’s uncanny. It’s a religion.
When I ate the baby I ate the summer, the clouds and the water, the islands.
Are you forty years old or over? Get your mammogram. Are you thirty-five with a family history of breast cancer? Get a mammogram. Have your lovely peaches imaged every year. I dare you.
Shortly after I turned forty I had my first mammogram. A few weeks later I got a letter asking me to come back for another. There were a few spots on the image, like tiny grains of salt. The radiologist told me that calcium sometimes precipitated into these x-ray-opaque specks that I shouldn’t worry about, dots that he would compare to next year’s mammogram and look for any changes. No big deal.
The next year came and went. First it was summer; I waited for the girls to be back in school so I could more easily attend the appointment. Then it was the holidays. You know how it goes. In January I went for my six-month-overdue mammogram.
A week later, I got another letter and I went back. The tech took a magnified image. The radiologist called me into the small, dark room where lightboxes on the wall illuminated the intimate insides of my breasts.
He pointed out to me last year’s and this year’s images. Compare. Contrast. Connect the little white dots. Feel your heart chill behind your left breast, the betrayer.
The radiologist handed me a copy of the images and said see your doctor, you’ll have a biopsy next. He was kind. He was distant. I imagined he had trouble sleeping some nights. I told him that I was sorry that he had to deliver this kind of news.
I went home and propped the x-rays in the kitchen window, playing “what’s different?” between the two images, staring at the sparkling constellations of the micro-calcifications.
Three weeks later I had an interventional radiologist handling my breast, taking core samples with a computer-aided needle and camera. He was across the room as I lay on a special table and tried not to move. I chatted in between holding my breath for the needle. I wanted him to see me, to acknowledge that I was not a body and a breast.
In the course of the biopsy I told him I was an aspiring novelist and he confided that he was the husband of a famous romance novelist and we shared a laugh. (I won’t say who, don’t want anyone to think about this woman’s husband’s hands on my breasts.)
The biopsy was positive. Cancer cells were growing in my lovely breast. Good news: no evidence of infiltration of the traitorous bitches from the ductwork into the innocent surrounding tissue. Bad news: the cancer was an aggressive, fast growing sort. Ravenous. The offending bits must be surgically removed.
I told my husband, I told my children, framing it in the most positive narrative. I called all of my friends, my family. It was a problem that I would deal with, that my husband and I would manage just fine. After all, it was stage 0, no lumps, not scary at all. Totally doable. Beginner’s cancer, really. A cut here, a cut there, et voila! Please don’t worry. I’m fine, and I’m going to be just fine.
I went back to the novelist’s husband and we were all serious business, like we were in the opening sortie of a military campaign. He was to sample all of the dot clusters to see what had to come out. I was heartbroken over the possibility of multiple lumpectomies. I’d scoured the internet for information and learned that the scars from removal could change the shape and appearance of my pretty, pretty love pillow.
I needn’t have worried. They were all bad, and I was to have a mastectomy. And that was when I cried. I mean I fell on my husband and wept like a fat blubbering baby.
Then I had the mastectomy and reconstruction and now, years later, am quite recovered except for having to be careful with my left arm and lymphodema. And the upside? The love and caring of my family, neighbors, and church community. And being able to tell stories like this.
Plus, I get to, you know, live.
An enduring memory of that time was the day I came home from the hospital. I had surgical drains hanging off of me, I smelled like blood and five days of hospital. I hurt.
But if I didn’t shower, I would die of disgust.
My husband transferred me neatly into the shower, stood by and handed me things, helped me dry and dress, put me in bed with pain meds and closed to the door to keep the cat out. I was alone in peace and quiet. I fell asleep.
I awoke hours later to the sound of cats about to fight, that moaning sound. But when I woke up enough, I found that it was me, in pain. The door opened and my husband was right there. He got my walker and helped me to the bathroom. On my way back I saw a couple of magazines and a glass of water. He’d been sitting on the floor outside of the door as I slept, watching over me, waiting for me to need him.
I never want to be apart from him. I never want to leave him alone and widowed.
Sometimes my position as a physical anthropologist working for a contract archeology firm included checking on underground construction jobs to see if any bones were tumbling out.
The old highway 101 runs in the same ruts as the California mission trail dating back to the eighteenth century. Two narrow lanes in each direction, few exits, fog and speeding made this the highest death-per-mile roadway in the state.
Caltrans undertook a huge underground project to replace the storm drain that ran down the middle of the highway. The new drain was being placed very, very deeply.
When you face a trench that deep right in front of your boots, with an excavator bucket the size of a Volkswagen zipping past your face, and seventy-mile-an-hour traffic at your back, any hole looks at least one hundred feet down. The foreman told me you could see stars from down in there.
It was someone’s job to look in the trench once or twice a week for a half-hour or so and report on what was visible in the walls and what was visible in the five-yard-bucket as it came up (sterile sand, in this case, but you never knew, so we spot-checked.)
I had to either stand on the side where the trucks came through to receive their three-scoop load, or on the other side where a crane lowered five-foot diameter sections of concrete pipe.
If I stepped back to avoid getting crushed like a bug by heavy equipment and swinging pipe, I stepped into traffic. Speeding highway traffic.
One day the crew had reached a traffic light on the highway. A car waited in the left turn lane about a foot away from me; we were separated by a row of orange cones. The asphalt whereupon I stood (and the car rested) began to sag.
I looked down and saw a large wad of sandy soil flake away and disappear into the tremendous ditch and realized I stood on six inches of blacktop hanging out in the air.
I backed up and fetched up against the car, lifting a hand to pound the trunk and told the driver to “GO GO GO” before we both wound up a hundred feet down looking up at the stars. The green arrow came on, the car drove off, and by then the foreman had seen the danger and we moved the cones, coning off that lane, and the work went on.
The cry of a red-tailed hawk late on a summer afternoon, the zip of a hummingbird by my head, the sweet, fluting call of the golden-crowned sparrow as it winters in my garden, these are all lovely to hear.
Now, considering how swell birds can be, you’d think that a bird with blue feathers would be delightful and charming. Feathers that are BLUE! You also might think that tiny blue birdies in a tiny baby nest just outside your bedroom window would be SO CUTE.
Alas, those would be incorrect thoughts.
We have baby blue jays just outside our bedroom every year, TWICE a year, because these winged blue rats are not only rapacious and irritating, but PROLIFIC as well. (The internet says they only raise one clutch a year, but I have seen TWO batches of babies come out of the same nest, year after year. Maybe two sets of parents? I dunno.)
Every spring I start thinking “It shuts its beak or it gets the hose.” But since I’ll never be so cruel as to wash them all out of the camellias, I wake every morning to the dulcet tones of the loud creaking door, the grinding of gravel, the nails-on-slate scrape also known as the bawl of baby blue jays.
The equally raucous adult jays also eat the eggs of other birds, harass our hummingbirds (you know, the birds we actually like) and peck holes in our plums. The only thing I have ever seen them do that I can applaud is eat snails.
The internet told me that they alert other birds to danger, but the internet also tried to say that blue jays don’t kill and eat other birdie babies, either. Hundreds of comments from those who have witnessed jay-violence have proven the internet full of pro-jay propaganda. It’s a scandal!
I’m thinking carefully, trying to formulate a plan that will get them gone without being mean. Maybe rubber snakes…
“‘…a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.”
I stalk a town in a deep valley bounded by enormous massifs that dominate the sky. The name of the town is Stechelberg, and it lies way back in the Lauterbrunen valley in the Swiss Bernese Oberland. It’s tiny, essentially the terminus of a cable-car line and a landing meadow for base jumpers. There are a few houses scattered about.
And then there are the trees, and cows: beautiful, gentle doe-eyed cows that are delicate and graceful as deer. And many, many waterfalls that trickle, rush, roar and mist everywhere you turn.
Have I actually been there? No.
Lauterbrunnenthal, where Tolkien spent his summer at the age of nineteen.
JRR Tolkien wrote that above quote about Rivendell, a place where a great power held time at bay.
Then the dominion of the elder race passed, and they left Earth to men. So there is no power now and no perfect house, no song, no tales. There never were but in the imagination of a man who built a world in his heart out of joy, and wrote it for love. His work was found by a fluke, printed, and made its way when I was twelve via my brother into my outstretched hands.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, after rereading the Sillmarillion, that I picked up The Lord of the Rings once more and was hijacked again by Tolkien’s vision and passion. I had the internet this time, and Googled around all over the place, tracking down esoteric bits and pieces to make the sweetness last just a little longer. And then I found the theory that Tolkien’s summer journey at the the age of nineteen into the Lauterbrunnen valley inspired the location of Rivendell.
I check it often. Early in the morning is good for the sunset and late in the evening for the sunrise. I know that the people who live in the left foreground house get up at about six in the morning, that a bus runs up this road regularly and I’m pretty sure that the foreground trees bear apples.
The seasons roll by, and I’ve seen the cows come up the road in the spring, with great floppy bundles of bright flowers on their horns and the apple trees all in white for the occasion.
I’ve been toying with finding a program that will automatically capture webcam image a few times an hour during daylight. I could make a movie to watch the spring come, and the summer abide, and the autumn and the winter and all of the snow come and go.
One day soon I’ll go there. It won’t be my first trip to Switzerland, but my first to this place that holds the dreams of a man with a whole world in his head.
I wish they grew in my house, springing from the floorboards, making swathes in the corners and across the front of the hearth.
The freesias on the front walk begin the year shy and clean. First they stretch upward and open one flower at the top. The fragrance is rich and womanly.
No one stops while rushing by on their way to school, walking the dog, or jogging past with buds in their ears. The weeks pass and the freesias open wider and release their scent all around the front of my house, leaning out of their beds like slatterns from a bordello window.
A few get picked. I’ve seen the snapped wire of a stem jutting from between their nodding sisters.
And now they are rain-beaten and ragged, half in the gutter, sprawled on concrete.
Soon I’ll sit in the sun, my hands bandaged, and listen to the snick-snip of the cutters in my daughter’s hand as she cuts the stems. She’ll bundle the leaves into artful sheaves.
In the summer, thyme will hump up around the yellowing sheaves and become studded with tiny pink flowers and fat bees, and we’ll forget freesias are there until next winter.
On nights when the wind blows I can’t sleep. Apparently, neither can Phoebe the Cat. She wandered from window to window all through the house wailing and howling as if there was a big kitty party outside that she was missing.
I tossed and turned and cursed the day we brought her home. She came up to our room and poked at the window shades and meowed and meowed. So I got up to carry her from my room and put her on Liz’s bed (Liz has this giant teddy bear that the cat loves, and if you put Phoebe on it, she automatically starts kneading and purring and drooling like a little baby kitty) but when I picked her up I realized that my right hand ring finger was resting directly on that little bit of chewed bubble gum called a cat’s ass.
“I think I just touched your butthole, Phoebe.” She meowed a response in a conversational tone.
I rushed her to Liz’s bed with one hand, the befouled digit held high in the air as far from my body as possible until I could get to the bathroom sink and scrub it. CAN’T GET CLEAN CAN’T GET CLEAN.