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Into the New Year, with Gratitude

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Purging is a process of unearthing, of rediscovery. You can discover old pastel china from your former life, and you can discover essential truths about life and love, if you can look far enough past the drudgery to let them come arrowing in. 

I found an envelope addressed to my mother, Ida, at the first retirement community she inhabited. It was Phoebe's original birth announcement.

Dad had already died when Phoebe was born, but I was so elated to be able to present a grandchild to my mother’s arms. 

July, 1996. She only made it out here twice. Once for our wedding, and once for Phoebe's birth, and then her traveling days were over.

Phoebe’s birth announcement was a perfect time capsule. 

Inside the capsule, I found my drawing of an eastern phoebe and twinflower, Linnea borealis, the plant that gave her her middle name. There were photos of the Earthlings we once were. Phoebe was such a sprite, such an old soul,with dark blue eyes that looked right into your core. She still does that. She was so bright we called her New Penny, shiny-fresh and coppery. 

She was amazing. All new babies are, but this one...she watched everything, took it all in, and seemed to understand.


This photo says it all to me. The wonder of looking down at a squirming, kicking infant and thinking, “We MADE this!” How did that happen? Look what love has done!

But the wonder only grows. You see your kids becoming who they are meant to be. I watch Liam scrambling over wet boulders to capture sunset bounce light on wet black sand, risking wet sneakers and turning an ankle for the light, the light. I watch him finding secret hidey holes and branches to climb on, watch him soaking up the past and immersing himself in the present, watch his considerable imagination running away with him, and I understand exactly what he’s feeling, and how great is his need for the undiscovered and mysterious, and how, though he doesn’t quite grasp it yet, beauty is his primary motivator. It’s not a bad coach, beauty. Works for me, and I can see it working for him.

Roman Theater, Merida, Spain

I watch Phoebe’s clockwork clicking along, getting everything planned out in the manner of her sire, and I feel him smiling with pride at her quick decisiveness and her seemingly effortless way of logisticizing our peregrinations. We’ve just finished a trip to peninsular Spain and the Canary Islands with Phoebe entirely at the helm.

 She did all the booking and planning and marshaling of her brother and mother; even all the driving! I see Bill’s ridiculously acute logistical skills coming to bear with everything she does. There’s his intensity, his tightly-wound drive to get it all right. Of course, no matter how smooth it is, it’s not effortless; I can smell the smoke coming out of her ears. The truth is she can’t help but do it; she’s like a hunting dog trained for the point and fetch, because it’s in her genes.

It was very, very windy in Extremadura.

 But she got something from me, too, to balance that intensity. Phoebe can plan and logisticize like a demon, but she is then blissfully able to stop the whirring of her gears and let herself sink into the moment. She wants to set it all up just right, but then she can enjoy herself and be present for whatever unrolls from there.  That, I think, is a balance that I gave her, one her dad was always and forever yearning for: the ability to turn off the yammering left brain and let the right brain just be. Thank God that girl can sink into the moment, drive roots deep into any place she lands, and not yearn for something else that must be better than the here and now. She can thank her mama for that balancing influence. Genes, mixing, tumbling, and creating irreplaceable beings, beings that in many ways surpass either of their parents. The genes he gave her, the genes WE gave her. I won’t forget the we of it all. I won’t let bitterness in the door. I’ll keep sight of the gifts and forget the travail. 

Watching the combination of genes from each of us play out in these kids, I feel incredibly lucky to be here to see the show play out. I also feel a deep sadness that I’m the only one now who gets to experience this, the watching and the wondering and the sometimes searing jolt as I figure out the provenance of every little one of their traits. I wish Bill could have been here to see that. We all wish he could have been granted a full measure of years, perhaps to realize and reap the rewards of all the things he initiated, all the seeds he sowed. But no, he had to go at only 57.

They’re gifts, these kids, and he gave them to me, he who hid the LuRay dishes and he who left the jumbled gyre of his belongings. And nobody else but Bill, with his tremendous talent and humor and boundless vision and creative energy (and his utter disregard for anything resembling drudgery) would have left such an intractable mess, or could have given these irreplaceable human beings to me, and to the world.

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, 2000. Liam was celebrating his first birthday. Phoebe was 4 1/2.
See the poster art behind us? Green kingfishers, by JZ.

So Bill Thompson III gets a pass on all this—on everything!— and my enduring love and gratitude for being exactly who he was. And now,  if my luck holds out, I get to be the one who sees these good young people through the portal to their futures, who maybe someday gets to see them lay out the train tracks, sliceable wooden food and herd of wild plastic horses for their precious and irreplaceable beings. 

And won’t that be something?

All this, from cleaning out the disgusting mess of 27 years of hard, good living. If you go at it with an open heart, you can get a lot from purging, much more than the expected rewards of order and cleanliness, though they are great indeed.

 Watch Liam see his basement transformed, for the first time. Happy New Year! Throw some stuff out!

Sweet Rewards

Thursday, December 26, 2019


Make no mistake.I still have a lot of stuff. It takes a lot of stuff to have a family, to have a decorated Christmas, to sell your own books at your talks. The book inventory is to the right, along with everything I need to set up my merch table at my talks. What a delight not to have to stack and pile and use a flashlight to find my titles! Ahhh! The little improvements, everywhere, are already making such a difference in my life. I don’t have to take inventory every single time I do a show. I can see it all right there.

Looking down toward the pantry and laundry area. I still have enough food to get me through a minor apocalypse. That’s not gonna change. I’m a food hoarder (sung to the tune of “I’m a Girl Watcher.”)

Can’t quite deal with the jumbled bookshelf. I have some folks interested in the ornithological library. Some of it’s mine, but most of it is newer books that Bill brought home from the office. If a title was remotely interesting, home it came, and I had to find a place for it. It was a bit like the hunter returning with an antelope and two spring hares, and his mate having to process it all. There’s a whole lot more lining the north wall of the living room upstairs. Like, enough books to crush me in an earthquake. And I find myself not referring much to books any more. What’s with that? The field guides, yes. The other stuff, I guess I’m looking up online. Ack. As a writer of books, I have to wince.

To have these aisles clear!! Oh my gosh. Spacious and well-lit, my basement has never been. I could iron, if I wanted to, or if I ever needed to. Until that improbable time, the ironing board makes a handy table. For now, a small spray bottle and a brief shakeout is all the iron I need, for the kind of clothes I wear. 

The things you find...Phoebe’s portrait of me, wearing a bird-decorated sweatshirt. I like the lion’s mane she’s given me. 

As I cleaned, I was looking forward to finding a couple of boxes of dishware from my previous life, the one I spent in Connecticut. There, I haunted tag sales and flea markets, looking for the pastel dinnerware I loved to mix and match at the small aluminum and Formica table in my vintage and completely unrenovated 1940’s era kitchen. I had built up a good collection of Fiestaware, my first love, by the time I discovered LuRay and Laurella. LuRay is simpler, unadorned, and was manufactured in West Virginia. Laurella was made by Universal in Cambridge, Ohio, not 45 miles from where I live right now. And there I was in the mid 80’s, collecting the stuff as if I meant to bring it all home to where it was made a decade later. 

I loved the pastel shades and its simplicity, and the way it all looked together. It was springy and happy and sweet. When I moved to Ohio, I packed it all up and put it in the basement. Time to start fresh. I bought 12 place settings of Blue Willow at Kroger, back in the days when grocery stores still sold it by the place setting if you spent enough money on food to qualify for one. And boy, did I spend enough. We used the Blue Willow for 27 years, and every once in awhile I’d yearn for my LuRay, but it was from a different life, and I wasn’t at all sure where it was now, anyway.

I worked and cleared and tossed and made room, and I never found the dishes I was hoping to run across. I surely hadn’t thrown them out; I went through every dang box in that Godforsaken mess before consigning things to stay or go. I searched my memory. I knew I’d given all my Fiestaware to my niece Karen, who uses it to this day. But I knew I hadn’t given away the LuRay and Laurella! The basement was almost done. I was to the point of washing down the shelving so I could label, organize and replace the fraction I had kept. I got out a stepladder and climbed up with a bucket of suds to wash the top shelves in the east corner. And there, over my head, were two boxes, stuffed into the ceiling rafters. I would never have seen them had I not been on a ladder washing the top shelf.  What in the Sam Hill? I eased one down. “LURAY DISHES.” Oh my God! What are these doing in the rafters?? Who puts heavy boxes of dishes in overhead rafters, and why?? 

Bill, that’s who. Let’s get these out of sight. Former lives and all that. For once I was glad he never gave anything away. Had I not cleaned the basement top to bottom, I never would have known what happened to them. Another time capsule, this one left for the next inhabitants of our home. But now here they were, heavy in my arms, and they were mine again, mine to pull down and unpack, mine to bring upstairs and use. Good grief! There were 20 place settings!

The sensual pleasure of handling each plate, bowl and gravy boat, of tenderly washing them and stacking them in their rightful place in the cupboard, was great. I carried the Blue Willow downstairs. I made a simple dinner of roast beef and baked sweet potato and served it to myself on LuRay, and a part of me that had been stored away out of sight and memory came back home. 

Farewell to Chaos

Sunday, December 22, 2019


You find the darnedest things when you do a clean out. I found this note down in the fish tank zone. Studied it for a few seconds. Then it came to me. This Post-it came with a beautiful ruby-throated hummingbird, grounded by a window strike. I named her Lily and kept her in a 20 gallon long glass tank, set up for a handicapped hummingbird, for part of a year before her condition deteriorated to the point where her quality of life was unacceptably low. Oh, how I loved her, and how she broke my heart. Flightless hummingbirds are a rough ride for their would-be saviors. By the way, I didn’t wind up needing to rub her head to get her to eat from the feeder. :)

This shirt came to me from the estate of Lois Darling. I’ve never taken it off the cardboard, because I’m so charmed at the thought of a shirt (1960’s size 16, junior, which corresponds to about a 6 in adult) that has never been worn, that has marginally socially acceptable decorations, that is frozen in time. Turner Togs, wash’n’wear!

As noted before, the animus of my kids’ favorite toys, especially stuffed animals, keeps me from tossing many of them. These were the winners, who all went into a big cardboard box for safekeeping. The Airedale was especially intriguing to Curtis. He kept sniffing its butt and muzzle, unable to believe it wasn’t real. He liked the dachshund Beanie too. The stuffed skunk evoked an interested reaction from this twice-sprayed dog. 

Promise me you won’t get rid of these, Mether.
  I promise, Curtis.
As the cleansing progressed, Curtis spent more and more time in the basement with me. I would turn around and find him there, tail waving, ready to give me a good wallerin’ hug. Not that I’d need it...

Curtis Loew is very gentle with his toys. He hasn’t so much as frayed one of them since February. So I felt confident letting him carry my Good Cat around. I don’t remember who gave me Good Cat, but we called it that because it was white, so it was too “good” to go outside with me. I was forever outside as a kid, so I needed rules like that. Curt wanted to take Good Cat outside, but the rules Ida made still hold. 

Good Cat went in a box with First Bear and Woof Woof. Somewhere there’s a photo of Ida’s mom, Frieda Ruigh, holding First Bear when she came to our house in South Dakota to meet me as a newborn infant. I’m not sure who gave me Woof Woof but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Frieda. I’m pretty sure she brought me Good Cat, as well. I discern her taste in all of them. 

I packed them away, together, so they wouldn’t be lonely. Some things you can’t throw away.

Meanwhile, the garage was getting fuller and fuller. Load after load grunted up the hill in the garden cart. Trash to the right, good stuff to the left. 

I was working toward my deadline of 9 AM December 4, when ReStore would come with their biggest van to haul away the things people might be able to use, or would want to collect. 

Here they’re loading Bill’s beer-brewing equipment, which he used exactly twice, then stored for a couple of decades, along with dozens and dozens of Grolsch bottles. The guys knew someone who’d want it all. That made me very happy. Good bye, enjoy your second life!

After the huge van left with all the good stuff, my intrepid junk haulers Dave (here) and Bob (below) packed the rest in two pickups and a flatbed trailer for runs to recycling and dump. 

I filled my Subaru, and not for the first time, with stuff that wouldn’t fit in the trucks. I still fill it pretty much every time I go to town with donations for Goodwill.

Bob packed everything so carefully, almost lovingly. But in a few hours, they too were gone. 

Bye, futon mattress that I couldn’t lift by myself. You’ll weigh down the load.
I stood and watched the last of that junk make its way down the driveway. What a feeling!
Goodbye, junk. Goodbye, for good.

Hello, garage I can park in again.

I took Curtis for a walk at sunset, feeling lighter all over. There was still at least a week of work to do to clean, but now I could move around enough to do it. 

The sky was on fire. So were all my bones and joints. It was a good sore, an exhausted, happy sore. I was so glad I did this while I still physically could. I did it alone, because nobody could have helped me sort and mull and mourn; nobody could work through the detritus of 27 years and three other lives but me, the one who loved them all. 

Treasures in the Dross

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The stuff we save. 

Bill worked for a NYC ad agency called Ogilvie and Mather right out of college. One of his biggest projects was publicizing and celebrating the 50th birthday of DC Comics' Superman. He saved dozens upon dozens of copies of the Daily News announcing the event. Two would have done it just fine. But we had many, many pounds of them.

Box after box of Superman memorabilia all jumbled up with personal stuff and junk and...

You know how when you start cleaning out your refrigerator and you find something that is so hideously horrifying it's kind of beautiful? I think this was tomato-based at one time. Now it's a landscape.

Well, it wasn't like that. It wasn't beautiful at all.

A suitcase with which mice have made free for 27 years. Oh, and a medal. And a sock.
That's shelled quinoa. They ate all my quinoa right off the pantry shelves, because I was too dumb to store it in jars. The mess wasn't all his, by any means.

A papier mache kiwi that Phoebe made in elementary school.
Or maybe high school.  Its legs broke. It's hard to know how to save the kiwi. But Bill saved it, because Phoebe had made it, and I tried to toss it a couple times and couldn't. This time, it took. Bye, sweet kiwi. Wish you weren't 2' across.

From my modest childhood archives, I stumbled across the Game of Birdwatcher. No fooling, I played this board game, rudimentary as it was, all the time. 

I learned all the birds on the flash cards--it wasn't hard--and spun the little arrow on its cardboard card, and moved little plastic pieces around the board. My parents got it for me for Christmas one year. I couldn't believe there was a game for kids like me!

Gazing at it, it hit me how very much things have changed. Would my kids have looked twice at this game at age 8? Nope. They were already plugged in. I had a black and white TV and maybe a handful of shows I could watch after school. No computer. No email. No iPhone. No social media. Not even a Walkman. They weren't invented yet. Just me and some printed cardboard and my dream of someday seeing all these birds, playing a game that debuted the year I was born.

Although the box had disintegrated, I saved the pieces.  Maybe because it's such a powerful illustration of how little I had to work with, and yet I went on to base my life around birds. That made me feel really good. I went directly to the birds for inspiration. I didn't lay around watching videos of them on my phone. I studied them in real life. I still do. 

And the garage filled, and filled. The right bay was all junk. The left bay was useful.

The HO trains...the tracks...sigh. So hard to say goodbye, but I had to. By now, I'd called Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, in Vienna, WV. They agreed to come out on Dec. 4 to pick up anything that was still useful. Well, there was a lot of that. I liked the idea of giving it to them to sell, to benefit Habitat. This is all kitchen and household stuff.

Much of what I hauled up was no good to anyone. That box of cheap trophies. Good Lord, schools around here are into the trophies. Metallized plastic dopey things; heavy but worthless; the kids know they're ridiculous, and yet they still give them out. Wish they'd stick with ribbons. Too many such things in this world. There's Phoebe, winning the spelling bee...You can't keep everything.

Mildewed suitcases. I cleaned up the really nice vintage one and gave the Samsonites the heave ho.

I could no longer get into the junk bay of the garage. I just kept heaving stuff on top.
Yep, that's wine, none of it any good any more.
Yellowtail never was any good.
No use for it, any of it.
That roll of extra linoleum next to the wine box? WHY DID WE SAVE IT?? For years, it served as a ghost trap for white-footed mice. They'd dive in and never get back out. Oh, the mummies. That corner of the basement no longer smells of death, and it never will again. It smells of Ocean Breeze Lysol now, and I smile. 

Behind some pipes on a cold wall, I found the motherlode of hibernating Asian multicolored ladybirds. Dustbusted them up, and dumped them in a bucket of hot water, ever my favorite insecticide. There's a few thousand invasive ladybugs that won't find their way down my neck or into my food this winter. Die and die quickly.

By the time I got to the toy region of the basement, my resolve to throw everything out was beginning to crumble. These toys stood in stark contrast to the boxes of paper and junk. They seemed so much more meaningful and useful than anything else I'd handled here. And by God, they are.

The Doug and Melissa wooden vegetable cutting toy. I couldn't find the knife, but everything else was there. Ohhhh. Saving that. I've got just the harmless little knife that'll work with the Velcro-joined pieces. 

The gorgeous little plastic horses I'd bought over the years for Phoebe. I got lost in their curves, the beauty of their forms. I would have killed for these as a child! I'd have drawn them. I still should! These stay.

A moment of existential angst, written on the underside of a bit of Thomas the Tank Engine track. My heart flopped over like a fish, wondering what had prompted Liam's furtive 
question.  I have an idea. Maybe he remembers. I'll ask him. Update: He knows he wrote it, but “I have no earthly idea why I wrote that.”

I sorted all that track into long, short, and big unwieldy pieces, boxed it up and labeled it. No way was I getting rid of Thomas things. I boxed up all the cars and engines and bridges and cranes, too. Someday there may be babies who'll want to put it together and clobber up their parents' living room floor for years. I could only hope. Just the sound the wooden pieces made, landing in their respective boxes as I sorted, brought back Liam's entire childhood for me. How I loved to watch him, his little blonde head bent in absorption, searching for just the piece of track he needed to complete his particular plan. The wooden track clattered and clopped all day long. 

I packed up that green trestle, remembering. Packed up those myriad cars, remembering. Labeled the boxes, hoping Liam wouldn't have to buy them all over again someday. Thouuuussssannnnds....and worth every cent.

At a little shop in Cumberland, Maryland, Liam found Tank Engine Valhalla. Yes, he came home with some more engines and cars.

This purging--it wasn't all bad. Sorting and storing the toys was sweet. 

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