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Weekly Column

10/07/18: Two Contented Souls  

Some years ago, when visiting my family in England, I took a long, solitary afternoon walk down the rustic, unpaved Callow Lane, which led to the little village of Much Dewchurch, and its Black Swan pub. The sun, partnered with a freshening breeze, intensified the scent of meadows and wet earth, as it had just rained.  Baa-ing, grazing sheep and lots of birdsong completed the idyllic picture.   

After a bit, I came upon a lively little stream about two feet wide, bisected by a clump of trees that grew amid a tangle of briars next to the lane. Close by, partly camouflaged by lush greenery, was a sturdy pup tent that framed a medium-sized, gray-muzzled, curly-coated mutt. He barked once to announce my arrival before settling next to an elderly, slim man in worn corduroys, who was adding twigs to a small fire. Preparing for lunch and tea, I thought.  

His smile was gentle. I smiled back, and commented on the rainbow forming in the field above him. He nodded. “Nature’s optimistic, by nature.”  I laughed. The guy sounded educated. I immediately wondered about his background. He read my mind.  
“I tutor physics students in London. Every summer Bert and I like to trade our fancier digs for long, joint-oiling walkabouts, including tent living. Friends have gotten used to my prolonged summer absences to nonspecific locations. I never know where I’ll be. We both love living rough for a few weeks each year. I move when I please, and try to keep a diary.  
Bert loves that every village, shrub and tree is full of news for his nose.  
Living this simply, with no phone, no deadlines and no worries, is marvelous. We please only ourselves. I wasn’t sleeping much before starting these annual rambles; now that’s not a problem.”  

I learned that his wife of forty-one years had died, and rather than succumbing to grief and loneliness he’d decided to explore “our green and pleasant land” on foot. 

“After Helen died, each minute that passed was an hour.  Out here, though, each hour seems a minute. I’ve abandoned my wristwatch, and love the freedom, the unpredictability, and the release of scaling way down. I’ve rediscovered my usual optimism—and simple pleasures—little things, like a bar of chocolate, or a local ale.”  He sighed. “Summer always ends too soon.”  
Bert’s slim, curly tail thumped agreement.  

A shredding sticker on his half-filled knapsack read, ‘I Stop For No Particular Reason.’ Inside the tent’s flap was a trio of well-thumbed paperback books by Thoreau, Twain, and Wodehouse. He noticed. “Old friends. Should I die in my sleep, it’ll be with a smile.”  

I shook hands with a contented man. Rounding a bend I looked back to wave, and heard laughter as he called out, “I just remembered another perk—most nights I sleep with the most gorgeous stars!”

9/30/18: A Radical Redo From a Big Bang 

Just days before Christmas about six years ago an SUV ran off Sixth Street in the steady rain, smashed through our front garden’s antique iron fence, ripped over the grass and through the front flower bed to charge up the wide front porch stairs and roar straight into the house. The sixteen-year-old girl, a recently licensed driver, had struck the neighbor’s van parked in the street next door, then pressed the accelerator to the floor (thinking it was the brake). She was unhurt, but our home was grievously wounded.

The sixty m.p.h. hit caused the entire structure to vibrate violently from the shockwave. Almost all the original 125-year-old plaster on the second floor shook, cracked, split and then crumbled. Dust bloomed, coating every single thing. Even toothbrushes. The plastered, papered walls were held together only because of the wallpaper. This huge mess necessitated massive replastering and extensive rebuilding (which took nearly 8 months).

The exterior of our home was shattered, as well. The front screen door was caved in, the interior hall banister and bottom stair treads were rammed out of alignment; the wide porch stairs had been crushed; much of the front porch’s floor and railings were in splinters. Two ancient white iron urns of impressive weight that had flanked the stairs were flung well away from their moorings.

In July, after a long, tiresome renovation, it was finally fit to live in again. (Thank goodness the girl’s parents had insurance!)

Another big change stemmed from this event. Our house has lost weight.

It’s interesting what possibilities suggest themselves when one’s entire second floor- including bed frames and mattresses- are stacked in corridors, or piled temporarily into other rooms. Some familiar objects began to take on a new identity- as potential clutter. Furniture, willed to us by Joe’s parents, rocking chairs, tables and other stuff we’d always kept, seemed to ask, ‘Are all of us still necessary? No.

So. A purge began. The ultimate clean, I think. I reviewed the accumulation of forty-five years of marriage, pointed at things and said, quietly, “You, you and you- OUT.” Seven pieces of furniture (cupboards, chairs, a desk, end tables, an armoire) were sold. Result? Every room felt much more open.

Other changes happened as well. A month before the plasterer had finished, I’d looked hard at our empty master bedroom. With everything banished to accommodate the plasterer’s ladders, buckets and tools, the thirty-five-year-old carpet was naked, so to speak. There were ancient stains over there, and there, and parts of it, where our bed had been, were much faded from exposure to years of morning sunlight. Now plaster dust coated it, dulling the blue. It would never be the same. We could now install a new carpet without fuss. Wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be fun to see what lay beneath? Maybe I’d want to do something different!

So I ripped it out, removed the ancient, shredding pad, then vacuumed away 35 years of dust, bits of plaster and dirt. A yellow pine floor blinked in the sunlight. The wide planks gently sagged just a bit toward the room’s middle, and were peppered with shiny nail heads. Someone, years before we took possession, had tried to cure its creaks before re-carpeting. One plank in the middle of the room had been partially cut away and replaced with fiberboard, probably to accommodate electrical wiring. I looked down: the little desk we’d had there had certainly left indentations, even with that old carpet and pad down. This was really soft wood.

The empty room echoed. I sang a few phrases of ‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ and grinned. Not bad, old girl. In here, you sound decent.

Suddenly tired, I slid down against the wall, and sat on the floor. How long would it be before this floor saw daylight again? Probably another quarter of a century.

I thought of the three previous families over 120 years who’d loved this room, who’d chatted in here, who had undone and brushed out their long hair, slept, written letters, snarled at mosquitoes that had sneaked past the open, screenless windows’ curtains… I smiled, and let my mind wander. A rusty gleam caught my eye. Embedded in a board was an extremely old, very thin, long hairpin, which had helped to hold someone’s luxuriant hair firmly in place at the turn of the previous century. I pried the thing out: its imprint remained in the wood. In my palm lay homey history- in a hairpin.

It didn’t take long to decide to re-carpet. The soft pine floor would permanently register every bit of furniture we set on it. Plus, in Northern Michigan, the winters can be long and cold, and I couldn’t imagine walking on wooden floors, even with thickish rugs down. (By the way, at the turn of the century linoleum was all the rage. Everyone who could afford such a luxury chose it; we have remnants of the pattern, with a horsehair backing, selected by the original owners, the Morgan family. Lino, the height of fashion, proved sturdy and easy to mop.)

I didn’t repaper any of the four bedrooms whose ceilings and walls had been completely replastered, but chose instead to paint them, using light, airy colors. Then every bedroom was reassembled. Their windows could be approached without leaning over end tables, and the new honey brown carpet in our master bedroom gave the pale yellow walls a warm glow. The long hallway received pale apricot paint, decorated only by a simple, flowery, foot-wide border, which enhanced the high ceiling. I sold many framed pictures, rehanging only the most cherished. Wow! What a difference!

Those changes led us to remove the carpet (ruined by ground-in plaster globs as it was applied to the downstairs hall walls and ceiling, not to mention workers’ dirty boots as they trampled in and out for months) and tile the front hall downstairs instead. (The next year we redid the living room walls to compliment the repaired part.) Along with less furniture, I nearly emptied the clothes-stuffed closets. It’s amazing how many aging outfits and tired pairs of shoes were recycled.

Some weekends I still touch up the paint here and there in the baths and in our kitchen to keep things looking fresh.

After such an awful Bang, a slimmer Sunnybank House has settled nicely into its new look. 

9/23/18: Exploring Ancient Chester  

On April 9th, 2009, my husband rumbled into Hereford on the noon train. Hereford, a city of about 60,000 in the West Midlands of England, is seven miles from my late mother’s cottage.  (The plane ticket was super-cheap: he’d gotten the ‘wrinklie rate,’ a five-day $400 round-trip ticket from Detroit to London on the ‘red-eye’ express. A Marine, he can sleep anywhere, even in a second class airline seat.) His medical office was closed for Easter, and, in four days it would be his birthday. We could celebrate it together. 

After he’d cheered the progress I’d made with my flooded-out cottage renovation (I’d been living there for months to do this awful job) we decided to motor to Chester, not quite three hours away. It lies just two miles from the Welsh border, along the tidal River Dee.  

This beautiful, ancient city of about 80,000 souls is a World Heritage site. Over two thousand years ago busy Romans built its (partially excavated) amphitheater designed to seat 8,000, pillared gardens (still there), and huge arches. Multiple restored medieval black-and-white timbered buildings shone in the afternoon sun, having maintained their dignity despite their cant. Chester’s ancient cathedral, with an intriguing mixture of styles, is the third most visited in Britain.  But the two-mile-long stone/brick Roman wall nearly surrounding Chester was my favorite marvel. That’s where we’d spend the next day.  

Our arrival was marred by a misery. Online I’d found an attractive-looking B and B with a nice write-up, located close to the center of town. The reality was shocking. The picture had lied! Cement covered everything. A spindly, 15-story-high derrick dangled directly overhead; I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep under that!  The building’s walled parking area was girdle-tight. Bulging trash bags lined the garden wall’s edges. Bad sign! We found the hidden key in the old outhouse and climbed nervously up to our assigned room. Horrors! 

This bilious boudoir had two badly made beds crammed into an extremely narrow space. Joe quick-peeked at the gray bedsheets, checking for bedbugs. Black specks betray the creatures.  (We’d gotten a big dose years ago when I’d found us a nearly pitch dark, horrid room in Rome. Alas, I’ve mastered the art of booking bummers.)  
This room’s bathroom was the size of a canceled postage stamp. A split, sagging window looked out on more cement that merged into a busy road.  
We shuddered. A look was exchanged. After stampeding out the door I stepped out onto that road and stopped traffic. Joe hastily backed out, I leaped in, and we escaped the Pit of Despair, fists punching the air, shouting with relief. 
That wretched structure was decades past its sell-by date and needed a decent burial right soon.  

We found a parking place in the center of town and began to wander the winding, cobbled streets in search of lodging. Six blocks later we happened upon The Pied Bull Pub/Inn, Chester’s oldest coaching house, dating from 1144, and one block from everything. Perfect! There was even one parking space left behind it! In a flash we secured its last enormous, slightly canted second-floor bedroom, which offered a big, high, ancient four-poster bed, a well used sofa with matching chairs, a coffee table, armoire and generous bath, and to top it off, windows that offered great views of the medieval streets- oh, and breakfast, also cheap as dirt now, in the off-season.  
The only problem? We wanted to stay forever! 

Two medieval ghosts haunt it. We questioned the very elderly front-desk lady about them.  
“Yes, indeed, I’ve seen the ruffled gentleman three times over these many years, but, so far, not the parlor maid. Muriel has, though…”  
Looking thoughtful, she stared into space for a bit, and then added, “He never speaks, just looks out yon window...” She pointed to an ancient one on the stair’s landing. “He’s no trouble…”  

The fish and chips supper was yummy, but breakfast died on the vine from a crime: instant coffee was served! Bleh!  This would never do! 
The next morning we found a tiny shop a block away with lace tablecloths and lovely china cups, and savored their freshly brewed beans.  Ahhh! A full English breakfast, with unbuttered toast-in-a-rack-so-it-can-get-cold-quicker, was cheerfully gobbled down.     

In Britain, if you order coffee, you’ll get one cup. Might be instant. Might not. (Ask, if you care. I certainly do.) Frequently, at bigger hotel chains, a steaming carafe full of the real thing is set before you, but ordinary eateries offer ONE pour - often instant. So I order ‘Americano,’ a tasty, real bean-brew presented in a baseball-sized cup, and make it last.  
I love England, but this sort of parsimonious thinking is a moan for me. 

Fortified, we explored Chester’s High street with its many shops, and then circumnavigated the town from the broad, crenelated top of its imposing Roman wall, peering down at the splendid, grandstanded racehorse-course set in a very large, open meadow, and watched narrow, gaily painted houseboats navigate through the River Dee’s hand-cranked locks. Chester’s town crier, dressed in medieval garb, shouted interesting news to delighted explorers and eager shoppers. We gazed at everything, commenting about oddities and architecture for hours.   

Later, still strolling high up on the battlements, the light-flooded, panoramic Turner landscape began to dress for twilight. Time seemed to slow. Save for the last birdsongs, a cloak of quiet began to settle gently over the city, muting sound. We were enchanted. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to come back here for much longer? 

And yet, the cost, and Time’s relentless passage reminded us, well into our seventies, that returning to this deeply historical, tale-ridden, semi-enchanted place isn’t likely in this lifetime.   

 On the other hand- maybe there is a ghost of a chance......... 

9/15/18: Bathing Beauties and Other Delights  

Well, on September 9, in the Fairy Garden, I finally tucked in the huge, collapsed Dicentra spectabalis.  What a perennial star! 

She emerges emerald green in mid-spring, from partly shaded, moist, fertile earth, and grows feverishly to 3 feet high. Then, quaint, plump, dangling pink or white flowers emerge.  Children, especially, love them.   

The blossoms look very much like hearts, but I love to introduce her as ‘Bathing Beauty in her Bathtub.’ Remove a pink flower, turn it over and spread each end apart gently to reveal a blushing lassie rising from her bath, caught out. It’s impossible not to giggle when I wiggle the dim-witted damsel and view her discomfiture.  

White works too, but for me the impact is lessened by Madame’s sheet-white, bashful countenance. The pink flower is funnier. 

Dicentra blooms and blooms, impervious to slugs, bugs and disease. The flowers finally finish in late June, but her leaves remain lovely, very gradually evolving to buttery gold by mid-to-late August if she’s not stressed. ‘Di’ appreciates being groomed- once. With both hands I snap off the skeletal, exhausted twig-ends that housed the blossoms. (Be careful; the other lovely leafy branches can easily break.) 
Finally, one early autumn day, ‘Di’ finally droops and snaps, done in by wind or heavy rain.  

Cleanup is easy. With deft flicks of my wrist I simply tug at the base of each fat stalk, which snaps cleanly, leaving barely a bump in the soil.  I cover the raw area with an inch of rich, black earth, and she happily snuggles down for the winter.  (The vacated space can be huge, so I might pop a potted chrysanthemum or other arrangement that doesn’t mind a bit of shade, over her spot.  Judiciously placed stones underneath the pot keep the mum from pressing down too hard on my lady’s nearly invisible bump.)    

Sharing space with this delightful resident is Corydalis lutea, a cobweb-delicate, incredibly prolific plant. Her butter-yellow flowers are always evident, most especially in spring and summer. Despite her incredible fragility, she handles the crushing weight of heavy snow with nary a tremor.  I was thunderstruck to discover her in perfect condition in early spring, as I began to master the art of gardening. 
How can ‘Cory’ be so tough?   

Unlike Dicentra, who is content to stay where I put her, Corydalis makes merry constantly, but she is incredibly easy to dislodge. When her offspring threaten to become a nuisance I simply tug gently, and that bit of rooted plant pops out of the soil without a fight.   

Tidying ‘Cory’ should be done regularly. She’ll grow too cheerfully amid the emerald green Irish moss (Sagina), or among the thick clumps of Labrador violets. The area becomes noticeably neater when I cull, but I’ll still have lots to enjoy.   
Nothing nibbles her, or makes her sick.  Given part shade, moisture, and well-drained, fertile soil, she’ll look lovely 12 months a year.   

‘Violet,’ another low-growing plant, needs a firm hand, though; otherwise she’s everywhere. Stunning June blossoms glow an intense blue, just above plump, lush purple and green leaves. If she’s cut back (a tedious job), I’ll often get a second flower show. 

Ostrich ferns, and one enormous Goat’s Beard (Aruncus), enhance the Fairy fountain. I’ll chainsaw the easy-care, 6-foot tall, plumed Aruncus to the dirt in November. Both plants will spring back in Spring. 

In the Ram’s Head Garden the Sargentii crab apple tree has burst into bloom. Zillions of bright, orangey-red berries dangle from her branches, providing food for the birds through much of early winter. Some avians eat too many and stagger about, slightly tipsy. It’s quite a sight! 

Every spring, billowing blue and white clouds of perfumed Sweet Alyssum reseed in brick-walk cracks throughout the Fairy Garden. I love its delicate scent. 

Hovering over everything is my 18-year-old Cornus kousa Dogwood tree. Profuse, pure-white butterfly-blossoms blanket the tree in stunning fashion every June and remain for weeks, before finally evolving n August to masses of quarter-sized, bright red seed balls perched atop stiff stems, which hang down like Christmas ornaments. When they drop I poke them into the soil, creating enchanting, miniature red ‘forests,’ perfect for fairies. It’s fun too, to slip the long stemmed berries into the curl of giant hostas’ leaves, creating a pretty picture in autumn. Imagine huge blue hostas ‘finished’ with these lovely red balls... 
Birds, and Sir Chipmunk, love this fruit, too.   
There are so many! 

Today marks the season’s last day to view Sunnybank’s secret garden. Do pop in to see the final show!

9/9/18: Different Folks... 

One lovely early morning in mid-summer some years ago four middle-aged ladies showed up, smartly clad in attractive Bermuda shorts, crisp short-sleeved shirts and spotless deck tennis shoes. They wore expensive, very attractive haircuts and large wedding rings, which glittered as their leader fumbled angrily with the padlocked chain securing the first large, Victorian iron gate. She loudly demanded admittance, though my sign inviting visitors to enter wasn’t out that early. 
  
Before I could respond, another one stated they had come too far to be ‘put off’ by a menial gardener. (Clad in baggy coveralls, my twiggy, rumpled thatch of hair and cheeky black smudges serving as common-as-dirt gardener’s rouge, I WAS a distinctly unimpressive sight.) I should be ashamed of myself, they chorused- voices high with indignation- for keeping it locked, knowing visitors were standing there. (It hadn’t occurred to them to introduce themselves, or to ask who I was.). Right then it was a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. I had hoses lying about, and hadn’t finished my morning weeding. Dirt, shriveled leaves and petals lay on the path, waiting to be swept up. Much of this disarray was evident to these indignant women, but still, they felt they had every right to come in when they pleased. 
  
Sunnybank is a private garden, I reminded them gently, and they would be most welcome when I could clear the paths of hoses, tools, weeds, and me, and that would happen about 9 o’clock, as always. Incredulous, they stomped off, buzzing with frustration, muttering that they should ring the front doorbell to complain to the owner about ‘that idiot.’ Their backs were rigid and their voices cut into the clear morning air, like flies at a picnic. I stood there bemused for a little space, then carried on with my work. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if they returned! 
  
In fact, they did, in mid-morning, and remained a good while, gesticulating with manicured fingers that stabbed the air. Their tanned heads nodded vigorously as they chatted about form and texture. I wore clean, nicely fitted clothes and a sunhat and chose to inconspicuously read my book on a bench, and went inside when they came too near, not wishing to cause embarrassment. Not for the first time, though, I wished I could hear them more clearly.  Were they gardeners? Could they identify the various plants? 
I’d never know. 
  
Not just ladies can be challenging. One middle-aged, tidy gentleman with a large, wonderfully expressive mustache insisted I had “misrepresented” a plant, and bluntly told me I didn’t have a clue what it was. HE knew, though, and in a year or two, when it had established itself, I would finally realize his identification was the correct one.  Nothing I could say would convince him I knew what I had planted. With this sort of person I decided that it would cost me nothing to stop arguing and agree that he might be right. It made him happy. He harrumphed triumphantly, and went on his way, back erect, eyes flashing. 
  
The vast majority of visitors are content to relish the scents, the bird life, and the interesting Victorian flowerbed edging tiles I’d gradually carried back to America after every visit to my mother’s cottage in rural England, They enjoy discovering the many semi-hidden statuary pieces while wandering through this peaceful place. We often laugh, exchange gardening tales, and chat about their visits to other, often enormous gardens in different countries.  (Sunnybank is smaller and more intimate.) We might natter on about fountain installation, pruning techniques, and my dopey mistakes. Opinions about everything are bounced back and forth like basketballs. 
  
These sorts of occurrences are the salt and pepper of my gardening year. They remind me that every day is an adventure. I never know what might happen. Gardening is rarely boring… 

-- 

Visit www.deeblair.com for recent columns, garden pictures and music.

9/02/18: Soggy, Delicious Memories  

I’ve been doing this column for over 13 years without a break: I need to take some time off. But I offer some reader favorites that I’ve especially noted over the years, and will submit them every Sunday, as usual. Hope you enjoy them again. 

 

Here’s an eight-year old reminiscence from 2010, when I began the long renovation of my family’s flooded out cottage in England’s lovely countryside. I’m sitting on the carpet-stripped, unlovely floor of their beloved home, sifting through intriguing parental mementos.  Here are limp old London Times Sunday magazines that she kept because of their wonderful commentaries, or for the alphabetical listing of the 1000 most influential people of the twentieth century, or for anything that caught my mother’s eye.  

Here’s a clipping that had captivated her- about tail-less cats… 

She loved to read about the universe’s origins; biographies; and on why tigers have stripes. Dubbed ‘the great experimenter’ by David, she loved to read cookbooks cover-to-cover and then improve recipes that caught her eye. A few meals wanted a decent burial; most were wonderful. 

Occasionally I rediscover treasures.   

Here’s one. A clammy page, pried apart, reveals a cherished poem about a tree at the end of its life. Mother loved trees; one photograph shows David, her English husband, and her standing next to an immense 700-year-old oak, giving shade during England’s Great Plague, and still living happily outside our favorite nearby country pub, called Loughpool.  

Memories surface; I recall sitting inside an even bigger, older, thriving tree in a Gloucester churchyard. Now its massive lower branches rest quietly on the ground, too incredibly long and heavy to remain suspended. The earth, over the centuries, has gently risen to meet them; surely it appreciated the support.  In spite of that hollow heart, Tree was fully dressed in green that day, soaking up the sun.  The churchyard’s ancient, teetering tombstones kept it company.  

And what’s this?   A flat, tissue-wrapped stone bears the fossil of a finger-polished, hundred-million-year-old tubeworm she’d carried for 25 years in her jeans, after spotting it one day on a cold Scottish beach on the Isle of Skye, where they’d made their home for five years.  

My mother died amazed that it was happening: she had so much to do, to see, to taste, to learn, and suddenly, she blinked out.  A poem she loved- with just 6 lines- reads: 

                                     Life 

                                  Innocence? 

                                  In a sense-  

                                  In NO sense. 

  

                                 Was that IT? 

                                 Was THAT it? 

                                 That was it. 

Oh! Here’s a vivid magazine picture of a gorgeous, fully dressed, delectably thick hamburger. In a margin she’d written, “Frame this!”  
Heavens-- I know why!  

One summer lunchtime, at a craft show in the little Welsh town of Abergavenny where she and David sold their beautiful, handcrafted, hand-painted clocks, mother shaped a three-quarter-pound hamburger paddy from butcher-bought ground beef (the British say ‘minced beef’) and cooked it on a nearby communal grill. 

On a plate, she laid out slices of onion, Double Gloucester cheese, and a respectable hunk of crisp lettuce next to a generous bun. Ketchup and English mustard stood guard. A small gathering watched, fascinated. One amused Welshman couldn’t resist a comment: “M’love, tha’ overweight meat pile canno’ stick together withou’ cereal and additives…” (The British decided long ago that ground beef can stay ‘formed’ only with the help of ‘binders’ like these.) 
Mom looked up, astonished, then grinned.  “Why ever not?” 

The vendors and browsers stared at her, then settled back to watch hamburger ruin happen. This silly, deluded American didn’t have a clue. 

She popped the naked burger on the grill, adding seasoned salt and freshly ground pepper. It sizzled happily.  A quick flip, for a minute or so, to cook the other side to medium before she slid it onto the toasted bun, added the condiments, and downed it triumphantly, chasing the burger with a chilled, local beer.   
Quiet reigned.   

Suddenly, late-comers edged forward, proffering bills, saying, “Eh, I’ll have one o’ those…” The bewildered grillmaster stood, open-mouthed, amid the clamor of futile shouted orders. Licking her fingers, Mom reclaimed her spatula, thanked him, and strode off, replete.  

“Americans may be brash,” she gloated, “and wet-behind-the-ears, but, by golly, they understand how to make proper hamburgers!”   

The cottage's ringing phone jars me out of my reverie: I’m laughing!

8/26/18: Bryn’s Shriek Fest 

Never mind the Cherry Festival, Film Festival, Beer Festival- Bryn has attracted quite an audience with her very own 15 minutes of fame- a Shriek Fest!  
Here’s how things went down. 

Happy families sat or lay on the sunny beach at Sunset Park, enjoying their children’s delight and their dogs’ antics. This place, located along Grand View Parkway, is aptly named, as, like the road, it’s located at the base of Grand Traverse Bay within easy walking distance from the city’s downtown. Lake Michigan’s beautiful coastline, to the north, east and west, also boasts lovely sunsets easily seen on summer evenings from this pretty beach.  

Bryn, Joe and I arrived a little before five to stake out a spot to enjoy a light meal with two dear friends and another fun couple who’d arrive in 15 minutes or so. A bottle of wine, smoked whitefish, shrimp and sauce, chips and nuts, and maybe a swim in the warm lake would round out this fading day. Then the six of us would carry our light beach folding chairs to the huge promenade that juts out into the lake at the Maritime Academy next door, to watch the sun dip beneath the rolling hills.  

Bryn-dog sat quietly on the park grass, watching as Joe and I positioned the tablecloth on the picnic table and laid out provisions and glasses. (Wind was a bit of a problem, as it gusted enough to topple the empty glasses.) She wanted to play fetch with her orange bone, but sensed it wasn’t time yet. 
After we’d all dined, Joe looked over his shoulder to check on her. That big fat bone was still waiting patiently between her paws. She caught his eye and glanced toward the park grounds and lake.  
‘Hey, Boss, can we play now?’ 
Those large brown eyes were hard to resist. Joe threw the bone toward the middle of the grassy playground. Bryn dashed gleefully after it and pounced, much as a cat will nail a mouse. Joe repeated the tosses until she began to pant. Ha! Time for both of them to cool off in the lake. He took off his sweatshirt and jeans and ran through the warm golden sand to the water in his swimsuit.  
Bryn ran alongside him, then up and down the water’s edge as Joe leaped in and swam out a decent distance. (She remained silent, as always. Bryn rarely speaks, except with her eyes, and that wonderful tail. And then, only one- maybe two- wags...) 
Carrying the bone I stopped at the shoreline and shouted, “Ready? Here it comes!”  
Our guests watched, knowing what was coming...   

Out it flew, about equidistant from Joe in chest-deep water, and Bryn on the beach. Splash! It floated, waiting. She did the geometry in a flash! The advantage was probably hers, as Joe had made no attempt to swim toward it. She flung herself in, zeroed in on the bone, and paddled without strain, even ramming through some largish waves. 
But suddenly, as Joe launched himself with powerful strokes toward the prize, Bryn, calmly pumping along, noticed, and uttered the most penetrating shrieks, howls, barks and growls as she doubled her speed! Those operatic shrieks alerted picnickers; some folks ran out on the sand to see what was up. Was someone being attacked?? Heavens, what a Din!   

I laughed at some confused, concerned people and shouted; “Our doodle is incredibly competitive! She’s just cheering herself on! Think of them as battle cries!”   

Bryn swam full throttle now, screaming, pumping, ------Snatch! She’d got it! Glancing toward a disappointed Joe she paddled triumphantly toward the beach and was boosted to shore by some bigger waves. She kept looking over her shoulder the whole way to make sure he’d truly given up. 
She will not retrieve if the bone lands too near Joe. Why bother? 
But when we introduce competition, Oh, Lordy!! 
She’d probably swallowed half the lake with all that hollering and being partially submerged at times, but not once had she gagged or coughed. Dropping the bone at my feet she shook vigorously and waited ‘til I heaved it out again. Her blood was up, now!    

The beach crowd had risen from prone positions to watch the fun. Bryn didn’t fail them. Again those ghastly shrieks and howls and wails, deep or high barks and piteous cries rang over the water as she cut through it, laser-focused. Her vocal range was simply amazing. 
This time, though, Joe barely managed to snatch it one second before she could. As she wilted with disappointment he threw it away again, parallel to the beach.  
Whoa! Another challenge! They were at an invisible starting line out there. She swam for it so fast her chest rose high; he couldn’t quite keep up, though he tried. She snatched it up and swam jauntily to shore, yielding the bone to my palm signal immediately after clearing the water.   

A little aside: Bryn Will. Not. Yield that bone while swimming. Nothing we did- no command- no trying to wrench it away, or attempting to pry open her jaws, worked. When she clamps down, that’s that. All we’ve been getting for our trouble are scratched legs from those clawed paws as she paddles. Bryn finds it impossible, at some deep psychological level, to relinquish her prize until she clears the water. Only then will she immediately respond to the palms-down signal.  

This is the one time, as pack leaders, we decided to make allowances, finally agreeing that right-out-of-the-water retrieval would satisfy both parties. (Before the agreement she’d romp all over the grassy park with it, then drop it somewhere far, far away, requiring us to search. It was really irritating to have to leave the water every time, trudge up the large sandy beach past the huge sitting logs, and then into the park to hunt for it.) 
So, this new arrangement suited everyone.    

Sometimes Bosses can, and should be, flexible. 

After a string of ‘shriek-fetches’ we called it an evening. Bryn even won a smattering of applause for her Pavarotti-like demonstrations.   

We six carried our chairs out of the park and right to the promenade’s end and settled down to watch the sun’s final descent. It was nearly windless now; bats fluttered by as darkness fell. Bryn sat quietly between Joe and me on a thin ground pad, eyelids drooping. She’d be upside down tonight in her bed, howling softly, dreaming orange bone dreams... 

P.S. About 9:30 p.m. I took her out to do her business. Normally she pees for about six seconds. This night it took nearly thirty seconds. I was deeply impressed that her tank could accommodate that much lake... 

 

8/19/18: Broom Wisdom 

I, a dedicated gardener, do declare there are three constants: death, taxes, and bad brooms. 
  
I find myself pondering what would happen if I vanished today. Who’d understand my garden’s intricate needs, its subtle tweaks, and why and how decent Brooms should be used? Gardening isn’t rocket science, but still… 
  
Take sweeping skills, for example.  People vary. There are sweepers, and Sweepers. Sensibly, therefore, there are brooms, and Brooms. Mostly, both sorts fall into the first category.  Usually, brooms are wielded in a desultory manner. Trash feels unthreatened. Crisp, finished edges are unknown. The broom is NOT master of the situation. 
Proper Brooms are perfectly designed to whisk away objectionable debris, but their controllers often haven’t a clue about how use them to achieve that end. 
  
Sweeping properly is extremely important.  If I interviewed an apprentice gardener, the first thing I’d do is put a Broom in his hand, and ask him to have a go.  I’d immediately grasp what sort of worker he’d be. Would he sweep with authority? Would he maneuver the Broom to cleverly clear cracks and clean up sidewalk edges? Would he use broad sweeps, and not crab along with useless, no-pressure ‘little old lady’ motions?  
I demand a Broom Commander! 
What I see most often are broom wimps. 
  
Let’s examine the tool itself. 
A common kitchen broom offers sleek nylon bristles, which don’t frighten trash, do bend easily, and are usually clipped at a rakish angle, reminiscent of a skinny model wearing a shimmer-y Sassoon haircut. The slim, bright blue, green or even crackerjack-red plastic handle is often screwed/glued into its holding hole, which goes wobbly after just a few jobs. The annoyed operator winds up re-securing it over and over. 
It shweeps. 
Trash yawns. 
  
Other brooms look traditionally built. These might have the usual long (but subtly skinnier) wooden handle that fits nicely into the receptacle located at the top of its business end. The straw is cut straight, and feels- o.k. But, like thinning hair expertly blown dry to appear thicker, these bristles go limp when asked to perform.  
  
Alas, a test run is never done.  People see a reasonable-looking broom, snatch it up and trot to the checkout counter. Only later, lured by the red stitching and traditional look, do they realize they’ve bought a schroom. Their hands know something isn’t right; the tool feels oddly- inadequate. Hushing their ‘little voice’ they’ll shweep dutifully, secretly annoyed by the lackluster result. Their tool will quickly develop ‘broom-bottom-sag,’ which is incurable. 
The baffled operator shrugs. 
  
I own Brooms.  Each is well made. Hefty.  The long handle, thicker than its doppelganger, is made of hardwood. No cute color has been applied. A stout screw insures there’ll never be bristle-wibble. 
  
The business end is heavy. If a fascinated buyer holds this Broom up against a wimpy one, the difference is instantly obvious.  This Broom’s got muscle. Substance. Its plain stitching is iron-hard.  There are many more densely compacted bristles cut thick, straight and even, flaring to a stiff skirt. Its stout, thick bristles resist sag.  
This. Broom. Sweeps. 
It’s a work of art, perfected after centuries of tweaking. 
  
Lastly, because these Brooms are constantly used, their bristles will shorten a bit sooner. Wise operators retire these exhausted workers, and then march out to farm or hardware stores for another, which, of course, they’ll test-sweep first.  
Experienced operators keep bristles protected when the tool is resting. Some even store their tool upside down. 
  
I’ve worn out many a stalwart Broom. 
Trash trembles; edges gleam. 
Together  though, we make clean sweeps! 

-- 

Visit www.deeblair.com for recent columns, garden pictures and music.

8/10/18: Julia’s Cabinet- A Love Story  

Standing at our ancient Hoosier cabinet I folded freshly dried clothes. The cabinet is perfect for this task, as it has a porcelain pull-out front, as well as lots of cupboards for housing various laundry room essentials. (It had also lived in our farmhouse kitchen for thirty years, serving me well as a changing table for our children, and as storage for utensils, spices, hand towels and pots and pans before that.) 

It also has a wonderful story. I’ve been asked to tell it again. 

One lovely July Saturday 50 years ago Joe and I went rummaging. Bridgeport, a small town near Saginaw, Michigan where both our families lived, displayed lots of items on a big, shared lawn that fronted three small, comfortable older homes.  

Small children played around fold-out tables displaying tidy stacks of clothing, linens, knick-knacks, and tired paperback books. Serviceable sofas and chairs were sprinkled about, perfect for furnishing startup homes and apartments. Potted red geraniums and bright daisies decorated two generous front porches. 

On the other side of the road, a man was pulling out ancient farm machinery and interesting old furniture from a large, ramshackle barn. A hand-painted ‘For Sale’ sign was wedged into a wringer washing machine placed on their lawn.  

For Joe and me, newly married and nest-building, that barn’s contents looked promising. 

Another extremely old, bent man waved his cane to acknowledge our arrival. He didn’t speak. His son (no spring chicken himself) grinned and adjusted dusty, well-worn overalls.   

“We’re selling lots of goodies. Look around…”  

We stared at furniture he’d dragged into the sunlight.  A thick film of dust covered press-back chairs, a generous, well-scrubbed kitchen table, and two ornate brass bed frames. But one particular cabinet caught the sunlight, and my eye. I gasped, walked around to its front…and fell in love.  

While Joe and the younger man entered the barn to admire an old motorcycle I caressed the Hoosier cabinet, thrilled.  The old man watched me quietly, and then spoke for the first time. 

“Today’s my 94th birthday, young lady, and I asked my son Ethan to clear the barn.  Funny sort of present, but it’s what I wanted.”  
A pause.  
“You like this cabinet.”  
It was a statement, not a question. 
I nodded.  Oh, I coveted it.  I’d sell my soul for that cabinet. But could we afford it? 

“I’m tired.  It’s past time to clear out things I’ve been holding close for too long. Like this beauty.”   
He sighed.  
“Sixty-five years ago I married my first wife.  Julia was a lovely girl, and when she finally agreed to marry me I was a happy man.”  
His toothless smile flashed briefly.  
“I was considered a good catch back then, young lady, as I was able to offer her a small farmhouse, land, and dairy cows. This cabinet was meant for our kitchen, and I can still hear her laughing as she planned where to put it.  Choosing it really made Julia happy.”  He looked away for a little while, then continued. 

“On the way home from church the day we married our carriage horse bolted. Julia was thrown out. She hit her head on a big rock and died, right there, still in her wedding garb. I thought I would die, too. Wedding guests following us tried to help, but- it was too late. I don’t remember much after that, not for a long time.”  
He rubbed his eyes.   
“Eventually I married again, and my wife and I had Ethan, here.  But I’ve never allowed her to use this cabinet…” His voice trailed away.  
Another sad silence. 

Then- he brightened. “You’re newly wed, aren’t you?” Amazed, I asked how he’d known! He threw back his head and laughed, then thought a minute, eyes closed. Nodding to himself strangely, he slowly leaned toward me and looked deeply into my eyes.   

“It’s yours.  IF- you promise never to sell it, and promise to tell your children its story. You must promise me.”   

Stunned by his generosity, I promised.   

His lined face was suddenly serene. Then, very quietly, he looked at me and said, “Julia is pleased.”

He walked slowly toward his house, cheeks wet with tears, but not from grief.  

We both knew that something wonderful had just happened. 

8/05/18: A Trashy Tale  

Sometimes I inadvertently set myself up for foolish mishaps- most of them garden-related. This particular mini-embarrassment still triggers a red face. Now that I’m old, though, I don’t mind telling on myself...   

One day I wrestled with a hose, which insisted on remaining kinky. After wasting thirty minutes trying to coax that elderly rubber snake not to revert to its twisted behavior so I could pump my pond water properly I gave up, unscrewed it from the bilge pump, dumped it in the rubbish bin, and stomped off in disgust. 

But, the next day, while throwing out bagged kitchen garbage, I happened to glimpse a high-quality spray nozzle I’d e-mail-ordered the summer before sitting way-y down at the bottom of the big bin, still attached to the dumped hose.  Stupid me! In angry haste I’d tossed out too much… hmmm. How to get the nozzle out again without tipping out lots of rubbish, too? Putting it all back again would be a royal pain. 

I stepped on the bin’s foot-bar, leaned in… reached down… Nope. Not even close. On my tiptoes I tried again, bent double now into a tight V, extending my arm an impossible distance down …my fingers almost brushed it and, encouraged, I wriggled and stretched a tiny bit further- further- raising my feet off the support— That did it. I lost my balance and tumbled in. As I fell, a rib cracked. Worse, the lid dropped back down to the not-quite-closed position, framing my shod feet posed stiffly outside the big bin’s mostly shut rim.  

What a total idiot!  Here I was, upside down in the malodorous semi-dark, my head partially sunk into a bag crammed with chicken fat, coffee grounds, butcher paper, and other sundries, along with lots of branches, leaf litter and garden rubbish scattered along the bottom and sides... Phew! Ancient stinks wafted all around me...But my hand closed around the nozzle. 
Somehow, with much painful gasping and groaning, I managed to grab the bin’s yucky edges and gradually raise myself inch by inch, enough to push the heavy lid completely open. It flew back with a loud Bang! I was just able to painfully extract myself, rising inch by inch until my shoes found purchase far below, while still clutching my prize.  
Thank heaven no one was around.   

Imagine if someone passing by had happened to note my lower legs sticking out, rush to investigate and find me stuck down there, seemingly discarded along with the other rubbish! 
I’d never hear the end of it. 

How might I explain my cracked rib to Joe without appearing a complete fool?  Oh, well. I’d have to take my licks- and just tell him. 

Eventually, I cleaned up and re-assessed. Could I still garden?  A gentle examination reassured me that I could, but much more slowly. The rib objected when I moved just so, but generally I could still function pretty well, supported by an Ace bandage. 

The lesson? Angry, impatient and reckless, I’d been dumb, and dumber.  But, always looking for a pony in the poop, I congratulated myself on my narrow escape from public ignominy.  There’s usually some little detail one can salvage or be grateful for when reviewing one’s foolish behavior… 
Laughter. (Ouch!)