(Apologies for being absent for so long, sometimes life gets in the way of writing, and I have been having FUN!)
Part I: The Twins’ Birthday
This month is my step-dad’s birthday, and this year was especially special on the occasion of his 88th. We had a party at their house and all of his kids and spouses, grandkids and great-grandkids attended, and his identical twin brother. It’s amazing to me that even at the grand age of 88 they still look and sound identical, even down to their humming and singing. Of course, they are as different as twins can be. Some twins are like two peas in a pod, Ken and his brother are almost opposites in temperament and style as brie to Velveeta. It sure is fun to see them together and it was such a special day. After Ken and my mom have been married for 25 years this year I have decided to dispense with the “step” designation because a blended family only becomes more blended with time. As with all good things our family just keeps getting better and better and I love my family with all of my heart! It was my pleasure to catch a ride with my sister Julie and her husband Paul and to hear the romantic tale of their meeting and falling in love. I was getting teary eyed in the back seat as we zoomed down the highway towards the tiny hamlet our folks now call home in the Gold Country. Along the way we stopped to pick up my dearest sister Suzanne and arrived at the manse as the first guests.
As the family piled into the usually tranquil house, it filled with an excited babble of conversation, laughter and jovial ribbing. The young ones “helped” unwrapped the gifts and had more fun playing with the bits of paper, wadding balls together and tossing them about, while the older teens played along by creating hoops of their arms for targets and encouraging the tikes to make a basket. Even the littlest darling got into the fun, tossing, quite accurately actually, a ball at her great granduncle.
The adults caught up on life and discoursed philosophically, with mild political talk and much chat about vacations planned and taken. The children, fueled on birthday cake and green apples plucked from the ancient tree outside the guest bathroom window, clambered along the stone terrace walls and steps, ducking among the shrubs and leafy hanging tree boughs, inventing games and challenges. They mastered the ever popular “catch me if you can” and ended up in a squirmy dog pile with shouts of laughter.
It was a very hot day and a surprise summer shower cooled the air. Everyone piled outside to stand and chat in the fat drops of rain, looking for rainbows and enjoying the cooling occasional drops. Rain in the foothills is rare and refreshing, and the earthy scent of damp soil rose up to our delighted nostrils.
Hilarious vignettes played out in various rooms of the house. One little guy kept looking for Daddy and the hunt was on to restore him to the comfort of clinging to the paternal leg. Another little tike said “I don’t like sandwich cake” when eyeing the vanilla sponge birthday cake filled with chocolate pudding. To his perspective it rather did look like a sandwich! Another was very specific about which piece of cake he wanted, “I want a corner piece with red on it”, and so mOm bemusedly complied. Meanwhile I mistakenly offered coffee to a Mormon aunt and teasingly ignored my brother-in-law seeking cake, pressing my back against him saying, “I don’t see anyone else who needs cake, do you?”, keeping him behind me all the while and giggling at his indignant, “Hey!”
Sadly the shadows of the house lengthened to the street and the sun began to dip behind the mountain range across the valley as the farewells began. We were left to tidy up the piles of soda bottles, cherry pits, apple cores and demolished cold cuts, cheeses and veggies. We snacked in a desultory fashion and tottered off to bed in contentment.
Part II: A Pleasant Moment
I am sitting with my dad in the cool shaded family room listening to the local classical station from Sacto, such a pleasant moment. I am knitting a pale aqua sock for mOm and Dad is working on today’s Sudoku puzzle from the paper. Momentarily, he rose and from the living room I heard the tinkle of the cut crystal candy dish and he reappeared over my shoulder dropping a morsel of dark chocolate into my lap. “Sweets to the sweet!” he says smilingly. As we unwrap the treat and savor the slippery rich chocolate melting in our mouths we read each other the sayings printed inside the foil wrapper. “Listen to friends today” he quotes, “Each moment in life is precious, so savor every moment” I reply. Truer words, that.
In companionable silence we both work along, only interrupting with my counting stitches under my breath and Dad’s tum-de-tum tumm-ing along to the violas or remarking “It’s 91 outside.” Outside the bright sunshine stings my eyes through the double paned windows, the terrace garden glows in verdant shades of green, the shrubs where the Niger seed filled sock hangs for the lime green and lemon hued finches gather to feast. The elderly faded white arch where the apricot climber roses hang, their foliage dulled by the heat and their blossoms faded, and the fluffy comical mimosa tree with cloudy Dr. Seuss balls of flowers shimmer in the slight breeze. The juvenile blue jays scrabble for purchase on the suet feeder to greedily gobble seed filled suet crumbs. They ignore the lizard skittering along the smooth bark dappled with frondy shade from the feathery leaves. The large oak tree behind the bird feeder hosts an acorn woodpecker hopping sideways and diagonally along the pebbly bark, his red cap blinking in the sun. In a rare moment he swoops down, white and black wings flashing, to the stone bird bath. A dip of the head and then arching towards the chambray sky for a cool drink, and off he goes, showing off his snowy tail away to the larger oaks down the “Back Forty”. The oaks there are older and a different species, their leaves have more of a grey blue tinge, majestic arching branches in a perfect classical shape, remind me of Bilbo’s Great Tree. The shy arborist, a local man who odd jobs here and there throughout the county, estimated that the tree there was over 175 years old. There are five such trees on my parent’s property.
My gaze out the window is waylaid by Dad’s comment, “Every time I look at the thermometer it’s gone up by 2 degrees! It’s 93 now.” “Hmmm, the only time I wish for a little San Francisco fog….” I quip, “….sorry I didn’t have more room in my suitcase to bring you some!” We chuckle and then bow our heads to the tasks at hand, puzzles and socks beckon.
Occasionally, I spy over to the mushroom colored couch to see Dad’s hands waving in the air, “air conducting” to the symphony. We chat about the neighbors in a desultory fashion, a lady passed away at the base of the cul-de-sac last winter and her family arrived to clear out the old cottage. Several estate sales were held and they camped out in the front yard in a gleaming Airstream trailer. Six months later the trailer disappeared and we surmised their preparations to sell the cottage are complete. They never said hello to the residents here or goodbye, one wonders about their story and about the lady and what life she had led.
The nuthatch is hopping down the oak tree, always upside down in nervous jerky movements, and curved behind the back of the tree. The blue jays strafed through the terrace on their way to the suet feeder, scattering the finches in a cloud of bright feathers, like Blue Angels on a run, you can almost hear them laugh with mischievous glee as they bomb through the yard.
It is such a warm day, we are staying cool inside drinking various iced beverages, mOm is relaxing in the dimly lit living room while my sister gilds herself in the guest bath. We plan to make Big Black Dog’s butterscotch pudding for dessert tonight and polish off leftovers from last night’s feast of pork tenderloin and a neighbor’s gift of yellow summer squash, left hanging on the doorknob in a sack.
Such is the country life, gentleness of movements, kindnesses of neighbors and the simple pleasures of hearth and home.
Part III: Family Stories
Over mOm’s whole grain pancakes one morning, she began to share stories of family. My great grandfather was apparently fond of saying, “I have a hitch in my git-a-long” every morning. He also adored oyster stew and would frequently drop by with a bucket of oysters asking shyly, “Do you think you could make some stew with these?” I wish I had met him. They had a working farm in Iowa although lost it during the war, or were perhaps too old to work it alone with all their sons gone off to fight. It was a musical family; they all had marvelous voices and could play almost any instrument. Before the commonality of radios and before televisions the family would gather around the piano and have sing-along’s most evenings. Great grandfather played at least 5 instruments, how fun!
During the Korean War my bio-dad was assigned to New York by the Army, it seemed he played chess most days and I never did hear what he really did there. My mOm was working in a Catholic hospital laboratory during this time. She was the only non-Catholic worker, besides Dr. Shanta, that is. One day, mOm was summoned to the Mother Superior’s office, a dread event. “I have been summoned”, she told the doctor in charge of the lab. “Good luck” he said, eyes widening, and he meant it, apparently being summoned was not a minor matter. Sister Amadeus was a formidable woman, aptly named, and instead of a reprimand she had a surprising request. Sister began regaling a tremulous mOm with the hospital’s tradition of a Christmas tableau for the patients, and how this year they were doing a tableau of the birth of Jesus and needed an Angel Gabriel. Apparently mOm was the only blonde employee and deemed suitable by Sister Amadeus’ vision of the role. “Can you, for once, wear your hair down and fluffed a little?” Sister gently asked. My mOm’s pale blonde baby fine hair was always pulled back into a tight bun during her lab work. “Gabriel should wear something sheer and ethereal, you should talk to Dr. Shanta about that.” Continued Sister Amadeus.
Duly instructed, mOm returned to the lab where everyone was watching her. “So what happened?” asked the head doctor. “I am to be the Angel Gabriel”, replied mOm to everyone’s astonishment.
Dr. Shanta was consulted about Gabriel’s costume. Dr. Shanta was a lovely Indian woman on a rotation in New York to learn every department in the hospital in order to return to India to set up a hospital there. She asked mOm if she had a sari. In 1950 in New York a simple California gal did not have such an exotic item of apparel in her wardrobe, although it was a common item for Dr. Shanta. mOm recalled the elaborate silks and slippers worn by Dr. Shanta during a holiday party. Fortunately, Grandma did send mOm a length of pale blue dotted Swiss, intended no doubt for a peignoir or the like.
On the day of the tableau, mOm appeared with her hair duly curled and fluffed as best as her baby fine locks would permit, and Dr. Shanta artfully draped the Swiss about her frame. Thus attired, one of the nurses proclaimed her perfect as Gabriel, “but you might want to remove your lipstick!” Apparently the tableau went as Sister Amadeus envisioned although she never said a word to mOm about it. Thus “The Affair of the Angel Gabriel” was successfully concluded.
Lounging on the burnt orange corduroy chair that was favored by my childhood cat, I am finishing up the sock at last, sipping chilled raspberry ice tea and using Julia & Co. cookbook as a desk to jot down these notes. I am content. The scent of tuna melts are wafting through the kitchen pass through and I must attend to the delights of luncheon. Passing by Dad he remarks, “It’s 98 out now.” and, chuckling, I pause my pencil for the day. Such a wonderful visit and wonderful memories…