When I was fourteen, my dad retired from a career in the military, and my parents bought a house on five acres west of Portland, Oregon. We added animals to our cats and dogs. My sister and I got our first horses, and soon, we were waking to the soft neighs of hungry horses, to roosters crowing, and to geese and ducks murmuring themselves awake. Mom got the Earth Mama bug. She sewed herself and us girls Afghani-style dresses; she took up macramé, spinning wool, and knitting cable sweaters; and she enrolled in a community college course in subsistence farming. Dad tilled and deer-proof fenced a plot of ground for a substantial kitchen garden. He next planted an orchard of fruit trees and set up a colony of bees in our front pasture. Sadly, the bees failed to thrive, but under Mom’s care, her garden, orchard, and our animals prospered.
Her summers were soon occupied by freezing, drying, and canning. Dad built her a dryer. Lightbulbs supplied heat, a fan circulated the air, and screen trays supported the produce and meat slices Mom wished to dry. I still salivate at the memory of her fruit leather. She entered her garden products and her quilts in the county fair; she won ribbons and prizes.
Dad got a little plump.
Here in Switzerland and decades later, we’re having a cool, wet summer. I’m reminded of times Mom disparaged what she’d call a “Green Tomato Summer.” Her tomatoes rotted on their vines before ripening, her chilies lacked kick, and her tasteless melons went to the horses. Until moving to Oregon, I equated summers with blistering sidewalks and cooling swimming pools, tasty ripe tomatoes and thumping sweet melons. It took me years to appreciate Oregon’s cool wetness, to accept and appreciate the Willamette Valley’s greenness and abundance as a gift. To accept and appreciate Oregon as Home. Of course, there were summers of heat, Augusts when our well went dry. Mom used our gray water to keep her garden plants alive. Over time, I’ve found myself increasingly distressed by heat. The perfect summertime temperature for me has gone from 95° to 75° (35° to 23°).
Today, by sunrise, I’m sitting at my desk facing the garden. Under monochrome gray skies, the abundance and vigor of the foliage illume the outside like a neon light. I think of the golden hour and the blue hour; this is a rare green hour, and it takes me home. Ironically, as I’m reminded of Oregon’s Green Tomato Summers, the actual temperatures in the Far Northwest are breaking records. It’s a terrible time. While we’re being lashed by occasional fierce winds and thunderstorms, Oregon is buckling from the heat.
In the early 90s, widowed Mom left Oregon for her native Texas to look after her aging parents. Now, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law’s epic efforts, Mom’s returning to Oregon in the coming weeks. What timing: Oregon is suffering temperatures exceeding those in Texas. Next month, Markus and I will be doing our micro-bit to help with Mom’s move. We’ll be driving a carload of her orchids and odd valuables out of Texas and up to Oregon. Whoo, boy! I sure hope the mercury drops before we land in Dallas! We might just be making the scenic drive in the relative coolness of night. Still, I’m looking forward to returning home.
Horses have been a large part of my life. Before I owned one, I listened with adoration and envy to my dad’s stories about galloping his sister’s horse, Smokey, across the West Texas flats. He’d carry his .22 to hunt hares for the soup pot. At Christmastime, he’d shoot mistletoe out of cottonwoods and sell it to neighbors. Riding a buckskin across the desert made Dad a cowboy in my eyes. But he was just a Depression-era, upper-middle-class kid.
On a visit to our Nana one year, my sister and I were treated to a horseback ride. Irrigation canals crisscrossed our route. We rode alongside them, crossed culvert after culvert, and zig-zagged our way along. At one point, my sister’s somnambulant cayuse suddenly woke to the idea of heading home. Boom, off he bolted, my sister crying out in shock. He flew over every canal in his path, and Cathy—bless her—made it back to Nana’s with her love of horses intact.
Like Cathy’s naughty mount, my first horse, April Annie, would run home flat out. She also knew every tree within ten miles that had a branch she could pass under but not me. Her secret power: she’d clear any obstacle I pointed her at, ditches, logs, and picnic tables. I didn’t have a jumping saddle at first, so I jumped her bareback.
Melody, April Annie’s daughter, was the sweetest horse that ever lived and the first horse I ever bred and trained to saddle. She won a reserve championship at the county fair. Her daddy was a local hunk.
Dakota. Cathy’s first horse and an equine Keystone Cop. He could pluck ripe blackberries from a bush and pull a hammer from Dad’s work belt without being noticed. Off he’d gallop with the hammer in his mouth, Dad chasing him. Fences took some time to mend.
Dari. Cathy’s elegant, blood-bay Arabian. This beauty knew only one gait under saddle, the prance. A person can grow awfully tired of prancing awfully fast.
BD. Sweet like Melody. She helped me earn a place on the county rodeo court but couldn’t tell one end of a cow from another. She also didn’t understand the meaning of a jumping obstacle. I’d point her at one, and she’d kindly send me flying over it—solo. The lesson learned, that horses needed to be trained to jump, would send me in a new direction, three-day eventing.
I discovered Four Slats the summer I groomed at a local show stable. A top-ranked racehorse in his day, he ended up boarded and forgotten after his owner died in a car crash. When I told Dad of the stallion’s plight, he and our neighbor Rocky bought him. Four Slats was considered too old to be trained for the show circuit, and I, a minor, couldn’t legally show him anyway. He ended up in Eastern Oregon on Rocky’s ranch, siring crop after crop of gorgeous foals.
BD’s son, Tyke, grew up to be an intelligent, go-getting athlete. I trained him to compete in the sport of three-day evening. Nimble, he refused only one fence in competition—at the regional championships. Moments before we were called to start the cross-country run, a horse reared and fell over, knocking Tyke and me to the ground! Just as I finished checking if Tyke was alright, we were called to start. Off we cracked, flying over the first and second obstacles. Yet I still suffered butterflies from our fall and unthinkingly ran Tyke too fast at a demanding rail-coffin-rail obstacle. He balked, and I landed in the coffin. Twenty points plus time penalties dropped us from third to sixth place. Years later and under an owner who took him to the level of Prix St. George, Tyke made the cover of the US Dressage Foundation’s magazine. Talented fella.
When we bought Herba for the kids, we nicknamed her Reverse. If she didn’t want to do something, she simply shot backward. Fast. (She was the only horse to ever unseat Markus, meaning she made him a real horseman.) I rode her exclusively our first three months together to “bombproof” her; it worked. One time, I was out hacking my big black Irish horse, Bodhran, after dark. Celeste on Herba and a friend on an Arab rode alongside. Out of the darkness, a bobbing light came at us, a jogger wearing a headlamp. The Arab bolted, my dumb-dumb blindly following. Desperately worried about Celeste, I got Bodhran under control and back to Celeste on a staid Herba. “Where were you?” she asked. “Why did you run away?” Few horses can resist joining a bolting herd mate, but for Herba, Celeste’s safety had come first.
Bodhran was the dumbest horse I ever knew. Rearing with me once, he nearly flipped over backward, skewering me on a iron-rail fence. A white flower in the grass could send him bolting in a blind panic. God forbid, should he see his own shadow at night. Tiring of his headless bolting, I rode him to a steeply sloped field one day. I pointed him in the direction of home, which was heading downhill, and asked him to gallop. To plan, he bolted. I grabbed one rein short and pulled him ’round, so he found himself heading uphill. When he tried to stop, I urged him on. At the top of the field, he was lathered in sweat and plenty ready for the gentlest suggestion of whoa. That trick ended the bolting well and good. Not long afterward, I was heading home, Bodhran on the long rein, when some dude flying his remote-controlled plane decided it’d be fun to dive-bomb us. To my eternal surprise and relief, Bodhran didn’t flinch—no rearing, bucking, or bolting. Okay, I thought, let’s just turn this around. We picked up the gallop, and I aimed Bodhran at the idiot pilot. Seeing this big black Irish horse thundering his way, the wide-eyed pilot tossed his controller, abandoning his plane. He jumped into his car and roared off.
Weranja adored Markus and the kids. A dream jumper, she could be demanding under a dressage saddle. Out trail riding, you could race her to where she levitated, straighten your shoulders ever-so-slightly, and she’d be back in a gentle, rocking-chair canter. One time, the kids and I were galloping alongside a creek when Calvin gave a little cry. Weranja had bucked, popping him forward so that he sat on her neck just in front of the saddle. She abruptly stopped and dropped her head to graze, Calvin sliding down her neck and landing on his feet. A few months later, she repeated the trick with Celeste. The kids had gotten sloppy, allowing their legs to swing in the gallop, which Werjana detested. In the gentlest way, she taught my pair an invaluable lesson: keep your damn legs quiet!
Justin the big joker: one time, Markus and I took him and Weranja out for a walk, and Markus cut in front of Justin, who shoved his massive head between Markus’s legs, lifting him right off the ground! Justin loved being Celeste’s equestrian vaulting horse. He participated in her club’s spring training camp and its open-house event, introducing kids to the sport. At the end of the event, the kids lined up, nervously offering apples and carrots on outstretched palms. And Justin, acting like a king receiving tributes, allowed each child to pet his nose before he accepted their treats with grace. How bright his eyes shined.
Our house is built on a slope. The kitchen and dining room windows overlook a school and its athletic fields, and a huge walnut tree grows between the playground and our yard. When the tree’s leafed out, and I stand on our terrace or at the dining room window, I feel as if I live in a treehouse. Walnut trees sleep in. They take forever to leaf out but are the first to drop their leaves in the fall. While every other crown within view—the hazelnut, plum, cherry, and dogwood—is greening this time of year, the walnut tree looks lifeless. And if you gaze upwards into its highest branches, you’ll spot a magpie’s nest.
Our bedroom window also faces the walnut tree. Several years ago, we were awakened in the night by the sounds of animal screeches and screams, a terrific battle between two creatures of different species. In the morning, I spotted a trail of blood and black and white feathers on our terrace. The culprits must have overtaken the brooding female. I knew who they were.
At the time, the poor magpie lost her life, European pine martens nested in our roof space. We had the roof redone that same year, and the workers came across a cache of mummies. It included rats, a hedgehog, a chicken, and the magpie. When we redid the siding, the workers found trails chewed through our insulation. The builder tied scent bundles at strategic points around the house to discourage the martens from returning, which have worked, thank god! No more martens galloping over our heads in an evening. It’s incredible how much noise such a tiny animal can make. You’d have thought they were all outfitted with tiny, bespoke clogs.
Our neighbor, who hadn’t heard the fight, was delighted to learn that the martens had carried off one of the magpies. Killers, she calls the birds (not that she likes the martens any better). She claims to have witnessed a magpie slicing open the throat of a songbird, aggressions I know starlings are capable of. I don’t mind the magpies, their crisp white and iridescent black plumage, and how playful they are as a couple.
That widowed magpie found another partner quite quickly. The following spring, the pair built a nest atop a pine tree I can see from the kitchen window. For several years, they nested in the pine tree. Last year, for some reason, the pair decided to move, rebuilding the walnut tree nest. They raised a family there without incident.
Two weeks ago, I woke to screams equaling in volume to any rabid toddler’s tantrum and as lengthy as they were loud. Only as each tapered off, did the screams sound vaguely avian. One lead into another. After three or four, the decibels and duration began falling as if being lowered down a series of locks. When the screams stopped altogether, a dark silence followed.
I suspected martens to be involved in another attack, although I heard none of their usual predatory cries. “That’s it,” I thought, “they’ve got the female again.” My heart sank in pity for the male.
But the screaming started again and followed the same pattern in volume, duration and sad descent. A final, deathly silence reclaimed the night. And despite my heart aching for the pair, I fell back into a deep sleep.
At daybreak, I stood at the dining room window, peering up at the nest, now disheveled. A single magpie fluttered among the lower branches. When a pair of crows alighted beneath the tree, the surviving magpie chased them off. It treated several house sparrows with the same aggression, returned to the walnut tree’s branches, and pecked at one furiously. I read anger and despair into the behavior. Certainly grief.
Hours later, though, and with enormous relief, I spotted the second magpie sweeping by. As much as one partner seemed to be guarding the tree, the other seemed to be avoiding it. The second bird flittered from the playground to the pine tree and onto one of the floodlights of the sports fields. A day later, both were gone. Several days before they returned, and I don’t see them as often as I did before the night screams. The nest remains derelict, and one bird remains protective of the walnut tree while the other avoids it.
We all want to live in safety, to mitigate as much danger as possible. But when lethal forces breach our neighborhoods, homes, and sense of security, we scream, flee, lash out in despair and grief. In the case of martens and magpies, it’s clear what underlies the struggles between the two species, the need for sustenance versus the need to procreate. The need to survive.
With us, the biggest threat or act of violence we’re likely to suffer is intraspecific. What underlies this phenomenon? And what would it take to replace lessons in proliferating conflict with those supporting communion, dignity, and respect?
Several years ago, I worked for a machine manufacturing company owned by an Italian holding company (owned by a woman). Mr. C–, a man from a famous Milanese family with ties to the House of Grimaldi, headed the holding company. At a Christmas dinner one year, my husband and I were seated at Mr. C–’s table. Small talk fluttered around television shows, and Mr. C– said, “Why so many police and doctor shows?” He turned to his wife. “Engineers are just as sexy, aren’t we, darling?” Mrs. C– patted her husband’s forearm and said, “Engineers are boring, dear.” We all laughed. Mr. C–, in true boss fashion, laughed the boldest.
Surely a program about engineers could captivate an audience. Imagine a diverse team of sexy engineers, an Asian woman, a West African man, and a South American gent of indigenous and European ancestry. A pharmaceutical company’s late-stage-customization packaging line is down. Vaccine end-users depend on production and logistics adhering to tight schedules. Actually, life on earth depends on the team getting a malfunctioning printing unit operating 24/7 again. Hear the clock ticking? Now, add in complications: the team must work in clean conditions, but the Asian woman is an amateur equestrian, and she’s been exposed to an unknown pathogen at the luxury stable where she boards a gorgeous black Trakehner stallion; the South American’s running shoe has a bit of dog poo on it—in his rush to make his flight, he laced on the compromised shoes. And our West African engineer has the jitters. En route to the crippled manufacturing plant—in a hot and steamy location—his dear mother’s messaging about his cousin’s engagement to a surgeon. “When,” she asks, “are you planning to settle down with a lovely young lady, preferably a doctor or lawyer?” Not anytime soon, groan. He’s in love with the long-distance runner (that long black glossy hair! Those broad shoulders!) Tricky repairs and tight conditions in situ give our love angel the sweats, especially when the runner shares a secret. He’s in love with the equestrian (who, we learn, loves animals more than people).
Our team is turning to excessive energy drink consumption.
Sounds like a hit, right?
My dad studied chemical engineering. Fresh out of college, he worked for a petroleum company, a job he hated. “I never got to do the work I loved,” he explained. “I managed people.” He decided flying planes better suited him and joined the air force. A man in uniform, he wooed my mom.
When I was a toddler, Dad returned to school, doing his graduate work in industrial engineering. The air force then put him to work in procurement.
At forty-five, Dad retired from military service, joined a civilian company, and moved into contracts and negotiations. (The math geek also knew his grammar. His dad, a journalist and editor, came from a family that had owned small-town newspapers and a printing company.) I recall a time Dad thrilled at having saved his company “millions” by using precise contract language. “Their lawyers tried cracking our terms and failed!” Dad would have chuckled over an employee dispute that made the news recently. Due to a missing comma, a company had to pay out on its employment contracts.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Dad memories. Working on a DIY assignment from Mom, he measured a 2 x 4 to cut into lengths. “Ah, hah,” he said, tucking his pencil behind his ear. He stared at the board, nodded to himself, and reached for the pencil again. At the top of the board, he scribbled out a mathematical equation. He scratched his head with the eraser and scribbled more. “Right, right,” he kept saying to himself. Soon, equations covered the 2–meter length of the board. He straightened, stepped back, and smiled. “Well, well,” he said to me, “the old engineer’s still got it!”
The other day, I was tidying up our bedroom and came across a brown wool cardigan my late mother-in-law had knitted for her husband. For some reason, she ended up wearing the cardigan herself. It doesn’t button up and it has two pockets. I remember her wearing it around the house frequently. When she passed away, my father-in-law took to wearing the cardigan himself around the house and in the garden. It held up well. When he passed away, the cardigan came to me.
I’m surprised I still have it, actually. I’m surprised none of the kids have taken possession of it. I can imagine one of my daughters treasuring it—possibly even my son. There’s a small hole in the right arm. I can imagine it got snagged on one of my father-in-law’s roses. He had one planted in the garden that he’d taken from his childhood home; the original rose had belonged to his mother. He always talked with a great deal of love for his mother. I never met her. Sadly, she died when my husband was a teen.
My father-in-law kept a small watercolor hanging behind his desk of a cavalry soldier astride a handsome horse. “I had a horse like that, once, when I was in the military,” he told me. An Oldenburg, a German warmblood originally bred as carriage horses, they often had long legs and arching, high-set necks, perked ears and great intelligence. When off duty, the soldiers took their army horses home, and my young father-in-law did so with pride. He considered himself very lucky to have received such a fine mount. His father admired the handsome horse—but required that it earn its keep on the farm.
One day in late summer, while my young father-in-law attended school, the horse was hitched to a wagon used for the potato harvest and taken out into the fields. The elegant warmblood detested horseflies, and when one bit him, he bolted. Across the field, down the road, and through the cobblestone center of Zofingen, the horse galloped. I picture the wagon careening dangerously behind him—its load of potatoes long scattered. It ran until it either exhausted its fear or energy.
My father-in-law’s father wasn’t amused by the incident—luckily no one was injured. “I returned the horse to command the very next day,” my father-in-law told me, shaking his head. Most of us have known what it’s like to hold something we prize and admire only to have it slip away.
This morning, I put on that brown cardigan, and when my hands went into the pockets, my fingers found an ironed and folded handkerchief. It’d belonged to my mother-in-law who’s been gone nearly 20 years, now. She always carried a handkerchief—kept a stack of them in a cabinet by the dining table. How many years did my father-in-law wear this cardigan, finger the handkerchief as I’m doing, now?
It’s a little bit of heartache, missing my in-laws. Fine people. Fine pockets of memories.
The Swiss signage for a priority road is a diamond with a thick white border and canary yellow center. When the kids were little, they’d see one and shout, “Spiegelei!”—fried egg in German. Collect the most fried eggs on the drive from A to B, and you win!
I first learned to drive at the age of fourteen. Living in the country—we’d moved to Oregon after my dad retired from the air force—meant I qualified for a learner’s permit. Pass a written test, and I could drive in the company of a licensed adult. My brother was off at college, my sister never around, and Mom and Dad tired of being my driving buddy; soon, I journeyed solo. When I turned sixteen, I could have taken the full drivers exam, but driving course classmates told intimidating stories about malicious examiners. I dawdled. The summer before I left for college, though, Dad was doing insurance paperwork and asked for my license number. I brought him my expired permit, and he paled.
I funked my first driving test by failing to stop at train rails embedded in the street, remnants of an industrial spur that’d been abandoned circa WWII—or was that WWI? To either side of the pavement, not even gravel remained of the old spur. “If I’d stopped,” I argued with the examiner, “the driver behind us might have plowed right into my backend.” The same man failed my second attempt. We were stopped at a traffic light when an ambulance approached. Left of me was a traffic island; right of me, a column of cars. The examiner said I hadn’t “pulled over to allow the ambulance room to pass.” Seriously? On my third attempt, my nerves spiked higher than a cat’s back: I didn’t want the same examiner. I got lucky, even receiving praise for my driving skills. But oh, how my family teased me.
In 1990, I moved to Switzerland. Since I had a valid US license, the canton of Aargau issued me an Ausweis. Legal to drive, I hopped into our Opel, and off I went. Markus and I never went over any rules of the road or signage possibly alien to me, including the European concept of priority roads.
Five years later, we lived on the Île-de-France and Normandy border west of Paris. At a T-intersection one day, a driver turning left cut across my lane. I slammed on my brakes. Luckily, no kids were with me. I complained to Markus about the weird intersection, drivers frequently honking at me there. He paled and said, “Take me to it.”
Well, I learned about the fried egg and its vital cousin with the bold black line, informing me when I did or didn’t have priority. All those drivers honking at me? They’d been on the priority road and I should have céder le passage.
Rights of way might not always appear logical. It’s best to understand the signage.
The year I turned twenty-one, the magical age when I could legally drink in the state of Oregon, my sister phoned to congratulate me and tell me how the day wouldn’t be all that special. “It’s just like any other,” she said. “You think you’re going to be different but you’re not.” Her wisdom spoiled the excitement I’d been feeling up to that point, and I wondered why she’d wanted to share such thoughts. I think I can count on one hand the number of times my sister has phoned me—probably the number of times I’ve spoken to her on the phone, too. And I don’t know if that’s because of her or because of me. Perhaps, mutual neglect binds us.
Shortly after that call, though, I set off to classes and to study at the library. On the way back to my room—in a rambling Victorian beauty—I made my first purchase of beer, enough for myself, my roommates, and to celebrate. Other than that purchase, the day turned out as ordinary as my sister had predicted. I didn’t even get drunk.
Her words have cast a long shadow, though. Not altogether dark. I’ve used them to console myself on birthdays considered hard: the shock of turning thirty, the disbelief of turning forty, the dismay of turning fifty, and the denial of turning sixty. The last happened in 2020.
I’ve also thought of them at the start of each new year, especially this one. Appropriate, isn’t it, recalling my sister’s words as the 21st century turns twenty-one?
So little seems to have changed from yesterday to today. Still, in a time when the devil of disaster spins close at hand, contrasts abound. I experienced dread and anxiousness last year, yet every morning, I woke with a tingle, happy to come into another day healthy and unscathed. I lost no one close to me, no family member or friend, but was denied access to them. Their absence made me ache for their company and long for “normal” times. I continued to work, having everything I needed already set up at home, but had to share my space with other family members working at home—their presence comforting. I sent off my stories, sticking to a rigorous schedule I’d created for myself at the prompting of several writers I’d met at the start of the year. Thanks to their encouragement to submit my work, many of my pieces found homes, one even earning a nomination for the prestigious Pushcart.
I’m pinching myself for last year’s personal successes. I’m also right back at my desk, my head down. There’s much work to do.
There are also last-year worries unrelated to the pandemic. Maybe this year is an opportunity for improvement or at least stability. I hope things don’t repeat themselves or worsen—
Ah, I’m being secretive; for that, I apologize; but here’s the lesson: this private concern and the pandemic have taught me that the list of Things Not to Take for Granted burns as long and bright as a comet’s tail. The cosmos of the unknown can be fearfully dark and unfathomable, yet it’s constellated with bright twinkles of hope. Fixations. Destinations.
How extraordinary for the ordinary to radiate so brightly in our lives, every day a pulse of light like any other—yet like no other.
While out on a lockdown walk this spring, I passed by our local schoolhouse and discovered a patch of strawberries. Jutting up from a slew of green leaves, tiny fruits white and plump hung heavily on delicate stems. Several days in a row, I eyed the white fruits, waiting for them to blush and redden. They didn’t. Instead, the fattest simply disappeared. I puzzled several days over the repeated disappearance of the fattest berries before wading into the patch to investigate. Those fat white fruits had shriveled or dropped without ever reddening. Could there be ripe strawberries that stayed white? I picked the plumpest hanging nearby and popped them into my mouth. Yes, yes, yes. Delicious
Back home, I opened a search. My laptop screen filled with the images of white strawberries—field- and wild-sized. I grabbed a measuring cup and marched back to the patch.
Every few days, I’d collect whatever had ripened, popping them into the freezer. Frequently, as I picked, an elderly gent, heading to his kitchen garden, passed by. One time, he asked what in the world I was up to.
“Strawberries.” I showed him a handful of my treasures. “Zufällig weisse”; they happened to be white.
“Oh, no,” he said. “Those are green strawberries.”
I smiled and countered, “They’re ripe all right—they just happen to be a white variety.”
He looked at me sadly and shook his head. “Those are green.” From that point on, every time he passed me, he’d give me a curt wave and sad smile.
My nifty find is everbearing, luckily. Owing to our desperately mild fall, they produced berries up through mid-November. As the season deepened, though, I lost an increasing number of berries to juvenile slugs, tiny black commas boring into the fruits’ sweet cores. I didn’t like the competition. Had they been able to realize my presence, I’m sure they would have liked me worse.
Someone with a large dog allowed the animal to do its business in the patch. Once, as I swept my hand over the leaves to expose any hidden berries, I found the body of a common blackbird (Turdus merula). Most likely, it’d flown into one of the school’s large windows, breaking its neck. I watched its decomposition. Once it was down to feathers and bone, something carried it away—maybe that pooping dog, surprising its delinquent owner. A marten was probably the true culprit.
A good week rewarded over a hundred grams of berries, and the season, eking into mid-November as it did, finally yielded my goal: a kilo of frozen fruit, enough for jam-making. Last week, I baked scones, and Markus and I opened a small jar. The flavor is magnificently intense. There’s no mistaking the taste of strawberries, even if the golden-brown color is off-putting. If I were more proud than greedy, I’d take a jar to the elderly gardener who pitied the strange lady picking “green” berries. But I can imagine his reaction without making a sacrifice.
It’d be a shame if someone were to destroy the patch. And not unlikely. So, I brought home runners to transplant in our yard and successfully grew several handfuls of plants from seed. I anticipate spring already, when I can catch next season’s crop from the start.
Considering these strange times, it’s a comfort to be close to something that is simply carrying on in life, its narrative unchanged and unchecked.
My maternal grandfather, born in 1911, grew up in the Texas Hill Country. Granddaddy and his twin brother, Calvin—third or fourth generation Texans, depending on which side of his family you consulted—didn’t learn English until shortly before entering first grade. In their community, everyone spoke Texasdütsch, a dialect of German. When Granddaddy married my grandmother, of English descent, he all but quit speaking Texasdütsch. And during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when my mother and her siblings came along, German wasn’t terribly popular in the US, as you can imagine, so he never taught his children his childhood language.
A few words did trickle down to the grandkids. We reflexively said, “Gesundheit,” when someone sneezed, and we called our bellybutton a “Bellyschnabel.” When I was in college, I met a German exchange student and rattled off my merger German vocabulary, including “Bellyschnabel.” His look of confusion alarmed me. Turns out, my family’s word for bellybutton was just that: a family word.
Granddaddy, a scientist who went jogging every morning at five, suffered a series of strokes when he was in his eighties that began with memory loss. One evening, he returned upset from a course he taught on Texas wildflowers at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. He hadn’t been able to recall the Latin name of a specimen—this was a man who’d written a book about Texas wildflowers that’s still in print, who could rattle of a list of names a native herb had and relate any number of tales about it, how, for instance, the Indians had used it and then the settlers. For soap, to dye, or heal a burn.
Eventually, Granddaddy lost the ability to speak. My grandmother, whom we called GrandDoris, read to him daily, an exercise he enjoyed, but the pleasure of discussing books, music, gardening, and photography was over—until his older sister came to visit. Much to GrandDoris’s astonishment, the siblings struck up a deep conversation; they were speaking Texasdütsch! Around this time, I lived abroad. I’d married to a Swiss native and immersed myself in another German dialect, Schwyzerdütsch. I never got to try out my skills with Granddaddy; he passed away shortly after his conversation with his sister.
Now, with my understanding of German, I’ve gone back to thinking about that curious word “Bellyschnabel.” By my reckoning, it could be a mash-up of English and Texasdütsch (which itself is quite a mash-up). Having raised three trilingual kids (English, German, and French), I know too well, how mixed languages can get. “Hocken” is the verb the Swiss Germans use for sitting (as do the Pennsylvania Dutch, many of whom have Swiss roots). If our son left a seat for a second and returned to find it occupied, he’d say, “Hey, I was hocking there!” For some reason, I always think of the more vulgar definition of “to hawk” when I hear this construct. (We got a good laugh, anyway, watching Finding Nemo and hearing “Mount Wannahawkaloogie,” the fish-tank volcano’s name.)
(Our eldest daughter holds the Family Polyglot Prize. One evening at the dinner table, she put down her cutlery, pushed away her cleaned plate and said, “I am schon finis!”)
The German word for navel is “Nabel,” so couldn’t “Bellyschnabel” be “belly’s Nabel” with a Germanic-pronunciation twist to better fasten the words together?
Who knows? Sometimes mysteries are best left mystifying.
On the last day of September, a sunny and warm day, I drove to St. Gallen to pick up a friend being checked out of the hospital there. He’d undergone surgery and had asked if I’d please drive him home so he wouldn’t have to navigate public transportation on crutches or call a taxi; he knows I like getting out and about.
A coffee aficionado, he treated me to an Americano and conversation at his favorite café. We caught up and resisted every urge to plan—jettisoning talk about Thanksgiving 2020 and forays to Turin.
At his place, in Liechtenstein, I pulled out a jar of Bols Genever I’d infused for four weeks with wild blackberries. He’s also a bit of a cocktail maven, and I’d considered throwing in an overnight kit in case I couldn’t resist being plied with drink—but there was work to consider, and I didn’t want to presume packing my laptop, so I didn’t. His mix, one part infused Bols, one part Jensen’s gin, and lemon tonic water, worked. It worked well. We nursed the drink, nibbled on slices of pecorino, and discussed at length what might take the mix to the next level, settling on a sprig of basil. Just as well, we didn’t have basil. I hadn’t packed that overnight kit, mind.
Heading home well after it’d grown dark, I turned onto the highway onramp. A near full moon peeked out from behind the rugged and handsome Mittagspitz peak, and I gasped at the beauty and surprise of the moment. I wanted to stop and savor the scene and especially what it evoked in me, pleasure, appreciation, and thankfulness for the shores Chance has washed me upon.
Onramps are no place to stop. Only for an emergency should you separate yourself from a highway’s function. So, with a dose of regret, I found my place in the flow of traffic, set cruise control, and enjoyed my journey home as best I could. Highways may not be about pausing to connect or reflect on beauty and blessings, but friends are.