Friday, October 18, 2013

Myth and Reality

Word is you are done with us
We have pushed all the limits
Too far and temperatures are
Soaring. Not long now and we
Will find ourselves extinct. The
Victims of unmitigated greed.

Not surprisingly you gave us all
The warnings. Starting in the 60s
They came as premonitions and
Foretellings from many shamans
And aquarians. We had the choice
To listen. But who could want to

Hear, amid the rev of cars, the
Whir of floppy drives, the beat of
The industrial machines making
Things, our prized possessions?
We were entranced, bethralled,
Enrapt in a dream of having it all.

Now we approach the point of
Drowning or baking ourselves to
Death. We hold the lives of other
Species in our hands. It may be
Too late. Yet we argue over the
Existence of climate change.

Mankind has truly gone insane.
Not-god has become God and
The gods are laughing as we
Bring each other down. History
And mythology have merged.
We are writing the folly of humans.

We read the stories of our past
Ancestors and laugh at the simple
Tales even as we recreate them.
How could Troy have fallen for that
Trojan horse? How can we have
Hope of writing a new story?

Settle into the silence of that
Glacier after it crashes. Who is
Left standing? How will we stand
With them. What can we grow in
This heat, and how will we share
It? Who will build the boat we sail?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Coming of Age on the Trail

     No moon on this crisp mid-September night. The shadows were looming dark, and even huger than he'd remembered. You'd think you could tell direction by those boulders and mountains but it was as if they were ever-changing, ever-moving. Every time Bubba made this trip there was a new mountain along the trail, he could swear there was. Was he going daft? No, maybe it was the native spirits playing tricks with him again as they had on other drives. But high above, it was still the same sparkling stars in the sky, the same constellations as every other fall on the trail, though they seemed in his mind to be slightly off kilter (but that must be his mind slipping with age, what else could it be?) Still, a cowboy told direction by the stars and the sun, and they were the constants of life on the trail. They were the same for the natives and for the cowboy, on that they agreed.
      He'd always wanted The Position. Now he had it, Bubba Briscoe, Head Foreman. This was it. The last run. Barely enough cattle to make it worth it. But what else was there to do? He knew nothing else. And even though there was no one else to answer to him but the cattle, the position was his and he would live up to it, sure as if they were running a full crew. He had Franco, and he had the cattle. They needed him. And he needed them. He needed to prove that he could do it. He knew nothing about what else he would do when this was over. As the stars sprung out in that black sky, everything else was a mystery to him. Everything but the cows wandering across the barren scenery before him, and the saddle resting under his seat beneath him. No past, no future, just mystery. All his life he had aimed for the big job, The Position, the head honcho, the big dog, the Driver, the lead man, and now he had it, but what did it matter. No one would ever know. No one would ever celebrate with him. There would be no one waiting at the end of the road, no one to raise a glass, no one to run those dawgies in through the chute. In fact, where was he even going? A man in The Position ought to be going somewhere. Where was he going? He looked to the stars again. Had they shifted on him that fast?
      Rations were getting scarce. That was another thing he knew about. Wasn't it his job to keep everyone fed? When he thought about the rations, he thought about when rations were hand-canned, hand-raised vegetables and meats, peeled and cooked and seasoned in the old country kitchen in the big white house where his great-grandmama's mama had canned tomatoes and jalapeños. He had one jar of hand-canned jalapeños in amongst the few other bought rations and he'd been saving them for a last cooked meal along the trail. Jalapeños were a blessing and a curse. Too hot to handle yet the one thing that brought life to your innards when you thought you were too tired to go on. And they brought life to food that might have long since died as well, and kept it from making you sick along the trail. For that reason alone, they were worth having.
      Bubba Briscoe shifted in his saddle as he gave a little more heel to Franco to spur him on. It was the beginning of a long dark night and the shadows of all the geography loomed like monsters over the herd as Bubba slowly moseyed them along. He was alone, truly alone. Unless you counted how he talked to the cattle. Or himself. “Bubba,” he said, “this is a serious thing you've gotten yourself into. These dawgies are depending on you, and you don't even know where you are going. You have The Position and they know it. They have followed you out into this desert like blind mice and what have you gotten them into? They are foraging for grass that is getting thinner and thinner and they have ceased even raising their noses for water, and you, you are running them around in circles like a danged fool. You earned this Position, now start acting like it!” A sigh heaved out of him that caused Franco to throw his mane over his left side and peer with a curious eye back towards his friend. Franco never doubted Bubba. He couldn't afford to. But Franco didn't let him stray too far either. That was his job and he was known for doing his job well. For Franco, the deal was not the end of the road but the journey. All of his life had been spent on the trail and on the long journey with Bubba. Knowing was a word familiar to the two but never uttered because it was not needed. Being was a word that described their manner together.
      As Bubba's hand rested comfortably on his friend's soft shoulder, it was like sitting in his favorite arm chair. “Something's up with them dawgies Franco, can ya feel it?” Bubba said it as a mutter, almost as to himself, but Franco already knew and was headed off in the direction of the one hanging back and the others nodding and turning out of curiosity. It's like that with cattle; they are natural born followers, never leaders at all. They spend their lives waiting for the leader to emerge and one never does, so they are like communers in a cathedral of the lonely, waiting to be led to slaughter by the charismatic Christian cleric. Bubba and Franco innately knew this and they prided themselves on rising above taking advantage of this simple, soft trait of these gentle beings, and joined with them rather than abuse their nature.
     Franco sauntered in their direction as Bubba cast his eyes towards the loner cow. Bubba knew it was bad to mix cows and cattle on a trek, but these days there were too few to separate them. He'd told the boss not to ship him out with this mess of a herd but here he was. Well he would deal with whatever was dealt to him, because that's what you do and that's what he'd always done. As they rounded the bend, it seemed the cattle were lost behind another obstacle. What were those things? Tarnation he said to himself and to Franco. Civilization keeps creeping in on these poor critters 'til there's barely a space for the grass to grow. No wonder they're scared. Sounds like mating turkeys and thundering buffalo up from the valley below but all that could be seen was a distant yellow mist like gas vapors rising off a swamp. In the desert? Maybe he was going crazy from lack of food and water. Bubba shook his head to shake the spirits out – not time for this now, my animals need me. Franco shook too, shaking the flies off, and casting a worried glance back. “What're you lookin' at? Get on now!” Now, where was that darn cow.
      Something stirred in his brain, like a voice calling from afar, and he felt like something was pulling at him from somewhere, like he'd forgotten something he was supposed to do, but he shook it off. This was way too important and he was wishing he could snap himself out of this fuzz that had taken him over and get back to his job. This was no time to have one of his spells come over him...
      Dozing in the saddle was something he'd gotten used to over the miles and years, but this was ridiculous. It seemed like every time he looked up instead of a few paces, miles had gone by. He was beginning to think Franco was losing his touch. Instead of being out in the open range, here they were on the edge of another town. And just over yonder to the left was another gaseous, noisy mass – what was that stuff anyway? Tarnation! You could barely hear Matilda's bleating for all the crickets in that swamp. Must have been some damn sight rainy monsoons down this way this past summer, while he was up north getting the herd. What a strange season. “I'm comin' Matilda!” he yelled, and gave Franco a squeeze behind the girth, and off they loped in her direction. Of all things, he noticed as he rode up, she was lookin' fat when everyone else was wastin' away in the dry sparse heat. Was she fat, or...
      “My heavens, Matilda, you can't be havin' a winter calf this early!! Could you? We've miles to go before the stock yards (I think, he said to himself warily). Get on girl, don't you lie down now, it's not your time!” Franco prodded the heifer with his nose, as though he knew what Bubba was saying and the cow moved out, but slowly. She clearly had something else on her mind, tongue hanging out a little, eyes drooping, panting, tail up. “Move on out, girl!!”
      Clouds were covering many of the stars and shadowing the sky, yet there was a haze of blue light around the area. Eerie, like the spirits were telling him something. Ohhhh jeeez, he said to himself. I haven't seen a time like this since '76 when the Teton Dam broke. I was still a greenhorn then, just getting used to life on the range. We almost drowned the whole crew and the herd, along with the other 10,000 or more who floated away. If my Daddy hadn'ta heard the roar and run us all like hell up that mountain not a one of us would be doin' this run today. (Now would that be so bad, he thought, but pushed it out of his mind. He'd thought it was native spirits then too, but it turned out to be the Civil Patrol helicopters coming in from overhead trying to guide way for the many herdsmen trying to find safety.) Still this had an even more eerie quality to it.
      Franco looked thin and worn out and tired. His coat was rough and rain-rotted in places. Hadn't he looked younger just a few minutes ago? "Better give him a rest," Bubba thought, as he threw his leg over the top and bounded off to take look at Matilda, his favorite heifer. She looked thinner too, yet there was that fat belly. Ooffh, he grunted as he landed hard, maybe I've got less meat on my bones too.
      When did Franco let her get on the ground like that? Matilda was breathing harder than he thought necessary. There was no turning back now. He stroked her head. “Watcha doin' here girl? You should have been left home in the pens with the other girls. Who brought you out on this drive? You ain't goin' in no stock pen. Nobody is gonna make steak outta you. You been breedin' the best calves on the ranch since my daddy started runnin' the herd. Somebody is gonna take a beatin' over this...” Then he stopped and he breathed as hard as her and his heart started beating fast and a sweat broke on his brow so quick he had to pull his bandanna from his pocket. Was HE responsible for Matilda being brought on the drive? He had the Position. It was his responsibility. If she DIED it was on him and only him.
      “Where is that damn moon when you need it!” He cursed at God, the spirits, the Moon, anyone and no one at all. Matilda needed him and that was that. No amount of tiredness, no amount of food or water or sleep or lack of it was going to make up for what was needed now. “Franco, watch the herd,” he said, and Franco was on it, no sooner than he'd pulled his saddle and bed roll and rations off his back. No need for the gelding to be saddled with more weight than necessary; he already pulled twice his weight out here. Franco needed no mount to know that his job was to keep the herd rounded up while the trail boss tended to the neediest one.
      On the ground, next to her, small brownish-red triangles of hardened earth bearing black pieces of long lost languages. “I knew it! Curse you damn Spirits! I knew this was a test!” The rough stoneware shards couldn't have shown up by accident. “Of all the times to play tricks, not now. This is not just my own life your messing with. The old girl needs me.”  As if to agree, the old heifer bleated soulfully and gazed up at him with her brown wet eyes and long, long lashes.
      Bubba was transported to a place long ago. He was barely 16 years old, the summer before his first run from Idaho all the way down to the Texas stockyards. It was a night as moonless as any, stars bright enough to wish upon, and Emma Matilda Swensen and he were on the wraparound porch of Grammama's White House, swinging on the swing, talking about what was to come. “I wish I could ride out with you,” she crooned, “I'm good enough, and you know it!” She blushed, and he looked out over the hills.
      “You know girls don't go on cattle drives Emma May! It's just too much. Besides, it's against tradition. If it wasn't, my maw woulda been out with my paw years ago. Besides, you got school. And your little brother to tend to. And the cannin' and gard'nin'. All that stuff.” He could feel himself blushing, just thinking of her alongside him in the range, in the dark, by the fire.
      “Sure, just like your maw never woulda gone with your paw anyway. There's always farms to run and dishes to wash and aww, shoot. You better watch out, or I might be married off before you even get back. I might get to raisin' horses and ridin' in the girls rodeo and run off with some bull-rider and wouldn't that just serve you right for goin' off and leavin' me!”
      It had never even occurred to him she'd think of anyone else but him. It never occurred to him there was any other life. He'd been waiting to go on a cattle drive since he was 6 years old. That was the first year that he wondered where his papa was when he got home from school. That was the first year he was lonely for the menfolk and realized he was one of them. And ever since he'd longed for the day that he would ride out with them and cease to be one of the women and the children. It had never occurred to him he would have to choose between the girl he loved and the man he wanted to become. And there it was, the night before his first drive, the biggest choice of his life and no time to think or make it in.
     So he rode out. And he rode out every year after that. He never looked back. Every spring, and every fall, of every year of his life right up to this one, the last ride of his life. It all came down to this moment with Miss Matilda here, and the new life she was bringing into the world. If only he could shake this nagging feeling that something wanted to pull him away from her. “Wake up you old coot,” he said to himself. “Matilda needs your every nerve. Pay her mind.”
      On the ground, the heifer was heaving back and forth trying to get the calf out, but Bubba Briscoe could see, from his years of experience, that this was not going to be an easy birth. Normally cattle need no help from humans to take care of themselves. They simply go off to a quiet place and within minutes they're down, up and licking off the afterbirth, urging their new babes to stand. But between the dryness, the lack of grass, the unfamiliar noises, and the general restlessness of the herd, Matilda was in trouble. It seemed that calf was coming out sideways, so Bubba was going to help with the birth. And Matilda was running out of steam before she was halfway through.
      “Easy now sweetheart, we can do this together, we can. I know you're tired, and I've almost forgotten you, but I'm here now, I am.” He stroked her brow and around those huge brown eyes, speaking so softly to soothe her as he looked into her eyes, into her soul. He was thinking of all the times he'd left her alone, struggling with his decisions. He pushed on her belly tentatively, softly, feeling for where the baby was. “I know you're hurting darling, but we can do this together, we can.”
      She panted and stuck out her tongue to lick his hand, but she was so dry, her tongue was like sandpaper and just dragged across the top of his hand, scratching him. “Oh momma, I got no more water in my canteen, no more.” Tears dripped from his eyes onto her tongue and she sucked them in gratefully. More, her eyes pleaded. He grasped for his ration bag, and searched through only to find the jar of tomatoes and jalapeños, the only thing left that had any juice to it. “Do I dare?” he asked himself. “Bleeeeeeeaaaaaaa,” she pleaded
with him.
      “Oh sweetheart, honestly? It might burn your tender insides...” but when he looked in her eyes, he could tell she would try anything, so he opened the jar, threw the tomatoes aside, took the final jalapeño and chewed it himself, hoping it would clear his mind finally, and then gently, tenderly, tipped the wide mouth jar to her mouth, so her tongue could reach inside.
She lapped the insides up as though she couldn't taste the hotness, refreshed by the wetness first then, suddenly, JOLTED by the heat...
      She leaped to her feet, and as she leaped her body rolled, and the belly rounded, and gentleness of the moment was over as things were now in motion. “MOOOOAAAA” was the sound of her first push and the head of her calf was out, as Bubba climbed to his feet and stood to catch the big babe. “MAAAAAAOOOOOOO” and another push and the feet came with a gush of blood and water and all Bubba could do was guide as the cow was almost dancing to get that baby out. “MMMMMMMMMAAAAAAAAAA” And out came the hind legs and suddenly on the ground was a bloody mess of a calf and Matilda turned to start licking off the head of a beautiful brown calf with pale black zig-zag markings on its head. Bubba Briscoe knelt to pet the head of a calf that was the finest feeling he'd ever had, like velvet, no, as soft, well, as soft as silk...a true miracle birth. He bowed his head to give thanks to the spirits.
      “Mr. Briscoe! Mr. Briscoe! What is all that yelling and moaning going on in here?
What in the world are you doing holding on to that deerskin? I knew they shouldn't have ever let him have that god awful hide in here. Here, LET GO! Honestly, that thing is probably full of bugs. Puh-leasse, get back in bed. Where's that buzzer...Francine, I need some help with Mr. Briscoe, he's out of bed and out of control again. Help me get him in restraints, please.”
      Where was he? What was this place with its dull green walls and its bed with the bars? They'd tied him down, like a crazy man, and here he was, no clothes, just a sheet and some leg and wrist straps. He felt no different than a stock calf shackled and ready for branding. “OUCH!” What was that – not a branding iron but something stuck him in the shank. Off to sleep he drifted...
      That sweet little calf wasn't still for very long. A few pats, a few strokes on the head, and mama Matilda had finished licking with her sandpaper tongue and up he stood on his rubber-legs. Then it seemed like Bubba and Franco and the whole herd were alert once again and gathered around to laugh at the silly little thing. First light was just dawning pink over the horizon and it was the blamedest thing, all those houses and roads and highways just bursting out from the foot of the mountain spreading out like weeds running up from the ground. Was this a trick the sun gods played on him overnight? He had no time to think about it. The calf was calling for his attention.
      “I'll have to call you Lightning for that crazy blaze you've got there” Bubba said. “Partly for how fast you made up your mind to get movin' up and out of your mama, and partly to pay tribute to the spirits that got you here. If it wasn't for the heat in that jalapeño juice, who knows if you'd ever a'been born!” He and Matilda breathed a sigh of relief. It was sunrise, but the herd was all tired.
      Bubba knew he ought to be saddling up and riding on. But with a new calf, it was going to take awhile to get back on the trail. And hell, he had the Position now. And who was there to argue with him. Franco looked spent. Bubba knew that he was. And the new little son, he had a long way to go yet, so he could bear with a little rest before he began his journey. So as the sun dawned over the horizon, instead of moving up and out, Bubba's holy trinity settled down for a good long-deserved rest.
     When the grey-haired morning-shift nurse came in the room, pink morning light was streaming in through the sheer curtains of the tiny room's one window. As she leaned over to take Mr. Briscoe's vitals, all was peaceful and well. A tear came to her eye as she pulled the cover up to his chin. “Rest well Bubba Briscoe,” she said, “Your long ride is over.” And Nurse Emma May laid his favorite hide blanket right on his lap where he loved it so well and folded his hands on top. “Yep, I know,” she said, “Smooth as silk.” With that she brushed his forehead with a good-bye kiss.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Praying for the Children who are Praying

I'm praying for the children,
who are reaching out for something.
So often they are crying, 
as I pass them in the stores.
Their moms are busy shopping, 
not usually for their children. 
Just a little bit longer, honey,
hold on, I hear them mutt'ring, 
as their children see me sighing, 
while I'm closing my eyes and praying, 
that they'll see the Light inside me.
for strangers should not talk.
Inside I am screaming, don't you
Even see what you are doing?
Kill another bit of spirit -- squash
one   Light and push it down,
 with bits of tears and anguish
that they'll fight to get back later.
God I see them when they're grown up
And they can't remember  years
And they swear that they had good ones
But there is no good inside.
So I'm praying for the children,
who are reaching out for something.
So often they are crying, 
as I pass them 'long the way.
Their moms and pops are shopping
and maybe its for the children, but
they're to small to know that
as they pass along the way.
So I smile the sweetest smile,
its my secret way of praying and 
I'm sending out that sweet sweet Light
so sweet I cannot say!
And I meet them and I greet them with
a smile in my eyes and heart because
I want to be the spark of Light 
that kindles Light in them.
I hope that someone meets them someday
When they're all grown up successful
And their contemplating marriage with
their most congenial spouse
Someone who'll ask them questions like
What's touched you deepest in your life
What's meant the most to you my friend
When you stop to sort it out?
Then I'm hoping they'll remember it's
Not the giant talking Elmo
Or the Fantastic Warriors video game
That touched their inner self
But the tweaked cheek from a grandma,
Or the smile from a stranger
On a day that they were crying 
And they thought that no one heard.
So I hope You smile at Children when
you see them when they're praying
with their hands out and their crying
Even when there are no words.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

'Tis the Season

I know how hard it is to crawI out when your whoIe seIf feeIs dark

But try, just try to reach a finger out to your community

Wrap yourseIf in your favorite scarf Iike swaddIing and come

Iike a newborn babe escaping from the womb, not sure,

yet bound to be borne into this worId, ready or not.

We are waiting to receive you, we are ready, we are

waiting in siIent worship for the gift we have been promised,

yet we know not what the Present wiII bring.  We just know

there is a Promise and we beIieve, where two or more

are gathered there is Iove, there is Iight, there is you

and I and others, gathered, waiting in the dark.

Waiting for the miracIe that has aIready happened --

Waiting for the miracIe that is the Iight that IS us.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stirring the Pot

When first I rise my head from off the pillow
And gaze through foggy eyes out on the day
I scarce have woke my brain when thoughts are stirring
Beckoning me to meet the tasks that weigh.

I stumble in to wash my teeth and face and hands
I grapple with the tending of the coffeepot.
The animals beckon me out to nature's calling
As thoughts spin round my brain, enrapt, enthralling

As walking in the rain I view my garden,
Then thoughts of the bright blooms there entice me.
I imagine I must be weeding, tending, fauning,
this task inclined to be the most important..

Next moment barely pausing, I hear my phone ring
And another's plight is harkening to me
I'm rapt by the intensity of their story
And pulled towards the whirl of another's mourning.
I truly have had days like this,
Where each moment drifted on to next, then next, then next
And seeking I failed to find where I was going,
Or what I believed was my own true path.

Like a soup of many bright ingredients rising,
sinking, swimming, falling all within it
My mind spins from its vortex outward, mixing
Striving to make a medley of the chaos.

There's work, there's play, there's toil, there's service,
Each seems as important, each seems the best.
Soon the simplest decisions have overwhelmed me
And I'm paralyzed, seeking the more right path

Such is the movement of my human mind each moment
It scarcely takes a second's pass to hear a voice
Of each 'important' notice, each electron firing
Scattering thoughts, then gathering, sorting.

This is the nightmare of the ego,
Which seeks ever to be the most important
But failing to consider the greater whole
Spins aimlessly in the great morass

So I seek the God of my understanding,
I filter the soup through  well-wrought strainer
Built of a mesh of time worn lessons
And an inner voice that speaks of we, not me.

The soup of my life needs stirring, yes.
But it also thrives in careful tenderness.
The soulful simmering of new ideas
adds seasoning and flavor and subtle tastes.

I'm captivated by the stirring,
Much less enthralled by the patient seasoning.
My ego's a fan of the freeze dried, microwave meal,
But my soul depends on careful preparation.

I'm the one who puts the stew-pot on
And gives it a quick whisk, pours the fresh stuff in,
Then pulled by a new task, turns my back on it,
Forgetting to turn the heat down, 'til I smell the mess.

So It's I who need the soulful simmering,
The tenderness of a soft spoon stirring.
It's I who take the careful tending, and the
tolerant watchful eye of a well-trained chef.

Prayer is the act of that patient chef,
Tolerance the fruit of the awaited gift,
What seems to me to be just adequate
might on waiting be exactly love's intent.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Spirits of Spring

Tremulous tendrils of frail spring flowers,
Pushing up from the undergrowth;
Softly speaking from their quiet dens,
As wandering, I ponder them..

A yellow trout lily gently tilts its head,
Muttering words 'bout its muddy bed.
It was a long hard journey out, she says,
It took me pushing for all I had.

Fairweather mayapple nods assent:
"Water makes for fine new friends,
As it scours the riverbed on its course,
And leaves us with newfound neighbors to tend."

Such is the life of the forest floor,
Where never a day passes by for naught.
Where every action has its reason,
Bringing about each turn of the season

The little dutchmans' breeches, then,
Swagger about to call me in.
Only when I stoop can I see,
The reason they are calling to me

For beneath their ferny feathers lie
The seeds of yet another friend:
Little round leaves pushing forth to the sky,
Bring bluebells breathing a soulful sigh..

Can you hear the colors? The cacophony
Of green and yellow and blue and pink.
Like a symphony from the brown has sprung,
In miniature tunes, great harmony.

Twinleaf blooms under bladderbush
Sweetshrub above trillium and yes its true,
There's wildest blue delphinium there,
Daring the rest: "Come join the choir!"

In spring, my heart will open again,
If only I can just take to the woods,
And quietly bring my soul inside
To listen, to ponder, to breathe in deep

The loudest songs are not the birds for me,
But the quiet callings of the native flora.
They'll  beckon only if you're willing to bend
To hear the mysteries in the undergrowth.

Long long ago, a native friend said,
Why do you give your heart's power away?
Listen, don't talk, listen to all,
And hold it tenderly to your breast.

There you will find the heart of the earth
With all its gifts at your fingertips
His advice has never failed me since
Nor have the words of the native plants.

Here's geranium shy, as I'm passing by,
Shining a smile in her cool, cool pink.
She tells me its time to shed winters pallor,
And come to the pool where the new sprouts gather.

They're teasing me, these new little shoots,
Challenging me to call them by name.
They know mine, they never forget,
So how could I offer them any less.

The tiny palms of rue anemone,
Remember every inch of me
And brushing my feet as I bustle by,
They slow me to hear their murmurings.

These are my truest friends, you know,
The fairy spirits of the forest below,
Who return life each spring to our cherished world
And herald the dawning of life renewed.

God above, or fairy below.
I know no difference between you two.
The flowers tell me the story true,
That we are all one, and all with you.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Queen of the Farm

22 November 2009
Linda Wilk

In an age before the world was turning from farms into suburbs, long before the city riots of '68, we lived on the edge of our town's main farm in central New Jersey. It was the family farm: my uncle's, who was actually my father's cousin, but it was all family then. We lived in the small older home, Uncle Clarence lived in the upstairs of the more modern farm house, across the way. The Tenants lived downstairs from him, and old grizzly (really gentle) Mr. Walker lived in the converted chicken coop behind the two houses. Our house was actually newer than the cottage it was attached to, which was a falling down shack that bristled ol' Uncle John (who was nobody's uncle that we knew of) lived in until it actually began to sag in the roof. Then he moved down the road to the old well house, which fit him as he was a plumber of sorts. In between our property and the Farm were three houses, remnants of the Great Depression when pieces of land had to be sold off to keep things going. The pieces sold were the ones that were least useful to the family, so the woods and rocky parts got sold to Strangers, and the family property got divided.

At the real Farm house (our property wasn't really a farm any more except for the truck we raised to feed ourselves and-oh, truck is vegetables to us farm folks, you know, the stuff you truck to market). The Farm was the old, big original family place down the lane, over the creek. Like a few of the really old places in town, it didn't have electric to speak of. The main house had a line that ran some lights and the plumbing, but the rest of the place was run on kerosene generators, tractors and pull ploughs powered by old Bessie, the big white percheron. A big business could be done in feed and hay in New Jersey in those days still, so those were the main crops. Crops had to be rotated, so it was corn one year, hay another, and soy beans in between to feed the fields. I knew that from the time I was two or so, but I couldn't tell you how. The fields stretched out for what seemed like miles to me as a youngster, way out behind the house, where it could be kept a good eye on.

In the farm house lived Aunt Mamie, Uncle Henry and Uncle Hugo. It took me 'til my teens to realize none of them were married; they were brothers and sister, along with my Uncle Clarence. The way they argued and kidded, you'd know right away they were family of some sort. All the boys (in their sixties they were still called the boys) were big hulking masses of German stock, as round about as they were tall and strong as oxen. I figured the farm would have gone down long ago except for their brute strength. Aunt Mamie, on the other hand, was a mere 5 feet and barely a hundred pounds soaking wet. The oldest, she was the brains behind the place, and she was a lady, not a girl (no one needed to tell you this). She wore practical yet womanly house dresses, and had her graying hair wrapped around her head in braids, where she could keep it neat.

As I write this, I'm contemplating that I come by my messiness naturally. There was no order to the inside or outside of that farm, except in the minds of those three residents. Everything had a place, but it might not be the place anyone else thought a thing ought to be in. Deeds and important papers were stored on top of the old fridge, or on the “way top” of the everyday china closet in the kitchen. Unused furniture was stored on the front porch, which no one used for anything else anyway. I think there were bed rooms in the farm; it was clearly a two story, but I was never allowed past the front parlor. The kitchen took up most of the downstairs, and it was clearly the place most business was done, around the huge rough oak table that filled the center of the room. Consequently, everything that had importance to the family had to be within reaching room of that table, and over the years that meant that things became stacked around the edges according to importance, on table tops, cabinet edges, packed full shelves, with the most used things on top. It should not be mistaken however, that this meant things got lost, for they never did.

The kitchen also had the most light in the house, facing south, and having more windows than any other room, being three together on one wall and a fourth on the east wall, plus a door with a window also facing south. This owed back to the days way before electric lights. Everyone entered and left through that side door, as it opened to the wide driveway that bisected the farm property. The house sat close to the road, as so many did in those slower days. Since the windows overlooked the drive, there was no question of knocking or entering unannounced; either the door was flung open for you or a shout came from within before you topped the steps; if not, you'd best go on home.

Most often, you could come on in when you arrived, for from 6 AM or earlier until well after dark, life went on and on in that kitchen. There was canning to be done, business deals to be sealed in the form of trailers of bales and bushels of corn, meat to be sold, butchering to be finished off, meals to be cooked and served, clothes to be mended, and all sorts of news to be passed by the farmers who came to share a beer or an ear of corn as they passed by on their way here or there. Aunt Mamie tolerated those men just long enough to glean the gossip, then neatly brushed them off, out the door and home to their wives, who she was sure needed them for something around their property, so they'd best be getting on. (I remember that after Mamie's death, the farm became more of a haven for the men to drink a little more heavily and hide out from their wives, and the only time I went there was when my own mother sent me to fetch Dad for dinner. Mamie must have been turning in her grave for that.)

In the days when Aunt Mamie was Queen of the Farm, things ran on a clock and with a “method to the madness,” she said, and it was easier to abide by it than to fight it, so most did. I only recall seeing Mamie mad once, and I expect that was because it only took once for most people to learn their lesson well, and it was a small town. Mamie, it was said, got the Irish blood in the family, and she was slow to anger but once set off, she was quick to throw a plate, and she was a good shot. The one time I saw her fired up, it took me two months to go back. When I did, I thought I was going to have to run again, as she grabbed me up and boxed my ears roughly but playfully and said, “Child that outburst wasn't meant for your likes, and you oughtn't have run and it would have been clear to you in a minute.” Then she hugged me and shoved me in the direction of the crystal candy dish in the parlor, and I learned not to stay away.

I guess Aunt Mamie had learned to be tough, being the only girl in that squabble of boys. My mother told me her momma died when she was just twelve and all the chores inside the house fell to her. I guess she got so comfortable and at home there, that she never left the Farm; she told me the Boys wouldn't have known what to do without her. Somewhere along the line, I figured out that her pappa must have died young too, and since she was already mostly in charge, it just came natural to her to step in and take over. It was definitely a full time job, especially after Uncle Clarence went to the war, then came home, married and took over the patch that was over the creek and beyond the Strangers' homes, where we came to live when my daddy came home from the war and married too.

There's a rhythm that goes with all farms that is way deeper than anything any human could impose. It has to do with the timing of the seasons, and the needs of God's creatures. Animals have to be fed and cared for at the times of day that are natural to them, or they won't fare well. Corn and other seeds have to go into the ground at the appointed time, or there will be no crop, and hence, no income or food. Sooner or later, those who farm come to live by those rhythms, and it is as natural as the rising and setting of the sun, and is governed in fact by them. Animals got hunted at certain times, fish got pulled from the water at others, and it all seemed to have a rhythm that meant bellies got fed just in the time as was needed. Aunt Mamie understood that rhythm better than anyone, which was why she commanded a natural respect of all those around, animal and human alike.

It seemed like Aunt Mamie never really asked for anything for herself; it was her natural way to give. Cookies for children, meals for the men, scraps for the dogs and cats and hogs, feed for the cows and horse, it all came from Mamie, directly or indirectly. Even the raccoons kept for training the coonhounds were treated to slices of apples or raisins or something that would endear her to them, so that she could handle them all in her own way, to accomplish the tasks she needed done. Love was felt but unspoken; often everyone was too tired for the niceties and extra words city folk would expect. “You'd best make good of what you've got, or you might lose it.” That was Mamie's best advice.

There was only one part of the week when time stood still for Mamie, and that was Saturday night. Most often the Boys took their coon hounds out to run on Saturday, especially if the moonlight was bright. Those hounds knew when a run was coming, it seemed, as they would begin braying especially loudly, calling to every arrival in the drive as though they were starving to the bone. Once dinner was served and the dishes put up, the boys would climb into their hunting overalls and mosey out the door. As soon as that side door screen squeaked in the moonlight, the red hounds knew it was on, and the sound was deafening. From a low whine it slowly built to loud bawling and squawling, and nothing could be heard over the sound of those dogs. It would keep on for an hour, as the coons in their cages had to be set out first, and that took a good deal of time. Henry and Hugo put the cages in their old Ford pickup, with one cage dragging behind, and set out across the fields. Meanwhile, the big flop-eared hounds were building up energy and stretching out their muscles straining against their chains, sniffing the wind and getting ready for the run.

Around six the other farmers would start to file in, and the cold beers set out in the crocks filled with ice would be downed as they each leaned in to pay their respects to Aunt Mamie. “Fine evening, Mamie!” “Wisht I'd ate here, smells great!” “How's your rheumytiz, Mamie?” “Got your church clothes laid out, Mamie?” Then they were off down the lane, yelling shut ups and calm downs to the beasts, pulling on their jackets if it was a cool night. Mamie knew that once the late comers were here and off up to the barn, it was her time, for at least the next three hours. They'd get the hounds on their leads, wait for the Boys to come back in, then give the hounds the scent and set them off.

For Mamie, this signaled it was bath time. She had three kettles that could be filled at once, a gallon or more each, already boiling on the stove and I always marveled at how she could even hoist those boiling hot tanks to carry them into the back room to fill the bath.

If we were lucky enough to be spending the evening, she'd settle us down in our pajamas with cookies and milk for our “bedtime snack” while she ambled into the back room. “Keep it quiet now, you kids,” she'd mutter as she smiled a knowing nod and closed the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house. My brother and I, and our cousins, all knew that this was meant as serious, and we never broke a whisper until she reappeared. We shared our stories of our day, our complaints of our chores, our plans for Sunday after church, and hushed tales of problems between our moms and dads, as much as we dared tell.

The sight of Aunt Mamie freshly bathed in her long flannel gown and her chenille robe was something no one could see even once and ever forget. A little slip of a thing, it was only apparent how old she was (an age not known in years by anyone) when she appeared in her flushed delicate pink, freshly-washed skin, smelling like rose water and glycerine, rubbing balm on her hands, an inch or two shorter without her oxford shoes. In her pale night clothes, she had the presence of an angel, and this was made all the clearer by her hair, unburdened from her head and freshly washed, streaming behind her. It never failed to take my breath away, that silver veil of hers. It streamed behind her, flaxen, silky, silver, and trailing behind her on the floor like the train of Queen Elizabeth's velvet robe I'd once seen in a picture. It was then that I knew our Mamie was truly a queen, and one far fairer than any of those from far away countries.

“C'mon now children,” she would call in a near-breathless voice of relaxation, “give me a hand.” I know now that we were silent while we waited, for none of us would want to miss what came next. “You know I can't do this myself anymore.” She'd pull that old metal step stool, still-shiny chrome with the red back and the black rubber treads where you could use it to step up, right out into the middle of the space beyond the table near the door, as her throne. This was the only place in the house with enough room for her delicate tresses. I always wanted to ask her when the last time it was she'd cut her hair, but I knew better. My mother told me that she remembered having the honor of trimming Mamie's “ends” one time shortly after she was married, as if it was a rite of passage of entering the family to be allowed to assist Mamie with her locks.

I never saw pearl-handled hair tools before that, though I have seen them since in antique stores. “Mother of pearl,” she muttered to us proudly. They glistened whitish pink as she took them out of their velvet case. She held out the little mirror, which was smokey at best and looked over her shoulder. It was the only vanity I ever saw in that selfless woman. I saw the glimmer in her eye as she threw her tresses over her shoulders and handed the comb to me. “Now missy, squeeze that lemon there into that glass of spring water, and mind you don't get the seeds in. We've got to comb that through first or my hair will get yellow in this cool weather.” Those days lemons were hard to come by off season and this was Mamie's sole splurge. We pushed each other aside, my cousin and I, eager to be the one to get the big bone large tooth pearl-edged comb from our Aunt, and be the first. “Mind you don't pull my scalp apart!” She'd warn us as we began.

Combing Aunt Mamie's hair was no easy task. It was six feet long, easily. Even draped off that old high stool, it dragged on the floor, and she had us bring another oak chair to set it across so it could dry some and so we could run that comb and then the silky brush through it smoothly from one end to the other. No way she wanted her prized possession dragging on that old linoleum floor.

There was no sensation like it. The finest spun silk, like I'd read of in Rapunzel, this was Aunt Mamie's hair. The kerosene lamp burning, the light dim, and everything in our circle had a magical aura to it. The shades of silver and white were innumerable, yet we tried to notice each one. We took the utmost care, not wanting to break a single strand, and one of us held the section of hair, as the other gently tugged the comb through, pausing when it stuck, taking our time to be “Easy, ea-s-y” as she directed us. It smelled like heaven in that kitchen, with the roses, the lemon, and the sweet smell of Mamie's lavender bath salts, purchased from the Sears catalog. Time passed but we didn't notice. We were rapt with the task at hand.

This particular summer I'm remembering, I had learned how to braid. After the combing, then the soft, smooth brushing, came the braiding. Mamie patiently instructed us how to make four sections around her head. “We could make a contest of this if you want, but not a Speed contest, a Perfect one...Who can make the best and smoothest and tightest braid?” We'd each take a section. We had to be careful, because unless they were each in the right place, they'd never lay flat in the end. One over the ear, one behind, on each side. The hardest part was they had to be pulled up, but the hair was so long. And we never would want to hurt Aunt Mamie's head. This was her time. Somehow we knew it was sacred.

Tiny sections of hair, three apiece, times four braids. That night, I counted 387 turns. In my own hair, which wasn't short, I'd only ever gotten 20. Three Hundred Eighty Seven careful turns, and with each turn, we each gently held on with one hand while we softly straightened and stretched out the tress beyond the braid, lest it tangle before we were through. I thought my hands would break off at the wrist, yet I didn't dare say. I knew that this was a special time, this first time of braiding. Soon enough we had four long ropes of silver and flax, trailing out over the chair and almost touching the ground, halfway across the kitchen. Mamie picked up the silver edged mirror and gazed back satisfactorily. “Ohhh, myyy. You children have done a fine job.”

“All that's left now is the turning. Now you stand here, and you here, and you here, and you there. Stand still, 'til I say.” She had a smile like that elf in the fairy tale book, I thought. She stood, ever so slowly and softly, as though she expected we'd pull that hair out of her head if she moved wrong. “Now walk,” she softly commanded, “one step at a time, as I tell ya.” She pulled out the little package in the box with the silver hair pins. We were spread out evenly around her, like she was a maypole and we the dancers. She put her hands to her head, the little pins now in her mouth. She mumbled, “Step, (pause) and step, (pause), and step,” and on and on it went. Like we were carrying the queen's train, we waltzed so gracefully around her, and she pinned each lock in place, pace by pace.

When we were done, she once again wore her silver crown around her head. “It's perfect,” she exclaimed, and I saw how it gleamed in the lamplight.
Our own Aunt Mamie, Queen of the Farm. We were awestruck at her beauty. A beautiful pink ferry in a soft beige gown, in a crown of silver. We were speechless as our Fairy Queen admired herself in the mirror, so enamored we forgot it was ever a contest.

I don't know how old I was that Saturday evening of my first hair combing. Aunt Mamie was a wisp of a woman, but we were far tinier than her. We were her snippet of a court and we all curtsied as she bowed her head to us. Not long after, she scooted us off to bed under afghans on the couches in the parlor, where our mothers and fathers would gather us in sleep much later, to shepherd us home.

I dreamed of fairies in the glen that night, how they scurried up into the trees as the hounds brayed at the moon. Those big dark creatures foolishly thought they'd have a meal of those raccoons who were safely hiding in their cages in the big reddening oak trees. The fairies laughed at the huge silly beasts who didn't know any better, then fluttered off to find more fun.

Not much later, I was told by my mother that Aunt Mamie had passed away. “Gone to heaven with her momma and pappa,” my mother told me, “where she'll be happy forever.” I knew that this was not a lie. It was an honor fitting our Queen of the Farm.