Touching Home Base

Chugach State Park AK by JJ

Fall Colors Chugach State Park, Alaska, by Janson Jones*

“And you would accept the seasons of your heart just as you have always accepted that seasons pass over your fields and you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.” ~ Kahlil Gibran

“Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.” ~ Albert Camus

It’s been rainy and cloudy here for days, which is all right considering that my spirits have been rainy and cloudy for days as well. But a few days ago, something subtle changed: It is beginning to smell like fall.

Looking Skyward by Janson Jones
Looking to the Sky by Janson Jones

I remember when I was a child, fall lasted longer. And before they were such harbingers of air pollution, the smells of neighbors’ fireplaces infused the night with the comforting aromas of woodsmoke.

The falls that I spent with my family in Great Bridge were especially wonderful. With the longer days, my cousins and I would stay outside as long as possible playing hide-n-seek well past dark, the big Sycamore tree in the front yard serving as home base. The sounds of tennis shoes crashed through the thick carpet of fallen leaves as we all raced home so that we wouldn’t be tagged “it.”

Leaves and sticker balls everywhere. Ignoring calls to come in now. Irreplaceable memories of our innocent days.

On Sunday afternoons, smells of burning piles of leaves permeated the neighborhood. This was before Great Bridge was overdeveloped to the point that trees are almost non-existent. The big trees in my aunt and uncle’s yard were enormous. Someone tied a tire swing to one of the trees in the backyard, and we would push each other so high, high enough to get flutters in our bellies.

My cousins Butch and Sheryl tried to get me to climb the tree with the tire and then jump off a branch while in the tire. If any of our parents knew an iota of the things that we did. Good times.

“Autumn to winter, winter into spring, Spring into summer, summer into fall—So rolls the changing year, and so we change; Motion so swift, we know not that we move. ” ~ Dinah Maria Mulock

Fireweed Chucagh St Park
Fireweed, Chucagh State Park, Alaska by Janson Jones

Sundays at Great Bridge were such a large part of my life for so long. Being an only child, those times spent playing with my cousins are some of the best memories of my life. We were a motley group. No one wore designer clothes or expensive tennis shoes. We were made equal by our extreme ordinariness.

Of course, I was different—no blonde hair, no ordinary name, the ony one with no siblings—but after their initial mistrust faded of anyone who didn’t know what iced tea was, I was never treated any differently.

In actuality, the younger ones, the ones who were my age, were my second cousins; my first cousins were closer to my mother’s age, daughter’s of my Aunt Ronnie and Uncle Ros. We were all close, until the first divorce, the first move out of the area, the first pregnancy. Time and circumstance, as they always have a way of doing, stepped in and ended our idyllic lives.

I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw one of them, but I’ll be seeing all of them soon. My Aunt Ronnie died yesterday. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s for a number of years. That most unkind of diseases that takes over the brain, erases memories, makes even the most familiar face into the face of a stranger.

The last time she saw me, she did remember me, fleetingly. But it was so long ago

“A few days ago I walked along the edge of the lake and was treated to the crunch and rustle of leaves with each step I made.  The acoustics of this season are different and all sounds, no matter how hushed, are as crisp as autumn air.”
Eric Sloane 

Eastern Tiger Swallotail by Janson Jones
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail by Janson Jones

For me, Aunt Ronnie was the closest thing to a grandmother that I had. When my cousins called her grandma, I was always so envious. A part of me wished that I could call her grandma as well.

I used to buy my Aunt Ronnie butterfly pins for Christmas. She loved butterflies.

I never knew my mother’s mother. She died when mom was only eight years old. The youngest of 12 children, my mother was raised by her older brothers and sisters. My Aunt Ronnie was almost the oldest of the 12, so my mother’s relationship with her oldest sister was very close, more like mother and daughter than sisters at times.

I wasn’t as close to Uncle Ros. I don’t really know why, but the first time I met my Aunt Ronnie was when Mom and I were visiting the States while Dad was stationed in London. I remember that my cousin Jeanette and her husband at the time had been in a horrible car accident, and everyone was recuperating.

I was overwhelmed by all of the people and completely unused to so many children in my own age range. It was great. I never wanted to leave. 

“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.” ~ Stanley Horowitz

December Snow Anchorage by JJ
December Snow, Anchorage, Alaska by Janson Jones

Once my dad retired from the Navy and we moved back to the area, visits to Great Bridge became almost weekly events. 

Christmas at Great Bridge was such an occasion. We would open presents on Christmas Eve. So many presents everywhere. But Christmas Day we would all get together for Christmas dinner.

I know that I’ve written about Sunday dinners at Great Bridge before, but Christmas dinner was the ultimate Sunday dinner: turkey, stuffing, country-style green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, greens, country ham, homemade biscuits (usually two batches), sweet tea. Homemade banana pudding, fudge and pies for dessert.

And the most amazing aspect of this feast was that until she was in her 70’s, my Aunt Ronnie made almost all of the food by herself. If someone were going to contribute something to the dinner, it was usually dessert.

We would eat in the early afternoon, and then the parents would watch football and nap on the couch, Uncle Ros in his recliner, while all of the cousins would go outside and get into whatever we could, depending upon the weather. If there was snow, so much the better. There was no keeping us inside.

Then later in the early evening, people would snack on ham biscuits, turkey sandwiches, cakes and pie. Sleepy, satisfied and totally at ease in each other’s company

“Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was is not and never again will be; what is is change.”~ Edwin Way Teale

I remember their long driveway would be packed, two-wide with cars, the overflow going onto the street. Leaving was always strategic, depending upon who was parked where and whether or not the car was small enough to turn around in the front yard.

Anchorage Dawn by JJ
Anchorage Dawn by Janson Jones

Eventually, we stopped going to Great Bridge for Christmases, long after I had gotten married (the first time), and Alexis was born. Of all of my children, only Alexis really remembers Aunt Ronnie. My mom would take Alexis with her when she would go to Great Bridge to visit. Alexis would play with my cousin Theresa’s daughter who was a few years older.

Christmas celebrations had moved from my Aunt Ronnie’s house to one of her daughter’s houses. It just wasn’t the same.

And of course, we had all grown up, gotten married, moved away, changed jobs, had children. My second cousins still went, but I kind of dropped out of the fold.

I saw many of them at my Uncle Ros’s funeral several years ago. It was an event that I had to attend and then return to work, so I didn’t have time to visit with anyone. Sunday will be different. I have the time now. I have the memories. I have the regret. I have the loss, the second in less than a month.

“Once more I am the silent one
who came out of the distance
wrapped in cold rain and bells:
I owe to earth’s pure death
the will to sprout.” ~ Pablo Neruda

My mother says that she isn’t going to go to Great Bridge for Aunt Ronnie’s funeral, that she’s never going to another funeral again, that she doesn’t want to see Aunt Ronnie in her coffin; it will give her nightmares.

Turnagain Arm Sunset Anchorage AK by JJ
Turnagain Arm Sunset, Anchorage, Alaska by Janson Jones

I don’t agree with her method of coping, but it really doesn’t matter if I agree or not. Does it? Her unwillingness to visit the family bothers me tremendously, just as her unwillingness to go to Uncle Melchor’s funeral bothered me.

We are so different, my mother and I. While I love to keep hand me downs from family members, appreciate antiques and the memories that go with them, my mother calls it clutter and sees no point in it. I see a tea service that she bought on Portobello Road in London as something to be cherished, a reminder of our time in London and that wonderful section of booths and shops. My mother has no use for it.

Who knows, when I get to be her age, maybe I’ll feel the same way, but I doubt it.

My memories make me who I am. All of the little nooks and crannies in my mind are filled to overflowing with the sweet and the bittersweet. To me, that is life. Little pieces of jewelry, a china cup and saucer, a silver sugar bowl—each is part of a story, my story.

It makes me sad for my mother who only wants to think about happy things, who won’t watch anything deep or sad, who loves sitcoms and talk shows. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not what she does but what she doesn’t do that makes me sad. What saddens me is that she closed a part of herself off a long time ago, and it has been so long since she went through that door that I don’t think she remembers how.

 “There is no answer to any of these questions. It’s a matter of time and timing, of seas and seasons, of breathing in and breathing out. It’s a matter of balance.” ~ Peter McWilliams

Yes, funerals are for the living. My mother wants to be cremated, as do I, as does Corey, all for different reasons. What happens to our bodies after we die is not really the important thing. But memorial services allow a chance for those left behind to say goodbye, to talk about the person who has been lost with fond words, to forget petty arguments, to remember Sunday dinners and sticker ball fights, new bicycles at Christmas and melt-on-your tongue homemade biscuits.

Dawn in Deland Florida by JJ
Aurelia's Dawn, Deland, Florida by Janson Jones

My Aunt Ronnie’s death is like the closing of yet another chapter in my life, a very good chapter, one filled with so much loving and giving. The woman in the casket is not the woman I loved. The woman I loved is already gone; unfortunately, she has been gone for quite a while, ravaged by an unrelenting disease that rips apart everyone touched by it.

But in my mind’s eye, I still see her smile quite clearly. I remember her dining room table, filled to overflowing, and the conversations around it. That was my Aunt Ronnie. The woman who said come and see me sometime. The woman who liked “The Old Rugged Cross” but did not like “Amazing Grace.” The woman who accepted butterfly pins from a young girl with as much relish as if they were rare gems.

These are my memories, the pictures inside the permanent locket of my heart, the ties that bind and make us who we are. The sweet tea of the soul. Piles of fallen leaves. Running as fast as possible when the coast was clear. Touching home base. Being safe. Knowing unconditional love.


More later. Peace.

*Many thanks to Janson Jones for giving me the perfect images for this post. Your photographs help me so much to form the words that I need to say.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree?

On Bearing Fowl Gifts and Other Sorts

What Kind of Present is a Bird Anyway?

19-partridgeinapeartree72I was in a girls’ ensemble in the eighth grade, and we learned a very rambunctious song called “The 12 Days After Christmas.” I remember thinking it was a hilarious parody of the original. For example, the first line: “The first day after Christmas, my true love and I had a fight, and so I chopped the pear tree down and burned it just for spite.” The rest of the song continued pretty much in the same vein. I liked it much better than the original, which I always found to be very tiresome and not very pleasant as far as the gifts were concerned.

Years later, I was subjected to the religious interpretation of the “Twelve days of Christmas.” You know, each gift represents something holy like the tenth day represents the ten commandments, etcetera, and the song was a code to reveal true believers. However, the original song was written in old French, and some lines have been misinterpreted through the years. The fourth day’s gift is four collie bird not four calling birds, which would actually be black birds, and the five gold rings refer to ring-necked pheasants.

I realize that to have such bountiful gifts— birds for five days— would have meant a lot in those days, but I’m just not a gaming kind of woman, and I really would prefer pears and gold rings, and as for lords-a-leaping, maids-a-milking, and all the rest, well they could all be distributed evenly among people who like to bake and dance the gavotte and all of that kind of stuff. But I swear if someone gave me  pipers piping and drummers drumming knowing my predisposition for migraines, I think that I would have a good defense for extenuating circumstances in an assault case.

Creative Gift-giving Means More

So anyway, the whole partridge in a pear tree made me think of a few things. This year, we’re really stretching our dollars to be creative with presents. I usually go overboard and buy everyone way too much simply because I usually can, and I love to buy presents for people. I love to search for things that are different and special, things that are suited to an individual’s personality. For example, one year, I was able to surprise a friend of mine with some antique cuff links. He had occasion to wear his tuxedo often, and I knew that he had a fondness for vintage 50’s items, so I happened upon a pair of cuff links in an antique store. They weren’t terribly expensive, and I thought that they would be a different sort of present, so I bought them. I believe that he liked them very much. Unfortunately, we fell out of touch years ago, but that’s the sort of present that he might hold onto.

One year, I took a black and white photograph of mine of which I was very proud, and I had several copies made, and then a friend of mine helped me to mat and frame them. I gave these to several close friends for Christmas; my only regret was that I did not make one for myself. This year, my youngest son is into thrift store and vintage clothing, which is helping with the shopping budget. One of my nieces wants Obama memorabilia, and I have plenty of that from the campaign, so I’m going to make her a few memory pages.

I was trying to remember some of my best presents, the ones that have meant the most to me over the years, and here are a few that stand out in my memory:

The first birthday present that Corey bought me was a wooden trinket box that had a few dried sweetheart roses and some baby’s breath and a very beautiful quote enclosed in glass on the top. I put my special jewelry in that box.

When the boys were working with clay in grade school, Brett made a clay dog and a clay cat; it’s a little hard to tell the difference. I still have both of those.

My friend Becky from the Museum once gave me a card with some fairy dust in a little glass vial tied to the fairy’s hands on the top of the card. I thought that it was one of the coolest things ever. She was always giving me really unique cards. I love cards, and I keep most of the ones that I get. The fairy dust card always goes on my mural.

My best friend Mari gave me a soft white sweater when I was going through my white sweater phase. I won’t tell you how old it is, but it’s cotton and it’s extremely soft from wear. Whenever I’m feeling blue or lonely, I pull out that particular sweater and put it on, frayed collar, split seam, and all.

Alexis took a photography class in high school. One of the most memorable shots she created was with a friend. Alexis laid down backwards on the staircase with her long hair flowing backwards, and her friend shot it. Lex developed it and mounted it on a piece of black board. That shot always goes right in the middle of my mural wherever I go. It is one of the most unusual photographs I have ever seen, and people who see it always remark on it. I don’t ever want to be without it.

The best present my ex-husband ever gave me, besides my children, was a cup of lilacs that he cut from a tree outside our apartment in Blacksburg in the spring.

My mom gave me a garnet tennis bracelet for a significant birthday. I finally had to stop wearing it every day because the jeweler said that I was ruining it. I love that bracelet.

Infinity Series

A very dear friend who used to work with me at the newspaper bequeathed the Konica 35 mm camera to me when he moved on to the Boston Globe. I still have that camera, and I’ve taken some of my best shots with it.

One year at the Mother’s Day tea at preschool, Eamonn gave me a green felt magnet with his picture on it that he had made himself, and then a couple of years later, he gave me some purple stick on earrings that he bought at the school Christmas shop because purple is my favorite color and he said that I would look “elegant.”  The earrings are in my box from Corey.

My mother-in-law was cleaning out her jewelry box, and she and my sister-in-law decided that a gold and multi-colored jewel ring that she had had for years but never wears should be mine. They both said that the ring looked like me. It came from overseas somewhere, probably Thailand. It’s not a temple ring, but similar because it is in rows, and it is absolutely gorgeous. It is one of my most-prized possessions.

One Christmas about three years ago, Corey surprised me with a full-length black leather coat that I had seen at the store and really loved but knew we couldn’t really afford. I still have that coat, and it’s as soft as ever.

My friend Kathleen and I used to work together for a government contractor in Northern Virginia. We would go out to lunch frequently, and because she made more money than I did, and I had a young baby at home, she mostly treated. She called me her therapist. Those were some of the best two-hour lunches of my life. I don’t think that there was any subject that we didn’t talk about. You don’t get that kind of friendship often in your life, and when you do, it’s a rare gift.

Recently, Corey’s mom surprised us by treating us to a night out at the Kennedy Center to see “Phantom of the Opera.” She knows how much Corey and I both love the play, and she has always wanted to go to the Kennedy Center, so it was an extra special treat for all of us. The four of us really enjoyed ourselves.

Speaking of nights out, Corey surprised me with tickets to see Lewis Black at the Warner Theater for Mother’s Day. He bought the tickets when he found out that Lewis Black would be in D.C. on the same weekend as my commencement from George Washington University so that we could make a weekend out of it. He knows how much I love Lewis Black. It was a hilarious show.

When my friend Rebecca lived in England for a couple of years, she sent me a beautiful kilt pin for my birthday one year. It is so me, and it meant so much that she thought of me while she was far away. We always end up giving each other jewelry somehow.

My niece in Germany just sent me a shamrock from Ireland. I found out that she was going, and I told her that I had always wanted to go to Ireland, but since I couldn’t go, maybe she could send me a piece of Ireland. She sent shamrocks for Alexis, me, her other cousin, and her other aunt that is here. What a sweetie.

These are the kinds of presents that you cherish. They don’t all cost money; some don’t cost anything at all. It’s the thoughtfulness behind them that makes them remain in the sandcastles of memory. I need to remind myself of that. Too often on Christmas morning, after everything has been unwrapped, it looks as if ten people live here instead of four. Part of it comes from being an only child, I think. I want that big family feeling I remember from Great Bridge at Christmas. But we can do it with fewer presents and more love.

More later. Peace.