Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winter on Toad Hill

I am awakened in the dark to a cup of coffee being set gently down on my nightstand. Fred goes to his bath. Old dog Spike asks to go out and in a few minutes, gravity carries him around the house and down to the kitchen door, where he barks. I make a reluctant dash downstairs to let him in, trying to ignore the three cats who try their feline best to waylay me the moment I rise in hopes of being fed. Then, because reading is part of my work as a writer, I go directly back to my counterpane office where young dog George is still snoozing under the covers, and set to work on both coffee and book.

As of December first, our daily walk has become our daily ski tour at the top of the hill. We love the old Keeton Homestead. It must have been a beautiful farm once, a self-sufficient world of its own. The well is so close to the cellar hole that we think it might have been incorporated into the dwelling. Cuckoos and blue winged warblers sing among the thorn apple trees in summer. Now George races through the snow hunting field mice and playing stick. She tried biting a small porcupine in a brush pile the other morning. We were able to get the 20 or so quills out on the spot. The next day she barked at the same porky, but refrained from making her muzzle a pincushion a second time. Spike lags far behind, but he still wants to go, so we wait for him back at the car. Yestderday it was seventeen below when we got up. Just for kicks, at 8:00, when the thermometer had zoomed up to negative five, we decided to ski anyway. I wore my usual two salvation army sweaters, an ancient turquoise chashmere and a thick alpaca, over a tutrle neck and topped by a windbreaker parka. Goggles helped keep my face warm and my eyes from tearing. With a neck muffler and warm gloves, I was toasty, eeven sweating by the time we finished.

These days I have been working on a story about a puppy learning to be a good camp dog, playing with some rhymes about my childhood, submitting to agents, and promoting Moose Power! Fred has worked up some new table designs, shelves, picture frames, and lamps. He goes to shows and I go to book festivals, signings, and presentations. Come five o’clock now, it’s nearly dark. I give Shady, the old pony, her senior feed. She lets herself from the run-in shed into the tacking-up area, eats, and then lets herself back out. The two horses, Katy and Star, have yet to figure out how to nose open the gate with its hydraulic hinge, so I can be sure Shady gets her chow without having to stand guard. Then I walk down to the garden where we keep our two hens and one rooster in their tiny coop. They are already perching quietly, and as I shut them safely in for the night I like to stoke their glossy feathers and thank them for their gifts. We’re getting an egg every other day now—always a precious, warm miracle in my hand as I return to the house. Every few days, Fred and I each breakfast on an egg with a yolk the color of an orange nasturtium. We dine on veggies and venison—bounty from Irish Hill.

Fern is in Pine, Colorado with Scott, and their dogs Sylvie and Addie. The big news is that we will welcome Scott as a son on their wedding day next July! He manages the restaurant at the Golden Hotel. Fern works as a massage therapist, runs many races, and is applying to the CU Boulder MFA program for next fall.

Spring, friend Christopher, and their dog Chloe are in Northampton, MA. Spring works mornings in a school infant care room and loves her babies, but sometimes seven diapers in a row are a bit daunting! Afternoons, she teaches at a YMCA after-school program. Chris is now the brewer of fabulous beers for the People’s Pint in Greenfield.

We are well. We are happy. We wish such blessings to each of you in 2011. Cheers!

Sue/Sus and Fred/Wiz

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Rowboat

Mum, her dad and brothers (each kid with a turtle) in the rowboat about 1930.

I think it’s no mistake that cathedral arches and the prows of boats take the same shape. Both are structures of beautiful form following function, created to lift us through the stormy waves of life and keep body and soul afloat. I am not sure my father thought our old row boat was beautiful on the days he spent in the hot sun with it inverted on a pair of saw horses, laboring to patch it up for another season. Like Burt Dow’s colorful Tidely Idely, our vessel had a few “tender places” between her planks. She was a classic New England dory of some sort, happily retired to the tame, silky-warm waters of our southern New Hampshire Lake. Our boat was always referred to simply as the rowboat.
My father was an ocean boy, who grew up summering in Duxbury, Massachusetts. He had been in the Navy on a destroyer during World War II and was one of the few sailors on his ship who liked to swim off her side if the water was warm enough. Once he swam clear under the ship from one side to the other. After the Battle of Santa Cruz, he defied rules and jumped overboard to save a drowning seaman—probably not the best idea, as he was the ship’s chief engineer. The captain “balled him out,” then presented him with the ship’s flag, flown during the battle. He never told us the story until he was well up in his eighties, waking at night thinking he was still aboard the Mansfield.
Like Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, Daddy adored messing around with boats. He taught me to splice rope and let me help him make outhauls for our boats. He built us a raft complete with a narrow, canvas-covered, plank for a diving board which was conducive to games of pirates and Billy Goats Gruff. He made a ramp for our dogs to scramble aboard by, and maintained the raft with copious amounts of creosote every season. Still the rowboat was a challenge.
I have no idea how old she was. My mother, born in 1920, had grown up with her and I scarcely believe that my grandfather bought her new. By my era, the fifties, she may well have been half a century old. In any case, I have a vivid picture in my mind of Daddy blistering the paint off the bottom of the boat with some sort of electric paint-stripping tool. I can still smell the fumes, mixed with sun on pine needles, lake water, and sand. Then there were hours of hand scraping, sanding, and carefully packing the seams with oakum. At last, he would give her a new coat of white paint over the thick strata of many summers past, with perhaps a fresh layer of dark green for the inside as well. My brother, environmental journalist, Ted Williams, once wrote in Gray’s Sporting Journal that in her latter years our boat was probably more of a paint rowboat than a wooden one.
She was heavy. It must have been a job to wrestle her onto the sawhorses. Then she was dragged down to the water and launched for another summer. What a vessel for four kids! She had three plank seats that fitted into place, as well as a triangular built-in bow seat which was much fought over. She had floorboards which also fitted neatly into their appointed sections and which kept our bare feet out of the bilge. A few inches of water in the bottom was inevitable, no matter how carefully Daddy caulked her seams. This bilge was ripe with dead worms, soggy sandwich crusts, potato chips, rusty hooks, and the occasional bloated sunfish. After a rain, there was no choice but baling. Atlas himself could not have lifted the rowboat to dump her out once she was filled with water.
But the crowning glory of our boat was a spacious, built-in stern seat which curved along each side and boasted a dark, sloshy, and odoriferous well, perfect for storing bait, turtles, empty cans, or any flotsam and jetsam picked up on the lake. This stern seat easily accommodated an aunt or grandmother’s ample bottom as well as the smaller butts of several children, usually myself, my sister and a cousin or so.
Mummy liked to tell of the time her father (Baba to us) caught a snapping turtle by getting it to bite onto an oar. With thoughts of dinner, he argued the beast into the well and delegated his six year old daughter to sit on the cover. It was a scary ride home for little Mary Lou, seated atop an angry, thrashing turtle. It was fruitless to boot, as she always described the soup, boiled up after the turtle was given the coup de grace with a brush hook, as “vile.”
Our destination was usually “the swamp” which lay directly across the lake from our camp. Drew Brook winds under three small bridges before opening into a lovely little marsh as it flows into the pond. In the fifties when fewer camps had been built in wetland areas and weeds were not a problem, the water level was kept lower. It was low enough for us to enjoy a sandy beach at home and for the rowboat to bump and scrape—passengers crouching, eyes squeezed shut against falling flakes of rust and rotten wood—under the first two bridges.
We loaded the boat with fishing rods, shiner nets and pails, picnic lunch, butterfly nets, and most important for my sister and me—nets for catching turtles. Then we donned the cumbersome, many strapped, life jackets of the era which were about as comfortable as wearing an empty cider keg around one’s chest, and set off across the lake. I spent much of the voyage staring over the transom into the water. From the first dimly waving pondweed as we approached the sandbar, to the murky depths beyond the second bridge—which offered up hornpout, perch and the occasional trout—there was much to fascinate a kid.
We caught snappers and musk turtles, but the sought-after jewels were painted turtles. Maneuvering the rowboat through the weeds was heavy work. Mum had a bad back, but that didn’t stop her. She was as keen a turtler as we were. It was a matter of pride to be able to spot a yellow and black striped head among the myriad broken weed stubs glittering in the sun. There’s one . . . about ten feet away on the right . . . it just went under . . . I think it was a baby . . . wait . . . everyone be quiet . . . scoop under it . . . There! It might be a miss, or the net might be held triumphantly aloft containing a tangle of weeds and a frantically clawing turtle. One extracted, the turtle was passed around for all to admire its bright yellow plastron and gorgeous black carapace edged with red.
We kept our turtles as summer pets in a cage on our beach, to be released the morning we once again donned shoes and returned to school. It was a small comfort, as we faced another year confined to the classroom, to set something free. When my girls and their cousins were small, my sister and I took them up the inlet in kayaks and canoes, portaging over instead of under the bridges. We caught many turtles, but always let them go before paddling home.
The rowboat didn’t last forever, except in my memory. One year, Daddy gave up and purchased a noisy, nearly indestructible, maintenance-free aluminum canoe. On the Fourth of July he piled the rowboat with driftwood and brush, anchored her a hundred feet out from our dock, paddled out in the new canoe, and set her alight. She burned to the water-line on a summer night filled with fireflies, fireworks, and shooting stars. It was as fitting an end for her as a Viking funeral pyre. I remember a sense of honorable celebration more than sadness. The next day, my brothers towed the blackened ribs, which arched eerily up from her bottom, to the swamp--there to dissolve, like so much other organic matter, into the muck of the wet wilderness she had so often prowled.