Sunday, May 22, 2016

Fences and Gates

Our dog Maria and her two puppies were discovered at a dump on a northern Minnesota reservation. A woman up there took them in. She works with a Twin Cities' shelter that periodically picks up her animals because they're more likely to find homes in Minneapolis/St. Paul than in a remote rural area.

They knew the puppies would be easy to place, once their fuzzy-bear faces appeared on the shelter's website.

But Maria would remain behind. In poor health and clearly starving, no one thought she'd survive.

The shelter employee, named Maggie, loaded all the dogs but found she couldn't drive away with Maria's penetrating eyes staring at the van. So she got out and promised she'd take the dog home and nurse her back to health, if possible.

It was possible.

About a year later, her dramatic eyes and story on their website captured my heart. We brought her home at Christmas. They told me she was a good dog with a sweet nature, but when she wanted something, she wouldn't give up until it was hers.

I had no idea.

All our dogs have been different in their own ways. But Maria alternates between being the most grateful and the most stubborn one ever. Upon her arrival at our house, she understood within minutes not to get on the furniture or to pull things off the counter. She made no move to chew up or knock over anything. She's escaped out the front door twice but had no intention of leaving the property. She's not interested in life on the run again.

Sometimes I can sense her apology, her eyes saying: "Excuse me, please." Still, other times I'm sure she's saying, "Absolutely not," like the hot day we walked along the Mississippi, and she unceremoniously flopped down under the first shade tree, with no plan to move until she was good and ready.

Friends, vets, groomers, and neighbors adore her, remarking on her gentle disposition.

But she's determined to have her way with me.

If she senses I'm too distracted elsewhere in the house, she'll trot to my office and sit. "Maria wants you to write her a story," Cliff calls out to me. She'll stay there until I arrive. I'm not sure my writing life is important to her, but curling up beside me at the desk clearly matters. Our togetherness becomes an impenetrable fence, insuring I'm hers alone as she sleeps on the rug beneath us.  

She also lives to ride in the car with me. The destination isn't important. Being beside me is the prize. She never tires of the miles as she watches out the window. Trees, trucks, towers--all intensely interesting because we're passing them together.

Make no mistake about it; she has to be in front. Forced to sit in the back, she'll squeeze between the seats, inching herself forever forward, draped across the storage compartment and gearshift, oblivious to danger.  

Finally Cliff bought a barrier to keep her securely behind us, convinced this netted gate would hold her at bay.

It didn't.

After a few miles, she barreled forward, straining against entrapment, however uncomfortable. No matter what, she would get where she wanted to be.

Into that van.

Into my office.

Into the front seat.

That same will allowed her to survive the reservation, running and hiding--without food or shelter. Alone with her pups. 

We all have a history that builds our character or breaks us.

We learn to create a fence that protects what we value.

We learn to crush a gate in order to belong.   

Even if it's just by a nose, we're there nevertheless. In our rightful place.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Happy Solitary Mother's Day

I was a late bloomer to being celebrated on Mother's Day. A mother for the first time at 45, I imagine I expected more than the usual cards and flowers. Because I have a big imagination, I probably envisioned a gigantic balloon drop with cheers and applause.

That was almost 20 years ago. So who knows anymore.

As it turned out this year, I spent most of Mother's Day on my own. Maggie called from college to apologize for being so distracted by final papers and exams that she forgot about the card she'd bought 2 weeks ago. I assured her no apology was needed. Cliff was in the hospital and insisted when visiting hours were over I should go home and do something special.

So I did.

Standing in our kitchen, I swooped a spoon in circles above my head and finished the pint of ice cream in our freezer.

Then I went on with my chores. As I passed by the dining room window, I saw it--the motherhood legacy, the generational mark of daughters and mothers who love each other forever, long after gifts and cards are even possible.

The garden of this house we moved to holds a statue of Mary, the supreme mother, left behind by the previous owners, who I assume were catholic. I don't know how many years she's graced that spot, but even though we're not catholic, we resisted moving her. Heaven knows what kind of misfortune might rain down on us for such an injustice.

It makes perfect sense now that Cliff and I transplanted the flowers we'd moved from Minnesota around her base last August. The yellow day lilies that bordered my grandmother's Illinois farmhouse, and probably originated from her mother's house up the road, had been faithfully moved and moved again by her daughter, my mother, who loved them dearly. Because my mother loved them, I loved them. I actually remember them blooming at the farm when I was a little girl.

I also transplanted my mother's beloved purple irises she'd carried from state to state. While day lilies are easy, spontaneous flowers, irises have always seemed more subtle, more elegant, less likely to bloom once transplanted. That my mother loved them has always puzzled me. I can't ask her now either.

You'd think these flowers would have given up. They've been dropped in to and dug from every kind of soil, carted in boxes and buckets, suffered blistering heat, survived tornadoes, and shivered through brutal winters.

Yet, they bloom on.

I don't know why or how these tenuous bulbs have that kind of determination after all the hazardous decades.

Then I walked by our pantry window. To my surprise, the bleeding heart we'd also transplanted, and forgotten about over the winter, was blooming. This flower was my daughter's favorite, perhaps for its stunning pink blossom, perhaps for its resonant name, perhaps for its legacy to the statue beside it. (Read my post, The Happiness of Lady Chang, from May 24, 2014.) I knew Maggie would be pleased when she returned from college for the summer and found those perfect, nodding flowers.

There was my Mother's Day: a celebration for them, the women who mothered me and for the daughter who earned me the title. In those splendid flowers. A celebration of them, not me. The flowers represented 3 generations of devoted mothers and daughters, carefully continuing an unspoken tradition.

Through countless obstacles, with hope and patience, a mother's faith in her child never lessens. It bends and recovers. It gives however much is asked. And an appreciative daughter plants and re-plants those tenuous bulbs of the flowers her mother fancied.

Not to fill a garden space. But to honor her mother.

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Monday, May 2, 2016


I'm hardly a geographical expert. Far from it.

In fact, I have a spatial dyslexia that often leads me astray. Left? Right? Both look the same to me. So I've developed a sensory view of places, a directional rhythm. Consequently, I find an ebb and flow in every place I've lived. Each town has a feel to it, depending on how its streets are laid out.

These pathways, earmarked by a drug store, a bus stop, an iron fence, serve as my visual cues in the event I'm lost.

Which I will be.


Tulsa, Oklahoma was a north/south and east/west grid of straight lines either named or numbered with nothing much getting in the way. Racine, Wisconsin's streets curved around Lake Michigan and the river. Rockford, Illinois was split down the center by State Street, with avenues branching left or right and sometimes inexplicably changing names.

But Winston-Salem was unlike any map I'd lived in.

When Maggie was three years old, we moved to its suburbs in North Carolina. Neighborhoods were pockets of cul de sacs that wound through wooded housing developments. To go anywhere, I circled through and up and out of rhododendrons and dogwoods, forever driving in figure 8's among green fluff.

And all that bobbing and weaving led to parkways bordered by more forests. Again and again I was caught in a traffic roundabout that applied to no one but me.

Behind me in her car seat, Maggie rode patiently, listening to me talk out loud to myself as I pondered my street map. I flipped it upside down and right side up, trying to decide which road looped where. I'd recite the street names in order, attempting to memorize which ones split from or led to Peacehaven, the apparent center of our Southern universe.   

And I was forever stopping to ask for directions. Maggie took it all in, perched in the backseat.

One day, at my wit's end after I'd wrongly driven in a circle for the third time, she said, "Mama, turn left on Peacehaven," with the sweetest sense of certainty she could muster.

Of course. She'd heard that street named so often that EVERYTHING had to involve Peacehaven. She'd also figured out that left and right were my eternal weak points, too, so she was choosing for me.

In all honesty, she was right at least 50 percent of the time.

But the thing that overwhelmed me was her toddler's determination to help me.

"Thank you, sweetheart," I answered.

All these years later, she remains my best GPS. Whenever I'm about to give up, the memory of her precious voice hovers above my despair or my disappointment, calling me to the center of myself, leading me to Peacehaven.

And I go on.

Not because I'm any more certain of the leftness or rightness, but because I know she believes I can set myself straight.

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