One evening last week, my son, Jimmy, and I were playing Scrabble in the family room. “Do you hear that?” I asked.
“Do you think it’s---“
“Sounds like it,” he said.
The scratching noise on the other side of the basement door continued while we finished our game. The door is on a wall next to our kitchen and is the only way in and out of our concrete basement. When I finally eased it open a crack, I screamed and quickly closed it. A skunk was sitting on the top step.
It wasn’t the first time we’d had skunk in our basement. Five years earlier, we’d had three of them down there. Our crawl space ends with a six foot drop to the floor, and three skunk/lemming hybrids had walked right off the edge only to find that they couldn’t get back. They, too, had scratched on the door, scarring it with their claws.
Dan, the critter man, had come and boldly gone where none of us dared go to set a trap with a tranquilizer hidden in a ball of food. When he’d returned the next day, we got the good news/bad news report. The good news was, he wouldn't have to carry a skunk in a cage through my home. The bad news was, they were all still loose in our basement.
I don’t know whose brainstorm it was, but finally a plank was positioned so they could walk from the basement to the crawl space and out of our lives. We could do the plank thing again as soon as the skunk left the steps, but before that could happen, things took a nasty turn.
I was getting ready for church around 9:00 last Sunday morning when I smelled skunk. It was intense and got worse fast. Then, Jim called me into his room and asked if I smelled the other foul odor in the air. It was a different bad, but too mixed with skunk to identify. And, oh yeah, had I heard the commotion in the attic over his bedroom the night before? He described thumping and clawing and screeching noises that went on for several minutes. I hadn’t heard a thing from my upstairs bedroom.
Church was out of the question since we smelled like skunk, so we stayed home to air out the house, and thank goodness we did because it wasn’t long before Jimmy called me back to his room to show me the blood that was dripping from his tongue and groove ceiling. Forget loosening,, heart strings were snapping with each gagging breath I took..
I called Dan, the critter man, and told him what was happening. He joked that even Steven King wouldn’t want any part of this, but quickly came to our rescue. He searched the basement, but couldn’t find skunk anywhere and reasoned it must have gone from the top step to a nearby beam and back to the crawl space.
But he’d found something else worth mentioning. The skunk hadn’t been able to go to the basement floor because the sump pump wasn’t working and there was about two feet of water down there. Additionally, it was rigged with no ground wire and in his opinion, was an electrocution and fire hazard. Swell.
He was aggravated that none of the measures he had recommended the last time we had skunks had been applied. Things like attaching a wire mesh barricade so nothing could fall into the basement again. Or properly screening crawl space access so nothing could get under the house. I told him I would have seen to it if he’d given me the instructions and assured him that I’d see to it now.
Once he’d removed the plywood that serves as a door to our attic, we all knew where the putrid odor was coming from. Something had died up there and he could see it wedged in a space about six inches high between the attic floor and downstairs ceiling.
He grabbed a Skilsaw from his truck and he and Jimmy went back into the attic. They would have to cut away wood to reach the dead critter. When my son emerged, he was carrying a plastic trash bag with a skunk in it. Somehow, an animal not known for its climbing prowess had made its way from the basement to the attic and into a six inch space where it had impaled itself on a nail or screw and writhed to death on the ceiling above my son’s room. Heroically, the next day Jimmy went back into the attic with a bucket of bleach water and a brush and scrubbed what was left of the skunk from the boards.
Mild weather has allowed us to air out the house these last few days, and as I write this, an ozone generator in my son’s room and another in the attic, are doing their best to rid us of two of the most noxious odors on earth.
It’s still possible that the judge will award me this property, but no matter. I may choose to go even if I can stay. One of my sons and his wife and children are here, but I have children and grandchildren in Texas whom I love and miss. One of my daughters is headed to New Hampshire in the fall, and the other will be in the Portland area. Jimmy’s not sure what he’ll do next, and I’m still raising a cat and dog (though I refuse to homeschool them).
While I was fretting over leaving here, I told my three youngest that I felt like I needed to stay so they had a home base until they were finished with college. One of my daughter’s answered, “Don’t worry, Mom. Wherever you are is where our home base will be.”
Those are the heart strings that matter.
No house is without its problems, but a century old house has a century's worth of problems. As soon as my STBEx left, I began to realize how poorly maintained our property was. Add to that the normal wear and tear of time and use, and my children and I were bombarded with challenges.
First to act up was our dishwasher. Isn't the water supposed to stay inside the door? The kitchen sink leaked, the disposal ground to a halt, and the bathroom fan stopped working. Okay. Bad timing, but nothing out of the ordinary. Right? Then, an irrigation faucet broke and we had to cap a geyser. I felt a heart string loosen.. I love my home, but…
Winter rains came and washed a different set of problems our way. The not-so-handyman we’d hired to finish trimming the guest house had not properly sealed the two steps that led to the bathroom, and muddy water flowed down the sloped ground, under the steps, across the bathroom floor, and into the garage. Another heart string loosened. I love my home, but, but…
Hoping to warm our way through winter as inexpensively as possible, I bought two cords of wood, turned down the furnace, and fired up the wood stove. All was warm and well until the afternoon a cloud of smoke filled our home and coated everything with soot. The chimney sweep I hired said the wire cap at the top of the chimney was clogged and the whole works hadn't been properly cleaned in quite a while. I’m pretty sure that hadn’t been part of my job description in the past, but I added it to my new and growing list of chores.
Spring showers brought more seeping water, and another heart string loosened. I love my home, but, but, but…
Summertime equaled sunshine and baseball and swimming pool woes. Our pump quit working, but my daughters coaxed it back to life. The wood deck had long needed attention,, so we repaired loose and broken boards as best we could with my lady hammer and screwdrivers.
As Autumn follows summer, winter, too, will come, and winter 2013-14 brought record breaking cold. Heartless, bitter temperatures froze and cracked our well pump and burst several pipes. We were ten days without running water.
The day after our pipes were fixed, our 27 year old furnace died , and we dressed in layers and kept a round the clock wood stove vigil for 45 days. Installation of a new furnace required removing the attic door and cutting a larger opening. A promised new door never came, and a piece of plywood remains.. Next day, the wallpaper on our downstairs bathroom ceiling filled to bursting with water. Turns out, the furnace guys had jostled the condensation duct causing accumulated water to seep from the attic to the bathroom ceiling below. I was starting to feel picked on..
Again, heavy rains washed muddy water down the slope, through the guest house bathroom, and into the garage. According to my STBEx, the sump pump outlet had long had a habit of shorting out during the wet season. Gee, thanks for the better-late-than-never-I-suppose heads up. Another, and even another heart string loosened. I love my home, but, but, but, but...
Ceiling lights and fans stopped working, and a window pane never more than barely installed fell out and broke. The board we covered it with matches the pane where a snowball left a perfectly round hole. And for good measure, our washer and dryer gave out within a month of each other.
Okay, God, I see where you're going with this , but, but, but, but... I still love my home.
I love my home sweet home - a turn of the century Queen Anne farmhouse built on three gently sloping acres. Its front porch is gateway to a house that grew willy-nilly over the decades, which sort of explains why my daughters can only access their bedroom through the main downstairs bath. Built-ins and wood floors and french doors with skeleton keys are reminders of an era past..
Halfway up the drive, a one room guest house is tacked on to the back end of the garage, and across the way, over the fence, and through the grass, a playhouse with front porch and a mailbox of its own is tucked under a tree. My three youngest children made it their own for the years that such things mattered.
The original barn still stands, home to a barn owl who trades lodging in the second story hay loft for all the rodents it can eat. A smaller structure squats in the shadow of the barn - part chicken coop, part garden shed, and so ‘primitive’ that others would have bulldozed it if I hadn’t stood my ground.
To the south, a neighbor's vineyard borders our property, and I often sit in the gazebo next to our pool and gaze across rows and rows of grape vines to the verdant hills beyond. I do so love this place.
But, the path from love to covet can be a short one, so when my STBEx filed for divorce 2 years, 10 months, and some days ago, I knew what had to be done. I hadn't endured thirty difficult and lonely years for the sake of the people I love only to see it end by fighting over real estate. So, I loosened the first of many heart strings that bind me to my home and offered to sell it as part of our settlement. I included it in my first proposal, as well as my last, offered at our trial on January 16, 2015. We are still awaiting the judge’s ruling.
I've spent many a day and night wondering how God would prepare me to leave my home, but He finally, surely has, and like all of His plans, it’s a one-of-a-kind humdinger.
Here's how it began…
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field,
they toil not; neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is,
and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you,
O ye of little faith?
Matthew 6:28-30 KJV
Triplets. Three times the blessings; three times the needs.
My son, the only boy of the set, had hand-me-downs galore from his four older brothers and didn't mind a bit wearing what had survived their tortures.
But for my daughters, there were no saved boxes of girly fashions for even one of them, let alone two. They had received some new clothes for Christmas, but my list of their needs outnumbered our resources: coats, shoes, tights, pants, shirts, nighties, and dresses.. I could whittle away at it - shop the sales, welcome friends' hand-me-downs, and hit the thrift stores, but it would still be a stretch.
Then, came The Moment. You know, the one that illuminates the past and defines the future? It struck like a typhoon, knocking me off my feet and leaving me gasping for breath and clawing for daylight. It was early January of the year 1999, and I had discovered my husband's betrayal that would compromise our future financial life and unravel, irrevocably, my already precarious sense of security.
As a school-my-own-children, stay-at-home mom with a high school education and seven kids ranging in age from seventeen to three, I was devastated. Disbelief, hurt, anger, fear, helplessness, defeat, each took their turn wracking my world.
Because the big picture was just too big to comprehend even if I had been allowed details, I focused on the minutiae of the life I did know - my list. How could I afford these things now when everything had changed? Where would the money come from? Who could I ask for help? I had never shared the true state of my marriage with anyone. How could I start with this information?
I spent the following dark hours pacing and fretting, and finally, near dawn, fell asleep on the couch.
The house was still, no one had yet risen when a gentle tapping on the door roused me. I opened it to find a woman I only vaguely recognized standing on my porch with two giant plastic trash bags, one in each hand.
"I hope I didn't wake you," she said, almost in a whisper. "I don't know if you remember me, but our boys were on the same baseball team last season. I was sorting through my daughter's clothes last night and for some reason I thought of you and wondered if your girls could use these things."
In my dazed and groggy state, I took them from her, thanked her, and watched her drive away. I couldn't remember her name (Linda, maybe?) and I had no idea how she knew where I lived.
I did remember visiting with her one afternoon in the stands. She and her husband had been blessed with one son, and though they had wanted more children, she hadn't become pregnant for many years. Then, just as their boy had reached adolescence, they'd been shocked to learn that they would be having another baby - a girl, one year older than my triplets. She had told me how much she loved having a daughter and was a little embarrassed to admit that she'd spoiled her with more clothes than any one little girl could ever wear.
One piece at a time, I took those clothes from the bags, realizing with growing amazement that each was an item on my list. Several pairs of hardly worn shoes, at least a dozen pair of tights, sweaters and jackets and coats, pants and tops, nighties and dresses, so many dresses. Everything in pristine condition. Everything two little girls could want or need.
I sat on the floor surrounded by a near-stranger's generosity and wept hot,roiling tears of fear and relief. In one moment, I had learned that I had no champion on this earth. In another, God had reminded me that even in my peril, He would provide.
My list had been His list, too.
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My Gramma, my sisters, and 4 year old me, smiling in the background
I have been on a quest. It has taken me down countless grocery store aisles, through scores of recipe books, and wandering the faintest lanes of my memory as I've searched for the perfect bowl of oatmeal.
It has taken much longer than I ever imagined, but I've learned this along the way: no sticky globs of oats will do, and spare me broth without hearty substance. Those can never compare to my Gramma's gift of spinning simple ingredients into silken perfection.
She died the year I turned twelve, but like her oatmeal, my memories of her are warm and sweet and seasoned with a dash of saltiness.
Her kind words and gentle touch I well remember. “Honey, did you get enough to eat?” she would ask as she softly brushed her fingers across my hair.
Add to that a whispered tale of the time she wrestled another woman to the ground defending the honor of one of her eight children, and that was my Gramma.
For years, I hoped that if I used the right brand of oats, I could duplicate her results - but no.
If I followed the right directions, I would surely find success – but again, no.
If I tried with all my might to be like her, perhaps I could make her oatmeal – but even then, no.
All the while, as I was persevering through countless attempts and as many failures, my heart was slowly grasping the secret that would satisfy my memory; I loved my Gramma and so I loved her oatmeal. Finally, I understood that it was never about the way she made it, but that she made it, and served it to me with a piece of nearly burnt toast and a loving presence that transformed her humble offering into a feast for a little girl’s heart.
I made a bowl of oatmeal this morning. I don't know if it was perfect. I was thinking of my Gramma and all I could taste was the love.
"I do not need a website."
"I think you do."
"What for? My book isn't even finished yet."
"So what. Don't you wanna reserve 'your name dot whatever' while it's still out there? Or would you rather wait until it's snapped up, then whine about it?"
"I hate you."
"Yeah, but you know I'm right. Now, quit being a baby and get yourself a website."
That's how I talked myself into creating KarenGrace.net, and both of us are glad I did. (Are you surprised to learn I'm a Gemini?)
I played with the site for several weeks, finding just the right photos, deciding what categories to include, and promised myself I would never write a blog. What a time waster, I reasoned, carrying on about things that no one wants to read . Blah, blah, this, and blah, blah, that.
Until one night, deeper in thought than sleep, I wrote my first post, and when I hit 'publish,' I felt slightly less invisible. The possibility that a complete stranger might read my words and think, Me too! brought a measure of solace to my soul.
The thing is though, blogging turns out to be harder than it seems. If you're working it properly, you've got to keep it current, write about what's 'trending,' and care about 'search engine optimization.'
What a bunch of bother. I've got a book to write, darn it!
But, I've also got a divorce to finish, and as it wears into its third year, I've found that it's trying to leave its stain on a story so dear to me that I must hide it away for a time in order to protect it.
I was twelve years old when I first began writing my book. Back then, it was mostly in my head, or jotted on pages of my secret notebooks, waiting for a better day; a day when I believed I could write something worth reading.
Now, I find that I've allowed thoughts of my Someday-to-be-Ex-Husband to infiltrate my story. I've written him as the nasty next-door neighbor who smells of beer and sweat. The uncle who pathologically keeps every piece of mail in its original envelope. Or the town creeper who sidles up beside the hand-locked couple out for their evening stroll.
And I say to that, "No siree! I'm the creator of this world, and you're not welcome in it!"
So, I've granted my characters rest for yet another season. I'll miss them, but it's for their own good. They were in danger of telling the wrong story.
Meanwhile, I'll be blah, blah, blahging along, and I don't care a whit about optimization strategies, 'cause I've got my own thoughts trending.
Have you visited the Better After 50 website yet? It's informative and entertaining, giving voice to women (and a few men) as they enjoy, battle, conquer, and embrace the seasons of their lives.
I've shared my own experience on BA50 this month about how learning to ballroom dance redeemed a forgotten piece of myself. I hope you enjoy it and find something that causes your heart, and maybe even your feet, to fly.
Patti always signs off with 'Age is just a number.'
And she's right. The number that matters to me when I think of her is 46 years of friendship. I met Patti in junior high, and unlike other fleeting relationships, ours has endured through high school and beyond. Blonde and petite, she has always been a force - full of energy, fun, and an unwavering sweet spirit.
She was my ride pretty much everywhere during our teen years, and though I don't remember ever offering her gas money (so sorry about that Patti) or remember her asking for it, I could never forget her cars.
There was the little white Nova with rubber water-bumpers on the front and back that were designed to absorb impact - look out Larch Mountain, here she comes!
Her next car was a very yellow convertible that had been used to ferry Portland royalty in our Rose Festival Parade. Petite as she was, she'd have to push the seat up as far as it could go just to reach the pedals, and even then it would've been a stretch without the sky-high wedgies she wore. She'd put the top down, and we'd Rose-Festival wave at our imagined admirers on Halsey Street which ran straight through our stomping grounds and right by the high school.
Next, came the shiny red convertible in cherry condition when she bought it, but not so much when she was finished with it. In one memorable car after another, she drove us through the eight-track tape years, taking us everywhere we wanted to go and plenty of places we shouldn't have gone. - Rock and roll music to the world! - and never mind 'ten years after' - forty years after, I remember every day of it.
Our senior year, we worked together at a dry cleaners. Most nights we were left to blow the boiler down, count the till, and lock up shop, but before we did any of that, one of us would walk across the parking lot and fetch beans and broken shells from Taco Bell, leaving me with an affection for that combo to this day.
She was my first roommate after graduation and then again a few years later. After that, our lives diverged, her's going one way, mine going another. Both of us went on to make our own questionable decisions and to suffer the consequences, each in our own way, but during those years that we were weaving in and out of each other's lives, it was always her who reached out to me, making sure I knew our connection was still there, that she was thinking of me.
With that same spirit, she has nurtured her family, having been blessed with the man of her dreams, children, and grandchildren.
Over the years, she has sent me pictures of her yard in its full blooming glory. She has a green thumb, tending her flowers like she tends her friendships - faithfully, purposefully, lovingly.
I love you, Patti. Thank you for the years of care you have given me.
My grandkids brought me a Valentine card this morning - a near-perfect heart cut from blue construction paper, decorated with stickers and crayons.
While toddler Malachi searched for balls to bounce, Adia stood before me, pigtails perfectly placed on either side of her head, her brightly colored slicker sprinkled with rain, and offered the card that she had made just for me.
After a hug and a kiss, I stepped back and caught a glimpse of her little sparkly black shoes and noted, as I had many times before, that she had put them on the wrong feet.
I have long considered this to be one of the great mysteries of the universe (ask my kids, I'm not exaggerating.) After raising five boys and two girls, being Gramma to four grandsons and two granddaughters, and laying eyes on too many young children out in the greater world to count, I can say with certainty that more than 50% of the time, kids will put their shoes on the wrong feet and be happy to wear them like that the live-long day.
Why? I mean, why? If it were an even 50/50 split, I could understand, but it isn't. And given all the lame-brained things that people waste time and money trying to figure out, why hasn't someone done a study on this gender-neutral, race-neutral, income-neutral shoe phenomenon?
Well, as of this morning, I finally know the answer. I saw it clearly as my granddaughter stood before me, her wrongly placed shoes turning her toes outward, her feet forming a perfect little heart. Now, I no longer need a study to tell me what compels our little ones to wear their shoes as they do until we succeed in changing them.
The truth is, our kids will make every day Valentine's Day if we let them, cause from the top of their heads to the tip of their toes, they're all about the love.
Confession - As I write this, I'm wearing my shoes on the wrong feet.