Mom Is Human: a Memphis Memory

/ˌSHto͝orm o͝on(d) ˈdraNG/

noun – turbulent emotion or stress.

In the eastern suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, you can tell a tornado’s coming—or at the very least a horrific storm—long before the civil defense sirens sound. The wind picks up red soil from rice farmers’ fields over in West Memphis, Arkansas, near the western shores of the Mississippi River, and when it reaches the bluffs in downtown Memphis, sends it aloft over the city ahead of the storm, all the way out to the far reaches of Shelby County and beyond. My daddy loved to stand outside on our grand piano-shaped patio, with one hand shoved in his pocket and the other clinking the ice cubes around in his drink glass, and watch this freakish phenomenon, a sky that had only moments before been a deep azure, now a glowering red. The wind whipped the treetops all around us, and if the sliding glass door onto the patio was left ajar, mom’s handsewn curtains inside billowed back and forth like the folds in a Victorian lady’s dress.

Time to come in, mom always beseeched. We knew the power would probably go out, and our family of four might end up with bed pillows tucked all around us, smooshed into a downstairs ‘powder’ room—no basement in our suburban home—waiting for the storm to pass.

Afternoon storms were bad enough, but a nighttime storm was a holy terror when you were eight years old, and that is all. Civil defense sirens made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up, then and now. The sirens rotated on top of tall posts, so that one moment the sound blasted loudly through our neighborhood and the ones around it, and then eerily faded, a little like the doppler effect of a locomotive’s horn, but more sluggish. Again and again they wailed, until the tornado was gone. And you knew it was a tornado, because the sirens did not come on for any old storm.

Sometimes after a daytime storm dad would drive me and my brother out to the countryside to survey the damage where a tornado had touched down; the idea that a thing so powerful could selectively demolish a structure but leave the front door and the lamp post next to it untouched fascinated him, and us, though I found it terrifying mainly. Sometimes you could still see the black sky on the distant horizon, the same storm front that had only just wreaked havoc in a neighborhood.

Our house had its own accidental civil defense siren built into a pair of heavy, west-facing wood doors. Because the two doors did not meet up quite right, or maybe because the weather stripping was shot, the crack between them acted as a reed in high wind and created a horrific howling sound that made you want to run for cover. It was something akin to the sound a phonograph makes when it’s turned off with the needle still dropped into the record’s vinyl grooves, a sickening slowing down of voice or melody until it stops, and then chillingly starting up again when you turn it on. Once that door alarm sounded I could not settle down, unless it was in the safety of the ‘big’ bed—tucked tightly between my parents, who would decide whether a storm was bad enough for all of us take cover downstairs.

But when a garden variety electrical storm blew in, even if we lost power, my parents beseeched me to stay put so they could get some sleep. The carrot they dangled before me was irresistible: I could read. In fact, they gave me carte blanche to read all night, if I wanted, knowing of course I’d fall asleep long before dawn. My child-sized homework desk doubled as a night stand, and in the corner of it nearest my bed stood a small, porcelain owl-shaped lantern with a little votive candle inside it. After mom or dad lit the candle and put the owl’s body back over it, I marveled at its warm glow through minuscule round eyes and the other holes poked through the clay, meant to mimic plumage. The dancing owl-shaped image cast on my bedroom wall put on a familiar and captivating show for me.

The book I turned to again and again on these occasions was a thick anthology of fairy tales one of my grandparents had given me. I read and reread that book through countless storms, until its cheap binding finally relented and let go of the pages. I stuffed them back inside the book and kept on reading it; by the time it no longer held sway over me I had read the entire thing scores of times, and its shiny, laminated cover was peeling at the corners. Puss N Boots, Rapunzel, The Little Match Girl, Rumpelstiltskin, et al.—those characters muted the maelstrom around me long enough to quiet the terror in my third-grade self.

But on one occasion when my dad was away on business travel, I found a flaw in my mom’s ability to size up a storm. Sometime in the night, long after my notoriously night-owlish mom had gone to sleep, the front doors began howling with a ferocity unlike I’d heard before. Mom shushed me when I tiptoed into her room and sent me back to bed: it’s fine, she said, just a storm—go read your book. We still had power and so I flipped on my little table lamp and opened my reliable tome to read it. Still, the wind sounded worse than usual, and the doors howled with renewed urgency: no fanciful character on the pages of my book could quiet it this time.

I crept out of my bedroom and stood at the top of the steps, where I could see a puddle forming on the landing below, in front of the double doors. Now frantic, I retreated to my sleeping mom’s room and shook her awake again. She rose and gathered my little brother from his bed and sent us down the steps to the bathroom with our pillows (careful where you step) to wait out the storm.

I don’t remember whether that storm was historic, but I do recall the next morning looking across the street to see only brick columns where there had once been a high fence around our eccentric neighbor’s back yard: the wood sections between the bricks had been blown over, leaving a toothless grin in its wake. A tornado had indeed come through, somewhere close, as I had insisted in the first place, although I could not remember hearing the civil defense sirens—only our own.

I grew up a little after that awful storm, shaken to my core by the howling wind, but shaken still more by the failure of a rock-solid system that had worked pretty well until then. Later on in a college classroom a social sciences professor would opine that you realize your mom (or dad) is human the first time she farts out loud at the dinner table. But for me, it was my mama’s gross underestimation of a perilous situation (perilous, at least, to my tormented young mind) that yanked her off the pedestal where I’d placed her, and dad, and made her human: it was a tentative step towards adulthood.

Weather predictions notwithstanding, there is always a place for fairy tales on a dark and stormy night.

* * *

A note about the header illustration: it is a morning’s effort, my first, at drawing on a tablet using Paint 3D.—Deb

Why Do You Run?

Running Shoes
I am, therefore I run.

Why do you run?

The gentle, soft spoken man balances a clipboard on one knee, pen poised in hand, listening carefully while I explain my habits before going on to tell him the history of a badly compromised heel. He starts scribbling while I talk.

It gets me outside, I said. With my dog. It gives me a shot of feel-good, of course, I said. And I like the color that comes into my cheeks after a good run. And I feel energized by it for hours afterwards.

He is nodding and writing.

And where does your foot hurt when you run?

I tell him it is medial at the start of a run, but often moves once I get going, radiating around the heel to the outside of it, just under the ankle bone. So…lateral—I guess it also hurts laterally. He uses the end of his pen to point to various places on my foot to make sure he understands.

And would you call the pain an ache, or a throb, or is it more of a sharp pain? Is there a burning sensation when you feel it?


You mean, it burns?

No, I mean yes, all of those things you said: it aches, it throbs, or it is sharp. Or it burns. It can feel like somebody grabbed a bit of flesh with needle nose pliers from the inside, and then twisted. Hard. But I don’t have to be running to feel it; sometimes it can happen to me while I’m sleeping, and it is bad enough to wake me. Or when I’m sitting still at my desk, minding my own business. Sometimes I feel pain then, too.

Then he asks about the history of my bum foot.

Stress fracture to the calcaneus some number of years ago, I explain. Posterior tibial tendonitis, made worse by Haglund’s deformity, or the “pump bump” in common parlance. My orthopedist down in Knoxville said the tendon was fraying from friction with the bony Haglund protrusion. Pump bump is pretty funny, I quip, because I never wear heels. Ever. It took a ballet school dad, an ER physician, to finally point out the obvious: you may not wear heels, but you’re putting your foot in that position—with your heel elevated—hundreds of times a day in your line of work.

And you still run? asks the kind man.

Yes, I tell him unapologetically. In a perfect world, I explain, I would have the expensive, risky surgery (which of course would not come with risks in this fictional scenario) to fix the Haglund’s, if that window is still open in the first place—when the problem gets bad enough, no surgery can fix it—and then I would be booted and rest obediently while somebody brought me tea and finger sandwiches, and then I’d do physical therapy diligently. Et, voilà—the foot would be fixed. I don’t know that world, but I do know life is a balance. And speaking only for myself, of course, I have discovered I am worse off when I don’t run. Therefore I run.

This is what I tell the gentle practitioner of acupuncture, who is about to stick needles into me everywhere. He explains why he needs to stick needles in my back, even though I need help with my foot; it is something about cleansing. Maybe it will be like a bloodletting, I think: maybe he will exorcise this ugly foot demon out of me, right out of the teeny pinholes he is about to poke all over me.

But probably not. Somewhere in my head I can hear a wise person opining about a therapy’s being effective only when positive thinking goes along with it. I try to think positively when I am asked to inhale and exhale each time another needle goes in. When this kind practitioner, this gentle therapist, places a needle under my bum ankle bone, right on the outside where there is not much flesh, I feel a sharp pain, then nothing, and then another, sharper pain inches away in the soft flesh under my foot, a delayed reaction: I estimate it is somewhere between the third and fourth metatarsal. My eyes are watering and I am trying to stay calm. And positive.

The practitioner is reassuring, telling me this is all normal, but to say something if the pain does not subside. It finally looses its grip and I try to concentrate instead on the new-agey music and the fountain over in the corner of the room while I wonder, laying here like a human pin cushion, why feet can’t be swapped out, like hips, or knees.

*  *  *

Yesterday Vermont winter also loosed its grip. I had promised Scout for days we’d go find an adventure; I reminded him in the morning that we would. He paced nervously around the house waiting for me to finish baking biscuits for the church freezer, and setting up the stew in the slow cooker, and starting a load of wash, before I finally started pulling on my stretchy, wintry running clothes.

He yawned and whined in anticipation on the car ride to our new running spot, standing in the back seat and wagging his tail all the way there. Trembling with excitement while I leashed him, he told me I was a slow poke and really could anybody go any slower? The other dogs are already running, he lamented.

And then our moment finally came: down the dirt road the two of us bounded, stopping to mark piles of rotting leaves one of us, and maybe a few remnant piles of filthy snow from the last storm, to sniff some horse poop, to look in the treetops for those vexing squirrels, and sometimes to point. Scout, I tell him, you really are a gundog. You’ll have to make your peace with pretending, friend.

Powering up a long, steep hill, it dawns on me we have not run since a week or so before Christmas. It has been one thing and then another. Snow and more snow. Then ice. And unrelenting cold. We had flood warnings all over the place twice in January. But now we’re still in January thaw, and on this beautiful early Saturday afternoon in southwestern Vermont, it is unbelievably 54 degrees and sunny.

But my foot does not care that all is right with the world and lets me know unequivocally I won’t be completing this four-mile or so circuit at a good clip, at least not the one I prefer. So Scout and I power on for about three miles, stopping here and there to investigate a noise, or some movement in the woods, real or imagined. I shift to toe running from time to time to answer my heel, now shouting at me. We wave at the mailman and a few other passersby. Then we turn up the long dirt road that will eventually lead us back to the road where we left the car.

This particular road has turned to soft mud, the kind you can get stuck in without proper tires on your car: you expect this in March, maybe not so much in January. I glance at Scout’s underside and realize it is black as the night, from his pads up to his armpits. I just bathed him last week, and that is too bad. But this doggy is on cloud nine, and so is his human, even if we’ve dropped back to nothing more than a vigorous walk at this point.

By the time we get back to the road where we left the car we’ve slipped in the mud a few times, been taunted by one especially portly squirrel, and got within sneezing distance of a large, white horse giving rides to little people at a local winter festival. We can smell the wood fire where s’mores are being made hand over fist, and we cross paths with countless folks and other dogs coming and going. And then we are back to the car, almost, it’s just ahead, but Scout has now planted three feet and is pointing with his wrist: the dog is stock still, trembling in his tracks.

What is it—what do you see? I ask him.

And then even I, the deficient human, can see it: an enormous gray squirrel, about eye level, peering at us from a space under a fallen tree. The squirrel flicks its tail a couple times, taunting us.

Scout trembles.

The squirrel disappears and reemerges now on top of the log, comically dangling a tiny, airline-size liquor bottle from its mouth.

Scout is beside himself.

The squirrel drops the bottle, which goes clinkety-clink-clink onto something hard on the ground. He vanishes and then reappears, holding the bottle again by its narrow mouth as if he were about to tip it back to lap up a last drop, before skittering up a tree and out of sight. Scout is breathless with excitement, panting, and my cheeks are tickled pink on either side of my wide grin, a grin of disbelief at this spectacle. I wonder whether David will even believe this story. My foot is screaming at me, but I am euphoric on this exquisite late January afternoon in Vermont.

Call me crazy, but this is why I run.

Scout the Squirrel Dog
As If One Needed a Reason

Vermontish Doppelgängers and Other Christmas Week Reflections

Christmas Sunset

This one thing still happens to me every week, if not every day: I see somebody and I think I know who it is for an instant, and then remember there is no way I could possibly know them. I am new here still, and mainly disconnected, still. Back ‘home’ in Knoxville I could scarcely go anywhere without bumping into (or at least glimpsing) people I knew. Even in a city with some size to it—about a half million or so in the metro area, a city where you plan your crosstown trips carefully against the traffic—I was fairly sheltered in my midtown enclave, sheltered in a life where my closest friends and I lived within walking distance of each other, and attended the same church, and sent our kids to the same schools. So really it is not too surprising I’d bump into people I knew every single day. You might even have called it a provincial life, saved by the intellect and creativity of the people around me, maybe even a little out of step with others in the neighborhood.

Still this phenomenon persists. I stand in line at the grocery store and see somebody in the next line, and think, Oh look! That’s so-and-so! But wait, it can’t be. I’m a thousand miles from so-and-so and her family, and have not talked to any of them in years (wonder what the kids are doing? they must be out of college by now). This morning I saw a face in the church choir that looked for all the world like the anthropology professor’s, my former anthropology professor’s, who sang in the cathedral choir in Knoxville. But of course it wasn’t. Or the well-heeled woman I talked to for a long time over coffee after church a couple of weeks ago: she could have been someone I knew and had known for decades, but was not. The mind sure does funny things to you.

During my first years in Vermont this phenomenon made me wistful for what I left behind, and underscored the pain and loneliness of what’s best described in hindsight as exile, self-imposed or not. But these days the doppelgänger effect leaves me with a different, more hopeful idea: what if people are simply people? The people in the grocery queue here are people stocking up for the week, or for the impending storm, like the ones back home (yes, Tennessee has occasional snow and ice in winter). The choristers are choristers, like the ones at the cathedral. If you got them all together in the same space, aside from their distinctly different dialects and some other notable differences in cultural sensibilities, they’d probably all feel pretty much at home with each other.

When I was back home in Tennessee in September I was glad to bump into a pair of people with whom I was close, about as close as somebody can be to you without being your actual family, but with whom I’ve not kept up over the last five years. It was a good catchup but far too brief, followed up a week or so later in a phone call an hour long but not long enough. And another family in the same circle, not in town in September as fate would have it, but now relocated to another part of the country anyway, starting their own new chapter outlined in this year’s Christmas missive. I miss them all, and others.

No matter how much you and your friends once giggled about your kids all meeting up at somebody’s wedding rehearsal dinner fifteen or twenty years down the road, nothing really turns out how you imagine it will.

And from that truth emerges this somehow encouraging thought: were I still there in Tennessee right now, my life would look so different from how I imagined it would look, even had I continued down the path I was on: I would still be starting a new chapter. My little enclave, my community, would’ve changed no matter what. Sure, I’d see some of the same faces week to week, but the imagined future—the ones my friends and I once envisioned for ourselves and our kids—would still be fiction, a mere fantasy—and nothing more. Now there is talk of retirement plans, for we are approaching those years, not quite there yet. And retirement will not look how we imagined it might, not precisely.

Really, how lucky am I to have lived down south in Tennessee—on both ends of the state at different times in my life—and out west in Colorado for a few years, and now in New England. How lucky am I to have made a living doing one or both of the two things I love doing. I could use some shorter winters, and longer days. (And how irksome that this wonderful sunshine beaming through my office window as I write these words will be gone in a flash, leaving the damaging effects of its radiation on my left cheek through the window glass, but none of its vitamin D-inducing benefits.) But that is not what this chapter has in store for us, for Chef David and me, and now Scout, not just yet. We are precisely where we need to be at this moment in time.

I leave you with images from Christmas week in our corner of the world.

Hole in That Theory: B & W Challenge Day 7

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 1
Holy Birch Bark, Robin

Birds around here fall silent in winter, but this summer and fall the woods around this little cottage have resonated with so much birdsong at times that we’ve raised a fist skyward: trying to sleep, here—can you please keep it down? A parliament of owls lives in our trees. That’s what you call a group of owls—a parliament. The sound of an owl in suburban Knoxville, Tennessee, was rare and enchanting. But in this Vermont forest they awaken a light sleeper in the night, making it difficult sometimes to fall asleep again before the early morning alarm sounds.

On the drive down our steep mountain road one morning last week I disturbed a bunch of crows who were sauntering around in the road like they owned it. You call that a murder of crows. Murder is what I’d like to do to a few owls who are interfering with REM cycles in this house.

I picked up that piece of birch bark out in the yard a few weeks ago because it was so spectacular: somebody was hard at work, for a while. I love how methodical and tidy the holes are, in neat rows evenly spaced. We have woodpeckers here, too—teeny ones and big ones. The maple that smooshed our cars a couple years back held a nest of woodpecker babies deep inside its trunk, who cried and cried when the tree came down. We could hear them, but could not see them. The mama was nearby and distraught. The next day we found a dead baby on the ground by the downed tree, probably abandoned by a critter looking for an easy meal who perhaps though better of it for some reason. Or maybe bald baby woodpeckers are an acquired taste. Nature sure can be cruel.

Meanwhile my own baby—my twenty-something manchild—arrived on my doorstep somewhat unexpectedly last Tuesday. He’s hanging out with us for a while, helping us pack, perhaps helping us move, too. We’ll see. House closing day is only a week and a half away, and then the big work begins. It’s an exciting and terrifying time for us. For my part, I’m thinking about 1936, the year the house we’re buying was built. Those were tough times, but the worst of the Great Depression was over and the American economy was beginning to recover: the ‘waste not, want not’ values of my grandparents—and of so many others of their generation—resonate with me even now.

Who built our house? Who bought it? Was it a family? Did they have a dog? Had they suffered through hard times? How did they make ends meet? I know only that somebody thought to conceal a cutting board under the kitchen counter—it slides out and shows beautiful signs of many years of use. And close to that is a drawer made just for bread, with a sliding metal lid that’s perforated in an artful starburst pattern. Once upon a time I think we cared a tad more about aesthetics in ordinary objects, like bread boxes. And street lamps, and toasters, and bridges. I think all of that matters. And I love that the people who re-made our house with modern comforts and conveniences saw fit to keep some of the things that matter.

The bird or birds who made the holes in the found birch bark were probably more concerned with finding their next meal than with art. But there is most definitely art in their industry. The twenty-something helped me puzzle through a problem with my Nikon, and made a few pictures of his own. I like this one he shot, in full color: to me it shows a perfect, tiny landscape and tells the story of so much that happened to this tree, which surely provided shelter to more than a single family in its history. Soon we’ll start making our own thumbprint on the new-old house, putting our own holes in the walls, if you will. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 2