Fall is Coming

by Clara Bell

This has been a great year in the garden. My family benefited from the miracle of planting and reaping with what seems little effort. My husband rototilled, my neighbor brought seasoned manure collected from her horses, and I purchased some plant starts. My husband and I installed an irrigation system, so that with water and a resplendent summer sun, we got delicious, copious, sweet melons for several months. There were tomatoes, beets, onions, chard, lettuce and more, but the melons were the big surprise. They tasted better than anything we had ever eaten, other than the tomatoes I was once served from the Crimea; they will stand out in my memory as being better than chocolate.

Not only did the melons taste unbelievably good, they ripened one after the other, so as not to be overwhelming like zucchini that you can’t give away fast enough. We could savor one a day or every other day, since we had my dad and his wife visiting for a month. From time to time, it was a pleasure to gift a melon to the neighbor or to someone who would appreciate it.

The pumpkins also thrived. We were shocked at how large the leaves were. Like elephant’s ears. Then the pumpkins themselves were enormous. I had to throw out a lot of those that could have developed, so that we only ended up with about four in all. Otherwise, we would have had pumpkins spilling over onto the lawn or throttling the carrots and spinach rows.

Melons have the added advantage that they don’t require any processing. You could pickle them, but they are not good candidates for canning. Therefore, you can consume all of them without feeling that you should be doing something more with them, saving them for the rainy, dreary days of winter.

Now, in the middle of October, I recall the canning frenzy. First, tomatoes in marinara for spaghetti. That went in several stages. Some of the jars have basil, others have garlic and onions. It will be fun to see how it all turned out and what I can do better next year. Definitely, I will plant more plum tomatoes. They have less liquid and more pulp.  I drank a lot of fresh tomato juice from having processed the beef tomatoes. Tomato soup and aspic were out of the question. My husband does not like tomato soup, any more than he likes the juice. And my least favorite food is aspic, specifically tomato aspic. It conjures up memories of a luncheon at Mrs. Spiegelberg’s when I was a child. It turned me off to anything savory with gelatin forever.

After the tomatoes, there were the pears, the apples, the plums and lots of pumpkin to process. We can look forward to pumpkin and apple pies, to spaghetti with homemade, homegrown tomatoes, to pears in juice, and plum jam. It just might get us through the season ahead that keeps us indoors and when we will need to remember the cloudless days of summer to cheer us up.

We now have to prepare for the rains. It means transplanting sensitive plants into pots, to place indoors or in the greenhouse. It means staining the deck and wooden fences to protect them from the onslaught of daily showers. Some plants need to be pruned and protected from frosts with mulch, leaves, or branches. We say goodbye to the garden, to the prospect of sun, but it is not too sudden. We have something like an Indian summer. We look forward to the fun of Halloween and the fellowship of Thanksgiving and Christmas as the winter sets in. We indulge in memories that these holidays dredge up from long ago, when mom and dad were the center of our universe, when everything was magical and still before us.

The leaves will fall soon. We feel a bittersweetness with the changing of the seasons, all the more poignant with the physical changes as we age and ache here and there. Our own winter lies ahead of us, but we suck every bit out of the spring and summer and onset of fall to live off the memories in the future as we plan to do with our canned goods in the pantry. They may have taken some effort to acquire, but they will warm and cheer us when the time comes.

Generation Slap

by Heather Murphy

Sometimes, when Christmas is getting close, people around here ask me what I want and I get all excited like a little kid, thinking of the possibilities. Too bad I can’t ever come up with anything. Unless of course something obvious is broken. I’m serious—I draw a complete blank. Even when I peruse those horrid catalogues, I just end up talking to the glossy pages about what junk they shine back at me and how no one needs any of it.

Strangely, my own opinion on anything is starting to flow down this path of aggressive apathy and I think it’s why I am not able to produce anything currently, other than fiction. When I want to write a blog, it’s because I have a big old important damn thing to say about something, but lately, I just don’t give a crap.

Until today. I read this thing on the internet by this guy, and he called the children of Generation X, Generation Wuss. I laughed out loud at the piece. Sorry. He’s right about so many things and I am willing to admit to my own contribution—I too have an over-sensitive kid with an inflated sense of self-importance who spends a wee bit too much time on social media keeping up an image of himself and who cannot do one seventy-fifth of what I could do at his age. So then I had something to say, and here I am typing my important opinions again.

Helicopter parenting is getting most of the heat and I can totally understand why—I see its results all around me. I personally am not guilty of the helicopter style and have verbally criticized the practice in front of my own kid, because I don’t censor myself all that much in front of him–I was never taught how to do that; my own mother did not spare me the contents of her mind–so I’m always saying stuff like, “kids who aren’t allowed to climb trees become clumsy,” because I have seen that sort of thing before and I want my kid to know I ultimately get the credit for him being so agile.

But you know, I really blew it in other ways. I sort of got sucked into that “letting him win” kind of thing when maybe, I shouldn’t have. It was the path of least resistance because he acted so insane when he lost and I just could not deal with it. Maybe it’s because he is an only child and has not been properly broken in and put in his place the way people who’ve suffered beat-downs from siblings have. I also let him eat too much garbage since I wasn’t allowed to have any and it turned me into an obsessed, conniving sugar junkie. I figured, let him have it, then he won’t have to live a double life like I did. He’ll just be all bored with it like my friend Amy in the second grade when I stared, open-mouthed into her pantry the first time I went to her house. She just yawned at the twenty boxes of sugar cereal and the mini marshmallows and peanut brittle because she could eat that crap any time she wanted. She had no idea of the painful roots of my wonderment at the availability of treats, could never understand why I would rather find the key to the freezer and get at the tasty-cakes her mom stored there instead of going out to the garage to climb on the roof. But it didn’t really work out that great with my son; every night, the kid thinks he is entitled to dessert, and if I say, “did you do your homework?” he says, “can I have my dessert?” like I am his personal chef or something, and sometimes I make a snide remark back because that placement of “my” really gets under my skin even more than his expectation that I produce something.

But it’s nobody’s fault but mine. I’m the one that just had to make sure I did the opposite of what my own mother did. I bet plenty of you out there did the same thing with something else, if not sugary foods. But can you admit it? Because there are plenty of people out there whose kids are acting like shit and they are not taking any credit, let me tell you.

Reading that piece was like hearing parts of my own rant, mirrored back to me. Generation Wuss. It’s quite an indictment. He mentioned a contest at somebody’s daughter’s school, how they had a tug of war and the coach called it after four minutes and declared it a tie, giving everyone a ribbon. I thought that was stupid, and I am usually criticizing most forms of adult-engineered competition for kids, saying it engenders discord and disharmony among peers, but I’m down with a rough game of tug-of-war, mud pit and all. Children have to compete with each other, adults do it, we all do it and we can’t help how we are hard-wired—we want to see how we measure up with our age group and we want to see what happens when we try hard. If everyone is the same, then what is the point in effort? Kids give up too easily these days, just throw their hands up and run away, I’ve seen it, have you? When my own kid is not good at something straight away, he all too often wants to quit and won’t listen to my lectures about effort and results.

Let’s face it, young people now have a more, shall we say, compact attention span. They are used to immediate results, not waiting. No one wants to wait anymore for anything—they get all bitchy if they have to wait, it’s surely an American thing, exacerbated by the conveniences of technology, but you used to have to wait for everything—when I was a kid.

Ok, I said it. Is that what this is about? Just one of those moments every single generation has had with the one after them, thinking they are clueless and incapable? It must be. This isn’t an important opinion or an insight blog, it’s a purely natural moment in human development, a kind of milestone happening here! And anyway, my kid is only twelve, and he does like vegetables and hate facebook and I have time to work all the rest of it out because he doesn’t have all the symptoms of Generation Wuss the guy mentioned. We can totally beat this.

Squat, Wriggle and Roll

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On a Thursday morning in March, I squatted by an irrigation valve on my farm waiting for my husband’s voice to direct me. “Okay, try turning it back on again,” he yelled across the field. Tom was repairing an irrigation leak with electrical tape. “Looks good. You can leave it on for now, ” he called. As I stood up, I heard the faint sound of a car turning onto our half-mile driveway. Through the trees, I saw a black jeep- a vehicle I didn’t recognize. Annoyance bubbled up in me. We live twenty minutes from the closest town. If strangers travel here, they are either lost or going to stay a while. I had not planned on entertaining random visitors that day.

Near the house, a tall, skinny man dressed in a suit pulled himself out of the drivers seat. He turned around in a full circle, leaning back slightly as if off-kilter. “It’s so beautiful here!” he called out in a nasally voice. As I made my way over to him, I could see his suit was brown polyester, the kind you might find at Goodwill, the kind you might use for a Halloween costume, not one you’d wear to work. He wore coke-bottle glasses and supportive brown shoes, one heel a half inch higher than the other. “I just can’t believe what a beautiful drive that was and how nice this place is,” he said to me. My annoyance dissolved immediately. Most visitors, even the regulars, step out of their rigs and remark on the windy roads that induce carsickness or exclaim something about our remote location. This stranger was focused on our farm’s rugged beauty. I liked him at once.

After turning around in circles twice more, he stuck out a hand and introduced himself; “Charles Smithey from the USDA, here for an inspection of your store. “ I momentarily panicked. What store? What the hell is he talking about? And then my brain clicked into action and I realized my predicament.

Months earlier, an email had landed in my virtual clutter announcing that farms with Community Supported Agriculture programs would be allowed to accept food stamps from customers. My husband and I run a small, organic produce farm and coordinate a cooperative CSA program that delivers weekly boxes of seasonal produce to 235 families. While I love our work– stewarding land and providing high quality, locally produced food, I also struggle with the inherent elitism of the organic food movement. I spent a lot of time volunteering at soup kitchens as a kid, and remember well the slop we doled out onto pink plastic plates for the hungry of Washington D.C.; our goal simply to fill hungry bellies. As an adult, I sell heirloom tomatoes and mesclun salad mix for a premium, well beyond the price range of most people. More than a third of the population in my county live in poverty, with about 20% using food stamps. I thrilled at the chance to bridge these two worlds; to bring an element of social activism from my youth to the sustainable food movement.

Within the hour, I was on the phone with Deborah Stills from the Food and Nutrition Division of the USDA. Her voice sounded hoarse and weathered as if she had been screaming into the wind all morning, yet she was excited to be breaking new ground with me.  If we succeeded, our CSA would be the first in Oregon to accept food stamps. We spent the better part of the next two months exchanging phone calls and messages. I waded through reams of dense federal protocols and cajoled the eight farmers in our Cooperative, who live miles down different dusty roads, to leave their tractors in spring, sort through their disorganized desks and scan forms off to me. Finally, I had all the paperwork in hand and faxed it into the USDA. The next obstacle required more angling: food stamp recipients need to swipe their cards and punch in a pin number to purchase food. This meant that our CSA members would have to drive over an hour each week to pay for their shares at our farm. Deborah and I racked our brains for solutions. At the time, she seemed as determined as me to push this through. In each scenario we conceived, the logistics seemed insurmountable. It finally dawned on me that the only viable option would require deceiving Deborah. I would have to get both the EBT card numbers and the four-digit pins from members and punch in the numbers at home. Food stamp recipients are told explicitly to keep their information private and businesses are not allowed to ask for their numbers. After a few soul-searching moments, I opted to disregard the law. Meanwhile, Deborah stopped asking me specific questions about payment, turning a blind eye and becoming my silent accomplice. We were making slow, but steady progress.

The last application form befuddled me. In the eyes of the USDA, our CSA was now considered to be a store; the application questions related to inventory, staffing, square footage and hours. We don’t have store hours. But we do deliver CSA boxes on Thursdays between 10 am and 3 pm. I filled in the application to the best of my ability, and here I was, three weeks after submission with Charles Smithey at my doorstep ready to inspect our store on a Thursday morning at 10 am.

“So, where is the store?” Mr. Smithey asked, his tone genuinely excited. I explained that we didn’t have a brick and mortar store, since we deliver our produce to drop points all over the Rogue Valley. His demeanor remained friendly and enthusiastic. “Well, great! So, um, where is the inventory?” The inspection required photo documentation. Not quite sure what else to do, I led him out to our fields.

“Well, we just planted lots of carrots and beets in these beds, which we’ll be harvesting and delivering in June, “ I explained as he snapped away and squeaked with pleasure at the tight rows of lacey green. I silently considered what else might be considered “inventory.” We walked passed a hundred-year- old apple tree in bloom. I pointed, “We’ll be harvesting and delivering fruit from this tree in the fall.” More clicks from his camera.  We strolled over to our refrigerated trailer, which held several boxes of sprouting potatoes harvested last fall. “And here are some root crops,” I chirruped. I kept my voice hopeful and bright, trying to hide the ridiculousness of describing rotting potatoes as our inventory.  Mr. Smithey played along. I had no idea whether he was in on the charade or simply kind-hearted and clueless. Either way, I felt immensely grateful that he was our inspector that day.

A week later, Deborah called me. “I got the photos.” Dead silence. “What were you thinking? These won’t work!” She sounded incredulous but also slightly amused, which gave me hope. I explained the challenge of showing inventory in March, when most crops had just been planted. She sighed. We were back to fitting a square peg into a round hole. “Okay,” she said. “Take some photos of the boxes on your first delivery day and email them to me and I’ll see what I can do.” She sounded like a worn-out mom.

I realized after hanging up with Deborah that change takes place through the persistence and creativity of individuals working in large, unrelenting bureaucracies. Deborah and Mr. Smithey, unknown to each other but collective cogs in a huge machine, had given me the benefit of the doubt. They were willing to wriggle through the turnstiles of business as usual to make good food available to the people who need it most.

In June, I snapped a few photos of our first CSA box , which was filled with new potatoes, kale, salad mix, radishes, carrots, herb bundles, and strawberries, and emailed them to Deborah. A week later, she called with good news. “I got the new photos and we are sending along your EBT machine next week. Congratulations! We did it!”

Writing Process- Tag, I’m it!

by Rose Macrory

As part of a web-wide blog tour of writers, my oldest friend asked me to participate by sharing thoughts on my writing process

Jess Weitz, author of the blog Seams, and I met in nursery school in Washington D.C. in the mid-seventies; our first combined memory is fighting over a green chair at the age of three (our birthdays are a day apart.)  Though we enjoyed an exciting urban upbringing as best friends, we both ended up living rurally in Vermont and Oregon as adults. Now instead of looking for the next best club to visit, we compare notes on our goats, gardens and semi-feral children. I love Jess’s blog and am honored to be chosen to follow along with this writing “chain letter.”

I believe if you work your way back through the linked posts, you’ll find your way to the beginning of the tag thread.

Next, I am tagging two writer friends of mine, both of whom also contribute to Letters to Pomona.

Kirsten Shockey is a mother and homesteader, writer and educator. She finds solace in the warmth of hand milking a cow on a frosty morning and the beauty of twisted trees along a roadway. She is passionate about helping people take responsibility for their food. She writes about life and sauerkraut, not necessarily in that order. She and her husband have a forthcoming book on fermented vegetables by Storey Publishing. She has published articles in magazines, is a contributing writer to a radio series, and maintains a blog at fermentista.us.

Laurie Easter lives and writes in a funky little cabin off the grid and on the edge of wilderness in Southern Oregon. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves to read, cook, garden, travel, eat chocolate, and spend time with her family and friends, especially out in nature. Here is her blog.

And now to answer the questions:

What are you working on?

I am in the beginning phases of revising a middle-grade-reader historical fiction book about the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. I am also in the middle of writing a grant for my job to get funding for beginning farmer education.

How does your work vary from others in your genre?

I don’t know that I can claim a genre yet. I am new to the world of writing fiction and chose middle-grade historical fiction because the majority of my best parenting memories involve reading that genre aloud to my two kids. I am interested in writing about complex political and social issues for readers aged 9-12, though a lot of other writers are doing that as well.

Why do you write what you do?

I adore kids and I am also fascinated by many periods in history. I have always identified with child protagonists, even as an adult, and love the arc of coming-of-age stories.

What is your writing process?

I do best with a lot of structure. I wrote the first draft of my book in about nine months, with a per day work count (400). After lots of long walks, I wrote the outline to the story with plenty of room for change, and then set to work writing it all out. I love my writing group because I feel accountable to someone other than myself.

On Cheating and Two-Day Shipping

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Dear Pomona,

Temptation and vice have been occupying my mind lately. I’ll begin with infidelity, a topic that both terrifies and enrages me. My parents’ seventeen-year marriage ended after a spate of affairs and my mother falling in love with another man. Their divorce was devastating, and to this day I feel the residual pain of a broken family. Many friends and family members have cheated or fallen in love with others, ended marriages both good and bad, and moved on to new life dramas. And I, feeling somewhat like a throwback to another decade or century, cling to my marriage like a baby koala to its mother’s back. Although I adore my husband and am perennially attracted to him, I fear that infidelity lies in wait for us.

A couple of weeks ago I sat in my therapist’s office, ranting about a close friend who confessed to me that she had fallen in love with a married man. “It’s absolutely wrong!” I pounded my clenched fists against my knees. “He has young children. You don’t mess with that.”

Hot rage inflated my chest and belly, like a volcano erupting. My mother always told me to put money and valuables away if I was staying in a hotel rather than leave them out and tempt the maids. Isn’t flirting (or worse yet, falling in love with a married man with young kids) the same thing—offering him a window out of a house full of noise and mess? What couple with kids has enough time for themselves and each other and wouldn’t be tempted by an exciting new romantic escapade? Not many issues are crystal clear to me in life; I often see many points of view at once and sway about in a sea of relativism. But I sensed down to my tendons and bones that falling in love with a married man is unequivocally wrong. I could feel myself astride a high horse, back erect and chin held high, surveying those below me who engage in illicit flirtations.

“I think you need to bring the temptress in here” my therapist mused, pulling me abruptly out of the saddle. I was taken aback. What does she mean? I want nothing to do with temptation and lust for other men. “Tell me something you are enticed by.”

I  racked my brain. “Chocolate, I guess. But not really.” I felt noble, yet ridiculous. I must have some vices. “ Well,” I admitted, “I do like online shopping. Not that I do it much, but it’s pretty tempting. I mean, that whole one-click thing on Amazon is just devilish.”

“Okay. Great, perfect,” my therapist smiled and sat forward in her chair. “I want you to embody Amazon, okay?” I nodded reluctantly. “What would you say? Close your eyes and see how your body feels.”

I blushed and sank down into the leather couch. I took a deep breath and tried to take on the attributes of an online shopping site. After years of somatic and gestalt therapy, which once brought on an acute sense of the absurd, I now willingly take leaps into the lesser-known aspects of my psyche. My voice became a creamy whisper. My shoulders began to relax; words ushered forth. “I have everything you could ever want or even think of wanting,” I purred, “in every color, shape and price range you can imagine.” Suddenly I was wrapped in a deep purple, velvet cloak, my body a hidden world of pleasure and gratification. The couch caressed my back, as it would a lover. “And I am so discreet that I won’t even send a receipt to your email account,” I continued in a sultry whisper. “No one will ever have to know about us.” Oh my goodness! I thought. This is so much fun.  Much better than playing the pious Protector of Marriage.

“Wow! You are the perfect affair,” my therapist laughed with delight.

“Yes,” I continued, now basking in my power, “and I bring you pleasure twice; once when you make your order and again when you receive the package.” I spent the next half hour being the temptress, a far cry from the straight-laced, risk-averse self I know so well.

Sometimes I wonder about therapy. After my allotted fifty minutes, I left with no strategy on how to confront my friend or make peace with the plague of infidelity around me. Incorporating vice and temptation into an otherwise upstanding life continued to confound me. I did feel lighter, more relaxed, and open to new aspects of myself. Throughout the next week, I carried with me the possibility of being at once seductive and safe, provocative yet ethical. I didn’t make any new online purchases, but I felt the lure of unspoken desire.

And then, as if my Superego had sent me a red-alert telegram, I happened to listen to a Radiolab podcast describing online order fulfillment warehouses. It turns out there is no lovely, well-kept seductress fulfilling wishes both mundane and exquisite. The guest speaker had worked in such a warehouse. Like the underbelly of so many temptations, these places run like sweatshops, with the “pickers” worked to the bone in inhumane conditions. The woman recounted holding her bladder for hours on end, then scarfing down her lunch in minutes before returning to the rat race of filling boxes for online shoppers. A fellow picker was fired after taking a day off for the birth of his daughter. One summer, an Amazon warehouse heated up to the point that some of the pickers were fainting. Instead of installing air conditioners, the manager called paramedics to wait outside in order to spirit away the fallen. Or so the podcast claims.

I listened with resignation. Oh Pomona, is nothing sacred? How can I ever take any pleasure in online shopping now that I know what really lies behind the veil of my temptation? Is there nothing worth lusting after that doesn’t harm an unseen body in its wake?

My friend emailed last night to say that her paramour had decided to work things out with his wife. My heart leapt in my chest; disaster averted, the marriage will remain intact for now. Admiration for the couple grew. Perhaps the brown paper package arrived and the consumer had buyer’s remorse, I thought ruefully. I felt no pity for my friend’s broken heart. Shouldn’t play with what isn’t yours.

And now Pomona, I am back astride my elegant steed.  I have vanquished the temptress to the outer reaches of my personality for the time being, though part of me longs to be sinful and coy, or at least to figure out a way to bring those qualities into my life without hurting other people.

For now I content myself with asking the question what is it that I desire most in this moment? Whether or not I can fulfill the desire within my ethical bounds is another question entirely.

Sparing Words

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by Heather Murphy

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. –Maya Angelou

When people ask me what kind of writing I do, I immediately tense up. What do I tell them? I should tell them something fast and easy so I don’t sound like an idiot. I should sound resolute and say something like, “Fiction, mostly,” and then just ignore the face they make, lest I misinterpret it. I should do this just to make life simpler for us, and skip the complicated truth. I never assume anyone has the time for that, do you?

I will not say, “I write poetry,” because I cannot bring myself to do that unless I have consumed alcohol one on one with the person, or slept in a tent with them. I mean, if they aren’t a writer. It’s too revealing, like saying “I sell marijuana,” or “I’m unemployed.” Then things just become awkward. People should be spared, because why would I stop there? I would have to go on to say, “I like to write essays,” and “I’ve been thinking of taking a screen-writing course,” and “I write short stories and flash non-fiction pieces like mini memoirs,” when most people just prefer one to five word answers when they ask such a question.

This has nothing to do with being prolific, nor indecisive. This is about the truth of the human heart. I have no allegiance with fiction, no contract with essays, no monogamous relationship with poems. I don’t have the short answer, and it’s got me thinking. If I say, “I traverse all the forms,” I sound like a pompous ass. If I say “I write poetry,” they will shamelessly bum cigarettes from me, even though they have the verbal proof that I am poor. If I say I write essays, they will immediately conjure all the unpleasant memories of writing assignments in compulsory freshmen English classes they despised. If I say, “I write short stories,” they will want to know where I’ve been published, and if I say I am writing a novel, well then, they will know I have no job and am most likely just a bullshitter.

Since I’ve admitted freely, here on this blog, that I am a loose writer who will go home with the first idea that pops into my head after two glasses of red wine, I am out of the closet. I can flame. I can experiment and have flings and wear low cut metaphors and make up lies about the truth, all with impunity. I’m like a train-hopper in the night, just going for the movement through space, and the moonlight, the thrill of it. I don’t have to commit and I don’t have to stay in one place.

So, I am going to make up a patterned response for the question, “What kind of writing do you do?” and kill two birds with one stone:

All kinds.” I’ll say, to firstly, remind myself to be fluid in my process, and secondly–and probably even more importantly–to have a response that doesn’t commit that accidental self-sabotage I seem to unwittingly engage in, where I end up sounding like a self-deprecating, yet defensive, pontificating ass. Oh, and like I said, there’s always a lot to be said for brevity, so that’s actually three birds.

And then, without missing a beat, or giving them a chance to go any further, since there’s no point in all that (refer to above paragraphs) and neither of us really want to go there, I’m going to tell this really good joke I’ve memorized about writers stuck on desert islands, and then make a mad dash for the cheese plate.

Scrapbooking for Dementia

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Dear Pomona,

Grandpa’s memory is in pieces. I set a family album in front of him at the care home for people with dementia. After a recent stroke at 89 years of age and six days of not eating, the man who always had a smile of acknowledgement for his grandkids does not appear to recognize his first; nor my life partner who have come to visit him. Despite this lack of recognition, remaining scraps of memory still tell his story.

My younger sister recently put photos of family together for him to look at. There is one of him and me, two years ago, smiling together, my arm around the Grandpa who was steadfast for our family his whole life. My father passed early and Grandpa did me the honor of walking me down the dirt path when my partner and I got hitched. That, he seemed to remember; when my Mom told him we were coming to visit.  He didn’t remember me by name, only “the one who just got married”.

We flip the pages of his life in front of him. Most of the photos in the albums are unlabelled and I have kept personal notes for the day that there will be no one to ask. This is something I used to do with my Grandmother. The person whom he wanders the halls of the care home at night searching for — his wife for sixty years, gone for eight years now. They met on a blind date, just like my parents and this is how I met my lifepartner, as well. Determined to return to a home life that he will never see again, he packs his bags daily at the care home, sometimes in a laundry basket, a box or a plastic shopping bag and daily his things are unpacked by a member of the staff who does this for all of the residents.

While we sit together, he looks at the pictured parts of his life, as if he is seeing them for the first time. His arms seem noticeably more collapsed into his body from the recent stroke, even though he still has use of his hands. Our conversation feels almost pointless and I am aching for some way to connect with the heart of Grandpa who seems lost deep inside. I pull playfully at his strong hands. Curious he resists, but smiles.  I think back to when I was a kid and we would play a game, that one where you start by floating your hands above another person’s palms. Then, the person, whose palms are facing skyward, slyly tries to slap the top of the other person’s hands, before they retract them.

I remember how he wouldn’t hold back on the slap, which I took as a sign of respect. I noticed early in life, whenever he would smash his thumb or cut his finger, it was no big deal. If asked, “Need a band aid for that?,” he would scoff and say “Nah.”  A trait I still proudly possess, in everyday country living my unladylike hands are regularly nicked, scratched and callused, just like his were; much to the lament of my partner who rates them relative to grades of sandpaper.

Early in my life, Grandpa let me work with him on whatever building or maintenance project he was doing. It didn’t matter to him that I was a girl. Things just needed to get done. Later, he would work with me on my car. His “do-it-yourself” attitude was formative for me. Up to a year ago, whenever he visited me he would help with some project on the homestead. Even after several botched surgeries in which he lost use of his shoulder muscles. He would use one of the floppy arms like a prop to support the one overhead using the drill. At 86, when visiting him I found him ontop of his roof with a skill saw cutting in a skylight. Always restless, Grandpa seemed happiest when engaged in a project.

I try to match his congenial stoicism while visiting him, the pain of seeing his active life end this way hurts way more than a smashed finger. We will be returning in a few months for his 90th birthday. When I hug and kiss him goodbye, I have to consider it might be the last one I give him while he is alive and note, that due to the stroke, we are the ones actually dead to him. The tears come. I hide my face as I head to the door, knowing that he doesn’t need my sadness to be the last page in his scrapbook.

I am back on the homestead now. During caretaker chores, I recall stories of Grandpa’s boyhood mornings of milking cows, feeding the chickens and pigs, before walking miles to school, even during the hard winters of North Dakota. To this day, it is still customary to see him in a short-sleeved shirt on a day that calls for thermal layers. A heated strength I wish I had inherited from him.

Grandpa and Grandma were happy to build their adult lives away from the farms they grew up on, two generations later I returned to that life and recently, so has my sister. Our work is considerably easier with modern conventions, but our daily waking at first light seasonal duties are similar caring for goats, ducks, chickens and large food gardens.

A valley friend once remarked on how our community of agrarian folk are “durable” people. I know this is something that I inherited from my Grandpa. The fraction of his former self that he his now, is still supported by a backbone of humor, laughter in the face of adversity. His caregivers recognize this as they joke with him in their day-to-day interactions and comment to my mother about how they appreciate his no-fuss amiability.

In a moment of lucidity on that most recent visit, he commented to me how his “brain is mush.” I make a note of his mocking self-reflection, that he follows with a smirk and an “Oh, well” shake of the head. I think now, if it had been physically possible for him, he would have ended it with a “That’s Life” shrug of his shoulders.