A Breath Of Fresh Air

December 12, 2010

It snowed Thursday night, but I wasn’t in the garden to enjoy it. I was faced with unexpected and quickly accomplished surgery so spent the night in the hospital – the nurses were terrific – thinking that anyone who has outpatient surgery is downright masochistic.

By Sunday, I had had enough of doing laps around the house, prompted by a concern (alright, a terror) of blood clots and pneumonia. I ventured outside. It was snowing again, cold and blowing, with an icy chill in the air.

It was one of those sculpting snows, that blows drifts a foot high in some areas while leaving exposed grass, barely dusted, in others. Swirly winds and bits of ice and snow peppering your face, mounding up against the brick edgers. In the pin oak bed, only a row of tips could be seen through the snow, like a geometric problem in three dimensions. Along the butterfly bed, snow piled into the curve on the bricks, creating a ski slope for elven folk. I didn’t see any slalom flags, so I’m assuming this is just a recreational course.

Dominic had just finished shoveling the driveway and walk, stomping his big feet loudly and exclaiming of the cold in that hearty voice that makes the walls shake, when I went out. When I got to the front, just minutes later, a thin layer had already accumulated, a spray paint of white. The snow was coming down in fat clusters, knocked out against the green siding. It was a snowflake snow and I picked out flakes on the withered clematis leaves. On the coneflowers, the snowflakes stood out on their tips, cartwheeling around the edges of the seed head.

The coneflowers are now reminding me of summer. Just months ago, they were a sea of purple, undulating heads, layer upon layer, row upon row. Now, these same plants are a sea of white pompons, little puffs of brilliancy against the brown of the brick, perky and row upon row.

The milkweed pods are frozen in their moment – no orgies taking place today. They are covered in snow, too cold and harsh for rampant copulation. The snow lays upon my red velveteen bows that adorn the garland and it looks like a perfect Christmas card.

My boots crack through the crust, shredding my footprints. I can see the shiny layer of ice that covered the snow and then that is covered by new snow, a juxtaposition of shiny and dull, sleek and fluffy. The ice layer shows through along the rim of the prints, with new snow running into the holes like sand. It  is like the crust of a creme brulee and ummm, now I’m in mood for custard…



December 8, 2010

From Saturday to today, the snow cover has changed a great deal. No, it hasn’t melted much and it hasn’t snowed again. It has gone from an unbroken, undulating blanket of white to a choppy, messy, interesting moonscape of white and blue and purple and gold, (especially as the sun sets) all because of footprints.

Saturday morning, my boots first made a solitary path as I made my round, taking stock of the garden. Throughout the day, our dogs printed and pawed the patio and around the pond. Then in the evening, Dominic, Danny and the Fitz boys totally demolished any semblance of serenity, any tinge of tranquility in the snow. They had a rousing, rowdy snowball fight, pockmarking the lawn.

Today, I see tracks. Damn Rabbit tracks of course, in ample abundance. They are all over the flagstone path, running in all the beds, filled with Damn Rabbit droppings on top of the berm. Good gracious, are they this populous year round too? In the middle of the pin oak bed, there is a congregation of tracks – perhaps wild Damn Rabbit sex in the frozen moonlight? I also see tracks from the mourning doves and bigger tracks, something dog-like and in an area where my dogs cannot reach. Hmmm…. coyote? fox? a neighbor’s dog off its leash?

The Joe Pye Weed is bright green against the snow!

Running in and out of the woodpile are strange tracks and these I cannot identify, cannot find on the web. I’m thinking it’s Francine and Clarence, but these marks seem very large for such little mice. What else can it be?

Near the porch, I notice it is prime icicle weather. When it’s this cold out (12 degrees was the high today and right now it’s 8), the heat from the house melts the snow and the water drips. Then the outside temperature freezes it right back up mid-drip. There is a big fat beauty of an icicle, flat and wide, hanging from the Christmas light extension cord. And mysteriously, there is a crystal-clear “pencil”, broken from the roof above and cradled in the purple clematis vines, rescued from its fall.

More Damn Rabbit tracks in the front, obscured by a flurry of boot marks, the blast of snowballs, the rush of boys. I head around the side and see total obliviation – running feet, splotted snow, a very half-hearted attempt at the beginnings of a snowman, the whir of wings of a snow angel.

The peas peek through the snow, so do the brussel sprouts. The prairie dropseed is smashed by the weight of the snow. Behind the chimney, I see the strange maybe-a-mouse tracks again. They make a sharp U-turn out of the hosta bed and then disappear suddenly – seemingly into thin air. Ah! The site of some garden riddle here! Plucked from the ground by a hawk? Or is this perhaps the tracks of a bird?

I walk down to the hydrangea bed and see those coyote-like tracks again – lots and lots of them. They run along the bed, up to the pond. “Wow,” I think, “We must have quite the pack that meets here at night.” I picture our house, quiet and sleeping, surrounded by these vicious canines, chipping at the ice, feasting on rabbits, howling at the brittle moon. My imagination takes flight with the dozens of tracks. I think of Griffey and Lucky, sometimes whining to go out in the very small (extremely inconvenient) hours of the night. What if they run into this bunch? I mean, really, this is right where they like to …. oh, god. The realization dawns and I laugh at myself.

My large pack of snarling coyotes is nothing but my very own poodle and lhasa apso, trodding their favorite path along the hydrangeas over and over again.

I am really so silly.

As Seen From Space

December 7, 2010

Often when I map directions with Google, I use the satellite mode so I can see landmarks and get a solid feel of location. I’d see my house, positioned in the cul-de-sac, marvel at how many cars are in the driveway at the Goofy Neighbor’s next door and always find it very interesting to see how many swimming pools are in my little slice of suburbia. These never seem to be very current images though. For several years, the new patio was not documented; we had a virtual brick patio.  And for the past few years, the Bradford pear in front of the house still existed in cyberspace but not in reality.

Until Monday. On Monday, I mapped a location and wondered where it was in relation to the mosque in Orland Park. Up popped a new photo of our house, minus the Bradford pear and showing the veggie garden in place, so I know it’s this summer. The trees are fully leafed and the burning bushes are still there, so I know it’s sometime before August 1. I can even see my garbage cans sitting on the side of the house.

Doesn’t this just blow your mind? It makes me want to paint “HELLO” in big white letters on my roof or rip up the front lawn and plant a giant Mickey Mouse face in flowers or perhaps, nudges the devil inside, a naked woman that can only be deciphered from space. We all could send messages to each other via Google maps!

I like seeing my garden as it is now; that Bradford pear living on the web kept reminding me of the sadness I felt for its actual demise. Now I see my tomatoes, my butterfly bush and my peonies.

And – what fun – I can see my neighbor in the kiddie pool with his grandson.

Google maps updated!

Every year, I hope for snow on my birthday. I hope for fat, white flakes that will blanket the ground, cover everything, give me a winter wonderland, look like Christmas. Most years I am disappointed. Most years, I look out the window in the morning and sigh at the mud and the dirt, listen to the forecast in vain, go to bed at night without so much as a flake. But today, this December 4th, the garden gods smiled and showered me with such a gift – inches of snow, white and fluffy, packable and throwable and thick and majestic.

While I love all kinds of snow – like the blowing powdery kind that sparkles in sculpted shapes on my lawn and rooftops – this is a fun kind, the kind that sticks in ever-increasing height on anything standing still. It is powdered sugar snow, but souped up and on steroids.

After sliding home from Pilates, I put on winter boots (pink plaid) and matching plaid trapper hat (it comes down over my ears, has a visor and snaps under the chin – tres chic) and opened the back door.

Pristine! White and unblemished, clean and clear. The snow mounds on top of the garlic chives, weighing them down. They bob slowly, heavy and ponderous. Those shiny black seeds peep through here and there along the bottom fringe.

The snow looks like a big Russian fur hat, pointed and full on all the seed heads, on the stems, on the leaves. The snow is white against black and brown on the trees, on the steams, on the leaves. It lays like royal icing on everything, on the beds, on the grass, on the pond. I see Damn Rabbit tracks on the pond, along the paths, under the arbor and around the garage. There have been birds here recently, as the thistle seeds lays black and crisp on top of the snow.

And how wonderous is this! I see a small hole in the snow, a tunnel between sunshine and underground, right where the mice scurry into their hole. There are no similar holes to be found, so I believe this was indeed mouse-made. Maybe by tiny feet that dug through the snow, like Tony shoveled the drive this morning (“Clarence! You’re not supposed to shovel!” shouts Francine. “Let me do it! You’ll have a stroke!” She is very protective, Francine). Or it could have been formed by minute mouse breath, smelling sweetly of seeds, warm and moist, melting through the snow like a vent.

The snow is heavy, heavy and dense. It lays on the autumn clematis, pressing down the arbor. It mounds on coneflower heads, forming cones set at ridiculous angles. On the short grasses near the rainbarrel, it sparkles against the brown. It decorates the gaillardia, making her look confetti-sprinkled, partying again.

The pampas grass sway slowly, slowly, slowly. Breezes move them in slow motion, carrying their heavy load. The sway and the shape of the plumes bring thoughts of elephants and the way they move – heavy, with purpose, slowly. The swaying is rhythmic, steady and slow. Heavy, heavy, heavy. The blades rustle, but mutely, softly, no longer crisply – and slowly.

The snow picks out geometric shapes, on the spikey plant (that I cannot for the life of me remember its name right now) behind the groovy bench, on the evergreens, on the gladiola.

The veggie garden is buried – completely. There are no more brussel sprouts, no more pathetic peas. The snow sits on top of the chickenwire panels, now protecting nothing, but still doing it very well. I could probably take those down and bring them in now – but do I need to?

The evergreens all look like Christmas trees, sprayed with flocking from the 1960’s. The butterfly bush is covered in white lace, airy and light – a strange illusion with all this cumbersome weight around.

Hammock season is officially, truly, sadly over. Last week when we put up all the lights, I kept reminding myself to take it down, roll it up and get it into the attic. I must have thought about it a dozen times. And when the attic was shut and I was enjoying a fire, I looked out the window and saw that, yes, I had forgotten it. And now, I’m glad I did.

What a sculpture it has become! The snow sits on the string, inches high. It’s a grid of snow, a ray of snow, a bed – literally – of snow. But all this weight and wet is not good for my hammock. So I shake it off – heavy, heavy, heavy! and struggle with releasing the hooks from their anchors. I pull and pull and finagle and reposition. And it finally slips loose. I roll it up, still heavy, and carry it into the garage.

The snow is no longer pristine; it is decorated with my footprints. Under the hammock, it is plopped and printed and disturbed.  “What a happy birthday,” I think to myself.  And the garden gods say “You’re welcome.”

On the porch right now, next to the Flexible Flyer sled, sit my grandpa’s boots.

They are black rubber with steel clips to hold them closed, thin and cold and uncomfortable. They are decades old. They are stored in the attic all year long, then make an appearance every December and sit next to the sled. The sled is decorated with holly and a candy cane and a bright red bow trimmed in gold. The boots are just boots, plain and modest.

But these boots have a secret. They have had moments of glory far beyond the wildest dreams of average footwear. These boots have been distinguished, recognized and enjoyed by hundreds of people. How so, you ask, for a pair of seemingly common – in their day – galoshes?

Because of Eliza.

Many years ago, these boots were an integral part of her costume as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz.” (This was a bit part; she was also the Wicked Witch and the melting scene was, for this 9-year-old, a dramatic triumph, still fondly recalled). Her entrance onto the stage, a bitty thing with hands thrust in the bib of her overalls, a big straw hat and the ridiculously large boots, twanging “Comin’, Ma” as hayseed as they come, was a flush of laughter, of knowing that this child was going to be fun to watch. And of course, she was.

And in eighth grade, these boots were again on stage, on the feet of Lurvey in “Charlotte’s Web” (They are typecast as farmwear). Tripping her up in the “get that pig!” scene, they were the perfect accessory to not-so-smart Lurvey’s character.

Last night, “Into The Woods” opened, with Eliza as the Baker’s Wife, a role filled with acting, singing and dancing. Her “pipes” have developed, her voice is full and strong and lovely. Her performance – the singing, the acting, her immersion into the character – takes my breath away. I am awed by her abilities, her hard work and her talent. For this show, her costume is that of a peasant, with flat shoes useful for all the dancing and running that the role requires.

For eleven months out of the year, these galoshes sit in the attic, still and ignored, quietly reliving their golden days on the stage, of attention and accolades and success. In the month of December, they are back in the spotlight, in a featured role on the front porch, part of a tableau of seasonal fun, a character played throughout the holidays.

When the closing night party for “Into The Woods” starts tomorrow at our house, more than 60 kids will pass by Grandpa’s boots on the porch. The boots will sit there, black and modest and plain, and perhaps a few kids will notice them, laugh at them, think how old-fashioned and silly they look. The boots will gaze at those kids smug and aloof, keeping their secret of greasepaint and costumes, lights and music.

And they will always be ready for another show.

The Divas


First Real Snow

December 1, 2010

Late last night – or very early in the morning, if you prefer – it started to snow. It was a real snow, not the ice pellets of last week. It was white and fluffy and whirling and sparkling.

After midnight, I went into the garden and saw the dusting between the flagstones, like someone had come along with white sand and sprinkled it in the crevices. The flakes lit up the night, gentle, quiet and somehow warm.

In the morning, it continued and when I drove to an appointment, one of my favorites things of winter happened; the snow landed in perfect tiny clumps on my windshield and I was able to pick out individual snowflakes, see the six points, the shape, the symmetry – the beauty. I sat in the parking lot (thankfully early) and watched as they hit the glass in all their fleeting perfection. It is the quintessential example of all things wonderful, I think. There are millions of them coming down, all around Chicagoland, all gorgeous and unique and outstanding and elaborate and marvelous. And who really sees them? Some of us take a moment, some of us are enchanted, but most of those millions go unnoticed. So many things like this! Leaves on a tree, birds in a flock, ants in a hill, flowers in a garden – and people all around you. Beautiful, splendid and mostly unnoticed.

Home in the early morning, I make my rounds through the garden. Because of those drenching rains, the ground was soaked when this snow started and it’s now frozen with ice. The pea gravel path feels like those round concrete blocks embedded with pebbles underneath my feet. The mulch path is stiff and wooden.

Surprise – the cypress in the pond has lost all its needles. Has that ever happened before? This is, I am embarrassed to admit, something I’ve never noticed before. Now, because I am so much more in tune this year, I see bare branches. Is this okay? Thankfully, after a websearch, I see that this is normal behavior for a bald cypress which I learn is a deciduous conifer. Really. Never knew there was such a thing. This must have happened year after year and I never had my eyes open enough to see it.

It is still snowing, wet and swirling and white. I love it. The snow picks out the roof tiles like a chalk rubbing, white against brown.

Not such a surprise – the wind is blowing papers and trash into the garden. Because there are so many branches and twigs and stems in our yard and because we’re in the bowl of our cul-de-sac, we seem to be Newspaper Central during the windy, cold months.

I have formally given up all hope on the rest of the brussel sprouts and the fledgling peas. Too little grown from being planted too late for the peas, not enough sun at the right time for the brussel sprouts. Now, they are pocketed with snow, peas shriveled on the ground, sprout leaves dark green from being frozen.

Surprise again – the purple clematis in the front has undergone a dramatic change since this snow. It has really turned brown, really wilted, really drooped. Even the Seussian heads are drooping, hair hanging down in seeming sadness instead of up, wild and chaotic. The sweet autumn clematis has wilted like a diva too, but I notice it more on the purple plant.

I was wondering what differences I’d see in the winter months, exactly what there would be to document. We think of the garden as “dead” in the winter, blank and unchanging.

Now, I’m thinking we will have surprises.