Now or Never

It’s always the right time to be the type of person you want to be.

I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who snips fresh chamomile flowers and lavender sprigs to make tea before bedtime.

You’ve seen these people in magazines. They wear adorable gingham dresses on impossibly slender frames and have clearly had their hair done and a manicure before heading out to the garden to dig potatoes. Their muck boots are pristine.

I want to be this person, I decided (without the hairdo, manicure, the clean muck boots, and adorable gingham dress on the impossibly slender frame, of course).

In February, when the rumbling of unpleasantness was well on its way, I planted chamomile seeds under a heat light indoors. In March, while the world scrambled and shrunk and shuttered, I watered the little sprouts and hoped they’d grow. They did. Too fast. At this rate, they’d need to be replanted outside before the weather was ready for them and before I had any place to put them.

In April, still under orders to stay home, my husband and I ripped out our old and unloved garden beds and built new ones. In May, I finally planted the green plants with the tender, ferny leaves outside. I had little hope. They had been inside too long and were becoming pot choked. It was a little too cold outside for them to thrive. Hungry bunnies lurked at every corner. It did not look good.

In June, the sun came out. My husband went back to work. Actually everyone went back to work. We left the house carefully, covered our faces, washed our hands, worried, but did our best to live in the new strangeness of the world. The flowers grew. They grew too large for even the bunnies to have any interest—the blossoms were way too high for them to reach. They spread out and took over. They thrived. And they smelled so good, like pineapples.

chamomileOn a warm July night, I decided I wanted to be the type of person who snips fresh chamomile flowers and lavender sprigs for a cup of tea before bedtime. Thunder and lightning flashed way off in the distance and rain poured down in sheets. This is silly, I told myself. I could do this tomorrow when the rain had gone.

No, now. Now is the time to be the type of person I’ve always wanted to be. I went out anyway. The lightning had stopped and the rain was just, well, rain. I snipped the fresh blossoms, boiled the kettle, and enjoyed the feeling of finally being the type of person who snips fresh chamomile flowers and lavender sprigs to make tea before bedtime.

There are many things I’d like to be and do. I’m beginning to realize that if I don’t do them now, when will I do them? Conditions may not be perfect. They may never be perfect. Truly, they never were. But I guess it’s now or never.

chamomile and lavender

How to Plant Potatoes

potatoes 20200327An overview of Potato Planting Day:

Step 1. Remember to heed a warning that seed potatoes might be scarce this season and order some four weeks ago. Decide that planting time is soon, open them, realize they don’t look very good—a bit moldy and sad—and ask your husband to buy more on one of his supply expeditions.

Step 2. Be pleased that he got the last bag of seed potatoes from the local garden store before it closed down to encourage social distancing. You accomplished two important things: you now have seed potatoes to plant and also you were right about the scarcity thing. It is very important to be right.

Step 3. Decide firmly that today is planting day and open the box of old seed potatoes and start to prep them because they arrived first and the old you does things in a particular order. By prep, I mean cut them at least in half, perhaps in quarters, but make sure there are at least three budding eyes per piece.potato cutting 20200327

Step 6. Spread compost on the garden bed and dig holes about 4-6 inches deep at least 6 inches apart. Realize sadly that the 6-*enter unit of measurement here*-apart rule applies to so many things now, including and especially people. Refuse to feel maudlin and keep plodding along.

Nick and FrodoStep 7. Stop everything because your new granddog, a rescue beagle named Frodo, has come by for a visit. He is all that matters. Pay no attention to the garden until Frodo has continued on his merry way.

Step 8. Go so far as to place the gross and moldy seed potatoes in the holes before you realize that you don’t have to do things the old way anymore. The new potatoes look healthier and will probably yield a better, tastier crop. Pluck the gross seed potatoes out of their holes and put them aside because you know you’re not giving up on them.

Step 8. Prep the better seed potatoes (cut in half because they’re small, make sure there are at least three budding eyes on each piece) and drop them happily into the holes recently vacated by the gross potatoes. Cover firmly and water.

Step 9. Place three of the gross seed potatoes in a small planter to at least give them a chance. Create in your mind an imaginary competition between the good potatoes and the gross ones, and wonder who—I mean which—will win, because you are known to spend mental energy on things like this and there’s no point in fighting it.

Step 10.—Sit on a bench and watch them grow. Mound once they’re 6 inches tall and again when they reach 12 inches in height. Harvest in late July or August when the leaves begin to curl.  Be delighted with yourself you’ve overcome corona quarantine challenges and become a successful (maybe even AWARD WINNING) and well-fed potato farmer.

Potatoes June 2015        Patriotic potatoes 2015

Surviving Polio Summer

These are strange times. Sometimes I feel like all is well. I’ve got enough groceries and paper products for the time being, and so far (*knock on wood) my loved ones are safe and healthy.

But there are certain times of day (sundown and bedtime, especially) where panic creeps in. What is happening? What is going to happen? What am I supposed to do? What can I do?

It helps to remember that this “new normal” really isn’t all that new. As with most things in the course of human history, this type of global crisis has been seen and suffered and succumbed to and ultimately overcome before.

My mom, who was 13 during the summer polio epidemic of 1954, remembers how she and her friends coped with mandatory social distancing and the cancellation of their everyday lives. It was a confusing and scary time for kids, just like it is today, but somehow she and her classmates managed. Here are some of  her memories and notes.

Hint: her survival kit contained Nancy Drew mysteries. No wonder she made it through.

The Summer of 1954, by Joan E. (McKenna) Condon

“When we had the polio epidemic in 1954, Sheila Kelly and I would swap Nancy Drew books. One time when she came to my house with a trade, we thought we’d be daring and sat down in the middle of Dyer Avenue for a few minutes. No cars came by.

It was late in the summer and the playground where I spent each day—we had counselors in the playgrounds in those days—was already closed. I couldn’t go to Dorchester to see friends from school because there were so many cases of polio in NancyDrewBook50sDorchester, more than any other town. So I was stuck in Milton.

I couldn’t even go to Marie Laffan’s house on the bus. She had recently moved from the next street, Houston Ave., right around the corner from Dyer Ave., because the bus came from Dorchester to go through Milton and on to East Milton, so I had to walk.

Sheila Kelly, younger than me by a couple of years, had not been introduced to Nancy Drew yet. I think she was in the 7th grade at the time. She had some older Nancy Drew books that had belonged to her older sisters and I had some that had belonged to Maureen. She must have seen me reading a Nancy Drew book on my porch and so then somehow we started to trade books. I think together we were able to read them all.

The vaccine was developed in 1955. All the kids in town went that spring to the Milton Town Hall to get the shot. We had to wait in a long line that went from the front of the auditorium to the back, out the door and down the steps. It took so long to get to the doctor to get the shot that I had plenty of time to be very, very nervous.

When it was done, I walked the length of the auditorium, to where my mother was standing outside. She was talking with someone so I really couldn’t tell her that I didn’t feel well. I leaned with my back against the mail box, with my elbows sort of in the slot tray. The next thing I remember was a man carrying me back into the auditorium and laying me across a group of chairs. Someone produced smelling salts. Horrid smell! Then, of course I had to walk home from the town hall. My mother didn’t drive.

Oh, and the epidemic was coupled by Hurricane Carol.The hurricane, I think, was at the very end of August, and at first we couldn’t get together with anyone because the Pine Street Brook flooded right down Dyer Ave. People were in boats on the street. I don’t even remember when we went back to school that fall.

Nancy Drew spines

Thanks, Mom!

Margery & Walter: The Garden of Marital Discord

We’re back now with Margery and her husband, Walter, whose death has made it possible for Margery to be vaguely truthful about her feelings for him as a gardening partner.

Walter wanted things just so, while Margery wanted him to lay off, and in this spirit of emotional disharmony, the two took a pile of farmyard rubble and turned it into a lovely English garden. Margery recounts their horticultural adventures with thinly veiled passive-aggression in her book, We Made a Garden, originally published in 1956.

“As a gardener, I was a great trial to my husband, and I marvel now that he was so patient with me,” Margery wrote. It seems Margery was a more adventurous gardener, and wanted to try out new plants, but Walter wanted a sure return on his horticultural investment, and wasn’t open to taking any chances. “He had little interested in small, unshowy plants that I liked to try, and liked a good return for his money.”

Clever Margery found a way around this. She “kept up the fiction that I did not buy plants and anything new that appeared in the garden had been given to me.” Margery told him that the new, exciting flowers that popped up here and there in Walter’s well-ordered world had been gifts from neighbors and other gardening enthusiasts.

I think Margery read over that paragraph and wondered if she’d painted Walter in too harsh a light, because she goes on to say that Walter’s objection to her adventuresome spirit had less to do with his being set in his miserly ways and more to do with her ineptitude. “It wasn’t that he minded the cost, but he took the line that as I did not look after properly the plants that I had (i.e. did not water the dahlias enough) it was silly to keep getting more plants.”

Luckily for us, Margery did not kowtow to Walter’s bullying, and in the end, her sneakiness prevailed. “Every gardener knows the fascination of the unknown, and when ordinary plants are doing nicely there is a great temptation to be a little more venturesome. That is one of the excitements of gardening, but one which my husband did not share. He pretended not to see me with my nose in catalogues night after night, and though I always tried to intercept the postman when I was expecting plants, he always knew.”

So, it seems that Margery won that fight, but she let Walter have the last word on another important aspect of gardening: manure. It turns out that Walter was adept at manuring all plants, not just the vegetables over which he preferred dominion, but also Margery’s rose bushes that Walter undertook as his own only when it came to the fertilizing, as this necessitated getting dangerously close to the thorns, and that, as we all know, is a very manly job.

Margery had some doubts about Walter’s heavy hand with regard to manure but she let him have his way. “I discovered that it was unwise for me to plant too near the roses. This was not only because their wandering branches clawed my hair and scratched my hands, but to keep out of the way of the manure with which Walter fed them. Walter believed in manure with a very generous hand and woe betide any little plant of mine that grew nearby, as it would surely die of suffocation under the great gollops (sic) of manure that were plastered round every rose.”

Apparently manure was an ongoing topic of marital discussion between them. “As we drove round the countryside Walter delighted in pointing out that the massive heaps of manure dumped quite close together all over the fields, waiting to be spread. ‘That is the way to use manure,’ he’d say, ‘not the way you put it on.’”

To this, Margery wisely demurred, agreeing with Walter’s clear superiority when it came to acquiring, talking about, and using manure.

Passive-Aggression in the Garden

I’m reading a book I found at a flea market vintage book stall. It is marvelous. It’s called We Made a Garden, and right on the cover it defies me—defies me—“not to find pleasure, encouragement, and profit” from this book. That’s a dare, people, so obviously, I bought it.

Written by British gardener Margery Fish and originally published in 1956, the book contains, as promised, a slew of delightful horticultural gems. Margery tells the tale of buying a ramshackle farmhouse with her husband Walter after World War II, and working together to turn what used to be a farmyard into a sloping, terraced garden. I have learned a lot about planting, composting, watering, and so on, but the biggest takeaway is that Walter was, once upon a long-ago time, an obsessive, hyper-controlling Mr. Bossy-Pants.

How do I know? Well, what’s fun is that Margery wrote this book after Walter died, so she gets to rip into him with impunity. She recounts many of their fights with hilarious passive aggression, admitting that she was in the wrong while painting Walter as the true villain.

For example, Walter loved gardening and took extraordinary care with their lawn and vegetable beds, of that there was no doubt. “Walter would no more have left his grass uncut or the edges untrimmed than he would have neglected to shave,” wrote Margery. But Walter was a man’s man, and wanted very little to do with the feminine side of gardening, so he left the flower beds to Margery.

“Do not think that he did not like flowers,” Margery warns her reader. “He did very much, if they were properly grown and the setting was good. But he always looked at a garden as a whole, and the perfection of one plant did not compensate for neglect elsewhere.”

And Margery would have been happy with this arrangement if only Walter could have left well enough alone. The problem was that her staking technique was all wrong, and so naturally Walter found it wanting and had no choice but to get involved.

“When it came to staking, I came to grief quite badly,” she wrote. “In the first place I did not stake early enough, and quite a lot of handsome heads of flowers were condemned by my mentor [Walter] because they were crooked by the time I did tie them up. Nothing will straighten a plant that has grown crooked. And when I did stake I was accused of doing it too loosely.”

She added, “I admit it wasn’t satisfactory because the wind blew the flowers about mercilessly in my little enclosures and they got tangled and bent.”

Due to Margery’s incompetence, Walter had to deign to show interest in the flowers in order to save them from his hapless wife. “So Walter taught me a lesson. He got stout stakes (mine were slight because I didn’t want them to show too much) and he drove them into the ground with a mallet. Then he took those poor unsuspecting flowers, put a rope around their necks, and tied them so tightly to the stake that they looked throttled.”

As household projects often do, this garden adventure seemed intent on driving Margery and Walter straight to divorce court, but in the mid-1900s, that simply wasn’t the done thing, and so we have Margery’s therapy journal, I mean this lovely horticultural how-to book, to judge and enjoy. Oh, and also to learn about gardens and planting things.

Next time, we’ll talk about Walter’s firm ideas about what makes a garden beautiful and revisit a fun and lively fight about how best to sprinkle composted manure. Until then, I’m off to the garden!

To Pippin: A Proper Goodbye

To Pippin: A Proper Goodbye

Pippin, age unknown but probably around 12 or 13, a lemon beagle of questionable parentage, departed this earth the day before Valentine’s Day in time to be reunited with her one true love, Monty.

Pippin came from humble beginnings. In fact, she had to be sprung from jail (animal control), her bail set at $25, refundable if we had her spayed. We did have her spayed but never collected the bail money because her friends in jail needed things too, like cookies and blankets. That $25 and yearly donations at Christmas were Pippin’s gifts to the jailbirds she left behind. She never forgot them. Or perhaps she did. She never really said.

Pippin loved chasing rabbits. She dug under the fence regularly and escaped to gallivant around the neighborhood, often stopping in to check on Mr. O’Brien three doors down. He’d take a break from working in his garage, snap a leash on her and walk her home, and if Monty happened to be out and about with her like the truants they were, he’d trot along home as well, needing no leash because he’d never leave her side. One fine day, Pippin and Monty went for a swim in Mr. O’Brien’s pond, likely trying to catch the ducks. An immediate trip to the groomer for baths greeted them both when they returned. On another fateful day, Pippin got stuck so utterly in the mud that Joe had to pull her free, losing a shoe in the process. That must have been a very unpleasant event (for Pippin, but maybe for Joe, too), because she never attempted escape again.

Pippin loved to eat. In addition to her daily meals and regular treats, she ate full bags of peanut M&Ms, my students’ homework, and my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. She climbed onto the kitchen table to devour an unopened bag of baking flour and ripped into innocent lunch bags—whether there was still food in them or not. They only had to smell like food to attract her insatiable appetite.

Pippin loved belly rubs. She’d grab hold of your hand with her paws and not let go while you rubbed her fat belly, ensuring the happy exercise would last much longer than you had originally intended, because she was magically irresistible and really, what is more important than a belly rub? Just keep going, Mom.

Pippin made friends with all and sundry, but especially the mourning doves who called to her each evening at around 5 p.m. After supper, Pippin would scratch to go out on the deck, where she would howl intermittently for about 20 minutes. It took a very long time for us to figure out what she was doing, but it turned out that she was talking to the mourning doves, who cooed their replies. If I spoke beagle-mourning dove, I would swear she was complaining that her humans never left the food pantry door open and were treating her most cruelly. I hope the mourning doves were sympathetic listeners. We all need good friends.

Pippin was an excellent friend. She was a bad dog, a very good girl, and the prettiest of princesses. In lieu of flowers, which she would most likely stomp on, dig up, chew and spit out, donations can be made to your local animal shelter. Peace be with you.

 

Christmas 2009

Dear Friends and Family,

As beautiful and heartwarming Christmas cards from those we love pour into our mailbox this time of year, my children look at me with recrimination in their eyes and ask, “Where is our Christmas card?”

Kids Christmas 2009

So, here goes:

The year 2009 was crazy hectic but truly wonderful for the Russo family.

In August, Joe achieved a lifelong dream by opening his own optometry practice, Attleboro Vision Care Associates, at 550 North Main Street in Attleboro. He is very happy with his new practice and I think he is clever for giving it a name that starts with A. He is easily found in the Yellow Pages. I work part time as a writer for our local newspaper and a substitute teacher for our local school system. I like to keep things local.

Elsie Christmas 2009

Elsie celebrated her 16th birthday by traveling to England, France, and Scotland on a trip with her mother, grandmother, and aunt, but not her suitcase. The loss of her belongings and an allergic reaction to salad dressing on the Eurorail notwithstanding, Elsie says she had a wonderful time.  This year, Elsie performed in High School Musical with the Bradley Playhouse in Putnam, Conn. and Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail with Swamp Meadow Community Theatre.

Nick Christmas 2009.jpg

 

Nick is 13 and in the 8th grade.  In the summer, Nick spends a week at Boy Scout camp where he swims, camps, hikes, and shows off his mother’s pathetic sewing skills on his Class A uniform and merit badge sash. He runs really fast and likes hitting things with bats, so we signed him up for the cross country team and baseball team at Scituate Middle School.

 

Ben Christmas 2009

Ben, age 10 and in the 4th grade, also likes to hit things, so he too plays baseball. He also plays competitive basketball and soccer in expensive uniforms that have his last name written on the back. He joined Elsie in The Quest for the Holy Grail production as the iconic Killer Rabbit. Make no mistake, he’s not just a harmless bunny.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Love, Kristin and Joe, Elsie, Nick and Ben

When This Happens . . .

I should warn you, I’m in a terrible mood. I didn’t get enough sleep and I woke up too early and then, worst of all, my phone broke. Okay, not my actual phone, just the ring that I use to support the phone while taking selfies and to prop it up while using my yoga app, but I can tell you, old Kristin (especially bad-mood old Kristin) would have found this grounds to replace the entire phone, because how exactly am I supposed to get the phone ring off the phone case without causing astronomical damage?

At first, I feel I have a right to be alarmed. The ring won’t budge. There is no way to get it off, and my sour mood make things seem far worse than they really are. I am without hope. But maybe, just maybe, the answer lies within the phone itself. And by this I mean I could simply use the phone for one of its many purposes: look up “how to remove a ring from a phone case.” And so I did.

And now you’ll see why I thought, even for the briefest moment, that tossing it out and starting over was the best course of action. The first YouTuber I encountered thought using lighter fluid to remove the stuck-on ring was a good idea. Naturally, I disagreed entirely.

But–and you won’t believe this–apparently, there are many, many YouTubers who can teach you all sorts of things from how to apply fake eyelashes to how to play the ukulele  and quite a few of these YouTubers are also avid iPhone users (who’d’ve thought?) and several have advice to share regarding what to do in an emergency like mine. Though some wanted to show me how to put a ring on the phone (though my search clearly indicated that that was not what I was looking for–nice job, Google), others had ideas that showed real promise.

I chose one that suggested I use a credit card (or a card of similar size and consistency. Don’t worry, I did not risk my library card on such a foolhardy quest; I used my Dick’s Sporting Goods rewards card) to scrape the ring from the back of the phone case and, using background knowledge garnered from another YouTube video, I understood the properties of adhesive would allow me to peel, not pull, the white foamy glue off once the ring had detached.

It all worked according to plan. My Dick’s rewards card worked like a champ, and most of the foamy white adhesive did, indeed, peel off, but there were still a few sticky spots left.

The credit card YouTuber suggested I use toothpaste and a toothbrush to remove the last of the stickiness, but another cautioned against using anything that could scratch the case. Another thought using nail polish was best, but that smacked too much of the lighter fluid idea for my comfort.

And then, it came to me: what is strong enough to remove waterproof mascara but gentle enough to not blind me when I swipe it over my eyes? Yep, you guessed it, makeup remover. Lo and behold it worked! In the end, it was my own ingenuity, coupled with the collective wisdom of YouTube influencers from all over the world that saved my phone.

And also put me in a slightly better mood.

I’m Back!

I’m back with exciting news! I finally surrendered to the notion that I will never remember my WordPress password and decided to reset it. I can now log in and post new posts. I have found my way back home.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I always had the power to do this, but I put it off. Oh, yes, that’s a thing I will do, I would say while I busied myself not doing it. I will revisit my blog and raspberries3connect it to my new website and keep writing about the things that happen day-to-day. The raspberries are ripening. The dogs are growing older (but seemingly no wiser). The kids are moving on. I have much to say about all of this. Why did finding my way back to the spot where I say it take so long? I’m not sure. Why do many seemingly simple things take so long?

Perhaps because I’m too spent from doing the hard things. I’ll get to it, I tell myself, right after I climb down from this mountain. But there always seems to be another mountain. My mountains are work deadlines (Who doesn’t have these? No excuse!); anxiety and delight for the people I love who were once tiny humans but now have their own lives (two quite far away); the need to clear and reorganize the basement and closets of 18 years worth of living; the time to repaint faded walls and replant the flower garden; the desire to sit and be and remember. Remember important things, like my WordPress password.

My mountains are worthy mountains all, but they have not kept me away for good. I’m back. I’ve found that even forgotten things can be reset, and I can keep going.

 

From the files . . .

I found an old interview I did years ago for a student completing her senior project for high school graduation–I think from 2011. She asked some pretty cool questions about writing. It’s fun for me to revisit my answers. It reinforces for me why I love what I do.

  1. When did you first become interested in writing?

My interest in writing came about rather by default. In school, it was the only thing I was good at; but fortunately, this helped with all the other subjects where I was weak. In honors biology my freshman year in high school, we had to do a genetics-probability type of experiment where we kept a journal of our findings. My journal had really nothing of any scientific value in it, but my teacher enjoyed the lively story about my penny collection. He told me I should consider being a writer when I grow up, and the next year I was dropped from the science honors program.

Later, after I had married and had my first child, I watched horrified as footage of baby victims of the Oklahoma City bombing were pulled from the rubble. I vowed to leave my full-time job in banking and find a career I could do from home. At around the same time, my mother gave me a box of stuff she had saved from my childhood and in it was an award I had won for writing in the first grade. I decided to give writing a try. I started by selling articles about family life and child care to local baby magazines, and was soon hired as a reporter for the Brockton Enterprise, where I worked for about seven years before I moved to Rhode Island.

2. Do you ever get writer’s block?  How do you overcome it?

First, I eat. I’ve gained 15 pounds since I went back to work as a newspaper writer last spring, after moving away from the teaching profession. As deadlines loom, I panic, eat, and chew my nails. It’s not pretty, but there it is.

Then, I start writing anything at all. Often, when I’m really stuck, my opening sentence will look like this, “I really hate this stupid assignment and I wish I hadn’t said yes to it, but I did, and now I have to write about stupid people who make money selling crafts on eBay…” And then I go on to write the story, making absolute certain that I erase the first sentence before I submit it.

And sometimes, I just type in all the quotes I’ve gathered from my research in no particular order. After they’re all on the page, I cut and paste them into a flow that I like, and then I fill in between with my own thoughts and connecting paragraphs.

And when I’m done, I eat some more. I’m thinking of replacing the “eating to break writer’s block” technique with exercising, but I’m not there yet.

3. What’s the most interesting story you’ve ever written about? 

Cool question.

One story I’m most proud of wasn’t actually that interesting to write. It was about a woman who had been a physician in Ukraine before she moved to the U.S. She was collecting money, food, and baby items to send to her former colleagues who ran an orphanage in Ukraine. I just wrote a small piece about what she was collecting and where donations could be sent.

I didn’t know this at the time, but the story was translated into Russian and reprinted in a Ukrainian paper, and Russian officials thought that the U.S. was publishing stories about the government not caring for its children.

A government official was prompted by the article to investigate and visited the facility to make sure the children were getting proper care. The official had recently been at an orphanage 100 miles away, noticed a child who resembled and had the same last name as a child in the orphanage I had written about, and brought the two boys together. Each had thought his brother had been killed in the same accident that killed their parents, and of course were delighted to find each other again.

So while the story itself wasn’t all that interesting at the time, it felt good that my writing had made such a difference in the lives of those two boys.

As for the most interesting story I’ve ever explored and written? I just don’t know. There have been hundreds. I’ve written about former CIA agents, a 9-year-old high diver who was blind (can you imagine???), a young man who survived a rare, often fatal form of brain cancer who went on to graduate from college and become a naturalist and a teacher. I’ve also covered drug busts, political scandals, and murder scenes. Not one stands out as “the most interesting.” I think, in general, I find them all interesting because people fascinate me.