A Spider and a Leaf

The Spider, most likely a species of cellar spider, September 2022

This is the spider I could not kill. It spun its web along the outside curb of the shower in the finished basement of my mother’s house.

When my husband and I visit my mom, we stay in that basement, an elegant suite with a large bank of windows, a beautiful bathroom, a spacious living room, and a large bedroom.

But I’ve killed other spiders, many times, in that same place. I can’t fathom where they come from or why they like the spot on the outside curb of the shower in the elegant basement.

I discovered this spider a couple of days after my mother had quadruple bypass surgery in September. But I did not grab a piece of tissue paper, I did not squish it, and I did not flush it down the toilet. The spider in the bathroom and my mother in the hospital reminded me of an O. Henry story called “The Last Leaf.”

The leaves

In the story a young woman with pneumonia believes she will die. Dailey, she watches leaves drop from a vine outside her window and believes when the last leaf falls, she, too, will expire. And so, because I read a story forty years ago, the spider stayed. I wanted to believe as long as the spider existed, my mother would recover.

I visited my mother in the hospital. I walked her dog at home. And when I took a shower, I was mindful of the spindly spider. Its existence or extinction would not impact my mother’s recovery. But I remembered the old painter in “The Last Leaf” who paints a leaf so realistically on the wall outside the dying woman’s window, it fools her and she recovers.

And so, the spider stayed. Not because I believed it would guarantee my mother would get better, but because it was all that I could control.

My mother is three months into her recovery, and doing well. I’m not sure about the spider. But the last time I saw it in October, it still commanded the corner along the outside curb of the shower in the elegant basement.

Food

When I left work yesterday, I noticed a crow on the curb near the parking lot, which was unusual. I wondered what he was doing, and as if to answer my question, he bobbed his head to the ground, stuck his beak in a small red bag, and pulled out a tidbit of food. He chewed the morsel and plucked another one out of the bag. Someone had dropped the food, and crows are opportunists. I stopped at the side of the driveway and watched, trying to figure out what he nibbled, but I couldn’t read the words on the shiny red package.

“What are you eating?” I asked. Yes, I said it out loud. Of course, I looked around first to see if I was alone.

If the crow could’ve talked, he probably would’ve said, “Move on, lady. Nothing to see here!” He kept bobbing, pecking, and munching.

But I wanted to know what he was eating, so I stepped toward him. He grabbed the bag with his beak and flapped his wings, taking flight. He landed on the roof of the building. The crow’s whole I-can-fly-and-you-can’t maneuver made me laugh at myself. Because he was right, and because what made me think he’d let me get close enough to read the label on the package. Up on the roof he continued to eat, safe from me and my prying eyes.

“I wasn’t going to eat your food,” I told him, again out loud. The crow might eat food he found on the ground, but I wasn’t going to.

I got into my car and started it. The radio came on. National Public Radio was airing a story about a drought in a country, whose name I’d missed. Not an ordinary drought, a drought brought on by global warning, said a man. Crops had failed, and hunger was growing. People were starving.

And I thought about the crow eating food off the ground that I would turn my nose up at.

And I thought about books. Because that’s what I do, I connect to stories.

Young Elie Wiesel in a concentration camp with other prisoners, all starving, becoming bones, eating scraps riddled with mold and bugs.

The starving North Koreans in the 1990s described by Barbara Demick in her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. One-fifth of the North Koreans perished. Others survived by eating anything they could, stripping the land of edible vegetation. Their bodies deformed from lack of nutrients, forever announcing the hunger they endured.

Lev and Kolya, characters from the novel City of Thieves by David Benioff, imprisoned in Leningrad, awaiting execution, but given a chance to save themselves by finding a dozen eggs needed to bake a cake for the wedding of the daughter of a Soviet colonel, while thousands of Russians are starving, eating pigeons, dogs, cats, and eventually leather and glue from the binding of books.

I think about the crow eating junk food he found on the ground, something I claimed I wouldn’t do. I think about wars and drought, and crop failure, and food shortage, and hungry people. And I realize crow and I are lucky–crow because he lives in a land where people drop food and can afford to leave it on the ground; me because I live in a land where I don’t have to challenge a crow for scraps of food found on the ground.

Finally, I think about the Ukrainians, who last year at this time didn’t have to worry about food or heat or shelter. About the Pakistanis and the floods that decimated their crops. I think about people living through droughts and disasters. And I think about people in our country who go hungry. I remember an eighth-grade girl from years ago, who was caught stealing packaged cupcakes from the grocery store and arrested. Turned out she’d been stealing food from the store to feed herself and her little sister because the only parent in their life was an alcoholic who often had no money to buy groceries.

And I wonder . . . what I might eat or steal if disaster upended my world.

The First Real Snow of the Season

Ziva, November 29, 2022, home after our evening walk

Snow began falling around 8:00 a.m. today. The forecast predicted a trace to one inch, but it snowed all day, and four fluffy inches covered the ground, roads, trees, and cars. Snow can be that way, making weather forecasters look foolish.

This isn’t the first snow of the year, but today’s snow has a good chance of staying on the ground, making it a white Christmas. That’s why I call it the first real snow of the year.

I loved snow as a child, and I haven’t grown old enough yet to resent or fear it. The first real snowfall of the year evokes childhood memories of snowballs, snowmen, snow forts, and sledding. Swaddled in snow pants, jackets, hats, scarves, and mittens, our joyful shouts, squeals, and laughter bounced off the trees and houses.

I love to walk my dogs, Ziva and Cabela, in the evening after a fresh snowfall when the air is still. My dogs love the first real snow too. They prance. They stuff their noses in the snow, tossing it in the air or eating it. Sometimes the snow tickles their noses, and they sneeze. Even Cabela, who’s now fourteen-and-a-half, becomes youthful. When they were puppies, the first snowfall of the year gave them the crazies. They pounced and dashed and rolled in it, creating doggie snow angels. They reminded me of a gaggle of children unleashed into the first good snow of the year.

Perhaps snow sparks something primal in my dogs and myself, something that lights up ancient places in our brains, something that is more complex than our happy memories of youthful frolics in the snow.

Ziva, a blur in the snow

I Bake a Pumpkin Pie, and a New Thanksgiving Tradition is Born

My husband likes pumpkin pie. I do not. For more than twenty years we cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for a big group of people. But not pumpkin pie. Someone else always brought pumpkin pie. I baked a cake or cheesecake.

This year we’re having a nontraditional Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, no stuffing, no mashed potatoes, no pumpkin pie. There will be four of us. We’re having a roast, baked potatoes, and green beans (not mixed with cream of mushroom soup). I’m making a chocolate peanut butter chip cake. My husband is happy to skip the turkey and other fixings, but he mentioned twice that he was going to miss the pumpkin pie. Yesterday, I decided to bake him a pumpkin pie before Thanksgiving.

I called Aunt Coralee. She bakes smack-down, grand-champion, blue-ribbon, best-of-show pies. I asked her how she makes pumpkin pie. She starts with a homemade crust. Her crusts are flakey, tender, rich and golden brown, and if her pie filling mysteriously evaporated, her crust could carry the day on its own. I told her that was an art form I did not have time to master. She told me to buy a premade crust at the store. All I had to do was unroll it and put it in the pie pan. No rolling pin required. I could do that. She told me to use canned pumpkin and follow the recipe on the back of the label. I could do that, too. Off to the store, I went.

My second call to Aunt Coralee was from the grocery store. “Do you bake your pie in a glass or tin pan?” I asked. She uses glass or ceramic. “Cool,” I said because I had a glass pie dish that I used for quiche.

“Don’t forget the whipped cream,” Aunt Coralee said.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I’d thought about whipped cream in produce, but breezed by the dairy cooler in pursuit of refrigerated pie crust. “If you want to see a grown man cry, just hand my husband a piece of pie without whipped cream,” I said. Aunt Coralee and I had a good laugh–everything’s funnier in a grocery store when you’re buying ingredients to bake a pie you’ve never made before.

Back home I unrolled the pie crust and placed it in the glass pie pan. I mixed the filling and poured it into the crust. Baking time: fifteen minutes at 425° then thirty to forty minutes at 350°. Thirty to forty minutes! That’s a big spread of time, like across a few time zones. The instructions said the pie would be done when a knife inserted into the center came out clean.

After thirty-five minutes at 350°, I did the knife test. It came out clean, except for three tiny, wee specks of pumpkin. That had to be considered clean, but the center of the pie was jiggly. I baked it another five minutes. Then tested again. Just a few tiny, wee specks of pumpkin, but still jiggly in the center. I was up to forty minutes but decided the pie needed five more minutes. When the timer binged, I pulled the pie from the oven and set it on the stove. The center was still a little jiggly. I called Aunt Coralee for a third time.

I worried the pie wasn’t done but also worried I’d cooked it too long. Aunt Coralee assured me it would be fine, that I couldn’t really overcook the pumpkin by adding an extra five minutes. But she explained the center of a custard pie will be jiggly when it’s done cooking and will set up as it cools. The pie did look lovely as it cooled and the center set up.

After work my husband discovered his pumpkin pie on the stove, he smiled, and stated the obvious, “You made me pumpkin pie. Thanks.” He kissed me on the cheek. Smart guy.

Next year I’m going to make him another pumpkin pie. I’ll stop baking it when the knife comes out clean, and I’ll remember the center will be jiggly. And even though I won’t eat a slice, I’ll admire it as it cools on the stove.

A new Thanksgiving tradition.

True Love Is . . .

My new soft flannels

. . . when you squat down to get a frying pan out of the cupboard and rip your one-and-only pair of awesome flannel pants (which you’ve had for fifteen years) from mid-shin to mid-thigh, a split so long and jagged you can’t mend them, sending you on a search for a new pair, but only finding fleece (so second-rate) or flimsy flannel (so short-lived), then your husband joins the quest, and after searching online he announces that the outdoor retail store where you bought your awesome flannel pants still carries them, so you drive to the store and purchase a velvety-soft, blue-plaid pair; returning home, you slip out of your jeans and into the softest caress of flannel, and you know true love isn’t a bouquet of flowers, but a husband who wants you to have dreamy flannel pants.

A Rose in the Cold

November 12, 2022

Yesterday, my dog Ziva and I walked a different direction, not to seek adventure but to find warmth. Every block we put between us and Lake Superior meant more houses to deflect the wind coming off the lake. It helped, but not much. When a cold wind rumbles off the lake, it finds you.

On our walk I saw a long-stemmed rose, and my first impulse was to smell it. Because you should stop to smell the roses, even when it’s 28 degrees and overcast and the sky is sprinkling snowflakes like salt from a shaker. The rose smelled sweet, like the roses my nana grew in the front of her 900-square-foot home, the smallest house by far on her street. Nana prized her roses and tended them with great care. They signaled that she, too, was a lady, even in her tiny home. Her long-stemmed, red roses announced that she had left behind her childhood of deep poverty and great difficulties.

My next impulse was to take a picture of the rose, which looked remarkably good. Amazing because this week’s basket of weather contained strong winds, drenching rains, and even some snow.

But sometimes survival is about luck.

This rose was blessed because its owners planted it in front of their house which works as a shelterbelt, saving it from the worst of the icy winds and horizontal rains that blow off the lake. It was fortunate because it bloomed at the end of a long stem, keeping it off the ground where colder air settles. It was spared because this week’s snow was light and melted quickly, postponing it’s red, velvety petals from freezing and turning brown.

It’s 23 degrees this morning, so the rose’s good fortune won’t hold much longer. But with care and some luck, new roses will bloom again next year.

Minion Saves Halloween

My four grandkids come trick-or-treating this evening with their parents. A grim reaper, a Pikachu, a hamburger with the works, and a firefighter.

And then I hear a small doctor (or maybe he’s a nurse) who’s about five years old.

“Trick-or-treat,” says the wee medical professional dressed in blue scrubs, pinned with a name badge. He smiles and looks at me with anticipation, holding out a small white bucket. His mother is standing with my daughter-in-law.

“I don’t have any candy,” I say. I didn’t buy any because I decided not to pass out candy. What I have in the house are four plastic zip bags with small toys, fancy pens and pencils, and lip balm for my grandkids.

The wee medical guy repeats, “Trick-or-treat” because surely the lady who just told him she doesn’t have any candy is confused. It’s Halloween. There must be candy.

I go inside and grab the four bags of goodies for my grandkids. As I slip the goodies in their trick-or-treat bags, I keep apologizing for not having something for the wee lad in blue scrubs. His mother says that it’s okay and explains to him that the lady didn’t know he was coming.

The little boy’s cheeks quiver, the corners of his mouth tilt down, and tears fill his eyes.

I’m so sorry, I say again. It’s okay, the mom repeats.

But it’s not okay. He’s a little boy, maybe five. He doesn’t understand. It’s not okay that he’s left out. And he’s too young to understand that some lady doesn’t have candy or something for him. He has done his part. He is dressed up. He has said, Trick-or-treat. He has watched four other kids get a treat, but he is getting the trick.

I think about finding something for him. I think about my purse. I have things in my purse. It’s like Mary Poppins’s bag. But there is nothing fun in my purse for the little medical guy.

Because we’re all standing in my driveway, I think about my van. Bingo. I have toys in my van.

“Wait a sec,” I say. I open the sliding door and look at several small toys. I grab a Minion because when you wind it up and push down on its curl of hair, it vibrates. Perfect because the wee fellow in blue scrubs deserves something fun, something interactive, something to evaporate his tears before they slide down his cheeks.

I hold it in front of him and demonstrate how to make the Minion vibrate. I place the pulsating toy in his hands, and his face lights up, like I’ve just handed him a beautiful beating heart.

I back up several feet and tell my grandkids and little medical dude to line up so I can take their picture. This Halloween my annual picture will have five children in it. I want that sweet little boy to feel welcome, not left out, so I only take pictures of all the children together.

Later I look at the pictures. My four grandkids are smiling at the camera. But little medical guy? In every picture, he is holding the Minion cupped in his hands, smiling at it like it’s a newborn he just helped deliver. It’s Halloween, it’s a time of pretending, it’s sweet spooky magic.

I’m glad I keep stuff stashed in my van. Medical dude doesn’t know it, but when I look at the picture of him looking at his Minion treat, and I see his smile, it’s clear that he gave me the better treat.

Field Research on the Pandemic

There’s talk. Is the pandemic over? Are we still in the midst of the pandemic? Will COVID surge this winter? What about the rumors of a butter shortage?

I could do some research on the CDC website. Or the World Health Organization website. I could interview Dr. Anthony Fauci at the NIH. Or Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Instead my six-year-old grandson and I did some field research in a bathroom at a Cold Stone Creamery. Of course, we ate ice cream first–protocol, you know.

We spotted this toilet paper roll in the bathroom. My grandson asked why it wasn’t inside the holder. (He also asked why I was taking a picture of toilet paper.) I asked why it wasn’t locked up inside the holder.

During the beginning of the pandemic (a.k.a. The Great TP Shortage), this unsecured toilet paper might have been purloined. Don’t let the size of this roll make you think it would’ve been too big to steal. Sure, a person couldn’t slide it into a pocket. But it would fit in my purse, and there are women who carry bigger purses than me. Some people carry backpacks.

Our scientific research findings: The confidence displayed by the people who didn’t steal this roll indicates they believe The Great TP Shortage is over.

Later that afternoon my grandson took me to get the new multivariant COVID shot. On Sunday, I bought one pound of salted butter and one pound of unsalted butter. Now, it’s wait and see.

Campy Halloween Skeletons Settle in Harbor Springs, Michigan

Bogey

Bogey, my mother’s dog, loves Lake Michigan, so this afternoon I took him to Harbor Springs, a small summer town snuggled up along the eastern shore of the lake. It’s Bogey’s favorite place to walk. He knows when he is going to Harbor. The only place he loves more is a pet store, where he tries to shoplift anything he can fit into his mouth.

First, we stopped at his favorite clothing store. He got lots of hugs from a woman who works there, but she was out of dog treats. He kept holding up his paw and pleading, but only received another hug and another apology. He was clearly disappointed, reminding me of a little boy who tells his great-aunt, “But I wanted a toy train, not fuzzy footie pajamas.”

After we left the store, Bogey enjoyed his water-view walk. He sniffed the grass, did his business, and watched a pair of ducks swim along a beach. Dogs get over disappointment quickly.

My favorite! The headstone reads: RIP Summer 2022

Next, we headed back to Main Street, where I noticed boney visitors who’d stopped by Harbor Springs dressed for Halloween. Bogey had to wait for me while I walked up and down the sidewalks and photographed twenty-seven snappily-dressed skeletons. I know I didn’t get pictures of all the skeletons, but I had fun trying to find as many as I could. Excitement lurked on every block and around every corner. Costumed skeletons have become a Harbor Springs Halloween tradition. And this year there are seventy-five skeletons creaking about.

Tonight the wind howls off Lake Michigan, and it’s raining in spurts. In the hours before dawn, snow is expected before turning back to rain. The National Weather Service has issued a wind advisory. And I wonder how the skeletons will stay warm in all this weather–they don’t have any meat on their bones.

Infinity of Joy

Coming back from a trip to the library, July 2022

“Nana, you have an infinity of dishes,” says Evan, who is nearly six; who tosses words into the air and pairs them with unlikely partners; who strings together metaphors like a bohemian necklace; who loves puns, making up his own then laughing and asking—Do you get it?

A punster, a mixer of words, a stringer of metaphor, he should be a writer, and I tell him so. He answers, “But I can’t write any words.” I remind him he’s starting school, he will learn.

For a moment the infinity of dishes that tracks through my kitchen from cupboard to table to counter, waiting to be stacked in the dishwasher or hand washed, depending on their taxonomy, gives me pleasure because Evan’s linguistic artistry gives me pleasure.