Considering Mothers: Flowers Among All Others

A favorite activity for my spouse and me around Mother’s day is to visit the National Historic Site of Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Woodland, Washington. The farmhouse was owned by Hulda’s parents (Godfried and Wilhemina Thiel) until she took possession and lived there until her 1960 death. The 1880s Victorian farmhouse is a lovely example of the style. But it is the grounds bursting with lilacs, heavy on large bushes, that brings such pleasure. The fragrance is warm and sweet and it is very easy to get “lilac drunk!” We visited last week-end, a good time before they were spent.

Like hopefully most mothers, I find my 45 years of motherhood to be creatively inspiring, perplexing and fulfilling, tiring and joyous, spiritually deepening, intellectually intriguing, and just plain fun. And yes, I can well see us each as remarkably resilient, productive and gorgeous flowers among other all other flowers…Please enjoy these pictures–have a loving Mother’s Day!

Friday’s Quick Pick/Photos: A Peek into My Old Neighborhood

It was inevitable that sooner or later I’d end up nosing about the old neighborhood of Irvington in Portland. We moved into woodsy ex-burbs on 1st of March; it’s not as if we’ve been gone ages. But when an appointment took me back and weather cleared plus I had time, of course I was going to check out a proliferation of new blossoms among old sights. I expect more within a month or two and will return. In our new digs we have greater vistas and different plant life as we are higher, nearer mountain foothills– but with fewer flowers, so far.

Hope you enjoy absorbing the sights, as I certainly did (though I am still pleased with our move).

All photos ©Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2019

If you made it to the bottom, a PS: our youngest daughter is delivering twins next Tuesday, so I may be absent a couple of days–unless I post Monday. But I will be busier than ever after this so writing may be less of quantity but, hopefully, still retain some decent quality. And to say I am excited about the additions to our family may be a true understatement…! I will share some of those new experiences.

Home is the Spot You Land

BC599120-1DD8-B71C-07EE5AFD2AFDAC43-large I had to move all the way from Michigan to Tennessee before I got to live in a state park and purchase a large A-frame-style house for our family of seven. I was thirty-four. My husband was transferred, the fourth time in five years. I was ready as always for adventure, I thought. My parents had taken my siblings and me through Tennessee during summer vacations on our way to other places. History was something my family studied in person–or remnants of it. Tennessee has plenty of that. I even thought of myself as a bit Southern since I was born and lived in Missouri for one and a half years. I was quite mistaken. That was clear the day we arrived at Pin Oak Lodge, where we would stay while we located a suitable house. The lodge was in Natchez Trace State Park, under ten miles from Lexington, our new city of five thousand. It looked like an old town out of a movie, replete with a small library, three small schools and a town square with courthouse front and center. It boasted an attractive lake within city limits. We were about to dive into a mega adventure in the classic South. Detroit suburbs were very far away-I wasn’t very sad about that–as soon as the lodge receptionist emitted words cloaked in vowels that had been stretched, transformed. “Wayaacom yaal. Aahm Jaaayean.” Her smile dazzled. That is what I heard when I first met Jane. I was embarrassed to have to ask for a repeat. I felt quite unsure about the territory we had just entered. It was late summer, a month before the new school worries. Our children, ages eleven down to four, initially considered it a well-deserved vacation. The rooms were pleasing; the pool had cheery aqua water with a diving board to execute daredevil dives from, day and night. I joined in though my husband watched from a shady spot or, preferably, an air conditioned window seat. The sun hunted us down, mistaking us for prey. Sweat was a constant accessory. We turned pink or bronze in no time. The daily buffet offered surprises like fried okra and catfish, which we loved. I didn’t tell the kids what the fish looked like alive or where it had lived. For errands in town, we tooled around in a fancy Lincoln Town Car my husband’s company had leased for us–it was a tight fit–until we moved everything, cars included, to a new house. In the meantime, we were to adapt and enjoy the amenities as we continued searching for our own habitation. It was true that clamorous cicadas rivaled those in Missouri and the cottony heat eventually drove us indoors if not in the water. But those realities seemed minor for the moment. Who could complain, right?  Hotel living gets old fast, despite the expense account, the services, the “easy does it” attitude. Ever try to keep track of five kids who have their own room, even one by your own? They felt freed of old constraints, the general rules of family that develop and nurture a civilized communal lifestyle. I empathized with their responses, but I was the ruling parent while my husband worked. The responsibility felt heavier outside of a house and neighborhood. We lived in the forest. Anyone could get lost. But we couldn’t find a home big and decent enough yet affordable. I watched as other families came, played, and left–they were on vacations–and we remained two, then three weeks and into the fourth. We made a decision to move on. ?????????? To the cabins. We were in two, side by side. Rustic but with running water and usable kitchens. Secluded. Because it was nearly September and everyone else was home buying fresh pencils and notebooks, trendy clothes and backpacks, we were alone. Excepting the wildlife. Not that we weren’t preparing for the new school. But ten miles from school meant only a couple trips. The children lamented the few choices of commodities. I wondered where a good music and bookstore were. We worked at tuning into the language cadence so we understood what was said. Some found us less than appealing, with our big family, luxury car and our own accent that branded us as foreigners at best, enemies at worst. Confederate flags whipped in the breeze while people sipped iced tea for hours. Our kids danced and sang to Motor City soul music and liked to get right to the point. Most of the time we were in the thickets, hiking, observing an array of insects, avoiding unknown snakes and getting full choral concerts from bountiful birds. Bears we didn’t worry about. I heard larger creatures, sensed them nearby but rarely saw them. I’ve always liked bugs. I grew up with a mother who took etymology and geology in college and a father who was a scientist at heart. We’d gone camping, hiked many trails. I had once lived in Texas, where fire ants, spiders and cockroaches did not win their battles with me. So I didn’t shrink from unique flora and fauna that might elicit shrieks from others. That was before we took showers in cabins in a Tennessee state park. The first time my dripping wet foot landed on a hard, round object that was not a pen or bottle I was startled. When I moved so that my shadow stepped aside as well and the truth was revealed, I said things rather crass. Then I jumped on the toilet seat and shrieked for my spouse like a wimp. millipede A millipede! And many more to follow during our stay. The sort with well over one hundred legs, I am certain. Not poisonous, not a biting sort, but nonetheless. They have hard shelled segments to protect their soft undersides. We had towels. After that we wore our sandals and inspected the bathroom and shower first. Considering they are thought to be the first creature to move from water to land, I owed them some respect. Like the place we were to make a home within. There were good times shared while we lived in the forest of Natchez Trace State Park. Nature provided peace and pleasures unlike any city life offered. I embraced myriad wonders. We lounged outside, sat at picnic tables for meals. The scents of earth and abundant plant life clung to us. Wildflowers greeted us in secret places. We followed butterflies by day and moths’ curious dances around porch lights in evening. There were fires to tend in the fireplaces as the air grew chill. Storytelling and making our own music were second nature without television or fancy phones. We created things out of nature’s bits and pieces, compared found rocks and studied trees and flowers, nature guides in hand. The children grew braver, more sure-footed. Resilience is readiness of spirit, a skill of adaptability. All five gained more daily. They cared for each other and squabbled as before but they couldn’t escape each other easily. They learned things about one another that they did not know before. Just as my spouse and I did. Like how to cultivate patience, faith and love when alone in a strange, if beautiful, land. ?????????? We found our house after the kids had been in school for a month. I might have moved into anything with enough beds for all at that point. But the moment I laid eyes on it I thought, It looks like a northern Michigan house. The beauty of that anomaly choked me up. The bonus was getting some land with it. My husband agreed. It was built into a hill. The front looked like one story whereas the back revealed it was two.  It had four bedrooms, two baths, two living areas and a wood stove that warmed up the whole house in the winter (yes, it got cold). A porch spanned the front, the better to ogle the countryside. There was a rolling acre of yard that opened onto woods, a murky pond (fit for nothing much but snakes although the kids tried fishing) and a nice garden spot. We swore we could see the kudzu, monster vine, creep across the road, it grew so fast. It fascinated and frightened me a little, like southern thunder or ice storms we’d watch roil the skies far off, then shake up everything on the way in. As with so much of Tennessee, I came to appreciate the power and wiles of the geography. I loved helping split wood, then tending the fire in our wood stove, making the two stories warm and fragrant. Was mesmerized by the harsh music of cicadas among unseen critters. Grew to appreciate heat that left us languorous. I made a dear friend of Jane. I was the only woman in the one AA meeting where older men made up a club, exceedingly slow to set out a chair for me. Poetry came to me unimpeded while walking our acre. But my cello had arrived cracked, splintered. My father repaired it back home, then hand delivered it, lest my heart stay broken, too. It played differently after that. It seemed an omen that much was to change, one way or another. Our children learned about kindness, tolerance, and prejudice in equal measure; we were a multicultural family in actuality and viewpoint–not always understood or welcomed. It was a place where a molasses-like accent charmed and lulled us, and the closeness of air hung on our shoulders like invisible cloaks. Where we could roam at length in our own back yard. I fell in love with many of western Tennessee’s characteristics about the time we followed a moving van back over the Mason-Dixon Line. It had not even been two years, but it had changed me. Deepened and challenged me. It had been a journey worth taking for the family. But it was very good indeed to be heading north to yet another spot. BC46E051-1DD8-B71C-072E2077349C8353-large

Afternoons at the Ice Palace

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                                              (Photo by Alec Soth)

I know I look kind of miserable but that was the first day of my punishment. Aunt Lucia thought I was just fulfilling the sentence she’d determined after I got in trouble: twelve figure skating lessons, Tuesday and Thursday after school. I had skipped school a half-dozen times and on top of that was caught smoking pot in October. I’m not saying I did the right things, but to hear her tell of it I was on the road to ruin and if she didn’t get me turned around she would next be visiting me in prison.
“So this is what I’m expecting, Kara: no more skipping, no smoking anything, no staying out past midnight. Also taking figure skating classes twice a week for six weeks, or until I say you’re done, whichever I decide.”
I jerked my head up from the book I was reading and focused on her freshly permed burgundy curls. “Okay, okay-but really? Figure skating? What’s that about?”
She was ironing my best white shirt. “You’ve always had a knack for sports, am I right? I saw you skate a month ago, remember? You got a knack for it. Exercise is good for mind and body.” She sprayed a mist on the cotton and attacked the wrinkles. “Or in January you can go back to Vinnie’s.”
I shuddered. My dad–her brother, Vincent/Vinnie–didn’t have space or time for me in his life what with his business and a new wife.I’d just turned fifteen when I realized Harper–that was her name, says she was a model once–had never been around kids. She also had no sense of humor so we really didn’t hit it off. What she did have was close to eighty pairs of shoes that spilled out of my dad’s closet, not to mention who knows how many dresses and accessories. I stayed as far away from her as possible.
“Since you put it that way…if I must, I will comply,” I said to Aunt Lucia and turned the page. “But I’d rather skate my own way. All that ballet stuff added on is a bit too much.”
She kept ironing. I could feel her staring at me, those dark eyes drilling a hole through my skull, reading my thoughts. I closed the book and went upstairs.
“That’s my Kara, back on track,” she called after me.
She’s like a cheerleader with kindness overriding the pep, encouraging me even when I don’t want it, making me stand tall when I feel like a million scrappy, scrambled pieces. But I wasn’t ready to give her the upper hand–or, at least, to let her know I was giving in.
I really attended skating lessons after school at the Ice Palace because I liked the ice. I thought this was a good way to have some fun and fulfill the sentencing. Despite its name, the Ice Palace is just a plain outdoor rink with a medium warming house that has a roaring fireplace. That saves the place. They sell hot chocolate, coffee and snacks that are less than delicious.
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That first lesson wasn’t too successful. I was used to skating fast, not gracefully, and plowing my way through clumps of weaker skaters. Ordinary peons like me with nothing better to do on Saturday, leaving the ice surface gouged. Now I shared a smooth, clean rink with a dozen students who acted so serious, practicing various jumps, spins and fancy backward skating called a grapevine. And figure eights, which terrified me. That’s where you make two circles, one next to another so it looks like an eight, and try to stay on the same line as you re-trace it on the edge of one blade. Complicated. I wobbled and scraped the ice and made not one perfect circle. I had an urge to make a seven or an eleven but Steve, my instructor, was stern and very tall. When I finally completed one he punched a fist at the sky as though I’d won a race. Everyone else looked over. I felt I’d melt as heat crept up my neck. A giant gust of wind swept up, bringing me energy and release. I got to free skate.
The second class went better. I picked up things fast, Steve said. I already skated backwards, turned well and could stop so that ice sprayed everywhere. I overdid that so I learned a quick T-stop, flashy but neat.
I started to hurry over to the Ice Palace each day after school. On lesson days I’d warm up for a half hour, stay a little after the class and then catch a late bus. It was hard work and sometimes tedious. But by the end of the third week I considered that my aunt was actually a sage who knew figure skating was an alchemical process whereby I was transformed into someone different. But I didn’t tell her. I just let things happen.
“You’re sweeter lately,” she said one night as I was helping in the kitchen. “Maybe it’s the figure skating?”
I shrugged. “I’m operating under a mandate, remember? I can do this.”
She snapped me with her tea towel. “Steve costs a lot so he’d better whip you into shape– or more drastic measures will be needed.”
I snapped her back and it turned into a chase. Aunt Lucia, she ran fast for a large middle-aged woman. Afterwards she told me she’d excelled in track and field as a kid. I stayed up late and drank spearmint tea with her as she shared surprising stories. She’s my favorite aunt even if I do resent her demands and nosiness. She’s sly and good all at once, a master (mistress?) of many things.
I kept skating. I’d found my place at the rink and found it harder to not be happy. I learned new things, shoot-the duck, the sit spin and waltz jump. But skating was natural while living felt awkward; it was not anywhere near what it should be. I read a lot and I liked stories that made me ask questions and dig for answers, but nothing had helped me understand my parents better. They basically abandoned me in tiny excruciating steps. Well, not my mom. She up and left for due to “a passion for Chardonnay”, as dad explained it, graduated the program and left us. Years ago this had happened but still. I resented and missed her and my father. There was a place inside that felt like a wound that had to heal too fast, and did so badly. Some scars remain oddly sensitive; numbness with a shadowy ache is what is left me.
But when I entered the warming house and sat down with my used Riedell figure skates (they’d cost Aunt Lucia too much), my heart started to drum on my ribs. My scalp tingled. My spine got straighter, my back stronger. My feet wanted to hurry and take off as I loosened, then tightened my laces just right. Then I took off the rubber blade guards at the gate, stowed them in a cubbyhole, and burst onto the glittering ice. In the late afternoon sun it was a jeweled winter lake, glassy and bright as light and people skimmed and sailed. When it snowed the light softened and the air was silkier even as my cheeks stung, but sweetly. I loved the way my thigh muscles burned as I sped around the rink, how I was learning to control every muscle as I sweated and improved each move. I was Kara the girl who could leap and spin, not Kara that weirdo from out West who had to live with an aunt. I was sloppy and tired at first if pleased. After the seventh class I’d caught up to many of the others. Steve said he was proud of me; that surprised me. I had discovered abundant freedom in a world where some freedoms seemed to shrink the older I got. It was a kind of ecstasy. My mind opened and my heart embraced what came; fear dissolved with the small acts of bravery out there. Those silver blades on my feet took me out of myself, made me reach farther, higher. I felt bigger. I felt safe from sadness.
So when Aunt Lucia came to the last class to see what I had done with twelve lessons I showed her. I had to let her in on the secret, the passion I’d found. I completed a stag jump to applause and felt myself turning into gold beneath a high winter sun. And my sentence was completed just like that: I got more lessons. I still have the picture that Steve took for us. Aunt Lucia is smiling like a madwoman and I’m laughing, imagining all the ice that lay ahead of me like a magic pathway.

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