Friday, June 27, 2014

Don't Tread On Me! (please)

I feel sad about this. I'd never intended to put up a 'No Trespassing' sign. I had always assumed that most people respect the property of other, and those that don't weren't going to be deterred by a $7 sign.
Especially out where we live.
Eight years ago we bought this place, a five acre swath of woods in the middle of even more woods. We are miles from any retail establishment, our road is rugged and rough, un-striped and non-shouldered macadam.
People out here are generally of a certain type. People that don't want to live in a city, or even a town, they want seclusion, privacy and peace and quiet, away form the rat-race, away from busy-body interlopers.
Many of the property owners on this road own multiple firearms, raise an American flag and seem to have a lot of ATV's and camouflage clothing.  It is a pretty safe bet to say that at least eight out of ten of them vote Republican, if at all, and praise the Baby Jesus at least in public. A questionnaire passed around would get very, very predictable results.
Question 1. Bush or Gore?
2. Abortion?
3. Gay Marriage?
4. More taxes?
5. Immigration reform?
6. Eminent domain?
7. Prayer in School?

You get where I'm going.
Is that stereotypical of me? Well yes, I suppose it is, but in this neighborhood I'd strongly advise you not to bet against me on the results.
Not everyone, mind you, but a significant majority to be sure. I've looked over election results for the are. I know what I'm talking about here.
One of the hallmarks of that particular ideology is the principle, the ironclad, God-given sanctity of personal property rights.
So when I settled into this area I realized that I did not agree more than forty percent with the political views of my neighbors, but I didn't care. Also part of that espoused belief system, as well as a tenet of mine, is that what other people believe is none of anyone else's concern, as we all have a right to form opinions based on whatever reasoning we choose, even if it is no more articulate nor deeply-thought-out than a standard bumper sticker.
In fact, most of us out here rarely talk to each other anyhow, it's all part of that laissez-faire (live and let live) rural attitude.  We'll help out a neighbor if asked, not a problem. Need some gas? Fine take some of mine. Need to use a phone? Sure, no problem.
I like this lifestyle. In the eight years we've lived here we've had no problems with neighbors, at all. If anything they are kind, friendly and don't tend to snoop.
I should tell you something else about our property. Our little five acres was once part of a ninety four acre parcel. The owners of that original land passed away, the land fell into the hands of their heirs, who themselves already owned their own land across the county.
The house was quite modern, trimmed out well, but as part of a ninety four acre property no one, I mean no one wanted to buy it. So the heirs carved out a five acre section and sold that and the house, to us, at a much more reasonable price. At the time we bought the place the land was valued at $6,000 per acre. Yeah, do the math.
It was not good pasture or farm land either. Hilly, lots of crevices and ravines, very shallow soil and only partial tree coverage.
The only problem is that our five acres has the only road-accessible path to the rest of the land. Anyone that wants to look the land over has to tromp through the woods, over fences, very few paths. Or they have to come down my driveway.
In the years I've been here I know of only one or two people that have come to look at the land. I gladly granted access to it, because I was asked.
Problem two.
At the base of the steep land is a large, one or more acre pond. A beautiful thing. Mostly man-made I'm sure.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Memorial day weekend, three days off, two of those days I spent driving to, staying overnight at and returning home from Cerulean, Kentucky.
That is where my parents’ house is. A small town, so small that referring to it as a town at all is an exaggeration. No stores, no gas station, no traffic lights, well, frankly, almost no traffic.
It’s not even on the way to somewhere else. If you find yourself in Cerulean and it was not your intended destination, then you are way off course, no matter where you were going.
It is quiet, the nights there are intensely peaceful. The mornings are rather enjoyable, especially if you have a swing on a big porch.
Occasionally a vehicle will pass by, more often than not it is either some form of farm implement or a buggy full of Amish folks heading to wherever it is Amish people go.
Mom’s house is huge. They bought it in 1972 for $20,000. It was already nearly a hundred years old, built by the town’s doctor, perhaps the nicest, biggest home in town.
I only lived there a couple of years before I went out on my own. My older sister spent her summer after high school graduation there. Steve only ever visited and Jeff, he spent several interesting years there.
Mom and Dad didn't even live there for a many year period while she was stationed around Western Kentucky as a Methodist minister.
When they retired though, they fixed it up and settled in.
Another retirement tradition began, yard sales. Mom loves yard sales. She’d buy books, knick knacks, whatever fed her fancy. Dad bought tools and hardware, lots of them. Before long the house began to fill up, becoming almost a museum, a monument to tag sale bargains.
My father died last year, Mom’s own health started to deteriorate. The house, large to begin with, became enormous.
After a period in the hospital, Mom required assisted living. She could get around mostly, but was no longer able to drive or to lift or carry most things. My brother Jeff lives nearby but both he and his wife were as busy as anyone else working to make their own ends meet.
Mom moved in to Barkley Plantation in nearby Cadiz. Temporarily. Jeff would tend to the old house on evenings and weekends, as he could.
Like any very old building, it could not just be left inert. Plumbing, heating, wiring, lawn and pest control all needed constant maintenance.
At the Plantation, mom first moved in with just the basics. Some books, my a desk, her laptop, a TV, and her cat. The apartment seemed tiny in comparison to the big house.
It was indeed small, about the dimensions of a modest hotel suite, but it was also very manageable.
After a while Mom became a bit more sociable, seeking out and being sought out by other residents.
She offered door to door ministerial services to the folks, and would even lead a small service in the community room on those days when the weather didn't permit many of the mostly elderly residents to go to their own home churches.
Mom had found a new mission. We were delighted. It had been a trying year, a devastating year, it was good to see her alight with renewed purpose.
Sometime in the spring she decided that this would suit her for the long term.
We siblings had many conversations; all agreeing she was much better off at the Plantation than the massive house in Cerulean.
We didn't push mom on this. We certainly encouraged it, but we all agreed that it was her decision, her choosing.
Plus, in one respect, we all dreaded that decision. Because we knew that the real work will have only just begun.
What to do with all that stuff?
It’s not like there were any Rembrandts, or Louis IV furniture, or boxes of gold and silver lying around. This massive amount of stuff was almost all of very little or no commercial value.
Sure there were some things she would want to keep, forever. But most of it was temporary, bought to
please and enjoy for a short time. And as the house was so large, there was never much of a need to get rid of any of it.
So this is what this Memorial Day weekend was for us.
All four siblings and Mom met at the house on Saturday. She went room to room, pointing at and gathering up things.
Some of the things she pointed at she would say to one of us “Would you like to take that?”
It felt horribly awkward.
She assured us though. “I’d rather see it go to one of you than to a stranger.”
Thus we became caretakers of the treasure. I could manage that. I could certainly store and enjoy some of her vast collection of . . stuff.
Hardly any of it dated back to the years I lived there. There were a few things though. I’d already mentioned to Kathy that when it came time that I’d like the nutcrackers, of course. Some books, only a few, most of Mom’s books are about the church, Methodism, women in Christianity, Bible studies, etc. I’m sure they are all fine works, but I’d only be kidding if I said I’d ever, ever actually read any of them.
Steve asked me to help him with an organ or piano bench. He’d already tagged or claimed much of the furniture. None of the rest of us had room for giant, heavy antique dressers and chifferobes. The staircase is narrow and steep. I grabbed one end of the bench and backed down the unfamiliar stairs.
We got out to his big minivan and there I saw it. 
The Banjo.
None of us ever played a banjo, none of us could even recall when it first showed up at the house. Of the three finished large rooms upstairs, one, my old room, was used for bulk storage, the other two were modestly furnished and eclectically decorated as guest rooms. Odds and ends of no particular theme lay around on dressers and tables, stuffed animals and gaudy pillows on the beds. The middle room, the one I stay in most often when I visit, had, for no particular reason, an old, cheap Kay Banjo, circa 1960’s. It was for several years a neglected and three-stringed music-less instrument. No one in the family ever played any banjo, especially this one. Yard sale item, must have been.
Over the years when more than two siblings showed up for a holiday visit, we’d settle on room preference. The one I mentioned most was commonly understood to be ‘The Banjo Room.’
There was a guitar in the room as well, no one played that either, but calling it the ‘Guitar Room’ sounded a little vague. There may have been more than one guitar in that house, we weren't sure, but there was certainly only one banjo.
It was in Steve’s van. I instantly coveted it. He was already taking, with our blessings, the most valuable stuff, the antique furniture.
I mentioned it to him, I thought it would be our first domestic squabble of the task.
“You want that?” He said.
“Yes, yes I do. I don’t know why, but I want it… that is, unless you’re attached to it.”
“No, I was after the guitar, I just took the banjo because I didn't think anybody else would want it.”
I turned on my sad puppy face.
“Sure, take it.” He said, it really didn't seem to bother him much.
So there I stood with a partially stringed, stained and likely warped, cheap banjo.
I held it like a trophy. To this day I do not know why it meant anything at all, but there for a moment it was a victory, a reward, a fait accompli.
We went back upstairs and from room to room. I noticed something from my early childhood. A clock. An eight day, spring wound, Seth Thomas clock in a dark wood cabinet. That clock had been in the family longer than I had, and to my recollection, it never worked.
But it did have a purpose.
When we were very young and it occasionally came time for the tooth fairy to visit, we got a dime, or maybe more, under our pillow. One day Kathy woke up yelling and came running into the kitchen crying. She held in her hand the biggest, rottenest, greenest horse’s tooth I’d ever seen. It was a heavy, disgusting thing. Dad laughed and laughed. He frequently did things like that, came up with a prank and tried it out on his innocent children. This of course spawned a tradition. All dad’s successful practical jokes became traditions. In the meantime, between dental events, the big, ugly tooth stayed inside the clock. The front of the clock opened up to allow access to the winding mechanism and the chime. It was well known that the big tooth stayed there, inside the clock. Why? We don’t know.
I pointed at the clock among the clutter of a million other things upstairs.
“No one’s claimed the clock?” I asked Kathy. Mom looked at it dismissively. “It doesn't work, never has. I've tried to get it fixed a half dozen times but it never stays working for very long.”  She lamented.
Kathy looked at it and tilted her head.
“Is the tooth in it?” She asked.
I opened the front panel and looked.
“Good.” She said going back to the business of boxing up some books.
Steve stepped into the room.
“Did you want the clock, Steve?” I asked.
“Does it have the tooth inside it?”
“It’s worthless then, take it if you want it.”
I did. The blasted thing was behind my seat in the car and like some sort of chronographic zombie, loudly ticked all four hours of the drive home, then for nearly two days after that. The hands didn't really move, but it ticked, a disturbingly haunting and hollow tick, much like Poe’s ‘Tell-Tale Heart.’

    I called Angel. “Hey they’re divvying up everything, was there anything specifically or even in general from the house you’d like?”
Angel thought about it for a bit, nothing came to mind. “I remember a chicken on the dresser in that room we
stayed in once.” She said. No, I didn't recall it, but I later mentioned it to Kathy.
She didn't recall the specific chicken, but there were lots of chickens in that house. Glass, ceramic, stuffed, plastic, all sizes and styles. Kathy kept piling them into my box. Perhaps one of them was the chicken Angel remembered. (Spoiler Alert! :  No.)
In either case we now owned a bunch of trinket chickens. I’m just glad she hadn't remembered a frog. Dad liked frogs, therefore there were hundreds of them all over the house. It’s not so much that he liked frogs or collected frogs by choice, but like most things in  my dad’s long, rich life, it was just part of an ancient and tired, running gag.
A week before my trip, Kathy had already begun the dispersement process. She sent big, ugly, gaudy frogs to some of the grand-kids. This was a surprise to most of them. They appreciated the gifts and even posted photos on a popular social networking site (whose name I will not use since those billionaires don’t need even more free advertising).
My eldest son Matthew, who lives in Tempe, Arizona, said he remembered there being a bunch of frogs around the house. I asked him if he knew the story behind my father and the frogs. He didn't. So I posted this:
Starting back when we were pretty young, Dad always went to bed early. Of course he got up very early as well. He made us a big breakfast every morning, the full Monty; bacon, eggs, toast, pineapple juice and coffee. Yeah, he started me on coffee when I was like five or six.
Anyway he always announced he was going to bed by saying “I’m turning in.” Someone, maybe Mom started it, would answer back “Turning into what?”
His answer, for many years, was always the same. “A frog.” Then he’d make a frog noise and being the little kids we were, we just cracked up every time. It was one of his many, many, many, long-running gags.
As we got older, for Christmases and birthdays we started giving him little frogs, frog cards, stuffed frogs, spring loaded frogs. I don’t think he ever bought one himself. After a while the gag spread beyond the immediate family and others started giving him frogs as well.
I don’t recall yours, in fact I can’t swear that I've ever even seen it before, but that’s not important. It was an ages-old gag that he never got tired of, nor did we.

    I started filling my car and when I was done, it was only because the car could hold no more.
Included were some power tools, dad had several of all kinds, a few boxes of various treasures, and a traveling companion, a three foot tall, bejeweled ceramic cat. Mom saw me looking at it. She caught my inexplicable attraction to it and was thoroughly pleased that I volunteered to take it. Being fragile and among the last things I had to load, I strapped it into the front seat, looking out the window, away from me, since she is an ungrateful and arrogant cat.
  The largest item I was able to take was a deluxe set of Encyclopedia Britannica, with world atlas and index, in its own custom-made bookshelf. It's the 1966 edition, in near mint condition. Angel had said we could use some night stands if there was anything in Cerulean that would fill that bill. I thought the heavy, bulky set would work perfectly for me. I found an old, but solid and attractive telephone table for her.

    I understand downsizing, giving up things you enjoy for sake of economy.
I've had, on a few occasions, the need to move. Not merely across town or down the road a bit, I mean 1,000 miles or more away. Especially if you are footing the bill, or even just part of the bill, your priorities shift dramatically. The typical domestic detritus found in most middle class homes becomes less valuable, less pleasing if you have to box it up and pay to have it shipped across country. Otherwise innocent, banal shelf trinkets become tonnage, weight times miles, a math/accounting problem. At one time Angel had 28 aquariums. Yeah, I know that sounds 'excessive', but that's not important right now. When it came time to move, on our own dime, we calculated that it would be significantly cheaper to just give them away and replace them at the destination than it would be to crate them up and ship them. Bottom line, we now have one and only one aquarium. We downsized quite a bit on our last move. I'm still, eight years later, discovering I no longer own something that I once valued, but have manged to somehow live without.
Looking right now at just the shelves that surround my desk, I have once again accumulated little things. Nearly four hundred books, several radios, coffee mugs, antique cameras, a squad of GI Joe's, a sock critter steering a brass barometer. . . what?
Someday, in the not-too distant future, I can imagine my offspring looking around at all my trivial amusements, with a curious eye and dipping brows, thinking What in the world was that about? Yet falling in love with an odd piece or two, for reasons they themselves will not quite understand. That's okay, I'd rather them have the stuff than some stranger, who would never, ever get it.  It does not matter what it is, whether or not it makes sense functionally, monetarily or artistically. What these shelves, and my mom's big house contain, are little bits of us, sub-second snapshots of our secret, fanciful psyche. Not the whole picture, to be sure, but a tiny little window into the brightest spots of our very nature.

Late in the day on Saturday, Mom, looking hot, tired and uncomfortable announced "I'm ready to go home now." It struck me that she was saying that while standing in her own house. I knew what she meant though. Her new life was awaiting her in her Plantation apartment. I felt comforted by this, that indeed she was ready to move on, to move forward. Sometimes this means letting go of great piles of pieces from the past. I felt better about sorting through and packing up some of her stuff.
The stuff we couldn't take and that she didn't want to put in storage is being donated to Mom's church tag sale. She loves her church and this is just fine with the rest of us. We certainly all would have liked to take more, but basic practicality ruled the effort. Someone, probably several people, are going to be able to have little precious tokens, some storied, some not. They all at one time or another brought joy to my parents, which is about all you can ask of any ceramic cat-head ash tray. 

P.S.  I have cleaned up and properly re-strung the banjo. It actually sounds pretty good. Too bad I cannot now and never will learn to play it.