Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Calamity Jen

I've never been to Europe. Except for a few cross-country trips and a couple of island vacations, I wouldn't consider myself much of a world traveler. Hell, I haven't even seen the world's largest ball of string or South Dakota's corn palace. My path seldom varies, yet I have been able to intersect with some genuine characters. As a result, I have in my possession a choice collection of crazy and cool friends.

Jenny Booth moved into our neighborhood when I was in the sixth grade. She lived next door to my best friend Laurie Fry and I soon became the third wheel on a bicycle which clearly needed only two at a time. Since my house was about a block away, I often found myself left out of the loop and pissed off. (Those who remain close to me might cite the beginning of a pattern, but that's subject matter for another cup of coffee.) In spite of occasional tensions, we managed to rack up quite a few wonderful adventures. Having full run of the then undeveloped woodlands above Laurie's house, we hiked, camped and even built a fort that was the envy of the neighborhood boys. Laurie and Jennifer were remarkably tolerant of my moodiness and insistent behavior and had front row seats to watch as the seeds of anal retention sprouted. "Of course we'll buy galvanized nails for the fort, Joan. You're right- we must have galvanized nails." In return, I provided them with plenty of fodder for healthy laughter as I attempted to shed my uptight and prissy skin. You can imagine the response when I showed up for a camping trip with a satin pillowcase. As the other kids chanted, "Harrison's got a satin pillow!" I tried to explain that it was an old one my mother had given me, but the imagined shade of my blood had already turned an ostracizing shade of blue.

Although we moved in and out of each others lives throughout high school, the bonds were never broken. Laurie chose to go to college in Washington state, while I remained closer to home at the main campus of Penn State in State College. Jenny was two years behind us and our relationship strengthened as I came back for breaks and summer vacations. Her family became my "second family"; I loved being with the Booths and their extended clan on holidays and the annual family reunion on Memorial Day. My folks were understandably jealous as I had chosen another family over my own, but the feelings melted away as they were brought into the fold and went on to become good friends with Jenny's parents, John and Donna.

Eventually, Jenny heard the call of the west. Her passion for horses led her to Phoenix, where she landed a job at a racetrack. Not particularly enamoured with the industry, she moved on to Cody, Wyoming where she became a "wrangler" at Valley Ranch, a beautifully rustic lodge on the Shoshone River. Along with the demanding care of the horses, she tended to the equine needs of the guests as she led them through the surrounding countryside on horseback. The abilities of the riders were varied and often a test for the guide's patience, but Jenny rose to the task and performed her duties, with what else, grace.

The following years played out like a series of red dots traversing a map in a spy movie. My address book has pages of crossed-out listings chronicling her whereabouts. After Cody, she touched down in Arizona, doing a brief stint at an Arabian farm. Moving on to Stanley, Idaho, a tiny town nestled in the Sawtooth mountains about an hour from Ketchum and Sun Valley, she led pack trips in the summer and drove teams of draft horses as they pulled sleighs full of guests into the snow-covered mountains. At the end of the ride, they found a wonderful dinner waiting for them, and I suppose it was at this time that Jenny began to hone her culinary skills. Clever and creative, she went beyond franks and beans into the land of homemade croissants and sauteed sweet potatoes. "Now that's French, ain't it? Why that little lady sure can cook up some fancy grub! And she's a hell of a lot easier on the eyes than some old codger in his undershirt and suspenders..." Sorry-guess I was out riding the range for a few sentences. Back to the saga.

After five years in Idaho, she moved on to Telluride, Colorado, where she spent the following five years working as a wrangler at the Skyline guest ranch. Her next stop was Reno, Nevada, where she was able to devote herself to another of her passions-carving. Her designs, mostly equine in nature, were drawn on the face of a moose antler and executed, using a Dremel, with precision and fluidity. Though one might think of antler carvings as somewhat kitschy, these are not your grandmother's crocheted poodle toilet paper holders. The forms pulled out of the antler are detailed and energetic, surrounded by a seemingly in motion negative space. She received commissions for her pieces and continued with her work until, you guessed it, she moved.

Back to Telluride for a few years, and then on to Durango, Colorado ( are you out of breath yet? ), where she stayed put for nearly a decade. She trained cutting horses, willing and athletic animals prized for their ability to separate a cow from its herd, and even went on to excel in competitions. Her days were long, and the work to maintain the barn and grounds, backbreaking. Burnout began to set in and seeking a change of pace, she took a framing job at an online art gallery. She honed her computer skills and enjoyed the camaraderie of her fellow workers. The gallery was sold a few years into her tenure, and she found herself at another crossroad. So...

This past year, she moved back to Cody. She hit the ground running, and took advantage of a myriad of opportunities. She works part time in an art gallery, took a position at a bank, and signed on as cook for several hunting camps. Not surprisingly, the bank job didn't hold her interest, but it wasn't long before she was back in the saddle again. She is now assistant to the performance horse trainer at a privately owned operation which focuses mainly on reined cow horses and cutting disciplines. Back in Cody's arms, she has built a new life filled with satisfying work and wonderful friends. It seems that my cowgirl friend has come full circle.

Welcome home, Jenny.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Leaf Me Alone

Green Acres is the place to be.
Farm living is the life for me.
Land spreading out so far and wide.
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.
New York is where I'd rather stay.
I get allergic smelling hay.
I just adore a penthouse view.
Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue.

The chores! The stores! Fresh air! Times Square!

You are my wife. Goodbye city life!
Green Acres, we are there.

We may not be Oliver and Lisa Douglas, but my husband Brian and I did make our own foray into rural America nearly 15 years ago. Our life in Queens, New York had become cramped and congested. Even the additional storage unit we rented couldn't accommodate the seasonal pile of snow tires under our table. Reaching the "it's time to stop throwing money away on rent" fork in the road, we decided we were ready to stake our claim in the name of home equity. Our search for a house began and ended in upstate New York.

There was never any doubt that our flight from the city would lead us northward. Brian's job near White Plains ruled out a laborious commute from Long Island and we weren't lured westward by the song of New Jersey. The fond memory of day trips to Rhinebeck drew us to the Hudson Valley; it was beautiful, within a reasonable driving range and, at the time, affordable.

When asked how we wound up in Stanfordville, I laughingly reply, "By mistake." We had come to the conclusion that the village of Rhinebeck itself might be a bit pricey, so we began to look at the surrounding areas. Off the beaten path and just south of Rhinebeck, the hamlet of Staatsburg emerged as the strongest contender. It was quaint, quiet, and within striking distance of the Hudson River, which appealed to me as I had hoped to reacquaint myself with my passion for landscape painting. A listing in a local paper caught Brian's eye, and soon we were off and running towards our new life in the country.

As we followed the realtor, I was struck by the absence of a river. We had begun to head east off the Taconic Parkway, and even I, in all my directionally dysfunctional glory, was doubting the promise of a sunset over the Hudson. Sure enough, the property was listed as being in Staatsburg, instead of its actual location in Stanfordville, 16 miles northeast of Poughkeepsie, in the heart of "Hunt Country".

Keeping an open mind, we looked at only two listings before we decided that this mistake was the happiest of accidents. The second property included a well-maintained, yet simple ranch on a potentially lovely setting of 5 acres. Hidden by trees, a small stream traveled through the back yard; we were certain we would be able to clear the land to secure a view of the water from our picture window. Although the house was conceptually stuck in the seventies, we were not frightened off by the burnt orange wall to wall carpeting and the amber plastic inset into cutouts in the wall between the hallway and living room. On his first visit, my brother-in-law dubbed the kitchen's wrought-iron enclosed orb of a light fixture a fine example of "Mediterranean Sci-Fi". I think you get the idea.

Curiously, these dated decorations added to the appeal of the house, as did its owners. I might as well have been visiting my parents-she was sweet and personable, he was straightforward with a touch of cranky practicality. Unfortunately, this comparison may have lessened our clout at the bargaining table; we were ineffective hagglers who let sentimentality get in the way of a great deal. No matter, we had our first home.

Fifteen years, four dogs, and two cats later, we are still here. The transition from the urban center of the universe to the middle of nowhere was not as difficult as we had imagined. Brian's 1 1/2 hour commute is a straight shot down the Taconic Parkway; far less stressful than the same trip on the Long Island Expressway would have been. Initially, I worked at a succession of restaurants and odd jobs, but have dodged the full time employment bullet for some time now. My days are spent maintaining my home, my creative pursuits, and until recently, the care and feeding of elderly parents. Although I can be heard bitching about my indentured servitude as a "yard slave", I have inherited my father's pride in a well-maintained property. I suppose I can thank him for the energy I can summon up to haul 30+ tarps of leaves into the surrounding woods. I suppose I can thank him later.

My folks loved to come and visit, but would admit that our location was too rural for their tastes. There is a compromise of distance and convenience; Mom would have found it difficult to indulge in her shopping obsession with a 40 minute drive standing in the way. The closeness of neighbors comforted them, while I prefer to hide my quirks behind a tree line.

When someone would ask my father where I lived, he would tell them "Hooterville". I rarely corrected him and had my own chuckle as I saw the irony in such a jab coming from a man who had lived nearly his entire life in a town called "Trucksville".

Back at ya, Dad.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Seven Year Bitch

Dateline- Brewster, N.Y. November 17, 2002... An expectant Golden Retriever paces and paws in a classic nesting fashion, and when the moment is right, she settles down for the blessed event. Hours of exhaustion, elation, and suspense bring a healthy and beautiful litter of pups. Mom kicks back while the kids begin to nurse; it's been quite a day.

Happy Birthday, Gracie.

Seven years old, the canine equivalent of my fifty, she remains svelte and sassy. This is in no part due to the practice of moderation, mind you. Ms. G. is the ultimate party girl and has no concept of when to stop. There are never too many tennis balls, no frisbee game is long enough, and petting sessions should last until the cows come home and go back out again. She does her time on the couch until the rustling of a coat or the turn of a knob promise a new adventure and propels her toward the front door. The destination has no bearing on her level of excitement- the Vanderbilt mansion, Petco, the front yard. She is the ultimate optimist. Or her closeted marijuana habit has taken its toll on her judgement and short term memory; I'll let you know if we catch her in the act.

I look at Gracie and I see a timeline of years that have passed so quickly. She has helped me through the mundane and the monumental. At times her sense of humor makes it possible to hold on to my own. Few things can bring you out of a funk like a dog parading through your father's kitchen with a thong in her mouth. Or a bra. Or a box of tampons. Her inappropriateness has no boundaries- she accompanied me to meet with the pastor scheduled to speak at Dad's funeral, and managed to steal a donut off the desk of one of the women in the office. My embarrassment was momentary, as the ladies, all dog lovers, burst into laughter and invited her to drop by anytime for another donut. She may not have been an obedience school valedictorian, but she was, and is, the class clown with honors.

My first Golden Retriever, Emma, was not yet five when I lost her to liver cancer. Within two days of her passing, I had an eight week old Gracie in my arms. My parents, saddened by Emma's death, had helped me pay for her medical expenses. Feeling a little guilty that I had turned around and spent more money on another dog, I didn't tell them right away- a fine example of a middle-aged woman resorting to teenage white lies.

About a week passed before I decided to take Gracie home to Pennsylvania to meet the grandparents. Bonnie, the notorious Scotty/Jack Russell mix still lived with me, so I told them I was bringing her along for a visit. I turned onto my folks' street and imagined my father telling me what an idiot I was to take on a puppy and the subsequent bills. Instead, when I walked into the dining room where Dad sat in his lazy boy, he took one look and my golden ball of fluff and yelled to my mom, "Rose, take a look at this."

With respect to the wall-to wall carpet in the rest of the house , we barricaded Gracie in the kitchen, and laughed out loud as she went through her repertoire of puppy antics. As I smiled and let go of any concern for my parents' assessment of my sanity, my father turned to me and said, "Honey, it was the best thing you could have done."

Thanks, Dad.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hanging Up His Hat

One week ago today I buried my father. We said our goodbyes on a windy hillside, warmed by the the possibility of his reunion with my mother. Although he battled with pain and ultimately, sickness, for some time, the actual end came surprisingly fast. His suffering finally over, I am surprised at how I am unable to share his relief. I guess no amount of preparation readies you for the stunning reality of loss and the emptiness that follows.

For nearly five years, my father has been the object of my steady, if not constant surveillance. From the moment my mother entered the nursing home with dementia, I telephoned Dad twice a day. I returned home more frequently, bringing chocolate chip, sugar and peanut butter cookies and a variety of dinners I had prepared and frozen in single-serving containers. I washed his dog, mowed his grass and carted his leaves to the dump. He was my project, my pet old man.

After my mother's death, he tearfully expressed his desire to join her. "I wish I could lie next to her. It would be so much easier for everyone if I could just 'pop off'." His pleas were heartfelt, but not easy to take over the long haul. My attempts to redirect his sadness were not always successful and exhausted me from time to time. A "spoonful of sugar" may work for the general public, but not the Harrisons. We can be a moody, dramatic troupe, with a hint of the martyr. When we find a funk, we tend to stay there until we're good and ready to come out. Makes you want to stop over for a spot of tea, doesn't it?

So now he's gone and the whirlwind of funeral planning has passed. The flowers have been donated or given away and I'm left with just a few thank you notes to write. While I am grateful for the opportunity to take a breath and get my own house in order, I will miss my care taking years. I complained about the running back and forth, the ramping up before each visit and my father's weeping on a dime. Wouldn't you know it, I'd do it all over again. I used to think people were crazy when they said that, so I guess you can consider me certifiable.

Goodbye, Dad. I love you.

Thomas J. Harrison April 17th, 1926 - November 3, 2009