The Key

suffolk-houseCrocuse and snowbells reached for the sun in the shelter of a broken foundation. Red-winged blackbirds made a racket from the branches of an ancient elm, as I surveyed the vacant property where the farm used to be. A stray barn swallow dove and swirled in the distance as if protesting the destruction of his home. I sat among the rocks where the milkhouse once stood and felt, for the first time, the fragility of life.

I saw myself as a young girl heading for the chicken house to collect eggs and being stopped by mean-tempered geese. I remembered bedding down my horse for the night after a dusty afternoon ride, and looking wistfully at the runners of the horse-pulled sleigh stored in the loft. Looking in the direction of the now missing barn, I remembered wrestling giant silver milk cans as big as myself, as I rolled and pushed them into place for the collection truck.

A great sadness welled in me at the impermanence of life. Everything I valued and loved about the farm, and the people who made it real, was gone forever. The only place it lived now was in me. I cried long and hard for everything in my life that was dying, but most of all for the farm and all it represented. It had been my safe place. The only one I had. Now it looked like a giant wind had picked it up and blown it all away.

I knelt near a pile of broken cement to admire the snowbells, and noticed a glimpse of silver wedged beneath the soil. I dug it out with my fingers, cleaned off its encrusted surface and discovered the long silver key to the kitchen door. I pressed it in my palm, turning it slowly in my hand.

Aunt Ethel was yelling at me through a closed door. I’m going to lock this door and you can not come in, do you understand? I was just big enough to see through the window and was devastated by her intentions. Every Friday she mopped the floor, and every Friday I forgot her instructions and went parading across the wet surface in muddy boots. She was determined to keep me out, and I was just as determined to be let in. In my youthful fury, I braced the offending boots against the front porch wall and shook the door for all I was worth. I couldn’t bear to be locked out by the one woman who cared for me. I yelled, screamed and pounded to let her know. Finally I fell in an exhausted heap against the door.

After what seems like hours she relented and came outside. I was so crestfallen I could hardly speak. Don’t lock me out anymore, I sobbed, I can’t bear it, not from you. We reached an agreement that day about muddy boots, kitchen floors and love.

Now some forty years later, I stood with the same key in my hand and was glad to have it. Actually, I was more than glad to have it. The child in me was literally beaming. I tucked it within the silk lining of my jacket as a treasured reminder of another life. She can never lock me out again, I told myself, because I’ll always have the key.

The Telephone


I was in my late twenties when I got a job as an Artist in Residence for the city of Portland. They sent a woman to my house to tell me the good news because I didn’t have a phone. Do you think, she asked, now that you’ve been hired that you would install a telephone?

Sorryit has nothing to do with money, I don’t want to live with a telephone.

Phones and I have never been friends. Don’t really know why.

Maybe because I have to stop whatever I’m doing and give them my complete attention, whether I want to or not. Maybe it’s the disembodied voice and lack of visuals that unsettles me – or maybe it was gathering my courage as a child to tell the operator that I needed the phone number for Walt Disney because I wanted to join the Mickey Mouse Club. I think he lives in Hollywood. That’s some place in California.

She dashed my dreams in one short sentence.  Quit playing with the phone kid. Click.

I didn’t give up. I wrote him a letter. One year later I got a postcard. Thank you for your interest. We’re glad you enjoy the show. Click.

benzDidn’t they understand that I was one of them? Didn’t they get how good I’d look in those ears? They should send a big long car immediately to snatch me out of my nowhere life and take me to my destiny. I could picture the uniformed guy stepping out of the driver’s seat and ushering me inside. He would put my meager suitcase in the trunk, as a souvenir, because the back seat would already be filled with my new, expensive, fit-me-perfectly Mickey Mouse clothes. Of course, I would miss my parents, but oh well, I’d get over it. What was wrong with those people anyway?

Maybe it was being sent to boarding school where telephones were off limits, although letters were allowed. I’d pour out my homesick heart and have my letters returned, misspelled words circled in red. Click.

My Aunt Ethel was a lifeline. She didn’t like phones either. She had her parrot answer hers. He was a huge colorful bird who toe nailed his way around an open silver perch. When the phone rang, she held it near his face and he’d scream HAIL OOOOOOOH. It was great.

Sometimes I carry a cell phone (to please my husband) when I can find it and it’s not dead. He is very modern and wants me to be. But I don’t like to take it. I like to lose it, because when it goes off it alarms me, sending me into the air with such force others assume I’ve been stung by a bee. It’s either that or fumbling for glasses, searching for the right button, and snap. Missed the call and took my photo instead.

My granddaughter, Isabella, asked how old her mom was when she got her first phone. Isabella thought perhaps she was being cheated by having to wait until she was out of elementary school. I wanted to tell her about phone operators who knew where your neighbors went and when they’d be back. I wanted to tell her about party lines and how each farm had a different ring and how you could spend hours listening in if you wanted to, agreeing or disagreeing in the middle of another persons conversation, but in the end I decided to leave it alone. She already calls me old school and asks what life was like before Christ.


 There was a tree that stood old, crooked and tired by the pond.

A run through the cornfield brought us from pond to shelter when spring hail pelted our exposed backs. I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but it stands clear in my memory as witness to our childhood. It’s the landmark I look for still when I return home to examine the evidence that remains from another time and place.

I am a detective on my trips back in time. Some part of me believes that I will turn over a rock or stumble on a tree root that will expose or reveal a childhood treasure, some thing that waits for me, some thing that lives just out of view. Some part of me believes that the past exists in it’s entirety behind a veil and if I can chance upon the opening, that I will once again step into that untouched place.

The only thing left of the farmhouse I grew up in is a corner lot, two paved driveways and a single cement step. A lilac grows abundant and unchecked near the entrance. But was the bush on the right or the left of the path? There are only clues.

What do I need to do?

Smell the lilacs?

Enter the trees?

Walk along the pond’s edge?

Find a key buried in the dirt?

Maybe the barn swallows can lead me back. Maybe they know the path to the rafters and the pungent smell of fresh mowed hay.

I know it’s all there.

I know it’s all waiting for me.

I can feel it and taste it. Almost touch it.

There is my Aunt locking the screen door because she has just mopped the floor. There I am, banging on the latch to get in, unwilling to be separated.

My grandmother is asleep in the upstairs bedroom ~ or ~ looking out through lace curtains as my uncle plows the field below.

This place lives in me, so it must live out there as well, but how do I get to it?

How do I get back?

That time belongs to me, as surely as my skin and bone, but I can’t find it anymore.  I have lost it.

Where did it go?

I am the daughter of that time and place.

I am the daughter of the land.

The rest has just been story.

 written 5-7-08

A love letter to myself


She’s right. It is risky to write a love letter to oneself. I could write about the love that did not blossom. That one is fresh in my hands, a little bloody and raw. But no. I am tired of the wringing, wailing and weeping that goes with all of that. I’ll pass the need to mourn to the Greek women who wear black as their personal fabric.

How about someone you miss? I always think of my earthy Aunt Eythel standing in deep noisy mud herding cows in her bright red coat, a giant safety pin holding it closed. Her memory is welcome, her unique eccentricities fill easy volumes in my mind. 

Success? Yes, I could write about success. So many clients come to mind who walked into my office full of pain and apprehension. So many stories shared, light recovered and new directions found.

Those are topics easily available and ready. Oh, but a love letter to myself?

The listener in me would have to give up her hiding place.

The coat would need to be unbuttoned, the heart exposed and revealed. 

What if…what if…what if you dared walk the road of speaking, revealing, allowing, and exposing?  You, who believe you were mis-wired with your nerve endings on the outside instead of fortified beneath muscle and bone. 

I can say that I love the woman I am becoming. My young girl is hidden still beneath white hair and arthritic fingers. It’s not too late to become. Not ever.

I feel myself opening like the seed that sprouts life against the face of the sun, only this time, I am not pushing up between the crack in the sidewalk, where every step made by another is perilous. No, this time I am in just the right place. Protective borders enclose expansion, the soil is rich, warm and waiting. My years are the fertilizer that pull roots below and anchor a climb that is tall, hungry and full. 

Why not love yourself into being? There is nothing to hold you back.

written on Valentine’s day 2008

My First Rocket

 I grew up in the middle of nowhere. Red barns, tilled farmlands and simple, mostly uneducated people. A boy named Egghead used to hang around my aunt’s farm. His brother’s name was Jughead. No kidding.

Egghead’s mom used to grab him by the ear, shove the rounded end of a bobbie pin inside its narrow well, and pull out a bounty of orange earwax, while poor Egghead fought for release like a fish on the end of a hook.

There was an escalator-type conveyor belt that carried hay into the highest part of the barn. Sometimes it carried me and Egghead too. One day he told me he had a surprise for me, so I followed him up into the peak of the rafters where a void of light filled a hot summer day with a sense of moonless midnight.

“Close your eyes,” he instructed, as he guided me to a bale beside him. The blackness of the moment made closed eyes redundant.

“Now give me your hand,” he continued, reaching his rough fingers across my own. “Here, feel this.” I felt something tall and hard and warm. Oh my God, I thought, it’s the boy thing he pees out of. Gross!

I wish I had yelled at him. I wish I had knocked him backwards and yelled, “Egghead, you are gross.”

But, true to form, I got up scared and quiet. I got up pretending it never happened and did not want to play with Egghead anymore. Not ever.

If I could do it over, I would have knocked him on his butt, but then I would have hugged him and said, “Egghead, don’t ever do that again because it scares people. You don’t want to scare people because you need friends. Your life is hard enough already!”

 written 4-23-08

The Cornfield

My aunt’s spirit came to visit me the night she died.

I remember it like a midnight fog.

I got up from my bed and let her in.

I don’t remember conversation, just the distinct sense of saying goodbye.

In the morning I woke, thinking it was just another dream, but as I made my way into the living room, past the piano, I noticed the front door ajar, and the reality of the experience came back.

The next week I received a letter from my uncle telling me she had passed, the same day and hour of her visit.

He enclosed a photo of her standing in the cornfield.

He said she was reaching skyward to show how tall the corn had grown, but I saw a farewell wave, a final and loving goodbye.

I’d written a letter ten years earlier, telling her of my love, and expressing all that she’d meant to me. My uncle told me she carried it in her apron pocket until the day she died.

written May 21, 2008

The Tablecloth

One of my earliest memories is the billow of a red and white tablecloth drifting slowly to the ground under the broad sheltering leaves of a maple tree. I had been riding on the fender of my uncle’s tractor, my young fingers grasping its rounded lip in hot dusty compliance. I had listened intently to the terrible things that befell children who could not hang on tight as the tractor lurched forward. I was determined not to be one of the maimed or injured.  I held on with aching hands as everyone else gathered hay bales, tossing them high and hard to my cousin, who stacked them on the long flat wagon, his black hair sprouting from a white sailor cap, while pieces of hay stuck to his bare chest and oil-stained jeans.

My aunt crossed the fields in her worn cotton dress and long apron, high temperatures slowing her gait as she forged through noon day sun. Small drops of moisture escaped from the strands of gray that curled near her ears and forehead. She wiped at them like pesky mosquitoes. It was the arrival of the picnic basket to the welcome shelter of the tree, and the wave of that red and white tablecloth floated slowly from air to earth that signaled an end to work.

Lunch on the farm tasted different, because the food was laced with sweat, hard work, long hours and welcome release. The men moved bone-tired from the fields or slid from the wagon, eager to yield to the pull of gravity. They pushed back their caps, wiped their brows with bold red handkerchiefs, and dropped like heavy weights under the tree. Lunch meant tall pitchers of iced tea or lemonade poured over fiery throats, ham and cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, and pies made from whatever berry was in season. Each ingredient was colorful and dense, so rich or sweet, it seemed to explode with each bite. The men relaxed, ate and told stories, their easy laughter filled the air.

clouds over wheat field

Being outside made life real and significant. I was significant too, but not because of anything I learned or had become. I was important simply because I existed and belonged. I was made real in the broad honest smiles of the men, and the way my uncle grasped the wheel with the two fingers that remained on his leathery right hand. I was made real in the flour and sticky sugar that clung to the corners of my aunt’s apron. I was the chatter box on the fender who was my uncle’s ‘niece little nice.’ In that place, I was embraced and included for all that I was, and all I was not.

I belonged to the farm. I belonged to the scent of fresh cut fields, the cows in the mud, acres of corn and sun-ripened berries along dusty roads. I belonged to all of it and it belonged to me. Going inside hid me from that. Buildings kept me safe and sheltered, but separate.  In open space, I knew myself through and through. I filled my lungs with the definition of life. I felt real and liberated.

All my finest memories are out of doors; the memories I am eager to forget live behind darkened walls and in caged rooms.

written July 19, 2008


I remember piles of broken china and figurines half buried in mounted earth near the small shed by the front porch. I used to sift through them with my young hands, each shattered piece a treasure of discovery.

The farm house was my safe place. I would wake from the chaos of my home, go to the stables, saddle my horse and ride six miles through unfenced terrain until I reached the welcome land that defined my aunt and uncle’s farm. The pond was the first to come into view. It lay quiet on my left, like tea in an unmoved cup. Herds of cows milled behind barbed wire fences on my right, as bright red barns with tall silos beckoned me forward.

I was going away to boarding school. This would be my last visit for a very long time. I was terrified to leave the land and move into an English academy in Vermont, where my days would be alien, structured and organized. I was being sent away for my health. When I neared the barn, I saw my aunt herding cows toward its shadowy interior. I stripped my horse and set her free in the field.

barn door

Aunt Ethel, I shouted, I’m leaving for boarding school this week-end.

She barely looked up.

I don’t know when I’ll be back.

She fingered the cloth hankie that slept in the pocket of her apron. Her red print dress hung above black rubber boots, a splash of mud marked her forehead below short curly hair. She slapped the rump of a cow into the stall and motioned me inside.

Don’t go givin’ yourself airs now, she said, Just cause you’re going to that fancy boarding school. Don’t come home callin’ horse shit, manure.

My heart ached at the thought of leaving. I did not want to be ripped from the four a.m. mornings, when we turned on the radio and danced around the barn together; me balanced on my uncle’s boots, Aunt Ethel squirting warm milk into the mouths of the barn cats, who were lined up waiting and mewing. I did not want to leave the symphony of clocks that ticked and chimed in every room of the house. I wanted to keep smelling black tea served in blue willow cups that warmed my fingers each afternoon. I wanted to keep seeing their reflection in the polished silver sugar bowl that sat on the large oak table.

I put my arm around her.

I’ll come back, I promised.

No, you won’t, she said. Once kids go away, they’re gone. Too bad though. You were the best of the lot.

I lifted the handle on the egg basket and walked to the hen house. Warm tears splashed against soiled brown eggs, as I carefully lifted each one from the safety of its nest. I fingered their fragile vulnerability, as I positioned them layer by layer inside the cold metal wiring of the basket.

written April 16, 2008