In Knots

It’s ridiculously trite to say that life is complicated, so let’s leave it unsaid and admit that it’s true all at once. For a stay-at-home-mom (which is what I’ll call myself today), summers are not restful, particularly when camps and the like are impossible for her children. I feel like nothing less than a one-woman show, doling out food, entertainment, and enriching activities to two boys who want nothing more than to fight with each other…constantly. This year, to make matters more difficult, I need to help my father, who is in the early stages of dementia, move from a 4-bedroom house in Pennsylvania to a 2-bedroom apartment in Maryland by the end of August. For a man with hundreds of antiques, ranging from wooden spoons and bowls, to early American furniture, to a vast collection of Noritake china, the prospect of such a move is terrifying, and I find myself in the new position of being the comforter rather than the comforted, even though I myself am almost sick with apprehension, grief and guilt. So, yes, I am tied up in knots this summer.

But I also know that one day I’ll look back on this summer with not a little bit of nostalgia. Some of my most painful moments are my most vividly remembered. These times of transition are unique: held dear as the last precious moments of an earlier life and yet thrilling as the first few steps of a new one. My boys won’t be boys much longer, and my father’s mind will never be better than it is now. As much as I want to rush to September, I must not run blindly and breathlessly through these last few days of June and the entire months of July and August.

I just need to stay afloat.

Monocacy Milkweed

The milkweed is just beginning to bloom now, both in the open spaces along the river, highways, and farm fields and in my small garden in the backyard. There are many kinds of milkweed, but the sort that I see on my walks is Asclepias syriaca, or Common Milkweed, a dusty plant with broad, green leaves, a vein of magenta, and large, drooping clusters of pale pink, surprisingly intricate flowers. In my garden I grow Asclepias incarnata, a more slender-leaved native commonly known as Swamp Milkweed, and Asclepias tuberosa, a more delicate, orange-flowered variety called Butterfly Weed.

Milkweed is most famous for being the host and primary food source for the larvae of the Monarch butterfly, which has been dwindling in numbers in recent years. While there was a slight uptick in the population overwintering in Mexico the past two years, it’s still threatened primarily by loss of habitat. Planting milkweed and conserving the land on which it grows will help combat a further decrease in the Monarch population.

A few years ago, we managed to host a Monarch caterpillar in our Swamp Milkweed. The rubbery-looking creatures are fascinating and even quite beautiful. Perhaps it’s not a big surprise that they grow to be one of the most identifiable butterflies in the world. Let’s keep it that way.

(No) Pets on the Monocacy

Painted Turtles, big and small American Toads, baby crayfish, Eastern Snapping Turtles: if my boys can see them, they can get their hands on them. So can I, of course, but most of the time I’m pleading for their release, because, one, we don’t need another pet and, two, wild things need to live in the wild. I was acquisitive of animals as a child, too, which is why I know that healthy wild things seldom thrive once put in a tank or a cage. The frogs and toads get away only to be found months later petrified at the back of a closet. The turtles eat your hamburger but look so morose that eventually you just have to put them back where you found them. And the crayfish? Either something in the fish tank eats them, or they eat something in the fish tank. I’m happy to say that I never took a Snapping Turtle home. My brothers were once attacked by one in a lily pond, and that settled the issue.

A few weeks ago, my boys caught a baby rabbit that was living in one of my flower beds. It was small, clearly just out of the nest, and rather stupid about just allowing itself to be handled. (Well, maybe more naive than stupid). I had the boys release it across the street, but it reappeared in the backyard a short time later, and, without telling me, my oldest put it in the cage with his two friendly pet rats, Sugar and Anastasia. Thrilled to see the maiden rats treat the rabbit as if it was their own long lost child, my son called me up from the garage, which I was cleaning, to his room to see a “surprise.” This is what I found:

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Yes, indeed, that is Anastasia grooming the rabbit. As you can imagine, it was very difficult to convince the boys that this situation, while adorable, was not actually good for the health of any of the animals involved. In the end, however, it wasn’t the boys that gave me trouble. They agreed to release the baby rabbit across the street again, but the baby rabbit had other ideas. Within minutes of being let go, it hopped right into the garage, where I was still cleaning, and up to the back door.

“Oh my God,” my husband said, “did it imprint on us?”

“I guess it liked being mothered,” I replied.

I am pleased to say that, no, despite the baby rabbit’s apparent desires, we don’t presently have a rabbit living with our rats.  It took several more tries, but it finally stayed away when we made sure that it noticed that we have two dogs and a cat living in our house in addition to our two affectionate rodents. It’s now living underneath a hedge two houses away.  In the wild.

An Average Memoir on the Monocacy

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One of the most difficult things I find about writing any sort of memoir or personal essay is that I did not and do not live in isolation. The stories that are my own belong to many others as well. I can’t write about motherhood without writing about my children, about my childhood without writing about my brothers and sisters, or about my marriage without writing about my husband. It’s why I often revert to science and history in my posts.

I was raised to be many things, but perhaps most emphatically I was raised to be humble and realistic in my expectations. One night, when I was feeling particularly bad about how school had gone that day, my father told me, “There will always be people smarter than you or better than you. You’re average, and it’s okay. Most of us are average. It’s not worth getting upset about.” I’ve had people tell me that this was a pretty mean thing for a father to say to an eight-year-old girl, but now I’m not so sure. He was being eminently practical and telling me the truth. I am average.

So why do I have the right to intrude on other people’s stories in order to tell my own? There are those who are so wonderful at telling their stories that it would be a shame for them not to write: David Sedaris, for example, who also happens to be another – but far more funny and astute – collector of trash; or Janisse Ray, whose Ecology of a Cracker Childhood deftly and beautifully combines memoir and natural history. But where that leaves me isn’t quite clear.

Where do I end and others begin? It’s not simple. Physicians are told “First, do no harm,” but it’s a directive that could apply to all of us. Certainly it can apply to writing. Yes, I’ll tell my story, and it will be yours as well, but I will not hurt you. Whatever that means.

Originally I intended to write all of this as an introduction to a piece of my own fiction, as an explanation for why I was posting something so irrelevant to the blog itself. While I might still post some fiction in the future, I believe I’ve already inadvertently written today’s entry. Maybe I’ll call it “The Trouble with the I in Memoir.” Or is that not average enough for me?

I Say Crayfish

Growing up, I lived a block away from The Creek, where I played with “the neighborhood kids,” a motley group, ranging in age from four to fourteen, under the dubious supervision of distracted single parents. We played our fair share of Atari and wasted time making fake bids on “The Price Is Right,” but usually we were outside playing a game like Sentry, Capture the Flag, SPUD, Swinging Statues, Truth or Dare, or Spy vs. Spy (which was a big excuse for roaming the neighborhood in two gangs, climbing fences, trampling gardens, and basically being delinquents).  I was one of the youngest and more of a gullible, devoted follower than an instigator, but I always felt included and necessary, despite (or maybe because of?) the occasional teasing and my designated role as the “goody two shoes” of the group. (On a side note: damn you, Adam Ant, for your catchy lyrics!) It occurs to me that this is starting to sound like the foundation of an 80’s Spielberg flick, but, I’m sad to say, we grew up before any miraculous thing happened to save us from ourselves.

The Creek where we played was not an idyllic brook of clean, babbling water winding its way through a peaceful meadow or pristine forest. It was a dirty, shallow stream, funneled under a busy road through massive concrete drain tunnels and hemmed in by apartment buildings that we, with all the smugness of youth, called “the old people apartments.” Besides building dams, getting in water fights, and just generally splashing around, we spent most of our time there catching crayfish. Once or twice we sold them as food to one of the more adventurous parents, but usually we examined and threw them back into the creek or raced them down the hot, gritty slopes of the concrete tunnels.

The Creek, like most small waterways in Frederick, eventually empties into the Monocacy River, where I still catch crayfish with my boys. A few days ago, one of them found a nice young specimen that he eagerly posed for the camera. There are several native species of crayfish in Maryland, and I can’t claim to be able to identify which we have here, but it doesn’t seem to be a Rusty Crayfish, an invasive species that is threatening the survival of the natives. (A very common historical theme. Sigh.) Since we only caught one, we didn’t get to do any racing.  But we have a long summer ahead of us.

The Bird up the River

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Yesterday I volunteered at my son’s school picnic, which was held at a park some ways up the river. The day itself was nice, sunny and breezy, not at all humid, and even cool in the shade. The morning was going well, my son seeming to play happily with his friends while I monitored a life-size version of Angry Birds, the highlight of which, surprisingly, was not flinging painted balls from a large slingshot,  but rebuilding the fortress of cardboard boxes that the balls knocked down. I got bonked on the head a few times, but this was nothing to what was happening inside of my head. As I looked on, the world was becoming blurred at the edges and overexposed, overlaid in pulsing splotches of shimmering color. I drank water, smiled at the other volunteers, laughed at the kids, but my sense of otherworldliness grew as the slow hours progressed.

In the afternoon, after a lunch of pizza and oranges, I noticed my son sitting apart from the other kids. At his mute but earnest request (a pair of hazel eyes can speak volumes), I’d been keeping my distance, but, even from 200 yards away, I could see by his drooping shoulders that something was wrong. When I got close, I could see that he was crying, and, after a practiced silence and casual inquiry, I discovered that the group of boys he usually relied upon had “banished” him from their circle the rest of the year because he had spoken meanly to them “just once!” For a group of children entering middle school, such behavior is perhaps to be expected, and not just among girls, as people so stereotypically suppose. My son and his friends seem to have spats regularly; one night he has “no friends” and the next he’s talking about what funny things his best buddy said that day.

As typical as this may be, however, it is even more complicated for my son, who suffers from poor impulse control and even worse social skills because of things that happened to him even before he was born. Through no fault of his own, his behavior can seem bullying when he’s trying to be funny, and he cannot read subtle social cues. For instance, he’s quite sure you want him in your game even though you smirked and rolled your eyes when he joined in. My son’s temper is short – he blows his top at small things and spirals into an ugly vortex of nasty name-calling – but a few minutes later he can’t remember what he said. When you accuse him of saying something rude or pulling your arm and he denies it, you think he’s lying, and, technically, he is, but he honestly believes he’s telling the truth. As a parent, I know all this, I’ve studied it and wrestled it with it, and it is still difficult for me.  How, then, can I expect another child to understand? Or, honestly, even another adult? Despite the books, articles and pointed conversations I’ve distributed in my son’s wake, among all of the teachers and staff and adults he sees, understanding and acceptance are slow to follow.

Of course I didn’t say all of this to my son or to the boys who hurt him. I did, however, let them know that they had hurt him and that, whatever he had said, hurting him back wasn’t the best way to deal with it. Eventually they made some tentative movements at reconciliation, but not before my impaired vision was joined by an all-encompassing headache that made me feel as if my mind had detached itself from my body.

And there was over an hour left of the picnic.

With everything going on, it’s amazing that I noticed the flash of orange darting from tree to tree, and a miracle that I didn’t write it off as something that I was imagining. In fact, as I slowly approached the sycamore across the way, I told myself that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be what I thought it was, what I was hoping it was. Once underneath the tree, I looked up, scanning the branches, and, just when I was sure that whatever it was had moved on or had never been, I saw a  bird light onto one of the lower limbs. And – I had been right – there it was – an actual Baltimore Oriole! It was the first one I’ve ever seen in real life, despite its status as Maryland state bird and mascot of our beloved major league baseball team. And it was every bit as bold and bright orange as texts had always assured me.

It was a small thing in a long day, but there’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that I often return to and that this Oriole so completely illustrates:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Glass and Consequences

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Glass bottles, in various states of brokenness, litter the banks and waters of the Monocacy River. When they are whole, I pick them up without hesitation to place them in the recycling bin when I get home, but when they’re in pieces, which is far more usual, I undergo an internal debate that goes something like this:

-Hmm, I don’t think I can pick up that piece of glass without cutting my fingers.

-Oh, for God’s sake, of course you can pick it up safely!

-But what about the bag? It’ll cut it open, and then everything else will spill all over the place!

-Just excuses.

-Okay, fine, that bit is big enough to make it worth the risk, but what about that piece? It’s so small that the river will just carry it away and smooth it into nice river glass. Like sea glass. People collect that stuff, don’t they? It’s pretty.

-No, you idiot! If you leave it there, someone –or something- will cut themselves on it!

-But it’s biodegradable…it’ll just turn back into sand!

-Oh, c’mon, you know glass is dangerous: just pick it all up!

-Okay. Sorry.

Yes, it’s true, I have a pretty mean internal voice, but that’s a topic for another time, and, at any rate, it has a point in this situation. Last year, my younger pup cut her paw on an old beer bottle. Not only did she bleed profusely all the way home (and, once we got there, all over the floor), she also managed to cut a tendon that kept one of her toe pads lying flat. Now she walks about with that toe poking up, as if she constantly needs us to wait a moment. It’s awkward, but, according to the vet, painless, and it doesn’t seem to inhibit her curiosity or spastic jump-and-zoom behavior. Still, I’d rather she not cut her foot again, and she adamantly refuses to wear shoes (yes, I’ve tried), so I really need to pick up the glass, despite how pretty it can become after being churned by a river for several years.

Oh, and, also, having better taste in beer doesn’t make you any less of a litterer.

A Creek with No Name

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Frederick City lies in a valley, cut through by the Monocacy River and surrounded by the Catoctin Mountains, which are part of the ancient Appalachian Mountains that range through the eastern United States, from Maine to Georgia. When I’m feeling romantic, I tell people that I am from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is another name for this region of the Appalachians. On hazy days, which are plentiful, the mountains do indeed appear blue, a result of the isoprene released by the trees that cover them.

Beside a winding road up to these mountains, runs one of many small streams that flow through Frederick County. Although this stream is small enough to lack a proper name, it is significant in my family as the site of “Uncle J’s property,” which was given to him by my grandfather, who purchased it after proposing to my grandmother along the stream’s banks. Since it cannot be built upon, it is worthless as real estate, and, in fact, no one has ever made an effort to fence in or claim the small plot in any official manner. It’s nothing, really, but a cool escape – quite literally, actually, since it averages about ten degrees cooler than the city proper – where we can splash in the clear water, let the dogs go to roam freely over the fern-covered slopes, and be left entirely alone.

 

There’s Poison on the Trail

As I walk by the river these days, I am overwhelmed by itchy green things. Poison hemlock plants tower over me on their purple mottled stalks, their delicate white flowers opening like tiny parasols over their broad, finely-cut leaves. They are as poisonous as their name suggests (it’s the extract of this hemlock, conium maculatum, in fact, that likely killed Socrates), which might strike me as ominous if I wasn’t so busy avoiding the Japanese hops spreading their itchy tendrils all over ground. Both of these plants are invasive aliens, crowding out the less rigorous (and, quite literally, less irritating) native plants, like the nodding pale touch-me-nots pictured below. Native or not, I photograph and identify every flower I see on my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page, which I hope will help others who wander the trails by the river.

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Marquis on the Monocacy

Frederick is full of history, from its Hessian barracks dating to the Revolutionary period, to Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem during the War of 1812, to its Civil War hospitals and battlefields.  Every school child learns about Barbara Fritchie, who, along with Frederick’s “clustered spires,” was made famous by John G. Whittier’s poem about her bold star-spangled flag-waving at Stonewall Jackson when he marched his Confederate troops through town, and it’s hard to miss the multitude of signs and markers commemorating various historical events throughout the county. The Monocacy River is well decorated itself, mostly for its role in the Civil War’s Battle of Monocacy, which “saved” Washington, D.C. by waylaying the Confederacy, but also for another, happier event.

From 1808 to 1942, a stone arch bridge carried the Old National Road (Rte. 40) over the Monocacy River in Frederick, Maryland. On its east end stood a large stone monument shaped like a demijohn, a vessel popularly used for holding bourbon (in fact, there is a rumor that there is an actual demijohn of bourbon inside the monument), which gave the bridge its name, “Jug Bridge.” When the famous Revolutionary War general Marquis de Lafayette came from France to make his popular tour of the United States in 1824, one of his stops was at the Jug Bridge, where he addressed a large crowd of enthusiastic Fredericktonians. After the bridge suddenly collapsed in 1942, the “jug” and a marker commemorating Lafayette’s visit were eventually moved about 2 miles away, to a small park near the Frederick Airport, where the National Road flows into downtown Frederick’s Patrick Street. There have been discussions about moving the monument elsewhere, but I’m glad it’s still not too far from the Monocacy River that inspired it in the first place.

Oh, and it’s quite convenient to the MVA.

 

*If you like humor in your history and are interested in learning more about the Marquis, I highly recommend Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Vowell also reported on Lafayette’s 1824 tour of the United States in This American Life’s Episode 291: “Reunited (And It Feels So Good).” You can find it here:

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