Citrus — Selecting and Preparing Oranges

When I lived in California and was used to buying perfectly orange oranges, one day I walked into the produce section of the supermarket and discovered that the oranges were all greenish. “What’s the matter with them?” I asked the produce man, dismayed….

For the answer, click on or tap the magazine cover image below. After my encounter with the greenish oranges, I went to Florida and worked at a farm market, whereupon my boss stationed me in a little outpost just outside the farm stand, next to the citrus display, maybe to get me out of the way, I don’t know. Anyway, I became a citrus expert. The other day, I published a short piece on citrus characteristics and selection in the October issue of this new digital magazine called “The Hip Senior,” on pages 52-53. Check it out. You’ll probably want to read some of the other informative stories in this attractive mag, too.

–Carol Child
for Samantha Mozart
October 3, 2020

 

CXXXVIII. Fugue II

June 28, 1914 — A dustup in Sarajevo. Someone shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. That tragedy triggered a Great World War. While the Industrial Revolution had been changing the way we do things, first in Britain and then in America, trains speeding up travel, factory chimneys polluting the air, the changes were gradual. The First World War produced a shock wave, crumbling the cultural towers of society, changing our ways suddenly, unexpectedly and forever.

June 28, 1919 — The signing of the Treaty of Versailles: The Germans were peeved. For some twenty years thereafter they held a grudge. With so many of our faces buried in our smart devices, it might be expected someone will soon start marketing screen savers for our noses. Do we think about the causes and effects of these events leading from one Great War to the next and to the insidious spread of Communism and the Cold War, and on and on and on and on? You know how it goes. Or we should; alas, most of us, no. The interweaving of events of the 20th century and into the 21st has produced one long fugue.

June 28, 2020 — Today a new enemy has ambushed us, one trenchantly parallel to that other, insidious killer of 1918-1919, the Spanish flu pandemic. Our new one is COVID-19. We have to go out in public attired in battle gear – gas masks, pith helmets, gauntlets, germ killers, or something akin to these; at least, that’s what it feels like. And then when we come home, to meticulously shed our attire and shower seems like dismantling a live bomb. In 1918-19 the Spanish flu was spread in large part by the mobilized troops in Europe, and when they returned home, injured, they spread it here in the United States. So many individuals were living young, healthy, vibrant lives; then they got the flu and they died. My grandparents told the stories of their close relatives who died. In 2020, we must be cognizant of history lest we be doomed to repeat the past.

The New York Times published a beautiful and thought-provoking photo essay and story on June 26, 2014: “The War to End All Wars? Hardly. But It Did Change Them Forever.”

My friend R wrote a poem that I want to share here, lest we forget the deeper implications, lest we fail to recognize the profound parallels to our lives today, lest we forget to remain vigilant:

SHADOWS OF WARS

The shadow of war
Revolution, no more
The lesson unlearned
Power, Privilege and Wealth soar
Senate and Congress do hoar
King, Czar, Sultan returned
Tell who’s who and what’s for
 
Observation towers and bunkers
To profits old clunkers
Enslaving the poor
Through to the core
From battlefield to graveyard
The law defines who’s ward
To die on your own
And be buried unknown
 

World War II Observation Towers on the Delaware Bay. From these we watched for German submarines coming up the United States East Coast, from the Atlantic Ocean, up the bay to the chemical plants and refineries lining the Delaware River from Wilmington, Del., to Philadelphia, Pa. Photo by Robert Pennington Price

This poem is thought provoking vis-à-vis the 28 June 1919 signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the 100th anniversary of the First World War; and of the 70th anniversary of the Second World War Western Allies landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Today the battle of COVID.

Poppies grow in the French fields now, shrouding where the unknown soldiers missing in action rest. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn…?

I watched a 1984 TV series recently, based on the M. M. Kaye novel, The Far Pavilions, set in 1870s India. In the end the Brits crossed the Indian-Afghan border to engage in battle at Kabul to prevent the Russians from taking rule of Afghanistan.  1870s. This 1870s British-Russian standoff was called, not the great war, but The Great Game, a term Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel, Kim, made popular, a scenario made even more popular when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Where are the poppies of peace in the killing fields of life? Harvested in Afghanistan for opium, one medium of numbing ourselves to events…. How lovely. It’s the human condition. It is as with unresearched declarations on social media, harvested by the masses too lazy to rise from their saddles to research what’s really going on, to ferret out the truth. Rather, let’s educate ourselves, and, then, build our fortifications and defend them.

This fugue interweaving battles and disease plays across the centuries. We cannot flee it. It is never ending. I, for one, am tired of being locked in my cabin. I do go out, but not often, attired in my battle gear, but I don’t do masks well. I can’t breathe, I can’t see over them, so I’m afraid of tripping and falling. At my age I could fracture things and that might even prove fatal. Besides, the mask steams up my glasses.

COVID pandemic, where are the poppies in the fields of wheat? When is VC-Day (victory over COVID)? When will this end? When will this ever end…?

—Samantha Mozart
for June 28, 2014
Revisited & Revised July 25, 2020

CXXXVII. The Gateway

Thursday, April 23, 2020—In the Eastern High Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the dry air smells of pine sap and granite dust. Hiking up the mountainside, at 9,000 feet altitude and higher, I round a bend, unexpectedly to come upon a waterfall. I stand in awe, mesmerized, watching it shift and lift and change, sonorous, a white lacey veil played by the fingers of the wind. I move on, tripping the light fantastic along the banks of a glacier lake, taking care not to stumble over the plumbing, the pipes running from that lake down to the next and the next, ultimately to supply water for the town of Mammoth Lakes and other California places. The long arm of mankind reaches into the backcountry.

Even so, the place is alive with nature mankind has not touched, yet. It is real, not virtual. All one has to do is be there, be among it. Glaciers, like the one that carved Yosemite Valley where the incense cedars grow along the green Merced, recede, recede. They feed the water that cascades with grace over the sheer cliff face. The ground beneath my feet shifts and even the formidable granite mountain walls grow with every earthquake, and there are many, mostly small, imperceptible tremors.

Unless you’re in a dark closet, be aware of your surroundings. Is your neighbor really cooking dog or does it just smell like that? I don’t know what they were cooking in that California apartment below me, but I didn’t want to eat it. Here, outside my window the vermillion dogwood leaves burnished by golden October sun, against a slate-gray wind cloud backdrop, quiver in the breeze surfeiting a corner of my mind with abundant beauty as I type this, filling the white page with black words in Times typeface.

In the High Sierra, sometimes I hiked with companions; sometimes I hiked alone. Always I listened, felt, watched, sensed, sniffed the air. The pine sap I touched made my fingers swell a little. High above, the sun glinted off an airplane, a silver sliver aloft in the blue, the singular sound of its jet engines in the high dry atmosphere, a sound that carries me back to the Sierra on the rare occasions the humidity is low here on the East Coast and I hear that sound again. Hiking in the Sierra, I didn’t take a cell phone, though always a camera, a bottle of water and a snack. The wildlife was different there from at home in Southern California; there were blue stellar jays, marmots and mule deer. The marmots resemble miniature bears, really miniature; I steered clear of real bears, which at close encounter appear way bigger than portrayed in photographs

Now, here, in middle Delaware, I take a walk on an autumn afternoon. I leave my cell phone home. With my face aglow in the light of the smart phone I’ve buried my nose in, I’d miss my natural surroundings—the golds and reds and browns of the fallen maple leaves and the dry, smoky aroma rising from them as I shuffle through them; the venerable bald cypress incensing my hair and ears and shoulders with exotic fragrance as I walk in the cathedral of its graceful arms and hear the chittering and chirping of the many, busy little lives sheltered deep within.

As I walk, I walk through the gateway joining earth and heaven. As I recall these times, I walk there still.

–Excerpted and developed from CXIV: “A Treat for the Senses,” October 24, 2013

 

Nights at the Round Table — Revisited, and why not…?

Wednesday, April 8, 2020–I just finished offering my Dementia Caregiving Journal ebooks for free for a week on Amazon–“Begins the Night Music, Volume I” (April 8-12) and “To What Green Altar, Volume II” (April 13-17). I’m also in the process of changing my blog theme, so it’s kind of a mess now, restoring the sidebars and getting the content all organized and looking pretty. I hope you will bear with me. But, for now, I’m relaxing.

Moriarty, the Phantom of My Blog, and I sit at the big oak round table here at the blog this April afternoon. A light warm breeze floats in, particles of dust (it’s always dusty in here), refracted into reds, greens, violets, drift on swaths of yellow sunbeams the high windows drape down over us.

“Change happens so slowly, so subtly sometimes that while we, occupied in our quotidian routines, barely perceive it, or just blow it off–as a bad day, a better day, a lucky moment,” I say. “And then we open our eyes. We blink. What happened? How did we get this president? How did we get on lockdown? This COVID-19 isn’t the Spanish flu–is it? The one where a huge percentage of the population died?”

Moriarty dips a large pita chip into the bowl of hummus. A big piece snaps off and catapults into the air, sailing towards the edge of the table. Dickens, Moriarty’s black, fluffy dog, springs out of nowhere, fields it, swallows it whole so fast he forgets, and then looks around to see where it’s gone.

“So much has gone down since we sat that night at the round table in 2011,” says Moriarty. “It’s like we live on a different planet.” He fills his glass with more Pinot Grigio and then pours a little into mine.

“Were you there?” I ask. “I don’t recall your being there.”

“I can be unnoticeable,” he says, in his inimitable low-key tone. “Tell the story again about that night. Ah, the good days … and before Charlie Rose met his demise. How could he possibly not realize that he’d be noticed? Anyway, tell the story.” He dips a small pita chip into the hummus and feeds it to Dickens.

And so, I begin …

I sat at a big oak round table – the kind with the claw feet – the other evening with a group of writer and musician friends. We engaged in a candlelight discourse and passed around the bottles of wine. “Life is short,” I remarked. Jane Austen snickered up her sleeve, the three Brontë sisters giggled so uncontrollably they had to leave the table early. I think I even heard Mr. Rochester chortle from his back room. Wolfgang sniggered into his lace cuffs and slapped himself on the frontal lobe sending a cloud of apricot powder from his wig sailing above the table. Franz Schubert stopped picking at his fish, pulled out his handkerchief, slid off his spectacles and wiped the tears of mirth from his lenses. Ludwig said, “Sorry. Could you repeat that?” Anton Chekhov coughed into his handkerchief and said that before the Black Monk carried him off he was glad for his serendipitous encounter with Leo Tolstoy, where he got a chance to skinny dip with Tolstoy in Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana pond. Alexander Scriabin reflected, “Before I nicked myself shaving, I was just about to create that exquisite polychromatic sound and light show that Mick and Keith would have loved: we were going to record the performance on moving pictures.” Jacqueline du Pré plucked a ditty on her 1712 Davidov Stradivarius cello before handing the instrument over to Yo-Yo Ma. “Davidov was the czar of cellists,” rhapsodized Pyotr Tchaikovsky. “But over my first piano concerto, that Anton Rubinstein behaved liked such a girl.”

Thomas Jefferson laid his violin and bow on the table, stared at us blankly and said, “Like – what? Oh-h-h, I’ve got cheese from the macaroni and cheese stuck on my lapel again,” taking the nib of his pen and scraping it off. He waved his free hand as if batting away flies: “Well, those Parisians. You know – they create those rich creamy sauces necessitating one’s quaffing extra bottles of red wine to cut the fat. In the course of events, down in Virginia you may find us gone with the wine.” Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix chorused, “Show me the way to your wine cellar.” My friend blamed her cats for depleting her wine stash. Adam Gopnik and Bernard-Henri Lévy engaged in an animated philosophical side conversation hypothesizing that if the French government elected to set the Paris arrondissements in motion spinning around the hub, would they better rotate clockwise or counterclockwise? And, how, then, would one locate the good restaurants? Would that mess up one’s GPS, for instance?

JFK accidentally hit the red button on his iPhone. Vaslav Nijinsky leaped from his chair while Anna Pavlova fished around in her bag for extra ball bearings to insert into the toes of her pointe shoes to facilitate her gliding bourrées. Edgar Allan Poe emptied the bowl of popcorn on the table, feeding it to the raven perched on his shoulder until the bird got stuffed and croaked flatly, “Nevermore.” There was a draft. The candle flame flickered, casting a protracted, quivering raven’s shadow across the floor. Michael Cunningham glanced across at Virginia Woolf and muttered, “The hours, the hours.” E. M. Forster postulated, “No matter when you die, the outcome will be the same.” Ernest Hemingway interjected, “I hope the sun never rises.” F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, “We can’t just let our worlds crash around us like a lot of dropped trays.”

Dante Alighieri joined the discussion via satellite from the banks of the River Arno in Florence, speaking divine Italian but through a female translator voiceover. The effect was disconcerting. John Keats dipped his pen into his glass of red wine and began composing an ode on a vintner’s urn. Lord Byron would have elaborated, but he was on assignment in Greece. Oscar Wilde smiled enigmatically. While Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I’m having a bad dream.” Orhan Pamuk, in New York City from Istanbul to teach his autumn writing class at Columbia, and seated to my left, gently laid his hand on mine and observed, “Innocent child, come live in my museum.”

Charlie Rose beat the table three times with the palm of his hand in a vain attempt to moderate. “Get Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough in here to sift through these gobbets.” And George Clooney said, “I know. Let’s make a movie. It’ll star Helen Mirren.” Keith Olbermann crumpled his notes, tossed them into the empty popcorn bowl, pushed back his chair and stood up. “Good night. And good luck,” he said.

–Samantha, October 19, 2011

Snow Comes Softly

December 2019—Yesterday came cold and blustery. Flurries of Christmas shoppers arrived at the store where I work, and I felt good to be out among the people and greet them. Children, their animation electrified, anticipated Santa Claus’s coming to town.

It began to snow. The purity of the white is centering. Snow falling is quiet, peaceful. I think I will decorate for Christmas this year simply with only a few greens and bows and candlelight. It will be a quiet observance, the halls of my home dressed in a raiment of soft, warm light.

It is Sunday. The bell in the little Episcopal church across the street rang this morning, as it does every Sunday. It is a real bell, in the steeple, that somebody rings. This little historic church recalls all the chapels in all the English villages, meadows and dales that I see in all the British dramas I watch. They don’t ring the bell long in this Episcopal church – eight times for the eight o’clock service and ten for the ten o’clock service.

One Sunday morning, I was walking in front of the Methodist church down the street when suddenly the bell tolled. I rose several feet off the sidewalk and I suspect not lifted on angel wings. In fact, I exclaimed, “Holy [expletive].” This is a real bell, too, and apparently a good sized one; it is loud, and it goes on ringing for eons. It’s a big church and the congregation continues arriving for ages.

Snowflakes alight briefly in flurries or waltz in endless patterns bending, swirling, reaching and touching everything all the dull gray day and into the deep blue night, well beyond three o’clock in the morning.

Prose arabesques from the pens of writers ornament the characteristics and romance of snowflakes. Each snowflake is uniquely shaped. The flakes fall softly, individually, in pairs and in gatherings. Yet they all come from the same source and are composed of the same matter. Snowflakes have a mission: they fall out of the clouds and they land on black slick streets, red-brick sidewalks, brown winter grass, mounds of dried leaves blown into corners of flower beds and on the bare dogwood branches outside my window. Sometimes the snowflakes melt on contact, sometimes they pile up. And then everything turns white. Watching them fall, we become quiet, meditative, nostalgic, always a little awestruck. We watch snow fall with anticipation: snowfall shatters our routines, like a snowball walloped against the surface of a frozen pond, makes us turn to something new, view life with a fresh perspective. Sometimes each snowflake makes a light ticking sound as it touches down. The birds get quiet when it snows. I watch the squirrels and the birds and I can predict the weather. The squirrels bustle gathering nuts in advance of the coming cold. Birds flock and chatter and then get quiet. Birds have different songs for different types of weather and different times of day. They have their cheery morning song, their spring song for temperatures mounting on soft southern breezes; they have their evensong.

Mothers bring their young children outside to witness the first snowfall of the season. I observe one child extend her arm to watch the snow accumulate in her pink mittened palm.

I like driving in a car when it is snowing. I love being in the magic of the snow flying at me, the cypress and cedars and oaks lining the road, their branches laden with snow, the padding of the car tires on the snow, the few other cars on the road all traveling slowly as in a dream, and the tire tracks of an unseen car gone before me.

Snow fulfills its own purpose. Snow comes softly; it piles on tree limbs, bushes, holly berries and cars. Snow comes softly, like a gentle soul, filling in the footprints on our paths. It stays for a while, and then it is gone.

—Samantha Mozart

The Scheherazade Chronicles


“… the gap between compassion and surrender is love’s darkest, deepest region.”

–Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence

Once upon a time in the faraway land of my childhood, my mother held me on her lap in the rocking chair and read me nursery rhymes. When I got a little older she read me fairy tales. She gave me her childhood books, two I still have – Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and The Arabian Nights. This latter is a big book, imaginatively illustrated in potent colors, bound in deep green, with a paste down illustration on the cover and smooth pages I love to run my hands over. She bought me the My Book House books, the 1937 edition — nursery rhymes, fairy tales and classics edited by Olive Beaupre Miller, a set of 12 books, graded for age and reading level, from Mother Goose to Shakespeare. Mother kept the books in their carton, buried in a closet, and periodically throughout the years she would give me one the next level up. When she wasn’t around, I excavated them and explored them on my own. I opened a book, rubbed my eyes and on the carpet of my imagination, I flew to distant lands and far-gone times, into the vivid pictures in the storytellers’ minds. I plugged dikes, lived in the Village of Cream Puffs, watched with James Watt the steam pressure raise the lid on his pot of boiling water and marveled at Paul Bunyon’s blue ox. In other books, I learned the mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion and found out whom Mr. Rochester was keeping in his back room.

My father and his brother, my uncle, recounted funny anecdotes: When their parents went out for the evening, my father and their friend locked my uncle in the closet because he wouldn’t stop playing his saxophone; when their parents came home they unlocked the closet, and my uncle, so angry, came out punching at the two boys, but missed and punched a notch in the door frame. One year my father and uncle, teenagers, decided to keep the Christmas tree up until Washington’s birthday; then they put it in the fireplace. Flames shot halfway across the long living room. “Tell us that story again,” we’d say, “about when … when you, Uncle Bob, took the family out for a Sunday drive in the black Packard, the one the chauffeur, because our grandfather didn’t drive, polished only the side facing the house when it was parked in the driveway, when you pulled up across the street from the drug store, said ‘I’ll be right back,’ went in, came out, and without saying a word, drove off. When later the family learned you had gone in and eaten an ice cream.”

What great fortune have I to come aground at this lifetime and encounter this treasure chest of stories, each story a precious gem.

Storytelling. Everybody has a story to tell. Storytelling is as old as humankind, handed down through generations. Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin said, “I am obsessed with the importance of story. The way we learn from parents and grandparents who pass stories on. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Something has meaning when you’re telling stories.”

A very long time ago, in ancient Persia, the Sultan, upon learning that his wife and his brother’s wife had been unfaithful, deduced that all maidens once married became unfaithful, so each night he took a new maiden for his bride and then in the morning had his vizier behead her.

To save the maidens, Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, offered herself to the Sultan. Each night Scheherazade told the Sultan a story, but she didn’t finish it; so the Sultan couldn’t behead her because he wanted to hear how it ended. He brought her back night after night, until finally he realized that not all women are unfaithful.

I hope you will find meaning in a  story here that will save your day, a story you will find comforting and supporting, transporting or flat out  funny. This is my purpose in keeping this blog.

I love telling stories. That’s why I write. I have been writing stories since I was very young. If I’m not writing, when I meet you I’ll tell you a story, anyway. I started this blog, then called “Salmon Salad and Mozart: A Dementia Caregiver’s Journal,” because I wanted to tell you the story of my mother Emma’s and my journey through her dementia. I wanted you to know you are not alone. I was Emma’s sole, unpaid, caregiver for a decade. Only in the end did we get the help we needed. Emma was finally released from her long suffering on April 11, 2012, at 97. Then, she flew away like one of the many beautiful butterflies she loved and painted in her watercolor images displayed in various forms, all over the house. Even her clothes had butterfly prints. If you are interested, you can read our story in my many blog posts here in the archives and in my two books, Begins the Night Music: A Dementia Caregiver’s Journal, Volume I and To What Green Altar: A Dementia Caregiver’s Journal, Volume II. You can buy my books by clicking on the icons in the sidebars. This will take you through to Amazon.com. If you do it this way, in addition to Amazon’s paying me a royalty on the sale, they pay me a small commission.

Five months into writing my blog I suspected that someone was visiting my blog, padding around in the alcoves, chambers, catwalks and labyrinths – in the latter, among whom Stephen King calls the boys in the basement – of my blog and I did not know you were here. You were here watching me. I could hear the floor creak, a muffled chuckle, smell nutmeg. You were here learning and knowing all about me while I knew nothing about you, because you did not leave your calling card, your comment. I knew then there was a Phantom of My Blog. Then one day I was up on the catwalk, getting an overview of the action when the Phantom of My Blog came up behind me and nudged me over the edge. I grabbed hold of a rope in the fly system. Not being much for rope climbing, I slid rapidly down to the knot at the end and got rope burn on the palms of my hands. At the end of my rope, I determined I had to let go and fall where I may….

Healthcare personnel for Emma were often unreliable and incommunicative. Often they left me stranded. When I let go of the end of my rope, I seemed to have landed amidst of a heap of backdrops. It was hard to know which scene I was in, what my role was; moreover, when I recited my lines, my audience did not comprehend. I thought I was speaking English to an English-speaking audience. I recognized the futility of becoming the director of my own play; I had made one hundred false starts, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, always interrupted by a change in scene.

Since then, the Phantom has appeared in various scenes in my blog; he hangs fresh headers, sweeps up spam, doesn’t dust, plays the banjo and has a black, fluffy dog named Dickens. The Phantom’s name is Moriarty. Into my blog he creeps….

Over the months since Emma’s passing, I have transitioned this blog into “The Scheherazade Chronicles.” The Scheherazade Chronicles is dedicated to human interest and to the development and support of storytelling and to raising awareness of and promoting access to the humanities for the edification and elevation of the consciousness of humankind.

Please … come in, make yourself at home. Pour yourself a glass of wine, sit with Moriarty and me in the light of the candle at the round table, listen to the music in the right sidebar player, climb up the winding staircase to the cupola and from the windows survey our tall grass meadow down to the stream and the woods beyond. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of the blue deer; they have become a small herd now, an uncommon herd.

—Samantha Mozart

Fry ‘Em and They Get Tighter

After taking a season off to republish some of my earlier works, I am returning to post a series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Funny Farm Stories. Here’s the next:

I hadn’t been working at the farm market long when this guy came in, real friendly and nearly toothless. We got a lot of them coming into the stand off-season; they rose up out of the woods. Truthfully—that’s where they lived. We grew the best onion I’ve ever tasted, the Florida Sweet onion. The farm hands pull them out of the ground, wash them, peel off the outer, brown layers, trim the tips of the green tops to resemble a fan and that’s how we sell them. So, this guy comes in, picks out a couple of onions and brings them to the counter to purchase, raving to the other cashier, a Miami native, and me about how good they are. “They’re really good when you fry ‘em and get tighter,” I heard him say. We all laughed and agreed and he left.

“What did he mean, fry them and get tighter?” I asked my co-cashier. “What was he saying?” Being a Florida native, she would understand the accent.

“He said they’re really good when you get some potatoes and fry them together,” she translated.

“Oh, fry ’em with some ‘taters,” I said.

During February the weather was pretty much like that in Southern California, dry, low humidity and moderate temperatures. I liked this. Then March came. The bright sun glared so off the sand and pebble parking lot in front of the stand that I could barely keep my eyes open even when wearing sunglasses. The temperature shot up into the high eighties and so did the humidity.

“Does it get any hotter than this?” I asked my Miami coworker.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “a lot hotter.” Naturally, I could not imagine.

I thought she was kidding—until June. The heat and humidity swarmed around me, encased me, while the sun relentlessly poured molten yellow rays everywhere.

Yet, in the peak of July, at noon, I’d see senior citizens out taking their daily walk. “How do they do it?” I wondered.

–Samantha Mozart
for Carolina Gringo

Strawberry Table

Even though we offered a choice of selecting berries individually by the pound from the berry bar in the center of the store or already packaged, priced by the pint or quart, customers would sort through the berries in the baskets, rearranging them within a basket and among the baskets, women especially, looking like they were at a rummage sale for socks. Then they’d bring this quart towering with berries to the register. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and read this fairy tale about “The Village of Cream Puffs,” the place where Wing Tip the Spick lived a little girl with eyes “so blue, such a clear light shining blue, they are the same as cornflowers with blue raindrops shining and dancing on the silver leaves after a sun shower.” (From Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg.)

The story was illustrated with a picture of a little girl wearing two pronounced beauty marks, freckles, on her creamy white face with the strawberry red lips, and holding onto a tether of floating mountains of cream puffs capped with strawberries and whipped cream, stretching from here to the horizon. The Village of Cream Puffs is so light it must be tethered to a spool so when the wind is done blowing the people of the village come together and wind up the spool to bring the village back where it was before. Wing Tip the Spick’s freckles that her mother has placed on her chin look like two little burnt cream puffs kept in the oven too long, so that when she peers into the looking glass to brush her hair, she will be reminded of where she came from and won’t stay away too long.

Sometimes if the customer’s berry mountain was too tall for a plastic bag to scale and he or she had gotten the berries from the basket display on my checkout counter when I’d stepped away for a moment, I’d say, “Oh, look at this. Somebody sure filled these baskets unequally. Let me just take a few of these and put them in this half-full basket here,” and I’d grab a small handful out of the customer’s basket and replace them in the other basket. The customer never said anything.

–Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

Strawberry Planting

After taking a season off to republish some of my earlier works, I am returning to post a series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Funny Farm Stories. Here’s the next:

STRAWBERRY PLANTING

A customer walked up to my counter one day. “Tell me,” she said, resting her elbow in a quart of strawberries…

I pointed out that she was going to get stains. She removed her elbow and continued her question. I pictured the next customer arriving and saying to her companion, “Oh, these berries on the top are all flat. If they’re flat on top, imagine what they’re like on the bottom.” So when the lady with the elbow left, I examined the berries and picked out the flat ones.

We grew the berries on the farm, in the field right next to the produce stand where I worked. Because in Florida you can’t leave the berry plants in the ground year round, each spring we’d plow them under and in the fall replant. Each October Brad bought 33,000 strawberry plants and it took 12 Mexican guys a day and a half to plant them.

All the produce on the farm was grown in raised beds. So, before the strawberry plants were put into the ground, the Mexican foreman had to come along with the tractor trailing a big fork/tong-like attachment that looked like two long, cupped, many-fingered opposing hands which scooped the earth into mounds. Then he and a co-worker or two would put a roll of plastic on a spindle on the back of the tractor and lay the plastic over the mound. Afterwards, one of the co-workers would roll this huge iron spoked wheel, three or four feet in diameter, having spikes protruding regularly at right angles from its circumference over the plastic, punching holes in it. It looked like a Catherine wheel,

As soon as the holes were punched, the plants were set into the ground. After that, my two Mexican co-workers assembled and laid the sprinkler pipes. The foreman then hooked up the tractor to the well pump, started the engine to power the pump to bring the water from the well and sprinkle the strawberry plants from early morning till sunset for two to three weeks until the roots had grown and taken hold. By mid-December, we’d have strawberries. The berry production cycled in and out throughout the winter season, until April. My two, sometimes three, Mexican co-workers picked the berries for the farm stand or the customers themselves picked them from the field.

Although the farm was much larger, my boss farmed only 13 acres. He is a citrus expert, as I’ve said, and he owns and maintains a grove. He squeezed more work out of fewer workers than anyone for whom I’ve ever been employed. I suppose it’s like marching gladly to the gallows, for the workers produced willingly because he was funny and kind and rewarded us in other ways. We had one cashier, me, and in the busy season, two, to handle hundreds of customers a day. We worked nine to ten hours a day, and when working alone, without even a lunch break. We could eat lunch, but had to eat it in between or while waiting on customers. Two guys, and in the busy season, three, prepared the field, planted and cared for the crops, harvested the fruits and vegetables, washed them and stocked and displayed them in the stand.

In the evenings, just after I closed the stand, I’d see the foreman at the end of his twelve hour day out on the tractor spraying the strawberries and tomatoes and bell peppers and he’d look so tired, gray; I was afraid he’d fall off the tractor. I told Brad. He never fell off the tractor, though, and he sprayed the field from dusk into darkness without using the tractor lights.

For months we lived the farm. We had time for little else. Often we were exhausted. But we were outdoors: we had fresh air, lots of exercise, and fresh fruits and vegetables to pick from the field, free, including baskets and baskets of fresh, round, firm, succulent strawberries. As my real name is Carol, sometimes my two Mexican co-workers called me Carolina. I made up the Gringo part, being not so far from the truth. I also made up recipes from the fresh produce I picked from the field. Since I had neither time nor energy to spend at the stove when I got home from the farm, I kept my recipes simple and quick. I have included some for you at the end of my little book.

Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

CXXXVI. Snow Comes Softly

Monday, February 11, 2019 —Yesterday came cold and blustery. Flurries of  shoppers arrived at the store where I work, and I felt good to be out among the people and greet them. Children, their animation electrified, anticipated the coming storm.

It began to snow. The purity of the white is centering. Snow falling is quiet, peaceful. I have decorated my home for winter this year simply, with candles. It is a quiet, peaceful observance, the halls of my home dressed in a raiment of soft, warm light.

The day was Sunday. The bell in the little Episcopal church across the street rang in the morning, as it does every Sunday. It is a real bell, in the steeple, that somebody rings. This little historic church recalls all the chapels in all the English villages, meadows and dales that I see in all the British dramas I watch. They don’t ring the bell long in this Episcopal church – eight times for the eight o’clock service and ten for the ten o’clock service.

One Sunday morning, I was walking in front of the Methodist church down the street when suddenly the bell tolled. I rose several feet off the sidewalk and I suspect not lifted on angel wings. In fact, I exclaimed, “Holy [expletive].” This is a real bell, too, and apparently a good sized one; it is loud, and it goes on ringing for eons. It’s a big church and the congregation continues arriving for ages.

Snowflakes alight briefly in flurries or waltz in endless patterns bending, swirling, reaching and touching everything all the dull gray day and into the deep blue night, well beyond three o’clock in the morning.

Prose arabesques from the pens of writers ornament the characteristics and romance of snowflakes. Each snowflake is uniquely shaped. The flakes fall softly, individually, in pairs and in gatherings. Yet they all come from the same source and are composed of the same matter. Snowflakes have a mission: they fall out of the clouds and they land on black slick streets, red-brick sidewalks, brown winter grass, mounds of dried leaves blown into corners of flower beds and on the bare dogwood branches outside my window. Sometimes the snowflakes melt on contact, sometimes they pile up. And then everything turns white. Watching them fall, we become quiet, meditative, nostalgic, always a little awestruck. We watch snow fall with anticipation: snowfall shatters our routines, like a snowball walloped against the surface of a frozen pond, makes us turn to something new, view life with a fresh perspective. Sometimes each snowflake makes a light ticking sound as it touches down. The birds get quiet when it snows. I watch the squirrels and the birds and I can predict the weather. The squirrels bustle gathering nuts in advance of the coming cold. Birds flock and chatter and then become quiet. Birds have different songs for different types of weather and different times of day. They have their cheery morning song, their spring song for temperatures mounting on soft southern breezes; they have their evensong.

Mothers bring their young children outside to witness the first snowfall of the season. I observe one child extend her arm to watch the snow accumulate in her pink mittened palm.

I like driving in a car when it is snowing. I love being in the magic of the snowflakes flying at me, the cypress and cedars and oaks lining the road, their branches laden with snow, the padding of the car tires on the snow, the few other cars on the road all traveling slowly as in a dream, and the tire tracks of an unseen car gone before me.

Snow fulfills its own purpose. Snow comes softly; it piles on tree limbs, bushes, holly berries and cars. Snow comes softly, like a gentle soul, filling in the footprints on our paths. It stays for a while, and then it is gone.

—Samantha Mozart

This is a revision of a story I originally published in December 2017. It seems appropriate that the story return to alight on this page every winter. Moreover, today, February 11, is my father’s birthday. He died in 2004, two days after my birthday. Were he still living, he’d be 105. He, too, aspired to be a writer. I can predict with near accuracy that it will snow on or near February 11, as it does almost every year on Daddy’s birthday.

The Gift of the Magi

By
O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pierglass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

O. Henry, 1905
pen name for William Sidney Porter
(1862-1910)

The rights to this story are in the public domain in the United States. For other countries, check the relevant copyright laws.

 

CXXXV. Memories, As They Lay Their Long Shadows Before Me

I remember driving on blustery, gray November days with my mother, Emma, the hour and a half across New Jersey from Delaware to see Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary was Emma’s mother’s sister, my great aunt. She had a little farm in Absecon Heights, just across Absecon Bay from Atlantic City. Walking a half mile down the dirt roads through the reedy marshes, to stand on the little wooden dock at water’s edge, a mixed aroma of clams, salt and sulfur permeating our senses, and looking due east across the water, we could see the skyline and lights of Brigantine, on the barrier island above Absecon Inlet, north of Atlantic City. As a child, Emma spent all her summers with Aunt Mary, coming down from West Philadelphia.

Aunt Mary kept cats. She needed good mousers. Emma used to dress them up in doll clothes. I pictured those sweet cats in their colorful dresses, and wondered at their docility. I’m allergic to cats, although we did raise some when my daughter, Kellie, was growing up. Unlike cats, I seem not a good mouser. True, I lay in wait, ready to pounce on nouns, verbs, images, phrases to combine and devour in whole stories, but rarely can I devote the time these days. Instead, I must fill my hours at my day job where I pursue merchandise in a retail store. Ah, but today I have off. Happily, I’ve carved a slice from time to tell you some stories I remember.

Driving across New Jersey those gray November days, we were on our way to Thanksgiving dinner. Aunt Mary made the best stuffing, moist and sagey. Even though Emma, my brother and I have the recipe, we have never been able to duplicate Aunt Mary’s; and, no matter where we go or whose we eat, never have we tasted any as good. Aunt Mary always got a live turkey for Thanksgiving. We’d visit her earlier in the season, see the turkey in the pen, and then eat it on Thanksgiving. Aunt Mary raised chickens, too. In the spring, she’d have a new little pen of fuzzy, yellow baby chicks. When they grew up, they laid brown eggs. The rooster’s crowing woke us at dawn. My brother stuck his finger through the chicken wire surrounding the chicken yard. When the chicken pecked his finger, it hurt, and everybody said, “We told you.” He never did that again. Occasionally, Aunt Mary would go out into the yard, grab a chicken, break off its neck and we’d eat the chicken for dinner. I remember her standing at the sink in the back kitchen of her bungalow boiling the chicken and plucking the feathers. Once, Emma got chased by a chicken with its head cut off. She ran up the steps to the back door and the chicken came right up after her.

Aunt Mary had a framed poem hanging on her bedroom wall opposite her brass bed–Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”:

Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea

I would lie in her bed and read it, wheezing, nearly unable to breathe from asthma from the cats, when I stayed with Aunt Mary for an occasional week during the summers.

In November 1974, Kellie, my dog, Kolia, a friend and I drove from Wilmington, Delaware, to a suburb of Towson, Maryland, near Baltimore, in search of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is my favorite author and kindred spirit. We set out on a typical November day–chilly; gray; misting rain; a counterpane of wet, golden leaves spread over the damp ground. I was on my way to find the house at La Paix, the estate of architect Bayard Turnbull, where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their daughter Scottie had stayed briefly, a quiet place where Scott could write and Zelda receive treatment at nearby prominent psychiatric institutions. I had embarked on a journey to touch Scott’s spirit. We did find a big, empty pillared pale-yellow, stucco house there, but it wasn’t the La Paix house where Scott had stayed. That house had been torn down, I learned later. Maybe I did encounter Scott’s spirit; the place certainly evoked the sense of something. The serenity there, the aroma of the fallen leaves underfoot, the mist in our faces, everything listening as the wind whispered stories through the trees: soft, tranquil, compelling me to write.

There’s a song, it’s called “Give,” by a group called Dishwalla. “I want to remain a child with you forever,” the words go, “and hear, as you lay before me, you tease me and tell me to stay. What would you give? What would you give?”

Memories, as they lay their long shadows before me, tease me and tell me to stay.

As a writer, I must capture thoughts and feelings, fleeting as twigs fallen into layers of wet golden leaves on old brick sidewalks before the wind stirs them into unsettled interludes.

Fitzgerald rendered much guidance on writing and I gobbled up every bit, filling reams with lines copied from his notebooks and memorizing them. He fed me well.

He found it difficult, as I do, to discipline himself to sit in a room and focus on writing; we believe the world is going by without us.

My favorite living writer, Orhan Pamuk, says he becomes irritable when he is deprived of his daily writing time in his room. I do, too. As I age I find it easier to focus on my writing; indeed I crave my time to write. Like an actor who stays in character while making a movie, when I’m away from my writing room, thoughts of what I would write eddy in the corners of my mind, leaves of many colors. It becomes difficult for me to focus fully on anything else until I can sweep those leaves onto the page before they blow away.

On a windy Sunday, I stood outside with Jetta, our 11-year-old teacup poodle, when she and Emma were still alive. Jetta could no longer stand much of the time nor walk straight. Her equilibrium was off and she was weak. She’d fall over and lie on her side. If she could get up again without my lifting her, I’d praise her: “Oh! See? You rolled over!” This I do because when she was healthy and I would command her to roll over, she’d stand there and look at me as if to say, “Why? That’s a silly trick; pointless, don’t you think? I mean, really, think about it. It’s like when you tell me I have to wait for the turkey until you cook it and then when it’s cooked you say I have to wait until it cools. Why bother to cook it? Just eat it. That’s far more efficient.” But, now, when she fell over and just had to lie there, she accepted it. She’d just lie there and I’d reach down and pick her up and try to stand her on her rubbery legs.

Life involves allowing oneself to release control, to accept and to enter the void. “What would you give? I want to remain a child with you forever.” There is not nothing; there is something: see what happens when you come out the other side. “Tell me to stay.”

When Jetta and I stood outside that windy Sunday, our wind chimes and the neighbors’ all up and down the block, all different sizes, from the tiniest to the longest tubes, were ringing wildly, an unharmonious tone poem. The sound was mystical, evoking the quality of a hundred Russian church bells.

It is impossible not to be uplifted into the vibrational frequency of those Russian bells. Bells, you know, have a huge void in the center. The tone of the ringing of the wind chimes lifted me into a kind of acceptance: What ancient mystical stories and truths is the wind telling us through those bells? Recalled for me the sounds of Russian church bells, I have to say that they are the sounds of my soul. I therefore feel compelled to quote from Jane Fonda’s book, Prime Time, “Sooner or later we will come to the edge of all that we cannot control and find life, waiting there for us,” at the door. Fonda continues, “The psychologist Marion Woodman says that with ‘vulnerability lives the humility that allows flesh to soften into the sounds of the soul.’”

“The Wind Whispered Stories Through the Trees,”
Samantha Mozart, November 22, 2011
Revisited and Revised November 4, 2018

 

LXXIV. The Blue Deer

Listen to The Blue Deer soundtrack in my playlist, “The Dream” in the right sidebar. Scroll down the list to “Glass – Symphony No. 7 (A Toltec Symphony).”

June 1, 2012  — I climbed the narrow winding wooden staircase into the cupola of my blog, gripping the graying white painted walls as I went. In the small box of a place at the top I walked over to one of the rows of windows lining each side. A cobweb from a yellowing gauze curtain stuck on my forearm. I pulled a tissue from my pocket and brushed it away with other webs lacing the corners of the sill. A tiny black spider suddenly homeless scampered across the sill, over a little ramp, like a mini motorcycle jump, where the paint had chipped and down into a seam in the faded white beadboard wall. I cracked open a window. The curtain lifted on the breeze like a bird of prey from its nest. The sweet smell of meadow grass wafted to my senses, and from somewhere in the coming night a faint music played.

I stood and looked out. In the almost twilight, I surveyed the vast realm of my experiences, and thought of the path I would pursue now.

The refracted light of the setting sun colored the sky orange and before it, across the tall-grass meadow, I saw the mist rising off the broad stream. Down near the stream a bed of irises grew wild – pale purple, deep purple with white centers – they were the most striking –, pink, white, yellow, many colors. Nearby, a lone man with long, dark, reedy hair sat on the bank playing his flute.

Contemplating near and far, my gaze trailed off to the far side of the stream into the distant woods, and as the light faded I began to dream, to drift on a reverie. And then out of nowhere it winged to nest in my senses, music I had never heard: with purity and grace it came – an aria – Chi il bel sogno di Doretta, the beautiful dream of Doretta, Puccini: La Rondine (The Swallow). The aria lifted me into a spiritual space, the heart of where I stay for now.

Just there in the half-light, I felt a draft. I smelled nutmeg. Something brushed against me. I shivered.

“Ah, the music of the night,” a subtle, deep, monotone spoke. A low talker. The Phantom of My Blog. He stood beside me. He laid a deep purple iris on the sill. He smelled of nutmeg. He always smelled of nutmeg. “You shiver. Maybe you need a sweater.”

The aria ended. We stood in silence. The man continued to play his flute. We floated on the evening.

My mind drifted back to last summer. I thought of my little family that I took care of: Every morning getting Emma up and dressed; helping her step down the sixteen stairs with their narrow treads and her iron grip on the balusters; getting her to the table to eat the breakfast she once prepared for herself – orange juice, oatmeal or Cheerios with bananas, strawberries and/or blueberries in skim milk. I thought of the times I’d prepare lunch for myself and run it up the back stairs to my studio, racing Jetta who would run up the front stairs because the back stairs were too steep for her, and we’d see who got to my studio first so she could have her treat. Then Jetta got sick and I had her put to sleep. Two months later, Keats, my Valentine’s cat, showed up, coming tender on the night that cold, snowy, blustery midnight, February 9. He was a sweet, smart cat, as Jetta was a sweet, smart dog. I fed Keats a sumptuous meal Thursday evening, April 26, then let him out, saying, “Now, you be back by ten thirty.” I never saw him again. Clearly he had people somewhere – he came wearing a sage green collar and with impeccable manners. Maybe they came and found him and took him home. Then Emma got tired, so very tired. “I don’t know how I got here,” she said in her agitated state in January. “How do I get out of here?” I could see it coming. So did our Hospice team. Their attention shifted away from her and to me.

Just then an osprey circled the field and flew straight at the phantom and me, like we were in the control tower and it was coming in for a landing. The black mask across its eyes looked like the painted bands that wrap around the windshield and windows of a commercial jetliner.

“The Lone Raptor,” said the phantom, “on his wings of tarnished silver.”

The osprey came close to the window, nodded, veered off to its left and was gone.

I remembered Emma as she was, before dementia tarnished her mind. Now, five, six, seven weeks after Emma’s passing I have found myself thinking, “Hmm, here I am all by myself, no little dog, no Keats cat, no mother to care for, a house that suddenly got really big: Besides my writing, what do I do now? What is my spiritual path? My spiritual advisors tell me to continue my caregiving. How do I do that? What do I do?”

All the old thoughts stacked up on the roof of my mind like factory chimneys.

Emma loved flowers. She would have loved the flowers in our garden this year. They were exceptionally lush – yellow daffodils, deep pink tulips and pure white, fragrant yellow roses, and pale purple irises that grew as dense as trees in a forest. I looked down at the windowsill. “So, you were out picking flowers?” I said to the phantom. “That’s a beautiful iris.”

“I picked it for you,” he said. “Iris is the goddess of the rainbow, thus implying that her presence is a sign of hope, and the wind-footed messenger of the gods to humankind, according to Greek mythology. She flies upon the wind and moves like a blast of bright air.”

“Like an orb,” I mused.

I was surprised that he had thought to pick me an iris. More likely, as had been his wont I suspected he would nudge me over the sill and out the open window. I was touched by his kindness.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then, “Blue, dear,” said the phantom.

“What?”

“A blue deer. Look.” He pointed.

In the meadow, over near the woods, in a shaft of soft light, stood a blue deer, nosing the ground, foraging for food at twilight.

The wind picked up, then. The stream flowed fast on the wind with little white caps like water in a channel. The man had gone from the bank. The music continued to play, slow, meditative, but lush: now strings joined the flute – violins and deep cellos, and satiny brass, and reeds – clarinets and saxophones –, and double reeds – English horns and bassoons –, then an accompanying chorus of voices. Haunting. Where was the man with the dark reedy hair?

“He’s gone,” said the phantom, although I had not asked aloud. “The music of the spheres,” he said. “It emanates from the deer.

“The Blue Deer reminds us that we must be stewards of our environment. The Blue Deer is a dream vision, it is a dream of finding one’s spiritual path and of healing not only oneself but also the world and environment from pollution.”

“I am deeply honored by his visit,” said I.

The phantom spoke: “I vacuumed your blog for you, organized it, hung a new header and cleaned up the clutter while you were outside ruminating on the precise color of tulips, learning that the term tulip evolves from the Persian word for turban, and contemplating the greater meaning of all that.

“You tend towards understanding the realms of wisdom and healing through nature,” he continued.

“The seeds of a summer garden,” I said, “the tender green stalks upon which the caterpillar crawls before it metamorphoses into a butterfly. I’m trying to plant these seeds now.”

“Maybe you’re harvesting them,” said the phantom.

“I seek guidance,” I said, “and thus arrive the flute player, the iris, the osprey and The Blue Deer – stewards. Caregivers are stewards; stewards are caregivers.”

“You forget me,” he said. “Am I not your steward?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I can but imagine.”

Dusk embraced us now. The Blue Deer lifted its head, sniffed the air, and then walked off into the woods. I pulled the window shut, picked up my purple and white iris and we headed down the winding staircase, I behind the phantom. In case I stumbled I hoped he would catch me. If I went first I feared he would push me. I didn’t want to flatten my iris.

When we reached the foot of the stairs, I thanked him again. We parted there. I lifted the iris to my nose. The stem had a nutmeggy smell, like his hand.

“What is your name?” I called after him.

“Moriarty,” he called back.

—Samantha Mozart

Acknowledgements: I must thank my spiritual teachers and spirit guides, and the following creative souls for inspiring the vision of this piece: My extraordinary new group of women writer caregiver friends; T.J. Banks, award-winning author, “Sketch People: Stories Along the Way” and more (find her on Amazon or click on the links on either sidebar here); Philip Glass, composer – Symphony No. 7, “A Toltec Symphony”: 3. “The Blue Deer”; and “Passages”; Coyote Oldman, their album titled “Floating on Evening”, Charmayne McGee, author, “So Sings the Blue Deer”; http://mythagora.com/ for the story of the Goddess Iris; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and, of course, Gaston Leroux for his “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. And, oh, Puccini; how could any woman forget Giacomo Puccini?

 

 

 

 

Sprinkling Strawberries

Here in SoFlo we were still in the post Civil War Reconstruction era, embodied in the young woman who strolled into the store one day as if she had just stepped out of a scene from Gone with the Wind. She came up to me and said, with her syrupy Southern drawl, “Can you tell me, d’y’all sprinkle your strawberries with something…?”

Before leaping to say “Try dry mustard,” I realized, largely due to my long association with Brad, a third generation Floridian, that she was speaking Southern for pesticide.

“Wash ’em well,” I said.

Even though we offered a choice of selecting berries individually by the pound from the berry bar in the center of the store or already packaged, priced by the pint or quart, customers would sort through the berries in the baskets, rearranging them within a basket and among the baskets, women especially, looking like they were at a rummage sale for socks. Then they’d bring this quart towering with berries to the register. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and read this fairy tale about “The Village of Cream Puffs,” the place where Wing Tip, the Spick lived, a little girl with eyes “so blue, such a clear light shining blue, they are the same as cornflowers with blue raindrops shining and dancing on the silver leaves after a sun shower.” (From Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg.)

The story was illustrated with a picture of a little girl wearing two pronounced beauty marks, freckles, on her creamy white face with the strawberry red lips, and holding onto a tether of floating mountains of cream puffs capped with strawberries and whipped cream, stretching from here to the horizon. The Village of Cream Puffs is so light it must be tethered to a spool so when the wind is done blowing the people of the village come together and wind up the spool to bring the village back where it was before. Wing Tip, the Spick’s freckles that her mother has placed on her chin look like two little burnt cream puffs kept in the oven too long, so that when she peers into the looking glass to brush her hair, she will be reminded of where she came from and won’t stay away too long.

Sometimes if the customer’s berry mountain was too tall for a plastic bag to scale and he or she had gotten the berries from the basket display on my checkout counter when I’d stepped away for a moment, I’d say, “Oh, look at this. Somebody sure filled these baskets unequally. Let me just take a few of these and put them in this half-full basket here,” and I’d grab a small handful out of the customer’s basket and replace them in the other basket. The customer never said anything.

–Samantha Mozart
for Carolina Gringo

Highpockets

Let me tell you about Highpockets. One unbearably hot and humid summer, when my regular farm market was closed, I still needed a job, so I worked at a farm stand up the way. This one was surrounded by marshy fields of high weeds. I was in the outdoor stand with the chikee roof, that sat down in a hollow off the road, alone. It was off-season and all the snowbirds had flown north.

This man used to come in all the time. And every time, he’d complain about the prices. Then, a day later, he’d come back and want to return what he’d bought, usually a melon, uncut, saying it was rotten. Then he started coming into the other farm market, the one where I worked every winter. He’d buy vegetables, fruit, and, yes, the usual melon. Consistently, he’d come back the next day or the day after and want to return the melon saying it was rotten.

My boss, Brad, got tired of it and, after the way this man, of medium build, wore his pants, the waistband hiked up to his ears, started calling him Highpockets. I knew our produce was high quality and had been picked fresh, right there, off the farm. I remembered nearly every item that went out of that store, when it went out, what it looked like when it went out and who took it out. Yet, often people would come back with a carton of strawberries declaring, “Just look at these! They’re all mushy and rotten.” I know how long fresh strawberries hold up, and how to keep them fresh. These invariably looked like they’d been riding around in a car trunk since the night before, in baking sun and humidity, secured in a sweaty plastic bag, with a bag of supermarket canned goods stashed on top.

Brad, always the Southern gentleman, inclined to the thought that the customer is always right, finally had had enough of Highpockets. One day Highpockets brought back one too many melons. Brad said, “Get out! Get out! Get out now and stay out!” Incredulous, Highpockets decreed he would tell some lawyer or something. I feared that one day he’d show up, but he never came back.

–Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart