Sunday, March 31, 2013

Enough Perking Already! (In the Category of Mean What You Say)

I’m not a fan of Virginia politics — never have been. I’m liberal, tolerant, pro-choice, pro gun control; color me blue if you must color me at all. The “red” GOP usually dominates Virginia’s politics; they slyly roll back rights for women, minority voters and same sex couples. Every few years we elect a Democratic majority who repeal the really shitty stuff, but they have no time to work on their own agendas as a result. Intolerance prevails.

Even so, Virginia is a hard place from which to move away. I can, in one half day’s time, travel by car from one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world to any number of scenic points along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. When I get to the shore, I can dine on succulent Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs, Rappahannock oysters, sweet Silver Queen corn, and ripe Pungo strawberries. Along the way I’ll have driven through rolling foothills that flatten out into fertile farmlands, skirted swampland, dripping with life and crossed rivers that flow to the bay, out into the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic.

Rain that falls in the mountains where I live finds its way to this same shore. And other things connect me - family. So I reside in Virginia in spite of how much I hate the exclusionary bigotry that taints the Commonwealth’s constitution and laws.

For example, in 2006 when 57% of Virginians voted to discriminate against same sex couples by adding yet another gay marriage ban to the constitution, I was in the 43% that said, “bullshit.” The effort capped a systematic 31-year campaign of discrimination against a specific group of citizens, even going so far as to invalidate the same sex marriages of those who moved to Virginia with their spouses after wedding in a more forward-thinking and tolerant zip code. I hate that Virginia did that.

I’m also still pissed at President Clinton for signing DOMA in 2008, even while he issued a statement regarding his strenuous opposition to discrimination in any form. But let’s face facts, Virginia beat him to it. Virginia decided first that this kind of bigotry was okey- dokey, years before the Fed got officially stupid.

I am ashamed of my Commonwealth’s position here. I have a strong, innate sense of fairness, and I bristle at the idea that others cannot do what I can, if I wish. I believe marriage inequality is not only morally wrong, it violates the spirit and intent of each individual’s right to the pursuit of happiness. I’m not a lawyer, but I think this makes it unconstitutional as well.

This week the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) took up two separate cases regarding the rights of homosexuals to get married (in CA) and share in the same benefits afforded to married heterosexual federal workers (nationwide). I have hopes that SCOTUS will decide both of these cases in favor of marriage equality, and I am not the only Virginian who feels this way.  I’ve been waiting for this for years now. I think it’s past time we got right about this.

So imagine my annoyance when my most favorite Supreme Court justice questioned whether enough time had been spent on this debate:
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR:  “[If the]... focus on this issue is letting the States experiment and letting the society have more time to figure out its direction, why is taking a case now the answer? ...We let issues perk, and so we let racial segregation perk for 50 years from 1898 to 1954...And now we are only talking about, at most, four years.” [transcript; page 64, lines 5-16]

I’d like to ask a counter question: Why wait?

When it comes to questions of equality, when has waiting ever been the best idea? Here, in the land of opportunity, the brave women who, alongside our founding fathers, wrestled a new nation from the coastal shores, fertile farmlands and scenic mountains of Virginia (and the other original 13 colonies) did not have the right to vote until 1920. Winning the right to get a job or make our own decisions about procreation took years longer. We still don’t earn equal pay for equal work. As for procreative choices, I actually had to: a) achieve the age of 35, b) get married, c) get my husband’s signature, AND d) wait 30 DAYS to get a tubal ligation. In Virginia. In the 21st century. Fucking ridiculous.

By comparison, the fifty-year “perk” period for racial equality feels more like a sprint than a marathon. That’s bullshit, of course; God knows we as a society still have a long road to walk to get completely right about that. The disparities between whites and minorities in socio-economic status, educational opportunities and the odds of being wrongly arrested are all too real. But we can't allow that to diminish the progress we’ve made.

One hundred forty-four years was a stupid amount of time to take to get right about letting women vote. Fifty years was a stupid amount of time to get right about racial segregation. Four years is a stupid amount of time to have already wasted refusing marriage equality to same sex couples. Today, no rational person upholds the idea that it is okay to deny equal rights to women or people of color. How can we still justify denying a person equal rights based simply on their choice of who to love?

The notion that sanctioning “non-traditional marriage” somehow threatens the institute of marriage itself is, to me, an unsupportable cop out. The reality of my marriage is unchanged by the reality of any one else’s marriage. The existence of other married people in no way diminishes (or enhances) my relationship with my husband. If anything, marriage equality strengthens the institute of marriage, making it accessible to all citizens. Wedding planners, bakers and florists rejoice! Marriage equality brings with it an expanded customer base of people who want to get married, honor the institution and its vows, and make a life for themselves and their families by forming a committed and loving relationship. (By the same argument, divorce attorneys nationwide must be giddy at the prospect of an expanded client base. It will shock me if their fellow attorneys on the Supreme Court deny them that revenue.)

I also find unsupportable the notion that same sex parenting is somehow harmful to a child. The absence of loving parents (of any sexual orientation) is harmful to a child. A home safeguarded by adoring parents who put the needs of their child ahead of their own -- this will never harm a child. Justice Scalia called into question the potential harmful effects of same sex parenting on a child [transcript; page 19, Lines 7-18]. But I wish to point out (since he didn’t feel the need to) that crappy parents already exist. Ask anyone who works in Child Protective Services. They can tell you all about heterosexual  parents who beat their children, exploit them, belittle them, sexually molest them, neglect them completely. Marriage between one man and one woman does absolutely nothing to protect children from abuse any more than it promotes child abuse. There are good parents and there are crappy parents. Some of them are gay. Some of them are straight.

You say, “let it wait, let it perk.” I say, “Why?” Discrimination in any form holds us back as a society. We’re so busy trying to exclude one segment of our society or another, for one dumb reason or another, that we never find the time to tackle the really big challenges such as how to feed all the children, how to provide jobs that offer a living wage for the caregivers of the children, how to embrace the huddled masses that still arrive in our country legally or otherwise, yearning to be free, how to give everyone a shot at the aptly named American dream (more like fantasy…) without bankrupting them with college student loan debt, or worse, denying them the opportunity of higher education at all.

I hope SCOTUS chooses a more proactive position to letting things “perk” – this has gone on long enough. Life is too short. Discrimination is too pointless. More than that, I really need them to do the right thing. I can’t help feeling that if we can end the discrimination on a federal level, we can get Virginians right, too. We can write another amendment to our Commonwealth’s constitution that grants all citizens the rights and privileges (and drawbacks and challenges and heartaches and joys) of marriage. As Virginia State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) put it, “You can’t stop the progress of the human mind, even in Virginia.”

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Observations on a road trip to a memorial service. (In the category of Be Where You Are.)

We counted 65 Cracker Barrel signs that could be spotted from the car between home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Dad died. They collectively advertise the presence of only 12 restaurants. It's a noteworthy branding strategy, but we stopped at none of them. We plan to count Waffle House signage on the way home.


It's been a weird day, coming back here one week later. My brain is slipping in and out. One moment, zero thoughts, just one low g-chord,  The next moment a million thoughts all at once, immediately followed by that sick feeling I get when I'm sure I have forgotten something really important. I can go for a few hours now, acting like I know exactly what I'm doing. But yesterday I found myself putting the butter in the microwave instead of the refrigerator. This morning I scrubbed my feet with shampoo and lathered my hair in body wash. I didn't even notice until I reached for the conditioner.  Tomorrow I have to go to a memorial service. None of it is right.


I woke up feeling angry. I'm relieved to feel again, but it's an awkward day for anger. I have many strangers to meet for the first and last time. They will all tell me how wonderful Dad was; they will be very kind.


"I've been the rector here at Grace for three years now," she said, "and this is only the second time the entire choir has agreed to sing at a memorial service. It speaks volumes about how much your father meant to this church..." she giggled slightly, "or should I say sings?"


Everywhere I looked papers lay scattered about, on the floor, on the couch, on the desk, the bureau, the nightstand. All of it was sheet music.



Angels live on top of Lookout Mountain. They See Rock City every day, or the parking lot anyway, as they turn onto their street. They welcome strays into their stunning home, feed them, weave them into their household, another strand to complete the brilliant multicolored tapestry of their life well lived. For five years they wove my father into their life, at Christmas and Easter, Sundays, whenever. They will now weave in his poor, sweet, scared cat; the strand continues, unbroken. They are the answer to my most fervent prayer.


We counted only 43 Waffle House signs between Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Dad died, and my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They, too, advertise the presence of only 12 restaurants. We stopped at none of them but headed straight for home.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Week Went to Shit (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

I had another post mostly written. I just needed to stick the ending. I like to stick endings the way gymnasts like to stick landings. All the perfect flips and jumps along that narrow, clearly defined path don't add up to squat if you don't stick the landing. Points are deducted. It is the same with prose.

I had planned to spend the remainder of the week and whatever it took of this weekend agonizing over the ending, but then my week went to shit.

You see, Daddy died, suddenly and unexpectedly. So this is the only written piece I have managed to complete this week. It will have to suffice.



Carl K. Hansen, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, formerly of Norfolk, Virginia, died peacefully on March 14, 2013. Carl was born on August 19, 1938 in Hackensack, New Jersey, and he graduated from Hackensack High School in 1956. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1963 and then served in the United States Navy during the Viet Nam war. After leaving the service, Carl settled in Norfolk, Virginia and earned a Masters of Science in Mathematics from Old Dominion University. He was a math teacher until leaving to become a sales manager for the Virginia Pilot - Ledger Star where he worked until he retired.

Carl had a lifelong passion for singing and the theater. As a youngster he performed on Broadway in the children's chorus in the original production of The King and I. He carried this passion throughout his life, performing in community theaters and choirs wherever he lived. Children of all ages in Norfolk remember him as the Singing Santa for his performances as a dulcet-toned St. Nick. Carl also volunteered for numerous groups and organizations.  His passion for life and people could not be suppressed.  His giant deep voice, optimistic outlook and wickedly clever sense of humor will be greatly missed.

Carl was an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Chattanooga. A memorial service will be held there in his honor on March 22, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. .

His parents, Elma and George Hansen of Hackensack, NJ, precede Carl in death. He is survived by two daughters and sons-in-law, Karen and John Shaffer of Norfolk, VA, and Kim and Greg Norris of Christiansburg, VA. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Grace Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, or the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, Virginia.

My Dad as the Singing Santa. The beard and the belly are real.
This is my favorite picture of my family. 1967, in Rota, Spain, where I was born. I'm about 14 months old here, on the right, on Mom's lap.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A (Cat) Funeral In the Rain [#52Weeks] (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

My friend, Anne, was a cat purrson. (That is how we cat people spell it.) We had this in common from day one. Cats held (in my case hold) sway over our schedules, told us when to wake up and demonstrated all manner of reasons to nap. They acted as a bouncer, hissing at newcomers that didn’t pass muster, purring only with those who had sense enough to scratch ears and chin just right, sense enough to worship the cat. We both wrote poems about our cats. When the need to write took hold but all inspiration failed, for lack of muses, we wrote odes to our cats. Cats have owned me for my whole life, and I have always been really good staff to them, but I had nothing on Anne.

In Anne’s house, the door was always open. Or more correctly, the doors were always open, and I mean O P E N. And not just for the convenience of cats. Friends, family, thieves, any of us could access her house 24-7-365. Cats had free access to the back deck off of Anne’s study via a sliding glass door that stood 8” open at all times, regardless of the weather. Really, it was two blizzards before I convinced her that it was okay to shut the study door during a snowstorm, as the cats were far too intelligent to be out in that kind of weather in the first place. Never mind what the melting snow had already done to the carpet in that room.

Anne always had exactly three cats at any given time. When we first met in 1989, Anne lived in town in a neighborhood across the street from Virginia Tech’s student commuter parking lot. Edith, Edward, and baby Lillian, three gray and white domestic short hair tabby cats ran the house in town. Edward was older and passed away before Anne built the house in Ellett Valley. Anne and I fell out of touch during the move, although Anne had taken me to see the property shortly after she bought it. She could envision it all, the beautiful home that would be built around the tiny, four room shack that stood on the 7-acre tract of wooded hillside. I admit I had trouble seeing it.

We reconnected the following summer. I had not heard from her in weeks and I began to worry. I had left several messages that went unreturned. My last message went something like, “I hope you aren’t mad at me.” She called a week later, invited me over to the new house in the valley (it was stunning) and entrusted me with her darkest secrets (which I will keep) and the reason she had been out of touch.  (I’ll save that tale for another day.)

That afternoon at Anne’s kitchen table we cemented a relationship that would last twelve years in which we spoke or visited nearly every day. It’s also the day I met Marshall, the big black longhaired cat who had replaced Edward. Edith was now the lady of the house, baby Lillian had grown to an aloof adult who could only be bothered to say hello if you were eating a Wendy’s cheeseburger (which she would steal out of your hand…it got so bad Anne started buying a second burger to give to the cat so she could eat hers in peace).

Marshall was still a kitten when we met, but it was clear he was going to be enormous (paws the size of hockey pucks). Indeed, he finally attained 14 pounds, every bit of it muscle, and his shoulders stood nearly knee-high. He liked to greet visitors with a friendly head bonk on the shin, which, if you weren’t expecting it, carried enough impact to knock you over.  Marshall supervised Anne’s visitors, who were frequent. In addition to my daily stops after work, Anne also regularly received her friend and house builder, Michael, and any or all of the three tenants, college students (a brother and sister as well as the sister’s boyfriend) that rented the house next door, which Anne also owned and Michael had also rebuilt.

Friends and co-workers in the English dept. sometimes stopped by.  And there was the endless stream of college students who had figured out just exactly how cool Anne Cheney really was, outside of the English classroom and befriended her, a long list of “twenty-somethings” over the years that kept Anne invigorated and interested in contemporary music and popular culture, even if it was, as Anne would sometimes remark, somewhat bizarre to grow old in a town where more than half the population is always between the ages of 18 and 22.
Michael looking less than thrilled at another spontaneous house party.
The ebb and flow of these visitors was such that we became a group of friends, and we collectively called these visits tea parties although we were much more likely to be drinking Miller Light.  Some tea parties got out of hand, as drop-by visitors began to fill the kitchen (where we gathered in the early days) and became house parties. Anne would send someone out with her checkbook to buy more beer and pick up take-out Chinese food.  Marshall stood in a corner, keeping a stern eye on us all, ever mindful of the opportunity to score some spilled Moo Goo Gai Pan.

Years passed. Edith disappeared after living a very long life, and Louis kitten, a chatty Siamese, came to live with Anne. Marshall became the man of the house, giving the spunky new lad, Louis, a stern paw when required.  A few years later, Lillian, who lived to a ripe old age herself, died under a pine tree, where the neighbor found her. Anne brought tiny Lydia home the next week. Lydia preferred to sleep at the foot of Anne’s bed, a habit she maintained even after the tea parties moved from the kitchen to Anne’s bedroom so Anne could recline while she chatted. (Fatigue never really left Anne after the first breast cancer.)
Me snuggling Louis kitten on his first day home. Sadly, I can find no pictures of Marshall.
One day in 2001, Anne had to rush Marshall to the veterinarian; he was having seizures. My now-husband, Greg, and I stopped by after work to see how the kitty was doing (I think we were only engaged then.) While we chatted in Anne’s room, the vet called to say things looked very bad. Could she come right away? Greg agreed to drive Anne’s car, a new BMW 325i, and we sped to the animal hospital. Though only a few minutes away, we did not get there in time, and Marshall passed away as we were screeching to a halt outside in the parking lot. Anne asked for his body, which was returned in the same carrier she’d used to bring him in, a battered old cardboard number that the vet had provided some years back. Marshall’s size was such that part of his fluffy tail hung out of the top of the box. On the side, a cartoon cat looked up perkily with the words “Thanks! I’m feeling better now!” written beneath his paws.

Looking grim as she got back in the front passenger seat, Anne said, “Greg, drive me to McCoy Funeral Home.”

“Excuse me?”

“McCoy Funeral Home. Do you know where it is?”

“But why…?”

“Just do it.”

When we arrived at the funeral home, a viewing had just gotten underway. The front porch and foyer were filled with black-clothed, sad-faced people speaking in hushed tones. Undeterred, Anne got out of the car, instructed us to, “grab the cat,” and strode in while I struggled to get the cat carrier with Marshall out of the back seat. We were quickly ushered into a side room where Kenneth McCoy, who I will state right now is a class act, joined us after a few minutes. Greg and I stood bemused while Kenneth expressed his sympathies for her loss – he knew all too well how much Anne loved her cats. Arrangements were made; Anne said she’d call him later with a time and date, and we made our way through the mourners and back to the car, leaving Marshall’s remains in the very capable hands of the undertaker.

“I’m going to bury him in the side yard next to the angel statue,” Anne said as we drove back to her house. “Can you come to the funeral?”

“You’re going to have a funeral,” I asked?

“Well of course,” Anne said forcefully.

“Sure, we’ll come.” I caught Greg’s eye in the rearview mirror and nodded to him. “When is it?”

“I’ll let you know. I need to call Lindsey first.”

“Lindsey? You’re inviting him to the funeral?”

“No, I want him to cater the wake.” (Lindsey Coleman was the owner of Maxwell’s Restaurant, Anne’s favorite hang out.)
At Maxwell's in the lounge. I don't recall whose birthday it was (note the hat on Anne's head.) I inherited that Jerry Garcia sweatshirt she's wearing, and I still wear it today.
“Well of course!” 

The funeral took place on a Tuesday afternoon at 12:15 pm so that everyone could come during their lunch hour.  It was drizzling that day, late April I think. I remember the grass was vibrant green and the lilac hedge had just begun to put forth flower buds. I was startled by the presence of a backhoe in the side yard, and I paused for a moment to watch the operator put the final touches on a perfectly rectangular hole about 4-feet deep. Beside it sat a small white casket, the type you select to bury a human baby, but which I knew held the cat’s remains. I spotted Kenneth McCoy at his car, which was parked behind Anne’s BMW. He was dressed impeccably in a black three-piece suit with a deep maroon necktie. He pulled several oversized black umbrellas out of the trunk of his car and headed inside.

I followed Kenneth into the house and found Anne in the kitchen on the phone sounding shrill.

“No Lindsey, it starts at 12:15pm. I need everything here now!...well do the best you can. Bye.” She hung up the phone.  “Lunch is going to be a little late, but we’re doing the service first anyway. He’ll be here before we’re done.”

“It’s raining,” I told her.

“It’s okay, Kenneth brought umbrellas. Do you want to read a poem at the service or say a prayer?”

I thought about it for a moment and pictured myself standing in the rain by the open grave praying over a cat casket. I started to giggle and suppressed it. “Poem.” I said. “Which one?”

“The one about Marshall, of course.” (I've included it at the end of the post.)

I knew the poem. Years earlier, in 1995, Anne had edited and published a collection of poems written by herself, local area poets and writers (myself included), and the students of her “Literature of Rock and Roll” class. The collection was titled Dead Snakes, Cats and the IRS: Poetry of Rock and Rebellion. (Lewiston, New York: Mellon Poetry Press, 1995). She handed me a copy of the book, the correct page marked with a sticky note.

As the drizzle turned to outright rain, we gathered in the side yard next to the 6’ tall concrete statue of an angel that Anne had purchased after she had finished the last radiation treatment. Kenneth held an oversized umbrella over Anne’s head as she gazed mournfully at the backhoe operator who was now on his knees in the mud gently heaving the casket into the hole.

The tenants (the brother and sister) stood under a second giant umbrella. Five or six other attendees had provided their own umbrellas. Michael said a prayer of thanks for Marshall, and I could hear the bubbling mirth in his voice. I didn’t risk looking at him and instead stared at the copy of the poem I held. When he finished, he signaled me, and I read the poem, concentrating on enunciation and nuance, afraid that I would crack up laughing at any moment.  Umbrella-less myself, I felt rain begin to flow down my neck, not much, but cold. I concluded; Anne wiped a tear (unusual for her…Anne did not generally permit displays of emotion in herself or anyone else).

As the rain let up slightly, we returned to Anne’s kitchen where Lindsey was still setting up New York deli style sandwiches, mustard potato salad, fruit salad and something salty and crunchy that I don’t recall. It may have been pretzel sticks. He looked panicked as I walked in.

“That didn’t take long. I thought I would have a few more minutes to set up.”

“It’s a cat funeral, Lindsey,” I said, opening a package of paper plates and stacking them  next to the sandwich platter. “There wasn’t much to say.”

Anne came in a few moments later and beamed at the spread. Lindsey took his leave, and we ate a hasty lunch, all of us wearing identical bemused looks and holding back the urge to burst out laughing when we made eye contact with one another. I can’t speak for the others, but Greg and I howled with laughter and wept tears of hilarity all the way back to work.

Anne replaced Marshall with a Persian kitten named Jesse. Her cancer returned not long after. About two years later, after Anne had passed away, I met with an old friend of Anne’s who happened to be acquainted with the artist that bought Anne’s house from the estate. Michael had left a few of Anne’s coffee mugs in the kitchen (all her mugs were cool designer cat-themed mugs) as a bit of a house warming gift, but the new owner had returned them to Anne’s friend, who wanted me to have one of them. I was pleased to have the opportunity to pass on the information that had been bothering me since the house had sold. I had been planning a visit to introduce myself and warn the new owner.

“You see,” I told the friend, “If they decide to build in that side yard or do any excavating, they should know that about the casket. They should know it contains cat bones, not those of a human infant. I expected her to look puzzled or surprised or ask me whatever did I mean?

Instead she said, “Oh did she do that at the Sweeney Road house as well? I went to two cat funerals when she lived on Hutchinson Drive.”

I suddenly understood the absolute professionalism and class that Kenneth McCoy displayed. (He’ll get our business when the time comes.) He’d done this before, buried Anne’s cats.  He truly got that they were her “people,” often her raison d’etre. To Anne, a full blown cat funeral didn’t seem silly at all, and especially not for Marshall, the man of the house.

Me sitting at the foot of Anne's bed during one of my many thousands of visits. Those were some of the best hours of my life, and I think my face shows it.

[In case you are wondering, after Anne died, Jesse kitten went to live with a friend of Mike’s who had time to keep him brushed. Lydia came to live with Greg and I, and her name is now Tweeter. She’ll be 14 in April, but she’s showing no signs of age. Louis, the Siamese, fared poorest of all. The tenants took him, but he kept returning to the main house. He eventually relocated to Anne’s hometown in Alabama to live with Anne’s brother, John. He disappeared one day, never to be seen again.]

Copyright by Estate of Anne Cheney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Planting of Seeds (in the category of Want What You Have.)

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
-- Henry D. Thoreau. Faith in a Seed.

I am a gardener. As such, this is typically a hard time of year for me; I get in a funk. I’m impatient to get back outside, churn up soil, count earthworms, and plant things that will, in time, become both beautiful and delicious. It’s late winter; months have passed since the last leaf fell, revealing the tree skeletons stark in their nakedness. Naked trees have always disturbed me, their branches like so many grasping fingers, the dry rattling noise they make when wind shakes the limbs. It’s so unlike the soothing woooshshshsh that wind makes with the leaves; in the Blue Ridge Mountains, wind in the leaves reminds me of the ocean where I grew up. It’s like music.

I miss the colors, too. I miss the distant blue-green haze of high summer in these mountains, so named for the hue that the leaves give to them. I miss the vibrant shades of emerald, chartreuse, pine, colors more distinguishable when standing under the eaves, the golden green quality as you look up through the canopy. I need these things like I need food and air. Everything is a shade of brownish-gray now, even the sky most days.

This late winter season has hit me harder than usual. Normally by now I have seedlings started in the dining room window: sweet basil, Roma tomatoes, Thai chilies. This year, I find myself apathetic. In my heart and in my head, I want to plant seeds. I just haven’t managed it yet, and it’s not that I have been lazy...I’ve accomplished other things (I’m writing a lot more)…but not the planting of seeds.

I’m not really looking forward to my birthday this year either, even though the first day of spring will follow immediately after. Birthdays don’t usually bother me. I always thought that as long as I got wiser, too, I wouldn’t mind so much getting older. But it’s bugging me this year, and I cannot put my finger on all the reasons why. (I am completely clear on some reasons, but I will keep those to myself.) I don’t feel old, but certain undeniable signs suggest I should enjoy that feeling while it lasts. As a younger woman, the sense of – the hope of second chances was easier to conjure. Now, more and more, it’s a sense of urgency to not waste time, not a precious moment of it. All the while, time moves faster and faster. Is it really almost my birthday again? It was just Christmas yesterday, wasn’t it?

I won’t lie. It’s been a rough winter. I am still reeling from the loss of my Aunt Nancy at the end of October. To have her drop dead only ten days into the first round of chemo for what, by all reports, was highly treatable stage 2A breast cancer — it has left me truly shaken. It has caused me to rethink EVERYTHING I think I know about living and dying and breast cancer, and cancer treatment. My take-aways so far are not that comforting: 1) Feel free to live as healthy a life as you can – you can still get breast cancer; 2) Catch the cancer as early as you can – the chemo could still kill you anyway.

A few of these maudlin thoughts were taking root in my brain yesterday after lunch (water and carrots) as I walked past the pepper plants that are hibernating in my two-car garage. And I saw them, the green buds just beginning to push away from the stem, proof that where all is naked and stark, leaves will return.

Last spring I planted Tabasco pepper seeds. My husband found the seeds on the Internet at the Tabasco sauce web site, and we love to grow hot peppers, so he bought a kit. We followed all the directions (a redundancy…I have  green thumb). The seeds took FOREVER to germinate -- like six weeks – waaaay longer than “normal” pepper seeds should take. The seedlings that finally emerged were thin, spindly. I was sure they’d sold us bum seeds. (Why wouldn’t they? There’s no profit for them in my ability to make my own Tabasco sauce.)

I nurtured, I fertilized, I gave encouraging pep talks. The seedlings became small plants. The term “failure to thrive” came to mind. I fertilized more, gave more pep talks.

By mid-August, I had four under-sized but healthy pepper plants finally going to flower...that necessary first step that leads to fruit. I put the youngsters in pots large enough to hold the mature plant. By mid-September, the plants had grown much taller, were covered in flowers, and had begun to form perfect little peppers, pale and white, no larger than a pea. By mid-October, the peppers were the length of lima beans, still pale, and I knew we were in trouble. The first freeze was weeks and maybe only days away. I had lots of little Tabasco peppers and no hope that they would ripen before frost killed the plants.

When the first frost warning finally arrived, I returned the plants to the dining room window where they first germinated. I hoped to nurture them long enough to let a few of the peppers fully mature. Three of the four plants did really well, but one plant began losing leaves fast. The absence of dead leaves on the floor around the plant should have been a signal, but it just didn’t register with me. The clods of what looked like potting soil that kept showing up outside the flower pot should also have been a signal, but I blamed it on the cat. Smitty kitty loves to climb in my plants, so I just assumed he had been playing in them and kicked out some dirt.

One afternoon I noticed that the plant, which had been losing leaves, was suddenly completely denuded – nothing but stark, skeletal nakedness, bare limbs of grasping fingers. No baby peppers either. Weirdly, only one very large leaf remained on the plant, and it was bright green.

Then the leaf moved. I bent down to look more closely, and I screamed. What looked like this...
Photo from

was actually this...
Photo from

...a tomato my house. It explained a thing or two, why I never found any dead leaves around the denuded plant for one. And that “potting soil” I kept sweeping off the floor and blaming on the cat? Well, that’s what the digestive track of a tomato hornworm does to a pepper plant leaf after it’s done extracting the nutrients. In other words, worm shit.

I hauled all four plants outside and cleaned the worm shit off the floor. My husband (greatly relieved to learn that the cause for my blood-curdling scream was an insect and not a murderer) dispatched the large worm on the denuded plant using a method I found on the Internet after I finished cleaning the floor (cut the worm in half with scissors then put in a plastic zipper bag...just to be sure). Our closer inspection of the three remaining plants revealed three smaller tomato hornmonsters that we dispatched in like fashion. I put the three surviving plants in the garage on top of an old wooden bookshelf that sits under the window where I expected them to die in the relatively low light. I gave the plants a little water, not too much, knowing as I do that in the relatively low light and cool temps, the plants’ transpiration will diminish, the roots will not take up water from the soil as quickly and that soggy soil would cause the roots to rot. To my surprise, instead of dying and dropping off the stem, one by one, the little peppers turned from pale white to orange, and then, Tabasco sauce red.

(In case you wondered, Tabasco peppers fresh off the plant taste EXACTLY like Tabasco sauce, only MUCH HOTTER.)

Yesterday, when I saw the dozens of tiny leaves pushing out in pairs from the main stem, my funk lifted.  Spring is coming (and yes, so is my birthday, but I’ll take growing older to the alternative). Yes, it’s been a rough winter but we’ve survived (in spite of hornworms and other monsters) I and these pepper plants that once failed to thrive. Perhaps the approaching equinox has allowed a little more sunshine into the garage, stimulating the plants to grow. Perhaps all my encouraging pep talks finally got through to the plants, and they are now ready to step up and reach their full potential. I’m delighted by the idea that they appear to be on a fast track to producing more peppers sooner this year. They’re going back outside as soon as it warms up a bit more. I see no need to germinate more Tabasco pepper seeds this year, hope they sprout, beg them to grow. These plants are mature, healthy, and ready to produce. They owe me. They could have been worm shit.

But there are others – sweet basil, Roma tomatoes … spring is coming, I should go plant some seeds.