Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Christmas that almost wasn't

Sitting in the truck at the beach, I'm physically and mentally exhausted; and I always come here when I'm feeling like this.

Looking back, I have experienced the sublime joy of childhood Christmases and all those wonderful years with my own young children, as well as the utter heartbreak of laying my paternal grandfather to rest on Christmas Eve.

But this Christmas was like no other – a rollercoaster ride of extreme lows and highs that can be described as nothing short of miraculous.

I had spent Christmas Eve cooking, cleaning and setting up for our Christmas feast for 14.

I awoke Christmas morning with a smile. “Christ is born!” Then my husband and I attended Christmas Mass.

Driving home, I was busy making lists in my head of all the things necessary to carry out my dinner plans.

Back at the house, I put on my Christmas apron and got to work – but then the phone rang.

My mother was crying. My 89-year-old father was having difficulty breathing, and he had just been transported by ambulance to the hospital.

In a daze, I took off my apron, placed the hams in the oven on the timer, put my coat back on and headed to the Emergency Room.

My mother and my father’s sister were already there, and hospital policy dictated that only two visitors were allowed in the ER. I sat in the plastic seat and waited.

What was the delay? Was he unconscious? Would I ever see him again?

I thought about my beautiful young aunt – a second mother to me – whom I lost two months ago.

Coming to my senses, I began to pray.

It was a very long 20 minutes before I was granted access. I spoke to the doctor. He said that the chest x-ray was normal and prescribed an over-the-counter medication. Unbelievably, my father could go home.

Since my father had arrived by ambulance, he was in his pajamas and had no coat or shoes. We wrapped him a thin white hospital blanket, and my mother put the detachable hood from her coat on his head. The hospital slippers would have to do.

I finally stopped shaking on the way home. When I walked in the door, I put on my apron and jumped in where I left off.

All our friends and family arrived as planned, and dinner was ready on time. Throughout the long afternoon I kept kissing and hugging my dad, maybe annoyingly so.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Warming up – A Christmas story


Many years ago when I was a young mother, I went to the grocery store with my daughter and waited behind a poor old gentleman who was unable to pay his bill. I desperately wanted to help him, but I was afraid and kept silent. The episode bothered me so much that I went home and wrote this fictional Christmas story. I wish I had been the woman in my story.

Dan held the mug of coffee tightly in both hands and felt the steam rising to his face. He lifted the cup to his lips and let the bitter amber liquid trickle slowly down his throat.

Even though he knew that the apartment was well-heated and comfortable, he was cold. He felt that he would never be warm again.

Dan was always cold and lonely. He missed Abigail and the children – but Abby was gone now, and the kids had their own lives to lead, their own problems to solve.

The future looked bleak. His days were filled with routine. He was thankful for his independence and reasonably good health, but he longed for something more.

“An old man’s foolish dreams,” he thought to himself.

Dan placed the empty cup on the table and reached into a pocket for his wallet. He opened the worn black billfold and checked its contents. There wasn’t much money left, but he would make do. He always had.

Walking gingerly to the closet, he took out his winter jacket, a flannel-lined wool coat. Briefly, his eyes scanned the kitchen shelves. He made a mental note of a few items, slid into his coat sleeves, and placed his keys in the ample pocket.

Making sure that the door was locked securely behind him, Dan slowly descended the winding staircase.

It was an overcast and blustery December day. He shivered and pulled his collar up around his neck as he sauntered down the street toward the supermarket.

There was a time when he had enjoyed grocery shopping. He had loved to watch Abby shop. Even though their Social Security checks barely covered the necessities, she always had enough for the bill and managed to save a little bit extra.

He smiled when he remembered how she used to sneak a little something into the basket for the kids. He would always pretend not to notice.

Dan knew how much it had pleased her to feel that she had made the burden a little lighter for him – and she had. Being with Abby had made everything easier.

He entered the market, chose a cart, and started the trek through the numerous well-stocked aisles. Sterile-sounding Christmas carols played over the intercom.

He was tired as he finally made his way to the express checkout lane. In the corner of the oversized shopping cart were cans of soup, cereal, orange juice, bread, and coffee.

He took his place at the end of the line, which wound its way down the immense corridor. Impatient shoppers paced nervously while they inched forward. Dan waited.

No one spoke. His mind wandered. He remembered the market he had shopped at when he and Abby were newlyweds. The proprietor had been a friendly man who had appreciated each of his customers. The cashiers had called Dan by name.

It was different now – so impersonal. Everyone just stared straight ahead while the electronic scanners did the talking.

It was his turn now. With disbelief he saw the final total on the register. He would have to put something back.

Dan felt ashamed. He had never had much money, but he had always had his pride. Now he felt that even that had been taken from him.

Dan cleared his throat and in a whisper told the clerk that he had changed his mind about the coffee.

The lady behind him bent down, picked something up, and tugged at Dan’s sleeve.

“I think you dropped this, sir,” the woman said, handing him a small slip of paper.

Confused, he glanced at the free coffee coupon and without thinking passed it on to the clerk.

The old man looked up in surprise when the total came within his means. He paid the bill, accepted his change, picked up the bag and walked out of the store.

Dan smiled at the woman as she came through the exit doors into the cool, bright sunshine.

“Why did you do that for me?” Dan asked as he patted the head of the squirming toddler strapped securely in the front of her shopping cart. “You could have used that coupon for your own family.”

“God has always given us enough and a little bit extra,” she replied. “I like to share the extra.”

With eyes brimming with tears, Dan reached for her hand, squeezing it tightly.

“God bless you,” he said. “Have a very merry Christmas.”

As Dan walked back to his apartment, he didn’t feel quite as cold as before. He felt the warm sunshine on his back and a warmth radiate from within.

Impulsively, he stopped at the first-floor apartment and knocked on his neighbor’s door. He waited patiently while Harry opened the multiple latches.

Smiling into Harry’s puzzled face, Dan said, “Why don’t you come up for a cup of coffee?”   

Thursday, December 12, 2013

'Happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven'

Barely awake, I crawl out of bed. It is two weeks before Christmas, and I need to start the day early.

Dressed in my warmest clothes and boots, I climb into the frigid car and notice that the temperature gauge reads 21 degrees. Shiver...

Across the street, the freshwater pond reflects the blue sky, and the woods wear their winter coat of white.

Cranking up the heater, I head to the highway on route to the dentist’s office a half-hour away.

Once I stop shaking, I begin to see the winter wonderland around me.

Dusted with snow, the houses and evergreens sparkle in the early morning sunshine, just like the images on the Christmas cards I have yet to write. This is quintessential New England at its best, something we often take for granted when temperatures plummet.

Sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I turn on my Nook and begin typing in my journal, making a list of Christmas things to do:

The tree that we bought Sunday is waiting in the living room, the decorations still tucked in bins lining the garage walls.

Boxes of cards sit on my desk, alongside the Christmas stamps.

I have a houseful of guests coming for Christmas dinner, and I don’t even know what’s on the menu.

After my appointment, I slip into a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. Munching on a muffin and sipping tea, I pull out the Nook again; and this time I decide to list my accomplishments this season, rather than my shortcomings.

I attended the beautiful Holy Day Mass of the Immaculate Conception on Monday night, and a gift I bought lies under the Giving Tree for a young boy I have never met.

I performed in three Christmas concerts at two nursing homes and at a church as a member of a volunteer 30-piece concert band.

Nineteen jars of my homemade grape jelly, adorned with crimped red-and-green Christmas fabric, line the top of my pigeon-hole desk…

Noticing the people sitting nearby, I hear their excited chatter about their own Christmas preparations.  

“I feel the influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of those around me,” wrote Washington Irving. “Surely happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven; and every countenance bright with smiles, and glowing with innocent enjoyment, is a mirror transmitting to others the rays of a supreme and everlasting benevolence …”

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Winter Eden

It’s early December, and Christmas looms large on the horizon. The weather is cold and brisk as it should be, and snow is predicted by week’s end.

One can imagine nineteenth-century poet and preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson heading to his New England home in Concord, just about 70 miles north of here, in the lines of “The Snow-Storm”:

“Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, / Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields, / Seems nowhere to alight:  the whited air / Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven, / And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.”

Emerson served nearby in New Bedford as interim minister of Unitarian Memorial Church. Yet he would resign from ministry just six years after his ordination.

“I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry,” he wrote in his journal.

Following Emerson’s lead in “Nature” – “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society” – I, too, yearn for open natural spaces on this gray, overcast day, finding refuge on this deserted beach near our summer house.

Today, the usual pulsing Sakonnet is pond-like, bearing ripples instead of waves. Along the shoreline, the sea grass is an unappealing brown color, withered by wind and frost.

Other than a few seagulls roosting on boat ramp pilings, I am alone on this horseshoe-shaped stretch of coarse sand, seaweed and surf-driven rocks.

I strain to listen to wind or wave, but my footfalls are the only sound.

For the moment I forget about the long list of home and work obligations, as well as Christmas things to do. Instead, I downshift and take stock, tapping into the Source of the panorama before me.   

Suddenly, the sun comes out and the grayish sky and sea turn blue, highlighting the Creator’s handiwork.

Then I hear the beat of Emerson’s verses in “Terminus”:

“As the bird trims her to the gale, / I trim myself to the storm of time, / I man the rudder, reef the sail, / Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime: / ‘Lowly faithful, banish fear, / Right onward drive, unharmed; / The port, well worth the cruise, is near, / And every wave is charmed.” 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving musings

Wild turkeys frolic across the street in my neighbor's yard.

The wind is howling outside my window, a most unwelcome sound.

A few weeks ago a 50-mile-an-hour gust took down a 100-foot pine in our front yard, landing on the electric wires and crushing our mailbox across the street.

It is the day before Thanksgiving, and a nor’easter is barreling up the coast, bringing high winds and torrential rains. This year, those going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house may prefer the on-the-river route.

Since I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, I am blessed to have the day off from work, offering ample time to prepare the feast.

Today I will make a batch of winter soup, a concoction of chicken stock, carrots, onions, potatoes and turnips, thickened with a roux of flour and butter, and sprinkled with a handful of parsley. The flavors will meld nicely overnight.

The rolling pin will come out of hiding, and I’ll make enough dough for two pies, pumpkin and blueberry. Once they’re in the oven, their fragrance will fill the house, the intoxicating scent of cinnamon and spice.

Meanwhile, I’ll melt chocolate and whip it with egg yolks, strong-brewed coffee, powdered sugar and heavy cream for chocolate mousse, a decadent dessert garnished with a spoonful of freshly-whipped cream that just melts in your mouth.

Then I’ll make my mother’s favorite dessert, Grape-Nuts custard, baked in a hot water bath for nearly an hour.

I usually use a friend’s fresh eggs which create a frothy mixture that rises sky-high. But sadly, a fox recently killed his hens while they were pecking in his front yard. I’ll have to make do with the grocery store variety.

Lastly, I’ll set the table with a hand-embroidered tablecloth, a beautiful gift from my husband’s Canadian aunts; and I’ll take out our best china from the hutch.

The turkey and the rest of the preparations can wait until the wee hours of tomorrow morning.

I’ll leave you with some words about the holiday from my favorite New England author, Gladys Taber.

“In a world of turmoil, where poverty and prejudice still exist … I am thankful for so very much,” she said. “No voice is raised in hatred in my household. Footsteps sound gently on the threshold… The grandchildren walk and play without fear. The dogs settle on the wide hearth and doze into a warm, comfortable sleep. The steady glow of friendship warms me daily. … These are simple things, but to me they are most precious. And as I recall each one, November’s beaver moon shines brighter than ever; and I know that love and friendship, hearth fires and faith are indeed gifts to be thankful for and to treasure always.”


Sunday, November 17, 2013

The sting

As tranquil as a pond in midsummer, the Sakonnet barely ripples on this overcast, gray November morning.

I watch a fishing boat navigate the channel heading downriver to open sea, and my mind drifts back to a long ago fishing expedition.

My husband and our two boys had gone fishing at daybreak. On an impulse later that morning, my daughter and I waited for them at the ramp and climbed aboard.

It was the first time I had taken a ride on our new acquisition, an 18-foot Sea Pro center-console boat with a 90-horsepower Toshatsu engine. It was a clear day with little wind, and we skimmed over the waves heading a few miles upriver. After circling Gould Island, we returned to the state beach.

Backing our Ford Explorer up to the trailer hitch, my husband dragged our boat onto dry land and began to secure the straps over the transom.

Another four-wheel vehicle, a late-model Ford Bronco, pulled up alongside our boat. The words “State of Rhode Island Environmental Police” were on the door.

Dressed in a dark green uniform with a prominent badge and holstered gun, the officer strode over to my husband and asked for the boat registration.

“Are we going to jail?” my son whispered. “No,” I said, hugging him close.

My husband continued to pack away the fishing gear, pretending it was just another day at the beach.

“How many fish did you catch today?” the officer asked.

“About a dozen,” my husband said.

“Show me the fish,” he ordered.

My husband climbed on the trailer, swung his leg over the gunwale and flung himself into the boat. Grabbing the pail, he handed it to the officer, who carried the fish to his truck. Then he took out a measuring device and calculated the length of every single bloody fish.

“These two are under limit,” he said. “Put them back in the water.”

Humiliated, my husband carried the fish to the water’s edge and tossed them in.

“You folks from around here?” the officer asked, changing his tone of voice and letting down his guard. Our Massachusetts license plate gleamed in the noontime sun.

“We’re summer residents,” my husband said.

We headed for the summer house in silence, but some seagulls spotted the floating fish, and they squawked loudly as they fought over our catch.

I knew that if those two fish were under limit, they were slightly under limit. What difference did it make whether those fish were consumed by humans or birds?
These days when we pull up anchor and begin to approach the ramp, we scan the beach and waste little time in hitching up the boat and driving away.

The seagulls can fend for themselves.





Monday, November 11, 2013

The end of the season

Colorful leaves create a natural fence at the summer house.
It is the middle of November, and we are forced to face the inevitable. The delightful interlude of sunny summer days and simple pleasures is coming to an end. It is time to close up the summer house for another season.

Our sweatshirts are no longer ample protection from the cold winds, and we linger a few minutes at the beach before returning to the warmth of the house.

This week my husband and his friend will winterize the place, draining the water from the pipes to prevent freezing.

The little house will be shuttered, bracing itself for icy winds and a long season of silence. Bereft of family and unable to generate heat or light, it will hibernate and patiently await our return.

With each passing year, I find it more difficult to leave the summer house behind.

Sarah Orne Jewett best describes the feelings of separation from a seaside home in “The Country of the Pointed Firs.”

“The sunshine of a northern summer was coming to its lovely end. The days were few then … and I let each of them slip away unwillingly as a miser spends his coins. At last I had to say goodbye to all my … friends, and my homelike place in the little house, and return to the world in which I feared to find myself a foreigner… When I went in again, the little house had suddenly grown lonely, and my room looked empty as it had the day I came. I and all my belongings had died out of it … so we die before our own eyes; so we see some chapters of our lives come to their natural end.”

With gratefulness I bid farewell to another season. Every weekend throughout the long winter ahead, my husband and I will be drive-by visitors, checking on the summer house.

Then we’ll park our truck at the beach, shut off the engine, and admire the Creator's handiwork. 

“The immensity of nature … gives us a new perspective on life, washes away or minimizes our worries,” writes Ferenc Mate, the author of “A Real Life – Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness.” “How can we feel sad with all the beauty there is to see? And how can we feel poor when all this beauty belongs to us?”

Monday, November 4, 2013

My stormy life in journalism

Twilight near Old Stone Bridge, Tiverton, R.I.

The truck tires dig in the sand and come to a stop near the curiosity that is Old Stone Bridge.

Once a mighty fortress, all that remains are two stone sections still attached to land, one on the Tiverton side, the other on the opposite shore in Portsmouth.

During the onslaught of the 1938 Hurricane, one of the worst to ever breach these shores, hurricane-force winds and waves damaged the bridge. Repaired, it was a mainstay until Hurricane Carol in 1954 inflicted the fatal blow.

It is twilight, and I am tired. I have come to the water to RUMInate.

During the past year, I have held down two jobs, working about 50 hours a week.  

According to Rumi, the thirteenth-century founder of Sufi mysticism and one of the most widely read poets in the U.S., I have been “Tending Two Shops.”

“You own two shops, / and you run back and forth. / Try to close the one that’s a fearful trap, / getting always smaller. Checkmate, / this way. Checkmate, that. / Keep open the shop where you’re not selling fish-hooks anymore. / You are the free-swimming fish.”

Throughout my 30-year journalism career, I have worked for 15 newspapers and magazines.

I began as a freelance piloting my own row boat in calm seas. Then I boarded bigger vessels, jumping ship and climbing the ladder.

Sometimes I lost a foothold as I yearned to soar from the crow’s nest.

But a new digital era was dawning, and from my perch I watched the winds of change batter my profession.

Three times I went down with the ship, when two of the magazines folded and one of the newspapers went bankrupt.

Through the years I clung to the rocks, while advertising dollars and circulation plummeted and services outsourced.

I prayed to the Lord to quiet the raging seas, but the powers that be were unrepentant.

And the skeleton crew kept rowing upriver against the tide...

Hanging on for dear life, I went from full-time plus overtime to a handful of hours with no benefits, while I took another job as a business manager in the safe harbor of health care to pay the bills.

A few days ago I walked the plank in the company of some of my shipmates, including my captain who had welcomed me aboard more than a decade ago.

Panting, I floated in with the tide, landing on this beach in the shadow of Old Stone Bridge.

Rescued, I realize I am now a free-swimming fish no longer hooked to a dying industry.

Tomorrow I will tend one shop.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Long ago reflections in the catacombs

Houghton Memorial Chapel at Wellesley College

Searching for the opening to the underground level of the century-old, granite-blocked, red-roofed Houghton Memorial Chapel, I noticed some stone steps leading downward, and I swung open the heavy wooden door.

When it closed behind me, the sound echoed, vibrating throughout the empty rooms.

An autumn midday,

I sought refuge within stone.

I found emptiness.

I walked down into the catacombs, and I would soon discover why this place was aptly named.

Catacombs were secret places for worship and burial in the early Christian communities of the Roman Empire.

Dark and cold, the white-walled passageway was eerily quiet.

Upstairs, the beautiful Protestant Chapel glowed with the polished veneer of intricately designed woods while light streamed through lovely stained-glass windows.

Here in the lower level were discarded wooden pews, old choir robes, stacked chairs and boxes filled with religious goods.

I passed the Buddhist and Hindu meditation room and the Muslim prayer room before I saw the Catholic sanctuary. When I walked into the room, I felt disoriented, since I expected an altar and statues of saints.

I saw a small man dressed in street clothes, sitting on a couch. Immediately, he stood up and introduced himself in a thick Spanish accent as Father Andres.

I sat down. The little priest dragged a small table into the center of the room and draped it with a white cloth. He lit a votive candle and placed ribbons in a prayer book, marking passages.

No trappings of church

Filled the underground chapel.

No saints but sinners.

Another man entered the room. He was very tall. Speaking with an Eastern European accent, he introduced himself to the priest as Igor.

We waited for others to arrive. No one came.

The holy man laid three Communion hosts on a silver plate and poured red wine into a clear beverage glass, instead of the usual golden or silver chalice. Only now I noticed an unframed print of Mary, a medieval portrait of the Queen of Heaven, propped up against the wall. The priest placed a long silken vestment cloth around his neck and began to pray.

The Mass began. I listened to the familiar words spoken with a foreign tongue, and they sounded strange and alien to me. The priest passed the book to Igor, and he read in his deep, heavily accented voice a passage from the Old Testament. Then he handed me the book, and I read the psalm, line by line. They repeated my words, and our voices became one, praising the Lord.

After the Scripture readings, Father Andres asked us to pray for the young women on campus. We closed our eyes and silently prayed.

Instead of kneeling in pews, we sat in orange plastic chairs while the priest broke the bread and blessed the wine. He placed the Communion host in my hand and passed me the glass. I put the bread in my mouth and sipped the warm wine, the body and blood of Christ.

The priest bade us go in peace.

I climbed out of the catacombs into the bright fall sunshine, welcoming the warmth and light around me. I thought about the half-hour service and the unlikely gathering: the little priest, a Cambridge psychologist from northern Spain; the Boston University history professor, an immigrant from the Czech Republic; and myself, an American-born student in pursuit of an undergraduate degree.

And like the early Christians, I had traveled to what seemed to me, a secretive underground place. Once there, I had worshipped with strangers whose accented voices proclaimed an identical faith. Our prayers had echoed through dark and empty passages and filled them with a beautiful sound.

All were invited.

Only a few came to pray.

All benefited.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Different strokes for different folks

There is a new species inhabiting our bay. They float and paddle like a duck, and sometimes they dip underwater.
The paddleboarders are here.

Driving down Fogland Road and onto the boat ramp, I expect to see some fishermen in powerboats trawling nearby; but on this windless, clear and bright sunny day, I spot a bevy of boarders standing up and paddle surfing in the Sakonnet.

Traditional paddleboarding is a surface water sport in which participants are propelled by a swimming motion using their arms while lying or kneeling on a paddleboard or surfboard in the ocean.
A spinoff of this sport is standup paddle surfing, which is usually performed in the open ocean with the participant paddling and surfing unbroken swells to cross between islands or journey from one coastal area to another.

Surfing the net, I find that standup paddleboarders can stroke for hours, and a twenty-mile race is only a warm-up for a well-trained waterman.
I had always associated paddleboarding with the South Pacific, but I conduct a quick search on Google and find a long list of businesses catering to this sport in our local waters.

In fact, I discover that Paddle Board Rhode Island is the 2013 Editors’ Choice winner in Yankee Magazine’s Travel Guide to New England, which is awarded by Yankee’s editors and contributors, who name select restaurants, lodgings and attractions in New England to the exclusive list.
“While it may be hard to create a business, the true challenge is in making it work, being good enough that it endures and brings people back. Those are the qualities we look for and reward when we say ‘Best of New England,’” wrote Yankee's editor Mel Allen.

Recognized as the “Best Way to See the Bay,” Paddle Boarding Rhode Island offers paddleboard tours, lessons, fitness classes and parties, including full moon paddles, dog standup paddleboarding tours, sunrise fitness sessions and paddling through downtown Providence.

According to their website, they describe standup paddling as a very different, healthy, spiritual and refreshing way to connect with the ocean and nature, and they paddle anywhere.​

“We have paddled as far and wide as Hawaii and Costa Rica, California, New Hampshire, Cape Cod and Florida. But this is the Ocean State. Experience Rhode Island's coast as you've never experienced it before.”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sunday best

Driving along country roads on a fall October day, I feel blessed to be a New Englander.

“The Summer comes and the Summer goes; / Wild-flowers are fringing the dusty lanes, / The swallows go darting through the fragrant rains, / Then, all of a sudden – it snows,” wrote nineteenth-century New Hampshire poet and travel writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

The leaves are beginning to turn, and my mind wanders back to childhood days when Sunday afternoons, especially those in autumn, were spent along back roads of neighboring towns.

Back then we abided by the Blue Laws, and business ceased. Consequently, Sunday was not just another day of the workweek.

At our house we followed a ritual that began early in the morning when we dressed in our Sunday best and went to church.

After service, my father would drive to the neighborhood store and buy a dozen sugar-dusted jelly doughnuts.

At home my mother set out the old brown teapot. With sticky fingers we held onto our teacup in one hand and the pastry in the other.

Right after breakfast, my mother and I put on one of my grandmother’s hand-sewn aprons and prepared a full-course Sunday dinner, consisting of soup, salad, entrĂ©e, vegetables, biscuits and dessert.

Then, as soon as the dishes were washed, we went on a Sunday ride. Each week we headed in a different direction to destination unknown.

In the fall, we stopped at farm stands and harvest festivals, filling the trunk with pumpkins, chrysanthemums and jugs of apple cider.

The last stop was always at some out-of-the-way place for a double-scoop of ice cream.

Sunday evenings were quiet times, spent finishing up homework assignments and playing board games before we climbed into bed.

Today Sundays have evolved into just another workday, and many folks can no longer look forward to a day of rest. Family members are always missing when we gather around the table at home or at the summer house because they have to work.

We still begin the Lord’s Day in church and prepare an extra special Sunday dinner. But we rarely ride around the countryside.

Mostly, we relax, while reading or watching Red Sox or Patriots games.

But whenever I feel overworked and overwrought by the fast-paced lifestyle we live these days, I think back with nostalgia to quieter, simpler times when Sundays were best.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Coming home

Walking around our house, I admire the new coat of paint – the bright white front with pale yellow shutters, the unpainted shingles on the sides gleaming with redwood stain – and I remember the first time I set eyes on her.

A warm October afternoon, we followed the real estate agent through a small town, passing over two sets of railroad tracks and by a waterfall.

Surrounded by pine trees, the raised ranch sat on a hill overlooking a pond. It had six-over-six multi-paned windows, a brick face and one-car garage underneath.

She beckoned, and I was captivated. I hadn’t even stepped inside, and I knew this would be where our children would grow up and my husband and I would grow old.

“We have to be able to afford this,” I thought, as the agent began a guided tour.

Entering the house, I should have noticed that the rooms were rather small, there was only one bathroom, and the basement was partially-finished. But instead, I saw only the beautiful oak ceilings, the open country kitchen and keeping room with fireplace, and the wall of bookshelves in the basement that would hold my dearest possessions.

Directly behind the house was a huge kennel for our dog.

I knew my husband was smitten when he walked into the new barn that the owner had built for his sailboat. It had work benches, a wood stove and ample room for any number of toys that were on my husband’s wish list.

The leaves rustled as we walked the three-quarter acre property, inhaling the scent of pine and listening to the quiet.

On the spot my husband made an offer, but it took a week of counter-proposals before the owners, who were in a hurry to move to Florida before winter, accepted our bid. I could not believe our good fortune.

Unfortunately, the binder was contingent upon the sale of our small starter home in the city. As I waited for a buyer, I wrote in my journal, making lists and drawing room layouts, and I prayed.

Three months later an offer was made, which we accepted. I started packing. Two days later, the buyers changed their mind, losing their escrow deposit. I started unpacking.

A few weeks later a young couple saw the house and made an identical offer. This time we waited for the bank to approve their loan before celebrating.

A month later we were handed the key to our new country home, and my husband carried me over the threshold.

Twenty-eight years later, she bears the scars inflicted by an active family of five, but she still captivates me.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A horse of a different color

Gail and her dappled gray miniature horse, Eli, at Sapowet Marsh.

The season at the summer house always seems too short, and we drag our feet into September, trying to hold onto summer.

Yet, autumn in New England offers the most beautiful scenic views of the seashore, along with spectacular weather.

Shakespeare used the phrase, “Beauty too rich for use,” and while that was Romeo’s apt description of Juliet; it also applies to nature, especially at this time of year.

Poet John James Piatt best described these four colorful weeks: “September – / The beautiful apples, so golden and mellow / They will fall at a kiss of the breeze, / While it breathes through the foliage frosty and yellow / And the sunshine is filling the trees!”

Donning sweatshirts, my mother and I steal away from the Red Sox game and head down to the beach.

Unlike the haze that usually hangs over the seashore and is the namesake of Fogland Beach, clear bright sunshine and cool breezes await us at the water’s edge.

Peering upriver, we are offered an unobstructed southerly view of the Sakonnet Lighthouse at the mouth of the bay.

We sit on large stones and watch the wild waves, as well as an occasional sailboat zip by.

There are few beach-goers now, and it is just us and the wildlife, basking in the sun.

Seagulls soar or congregate in bunches, their snowy white feathers rustling in the wind.

Later, my husband and I take the coastal route home, following the Sakonnet downriver by the Sapowet Marsh Wildlife Preserve.

I expect to see seabirds and jumping bluefish or perhaps a dog or two, but today I spot a horse.

We park the Ram, and with camera in hand I jump into the sand, where I have the good fortune to meet Gail and her dappled gray, Eli.  

Miniature horses are the size of a very small pony and are usually less than 35 inches tall. Retaining the various colors and coat patterns of their breed, they are generally quite hardy, often living longer on average than some full-sized horse breeds. The average life span of miniature horses is from 25 to 35 years.

Friendly and interacting well with people, they are companion animals and are often kept as family pets.

Petting Eli’s mane, I marvel at the beauty of this docile, dappled creature that likes to kick up his heels in the sand.

You never know what you might find at the seashore: a bit of sea glass, a scallop shell or maybe a horse of a different color.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A call to arms

On the eve of September 11, I listen respectfully to President Obama justify his plans for a military strike on Syria, while the words of Jesus ring in my ears:

“Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it.”

It is July 1945, and my father is aboard a naval carrier in the Pacific with orders to invade Japan. President Truman decides to use atomic weapons, which leads to a speedy end of the war.

“Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it.”

The middle-school assignment is to construct a poem conveying a message in the fewest possible words. In my childish scrawl, I write: “Guns shoot / Men die / Women cry.”

War is raging, eighteen-year-olds are being drafted, and the teacher who is grading this assignment is raising her son alone, while her husband is serving somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam.

“Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it.”

I am lying on a hospital bed in labor. The nurse, who is monitoring the progress of my contractions, wipes away tears as she watches the news on television. President Bush draws a line in the sand launching Operation Desert Storm. Her son is one of the boots on the ground.

“Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it.”

Driving to my job at the daily newspaper, I listen to the breaking news story on the radio: Two commercial passenger jets hijacked from Logan have just struck the World Trade Center.

Gathering around the TVs with the other reporters, I watch Manhattan burning, the Twin Towers reduced to rubble, thousands of people running through smoke-filled streets. A third jet hits the Pentagon, and a fourth plane heading for Washington crashes in a Pennsylvania field.

“Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it.”

I go back to my cubicle and get to work. I find a former Army Air Corps mechanic, a Purple Heart recipient who was stationed at Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed the airfield. He told me that he ran to get a rifle in the hangar, and it was hit three times. He said that 200 men died there, and the planes, barracks and hangar were heavily damaged. He also saw the Arizona being bombed. More than 2,000 servicemen lose their lives in the harbor.

“Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it.”








Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Gifts from the sea

A traditional trek, the family flocks at the summer house every Labor Day weekend, and this year was no exception.

Yet, the weather did not cooperate.

Driving through nonstop, blinding rain, we wondered whether we should have heeded the National Weather Service’s forecast of flash floods in our region.

But one by one we arrived, parking in the muddy grass surrounding the summer house, a bit late and soggy but filled with anticipation. Clams were on the menu.

Whenever I wandered down to the water’s edge as a child, I found the beach littered with the remains of a feast. Sometimes there were grayish quahog shells rimmed in purple hues, elongated blue/black mussel shells, fish heads of scup, flounder and blues, reddish lobster claws and crabs’ legs, tiny conical-shaped shells of gray and black periwinkles, snake-like skeletons of eels and mounds of brittle clam shells. These foodstuffs for humans, fish and fowl have always provided a delicious reward for those who hunt, fish and farm its depths.

Growing up along this shoreline, I marveled each time the Creator cast something new from the sea.

The first high tide after a storm usually brought in a treasure trove of marine wonders, and I can remember being knee-deep in live mussel shells following a fierce windstorm.

An extremely low tide unveiled a cache of quahogs that were as large and heavy as stones.

Strong, wind-driven breakers also dislodged many of the periwinkles clinging to rocks that hugged the coast. I can still hear the clatter of shells ringing in my ears as the pounding surf flung the shellfish onto the rocky shore.

Since food from the ocean was so abundant during my childhood summers, we feasted on gifts from the sea almost exclusively.

During low tides, we headed down to the estuary and dug for clams. Turning over large stones that had been covered with water a few hours’ earlier, we would look for the telltale holes in the muddy soil. We then began scooping the wet earth with quahog half-shells, searching for the prize.

My family no longer relies on our local waters to feed us. We drive to the fish market and purchase Maine clams.

For the first time in history our population of six billion people is breaching the limits of what our land and oceans can support. In my short lifetime I have watched the ocean harvest decrease with each passing year.

When we fish and shellfish too heavily, we run the risk of reducing the numbers of marine life to the point where they have difficulty reproducing themselves. Sometimes it takes years or decades to recover.

These days the ocean tosses more rocks and seaweed on the beach than shells, yet if I search more closely, the remains of edible foodstuffs are still there.

The wind-driven seas continue to carry sustenance to us – if only we would harvest God’s gifts more sensibly.