Thursday, March 28, 2013

Night of the Rabbit Dance

My mother was a patient woman.
I know, because I was the lucky recipient of her calm, sensible approach to life in general and child rearing in particular. I suppose it could have been otherwise, since I was an entirely unplanned late addition to our family circle, coming along when mom was pushing 40 and my dad just four years away from the big 5-0. As family legend goes, dad came home one night after work to find mom standing at the sink, sobbing as if her heart was breaking.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
She gave him the unexpected news. She was pregnant. With me.
My dad was never, ever what you would describe as a smooth talker, but that time, he got it just right by assuring his worried wife that he was absolutely delighted. That things would be just fine. That it was, as he told me years later, "another chance to have some fun."
So I came along. And that's when all the trouble started.
Unlike my older sister, who was patently smart and sweet, or my big brother, who was both good looking and funny, I was a querulous little wretch, always willing to complain, doubt, and question almost anything anyone told me.
So it was probably no surprise to anybody when I announced--at a relatively tender age--that the Easter Bunny and I were quits. Now, that did not mean I didn't expect a bountiful basketful of jelly beans, malted milk balls and foil-wrapped chocolate rabbits awaiting me on Easter morning,
Heck no.
It just meant that I was suddenly and stubbornly doubtful about the idea that a pint-sized, furry, toothy, long-eared fur-ball could be responsible for the creation and delivery of said beans, balls and bunnies.
'Where would a rabbit get eggs and candy?" I demanded. "And how in the world would one little bunny get all that stuff to all those kids?"
With Santa Claus, it was different. After all, he was a real, full-sized guy. Plus, he had elves to help with production. And reindeer for the heavy lifting. And Mrs. Claus, even, to keep it all straight.
A rabbit, on the other hand, could hardly be expected to handle the whole "every-kid-in-the-whole-wide-world" thing with the aplomb of the amazing Mr. C.  Mind you, I wasn't quite sure where all that Easter loot came from or how it got to me and all those other kids, but I had serious doubts that one, itty-bitty bunny was up to the monumental task.
My mother addressed and deflected my endless queries with skill, tact and wisdom. Like all the members of my family, she had pretty much learned to ignore me unless I was, say, choking on a chicken bone or had somehow mysteriously set the cat on fire. In this case, her only words on the subject were simple.
No, she didn't know where the Easter Bunny got all that stuff, either. And yes, how the bunny delivered all those baskets was a real mystery, wasn't it?
Of course, I wanted more. I wanted her to break down and confess that it was all a shameless, adult-driven ruse devised to make kids be good an extra time every year. But she just smiled and refused to say more.
Finally, it was the night before Easter. Mom and I drove the several blocks to the Galva business district to see my dad, who was working at the pharmacy he owned. The store was always open on Saturday nights, at least until nine o'clock or later, just like all the retail businesses around the downtown square in those days. It didn't make any difference that it was the night before a holiday. In fact, it was probably even a little more busy than usual, with folks making last-minute purchases for the special day.  I never minded going there. He was always glad to see me, no matter how busy he was, and there were comic books to look at, people to watch, and one of those hot peanut machines that you used to see in drug stores, soda fountains and candy shops.
Finally, it was time to go home. It was full dark as we drove down our narrow street and into the long, long driveway that led to our house and the huge yard behind it. Our headlights lit up the backyard as we rolled to a stop.
There was something moving back there, but I wasn't quite sure what it was.
Then I realized what I was seeing.
Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. Maybe millions, even.
More rabbits than I had ever seen in one place. Some were hopping aimlessly around. Some were sniffing other rabbits or scratching their long, floppy ears. And some were just sitting there. It was like they had all gathered and were just kind of waiting for something. Like those anxious few moments at the beginning of a junior high sock hop, right before someone gets up the nerve to dance.
I was afraid to look away. Afraid that, if I did, they would all be gone in an instant.
I risked a glance at my mother. There was a small smile on her face, and a sort of special glow in her eyes.
"I guess he's got all the help he needs," she said.
I nodded silently and watched and watched until all the rabbits slowly hopped away into the darkness.
I knew then that I would always remember that night.
And I do.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A first scent of spring

The first day of spring was yesterday, but I'm betting nobody really wants to talk about the weather right now. Nonetheless, I'd also wager that almost everyone is.
After last year's winter-that-really-wasn't, big chunks of the country are continuing to suffer under the cold, cold ministrations of the winter-that-will-not-quit. We happily boogied out of the snow belt nearly three weeks ago, but we've stayed in touch with reports of continued wintertime weather in our home town that has all but foiled any real attempt at spring sports, early planting and other outdoor activities. Meanwhile, son Colin reported yet another school-closing, town-parilyzing blizzard earlier this week in the Fargo area, followed by a dismal spate of sub-zero days, while a storm with the unlikely, yet interesting name of Ukko disrupted travel and life in general in areas as far south as Kentucky, and promised a foot of new snow in parts of the Northeast.
Enough, already...right?
A year ago on this date, the high temperature in my Illinois hometown was a glorious 83 degrees, which even topped the balmy 75 degree beach day enjoyed in Carolina that day.
Even my current locale along the Carolina coast has endured on-and-off conditions so unseasonably windy and cold that one local weather guy described recent temperatures as "cold for January, let alone March."
But spring has gotta come. Because conditions are becoming dire. The mostly unbalmy conditions around here have conspired to prevent me from trading my dazzling ensemble of khaki pants and plain-colored sweatshirts for the equally fashionable khaki shorts and plain-colored t-shirts I long to wear this time of year.  If this unfortunate trend continues, it means my hometown peeps run the risk of seeing my untanned, fish-belly white legs when I return in May.
And that, my friends, is truly serious, indeed.
Speaking of atmospheric conditions, my spousal unit and I were startled, reviled, dismayed and disgusted by a certain scent wafting through the air on a slightly warmer day last week. We were waiting for grandson Cyrus, who takes a school bus from his primary school to the high school where his dad teaches. The loathsome scent hit us when we lowered our car windows as we sat waiting in the mid-afternoon sun.
She: What is that? It smells like something died.
Me: It smells like a lot of things died.
It smelled worse that a dead mouse in the cupboard or an expired raccoon up in the attic. It was worse than fish gone bad, rotten eggs, a plugged-up sewer or a dead skunk in the middle of the road. And it was deadlier, even,  than a football locker room on the fourth day of double sessions or my socks on a hot day in August.
It was, in fact, an aroma most fowl.
It was turkeys.
Well, turkey manure, to be precise, spread blithely on nearby fields in preparation for the spring planting season.
It turns out that poultry is big business in North Carolina.  12.8 billion dollars worth of business, and the number one agricultural industry in the state. Carolina is the number two ranked state in total turkey production, number three nationally in total poultry output. Those plentiful birds provide over 110,000 jobs statewide, with over 5,700 farm families involved in the care and feeding of the feathery stinkpots.
So, I guess it's no wonder that things get a little smelly from time to time.
It was one of son Patrick's fellow teachers who clued us in on the source of the odiferous conditions. She was a nice lady who was teaching a class in Family and Consumer Science, which, I suspect, is the modern-day monicker for what used to just be called Home Economics.
"Yep, that's turkeys, all right," she said. "We just watched a video on turkey production today."
You could sort of tell she kind of appreciated the added impact the smelly conditions were providing for her lesson plan that day as she headed towards her car.
Then she turned back to us.
"Do you know what they call that smell around here?" she asked. "They call that the smell of money."
Hmmm. I'm pretty sure I've heard that expression before.
But here's a message to all my friends in Kewanee, the Hog Capital of the World:
Feel grateful that there's never been a pig that smelled as bad as those turkeys.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The mission

We had to go.
As much as we enjoyed the days and weeks we spent with all our friends and neighbors in our Galva hometown, it was time. Time to head south to our part-time beach digs on the North Carolina shore. Time for beachcombing days and star-gazing nights. And time for something else, too.
Now, anyone could probably understand why we'd want to leave the snow-clogged midwest for something a little more temperate. And in part, they'd be right. But deep in my spouse's heart and soul lay another purpose.
A mission, so to speak.
A mission she shared with a young man about to turn five.
The trip to Carolina was mostly uneventful, especially once we pulled loose of the wintery grip of the midwest weather we were trying to leave behind. We were glad to see son Patrick and his family, especially our two youngest grandsons, who were quickly getting involved in springtime activities, including a whole host of soccer practices and games. We soon found ourselves slipping back into the happy, hectic kid-centric rhythm that is the lot in life for many moms and dads, and resident grandparents, too.
And then there was the mission.
The Grandma-lady has brought a lot to the lives of those little boys. Thanks to her, they have learned to love to do things, whether it be exploring on the beach, baking a cake, discovering a museum, or reading a good book. Part of the fun of that last activity has been a chance to share our love of libraries with the little guys.
The whole library thing comes naturally to us. Both of our moms were big fans of books and the big, quiet buildings that hold and share them. We both grew up going to the library, and have always tried to hand that tradition down to both our kids and grandkids. We didn't know if we'd ever find one we liked as much as the one in Galva, but we've been delighted with what was waiting for us down here. Like the schools in Carolina, it's a county system, with a main library and several small, friendly branches tucked into small towns here and there. Closest to us on the beach is the location in Sneads Ferry, a small fishing and shrimping village on the New River just a few miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. She started taking both boys to library events, like story hours and craft programs, back even when we were just short-term visitors in this neck of the woods. Once we became full-fledged, part-time residents, the frequency of visits grew, especially with our youngest grandson, John, who was then too young to go to pre-school like his older brother.
Her heart sang when, after a particularly fun-filled story hour, he proclaimed that the library was his "favorite place to go," a bit of news she gleefully shared with the library staffers and anyone else willing to listen to her proud, happy bit of grandma-news.
Just one thing, though.
John wanted his own library card.
I'm not exactly sure how it all came up, but I suspect he eventually realized that his older brother, Cyrus, had one, thanks to grandma. He, of course, felt he should have one, too, especially since he was the true library habitué in his immediate family.
But here's the bad news. In Onslow County, North Carolina, you've gotta be five. He had just turned four at the time.
John is a cheerful, quiet type for the most part. He doesn't seem to care too much about what he has or doesn't have. He doesn't seem to brood about things.
Well, at least not about most things.
The depth of his feelings regarding the whole library card business came to light one day several months later, when he and his grandmother were checking out a few books at the Sneads Ferry branch and one of the nice ladies who works there spoke to him.
She: Hi there, John. How are you today?
He: I'm still four.
The kid was bugged, but there was nothing we could do for him. Not until a certain day in early March this year.
His birthday.
He had a great time. He took treats to pre-school that day, and was wearing a bright green crown with the words "Happy Birthday, John" emblazoned in glitter and glue. Later that night, we would all attend a family party at a popular kids' pizza-and-games place, while a full-fledged kid party was planned for the following Saturday. But right then, he had something else on his mind.
The mission.
We drove back towards the island where we live, through the piny woods, and in the direction of the intracoastal waterway bridge until we reached the winding little road that leads to--you guessed it--the Sneads Ferry Branch Library, his favorite of all the branch libraries he's gone to.
Normally, John would be way too modest and shy to wear a green crown into a library. But that day, it was just right.
He smiled as he approached the desk and the nice lady sitting behind it.
She: Hi John. Hey, that's a cool crown you're wearing.
Wait, is it your birthday?
Another smile. A big one.
I suppose it's a pretty small thing in the life of a little boy. After all, there will be plenty of other gifts and other milestones as the years go by. But somehow, I imagine that John will always sort of remember the day he and his grandma had a mission. I think he'll remember grandma and the library and that very first card.
And me?
I'll always remember that smile.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

In like a lion

When Alexander Pope penned the words "hope springs eternal" in his Essay on Man, I think I know what he was talking about.
Because while we're all perfectly resigned to waves of cold and snowy weather in wintertime months like December, January and February, March is different.  Suddenly, our attitudes and expectations change.  After all, it's spring. Or at least it's supposed be. In a couple more weeks, it'll be official, which, along with the change to daylight savings time and an early Easter, simply demands a fast, glorious transformation to tulips, tree blossoms and green, green grass.
Maybe next week.
I felt kind of like a moving snow magnet myself this year, returning to Illinois in time for the first real covering of the new year, traveling northwest to Fargo for a big-time blizzard, then heading cross-country to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the term "lake effect snow" was invented. We came back to our Galva home right in time for last week's big-snow bash, but finally bailed out before the early-March snow day all my hometown friends just experienced.
But while, I admit, I just plain chickened out on snow, ice and freezing temperatures in favor of the place we call our second home on the North Carolina shore, I'd swear Old Man Winter did his level best to follow me. Despite the fact that we took what we call "the southern route" which heads down quickly to avoid wintry conditions in eastern Indiana, Ohio and the West Virginia Mountains, it simply would not quit snowing as we fled along our southbound trail. Every once in awhile, the dreary skies would emit what those smarmy weather guys casually call a "wintry mix" of rain, sleet and other slippery stuff, and the sun even teased us a couple of times, but for the most part, it was a steady diet of the white stuff we were so anxious to leave behind. But by the time we reached our first-day destination, near the Kentucky-Tennesee border, the temperature had finally climbed and we seemed to be out of the snow belt and into the first vestiges of the springtime weather we were searching for.
I woke up early the next morning, anxious to hit the road and reach eastern North Carolina before dark.  I stumbled across our darkened hotel room and cracked the curtains, wishing for blue skies and a sun-drenched morning.
Hope springs eternal.
Instead, the sight that greeted me was a familiar one.
Every single car in the parking lot was covered with a fresh, new covering that was already a good half inch deep, with more on the way from a cold, grey sky. I hustled on down to the coffee-and-breakfast room, hoping maybe someone would know a little more about conditions down the road. But there were no long-haul truckers or other road-ready professionals on deck when I reached the room. Instead, the entire group consisted of a bunch of edgy senior citizens, noses pressed to the glass like a pathetic pack of pet-shop puppies.
I, of course, knew just what to do.
I joined them, worriedly watching through that plate glass window, as if the combined force of our plans and desires would miraculously melt the snow and make for smooth sailing along our shared southward route.
"Snow," said one.
"In March," said another.
"We're nearly in Tennessee," added a third onlooker, sounding, more than anything, like he felt the governor should be contacted forthwith and a complaint lodged.
"It's me," I mumbled.
They turned to look.
"Ah, I think the snow is chasing me," I laughed feebly. "You see, I just came from Illinois, and before that I was in Minnesota and Michigan and I... ."
They turned away.
Nobody likes a wise guy.
Especially in March.
Especially when it snows.