We Made An Ocean


“I want to make an ocean,” Emilio said over a month ago, when I was talking to him on Facetime about his upcoming trip to New Hampshire for our family vacation.  I’d asked him what he wanted to do during his visit and expected the answer to be “swim, play baseball, play basketball,” — all activities he’s always eager to do.  I was surprised he had a project in mind.

“How will we make an ocean?  Will we need paper and colored pens, scissors, glue?”  I  envisioned some sort of construction paper creation.

“No, just water and food coloring.  We’ll put blue and green color in the water and then put in animals and it will be the ocean.”

“What will we make it in?  A bucket?  A glass?”

Emilio shrugged.  “Anything.”

We didn’t make an ocean when he was in Northwood in July.  We were busy doing what I’d expected — playing in the water at Jenness Pond, hitting the wiffle ball over the roof of the camp we rented, lying belly down on the dock and looking for fish, playing Sorry! on the screened porch.  The ocean project seemed to be forgotten.

Friday I went with Adrienne to pick up Emilio from his school.  On the way home I asked, “What do you want to do this weekend, Emilio?”  Again, I expected a list of games and sports.  Instead?

“I have a project in mind.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“We’ll make an ocean.  We’ll put blue and green food coloring in water and put in animals and it will be the ocean.”

So today we did.  We started with the bucket a set of ocean animals came in, but once we’d filled it with water and mixed in the food coloring, watching the dye swirl into clouds of blue and green, then piled in all the animals, the bucket was so full there was no room for the whales and sharks and octopus and turtle to swim.  So Adrienne got out a long plastic tub and we poured the first ocean in then made more.  Water, blue, green, swirl, animals and rocks and coral and seaweed.


Kitchen Floor Ocean.  It’s a great place to spend a summer afternoon.


Zinnias & Sisters

Zinnias with garden spider

Bold and bright, sturdy and upright, zinnias have long been a favorite in my garden. They’re simple to grow, add splashes of magnificent color and vary in their design — from a single row of petals surrounding a protruding center of yellow stigma florets, to a dome of overlapping petals making a smooth surface of blossom.  These very different shaped flowers often come from the same plant, which is puzzling but delightful.

Zinnias are so not fussy and so satisfying.  White, chartreuse, orange, scarlet, peach, pink, fuchsia and lilac and too many shades in between to name.  Every year at least half my flower bed is devoted to them.  The summer Adrienne and Matt got married I grew extra. The table decorations at the reception were glass globe vases of zinnias, and there was at least one zinnia from my garden in each bouquet, a sweet touch. My sisters and I put the bouquets together the morning of the wedding, pulling stems from the florist’s buckets, and then one or two from my supply.  Jeanne, Chris, Meg and me, working together to decorate a happy day.

It was time for our family to have a happy day.  Eric had died two years before and Adrienne, quite wisely, had resisted my pleas those two years before to get married right away, have a baby, make something good happen.  As it turned out, everything happened exactly when it seemed it should, following the natural cycle of sorrow and recovery and beginning to understand how life flows on in its unrelenting dailiness, marked again at some point with bright days of joy, splashes of zinnias in a garden.

Yesterday I was home again from several days with Chris and her husband Jon.  Jon has been sorting through decades of photographs and gave me a picture of my sisters and me from a happy day several years ago, the four of us in a clear frame with the word “sisters” in varied fonts inscribed in silver around the photo.  I propped the photo in my study so I can see it from my desk, and went out to pick bouquets for the house.  Zinnias first.


Why?  Zinnias pull me into appreciation.  This summer has been tough for my family, and a whole lot more than tough for Chris’s sons and their partners and Jon and my parents. I’m there to help as often as possible and home soaking up the colors of flowers when I can, remembering the bouquets I made with my sisters.  A room full of zinnias, a garden of bright blossoms, tables with joy in the center.


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I was being tidy yesterday.  Actually, I was looking up, once again, the varieties of my apple trees.  I wrote it down in my gardening log years ago, and have looked it up several times in the last few years, as the run of laden trees continues.  Wanting to compare the taste of the types, I needed to look up what’s what yet again.

David’s blood pressure machine has been sitting on the bottom shelf of a small table in the kitchen for the last year, the cord to the cuff looping over the folder with my gardening log sheets.  As I reached for the folder, holding up the loop and balancing the device so it wouldn’t fall off the back of the shelf, I decided to make room for it in the drawer at the top of the table. One problem — that drawer hasn’t been cleaned out for decades.

There were old maps and menus in the drawer, five dreidels, small plastic bags of metal and rubber parts to long ago gadgets, screws and nuts and a four inch antique nail, a hand forged wedge of steel too beautiful to throw away with the rest of the mess.

And a plastic bag with an unusual assortment.  Two banister supports, some screws and a few washers, a bit of old bead twine and three green clay beads.  I remember the beads were made by Eric’s first wife, Rene, at least 45 years ago.  I don’t know why they were in the bag.

But most surprising was the human tooth, a broken molar.  Who put a tooth in this random bag?  Whose tooth is it?  Eric’s?  On the assumption it is, I’m going to put it with the baby teeth of Adrienne and Sam that I still have in a box on my bureau.  Is that weird?

I found the log sheet with the varieties of apples.  The trees were planted in 1992, thin sticks now over fifteen feet tall and so full they shade the north side of the yard and one of my garden beds.  This year the trees have enough fruit to feed us all winter if we had the ambition to store it. Working west to east, Northern Spy, Cortland, Macoun, Golden Delicious, Baldwin.  Nourishing Courtship Makes Good Babies.

Ah, babies. . . .

Baby Emilio and Baby Ava

Novel Camp

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For the past week I’ve been at a writing conference, which really is more like an adult sleep away camp for people devoted to writing, whether as career writers and teachers of writing, or as a call they can’t help but answer, a passion they squeeze in to lives complicated by jobs and families and all the obligations and distractions of dailiness.

The Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Summer Writers’ Conference is a special place in the world of summer writing conferences.  I know that not only because I’ve been here twice now, and spent a week many years ago at Breadloaf for comparison, but also because others here all say the same thing.  This is where people come to improve their craft and get support for the often lonely and scary act of writing, not to show off what great writers they already are.

“This is a populist writing conference,” celebrated novelist and memoirist Andre Dubus III said yesterday during an interview with VCFA President Thomas Greene, a novelist himself.  “There’s no stratification here.  We’re all just writers and we all hang out together, whether participants or faculty.”

“I’ve been to Sewanee (one of the prestigious summer writing conferences, held in Tennessee every summer) and honestly, the work of the writers there isn’t as good as what all of you are writing,” said Andy two nights ago at dinner.  Andy is one of the writers in the novel workshop I attended, led with great enthusiasm and wisdom by Andre.

One feature of the conference is readings every night by faculty members, top-notch writers who can leave a room stunned, as Patricia Smith did after reciting a long poem in the voices of mothers whose black sons have been killed by police.  She was followed by Lee Martin who read a short story that rode a wave of mounting tension before breaking open at the end with heartbreaking clarity about the follies inherent in being human.

There’s also a participants’ reading every day, with each person having five minutes.  The writing is more often stunning than not.  “Damn, these people can all write,” I’ve thought all week as I sat and listened.

The conference feels like camp because while it’s rigorous and serious about writing as authentically and deeply as possible, it’s also a lot of fun. Everyone you talk to gets the part of you that sits down at your computer or journal or pad of paper every chance you get. You discuss and critique and listen and write.  This morning’s generative writing workshop used a table full of yard sale items as the basis for prompts to get us writing, whether poems or essays or stories or the beginning of a book. Ellen Lesser, writer, conference director and leader of the workshop, talked about the energy she could feel in the room as 40 people flashed their pens across the pages of notebooks.

I almost didn’t attend.  With Chris so ill it seemed superfluous to go to Vermont to work on my novel.  How could that possibly count as much as being with my sister and helping her family manage her increasing illness and disability?  What difference does it make whether or not I ever figure out how to knit my writing into a coherent, book-length narrative, a story that will bring characters I’ve created to life and keep readers turning the page to find out what happens to them?

The only possible answer to that question is that it matters to me, because the stories in this novel, and in the memoir I put aside last summer, are calling to me.  This week is going to help me answer that call, and to remember that the urge to create is worthy in itself.  It’s not about accomplishment and publication (though I’ll certainly take as much of that as I can get) when you get at the root of why any of us write.  It’s that we can’t not write, so we might as well get as good at it as we can.


What Comes and Goes


Garlic is small this year, each bulb I pull half the size of last year’s.  It’s not from the dry summer — I irrigate my garden with timed soaker hoses, and my onions are their usual hearty balls of tang.  Was it the harsh winter?  The many cold nights this summer?


Apples are outrageous, my trees dotted with fruit, branches hanging lower and lower as the apples plump and pull with their weight.  Last year there was hardly an apple, the two previous years were like this one, an apple bonanza.

My potato plants were hearty and healthy with no pests.  Yet when I dug under the mulching hay last weekend to find potatoes for dinner there were hardly any spuds.  Are there more further down the bed?

Wild blueberries are sparse, lakeside bushes mostly bare.

I have two eggplants on the four I planted — one is two inches long, one an inch.  Two years ago my plants were dripping with eggplant, we had grilled eggplant for dinner every night, I filled my freezer with eggplant.

The farm where I’ve picked peaches the last two summers has none this year.  No peaches. The buds froze in a late cold snap, a whole orchard empty.  But the area where Chris lives is full of orchards and I’ve brought home two big boxes of peaches for a ridiculously low price and filled my freezer and now a friend is filling hers.


Strawberry picking in June was the best I’ve ever done — the low plants bent with the sweetest and cleanest berries I’ve ever picked.  More in my freezer.



Today it’s blueberries.  There may be few wild berries, but Berrybogg Farm is loaded, bushes so laden you can pick pounds in minutes.  Which I did yesterday.

Bounty comes and goes and the reasons are mostly a mystery.  I’ll be making applesauce in a few weeks and loading apples into my friend’s truck for his cider mill. My onions will last well in to the winter and I’ll run out of garlic.  I’ll be making smoothies with peaches and Emilio will eat frozen strawberries for breakfast when he comes to visit. I doubt my potatoes will last until Thanksgiving, which is my goal every year, to mash my own potatoes.

But I’ll have what I need to make blueberry pie, which has always been Chris’s job, superb pie maker that she’s been.  This year I’ll be rolling the dough and concentrating on gratitude for the bounty that is, while honoring what has passed.

What else can I do?


Nine Bouquets


Being part of the support team for someone in hospice is a hard business, but nothing that comes anywhere near what it must be like to be the one who’s dying.  I watched Eric do it, and now I’m watching my sister be taken further and further away from any control over her body and mind as metastatic cancer gets the upper hand in every measure of balance in her life.  It looks excruciating, and she’s told me as much.

Last Friday evening I came home after another few days of being with Chris, holding her hand and talking to her, propping her head upright as my brother-in-law fed her slices of fresh tomato (which she clearly enjoyed), cooking, shopping, reorganizing photo albums that were uncovered when clearing the den to make way for a hospital bed, chatting with visitors, walking to the end of the street to a small field planted with a riot of annuals to pick a bouquet for her kitchen.  I was exhausted by Friday, and because this isn’t happening to me, or to my life partner, I could afford to take a break.

So I did.  I weeded my gardens and froze fresh peaches, grilled veggies for dinner and went kayaking, sat on the porch with David and watched rain clouds move across the sky, slept and read and visited a friend.  But the first thing I did on Saturday was pick flowers, eight bouquets for the house and the porch.

During a time of such hardness, surrounding myself with the New England summer bounty of beauty wherever I am makes a difference.  I know Chris found being in the present to enjoy flowers important, as she wrote in one of the essays on her blog:  Not knowing how long I have to live, but being warned to make my end of life decisions, my goal each day is to live in the present.  Appreciate what you can, like the foliage I planted in my deck boxes coming up with beautiful, delicate, lavender blossoms.  I didn’t even know that they flowered.  I like to go out to my front porch each day to look at the plant on my porch with so many pinkish red blossoms they are hard to count.          

Nine bouquets for both of us, though Chris will never see eight of them.