A POISONOUS SUMMER ALL AROUND


What triggers a story? You sit staring at the blank white page on your computer, knowing you have something to say. The piles of notes scribbled all over the desk say you do. And you do this every day. As you sit, you think about the banana cream pie you started out in the kitchen, or the dustmop waiting in the corner you promised yourself to use today, but something you thought of last night when you couldn’t go to sleep at three o’clock is nibbling at your memory. What was it?

In this case, it turns out that it was the smell of my mother’s homemade bread, baked in a wood oven in New London, Connecticut when I was ten years old.

059 “Kate and Nigh-Nigh” original watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

The start of two years in New London, Connecticut, did not bode well. We had arrived after a hot and hurried road trip across country in the summer of 1938 to a strange community, strange people and stranger new surroundings.

We found an apartment, upstairs over a grocery store. It had two rooms and the bathroom was down the hall, which was strange because you couldn’t hang out in it because somebody else might need to use it. There was a community phone out in the hallway, but we didn’t know anyone to call anyway so that was OK. The building was old and the landlord lived downstairs with his family of wife and two small children. The good thing was that the landlord’s kids could drink all the orangeade they wanted for free.

Our kitchen floor was crummy old greyish beige linoleum with colored flecks in it. In front of the sink it had worn through to the black, and in one place you could see the wood flooring. My mother was sad but uncomplaining; things would get better. Of course in the Depression, you never could be sure of anything. It’s only claim to fame was a big old wood stove which turned out delicious bread once or twice a week.

Eventually I went out to play with the downstairs kids and came home red and itching. The more I itched, the more I scratched until welts and bubbles broke out all over my body. My father’s diagnosis—poison ivy.

poson ivy

My mother bathed me with stinky CutiCura Soap and the ointment which went with it.and then coated me in a sticky layer of pink calamine lotion which kept leaving flakes wherever I walked. Though I spent the entire summer in bed in this condition, I don’t remember what the bedroom looked like. The whole thing reminds me now of Chesterton’s quote: “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.”

Another summer, our first (and only) in Oregon, was also spent in the throes of Poison something or other. Along with the ubiquitous calamine lotion, which I might as well tell you, does nothing to relieve the itching, they wrapped me in damp sheets for the summer, mummified and staring at the ceiling of another house.

Years later in California, Dr. Advice and I cut through a meadow to reach the river to go swimming away from the other summer vacationers. I was monstrously pregnant, and in those days you kept out of sight when in your swim suit rather than pose for Time magazine as Demi Moore so famously did in her birthday suit. The meadow was lush with bushes of blackberries and other bushes. We sat and ate our sandwiches and blackberries and tossed the crumbs to a friendly squirrel which seemed interested in us.

That evening I noticed a red rash appearing on my arms and legs. It itched. It spread over my large stomach. You would think I’d learn to keep out of the weeds.

PoisonOak_wb_biggerLeaves Poison Oak

WHERE SHEEP MAY SAFELY GRAZE


sheep grasmere

Life is much different in the countryside. City and suburbanites usually know what to expect, good or bad. If the lights don’t work, one calls an electrician, plumbers are available to fix a leaky faucet, and if the neighbor’s fence falls into your geraniums, get a carpenter. The craftsmen who operate in the country may be out fishing or hunting, or merely lollygagging around, and will come when it suits them. In the meantime, phone calls are made at a pay phone, laundry is done at the launderette, and you gain an education in patience.

We were made aware of this phenomenon in the first week we took over ownership of the old farmhouse in Kirkland, Washington years ago. It sat amongst ancient trees within walking distance of Lake Washington, with no neighbors within shouting distance. There was a small orchard with pears, apples and cherries and a patch of large juicy raspberries ready to pick. Nearly were enough blackberries to keep the freezer filled with pies for those willing to pick them.

To say it needed some loving care and a good push into the twentieth century would be an understatement, but we were game and filled with the enthusiasm of stupidity. It sat alongside a shady lane at whose culmination were the two homes of an old Swedish man who adored us, and his daughter who seemed to wish we would move back to California. Mr. R. watched with interest while we labored day after day, lending us tools, giving advice and sharing rhubarb wine. He was a retired homebuilder who miraculously had built our small house for himself and his late wife, and was filled with stories of the families who had subsequently lived in it. We felt very fortunate.

We had managed to find a roofer, who was not only available immediately, but expected us to help him. It was apparent that “us” meant “me” as Dr. Advice set off for Alaska, Montana and points North, leaving me on the roof with an old gentleman in his 70’s to teach me where to place the shingles. At our first dinner party I had not planned ahead and neglected to take into account the small size of the dining area, so our next project was a new family room.

Looking back it seems as if we tackled all the projects at the same time, until I began to feel like the heroine of Betty MacDonald’s “The Egg and I”. I wrote page after page to family back home describing in detail each unfamiliar endeavor. I stopped holding the various craftsmen in awe as we learned each trade by virtue of do-it-yourself books.

The acre and a half we sat on began taking shape, with sprinkler systems, ornamentals such as rhododendron, azalea and camellias tucked in amongst the trees, and the whole enclosed by a circular driveway and white fencing.

It also became evident that we needed a large building to be used as entertainment, extra sleeping quarters for the many curious friends who thought we were out of our minds, and not least, studio space for my sculpture and teaching.

So with no prior experience and the grace God gives to idiots, we built a barn with sleeping loft ready to hold eight intrepid visitors willing to climb a ladder for access, which passed all inspections the City sent us, all within about 200 feet from the house.

Life was good until the neighbors horses got loose one night and discovered our new lawn. We woke that morning to find them munching happily on the ripe pears in the orchard, with broken sprinkler pipes poking up, and with no name tags on any of them.

During the five years we lived there, Dr. Advice spent two weeks of every month in Alaska and points north and east, giving me additional experience in ditch digging and containing the small creek which often overflowed, and the various projects of home repair. A whole new market opened up in the Seattle area for my work, and my North Coast education began in earnest.

North Coast ShamanHaida Shaman” sculpture by kayti sweetland rasmussen

My work day in the barn usually began about four in the afternoon and lasted until midnight. I have always preferred working at night when things are quiet with no interruptions, the creative juices seems to flow more easily when alone with no thoughts but your own. The young today would say it’s “zoning out”.

One late night when sleep overtook me, I put away my tools, turned out the lights and locked the barn door, ready to walk back to the house in darkness like the 9th plague of Egypt. I remember the silence and the darkness with no moon. Suddenly I heard a very loud belch as from a nearby man. I ran the rest of the way to the safety of the house and of the two dogs whom I had neglected to take to the barn with me. Needless to say there was no sleep for me that night.

Early in the morning I took the dogs and went outside, where looking at the meadow behind the house I saw a small flock of sheep which had moved in during the night. Speaking with Mr. R. later in the day, I learned that these cute fuzzy creatures DO burp—rudely and loudly.

The lambing once over, the sheep moved out and several horses moved into the corral behind the barn, and in due time, we moved back home to California to a new grandson.

IMG_20140204_0002

STOPPING THAT ANNOYING DRIP


526Older houses, like older people, develop drips, which sometimes become leaks, and if unattended, sometimes become floods. We have recently had the first one, which then became the second one.

We have many skylights, which have always performed their duties beautifully, allowing the California sunshine to illuminate rooms shaded by large trees, which by the way, shed their leaves in the winter months, and that’s another story.

First it was just a spot or two, which might have been deposited by a busy puppy, if the puppy weren’t six years old. I mopped it, only to see another puddle in an hour or so. This continued under two of the skylights, occasioning the careful positioning of a number of bowls and a bucket or two beneath them. As the rain continued to fall, the sound of the dripping water into eight metal bowls became a bit much for Dr. Advice, so I lined the bowls with paper towels and toweling, which worked pretty well except for the nighttime sound of a thirsty dog helping himself to a midnight beverage.

It did provide a navigational hazard however in the middle of the floor, as we were about to have our annual Christmas party in mere days. A hostessing dilemma of great import along with parking places for cars and umbrellas.

The proper adjustment of bowls is crucial, and it is not easy to trace a drip midair. Dr. Advice, being a good engineer, advised putting chaulk marks on the tile floor, and it worked fine. I need to trust his superior judgement because he once advised Boeing Aircraft to put an “UP” sign on the side of their containers after someone laid an airplane engine on its side. Elementary, Dr. Watson. I wonder if they have cartons which come with that sign on now. With the mentality of some people these days, it might behoove them to do that.

The leaks have finally been patched, but not after the visits of two roofers who would each like to put on a whole new roof, and neither would be available immediately. While thinking that possibility over, a friend recommended a very nice young man who climbed up after the rain stopped, and working tirelessly even when it was getting dark, patched both skylights expertly.

Charlie misses the convenience of drive-by refreshment, but that’s a dog’s life for you.

OUR VANISHING VOICES


I Am Home sculpture by kayti Sweetland Rasmussen
“One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly one half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on earth will disappear as communities abandon native tongues in favor of Enlish, Mandarin or Spanish”.
As one Native American in Parker, Arizona, who is one of the last speakers of his Chemehuevi language says “It’s like a bird losing feathers. You see one float by and there it goes—another word.”
Many people around the world speak dialects, and broken languages (those whose country ajoins another often collect words from their neighbor and add to their own, thus contaminating the original language.)
When languages disappear, they take along with them the legends, customs, etc. of the people. It takes away knowledge.
Language identifies us. The Seri people are an idigenous group of the Mexican state of Sonora. The Seri language is distinct from all others in the region and is considered to be a linguistic isolate.
The people say “Everyone has a flower inside, and inside the flower is a word.” The petals from the Seri flower are dropping rapidly, and with a population of slightly below l.000, it won’t be long before the petals are gone from their flower.

When governments attempt to destroy a native language, much as the United States did to the Native American, the language in its pure form loses much of its flow. In the sculpture above, the returning child is enveloped by his mother’s robe which is embellished with the stories of his people. A familiar story told in another language, never achieves the original tempo.
I found it interesting to read that the three languages proposed to substitute the remaining languages are said to be “English, Mandarin or Spanish”. In California alone, those three languages are readily apparent.