Tag: Nature

Part Friend, Part Feral

Shy and suspect, she appeared in May 2021. Soon after, I named our feral friend Poly. It’s short for our Polynesian Paradise community where she resides on the lam.

Curious but skittish, Poly stared down at me from our neighbor’s roof the first time we met. Later on, she padded down the walk–past the lemon and orange trees–when Tom or I approached.

She didn’t allow us to get closer than thirty feet.

Last summer came and went. On warm mornings, she’d climb into the crook of our fig tree to search for food. Delectable fruits weren’t her thing. In her dreams, it was a birdie buffet, featuring an unsuspecting dove or finch.

In the months that followed, Poly paraded by frequently. Meanwhile, Tom and I sat for other cats: adorable Blanca and acrobatic Hex. They also live on our lane, but both will be leaving in the next few months. As is the way of life, they’re moving on with their owners for adventures in new homes.

Now, in August 2022, Poly is the featured performer. She appears at our front door most mornings. Here on the southwestern edge of Polynesian Paradise, she meows, stretches, and rolls on her back. Like a shifty circus character, who knows how long she’ll stay in town?

By now, you have surmised that Poly has become our friend. Perhaps even our pet without an official home or address.

If she had to call one place home, I think she’d scribble the number outside our door onto a legal document with the tip of her paw. That is my fantasy.

On her most trusting days, she stands on our threshold, brushes up against our legs, and peeks in. She waits patiently as I place a ramakin of milk, handful of dry kitty kernels, or dish of wet food from a can (turkey, chicken, or fish) at her feet.

She finishes her savory treats, licks her paws, and grooms herself. Then slinks down the lane to rest on another neighbor’s doormat.

During this active summer monsoon season, I wonder where Poly hides, where she sleeps at night. Perhaps under a low palm. Or, if she scales a wall, in the cozy corner of a neighbor’s empty, but protective, patio.

Chosen or not, this is the life of our feral friend.

Sure, Poly trusts us more. She has warmed to our food and advances. But she hasn’t quite come to terms with whatever shadows lurk in her checkered past.

Like any nomad, Poly believes she’s better off on her own … better off when left to her own devices.

What Lingers

She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.

My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.

Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.

As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.

Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.

Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.

***

July 11, 1999

Dear Mark,

I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!

The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …

Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.

Mom

***

Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.

Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.

Just the Start

Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.

It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.

Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.

The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.

Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.

I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.

Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.

That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.

You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.

If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.

Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.

In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.

Hate has no home here.

Up With the Sun

It’s rare for me to rise to witness morning’s first light. But, at 4:45 a.m., I was thirsty and warm.

I peeked from our den window through the Sunday slats of our vertical blinds to see a line of doves welcome the day.

I heard the clock ticking in the hall, then reclined on the couch to check the news feed on my phone.

Soon after, I heard Tom stir. Bleary eyed, he staggered into the living room to check on me.

We resolved to soothe our parched throats with cold water from the fridge. That’s what you do in June in Arizona. You hydrate over and over again to endure the heat of the desert.

By 5:30ish, we had summoned enough energy to pull on our shorts and socks, tie our shoes, grab our floppy hats and sunglasses, and step toward the alley that would lead us to the Crosscut Canal and Papago Park.

Just outside our door, our neighbor Glenn happened by with Mason and Katie, his two gentle-giant Newfoundlands, tugging him along.

We exchanged good mornings. Tom patted and stroked Mason’s long back. Katie and I locked eyes. Most of the puppy’s brown fur has turned black. Soon she we will be full grown.

We said our goodbyes. Tom and I continued walking west. When we reached the canal at 5:45, my phone told me it was 84 degrees–on the way to 113 by late afternoon.

Scorching, yes, but any person in their right mind knows to stay inside (or at least cover up) when the heat spikes. June isn’t a month to be savored in the Sonoran Desert. It’s simply one to survive.

By 6:00, we had walked past a few joggers and the full length of the fence that separates the canal path with the Desert Botanical Garden. We decided to stop and turn around.

The sun was beginning to bear down. I paused, peered west, pulled my phone from my pocket, and captured the saguaros waking in the morning light.

On our return trip, a few monarchs danced and perched on the milkwood near the fence line. Tiny lizards skittered by as we chugged water from our bottles.

We retraced our steps, crossed the pedestrian bridge, welcomed shade from the Roadrunner apartment complex, turned the corner down the alley, and headed east to our cozy two-bedroom condo.

We knew it would be cooler there.

2-2-22

Dad was a twin, who loved twin digits. Today’s lineup of numerals would have sent him into orbit.

I don’t often think of my father; he’s been gone since 1993. But, whenever I remember the best of him–his numerology fascination, the proud way he stood at attention and saluted the American flag when it passed at parades, his WWII trunk and possessions I keep–it makes me smile.

In spite of what’s happening in the news–growing unrest and tension in eastern Europe, a pandemic that has dominated our lives for two years, and another Midwestern winter storm on Ground Hog Day that’s causing havoc–there is evenness and continuity in today’s numbers, 2-2-22.

Just as there is peace and beauty blooming in two forms in my home in mid-winter; in an air plant inside, stationed on our Arizona windowsill; and in a red geranium outside, soaking in the morning sun on our southern-facing patio.

Turning Stuff into Wisdom

I’ve learned a lot in my sixty-four-plus years. Sometimes it feels like my brain is a swirling repository of “stuff” … data and memories.

On other days, it feels like I’ve found meaningful ways to synthesize my life experiences and relationships. Then–voila–I discover they have morphed magically into wisdom.

I’m not sure exactly when this wisdom thing began to kick into high gear, but probably in my fifties after my mother died. Then, certainly again at sixty when I suffered a mild heart attack. In both cases, I had to find my way back to the surface to breathe again and survive the depths of despair.

Most definitely, it is the challenging aspects of life–loss, fear, anxiety, discrimination–that prompt me to more forcefully explore, verbalize and share my opinions and feelings … not the happier, even moments.

I’ve been thinking about this because I have a few friends/relations who are dealing with difficult stuff. One is grieving the loss of a significant loving relationship while trying to find his way in a new job; the others are navigating the precipitous physical decline of two frail parents.

In both situations, I am there to provide empathy and support. I imagine these individuals feel as if they are lost in a dense forest without a compass. Yet, I suspect, the clouds will lift eventually. On no particular schedule, light will begin to filter through. Hope will reappear.

One day, the internalized aspects of loss and pain will spring from the ground like crocuses emerging from the frozen ground of winter. And, a new batch of wisdom will be born and saved for the next difficult encounter of life.

Lingering Light

Inviting but ominous as an empty bench, November casts its lingering light over Phoenix. It fades from somewhere to nowhere, between the gauzy clouds, beyond the distant mountains.

What Is Remembered Lives

Long after the most cherished and meaningful moments pass, our memories–good, bad, vivid, and foggy–endure like saguaro cacti dotting the terrain of our vast consciousness.

***

Over the weekend, the lone survivor of my mother’s prized African violet plants died. Tom and I discovered it withered on the window sill of our Scottsdale condo. I supposed it succumbed to the heat of the desert’s afternoon sun.

I’ve chronicled the journey and symbolism of Mom’s African violets before–here and in two of my books: From Fertile Ground and An Unobstructed View.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom when she moved north to be closer to my sister Diane and me in 2004.

When Mom died in January 2013, Diane divided up the remaining African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

For the next four years, my cuttings flourished in our Mount Prospect, Illinois home. In early July 2017, Tom and I wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. We brought them west from Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

On the road, after I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis and couldn’t lift anything for a few weeks, I remember my husband carrying the African violets between our car and hotel rooms in Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico to protect them from fluctuating temperatures overnight. It’s a memory I will always treasure.

When we arrived in Scottsdale on July 12, 2017, Tom and I deposited the plants on our southern-facing window sill. The pink African violet lived two more years before petering out in 2019. Now the purple one is gone too. It last bloomed ten months ago in January 2021 … eight years after Helen Johnson’s passing.

Of course, I feel a twinge or two of sadness. This marks the end of a long, circuitous chapter, connecting my present life to the past memories of my nature-loving mother.

But, at this point (four-plus years in my Arizona home), Tom and I feel rooted in the desert. We have chosen and nurtured plants that embellish our life in this warm, dry place: bougainvillea, desert roses, succulents, even a bird of paradise.

To be sure, though their physical evidence is gone, the stories of the traveling African violets and the memories of their captivating blooms will be with me as I hike the rises and falls of the Sonoran Desert with Tom.

What is remembered lives.

Blue-eyed Blanca

There’s a new girl in town. She twists and tumbles between the gravel and spiky cacti on the otherwise ordinary sidewalk outside our Sonoran door.

Blanca purrs, arches her back, and flashes penetrating blue eyes. Of course, scraps of sliced turkey, ramakins of milk, and endless strokes of her fur follow.

We might have scooped her up, but discovered Blanca belongs to a neighbor. That misfortune won’t prevent our pampering or shared shenanigans.

The Catbird Seat

In the dog days, our community cat gets top billing. From the crook of our gnarled fig tree, Poly waits to swat an unsuspecting finch ready to extract seeds.

Staring me down through our den window, Poly assumes this enviable position at seven o’clock a few mornings each week. I tap on the glass to dissuade her. I can’t bear to see a finch fall or for Poly to end up behind bars.

On other days, Poly plays it safe. After the sprinklers stop hissing, she rests on the ground in the shade under the eaves or cavorts with her taffy-colored feline friend.

Poly is that hard-to-corral library book I don’t own, filling each page with texture and character. As summer winds down, she plots in the catbird seat. I don’t want our chapters to end, but someday soon I suspect they will.