In spite of being only 95% recovered from my illness (a wild guess at a statistic), I started something new today. Pippin and the Professor gave me a Christmas present of a year’s membership in the local regional parks agency. It includes other benefits besides free parking, but my unwillingness to waste that part made me want to use it soon and often. I’d thought that I’d need to drum up a walking companion in order to get myself moving in that direction, but today when the afternoon suddenly opened up, I decided to go on my own to the most familiar of the parks. I’ve written about this one before, most memorably just after my husband’s death almost five years ago.
It’s winter, and I knew there would be a lot of grayness on this mostly gray day; I was (surprisingly) surprised at how much there was to see that wasn’t drab. Some of the regional parks I will visit have no parking fee at all, but this one is $7! So it was a good one to start with, to make me feel the monetary value of my gift — which is surely the least part.
It’s not a huge park, but it is crisscrossed with several trails and I never have a map. In the past it seems we often end up back at the parking lot before we are feeling done, so I was trying to make the widest loop I could around the perimeter of the space. I think I did okay. Where a huge bay tree hangs over the creek, I took this picture in which I already can’t tell where the lines lie between the sky and the tree and the reflections.
In the last several months “everything,” most lately the attack of who knows what viruses, has conspired to make me feel my mortality. Not that I thought I was near death, but in just one year’s time I seemed to have become several years older, weaker and flabbier. I know youth is relative to a point, but I thought my youth might have died. It felt very good to be walking briskly in the fresh air and to be right there under the sky when the sun came out from time to time. It was shining nearly horizontally in my face or my camera lens when it did. Frogs croaked, and towhees hopped about in the bushes.
Have I mentioned that I also put my back “out” just before my battle with the viruses? I couldn’t even do anything about that for weeks, but last Friday I did see a chiropractor and am now on my way to getting back my less flabby self. The weather is of the sort that makes me want to curl up indoors with a book and a blanket, but I have had my warning, and I am going to fight against my tendency to the sedentary lifestyle.
Not far from the descent to the parking lot, I was on a ridge from which I could see across the road below to the vineyards on the slopes beyond. And on my drive home — only ten minutes! — I noticed workers pruning the vines.
January is usually somewhat depressing for me, but this year I have been distracted from the bleak weather by other things that one might think more depressing. It didn’t work that way; I was continually reminded of God’s presence and had so many occasions of joy and contentment, it was obvious that they were pure gift. And this Christmas present from my children — it is a gentle prod to do the things they know I will love. I wonder if I can squeeze in one more park before the end of January?
I opened a gift from my daughter Pearl on Christmas Eve, an apron that she thought appropriate for me as The Queen Bee. It was a surprising metaphor, but I can see how the whole week that is just past was a picture of busy bees using the minutes and days to create sweet nourishment for all.
When my children and their families started arriving on Christmas Eve Day, you could say that I fell easily into the role of a contented queen surrounded by a humming swarm of people whose chatter and activities were endlessly fascinating. I could hardly believe my good fortune to have them all under my roof.
I will try to build this post around the activities that we engaged in for the six days that they were coming and going, sleeping here in varying numbers or coming just for a day at a time.
During the week or two beforehand I had worked like a beaver — I should say, a worker bee — to get ready. Decorating, making up beds, shopping for several meals and 25 people, wrapping scores of presents, baking more cookies.
My own master bedroom that has over the last year and a half become an untidy catch-all, staging and storage area also needed to be thoroughly dusted up and set in order for some of my guests. I would sleep in Kit’s twin bed for a few days.
On the 23rd I fell into bed aching all over, partly from a sneezy and headachey cold. And when I woke the next day (the head cold and pain had vanished!), Kate and Tom had completed a grueling journey from D.C. and arrived while I slept (almost like Santa, eh?). The cheerful hubbub quickly expanded when Soldier’s and Pippin’s and Pearl’s families pulled in over the course of the next few hours and began cooking for us all.
WE ATE: For breakfast that first morning it was Baked Oatmeal with Cranberries and Apples and Nuts with Vanilla Yogurt on top, cooked by Pippin.
Only a week before, I’d wondered via email to them all what I might cook on Christmas Eve that would be simple enough to allow us plenty of time for more than eating and clean-up — time to sing carols and open presents while the children were still awake enough to avoid meltdowns.
My colony rallied and came up with a plan whereby I would cook nothing! I could be as spacey and distracted as I wanted, play with the grandchildren or chat with the men about books and politics, while everyone else would get dinner on the table.
It was not a simple meal, but the true and traditional-for-us feast that they wanted, starting with oyster stew and finishing with cookies.
WE MADE MUSIC and SANG CAROLS… with more musicians than ever, partly because three grandchildren accompanied us this year! A violin, ukulele, two guitars, and piano. The four-year-olds danced — that is what they would call galloping around the room.
Over five days I refilled the cookie platter a couple of times per day, which was very gratifying – all those boys and men might have eaten every last cookie if I hadn’t saved some back for the one grandson who wasn’t able to be with us. By the time I took a picture the only thing left was my two favorite Trader Joe’s varieties: Chocolate Shortbread Stars and Pfeffernüsse.
WE GAVE GIFTS – And yes, we received gifts! I was given earrings and ornaments and books, a family tree chart, garden decor and an olivewood cheese board and a suet wreath for my wild birds.
The youngest grandchildren made gifts for everyone. This year they were very nicely crafted ornaments for the tree. And Pippin and Kate gave me bird ornaments, too, including a triplet of very furry owls.
I must tell you that the subtitle of the middle book in the stack is: “And Other Myths about Language Explained.” I was flattered by the gift-givers who thought me a worthy recipient of big books such as two of these are — certainly I am interested in them, but… Good King Wenceslas feels more my speed at this time, and I right away perused the wonderful illustrations.
WE WORSHIPED: Tom and Kate went to church with me on Christmas morning, where Tom hit it off with my little goddaughter Mary, and we admired all the shiny matching-sister dresses among the congregation. Kate took a video of the chandeliers swinging during a hymn commemorating the Incarnation. We sang “God is with us!” and afterward feasted on cheesecake and extravagant mounds of truffles in the church hall.
Mrs. Bread was there to give me a hug, and this darling brooch that confirmed the week’s theme. I happened to be wearing my black wool coat, which I do every two or three years, so she pinned it right on.
WE COOKED INDIAN FOOD: Tom and Kate and I started right in cooking after church: pakoras, curried lamb, roti bread, vegetable curry and basmati rice. Piles of spices and vegetables went into the curries. We all chop-chop-chopped and I made the roti dough and rolled it out, leaving Kate and Tom to figure out the most effective way to get the thin pancakes to puff up like balloons.
WE HIKED: Two hikes were taken, but I joined only the second one, after half of the houseful had gone home. My boys and their wives were on this hike, several grandchildren, plus Tom. Kate had to stay home and study Hindi. Liam marched energetically up hills while singing lustily “Joy to the world!” And “Go tell it on the mountain….” He knows the first verse of at least six carols now. I tried to sing with him through my panting.
The picture is of four people trying to get two-yr-old Laddie into the fancy new backpack. His mom is helping partly by being something for Soldier to hold on to while he squats, even while she is carrying Brodie in a front pack.
We came to a lake at the end of our hike, and sat around on benches for a half hour before starting back. On the way out we saw these berries which I think are toyon.
WE BUILT FIRES in the woodstove against the cold. It froze every morning of our Christmas week, but starting on Christmas Eve the ban on burning was lifted. Maybe it was a present from the Air Quality Board? Usually it’s on the coldest days that the prohibition is in effect. I had lots of help building and tending fires, and bringing in wood.
WE ATE MORE: Naturally, when you have all those children from 0-7, six teenagers, adult men, nursing mothers, etc., in cold weather, we go on eating. One morning Tom fried three pounds of bacon while Joy baked tender buttermilk biscuits. For dinner one night Pathfinder and Iris made their famous posole for everyone and served it with Iris’s famous cornbread.
WE PLAYED VONNIS, a cross between volleyball and tennis. Even I played! A large number of us — maybe 18? — walked a few blocks to the tennis courts where we played with a volleyball. At first the younger kids tried to participate, but they gradually trailed off to the playground with a couple of the moms; we still had two teams with many true athletes in the 13-45-yr age range. I managed to return the ball successfully a couple of times. It looked like they were trying not to serve to my area of the court, and once I heard a grandson on the opposite team instructing, “Protect Grandma!”
WE REPAIRED THINGS: Not everyone went to the park for vonnis. Soldier stayed home to work on my playhouse, whose door was coming apart. I didn’t even realize this until we got home and he was still at it. I promised him that in the spring I will put some wood preservative on the whole house.
Scout and Liam found the little rakes I’d given them in the fall, and all on their own started raking up pine needles for me. (photo credit: Pippin) In the photo above you can see the frozen jade plant, and in the one below, the lemon tree with its frost protection.
WE MOVED ROCKS: A son-in-law and a grandson worked with me for an hour on the landscape art project of placing my favorite rocks all over the new front yard so as to look as natural as possible. A couple of these were huge and required their manly brawn, but I also wanted their creative input. It was fun – and I was ever so thankful! They went on to do some other yard cleanup and tool organizing before they were done.
WE TALKED: Of course I could not overhear even a fraction of the conversations that happened while all these relations were together, people who rarely see each other and had a lot of catching up to do. It was lovely that they could use my house as a meeting place.
Annie and Maggie are 14 and 13 now — When I passed Annie’s bedroom I saw their heads together. And as I roamed upstairs and down I could hear my people discussing everything from baby care to Indian politics, from university life to cars.
After the Oregon contingent had arrived and eaten a late Christmas dinner of our Indian fare, all but three of us had gone to bed. Tom and my youngest Oregon grandson started talking about their Toyota trucks. They even showed me the Top Gear video that is famous if you know about such things, and I have to say that if I ever need a small truck, I will try to find a Toyota like one of theirs.
On the last day of our Christmas reunion, when I got home from taking Tom and Kate to the airport, I showed the OR grandsons the video I am currently renting from Netflix, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” I thought that as they are outdoorsmen and skiers and builders, they would like watching the men cut down trees and make their own skis and traps and everything. As it turned out, we ended up talking more about Werner Herzog who co-directed and narrated the film, and about how he has written books and made many movies. That led us to the topic of other books that we have liked or want to read. One of my favorite things ever is getting book ideas from my grandsons!
Soon their father was directing them to take leaves out of the tables and help in various ways to set things back to pre-feast mode. They said good-bye, and I waved as they drove away. I was not the queen bee anymore, and I was not a worker bee…
Now I am a bee sleepy with winter and cold and fatigued by so much buzzing in my hive… sitting by the fire I built myself, with visions of dear people and memories of their hugs to sustain me.
On my way to visit Pippin, The Professor, and Scout last week I stopped to see some of my tree friends. The lovely bay tree was blooming, all tangled up with the madrone, whose berries were almost gone.
toyon with manzanita behind
Also in the jumble was the toyon, with slightly fresher berries. I read in Pippin’s tree book that toyon is the only species in its genus, and it grows only in California and Baja California. Though I’d been introduced to Mr. Toyon many times in the last 40 years, I didn’t seem to pay much attention to him. I think we’ll be friends now. On this occasion I had the time and Google to help me focus and learn more, and I also have a blog where I can find him again if my memory fails.
another view of toyon
I did see quite a few of my most beloved manzanitas as well. Manzanita means “little apple.” The botanical name arctostaphylos means “bear berry,” though of course other animals also feed on these fruits. The common name of some varieties is also bearberry.
Right now the bushes are in bloom (so is the one in my yard); I saw pink- and white-flowered variations. There are about 60 species total, and most of those are native to California, so it’s a hard one to pin down as to which species you are seeing.
Many of the trees I saw on this outing are growing on the slopes of that volcanic mountain I told about before, Mt. Saint Helena, in Napa County. On the weekend scores of cars were parked at the trailhead for hikes up to the top. The spot is in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, so named because the author and his wife honeymooned on this mountain in 1880. He went on to use it as the model for Spyglass Peak in Treasure Island. One New Year’s Day a decade ago our whole family made the trek up and got amazing views.
I left the forest and after driving a while longer I caught a glimpse of something off the highway that made me flip a U across three lanes to go back and take a second look. I was lucky there was a turnout right opposite the meadow where 20 elk were grazing!
Later The Professor told me that he had seen this herd of tule elk many times over the years, in this their winter home; it is the largest migratory elk herd in California. Tule elk are a subspecies of elk only half the size of Roosevelt elk, whose habitat is even more narrow than the toyon: they only live in California. I stumbled through the star thistles and got my socks full of prickles, trying to get as close as possible and watch them for a few minutes before they escaped.
On the way home I looked and looked for the spot where I’d pulled over three days before, but I couldn’t even find the turnout across from the meadow, much less see any animals. If I can get a view of the elk another time or two, I might put them in the category of friends, though they didn’t show any signs of wanting to get to know me. So far I’m content to thank God for this happy meeting.