Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Turn Left At The Moon...

Thanks for reading here and being a part of Crumbs From The Corner. Now, please follow my trail of crumbs as I lead you elsewhere, and then we'll turn left at the moon.
I hope to see you there along the way, for further stories and adventures in a shiny new setting. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

An Owl, a Mouse and a Crumb

For Tammy- who likes owls- on her birthday

I dream sometimes that I'm a great barn owl, trailing the darkness of a forest, always the same darkness and the same forest.
There's a little grey mouse between my claws.
Nothing ever alters but the creatures I carry. 
On other nights, when I'm not the owl, I'm the mouse instead, sailing to somewhere new.
There's a crumb in my belly, and I'm grateful I had time to eat before I was borne aloft into the night.
As we soar, Owl and I, there's something stirring inside me that's even better than the crumb: a terrific thrill of adventure. I don't know where I'm going or what's going to happen next but I surely won't end up where I started.
I don't know where the owl will bring me to.
I think the owl isn't sure either.
The only thing the owl is certain of is the comfort of the thick, black forest and the endless promise of happy hunting. 
I don't remember how I know this, exactly, but perhaps the owl makes small talk with me as we drift along, and tells me what it likes about the forest.
Or then again, maybe I've dreamed of being the owl so many times that I remember a little bit of what it's like, even when I'm the mouse.
Other nights, the dream is that I'm a crumb tucked inside a mouse that's being carried by a barn owl. 
I think about this a lot: if the mouse hadn't paused in that necessary instant to swallow me whole, he would still be skittering about on his old forest floor, wondering what to do next, wondering if that end of the forest could possibly be all there was in the world.
Wherever the mouse is bound for, that will be because of me.
I dream sometimes that I'm an enormous barn owl with a tendency towards the comfortable and the known; I dream I'm the smallest mouse- but never a frightened one- that interprets everything as an incredible adventure.
And I dream sometimes that I'm a very small crumb, thoroughly invisible and still making all sorts of things happen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mother O' Mine

If I were to compile a list of things that my mother would never be heard to say, I'm sure that at the top of the list would be this one:
"You're playing Sweet Child O' Mine far too loud for my liking."
That Guns N' Roses tune is Mater's favourite song ever, in quite the whole wide world, and it could never be too loud for her ears.
She likes to rock.
I like to muse.
It happens sometimes that we two overlap but she prefers her music to be brimful of sound.
Well, Spouse and I went off to Las Vegas in the car last weekend, our cooler full of food and our heads full of the possibilities that such a journey and such a destination could bring.
The last time we'd been to Las Vegas, some few years back, we brought Mater along for the thrill. She bopped along through the desert to Elvis belting 'Viva Las Vegas,' and when we arrived she managed to spend an hour at a slot machine with only a quarter, one magic quarter that kept coming back to her.
This time Mater had to wait in Ireland, wondering and waiting for the odd bit of news from us to tell her where we were, what sort of weather we were having, what we were eating, who we saw, and all the rest of it. I wasn't to miss a moment of it, she said, and I was to report back to her what struck me the most. 
Per my instructions, I simply had to tell Mater that, in her absence, the first song we heard in the first casino we strolled into was Sweet Child O' Mine.
And yes, I'm entirely certain it was played just for her. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Moving Along

Spouse has been teaching me to drive, of late, and I've been trying to learn.
In doing so, I recalled, from days of yore, an old battered, blue toy car that belonged to my cousin- and we of the same age- that I was only ever allowed to watch her operate.
Yes, I watched with a wistful eye as Cousin navigated Billy Bumper, her little legs pumping away.
My young heart hoped I might be deemed equally fit to one day motor so smoothly around the footpaths of her house.
Incidentally, my house didn't have any footpaths, adding to the awe and envy that washed over me each and every time Cousin came tootling around a corner, in a hurry to get somewhere or nowhere, blowing her horn to shoo me off the path and out of her way.
Could I have a turn on Billy Bumper? I'd say. Not to be begging you, but please please please oh please.
No. It was her turn.
It was always her turn, because she was legal possessor of Billy Bumper and in any case, it was her house, and in any case she didn't want to get off him, and in any case, No.
Toot, Toot, and away she'd go around the perfect corners of her brick house, and I vowed that one day I'd have my own toy vehicle, and she'd never, ever get to touch it, but she'd get a pretty good look at me going around in it, I'd make certain sure of that.
I'm all grown up now, you understand.
I practice in a real, honest to goodness motorcar.
If I ever happen to be sailing down a remote, twisted, country road in the wilds of Ireland, and the fates allow me to chance upon Cousin dressed up to the nines, standing in a ditch, under a thundercloud, her elegant thumb stuck out in desperation- well, of course I'd pick her up. What else would I do?
And naturally we'd gossip about old Billy Bumper as we went along, and what might possibly have become of his blue plastic self, and, of course, we'd get into talking about how Cousin came to be stranded in a ditch or whatnot in the first place, because sharing stories is, I'd wager, one of the finer things about owning a car and having a fellow passenger, and it's miles better than daft promises of retaliation made when one was a youngster.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mater's Enormous Sunhat

In a cupboard, on a hook,
It's there, if you will take a look
Through the gloom and cobwebs there
If you squint and if you stare
If you wrinkle up your nose
and close one eye and curl your toes
it's there, it's there, it never left,
it waited years, alone, bereft,
forlorn, unused and looking silly
-especially when the weather's chilly
and not a scrap of sun is out there-
it hung like a dusty trout there
hoping somebody would come
and look inside, and maybe hum
"the sunshine's awfully strong this day
I'd like to wear you, if I may..."
And from the hook comes tumbling down
the very finest one in town-
the biggest, strawest, giantest Hat-
no sun could ever get past That!
Once again the Hat goes on,
the Head says, "together we're like a swan:
You're the feathers, I'm the rest,
and won't the public be impressed?"
The Head, the Hat are so excited,
To at long last be reunited.
Away they go, a smashing pair,
The sun can beat but they don't care.
The biggest, strawest, giantest bonnet
impenetrable as a Shakespearean sonnet-

and a thousand birds can rest upon it.

Friday, August 3, 2012


There's an old place where people go, to meet and have a little bite to eat.
Actually, it's not been around as long as all that, but the local Senior Center is a veritable hive of activity sometimes- like last week when there was an end of the month party, and a musical band performed after lunch. 
There were perhaps six or seven members, all of the senior variety, working away on various instruments like guitars or keyboard, and everybody had something to either strum or beat or rattle.
I kept my eyes on one lady in particular.
A scarlet hat was perched atop her head; it matched to the precise shade her lipstick, her dress, and the tambourine she thrashed against her right leg in tandem to the music.
She also had a voice to accompany her fellow musicians, and she thoroughly used it, belting out a Glenn Miller tune that the rapt audience was familiar with.

"Way down south in Birmingham
I mean south in Alabam'
There's an old place where people go
To dance the night away..."

Slowly and surely some patrons were dusting the lunch crumbs from their laps and rising out of their seats to sway to the rhythm.
I still kept my eye on the lady in red, even as I attempted to wipe the tables post-lunch.
There were vases brimming with summer flowers on each table, and I admit I might have scrubbed a flower or two by mistake, captivated as I was by this lady who seemed to travel somewhere else with her voice, and took everyone else with her, perhaps a couple of generations and another era back in time.
She stood at the microphone belting that red red tambourine against her red red dress, occasionally turning a page of her songbook but never missing a beat.

Between the voice and the setting and everything being so red and generally outstanding, it was some time- several Glenn Miller type crooning tunes later- that I at last noticed the enormous crutch under her left arm, the crutch that was holding her up and providing support while she provided music.

...Where people go
To dance the night away...

...And to forget, possibly, for the briefest spell, that there's any such thing in the world as a rotten old crutch, so that they can get on with essentials, such as music and dancing and having a whale of a time.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Travel Poem For Mater

have you booked it
have you booked it
the daughter, she inquired
we've looked at endless tickets
and now I'm awfully tired

I'm a-coming
I'm a-coming
the mother she replied
I'm chartered on an air-balloon
at the very next high tide

are you flying
are you flying
the weary daughter whined
the tide's gone in and out again
but your balloon I cannot find

I'm a-flying
I'm a-flying
the mother's voice down floated
Thick clouds are 'tween the two of us!
I knew I should have boated

are you landed
are you landed
the impatient daughter roared
I made a thousand plans for us
and you're not here- I'm bored.

I'm a-landing
I'm a-landing
the descending mother called
you know I'm scared of heights-
and how I feared I would have falled!

are you out yet
are you out yet
the daughter stamped her foot
how long do you need to exit?
how much luggage did you put?

I'm a-trying
I'm a-trying
this vessel has no room
ah, here I am, dear daughter:
Dr. Livingstone, I presume?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Piper's Son

One morning in recent weeks, my spoon collided with the bottom of the bowl, dashing against the base with a dreadful clatter.
My breakfast was dwindling, I'd nearly eaten the lot, and suddenly all I could think of was Tom, the piper's son. 
Who was Tom, that he merited a place in a nursery rhyme?
I hardly know. His biographical details are sparse.
All I was told as a youngster is that he stole a pig and ran away, as fast as he could- presumably after his own breakfast had been partaken of so he'd have ample energy to jog away from the angry farmer that wanted the pig back.
In any case- and this is the crux of the matter- he came back to me in a flash that morning: a cereal bowl in the house of my youth bore a bright and colourful picture of Tom running away, running with a very startled and very pink, clean pig under his arm. Clean as a whistle that pig was, for what it's worth, and too clean if you ask me.
One had to empty the bowl of all food before discovering Tom's rascally image underneath.
The scene never altered.
Tom was always running, no matter how slowly one trudged through the contents of the bowl or how quickly they were devoured.
The farmer never caught the boy, the boy never dropped the pig, the pig never looked less than flabbergasted, and nobody gave up their endeavours.
Frozen in time, they were, and it was that flash of a picture that I'd remembered so many years later.
The trouble was, it wasn't actually my scene to recall.
It wasn't my cereal bowl.
It was my brother's.
Did I have a bowl of my own, I asked Mater then, with perhaps a corresponding girlish nursery rhyme?
I imagined Little Bo Peep would have been appropriate. It was as good a guess as any.
Mater didn't have any memory of such a thing, not of Bo Peep, not of my brother's dish.
I suppose the logical conclusion is that I spent more time staring into my brother's breakfast bowl than I did my own. Maybe his food was more interesting to my tender eyes, maybe I was drawn to the running aspect. I had always loved to run like a mad thing, and maybe I saw myself at the bottom of that bowl in a perpetual game of you-can't-catch-me.
The only thing left to do, then, was to ask my brother.
He'd know, wouldn't he? If I'd gazed into his bowl so as to have Tom and a pig and a farmer emblazoned in my mental archives, it stood to reason my brother would have looked into mine, and he'd be able to say accurately whether it was Little Miss Muffet or Bo Peep or whichever dainty female was prettily portrayed.
He didn't.
He drew a blank entirely, and offered no wisdom on the subject of my mysterious breakfast bowl.
More crucially, and to my utter dismay, he didn't remember his own bowl.
Not a hint, not a trace of Tom the piper's son remained in my brother's memory. I'm sure Tom was there, though all evidence has been lost to time.
My brother must have scraped too hard with his spoon.
At least I've got something to remember our long-ago breakfasts by, even if it wasn't my portion that I recall, and even if I'm the only one to recall it.
And one of these days, I'm hoping, my brother's spoon will bash against the bottom of a bowl and suddenly he'll be himself struck with a painted image, a faint memory, this time of some little girl- ah, yes.
Some stubborn little girl in a sing-song nursery rhyme that insisted, boldly, on staring into the bowl next to hers.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan
Sat eating her porridge
Looking into her brother's bowl;
She was so busy staring
To see how HE was faring
She might well have
Been eating some coal.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan
Sat eating her porridge
Didn't look at what she was doing;
Brother's bowl had her mesmerized,
And she wouldn't have realized
If it had been a stone
She was chewing.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan
Sat eating her porridge
Watching Brother's breakfast with awe;
At her own- not a chance
That she'd give it a glance.
So it might have been
Fish tails, or straw.

Of course, it was porridge,
Not anything else,
But it might have been all of those things,
Along with a dash
Of fencepost and mash,
And a sprinkling of
Dried beetle wings.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Helping Out

The local Senior Center was hosting its sixth anniversary party recently, and close to eighty people were expected to attend and dine at the event.
I donned apron, and a fabulous hair net, and with others I got to work setting up for the luncheon. 
Soon, in the midst of the initial chaos, somebody grey-haired popped their head around the corner of the kitchen.
"Can I help with anything?"
We all said no immediately; we said that it was under control. It wasn't the whole truth, but there was such a clatter and cacophony in the air that we had some difficulty hearing one another speak, and clarity of tasks hadn't quite set in yet- it seemed likely that adding another pair of hands, though willing, to the mix might befuddle us further.
Thus we declined the insistent offer of assistance, certain we'd get everything straightened very soon.
Again, she offered. Anything she could do- putting silverware or napkins on the tables, making a pot of coffee- all we had to do was let her know, and she'd do it.
Once again we had to turn her down on the grounds that it was all arranged and running like clockwork, and all she had to do was sit and enjoy herself.
"All right," she said, her tone uncertain, her voice full of doubt, raising an eyebrow and darting a quick and almost suspicious glance of examination around the kitchen.
The glance said that somewhere in some corner of the kitchen, she had to be needed- something always needed folding or wiping or planning.
Away she went, anyhow, with a shrug, off to be part of the party, having genuinely tried to be involved in its structure.
Who among us would have dared to accept her gracious offer, and drop ourselves in a situation where we had to give duty orders, however polite, to this woman?
Not I, in any case.
I say that based on two rather significant points:

She flew airplanes in World War II.
She shared her 102nd birthday cake with all of us workers.

I positively wouldn't like to be the one to tell such a person what to do. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Of All The Rocks

Some weeks ago I spent an entire morning on my knees sorting out the garden.
Specifically, I worked at the patch of ground directly below our kitchen window. It's filled with hundreds of small stones, but lately the weeds have begun to rise up and crowd out the stones.
I had to do something about it; stooping to pull handfuls of rascally weeds once in a while simply wasn't enough.
The thing to do, I decided, was to pick up each stone in my hand, one by one, clear the ground of anything but rubbly soil, and put the stones back again all nice and neat.
I suppose I must have shifted six hundred stones that morning. In the end, it felt as though I'd rid the whole garden of weeds, and not a small corner, so triumphant was I.
But that's not the thing I'll remember most.
Between scooping up the stones, tearing at the weeds, and finally setting all the stones back down again, I only looked at the work I'd done, and never at my hands. I would reach for a stone without examining it, regardless of the direction I wanted to toss it in.
Towards the end I picked up a random stone- aren't all stones random?- and was seconds from throwing it back onto the fresh soil.
Instead, a quiet, nameless something suggested I have a little look at what rested in my palm.
I did so, and I saw the usual smooth, pale-grey stones I was familiar with.
Turn it over, the same something said. Turn it over.
I suspected I was being a little silly. I'd presumably overworked myself, and I ought to eat my breakfast soon; still, I turned the thing over in my hand.
There was a face roughly drawn on the small rock.
It came with eyes and glasses, and a grin that beamed up at me.
There, it seemed to say. That's better. Now we've met.
Of all the rocks, I thought, almost dropping it with alarm into the heap of hundreds I'd been through; of all the rocks in all the garden, I had to turn this very one over.
I called to Spouse and showed him what I'd discovered.
"But- isn't that sort of strange?" 
"Just a bit," I agreed. "I'm bringing it into the house. I couldn't leave this outside now that it has a face on it."
Spouse wasted no time in naming the curious specimen:
"I'd call it Rockafella." 
And so we do.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Eyes On The Sky

May twentieth. A solar eclipse was on the schedule, the like of which hadn't been seen in nearly twenty years and wouldn't be again for another fifty-nine.
Sort of a landmark moment, then.
We decided on a whim to be witnesses to the event, and set off for Pyramid Lake, some distance outside Reno, Nevada.
At one point as we motored along past little clusters of people preoccupied with telescopes and cameras and specially filtered glasses or machinery, it became clear that we wouldn't make the precise minute: we were miles from the lake site yet and the peak of the eclipse was due over us within five minutes.
We decided to stop, right there and then, anywhere possible, at the side of the road. In a plume of red desert dust the car came to a halt, at a spot in which only one other car was parked- we suspected for much the same purpose.
Out we got and tried to project the shadow of the eclipse onto a bit of paper with a pair of old military binoculars.
It worked out well enough, except that the luminous crescent kept flickering and disappearing off the page; and what with trying to keep the hands steady and take a photograph of the page at the same time while the seconds rushed by and the moon hurried with them and skimmed over the sun- it was a precarious balancing act.
The light around us became distinctly eerie: it dwindled noticeably and rapidly, as I'd never known it to do; then one of the occupants of the other car was walking towards us. 
This was her question: "Do you have glasses to see the eclipse with?" 
We, utter strangers to her, were quite honestly flummoxed for a single brief moment before we laughingly said that no, we didn't have filtered glasses, we were happily getting by with casting the image onto paper, and it was all we had.
"You can use mine to see it. I'll share with my husband."
We said no. Thanks, we said, but really, truly, no thanks.
Of course we did. We weren't going to take her own eclipse moment away when she'd likely been planning and plotting it for years.
Still, she insisted, thrusting them towards us determinedly as if there were no other discussion possible or necessary, before hurrying back to her own vantage point to share the sight half-and-half with her husband.
We used the glasses for the shortest of times, just long enough to look up and glimpse the sky while the sun flamed fiercely behind the moon.
We looked up long enough to be awed by the spectacle, but with a new quiet awe for something else, too, something that had wholly taken us by surprise in a brittle, remote corner of the world.
With that, the Nevada landscape, that sea of ancient dust and yes, even the very rocks, seemed somehow a little less harsh and unforgiving.
Thereafter we returned the glasses to their owner, having seen more than we'd ever expected to see of the evening sky, and having found out more about humble, ordinary strangers than we could have dreamed.
"Well," Spouse said when we were on the road once more, "who would have thought it? That kind gesture certainly eclipsed the eclipse for us, didn't it?"
Didn't it just.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pass the Salt

In my place of work, I serve food.
Right around the time that a homeless man began to turn up for lunch, and for afternoon and evening activities, items began to disappear from the fridge.
Just to be cautious, and without saying a word about it, those in charge made a new habit of locking the fridge doors after lunch was served so that nothing might go astray.
One of the older patrons entered the kitchen late one afternoon with the remains of her lunch. She wished to store it in the fridge while the Monday movie was playing, and she'd collect it afterwards.
That was not a problem, and the kitchen assistant took a key from her pocket.
The old lady was surprised enough to ask: why do you lock it?
It was explained to her, quietly and subtly, that one of the new patrons, a homeless fellow, had been helping himself to food after hours.
She didn't know which person that was, and he was described to her.
Her jaw, as the old saying goes, well and truly hit the floor.
She seemed to come over a little faint, and her hand veritably flew to her gaping mouth.
"Him? That man?" she whispered furtively, a strangled, dramatic gasp.
"I had no idea. I sat at his table today! I sat next to him."
Then came the shudder, the grimace, the eyes darting warily from side to side.
"I didn't know he was homeless!" 
No, she wasn't startled one whit by the fact that she dined with a fellow who pilfered food when nobody was looking; she was struck instead by his being a person of no fixed abode, when likely she'd not met one before, and that- that was the bit that made her twitch, poor thing who asked a homeless man to pass the salt and pepper. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Swift Paw Reads

Mater had great plans for her little dog, Dandy, along the lines of sports stardom, but the dog perhaps has ambitions of his own.
The small fellow sniffed around one of the bookshelves while Mater observed quietly, and he gathered up a single book in his jaws and brought it gently to her feet.
It was the Standard English Dictionary.
He wants, I'd wager, to be a scholar; the football is a mere hobby.

Swift Paw

Mater bought a football for her little dog, Dandy.
By all accounts, he loves the thing: in the kitchen and all about the house he rolls on it, barks at it, kicks and chases and hides and licks it.
Mater is certain that he has the makings of a professional footballer, and she says she's determined to see the dream through to the end with an extensive training and practice regime.
I mentioned about the days in which my brother was himself obsessed with the game of football, and how he wanted to show Mater every new move he made, every trick and fancy skill.
He'd shout to her from the back field so she'd drop what she was doing and come trotting, saucepan or scrubbing brush in hand, but he would never be able to perform the maneuver again; that is, until Mater had either returned to the house or turned her back for the briefest of moments.
"I did give him plenty of encouragement," Mater reminisced to me on this day. "I always watched him when he asked me to, when I could, and it was the fault of neither of us that I didn't get to look at the great things he could do, the way I get to see Dandy's swift paw in action."
I said to her, "but think about this: did you ever let Brother play football in the kitchen while you cooked?"
"No," she said, pondering honestly. "I didn't."
"There you go, then. If you'd let him play indoors beside you, you'd never have missed anything at all."
Sure, maybe the football would have gone astray in the kitchen from time to time, and there'd likely have been a rich, leathery aftertaste to the casseroles, but Mater would have been on hand to witness every single unique star moment up until Brother decided he didn't want to play football anymore, that he was going to be a rock and blues musician.
Then, of course, he'd have been obliged to bring the drum kit and guitars and microphones, and other paraphernalia that his music studio is currently brimming with, into the tiny kitchen corner; and really, who among us knows what that combination would have tasted like, especially with Dandy using that patch as a training ground for his own particular brand of stardom.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Leaping with Mater

Mater was engrossed in a movie of some sort when I telephoned.
"I can't think of the name of what I'm watching, but you know the movie," she said to me. "It's got that McCain fella in it."
My reply was to say I didn't know which one she meant at all.
"Ah, come on," she kept at me. "Something like Internal Ferno. I mean Infernal Turno. No, I got that name wrong, didn't I?"
I suggested McQueen, Steve McQueen, instead of McCain. It was all I could think of, and Steve McQueen had indeed starred in what is commonly known as Towering Inferno.
No, she told me, and I could just see her flapping her hand at me in frustration; it wasn't him.
I was hopelessly baffled, but I know Mater, and I have adjusted to the nooks and crannies of her utterances over the years.
"You don't mean Bruce Willis, do you?"
"That's him," she said, thoroughly leaping at the answer. "Bruce Willis. Die Hard, that's the one."
It was an enormous leap from McCain to McClane, and from Internal Ferno or Infernal Turno to Die Hard, but we managed in the end, as we always do, to have the grasp of each other's conversation.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Beyond All Maps

Joyce, on hearing that I hail from Ireland, said she had many, many moons ago stumbled upon a village in the south of my homeland.
Enid, it was called.
I assured her I hadn't heard of it; she was equally certain she'd been there.
It must, I replied, be one of those tiny backroad corners that even locals hadn't heard of; Joyce remembered it as a bustling, lively place in which she'd found plenty to see as a tourist.
I said that Enid was a lovely name for a place, but I wasn't familiar with it at all.
After much insistence on both our parts, Joyce agreed to root out her fond old mementos of the trip and show them the next time she saw me at work. Away she went, secure in the knowledge that she'd been to an Irish village I hadn't.
I was fairly curious too, about Enid, and what sort of a green, sheep-run hamlet it might be that I hadn't even heard of, with all my years growing up in Ireland.
Spouse, who is not from Ireland or indeed anywhere nearby, had another notion altogether when he saw me researching in vain the seemingly fictional town of Enid:
It might be Ennis, he concluded. She might have meant Ennis.
I wasn't too sure about that, and I decided it was a bit of a stretch. The old lady had seemed so determined.
Maybe Enid was real. Maybe she'd been there after all. Who was to say that just because I couldn't find a shred of evidence of it, and because it didn't register on any map I had ever seen, that it wasn't a brambly, bubbling little nook in a shady corner of Ireland?
The more detective work I did, the more real Enid became to me.
I even bestowed a village slogan on it:
Enid: Visit Us. We're Beyond Maps.
I put in a hearty publican and a postman, an aging church caretaker, a couple of curtain-twitching neighbours, a school that needed a few repairs, some farmyards and cowsheds and silent, crumbling graveyards and tiny shops with bicycles propped up outside and sheepdogs asleep in the noonday sun under the bicycles. The wind smelled of wet hay and blackberries.
Now, that couldn't be anywhere but Enid. I was sure too.
Spouse saw the glazed look in my eye, and he retreated.
Some weeks later, Joyce spotted me at work and waved furiously for me to come over.
She had the proof in hand.
"Oh," she said, her well-worn face full of apology, "it wasn't Enid after all. It was Ennis. Ennis. I feel quite silly now."
With only a remark about Spouse's incredible deductions, and about how I knew Ennis like the back of my hand, I brushed aside Joyce's needless laments; but I was the sorry one.
I think Enid, beyond all maps, would have been a very nice place to see, even once.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mandarin Magic

I was on the phone to Mater when I silently and deftly peeled two small mandarin oranges and subtly slid a juicy segment into my mouth.
Not, apparently, quite as clever and underhand as I'd imagined.
"Are you eating fruit?" Mater wanted to confirm. "It's good that you're eating fruit."
In return I begged to learn how she knew.
Oh, she just did, that's all.
That's all. As if it were an ordinary, everyday deduction with nothing creepy or invasive about it whatsoever.
"Oranges are best for you. Good eating."
"Ah come on," was my retort, my alarm increasing, "how on earth are you doing this?"
"Mandarin, is it?"
I can't express too much about what happened to the finer hairs on the nape of my neck. The word 'prickle' doesn't quite cover the matter in the chilly, off-kilter way I would hope for.
At least- I clung feebly to this- she was wrong about the count: I was eating two of them.
"And I'd go so far as to say you're after peeling not one but two mandarins."
The funny thing is, we don't even keep oranges in the house, as a rule; we're more likely to have apples and bananas than oranges, so it's not like I make a habit of eating the things.
Mater refuses to divulge her strange, unearthly secret, at least for the time being, so I'll just have to go on wondering, and asking at intervals.
"Magic," she sometimes replies when I ask and she's feeling inclined to expand a bit on the nature of her talents. "A spot of mother magic."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Schoolhouse

In recent days I sent an elderly relative a photograph, one of Spouse and I on a recent trip to Ireland.
In the picture, we're standing where the earth ends, otherwise known as the edge of Ireland, and we're trying to hold onto our hats and keep grounded in the face of a wind that's less of a wind and more of an ice-cold, full-force gust of power that wants to lure us backwards for a closer, more invigorating look at the grey, churning water.
There's a house in the picture, but it's not a house at all: it's a prop from a Hollywood movie.
Built in 1970 by the producers of Ryan's Daughter, the old schoolhouse stands as it ever did, save for one or two missing walls, and the roof and other essentials that blew away or crumbled with time and the relentless thrashing of the sea.
I've been visiting that fictional schoolhouse in Dunquin, County Kerry, off and on since I was a youngster, and the bones of the building are still holding up rather well.
My relative, who has never been to Ireland, telephoned upon receiving the photograph.
"Is that your mama's house?" was his first question.
Initially I was appalled at the notion of my mother living in such a tumbledown shell, although the view would certainly be terrific; and to be fair, the schoolhouse is as sturdy as a rock.
I explained as gently as I could that no, it wasn't her house at all, but a leftover artifact from a long-ago movie.
"Ah," he said, immediately grasping the essence of it all. "So it's a history house."
Yes, I told him, one could well call it a history house.
But to judge from the slumberous, slow pace at which time has tinkered with it thus far, I'd wager the old Dunquin schoolhouse will have a lot more history to be written.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Garden Games

Our neighbours are very understanding.
They know that Spouse and myself are, to put it mildly, a little bit different.
The people across the road offered Spouse the use of their power lawnmower once, after they'd spent weeks watching him out the front of the house hacking at the long grass with a tool barely bigger than a nail scissors. Possibly they couldn't even see the device he was holding, so they might well have thought the poor fellow had nothing but his fingers to tear at the weeds and grass with.
Actually, it wasn't their lawnmower they offered, but they knew somebody who could lend them one to lend to us, so it all comes to the same thing, really, and it was decent of them to offer.

Lately we've been developing more efficient ammunition to get the better of the squirrels that infiltrate our garden. They'd eat all the scattered bird seed if they could, which would never do, and so we devised a weapon that couldn't go wrong: a pinecone in an old grey sock.
The enormous knobbly pinecone in itself would have worked, flung at the squirrels who sniffed around our back doorstep, but we had a hard time locating it in the dirt after we threw it, it being the same colour as the ground it landed on.
We put a knot at the top of the sock and it held the pinecone nicely, and we could always find it afterwards.
Until one day when Spouse was in fine fettle throwing the pinecone-in-a-sock, and it scared the rascally squirrel, as intended- but the pinecone suddenly got a mind of its own and kept sailing, sailing, sailing. It went over the fence into our neighbour's back garden and that was the end of that.
The end- except: finding a random, anonymous sock on one's property would be odd enough, but a ragged sock that was filled with a pinecone- that would be thoroughly inexplicable. So we decided to tell our neighbour about it so that she wouldn't be alarmed.
How does one embark on such a task?
-Good morning, and, oh yes, we meant to tell you: there's a sock, an old dirty grey one, it used to be white, and it's got a pinecone tucked in it, yes, inside it, tied up in there, and we use it to frighten the squirrels with, and we're awfully sorry but it went too far and if you find it, you'll know it belongs to us and not some mad people who keep pinecones in their socks.
That was about the wording of it, more or less, but she took it well, and laughed and asked Spouse whether we wanted the sock returned to us.
We didn't, we said: our pinecone-in-a-sock days are over.

Yes. Our neighbours are very understanding.
We'd do the same for them if it ever came to it; I somehow can't see that happening in quite the same way, though.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bird Swing

Our bird feeder is an improvised one: a flour sieve dangles from a string knotted around a hook on the back lip of the house, and we keep that spilling over with seeds of all kinds.
The smaller birds flutter up to the sieve, wrap their gnarly little feet around the edge, and dip in excitedly. I've seen them hop right into the middle of the sieve, too, and stand up to their bird-knees in food.
All the while the feeder swings- side to side and sometimes a 360 degree spin while the birds nibble deliriously at the loot.
It can reasonably hold one bird at a time, but two have occasionally been seen to share the small space.
The rest of the time, they line up on nearby branches, waiting their turn.
Once, while I watched, one small fellow got impatient and made an attempt to land while the feeder was occupied.
No way, said the first bird, and scared the intruder off with what might have passed for a glare in birdland.
The fellow was determined, however, and he made another- equally failed- attempt to get onto the feeder.
The third time, he devised a plan, and it couldn't fail.
He moved on to the gutter just above the hook which held the feeder.
He then hopped onto the very top of the string and, sometimes claw over claw, sometimes sliding, he inched his way down the line much like a fireman would slip down the pole to respond to an emergency call.
He landed gracefully in the middle of the heap of food as he'd intended. He'd made it, and the first fellow had not seen him; he was too busy with his head ducked into the seeds.
When he did raise his beak, and he saw he wasn't alone, he was thoroughly flabbergasted for about a second- where did you come from? his shiny eye seemed to say. His mouth was full of bits of seed.
He swallowed, gathered his feathers, then, indignant, promptly ran at the second bird, who flew off, all his plans foiled.
I'd like to be able to report that the second fellow's persistence paid off, that he came up with a clever plan and deservedly got the goods in the end, but he didn't get so much as a chance to smell the food.
Still, he tried.
He saw a door where other patiently-waiting birds saw no door, and that's always admirable, however it turns out in the end.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Singing The Same Tune

In the little village in Ireland I grew up in, there's a small but colourful choir that sings its collective heart out in the local church.

They get together for all sorts of celebrations and ceremonies, and can routinely be heard from over the hills as they harmonise the various hymns.

The choir, so I've been told, when they sing with all the gusto they can muster, can lead sheep to pause in their chewing; cows blink slowly in rapture.

My mother told me today that about a year ago, one of the older members passed away.
I remember the fellow well: always, Billy could be heard head and shoulders above everyone else, so deep his tones, so boisterous his style of singing.

He quite literally belted out the songs, his throat in full throttle, rattling some of the other choir members, and even, I would wager, the enormous hefty church bell up in the rafters.

Billy was notoriously quick to nudge the others with an elbow if their volume was set too low for his taste, or if they were concerned to distraction by the rumblings of the church foundations. As he prompted others with a not-so-subtle dig in the ribs, he never stepped out of tune himself.

Paddy was one of the other regulars, and he typically stood next to Billy during choir time.
He'd open and close his mouth at the proper times, turn the pages of his song book with vigour, and he'd put his all into every tune: his all, that is, save for the voice.
Because Paddy, oddly enough, didn't sing. Not a note.
He mimed it all.

Paddy mimed, and Billy knew it. He'd nudge Paddy from time to time to encourage him to pipe up and join the choir for more than just his physical presence.

I was struck by the idea that if all the choir members mimed like Paddy, there wouldn't be a sound out of anyone.
The church bell wouldn't tremble, not even the slightest wobble or hum.

It's important, I determined, for everyone to do their bit. Every voice carries equal weight.

I was thoroughly baffled.
Why then, I asked my mother, did old Paddy go along to the choir every week, year after year if he was only going to pretend to sing?

A way of getting out of the house, she said, even for an hour a week.
A place to go, even if it's only up the street.
Friends to see, even if they elbow you continuously.
Being a part of something greater than yourself.

I strongly believe that Paddy wasn't the only one of the group to get such commonplace pleasures out of belonging to the church choir.
And with that, the notion of the whole choir make-believe singing- it didn't seem so outrageous after all.

Even if there wasn't a note to be heard on the wind, there'd still be an honest-to-goodness reason for the gathering.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Until last year, shortly after we'd moved into our house, I wasn't aware that bluejays could stare: stare at you, through you or through the glass pane of a front door, waiting intently and with supreme confidence for a glimpse or a shadow, or a peanut.
They do.
In any case, the birds I've come to know certainly do, and I've learned to let my tea turn cold and and my buttered toast congeal, half forgotten, on mornings grey or fine or in-between; because just when I think the birds surely have been pacified for now, they return for another token gift of a wrinkled peanut.
They like to perch at the edge of a broken branch nearest to the door, leaning towards the house as near as they can be without actually setting a leathery toenail inside the hallway.
If I ever step out in the morning and the two bluejays are not in my immediate view, hardly a minute will pass before two unmistakable blue dots in the distance hurl themselves towards me, sailing from the tip of the tallest pine tree on the next street until they land with a thump and a clatter on the front porch, expectant.
Two of them spend the whole day waiting for me and scanning the garden for me: Big Fluff, who leads, and Little Fluff who is still a baby, nervous and unsure.
Sometimes, when I'm busy and apparently not appearing with sufficient frequency, they yell. Sometimes they whisper or grumble into their feathers, but mostly they are silent, concentrating all their quiet hopes to the glass in the certainty that I will set down my marmalade spoon or my scrambled egg fork and, pulled by unseen forces, go to see if somebody is looking for me.
I have to say that it works a great portion of the time.
Do you want a peanut? I'll trill, fingering the treasure in my pocket. In reply, the pair scrub their beaks furiously on the branches, in tandem, telling me yes, please, we're ready for our treats now.
One more, I assure them. I'll give you one more each, and then I have to eat my own breakfast.
And one more, and one and one more.
It's tough to say no to Big Fluff when he stares that way, right into my eyes as if he knows there's a whole bag of peanuts, hundreds of the delicious things, inside the pantry, and all I have to do is reach in, just a little bit to my left, and there they are.
I'm not entirely sure they even eat them, not right away.
They bury the peanuts, shell and all, in the gutter above my head, or under a soggy heap of fallen yellow leaves in the garden, or, as I once noted, hammered into the fork of two branches, as a pioneer might stake a flag in the earth to say I was here first.
It's equally difficult to get on with my everyday breakfast when I could crouch instead on the front porch and have Big Fluff take a peanut straight from my fingers with a firm but gentle tug of pure trust that always takes my breath for a moment.
Mind you, that didn't happen overnight.
I spent countless hours last summer lying on my stomach on the concrete of the back yard, my gloved hand stretched out far, a peanut in the center of my palm, and all the waiting, waiting, waiting, watching Big Fluff up in the tree, while he thought about the matter and weighed up the worth of the peanut with the risk of coming close to me.
Then, as now, Big Fluff's tiny companion was a flitting green-crowned hummingbird that hovered and danced beside him and, I suspect, cheered us both on when the afternoon was wearing thin and contact seemed unlikely.
I probably fell asleep a few times during those unbroken hours in the sun, the peanut quivering in my hand, and Big Fluff landing nearby sometimes, drawing nearer, then fluttering back to his branch, his whole body asking me to drop the peanut and simply let him have it. Once or twice I did as he asked, but mostly I waited, not giving up that peanut until he at last glided to the ground, hopped to my elbow, took a deep breath that plumped up his feathers, and swiped the peanut so swiftly that he became a streak of blue, triumphant and loud, flickering across the garden to squawk about his courage.
The hummingbird, it ought to be noted, followed his blue friend as quickly as he could catch up; to this day he still dashes around the garden following the bigger fellow wherever he goes.
Since then he's come to expect his daily ration of peanuts exactly as I've come to expect my breakfast to be assailed with interruptions.
No, it did not happen overnight; nothing of consequence ever does- but at last the blue pair, Big Fluff and Little Fluff together, have tamed me and trained me and ensured I will be on duty whenever they conjure up in their minds an image of a yummy, crusty peanut.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Quite some time ago Spouse and I dined at the house of a friend. The friend had invited along another companion, an ancient lady we'd not met before.

The entire evening brimmed with delicious food and curious threads of conversation.
The lady reflected as the talk turned to reading and childhood. She'd read Beatrix Potter as a youngster.
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny: that was her favourite, and she'd possessed a copy when she was little, a treasured volume.
She sighed, perhaps to nobody in particular, that she didn't really know anymore what had become of the book. It was so long ago; but she clung to the thought and the wonder of it.

Still I can bring to mind the name of the old lady's most beloved book;
that she'd lost it at one of the many tangled turns along the way in her life;
and with what a wistful air she told it to us at the dinner table.

But I cannot- try as I might- I cannot remember her name.

Monday, February 13, 2012


There we were at the airport in Dublin, Spouse and I, ready to depart Ireland again. Mater and Sibling K had accompanied us to the last point, and the minute of farewell had descended upon us all.
One of us exclaimed in a flurry, "look! Isn't that himself over there?"
We all turned our heads as one, and sure enough, it was himself.
Seamus Heaney: Ireland's distinguished premier poet, Nobel Prize Winner and, of most particular and immediate consequence to me, the author of not one but two books in my backpack on my back right there and then.
Spouse, Mater and Sibling K urged me forward, not merely because they know I read a great deal of poetry, but on account of the fortuitous, possibly star-aligned fact that Mr. Heaney's work was my chosen reading material for the journey home.
"I can't," I said, stalling. "I could never do it. Not I."
"Go on," they all said, mentally pushing and pulling and dragging me along- for my own good, you understand.
"Ah, no, what would I say to him anyway? 'Hello, it's me, I've got a couple of your books here. You can borrow one if you'd like.'"
They couldn't find much wrong with that at all, and begged me to go over, to wander five feet due north and greet the man himself.
The right words would come, they said, all I had to do was try.
I was nearly dizzy with the possibilities.
What if he looks through me like a pane of glass?
What if he doesn't care that I'm reading his books?
What if I forget my name?
What IS my name?

What if Mr. Heaney turned and strode away as I was dithering? What if, by the time I'd gathered my wits and determined to speak up, there was only a vacant space where he'd been standing? What if, in the end, the only story I'd emerge with was half a story about something that might have happened but didn't, really? Is half better than nothing?
I'll say this much: if I ever by chance see Seamus Heaney again, and if I then happen by more chance to have two of his books on my person, I'll be sure to ask him.
He might feel compelled to write an epic about it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Postcard Phyllis

Spouse and I had come to our last day in Ireland.
It was after midnight and our flight was scheduled for early morning. Most inconveniently, it struck me all of a sudden that I needed a postcard, post-haste.
"What sort of a postcard?" Mike wanted to know as he rooted through drawers and flicked through some of his books in hopes of finding a tucked-away card that would suit.
"Anything," I declared, "but it has to be blank so I can write on it and send it. Otherwise it doesn't matter. One of an Irish landscape, if it's at all possible."
"I do believe I've got one hidden somewhere, but now I think of it, you probably wouldn't like it for sending to anyone."
"I'll take it."
"I don't know." The rummaging halted. "It's only an old postcard of Phyllis Hunt McGowan, anyway."
I announced that I'd never heard of Phyllis Hunt McGowan, but would be most happy to accept the postcard if Mike could find it.
I saw her in my mind's eye:
Late fifties, short grey hair, tweed skirt, green wellington boots, fond of horses.
Stubborn; incorrigibly so.
She'd do superbly on a postcard, especially given the late notice.
Mike was curious. "You've never heard of who?"
"On the postcard. I don't know who she is. Is she famous, or something?"
I'd been living away from the old homestead for a whole decade, you see, so I thought that maybe in the interim, I'd missed something fashionable or oft talked about in Irish culture. I was certain she wasn't the Irish president, but other than that, she could have been anybody, really, and I'd have had no clue.
There was a puzzled glint in Mike's eye. He admitted to me that he didn't know what I was talking about in saying I hadn't heard of her.
She must be Somebody, then, I decided. I hoped she wasn't an old ancestor of mine, although I was sure I'd have heard of any family members that had made it onto a postcard.
It turned out, in the inevitable moment of enlightenment and explanation, that the hearty, solid, horsey Phyllis Hunt McGowan was resident only of my mind, and she'd never set a toe outside it until that night.
The postcard Mike had been thinking of was one of "fellas hunting cows," and I'd spectacularly misheard him.
Poor Phyllis. I had quite liked the idea of her, vivid and startling as I'd imagined her to be.
Still: when such invented characters have chanced to dip their proverbial toe once into the real world, they don't ever go back to where they came from- not entirely. Which is why the fellas hunting cows have all but been forgotten, and she's still horsing around waiting for me to thrust her, perhaps, into the depths of an equestrian mystery story.
I look forward to working with her.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Small Town in Maine

Houlton, Maine. A town with a motto:
'Valuing the past, planning for the future.'
It doesn't roll, exactly,
off the tongue.

Houlton's byword is its moose, lumber, land.
The houses tilting with time.
Grammy's Country Inn.
There ought to be ballads sung

About Grammy's onion rings,
About the thundering river
They call Meduxnekeag-
Tough to pronounce when you're young.

Nothing comes easy up there.
Living's hard. Words don't roll.
The ladder splinters
When you reach for the next rung.

Nothing's for free. Except, one time, a trout-
A fellow's only catch that morning
And he gave the prize away,
A speckled parting gift wrung

From the waters of red-barn country.
Things knitted, too, things planted.
We made this for you. Always room in the house
For another. Good people among.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Red Jeans and Elbow Grease

Years ago, many an unsuspecting youngster was sent down to the shops to procure a tin of Elbow Grease, only to find a knowing, smirky grin, and the shopkeeper's chuckling assurance that no such item was in existence.
Off home the child would then march, empty-handed, hands bunched into ready fists, boiling with rage at the adult who'd played such a trick, smarting equally from the shopkeeper's gloat.
Poor Mater: it happened to her the other day. Except that Elbow Grease wasn't the object; and besides that, the thing does, in fact, have a place in the world.
Red jeans.
It was all that Mater wanted. She'd seen a nice little advertisement showing some merry people clad in red jeans and, although she'd never seen such things before, she decided- why not red jeans? Why not.
Off she went, gliding into a store in town.
"What?" the youth gasped at her. "What did you say you were looking for?"
"Red jeans," echoed Mater.
"Never heard of them," announced the fellow. "They don't exist."
"But I saw-"
"No such things."
"There was an advertisement-"
"Maybe another store would have-"
"They don't exist."
He was emphatic about the item's lack of existence. The discussion didn't so much draw to a close as it was slammed shut with a cling and a clang and some suitable, rusty-key-turning sounds, punctuated by the assistant tossing the proverbial key down his gullet and swallowing it.
From the proverbial key dangled a key chain which bore a miniature portrait of some happy people bedecked in their red jeans, but he gulped it too hastily for a terrifically baffled Mater to point out and use as evidence in her quest.
To prevent the fellow from performing such flimsy half-jobs in the future, I'd make sure to send him on a long, long journey to the shops to get a tin of Elbow Grease.
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