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Readers write about "Start"

 

Snow Peas

 

The alarm clock rings. It's 4:30 a.m. As a newly minted farmer, my body still hasn't adjusted to early morning wake-up calls. I wander into the bathroom, clean up, don my overalls (at least I can look the part), and head north to the farmers' market.

Up Straightstone Road, it's still dark. At the low bridge ahead, where the road crosses the Staunton River, I see a small, wavering light through the ground fog. As I cross I spot two fishermen, father and son, leaning over the rail, their fishing lines dangling into the darkness below, illuminated by an old-fashioned Coleman lantern. I'm struck by this magical tableau—the duo, the wavering circle of golden, wet glow, the darkness around and below, the sky lightening in the east. It is a fine way for this day to start.

Today my big crop is Oregon Sugar Sugar Pod II snow peas. I've got mesclun, baby lettuces, greens of all types. But these first snow peas are my pride and joy. They look so healthy and delectable in my big blue bowl, pounds and pounds of them, laboriously picked the day before. Picking peas is an infernal task; I go at it for an hour, kneeling stiff on my heels, and end up with maybe a pint. But customers are impressed; I'm the only one at the market with these snow peas, and they're organic to boot. By midmorning they're gone. It's satisfying for a novice farmer, knowing I can vouch for how my food was grown. It's like a small miracle.

Fifteen years later and our daughter Dan is helping clean up our first plot in Port Orford's organic community garden. She's beautiful and wonderfully strong, and with confident movements she bends, yanks out the tangled yellowing vines, and turns them into a huge roll, deposited beside the bed for future use as green mulch. The plants have yielded bountifully. We had such a crop, we gave much away. Still, there are many Ziplocs of blanched, flat green bundles in the freezer and, truth be told, I'm getting a little weary of “creatively” using them up.

Still, those last, freshly harvested Port Orford–grown snow peas beckon from my big blue bowl on the kitchen counter. We each take one. And eat it raw.

--Ann Euston, Port Orford

 

Nonnegotiable

 

Fantasies of transformation flock to the New Year like overwintering birds. We may be thirteen or seventy, and still we home in the dead cold to a bright dream. We may no longer believe in Santa Claus, but our search for fairy godmothers intensifies as the old year wanes. We scour the self-help shelves and page through catalogs fat with promises: New Year. New Look. New You. This time, we think. At midnight the exhausted husk of outworn artifice will finally split, and we will emerge in all the tenderness of truth: our destined selves.

But we should be careful what we wish for. Metamorphosis always exacts a price.

Never in my life have I had as much confidence as I did this year that I would be transformed. On a day in late December when I waited in line at Safeway to buy gauze bandages and rubbing alcohol, I laughed to read the headlines on a Marie Claire: “Lose Four Pounds and Six Inches Overnight.” It can be done, I thought. Ask me how.

I didn't have a fairy godmother, but I did have a diagnosis, insurance, and a handsome young surgeon. He'd drawn my breasts in a rough diagram on the paper carapace of the examining table and shown me the angle of the cuts he'd make. Though I'd given up dreaming of radiant reemergence when I discovered the depth of my desire simply to stay alive, my sudden passion for the status quo would radically alter me.

The catalogs try to sell you a sun-kissed life for the price of a fine slipper or sandal, but Hans Christian Andersen had a better grasp on the true costs of transformation. The witch who offers legs to the little mermaid tells her: “The best you possess is my price for the precious drink. I shall have to put my own blood into it, to make the drink as sharp as a two-edged sword. Â… Put out your little tongue, I'll cut it off in payment, and you shall have your magic drink!”

Midway through this newest year, I'm much changed by my encounters with knives and double-edged drinks. My breasts and hair are gone, but they weren't the best I possess. As long as I keep a tongue in my mouth, I'll count my bargain a good one.

--Gretchen Icenogle, Portland

 

Starting by Osmosis

 

I drink coffee because I love it, but my fondness for coffee can't be explained by taste alone. It's good, but not that good. So how did I start drinking it?

Redmond, Oregon, 1956: the perfect town for a four-year-old on the loose. Mom and Dad ran the Dairy Queen. If five-cent curl-top cones sold well, Dad might decide we'd walk downtown for lunch at the Brand Cafe. This was the kingdom of the burger before it had a king.

Dad always ordered coffee. It came from a balloon-shaped glass pot, a happy orb with a black handle and matching spout of industrial plastic. The black liquid inside swayed as it approached us at the counter. Dad liked the ready service. I liked the swivel stools.

The mug, our waitress's target, stood on the counter between Dad and me. She poured the swirling brew from ionospheric heights. It all went in the mug, to my disappointment and relief. The chunky earthen mug's thick walls safely confined the coffee in a porcelain fortress, but as that scalding liquid plunged through the atmosphere toward Dad's mug it passed my nostrils, causing a coffee aerosol to flush inside me and stick.

Preparing his coffee for the journey from mug to mouth was like a space launch, only less expensive. Coffee cost one dime with refills. When the price jumped to fifteen cents, Dad threatened, “We're moving to Bolivia.”

Dad fixed his coffee with the tools at hand, a heavy glass sugar dispenser with metal top and the shiny tin creamer with its cool, hinged flip-lid. The resulting brine was barely warm—Dad's elaborate coffee-readiness ritual involved enough sugar and cream to fill a suitcase. He lived almost ninety years in pretty good health, though what he did to his coffee should have buried him at thirty-seven.

As Dad slurp-sipped his coffee at the counter in Redmond I took mine by osmosis. The walls in that restaurant, paneled in six-inch wood squares with burned-in cattle brands, spoke of sage and rimrock, canyons and desert wind. And that's how I started drinking coffee before I ever took a sip.

--Dave Kenagy, Salem

 

Years of Leaving

 

The babies came one by one; some died in between.

Not quite nineteen, I married a man I did not know well, who would move us from place to place to place. Always a reason from his lips: “The job's not right.” “The job's no good.” “I've been fired.” So we would move, starting over and over again. We lived in apartments, sometimes a house, and once a converted chicken coop. I would sew curtains for the windows, hang prints on the walls, arrange the shelves with books and my record collection, and hope that we could stay a while. We didn't.

So I'd pack up the boxes, cry, pack up again, wondering what to leave behind this time. Always leaving something. Years of leaving.

When the leaving behind meant leaving my two oldest children, my heart broke—the final piece of what had long been broken. The marriage, the moving, the lost years, like matchsticks falling, burnt out.

I left the rusted teapot and I left him, broken pieces and all. Took my youngest child with me. Through the open door to start a new life, in the city, on my own, where my heart could sing.

--Lorna Miller, Portland

 

Starts Are as Starts Are

 

We were nineteen—me pregnant, Chuck entering his second year of college on a football scholarship. Each with a fierce attraction for the other, but both, as eldest children, little-acquainted with being less than boss in any relationship. An elemental challenge for any marriage. Two teenagers—scary.

As a starter on the football team, Chuck received a few special perks: one of the four married-couples apartments available and a part-time job at the student union for which I could substitute when he was traveling with the team. Our income, with tuition covered, derived from minimum-wage hours at the student union. Not much.

But the apartment had a double mattress on the bedroom floor for sleeping, a two-seater table that permitted movement in the kitchen when both chairs were pushed beneath its peeling tabletop, a stained two-cushion couch, and a rocking chair in the living room. Maybe previous occupants had expected a baby as well.

Food we had covered. Lamb from Chuck's folks, a wedding gift, venison from mine, all of which we kept in the public cold storage thirty miles away. A case or two of green beans and fruit cocktail and evaporated milk. Lots of flour, plenty of oatmeal, powdered milk, home-canned strawberry jam. Stretchable food. Our folks knew poor.

Two teenagers can manage on homemade biscuits, venison, and pan-fried gravy. Green beans and Jell-O with fruit cocktail for special.

The who's-the-boss issue took work.

Decades of work.

Decades that included three sons born within five years. Decades that included fifteen changes of residence over five states and occupational engagement as construction labor (Chuck), union secretary (me), secondary teacher (both of us), college prof (Chuck), insurance businessman (Chuck), registered nurse (me), sheep farmers (both of us). A variety.

Decades over which we learned to say, “I'm sorry.”

Now we're beginning our final decades. One, maybe two. For this start we're better prepared.

Nobody gets to be boss all the time. New adventures keep life fresh. A grandchild's smile, fresh garden lettuce, morning sunshine, sagebrush after rain, fresh-caught salmon on the grill, waking in the warmth of your best and favorite person—simple things keep life good.

Starts are as starts are: to be appreciated or overcome. Finishing, conquering the stresses of the journey, rest on what we learn as we travel. I'm sorry. I love you.

--Claudia Charlton, Port Orford

 

Quitclaim

 

My husband and I lost our South Dakota ranch. Not the kind of lost where you set the car keys on top of the refrigerator and find them two months later during a house-cleaning binge. More like lost as in lost youth. You had it once. Used it. Enjoyed it. And then you were stripped of youthful exuberance and creamy, soft skin. In the early 1980s, the cattle prices dropped to pre-1950s levels and federal land bank interest rates soared to 18 percent. In two years a quarter of a million dollars in assets eroded to negative numbers.

When we moved from Pennsylvania to South Dakota in 1973, we sold bulls for $1,200 to $1,500. Life was good. But now, waiting for future improved cattle prices wasn't an option. We made the decision to hold a dispersal sale of our entire cow herd.

Times were tough for everyone, and enthusiasm for even good breeding stock had dried up. The sale was a financial disaster. We were in a pit so deep we couldn't claw our way out.

The following spring I successfully applied for a job at Tasty Tacos at $3.75 an hour. Working off the ranch eased my mind; I was helping in some small way to pay our bills and sock away a few bucks into a savings account we could use for running away.

At the end of my taco day, my husband and I sat at the kitchen table, drinking iced tea, while he recounted whom he had contacted that day about buying the ranch, or which breeders he'd telephoned to interest them in a good cow herd, available for not much more than slaughter price. There were no takers. Not even much interest. Everyone, from Ohio to South Dakota had their own overwhelming financial problems.

As my husband talked with more and more people, trying desperately to sell our investment of land and cattle, the crack in my soul grew larger. Fear and uncertainty governed our lives, crushing the spirit and wounding with relentlessness, month after month. Until, at last, my husband admitted he couldn't resolve the reality of high interest rates and falling cattle prices. Not by breeding better cattle or by working harder.

We hauled trailer load after trailer load of our purebred polled Herefords to the auction in Chadron, Nebraska. We signed a quitclaim deed that neatly returned our ranch back to the holders of the contract for deed.

A new start in Oregon managing someone else's herd healed our brokenness. We are both now retired and taking care of our own small herd in southwestern Oregon.

--Rachel C. Klippenstein, Lakeview

 

All Done with This

 

Interesting what sends the past bubbling up and burning. We're at a soaking pool one evening, my husband and I, steeping like leaves of jasmine. A woman enters with a baby, less than two months under his little elastic waistband. My eyes gravitate toward the infant the way my eyes gravitate to all the wrinkly heads and unsteady necks of infants, the shattering beauty of their animalness and vulnerability. But I cannot stop staring at this baby. He looks exactly like my own baby at that age. Almond-shaped dark eyes and a thin pelt of brown hair. Olive skin. Heavily creased forehead and red lips.

My daughter is now a hilarious, warm-hearted twenty-something, tall and Romanesque as a statue, who—thank the Graces—turned out well. Yet given the chance, I would change almost everything about her infancy. Seeing the baby at the pool, I feel the crush of hunger to go back and fix things I can't.

I was twenty-one when my daughter was born. At the time, I was three years into an abusive marriage I would not leave until she turned two. I'd been sickly in the years before her birth (my teen years, really), an overuser of antibiotics, and I suspect this precipitated her copious allergies and tendency toward illness—her woefully inadequate intestinal flora. In our daughter's second year, her father built a fiberglass car body in the small garage attached to our house, and I suspect the cloud of toxic fumes sparked her learning disability. At the time, I thought myself powerless to stop it. But I wasn't. These are the glaring failures. The failures that shine under her skin, their shelf life longer than her own.

As I exit the locker room after swimming, I see the mother standing outside with her baby. She fumbles with the waist buckle of her baby backpack and looks straight at me. “Can I get your help with this?” she asks.

I look in her eyes as I latch the buckle. “Your baby looks exactly like my daughter did,” I tell her. And just as the words cross my lips, I am buried in emotion.

“Really?” the mother asks. “How old is she?”

“Twenty-one.” I fight an onrush of tears.

“Wow, and where does she live?”

“Nearby, a couple hours from me.” I turn my head so she doesn't see my eyes grow red and wet. I put my hand on the baby's back.

“So you're all done with this?” she asks, meaning childrearing, and I nod. “Well, I'm a little jealous,” she adds lightheartedly as I step away. This mother is my age, forty-something, and has decades until her nest empties.

“I'm jealous too,” I tell her, turning and smiling through the tears.

--Tricia Gates Brown, Nehalem

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Also in this Issue

Will, Work, and Imagination

To Begin Is to Start

Before You Know It

Almost a Family

Small Man in a Big Country

Clowns for Christ

On the Bench

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