In the Eye of the Beholder…

This snail has spied the strawberry plants.

“Stinky Bob”

Hank removed his dirty shoes at the door after a long afternoon of yard work. “I wonder why God thought we needed so many weeds,” he said, only half joking.

“Did you ever stop to think how ungreen this “Great Northwet” would be without weeds?” I asked. We laughed at the image of our lovely part of the country being muddy and barren except where people place their favored plants.

Even though we’ve removed most of our lawn and planted wild shrubs and grasses native to Puget Sound, we still cultivate flowers of every kind in pots and in flower beds. Our tiny backyard is mostly devoted to edibles: herbs, a dwarf apple tree, strawberries and raspberries, rhubarb, even Hank’s still-under-construction 4’x 8’ raised vegetable bed. Tomatoes and lettuce flourish in pots on the back deck.

We delight in the beauty and variety of all we’ve planted, and so do the aphids and snails. Between other chores today, I’ve sprayed aphids on the rose bushes…again. The snails nibbled the first of the emerging dahlia leaves before I noticed. However, slug bait may give the dahlias a chance to start over and give us late summer color after all.

The black hollyhock, which prefers the gravel at the edge of the driveway, had been doing well, but today I noticed a few shredded leaves and looked closer. Snails!…handsomely marked and nearly as big as ping pong balls…lots of them, which I sent without remorse to snail heaven.

With equal remorselessness, I dug out “weeds.” They are as attractive in their variety and design as anything horticulturists produce but lots harder to kill. The horsetails are tiny, harmless-looking clubs poking out of the ground one day. The next time I look, they are two-foot tall bottlebrushes of chartreuse green, jointed whorls of fronds looking as prehistoric as any plant still found on earth, with a regenerating root that goes deep as the part above ground. A variety of burgundy clover with heart-shaped leaves and tiny yellow flowers grows up through the hens-and-chicks and in the rockery, almost impossible to root out. But it’s beautiful. So are the rosettes of thistle, and the noxious weed, Robert’s geranium, called “Stinky Bob” by some. (See photo above.) It is starred with little lavender-pink blossoms that quickly turn into crane’s bill seed pods. They ripen and pop unnoticed, scattering seeds far and wide to start dozens of progeny. We have dandelions too, of course, and also baby hazelnut trees, planted by squirrels right next to the house.

Whether weeding or fighting insects, there’s something soul-satisfying about working to make things grow. Is it because we’re participating in a small way in Creation? After all, the first job ever given to humankind was to look after a garden. And the second was to “earn your bread by the sweat of your brow,” cultivating the land.

So, I guess we must battle weeds. And pests that don’t know the difference between chosen and unchosen plants. But I still think they’re beautiful.

Peanut and Popcorn hunting snails

Tale of A Grand Piano

Growing up in the Robe valley back in the 1940s, we five Rawlins kids seldom felt the lack of nearby grandparents.

Instead, we had Verna and Will Blythe, cheerful neighbors who welcomed our frequent visits and invited us to call them “Aunt” and “Uncle.”

Sometimes Aunty Verna let us plink out tunes on the elegant, black piano that stood in a corner of their parlor. I never heard her play it so I assumed their daughter Helen had made music on it when she still lived at home. That piano seemed enormous. I often wondered about its history.

Helen had two cousins, Bob and Norman, who lived across the hay field. All three cousins married and raised families. I left Robe valley, never having visited in their homes. Norman and Lois Blythe moved to Granite Falls, where Norman died. Some years later, I went to visit Lois. There, filling much of her living room, was Aunty Verna’s ornately carved piano I’d last seen nearly fifty years earlier.

Lois told me its story. Her father-in-law, Fred Blythe, had two brothers. Their father died young and the oldest boy, our own “Uncle” Will, left school at age twelve to support his mom and siblings. In 1902, when Will was sixteen, he, his mother, ten-year-old Fred, and seven-year-old Rod moved by train from Michigan to Seattle. The piano had been a sixteenth birthday gift to his mother, Ella, in 1873. It also came on the train.

They removed the legs for transport by taking out the big wooden screws that fastened them to the body. The solid brass sounding board and the painted, hand-carved rosewood of the piano’s main section weighed close to 2000 pounds. Six men could barely carry it.

Lois knew that the train brought the piano as far as Hartford on the tracks of the old Monte Cristo-Everett railroad. From there it was hauled over the primitive road to Robe valley. Young Will built a home for the family, with the help of neighbors. The youngest son, Rod, learned to play the piano, but a few years later he went off to fight in WWI and died overseas.

Lois plays the beautiful old instrument now. Several years ago, when the lyre that holds the
pedals needed tightening, her son took it apart. He found a hand-carved space in the block beneath the lyre, and in it a key that locks the cover. Perhaps it was hidden there for safe-keeping when the piano arrived at its new home in the valley back in 1902 or 1903.

Attention to detail
was a hallmark of
the period.

The name in scrollwork on the front of the piano
reads RD Bullock, Jackson. The original rosewood
shows through the old paint.

The secret box is beneath the lyre.

Mom Saves My Valentine Dress…A Mother’s Day Tribute

When quality fabric was less expensive and ready-made clothing was much more costly than it is now, many women sewed for themselves and their families. My mother stitched clothing for her three daughters, two sons, our father and herself.

She taught her daughters the craft as well. Sewing didn’t come easily for me. I spent lots of time ripping out mistakes and starting over, but one mistake was so bad, I had no idea how to fix it.

I was a new teacher, and like other women teachers in those days, I wore dresses and skirts to school. My students, even the boys, seemed to appreciate my pretty clothes, most of which I’d made myself. One day I found a lovely soft piece of red corduroy printed with rows of tiny white hearts and flowers, perfect for the upcoming Valentine’s Day. I knew my fifth graders would enjoy seeing their teacher in something so appropriate.

I bought the cloth and took it to my parents’ home so I could use Mom’s new sewing machine. Carefully, I pinned the pattern pieces in place, cut them out, and began to sew. The top, with its softly draped collar, fitted perfectly. So did half of the flared skirt. I stitched the other half together. Oh, no! I had two half-skirts for the right side, none for the left. And no extra fabric.

Frustration welled, along with tears. I’d wasted my hard-earned money and ruined my dress. I balled up the pieces and threw them into my mother’s rag bag.

A few days later, Mom stopped by my apartment with a gift…the Valentine dress, exactly as I’d envisioned it. Not until I inspected the reverse side of the fabric could I see how she had recut and fitted pieces together so skillfully the seams couldn’t be seen. The corduroy nap even ran in the right direction. What patience–and the designing skills of an engineer–it must have taken to accomplish that.

My students loved the dress, and so did I. Every time I wore it, I was reminded again of my mother’s love.

Déjà Vu with Dr. Nelson

(click for larger view)

Last year, Hank and I walked with our granddaughters into the Marysville Historical Society’s museum…the first time any of us had been there. Its temporary home is in a former store on 3rd Street and inside is an amazing collection of items showcasing the town’s history.

We squeezed past a carousel of early-day photographs to reach a collection of telephone switchboards. Glancing into a nearly hidden alcove, I was startled to see a familiar face smiling from a life-sized photo on the wall. There stood Dr. H.L. Nelson in his white dentist’s coat, looking just as he’d appeared more than 50 years ago. Time stood still in a moment of déjà vu.

Beneath Dr. Nelson’s picture sat the very same equipment he’d used during those hated but necessary visits to his office. The leather-covered chair was cracked and scuffed with use. Crowded into the alcove were his equipment cupboard, the sink where he’d washed his hands (no latex gloves in those days), and even those sharp and terrifying probes and his drill with the pulleys and cables.

We Rawlins kids grew up in the soft-water country of the Pacific Northwest, before the days of flossing or fluoridated toothpaste. By the time our second set of teeth came in and our parents could afford a family dentist, we had cavities…lots of them.

I remember Dr. Nelson’s name, painted on a framed glass sign, as it hung in the window of his little storefront dentist office on Marysville’s State Street. Behind that window was the tiny reception area. As we sat waiting, we occasionally heard muffled yelps of pain coming from behind a partition. We knew our turn was coming, and our dread grew.

Dr. Nelson’s assistant checked us in at the counter, fastened the paper bibs around our necks, and handed the dentist his tools as he worked.

To his younger customers, Dr. Nelson’s office looked liked a torture chamber. A monstrous chair, covered in shiny leather, had pads to grasp one’s head and hold it in place. Dr. Nelson worked a foot pump to raise that chair so he and his patient were nearly face-to-face. Then he adjusted levers to rock the chair back to a reclining position and proceeded to sort through a collection of frightening-looking implements. Selecting one of them, he would lean across the chest of his victim, tell him or her to “open wide,” and begin to explore the gaping mouth in front of him with that sharp instrument. It was too late for escape! The point of the pick dug at the weak spots in our teeth. Sometimes it even broke through into a spot of decay, and he had to work it free.

Having decided upon his course of action, he’d mutter directions to his nurse. She’d go about her mysterious business while he reached for that overhead drill, all pulleys and cables and a long probe to which he fastened a drill bit. It made a terrible whirring noise. “Open wider,” he said, and pressed that drill into the offending tooth. The grinding, whirring sound increased as the dentist bore down on it. The patient dared not move for fear of causing the drill to slip. Sometimes it did slip, gouging into a tender gum. Sometimes the tooth resisted and Dr. Nelson pressed harder. Then the enamel might suddenly give way, allowing the drill to plunge into the softer part of the tooth. Now our own yelps frightened those in the waiting room.

The dentist’s big hands and his instruments in our mouths stretched our lips to the splitting point. About the time we felt like we might drown in our own saliva, he stopped. The nurse handed us a little paper cup of water. “Rinse your mouth and spit,” she’d command. We leaned over the side of the chair and spit into a miniature round glass sink.

Dr. Nelson mixed some silver-colored metal with a little mortar and pestle and packed it bit by bit into the cavity. He polished the new filling with a different attachment on the overhead drill. When he was satisfied that the filling fit perfectly against the tooth above or below, we rinsed again and made our escape.

Over the years, there were many such appointments for each of us, for Dr. H. L. Nelson practiced dentistry in that same little store front office for 43 years, almost to the day he died in 1990, long after the advent of “painless” dentistry. Though not painless, his dental work lasted for decades and saved us siblings from the all-too-common fate of needing dentures at a young age.

I spent a long time in that alcove, marveling at the memories that battered equipment brought to mind. How odd. When I was eight or ten, that quaint equipment had been state-of-the art. Dr. Nelson had seemed an all-powerful figure not subject to the same frailties as other humans.

Had it all come down to this: an exhibit in a museum? An opportunity for grandparents to say to their grandchildren, “See? It really was this way when I was a child”?

No, it’s more than that. It’s true that the healing arts, like dentistry, must sometimes cause pain to bring eventual good. Dr. Nelson’s story is another opportunity to see that a life spent in service to others is a life well spent. If someone can someday say that about me, I wouldn’t mind ending up in a museum!

Tulips and Snow Geese

Photobucket I’ve taken pictures most of my life but, being a reluctant convert to most types of technology, only recently invested in a digital camera.

So far, I’ve only used the automatic settings. I’ve already managed to delete all of the pictures I thought were safe on the camera’s electronic chip and have even permanently lost some from both camera and computer. Some of those vanished pictures were supposed to go with the blog I hoped to post today.

Instead, I’ll show you what’s happening in the nearby Skagit farmlands right now. A late spring postponed the tulip blooms’ opening until last week. Don’t you agree they were worth waiting for?
red tulips

I’d been longing for the chance to use the camera for photos of the snow geese that spend winters here. The geese did stay later than they usually stay. But for most of April, either we had gray weather, the geese were too far out in the fields to get good pictures, or we couldn’t find a stopping place along our narrow, shoulderless roads.

Finally, the sun came out, giving us a perfect day to view the tulips.

On the way home, I thanked the Lord and then I told him, “If it’s not too much to ask, I would really love to see the snow geese one more time before they head out for Siberia.”

We came around a bend in the two-lane road to see the last flock of geese in that whole part of the Skagit Valley. And, right beside them we saw a place to pull off the road and stop. I grabbed the telephoto lens, opened the window, and began to shoot as the flock lifted en masse and circled over our heads.
Snow Geese in Flight
Wow! Sometimes, before we even call, He’s got the answer in place!