Monday, July 26, 2010

The Daisies and Me

The enchantment tucked in every nook at the farm, eventually found its way to me. In early summer, just beyond the apple orchards, steadfast daisies conquered the fields. Then and now, if you listen closely, you can hear the hint of a childlike chorus singing the praises of simply being alive. Proud, hopeful and unwavering, they nod in approval at my decision to refrain from plucking too many of them from their essential revelry.

At a young age, I realized that picking them was a bit selfish; therefore, I limited myself to perhaps two daisy chains a season.

One sunny afternoon I tried to place a chain on an endearing cow, my grandfather quickly protested; the cows would only eat them. His infinite wisdom triumphed.

The selection process should not be taken lightly. In fact, please don’t pick any flowers without integrity of purpose. Maintaining balance is vital. A group of daisies plucked from one general area will result in a hole in the face of beauty. Adhere to these simple rules when harvesting daisies and enduring magic will prevail.

1). Always have a pure heart and good intentions.

2). Always give thanks to the daisy before plucking.

3). Never pluck two daisies side by side.

4). Never take the last daisy, even if it means improvising, such as making an anklet.

5). Pick near the root to have plenty of stalk to work with.

6). Always leave the roots in the earth to insure rebirth.

7). Always give thanks to Our Mother after.

Daisies are clearly the flower of choice, but pansies, buttercups and poppies work well too. Actually, most single-headed flowers can be used; the additional blends of colors are likely to result in a masterpiece. In a pinch, wild clovers will do, but I advise against using dandelions or any other milky-stalked weed. All endangered wildflowers are out of the question.

I usually fashioned my daisy chain into a faerie crown. Twirling and dancing around my heaven – the edge of a woody mountainside farm overlooking a dreaming lake – wearing a crown, was a natural rite of passage. The power of the crown lived long after wilting, sustaining and transforming, until the thin, supple stalks became too brittle, and then I crumpled the cherished remains into little balls and tossed them into the air. Oh how happy are we.

Fresh ~ innocent ~ young: wilted ~ wise ~ elder.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Maryjane on Mary Jane.

Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, or tranquil; and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity and nighttime.
Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, or aggressive; and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime (1). 

Every day, I followed my grandfather around the farm and every day he pretended to ignore me. His gentle handling of the cows emerged through gruffness and great physical strength. He worked hard and I admired him for that. However, his love for animals did not transfer to those around him. For some reason, people bothered him. I didn’t allow his disdain for humans to be an obstacle in getting to know him. I accepted the challenge.

The reassuring crow of a rooster intruded, inhabiting my twilight dream. I was ready to embrace the new day. The scents of fresh brewed coffee, maple and bacon mingled with men’s laughter and drifted throughout the boarding house.

I quickly dressed and dashed off to the chicken coop to collect fresh eggs. Musical and clever, chickens amuse. I was enamored with puffy broody hens that march about the barnyard with a line of baby chicks following. I might carry a fuzzy yellow chick – rejected by its mother – in my oversized shirt pocket.

An egg about to hatch becomes a favorite moment. The egg moves slightly; you can hear the peeping inside. Then, a tiny pointed beak begins to poke its way through the shell. I feel each tap alongside my beating heart. Breaking out of the shell is an arduous task for a baby chick; therefore, the hatching time varies from one chick to the next, as the weaker chick requires more rest. To observe the final wiggling free of the shell, is to witness another of nature’s little miracles, one in which I shall never tire.

Rampant roots in my grandmother’s garden nestled safely and took nourishment from the rich brown soil within the breast of Our Mother. Vegetables, herbs and flowers meandered without boundaries, over well- intentioned stone walls. The air – thick, pungent and sweet – overwhelmed my senses, imprinting on my fundamental nature. Pure joy is to pluck a ripe, juicy tomato straight from the stock and bite into it like an apple.

We picked from the garden, my grandmother and I. Quite different from my grandfather, she was simple, affectionate and friend to all, especially to me. We harvested together of earth and soul, sharing in silence and words unspoken. Two Maryjanes, two kindred spirits, one with Gaia.

Old and young shared wisdom. Through her, I learned of Our Mother. Through me, she learned the language of music. I would sing and she would tell me how lovely my songs were and then ask me to sing another. I think her favorite word was lovely.

1  Osgood, Charles E. "From Yang and Yin to and or but." Language 49.2 (1973): 380–412.

JSTOR. 16 Nov. 2008 .

Excerpt from Ballad of a Sandwich Girl, a Memoir.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

An Unlikely Ally

He was a cantankerous old man. When he wasn’t chewing and spitting tobacco, he smoked a pipe and he always wore a red plaid shirt. He was the archetypal New Hampshire farmer, a lost art form. He rarely, if ever, smiled and most people avoided him. I decided that I wouldn’t. For some reason, I knew that under his knitted brow, and through the smoke and grumbling, lived a kind soul. As hard as he tried, he could not hide that from me.

I made it a habit to watch. I yearned to know about him, and I adored the cows.

“Hi Grampa.” I interrupted the constant clanging of steel from the milking station; the scent of fresh hay permeated the air.

He mumbled something inaudible, yet familiar. He continued working amongst the customary sounds of cows lowing, chickens clucking and the rumbling of tractors.

“Whatcha doin’?” It was obvious, but I knew he would at least consider explaining it to me.

“ I’m trying to fix this pump.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, looked at me briefly and then leaned back over the pump.

“Can I help?” An impossible question, but I tried nonetheless.

He grunted and kept working. I took it as a no.

“Guess what?” I clung to the edge of the gray wooden fence.

He didn’t answer; I continued. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a farmer.”

“Well…” He held a match to his pipe, looked at me and then back at the pump. "Good for you."

“I’m just going to sit here and watch you.” He couldn’t dissuade me from being there. I sat quietly until my cousin Annie showed up on her bike and pestered me to join her.

“See you later, Grampa.” I rode off on my bike.

He allowed me to play with the calves. I loved to sit on the edge of their pen and sing to them as they looked at me with large chocolate eyes. I named each calf and did so based on his or her distinctive personalities. After a certain amount of time, the males were shipped off somewhere. Sometimes there were dozens of calves. One morning after breakfast, I went to the barn and realized that the males were gone. I looked inside the barn and ran off to find Grampa. He swore under his breath and turned away from me.

“Grampa, what happened to the calves? A lot of them are gone. Where are they?” My questions irritated him more than usual.

He paused. “They had to go. This is a dairy farm.” He walked away.

I scurried around to face him. “Where did they go?”

“Questions, questions…” He walked away again, this time I didn’t follow.

I left the barn. I knew it was time to seek out my grandmother,” Woman” to him. She was either in the kitchen or in the garden. She always had time for me; it didn’t matter what she was doing. When I asked her why some of the calves had to go, she sat on the steps of the front porch and fiddled with the corners of her pink flowered apron and explained it to me. As much as I didn’t want to hear that bulls were for meat and cows were for milk, if I wanted to become a farmer one day, I needed to accept the bitter truth.

From that day on, I tried very hard not to bond with the male calves, but it still bothered me when they were gone. I thought it unfair that these innocent creatures of God were only in existence to be slaughtered. I carried on as their only friend, an ally of sorts, even though there was nothing I could do to save them.

Excerpt from Ballad of a Sandwich Girl, a Memoir

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sailing on the USS Constitution: Crossing Generations

When my son Miles invited me to go underway on the USS Constitution – “Old Ironsides” – there was no wavering. I was eager to climb aboard the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world where my son happens to have the honor of being a sailor.

It is appropriate for Miles to serve on the USS Constitution, as he is a devoted historian with roots meandering back to the first English settlers of this country, including William Trevor, one of two hired seamen on the original Mayflower and two families – Pettengill and Ingersoll – that sailed to the New World with the Winthrop Fleet in 1629. Miles’ English ancestors were founding fathers of towns such as Newburyport, Salem and Sandwich, MA. Sailing historical ships is literally in his DNA.

Speaking for myself, I am entrenched in historical research. I am no stranger to Unites States History, spending many years as a Civil War musicologist, performer, reenactor and having recent writing projects steeped in New England History.

On the morning of July 4, I stood before the USS Constitution and watched as sailors in period uniforms scurried around the shipyard in preparation for the cruise. As a seasoned reenactor, I recalled that familiar sense of pride as people stare in awe, stealing a glimpse into our nation’s rich past.

I followed my son up the gangway. He stopped and saluted the flag and then the officers on deck. His perfect posture – a strong 6’4” frame outlined by the sun – summoned an unexpected surge of emotion and overwhelming pride. Other than reading, research and musicology, I have no experience with the military.

There have been Pettengills documented in all of the wars of this country beginning from the Pequot Wars in the 1600’s to my father who served in Occupied Japan. There were over 90 Pettengills in the Civil War. As a historian and earthy artist, unless written in a book, almost all military terms are foreign to me. Seeing my son in this setting is fitting for him and awe-inspiring for me.

Some of my strongest reactions actually strike me as odd, probably because I have no reference point. For example, the boatswain’s whistle gets me in the solar plexis. Whenever a dignitary boarded the ship, the announcement of his name and rank was followed by a series of whistles. The whistle means many different things to me. It means that my son is truly a sailor on board this historical ship; he is no longer eight years old; he has become a remarkable young man. The whistle means that it is real, that the rituals and protocol of the United States Navy are my son’s way of life.

Miles is accustomed to musical signals and prompts. I smile at the memory of calling my kids home by playing reveille on my trumpet (as a professional trumpet player, this made sense). The kids in the neighborhood thought it was very cool; my kids did not know what the big deal was. For instance, at suppertime, I walked over, pulled one of my horns out of my case, stood on the back porch and wailed on it. Then I listened. If I heard them making their way home I could go about my business. Sometimes they were deeply engaged in play, requiring another blast. I returned to the back porch and belted out reveille twice as loud. After a pause, one of them would yell…”Coming, Mom!” They could gage by the loudness of the call and the last note, whether or not I was agitated. (An exaggerated glissando meant get home now.) They rarely pushed me into playing reveille three times or playing the 'horse race bugle call' or 'call to post', which let them know that it was urgent.

People crowded together as the sun beat down on the shiny black wooden ship. I was glad that I wore shorts. Tearful pride returned and swelled in my chest at the sound of fifes and drums playing familiar ballads, airs and marches that have stayed with our country, becoming our own folk music.

The period attire of most of the crew consists of the 1813 naval uniforms, the officers wear three-cornered hats and wool coats with brass buttons and some men carry muskets. If it were not for the woman jammed beside me wearing springy, metallic stars on the corners of her sunglasses, I could have sworn that it was 1797.

Soon the ship got underway. Because the sails are being restored, two tugboats navigated the ship. The stark contrast between the red and white stripes of the huge flag waving against the blue sky begged me to take photos; it was almost surreal. The last time I felt this patriotic was three years before at Miles’ graduation ceremony when over nine hundred sailors in Cracker Jack uniforms sang “Anchors Aweigh”. That scenario brought me to my knees. I wasn’t sure if it was from exhaustion, playing the song hundreds of times in one of my brass bands, or the fact that my son was now in the United States Navy, and he and the lives of nine hundred others – as of that moment – had changed forever. It was everything. I cried.

Being on the deck of the USS Constitution brought me back to that “Anchors Aweigh” moment. A colossal sense of pride engulfed me. I gripped a nearby thick rope when three lovely young women – The USO Liberty Bells – sang the “Star Spangled Banner” a Capella. It was not like one of those divas who sings before a ball game, going crazy with a series of arpeggios as if enduring a root canal. They sang in beautiful, tight, melodious harmonies.

Miles went to a lower deck, as a “Damage Control Fireman”. He was a part of the cannon (long guns) operation. I know that this is partly due to his training and experience as a QM and Diver aboard the USS Chancellorsville – a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser.

The ship was surrounded by security such as the US Coast Guard, Boston Harbor Police and State Police Boats. The Coast Guard boats had men with machine guns on the front. For someone who cries at Bambi and Free Willy, this is significant. A Fireboat with streaming sprays led the way and the 125’ Schooner, the Liberty Clipper, remained close by. There were boats and ships of all types, sizes, classes and ages encircling us at all times.

At one point, a retired Navy LST passed by in the other direction. There were a series of whistles. The sailors on board stood along the outer decks at attention until a certain whistle signaled them to return to their business.

As we approached Fort Independence on Castle Island, we were given a two-minute warning before the 21-gun salute – the firing of the cannons. I pulled the complimentary orange earplugs from my pocket even though I brought my own. Crowds of waving people lined the walls of the fort. I felt the booming cannons beneath in my feet and each shot fired shook through to my core. Thick clouds of white sulfur smoke hung in the air burning my senses. I could only imagine what it would be like for our ancestors, as we only experienced reduced charges.

After the return fire, all of the surrounding ships and boats sounded their horns and the people from the fort and onboard cheered. Was the surge of tears from the sulfur or the thought that I was sharing a unique event from many centuries ago with my own son? I pondered the question while listening to “America the Beautiful” sung by the Liberty Bells, which was poignant in itself.

She then did her famous turnaround back towards her berth in the Charlestown Navy Yard. On her return sailing, she gave a 17-gun salute at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in the North End. I did not flinch or secretly dab tears from my eyes upon hearing the uplifting strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Juliet Ward Howe, the woman who created Mothers Day in the name of peace, only no one really knows this and most continue to honor Hallmark.

The guests received a parting gift to commemorate the day – a spent shell casing marked with an image of the ship, which is perfect for my office.

I carried the heavy shell in my backpack and returned to the lounge with my son to eat pizza. I walked down the hallway of the barracks, lingering and looking at photos of heroes, officers, sailors of the year and even a photo of my son holding the American flag as a color guard at a Celtics game.

I watched while he ate pizza. I saw my little boy in his eyes…the innocence of the child who I cradled and sung lullabies to every night, and convinced that there were no clowns in the woods…the boy who taught me the names of every type of tractor and urged me to trap big spiders under glasses for him to return outdoors instead of killing them…the boy who believed in Santa Claus and never chewed gum when he wore braces… the strong boy who carried fifty-pound feed sacks on his shoulders to the barn…the boy who finally mastered math just because he believed that he could, and the boy who played the trombone in my brass bands.

He wanted me to be proud. I was. When I praised him, he used to say, “Mom, you’re just saying that because you’re my mother.”

Yes, Miles. I am your mother. And I will tell you now as I always have, I am proud of you, and you just happen to be my son.