Apr 27 2020

Life and Death in the Country

Its morning. Full daylight. I can see white edges of frost along the back of the deck chair through the corner of the bedroom window. I’m in bed, barely awake. My eyes feel dry and teary at the same time. The sun has not yet risen above the eastern treeline so it must still be very early. I want to stay in bed but I have to pee so I open the bedroom door and go out into the main room of our country house. On my way to the bathroom I note the absence of cats.

I close the bedroom door on my way back to bed. The barely visible sun is silhouetting the trees now. The clock on the living room wall said 6am. No need to get up yet. I lay back in bed, calmly tallying up all the little aches and pains that seem to have become my normal. My eyes are closed but my ears are awake. A cat is softly meowing on the other side of the door. I try to remember if their food bowl was empty. The meowing continues. It’s probably Coco, she’s the whiner. Do I want to get up? We keep the bedroom doors closed because we don’t want the cats to run in from outside and transfer all the ticks they have picked up on their fur on to our bed. Or to deposit dead animals onto the bedroom rug at our feet while we are still asleep.

I drag myself out of the warm blankets and open the door expecting to see a cat lying down in front of the door jamb waiting for me. Nope. A sleek brown shadow scuttles past my feet into the bedroom and immediately pushes her way behind the door, searching. We store a large window screen and an insert that enlarges the dining table there. Coco is very determinedly trying to poke her nose behind all this stuff.

Shit!! She is hunting!

Custard and Coco on the hunt

I carefully move the screen to the other end of the wall. I move the top of the table insert a few inches away from the wall and look down behind it. A tiny grey shape is crouched next to the baseboard, equidistant from each edge of the insert. I didn’t even see him run in. I hear the cat door open and Custard saunters in, joining Coco in looking behind the door, one on each side of the insert.

“We have a mouse!” I yell.

My husband is still in bed, staring at his phone. His poor hearing means he is completely oblivious to all the excitement.

“There’s a mouse in the bedroom!”

“What?”

“Behind the door!”

“You have to chase it out of the room or catch it. Do you have a plan? You have to have a plan.”

I have no plan. Håkan starts to get his pants on and prepare for a hasty exit. While the cats keep watch on the mouse I go and get the broom from the living room. I angle the insert towards the door and start to brush the mouse in that direction. It moves closer to the door but then suddenly does an about-face and runs under the bed, two cats in close pursuit.

“It’s under the bed now,” I say.

“What are you doing about it?”

“Nothing. I’m letting the cats take care of it.”

I hear the tippy-tap of tiny feet and the rustle of plastic bags from under the bed. The cats are making mad dashing sounds. I stand along the wall and wait. After a few minutes Coco emerges from under the bed, the tips of her fur bristling with pride and a still moving clump in her mouth. She carries it out to the big room and puts it down under the dining table, waiting for us to praise her. It lies there, nothing moving except its rib cage, in and out, in and out, a mile a minute.

I stand there, uncertain. Before I can decide what to do, Coco picks up the mouse, gently, like she would a kitten and carries it out through the cat door. I lock the cat door behind her and watch as she brings it down the steps and on to the lawn where she again puts it down. Custard joins her on the lawn. He lies down and makes himself comfortable as he watches her start to play the eternal game of cat and mouse.

I stand on the deck, a heavy fleece jacket wrapped around me, watching them. After about 10 minutes of the Coco vs Mouse match, our tiny prey makes a mad dash past Custard and glides in under the planting boxes, safe from Custards grasping paws. I breathe a sigh of relief. Yea, mouse.

Epilogue
About an hour later, after I have breakfasted on a slice of Håkan’s home-made bread, I hear the cats trying to get in through the cat door. I never unlocked it. I walk over to the door and look through the glass. Both cats are sitting there. A very dead mouse with its head eaten off is lying on the door mat.


Jul 19 2018

Summer 2018

To simply sit. To do absolutely nothing.

The air outside is warm – so warm that I don’t feel it surrounding my bare skin. I should get up and do something; sweep the deck clear of all the brown dried pine needles, put away the wood sander, coil the garden hose back on its holder, wash the dinner dishes from last night. So much that could be done. But I don’t move. The chair cushion is soft and encompassing, almost too warm under the shadow of the umbrella spreading its rust-tinged grey fabric over me. I don’t want to move.

High above me, in the upper reaches of the trees, the sunlit, dry and yellowing leaves of the birches flutter in a breeze that barely works its way lower, to move my hair against my neck and whisk away the dampness from my skin.

One time Jersey girl that I am, I close my eyes and imagine that the sound which the leaves make as they rustle against each other is the sound of salt water boiling up against the wide white sand of the Jersey shoreline. All that is lacking is the rhythmic pounding of the waves. But I can pretend, can’t I?

Last week, we washed the dirty grey from the deck’s wide boards. They look almost new-laid except for the uneven warping and dry fissures that give away the fact that they’ve been there a long time. In the sun, the wood is almost too hot to stand on with bare feet. They remind me of the Boardwalk, running along the Brooklyn beaches from Brighton to Coney Island, that I walked on with Grandma long ago. If I descend the staircase leading from the deck, will I arrive at the dry patchy grass of our sorry excuse of a lawn or to the blinding hot, white sand which leads to the far away water’s edge? My eyes are closed. Who can tell what I will find?

I still remember the summer of 1997. My son was only six years old then. We had an inflatable wading pool, nestled on top of the uneven moss and grass-covered rock below our tiny cottage, for him to splash around in. The summer was hot and long and dry. I emptied everything out of the mildewed tool shed, laying all the junk on a tarp spread on dried moss, without fear of anything getting rained on and wet – it hardly ever rained that summer. All summer, my husband and son spent hours lying in a hammock suspended between two birch trees, using paddles to swing themselves back and forth, pretending to be sailors on the open sea. That was also the summer we built our Friggebod. Or at least, the carpenters we hired built it. For many years, it was the only mold-free house on our property.

One of the birch trees gave up and died many years ago. We no longer have a good place to hang the hammock,so it sits rolled up on a shelf, in the over-crowded and still musty tool shed.

Five or ten years from now, I’ll sit with a cup of tea in my hands and remind friends of the summer of 2018 – how long it was, how hot it was, how sunny it was, and how dry it was. How wonderful it was. Hopefully, it will be the occasional exception to the rule, worthy of remembering and not become the expected normal Swedish summer.

It rained this year on Midsommar afton. It was practically the only rain we have had all summer. But, then, what would Swedish Midsommar be without a little rain?


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


Jan 28 2011

Choices

“You shouldn’t feel guilty for not being there to help her. You shouldn’t feel guilty that she is ill and elderly and alone, without family near her or many friends nearby. She made her choices and you do what you are able to do, when you can do it, to help her as much as you can. She’s where she is because of the choices she made.” This is what a friend told me recently.

But what kind of choices do we make in our lives? How much thought do we give them? How free to choose are we? And how responsible are we for our own choices and the choices of those near and dear? And even those far away?

I go into the supermarket to buy food for dinner. If I’m just coming home from working hard all day at my job and its getting late and I’m tired, Ill be looking for something quick and easy to make. Perhaps I buy a package of Bratwurst, enough for all of us and a box of instant mashed rutabaga. The bratwurst just goes in under the broiler for 10/20 minutes and the powered rutabaga only needs to be poured into boiling water and stirred and allowed to sit for 5 minutes. Voila! A tasty meal in under a half hour. Add some sliced raw carrots and you are all done.

But if I know that Ill be home most of the day and can spend some time and energy on making dinner then I will buy a different sort of ingredients. Perhaps I want to spend the time making a stew or even a roast. Maybe with a creamy potato casserole to go alongside the roast. For those kinds of meals I buy different ingredients. For the stew, I need to get enough stewing meat, a lot of nice potatoes, a bag of carrots, some onions, preferably the red kind, and maybe even mushrooms. For the roast and casserole I need to find a nice chunk of beef, a bag of potatoes, onions, cream, and a nice cheese to grate into the casserole. Ill also pick up veggies to include in a good salad and maybe even stop off at the local bakery to pick up a nice crusty fresh baked bread.

But for all three of these meals, the fast food and the slow food, I’m required to make choices. For the slow food dinners I might use a cookbook to guide me. It will tell me how long the roast should be in the oven and what temperature for it to come out good. For the fast food, I might read the ingredients on the package of the bratwurst and decide which brand of bratwurst based on what it says on the package. The box of rutabaga will give me instructions on the side of the box and might even give me ideas how to improve it.

But where’s the instructions for life? Where’s the cookbook that tells us what to do, in what order so that when we’ve cooked our life we haven’t burned the meal and ended up hungry?

When I moved to Sweden 23 years ago, both my parents were still alive, still living in the house I grew up in and still working. I admit I didn’t give them much thought when I decided to move so far away. I was more concerned about leaving my friends behind. Now things are different. My dad is gone since 1997 and my mom has moved twice since I moved to Sweden. The 10 years she and my dad had at the 55+ place called Homestead were good years for them and the 10 years there after my dad died were also pretty good. She had lots of friends and activities to keep her busy and I would come to visit once a year, usually dragging my family with me. Two years or so ago, she graduated from Homestead’s 55+ to Independent Living at Monroe Village. There she started off her stay by editing the Resident’s Newsletter, following a life-long love of writing, and she met Marty. Life was good and still independent was a key idea. But last week she ended up in the hospital because she had trouble walking. Now she is spending some time in Monroe Village’s health care center where they can keep a close eye on her and give her physical therapy to get her legs working again. I try to call her everyday. But life in the health care center is pretty boring. While she still sounds cheerful when I talk to her, she also sounds tired. Like life is getting too complicated, with all the medicines, and doctors and feeling in pain and not being able to walk or be in her own apartment. And I feel guilty that I’m not there to be of help to her. And here we come back to the choices we make in life.

I don’t mean only my choice to move to Sweden but also my mother’s choice to live where she lives. She chose long ago to live in Budd Lake NJ. That was pretty far from much of her family which were centered closer to New York. But it wasn’t really her own choice. It was made more by her parents who had bought a summer cottage there and eventually both my parents and grandparents decided to permanently move there – away from the rest of the family. Then when my grandmother died, my folks found Homestead and moved there, even further away from New York. But they loved living there so it was a good choice and an independent choice. Now she lives where she lives. Still independent.

And I feel guilty that I am so far away.


Jul 25 2010

Family

You can pick your nose.
And you can pick your friends.
But you can’t pick your friends’ nose.
That rhyme has rattled around in my head ever since I was a little kid. I don’t know why. So much other stuff doesn’t seem to be able to stay in there but that little ditty does. I always thought it was funny for some reason. The idea of picking one’s friends. It’s not the same with family. You can’t pick your family. They become attached to you the moment you are born. And they follow you for the rest of their lives. When I was much, much younger I used to wish that we could also pick family. One goes through a certain period of one’s life when FAMILY is either embarrassing, annoying or just plain irritating. It isn’t until you move far away from them that you realize just how important FAMILY really is.
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