A Porch of My Own

A Porch of My Own

Monday, May 11, 2015

Waiting For Signs

Nine years ago on our 25th anniversary, Rickie and I bought this Thompson's Yucca and planted it in the center section of the driveway. It was only about knee high when we bought it. We had paid $75 for it and were hoping it would make it. The main concern was that the deer would destroy it. They eat the heart out of the native yuccas we have and if we ever get any to bloom in the yard we have to cage them as soon as the blooms come out. But this one thrived. 

About 4 or 5 years ago it started blooming and has had a bloom stalk on it every year. By the time it first bloomed it was too tall for the deer to get to it. Three years ago we noticed the tiny beginning of another branch coming off it. This year, for the first time, it has two blooms, one on each of the "arms". I took these pictures this morning.

A quote from Craig Johnson's Longmire book series I love is "Stay calm, have courage, and wait for signs". I've had that posted on my fridge since the week of Rick's death. I take the two blooms as a sign, as I do the explosion of poppies, larkspurs, and Engelmann's daisies his garden has given me this year. 

Today would be 34 years that Rick and I were married. I found this in his writings; he wrote it a few months before he died. 

"Since Sue has retired from working in the school system and started living at the ranch, she has once again adapted to a situation different from what she was doing. She has become a local in a rural community. She has earned the respect of her neighbors. She has learned to deal with and understand 1500 pound beasts (Gus and Woodrow). She has immersed herself in the natural way of things at the ranch. She pays attention and notices the little things nature has to offer. These things she missed before but now she doesn't. She knows the names of the birds, plants, and animals. She notices the little nuances in the weather before it changes. She has dealt with her fear of darkness and spiders. She has satisfied her hunger to be a part time carpenter. It has been a joy watching her metamorphosis. Not many women or men could do this. 
It is wonderful to keep getting something new from someone when you have lived with them over a long period of time, in our case 33 years. Yes, there are a lot of things I know about Sue by now but she keeps giving me surprises."

I've thought a lot about whether my coming out here these last 4 years to live mostly by myself was the right decision. Whether, as things turned out, I should have stayed in Houston until Rick could retire and we could come out together. We talked about it a couple of times but both agreed it was to our benefit as a family that this place be considered our home and that me being here to keep things going, the garden, the longhorns, just all the things that need someone around to keep a place in shape, was the best option. 

But my own main reason for coming, and Rick knew this, was I worried that if I waited for him, it was always possible that I could die before he retired and never get to live out here and live the life I do. As a fan of Thoreau since childhood I, like him, wanted to see if I could go to the woods and learn what it had to teach, "and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." My mother had just passed away after a tough fight with Alzheimer's and it was on my mind that realistically, at my age, I had only so many productive years left. 

So, as Charlie Robison says, I packed my bags a little heavy that time and headed home to the 54 acres, the cabin, the longhorns, the garden, and the wildlife. And the longer I stayed the less I ever wanted to return to the city. When we scattered Rick's ashes back on the ridge I told family and friends that we had struggled and sacrificed to keep this place all these 27 years; that sometimes we thought we should have just waited until we retired and then bought a place. But I feel that the place a person calls home and spends time and loves defines that person. And this place defined Rick and it defines me. It allowed Rick to stay the country boy he always was while working in the city and it made a country girl out of me. I have become a different person living here and I like this person better than any other person I have been. 

And I'm thankful for the words Rick left me, his affirmation that the decision was right. I doubt I would be here now if I hadn't spent these last 4 years here. I don't know if I would have the courage to remake myself all on my own. I find comfort here that I could never find in the city and the life I lived before I came here; I would be floundering there. 

The second year we had our place we brought the deer camp style travel trailer out. I never told anyone, not even Rick, but when that happened, I said to myself "that's good because if I ever lose anyone I love I'm gonna need to come out here to stay, away from the noise and craziness of the city, close to nature, if I have any hope of surviving such a thing.

I was here when I got the call that my dad had a heart attack and died. I was here when my brother David, and Justin's mom Miriam both ended their battles with cancer the same week. It was here I came when my sister Deb slipped away and when my mom found peace at last. It was here I sat on the back porch floor and held Rickie's hand as we waited together for the coroner to come. 

And it's here I wake each morning and try to honor him and those I love by staying calm, having courage, and waiting for signs, though it's not always easy.

Happy anniversary, Rickie. I miss you.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Wonders of Spring

For 30 minutes I watched the little turkey hen from the window in the cabins. She's been coming into the yard every afternoon. I'm pretty sure she is nesting somewhere nearby. The hens have broken out of the large flock of 25 or so we had earlier and gone their own way. (Photo is of another hen with babies in 2013.)

I had finished mowing the yard in between the rain showers we had yesterday. So the grass wasn't too high and the ground was soft from the rains. She worked her way around the big oak tree right outside the window, scratching the ground over and over again and eating any bugs or seeds she uncovered. A walk around the yard the last few weeks shows turkey scratchings all over the place.

Every day I've had a big gobbler coming in the yard and pasture. Unlike the hen he comes all day long. You can see him from any window at different times of day depending on whether he's headed to the water tanks or finding things to eat. He tolerates me being in the yard as long as I'm not too close and am quiet.

We have good turkey habitat here. We provide water and supplemental feed. They have cover, trees to roost in, and areas to nest in. We have some areas of ash where we've burned brush piles; these make good dust bath places. We don't have a dog to run them off. They don't mind Woodrow and Gus; they'll hang out with them in the pastures.

I'm going to have some cedar cleared this year but I'm going to try and maintain a balance so the turkeys and deer still feel welcome and yet I can keep cedar from closing off the whole property. And open a long view here and there because it's human nature to want to see as far as you can. My father-in-law Jerome used to sit on an old church pew outside the back door of his home in Mississippi and stare down the hill into the woods for hours. I know how he felt and I know what he was looking for. And I know he found it there as I find it here.

We've had a beautiful Spring. The boys have some green grass to eat and the deer have forbs. Rickie's garden is covered with red poppies that come up from seed every year since he first planted them, more than we've ever had. The larkspurs that do the same are getting ready to bloom, and the native Engleman's daisies he transplanted into the garden are full of yellow flowers. The grapes are getting blooms and we have tiny peaches and plums on the trees Rickie planted. The crapapple he planted last year is covered with blooms and bees.

Native purple verbena and mealy blue sage are blooming all over the place and we have a few bluebonnets here and there. Mexican hats are coming up and the yuccas are starting to get bloom stalks. We've never had a lavender bloom like the one by the cabin has done this year.

Doves are everywhere, cooing each evening and flying up out of the trees when you get too near them. The vermillion flycatcher swoops over the garden and the titmouses are filling the trees with their chatter. Jackrabbits have returned to the yard and a small ladderback woodpecker makes his way around the cedar posts on the porch.

I've done a couple of little paint projects. Whether it's because the kids went on vacation to Mexico, land of bright happy colors, or because it's such a beautiful Spring, or because I felt the need to offset the blackness that sometimes settles in, I don't know. But the black front door got a new coat of happy paint and so did the inside of the pantry cabinet doors.

I drained and cleaned the water tanks, something we do every year. The heron that dropped out of the sky a while back and ate my beautiful big goldfish left a few small ones. I got those divided up among the three tanks.

I tilled the garden and planted and checked out the irrigation lines, making repairs where needed. My butternut squash seeds are up and so are the sunflower seeds I planted. My Papa planted sunflowers for us when I was a little girl and Rickie has planted them for me for years. This year I plant them.

It's the season of renewal, of hope. I've seen documentaries of nuclear disaster areas that show nature moving back in. The scope of the damage is great and it's not the same, but life returns. It takes time but the natural world measures time in eons.

And out here where the scope of the damage is also great and it's not the same, life returns. Those of us who live close to the natural world know the only way to continue is the only way it's always been. The way Rick and I tried to live. To find wonder in the seed that comes up and the hen that scratches the ground looking for food. I don't measure time in eons but rather in the changing of the seasons. This Spring has brought many wonders.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Women of the Land

Back in February I was at a brush control workshop partially sponsored by Texas Wildlife Association. Checking out their website I saw they have a program called Women of the Land.
They offered workshops geared to women living on rural or ranch land, and interested in conservation, wildlife, and land management.

Some of the workshops were one day but there was one that was 3 days of presentations and hands on experience. It was held on a ranch down south of me. Some of the things they offered I was familiar with and some I wanted to learn more about. Plus the opportunity to meet and interact with a group of women with similar interests sounded like something I needed. If I'm going to stay here without Rick, and I intend to, I'm going to have to do all I can to make it work.

When I told my daughter Sarah I had signed up for the workshop, she said she wanted to go too. I'm sure some of it was just to support me but she loves this place too and she wants to step up and help more with her dad gone. As the day to go approached, I have to tell you, I was wondering why in the hell I signed up for this! I just wanted to stay home where I can cry anytime I feel like it. And in the best of times being around people I don't know for any length of time isn't something I always want to do. What if I didn't like anyone? What if I got too sad? What if I felt out of place? I almost backed out but Sarah, who was also wondering if she would like this, said no, let's go. So we did. Knowing we could just leave if we wanted to! 

So we loaded up our cordless drills, our binoculars, our work gloves, and our hunting knives and headed south with our boots and jeans. We put the truck in 4 wheel drive when we got to the muddy ranch road and pulled in just in time for the wine and cheese social! We had all brought a couple of bottles of wine, and Sarah and I had a few tiny airline size bottles of Crown Royal in our bags. For emergencies.

Some of the women were my age and some were older. There were two young wildlife biology students from Amarillo. There were some younger than me but older than Sarah. I met a couple of women that have property down the road from me! They live elsewhere but come out here when they can. Some of the women managed their own ranches and some had inherited ranches they wanted to learn to manage. One woman was a hands-on ranch owner already, one sold real estate in Central Texas. What bound us together, besides a desire to learn, was a belief that there was nothing unusual about women calculating Boone and Crockett scores or mending fences, or figuring out how much cattle forage you have available.

Our classes and presentations were varied. The ranch owners taught some, along with some of the staff and friends, and Texas Wildlife Association and Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel came in from different parts of the state to help us. Through it all we had great meals prepared by one of the young ranch owners. She worked non-stop keeping us fed and hydrated. We stayed in a nice lodge on the ranch with a beautiful great room. We usually ate outside on a flagstone patio with a huge fire pit and a stone water feature, complete with a little running creek.

The presentations included gun cleaning, optics, knife sharpening (get yourself a WartHog knife sharpener), trailer backing, chainsaw operation and maintenance (I had been particularly interested in this one. The theme of the lesson was just because you aren't able to do it all, doesn't mean you can't do some. I have a Husqvarna cordless chain saw on order at a ranch supply store. I have confidence I can do some trimming at least!), aging and scoring deer, how to use a water wagon for fire fighting or road maintenance, range plant identification, and fence mending (gotta do that constantly around here). We had classes on bats and pollinators, GPS, plant identification and cattle grazing and forage. We learned about prescribed burning and got to set some little fires with drip cans. We built bat houses.

We  got to play with the big boy toys - we drove a bulldozer, a tractor, and a bobcat, carrying sand down the road and dumping it. While we certainly didn't get qualified to be heavy equipment operators, there is nothing like driving a bulldozer to empower you! The young men that helped us with this were extremely polite and helpful, as were all the people that presented or taught at the workshop.

On our last night there we climbed into the back of three pickups to go out and do a spotlight deer survey. They made it into a contest and we had to judge range distances and count some stakes with metal tags that one of the wildlife biologists had put out to represent deer. It was a cool and clear night, perfect for riding down a ranch road in the back of a truck with ladies you had come to respect and enjoy. As we pulled out of the ranch yard, Orion and the Dog Star hanging over our heads, with Taurus and the Seven Sisters just beginning to appear, one of the women in our truck started singing "The stars at night are big and bright............." We all joined in and then sang some cowboy songs we only knew part of the words to. We seemed alone in the world, the pickups slowly crunching the caliche of the ranch road, an occasional deer, jackrabbit, longhorn, and porcupine appearing near us, the soft voices of strong women singing rising over it all.

Deep in the heart of Texas, Sarah and I made her dad proud.

(Time to head home, me and Sarah, my lips chapped from the wind, Sarah all smiles.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Shaving Kit

All the years I have known Rickie he has always kept a shaving kit stocked with everything you would find in your home bathroom. He had to go on trips for work occasionally, and family visits, and of course, hunting trips. He never wanted to pack the things he would need each time and forget something, so he just kept it up to date. Shaving stuff, Advil, shampoo, toothbrush, the usual stuff everyone needs.

Years ago, he would always try the latest men's high priced fragrance, often ones the kids and I got him for Christmas. But 10 or 15 years ago he gave up on those and stuck with Aqua Velva Ice Blue. Cheap and available at the grocery store. When he was here at the ranch he never shaved unless we were going to a friends' house for dinner or maybe to the Odeon Theater in Mason to hear Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Ruthie Foster sing. He always said when he retired he was going to grow a beard and a ponytail. A little bit redneck, a little bit hippie, the yin and yang of him.

He bought a new shaving kit a while back, camo patterned. I keep in in the closet. It has his hairbrush with the gray strands of his hair in it. The whole thing smells of Aqua Velva. Sometimes I open it and get a whiff of his fragrance; the only physical manifestation of him I have left. It makes me feel like I've been kicked in the stomach and I can't breathe. But still I do it anyway, seized, as Seth Walker says, by exquisite hurt. 

And I wonder will all the rest of my days be like this, moments of happiness but always offset by these moments of intense pain. Will that be the yin and yang of me.

It's been almost four months and I've not made it through a day without tears yet, but maybe that's not a long time in dealing with loss. Rickie had this song on his iPod and played it for me a while back; said it was a good song.  

Friday, February 27, 2015

Winter Visitors

The Three Amigos have been hanging out at the milo feeder for the last couple of hours. Every once in a while one of the gobblers stops eating long enough to display but it's a half-hearted attempt. It's just too cold! It's in the 20's and not expected to get above freezing today. 

The turkeys have been showing up off and on the last few weeks. A group of about 16 hens, one of 9 or 10 jakes, and today these 3 gobblers. Sometimes a group of 5 gobblers stops by. So far the gobblers don't seem to show up when the ladies are here. 

For about 3 weeks now, a beautiful 10-point buck has been at the deer feeder every afternoon at 5:00 when it goes off. He returns every day. I've not seen a buck his size hang around as much as he has. I know the rut's over and apparently he knows hunting season is over. But still it's unusual for one that size to be as visible. Or that's been my experience out here of watching them all these years.

One of his tines is broken off on the end. The does were bothered by his presence a little at first but now they mostly ignore him and he ignores them. It's the corn he's after. We haven't had any rain this month, only a trace of moisture from some ice last week. There's not a lot to eat.  Most of the hunters only feed during hunting season so our feeder is in high demand. We feed year round.

While the does respect him, the bossy doe, and there's always one or two around, give the spikes and 4-pointers hell.  I watched one yesterday jump and paw at the 4-pointer and run him off again and again. 

Tougher Than Leather has survived the season. She's gotten a bit more sure of herself and the does don't try to run her off so much. One afternoon the 10-pointer was on one side of the feeder eating and she was on the other. They stood there 2 feet apart, each respecting the other's right to be there. For some reason, it made me happy seeing her there next to him, being accepted by the group. 

Rickie had warned me if she came into heat a buck would cause her pain; they can be brutal and with her only having one back leg to stand on, she would be hurt. But if she was, she's survived it. Time will tell if she is pregnant. I've no doubt that she's got the kind of bloodline that needs to be passed on. The survival gene is strong in her. 
(This photo is an 8-pointer that stopped by in December.)

The bucks will soon be dropping their antlers and since he's hanging around here, I'm hoping my daily visitor will drop his where I can find one of them. I've only found one dropped antler in all the walks I've taken out here. They don't last too long with squirrels and mice nibbling on them and they're hard to find. 

I had a very unusual visitor drop by a couple of weeks ago. We are a long way from a river, pond, or marsh so imagine my surprise when I saw this heron in the driveway! He hopped over the garden fence and onto the little tank that has a water lily and a couple of small goldfish. All the tanks have goldfish and they've been hibernating down at the bottom and in some concrete blocks we have for them. I watched this guy for about 30 minutes, waiting for him to make a move, then I gave up. I don't know if he got the fish or not. I'll know when the weather warms and they resurface. Or not.

One morning walking to the front gate last week a fox ran across the driveway in front of me. He stopped to stare at me, and I at him, then slipped quietly through the cross fence. Last night the buck stopped and met my eyes when he saw me at the window. There is something that passes between you and a wild animal at that moment when you stand still and look into each other's eyes. There's an equality about it that has no owner/pet, master/servant, stronger/weaker component to it. These are not my animals, nor am I theirs. They share this land with me and I with them. They don't depend on me to live, but they accept the corn and milo I put out for them. In return, they visit me and sometimes they stop and acknowledge me. Quid pro quo, country style.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Like a Coat From the Cold

I don't mean to turn the blog into a sad chronicle of my loss, but one of the reasons I started it was to write things to share with my family. So indulge me today, please, as I talk of grandfathers, grandmothers, and uncles long gone.

Great-grandfather Roberts, a former Justice of the Peace in Illinois, wrote a letter to his daughter Hattie when her 24 year old son Gene was killed in Korea at Heartbreak Ridge. I don't find the majority of it comforting as he mostly just says, don't cry, it's worse when you lose a spouse, god's will, etc. If I ever lost a child, especially to violence, and someone told me it was god's will, they better duck because I'm fixing to punch them in the face. And I mean that sincerely.

But it has a sadness when he talks about losing his wife that I can now understand. He says "you stand alone, your life shattered, with the wreck all around you and you do not know which way to turn. I have had that experience and only I know the loneliness. She is in heaven and there Gene finds her and is gathered with those who have gone before....
I am writing you this sitting by the fire in the kitchen this cold, rainy Sunday, and living over the past 60 years since I first met our Mama. I am an old man, and I have left the rest of my life in the hands of my god, knowing that when I have finished my mission, I will receive my reward, and there is entire peace between us."

While my beliefs on the ways of the universe are different than his, today I find his comments like a big hug from a grandfather that I knew only vaguely when I was a very young girl and he was a very old man.

And as I write this sitting by the fire in my kitchen this cold, icy Monday, and living over the past 34 years since I first met Rickie, I feel a connection with Grandpa Roberts. And it comforts me, as much as I can be comforted today. This "blog post" of his from 1953.

And I marvel at how I've saved this letter all these years since Grandma Hattie gave it to me back in the 1960s. A letter written on his J.P. stationery, with his office phone number of 474 and home phone number of 1008 in the top corners. It's survived every downsizing and move I've made to surface this morning.

Some things can't be explained and people need to stop trying to make up stories to explain them; it's not necessary. Some things just are. I've walked with sadness this morning and Grandpa Roberts has come to walk with me. And it warms and comforts me, as Guy Clark says, like a coat from the cold.

Like A Coat From the Cold by Guy Clark

Friday, February 13, 2015

Prickly Pear - the Good, the Bad, and the Heart of It

People not familiar with the kind of country we live in used to always ask what we were going to do when we retired. I always told them Rickie was going to cut cedar and I was going to dig up prickly pear.

I decided today was a good day to work on my end of that. We have some open areas between the cabin and the road and the prickly pear is out of control there. I like prickly pear. It has beautiful flowers and my favorite jelly is made with the fruit, although you have to work hard for it. It provides food for wildlife and Woodrow and Gus will nibble on it in a pinch. But it's one of those things that if you give it an inch it takes a mile.

I was having a day of rough moments. I really don't have days that are rough; I have moments. I learned many years ago to appreciate the little things and I can have moments of happiness in all but the darkest of days. If you can't find peace and joy in the world around you - in a little crippled doe that keeps on going, the tiny yellow bloom on an indescript cactus, an early morning snowfall, the way the late afternoon sun lights up the hills - then it might be harder for you to find that peace. But it's always there for me. I just have to get out in it.

It got up to 81 degrees today. Perfect for digging prickly pear. I started outside the yard gate and worked for about 3 hours. The boys had nibbled the grass as close to the pear as they could. When pickin's are slim like now they show up with cactus spines in their faces. I freed up some grass where I dug the pear out and they headed straight to that when I left. Then they moved over to the area where I dump the pear out and examined that. Curiosity is a character trait of theirs and they notice anything different in their world.

There's a little bug called a cochineal that lives on prickly pear. You can tell it's there when you see white cottony clumps on the pads. If you smash the bug you'll end up with a bright red color on your fingertips. This is used to make a red dye and it colors food and makeup. It was used by indigenous people in Mexico and by the Spaniards to dye clothes. I like seeing it and knowing its story. I like knowing that people long dead found uses for it in their lives and that it's still around. It's a survivor and I like survivors.

This heart shaped pad was lying on the ground where I was working. The boys had chomped it off recently and left it right where I happened to be today. Their Valentine to me.

I wonder sometimes if they miss Rickie. I'm not sure what they comprehend. They are smart observant animals very aware of their surroundings. If they notice a few prickly pear dug up and moved surely they notice the absence of their friend. The one who stood at the fence and rubbed their noses and horns, speaking softly to them. They know their names and they know their routines and they come when you ring the bell on the shed.

And apparently they know Valentine's Day is this week.