Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Death to the Moth


Oh that Virgina Woolf. Such a sentimental softie. There she is in a room of her own, sitting at her writing desk but obviously procrastinating by looking out the window. (I procrastinate by doing the laundry.) The scenery before her provides exquisite pastoral beauty of a September day in the English countryside: fields being ploughed, birds swooping to and fro, horses gamboling about. Yet she gives all her attention to a moth fluttering at her windowpane, seemingly “content with life” before it keels over, and she is “conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him.”

Well, I don’t have much pity for the moth fluttering around my kitchen. The pantry moth, the Indian mealmoth, the Plodia interpunctella. If only our moth seemed to be just “content with life.” Our moth isn’t content unless it gets into every box of Triscuits, every partially used package of baking walnuts, every minuscule crevice of a bag of flour.

And while the moth might be as diminutive as the one that charmed our Ginny, it is definitely not frail. It zips around the kitchen, surviving a certain death blow between two hands clapping, eluding the grey cat who leaps to bat at it with outstretched paws, and cannily avoiding all of the traps, with their alluring red squares and sticky surfaces, that have been placed strategically up high, down low, and any place in between that we have seen the moth alight.

At the end of her musings, Woolf admires her now dead moth, “most decently and uncomplainingly composed.” If only our moth would be so decent as to die off.  Even if one of us manages to squash the thing against the wall, we know what lurks in the corners of the cabinets. We know it has left behind its eggs, and like the offspring of the Alien of sci-fi horror filmdom, those eggs will grow into larvae, then into pupa and finally to adulthood. We may be lulled into a short period when we think we have escaped the torment, when we can open a bag of granola without groaning “Oh gross!” But no, there they are again, and our only recourse is to take everything out of the cupboards; to throw away masses of what had been perfectly good cereal and crackers, nuts and other nibbles; and then to wash down the shelves and any containers that had been on those shelves.

So Woolf rhapsodizes about her moth: “as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.”

I don’t know about day moths in rural Sussex, England, but pantry moths in suburban southeastern Pennsylvania are nothing but pests.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Happy Halloween


Yes, it’s decorative gourd season again.

Halloween is nearly upon us. But you wouldn’t know it from our house. Outside, no pumpkins, no mums, just baskets of impatiens still hanging on with some periwinkle petals. The front door does not boast a bundle of dried corncobs. Inside, the same empty ceramic bowl has sat in the middle of the dining room table since the poinsettias were retired in January. No cornucopia overflows with fall’s bounty. I won’t even be here the evening of October 31 (although Jon may have to dole out some treats). Without kids in the house, Halloween has become a non-event.

But when the kids were young, Halloween definitely was an event. In fact, the event that heralded the beginning of the holiday season. At the first chilly night, the family went into seasonal overdrive. Off to Linvilla Orchards for piles of pumpkins, pots of yellow and orange mums, and a bale of straw to be turned into stuffing for our “fall tableau”: we each would contribute a worn shirt and pair of pants to be stuffed. The straw-stuffed bodies would be propped up on a bench in the yard and topped with pumpkins for heads. Voila! Mom and Dad and Jay and Annie in scarecrow form.

The heart of Halloween, though, was costume-planning. Well before the nights turned cold, sometimes at the first sign of summer's fading, husband Jon and daughter Annie would go into caucus over their costumes. Jon was not a big fan of trick-or-treating, but he joined in Annie’s planning with good-hearted gusto (and also with the hope that he might get a couple Oh Henry candy bars out of it for his trouble).  These costumes weren’t purchased at a Halloween pop-up store at the mall. These costumes were made by hand by Annie and Jon (mostly Jon) and were eagerly anticipated each year by the households they visited on their rounds. One year Annie was a maiden from Camelot who traveled with her own Merlin, she in flowing medieval wear and he majestic in long cape and outsized wizard’s hat. Another year, Annie was a Southern belle and Jon her charming beau.

As Annie got older, the costumes evolved from cute to clever, like the time they went as “Coke with a Straw.” Annie wore a silver cylinder of poster board with accurate Coke graphics, and Jon made a flexible tube by basting a series of hula-hoops into sheets painted with red stripes. This contraption was then worn in such a way that he could make it bow at just the right place for a bendy straw. And there was the time they went as “Partly Sunny.” Annie wore grey sweat-pants and -shirt with bunches of white balloons somehow attached to the sweatshirt so that she looked like a walking cumulus cloud. Jon fashioned a mask of yellow rays flaring from around his head, like the pictures of Old Sol in children’s books. Strapped around his head beamed a kind of miner’s lamp. As they walked through the neighborhood, there was no doubt that the day was sunny with some clouds. They always came home with bags bulging with sugared booty – and if Annie was happy and there was an Oh Henry in one of those bags, it was all worth it to Jon.

Many harvest moons have passed. Both kids are out of college and out of the house. Less than two months ago we were all together for Labor Day weekend, just about the time that Jon and Annie used to get down to serious Halloween costume business. Sitting out on the deck, Jon smiled and said to Annie, “So, what should we go as for Halloween this year?” Annie turned a pitying eye on her father and replied, “Oh, Pops. I never liked doing all that Halloween costume stuff. I only did it because it was so important to you.”

Now, there’s a taste of O. Henry for Jon.




Sunday, April 27, 2014

Watered Down Coleridge


Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink

“I thought I should let you know before you got home. When I came in this morning I found a hole in your hall ceiling and a pile of plaster pieces on your hall rug, which is also soaking wet.” So ran our cat-sitter’s voicemail message that I picked up while we were driving back from July Fourth weekend on the Cape in the middle of the hottest summer ever.

After a flurry of phone calls from the car, our plumber guy and our home-repair guy pulled into the driveway minutes after we did. Plumber Guy figured out what happened first. The condensation draining tube from the central air conditioner’s condenser on the third floor had gotten clogged and backed up into the overflow pan. The sensor that should have sensed water in the pan and should have shut down the air conditioner did not sense the danger because the pan had cracked. The air conditioner ran and the water drained down inside two stories of walls to end up saturating the hall ceiling, which gave way, landing in a sodden mess on the hall carpet. Plumber Guy expressed surprise at the problem. We expressed surprise at Plumber Guy: he was the one who had installed everything eight years before and had been doing the plumbing in the house ever since. Plumber Guy put in a new overflow pan and charged us $500. Home-Repair Guy cleaned the wound in the ceiling, with plastic for a bandage, and didn’t come back until Thanksgiving to re-plaster. One bright spot: the hardwood floorboards threatened to warp, but then changed their minds.

And the coming wind did roar more loud...
And the rain poured down from one black cloud.

Two months later we again arrived home from a Cape weekend to another water event, this time in our TV room: a waterfall cascading down the inside of the window and a shower sprinkling from now visible seams in the ceiling adjoining the window. A freak storm (part of which we had driven through) had dumped four inches of rain in less than an hour. The drainage of the flat roof over the TV room could not cope. So in came the water, leaving behind a 2’x3’ section of ceiling a mottled mustard shade. We did not call Plumber Guy, nor did we call Home-Repair Guy. The mottled mustard remains.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around.

In January – yes, when we arrived home from a New Year’s visit to the Cape – we found a frozen facade coating the fieldstone that is the outside wall of our house. After several weeks of head-scratching and consulting with various experts, it was Home-Repair Guy’s turn to solve the mystery: the old pipe to bring water from the third floor bathroom, which had been installed several generations back with no insulation up the inside of the exterior, had cracked under the onslaught of arctic temperatures. Water escaped once more down two stories and this time found crevices to come out and pour down the outside wall.

Given that all three of these wet messes were discovered on returns from the Cape, you might think if we just didn’t go to the Cape, our water worries would be over.

But no…

In March I noticed puddles and pools around the base of our gas heater – and we hadn’t been to the Cape for two months! The water dripped from a narrow copper pipe suspended from a jungle gym of pipes and valves that make up the transportation system for our gas heater and radiators.  It was Plumber Guy’s turn again. He diagnosed a faulty water tank and replaced it. Yet the puddles and pools not only remained, the drip graduated to a steady trickle. Plumber Guy came back and re-diagnosed the problem: a faulty lever on one of the valves. He replaced that. (I know, with all this replacing, we should also think about replacing Plumber Guy.)

And yet there is no relief. Two weeks ago the water company began an “upgrade,” replacing all the pipes underneath our road. Of course, there was some malfunction (although at least not at our house this time), and a small river rushed down the street. The water company chose to repair the problem at 2:00 a.m., with the glare of the work lights, the grinding of the drill through pavement, and the shouts of the various workers encouraging each other, making for an interesting sleep environment.

I have had enough. Tomorrow I’m sending around an email to the neighbors: “Okay, which one of you did in the albatross?”

Water, water every where…




Sunday, September 16, 2012

To the greater glory…

            I go to church to sing.
            There it is. I know I will be struck by lightning. For our family, God does not work in mysterious ways at all. Nope. He acts quickly and clearly.           
            Example:  My mother and my grandmother (her mother-in-law) were never very fond of each other. My father’s sudden death at age 54 left my mother, in her grieving and upended state, to be the one to keep a daily eye on my grandmother since my father’s sister lived 1,000 miles away in Florida. My mother religiously visited Grandma, who lived only minutes up the street from us. This was hardship duty, but she did it without a whimper. I was in college at the time and what I heard most often was how much my mother admired (not to say coveted) one of Grandma’s china lamps. After 3½ years, at the age of 82, my grandmother died in her sleep. My aunt came up from Florida, the estate was settled, my grandmother’s house was dismantled, and my aunt was fine with my mother taking the china lamp. By this time, I was home following graduation and my mother enlisted me to drive while she cradled the base of the lamp in her lap, with the lampshade, protected by a blanket, sitting safely behind us on the back seat. Not having decided yet the best placement for the lamp, my mother put it down in the basement on the floor so that there was no danger of its falling off a table. Less than two weeks later, a freak storm of nearly hurricane intensity sprang up and a mighty gust of wind blew open the cellar door. SMASH went the lamp. My mother told this story in a matter of fact way: it was not mysterious at all that God would frown on her taking possession of this coveted lamp once owned by a woman she did not like. A devout Episcopalian, my mother understood the message immediately and had no hard feelings toward God.
            Now back to me and church…
            I have been singing Episcopal hymns in Episcopal churches since I was old enough to stay “up” in church for the service instead of going “down” to the undercroft (read “basement”) for story time. And for decades I was singing from the choir stalls. Choirs, especially good choirs, are regularly reminded that they are not performing. Choir music is part of the service. No applause, no encores, no “bravos.” (Even if you happen to have done a fine job as soprano soloist in Schubert’s “Mass in G Major.”)
            But that was okay. During those decades, concurrent with singing in church, I had other singing opportunities that were performances. Applause welcome. (Plus any individual words of praise.). At Hollidaysburg Junior High I starred in the 9th grade operetta, “The Man from Venus.” In high school, the Baldwin Trio were featured at chorus concerts. (See “Harry Goes to Hollywood.”) In college, my rendition of “When I’m 64” was preserved for posterity in the first recording of my women’s a cappella group. As an adult, I sang with a number of organizations, from 150-member volunteer choruses that performed Verdi’s “Requiem” with the Philadelphia Orchestra to a 16-member professional chamber choir that performed Thomas Tallis in local churches.
            Once our children were both old enough to stay “up” in church, I stopped singing in the choir. I had all those other singing outlets and I wanted to sit in the pew with my family.
            About 13 years ago, I gave up even my extracurricular singing. Kids’ school events and our work schedules were just too tight to jam in any rehearsals. My only outlet for singing was from the pew on Sunday mornings--and that is not performing. I confess that sometimes I would get carried away, especially at Christmas, as I knew by heart all the fancy descants which I would then belt out with gusto. This led to embarrassment on the part of my children, but also, often enough, to someone turning to me and saying, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Then the kids grew up. Going to church on Sunday has become less compelling then doing the crossword puzzle.
            However, when we were last up on the Cape driving to dinner in a new area, Jon pointed: “Look, there’s an Episcopal church!” He had struck a chord. I had been feeling like I was missing something. So the Sunday before Labor Day I went off to church. Seating no more than 125 souls, the building was a small jewel, with white-washed walls, dark wood beams, and brilliant stained glass windows. And they had a great music program. At the 10:00 a.m. service I was so happy to be chanting the liturgy and singing the Navy Hymn and “Come, Labor On” (hymns, coincidentally, from my father’s 1970 funeral that still make me tear up). When the service concluded, two people sped toward me, one still in her choir robe.
            “I heard you from the choir stall. Next time you are here, please come join us.”
            “Oh, that’s what I was going to say! You should be in the choir!’”
            And from the trim gray-haired woman in the seersucker suit who had been sitting in front of me, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Ah. That’s what I’d been missing. Adulation…of me!
            I am a vainglorious creature, and fully expect to be a pile of ashes momentarily.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Moon


August 31, 2012: Cape Cod, MA

The end of August really annoys me.

It’s not so much that September is around the corner and the next step means back to school. Although I do work for a university, I’m on an administrator’s schedule, so September is no different for me than July. And I genuinely enjoy the changing of the seasons. It’s just that the end of August is so sudden about it.

Consider the transition from fall to winter. When does that happen? No set time. There can be snow on Halloween and t-shirt running weather on Christmas. The leaves take forever to come down. Week after week of raking. The township makes leaf pick-ups from November 1 through December 10. There’s a gradual building up to the holiday madness from September on; the winter solstice doesn’t take anyone by surprise.

And consider February. I’ve always thought that February gets a bum rap as the dreariest month. In fact, February has as many daylight hours as October. It’s just that nobody notices. And the first snowdrops come up in February to make way for crocuses in March. All giving us time to prepare for April and the early forsythia and daffodils before there are even any leaves on the trees. So when did winter end?

In late April we might put in the screens on the side porch and get out a couple of chairs. Three weeks later we might retrieve the grill from the garage, then wait another week before planting the impatiens. And we can even wait another week or so before we buy the hanging baskets for the front doorway. Summer comes that gradually.

But the end of August slams into summer like a hurricane making landfall. No subtlety about it. Almost overnight the world seems to go from daylight and birds chirping at 5:00 to dark silence as late as 6:00 a.m. In my morning run, I’m loping past the tidy landscapes of Plush Mill Road when I smell it: the pungent odor of decaying leaves. The impatiens that were perky just a few weeks ago now look sallow, with snubbed nodes on their stems instead of incipient buds. Recognizing the inevitable, I’m tempted to stop my rounds of watering. Why bother? Can’t stop the decline now!

Take the last couple days. We arrived on the Cape Thursday afternoon, having left only 10 days before. The end of August had done its damage here as well. 

Our planters and baskets of flowers that had thrived all summer through extended absences and benign neglect now look like props for the Addams Family, dead stems collapsed over the sides of their containers. Our neighbors returned to Albany only a week ago, yet their black-eyed-Susans that had reigned in glorious sunny gold for three months now stand stiff with nothing left but charred tops. Although the thermometer said it was 82°, an undercurrent of chill raised the hair on my forearms and Jon wanted to know if he could build a fire. The scrub trees edging the pond are pock-marked with leaves the color of dried blood, and at our favorite farm stand pumpkins are pushing aside the peaches. There is no more reading on the deck until 7:30 p.m. -- we can’t see the pages of our books. And we have to turn on the lights to eat dinner.

All of this change in 10 days.

In defiance of the end of August bearing down on us, tonight, August 31, Jon and I put a steak on the grill, boiled up some corn, and had a salad with native tomatoes. Afterwards we walked down to the landing of the pond. The breeze was now soft and the moon was shining so brightly that the water shimmered silver and we could see our shadows.

The moon wasn’t really blue, but we were. Good-bye, summer. 





Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Vexatious Security


            I have just gotten back to sleep after my usual middle-aged late night walk-about when my cell phone rings. Only half conscious, I’m thinking it’s awfully late for “Rachel the Automaton Voice” to be calling from Oregon to assure me that there’s nothing amiss with my credit card, but boy does she have a deal for me. The phone now in my hand, I see that it is 2:23 a.m. and the caller is Vector Security.
            I am on my feet and wide awake.  “Yes?”
            “This is Vector Security. We are getting a burglar alarm from your house. Are you at home?”
            “No, I’m not at home.” (I am on Cape Cod, 350 miles away from home.)
             “Would you like us to call the police?”
            For some reason I take a second to silently review that Jon is in the Adirondacks with his siblings, Annie is in Seattle with her college roommate, and Jay is unlikely to have traveled from Brooklyn to arrive home at 2:23 in the morning.
            “Yes, please call the police. Will I get a follow-up?”
            “If the police find anything, they’ll call us and we’ll call you back.”
            Well, so long sleep! I sit straight up in bed for a full hour, spending the first 30 minutes getting my heart rate back to normal. At 3:23 I figure I’m not going to hear anything, so I turn out the light.
            While driving home the next day I call Vector Security. Did they really not hear anything, as I was not eager to walk into a ransacked house?
            “No, we heard nothing from the police.”
            “What sensor sent you the alarm?”
            “The right living room exterior door.”
            Ah. The usual suspect.
            We have not had good luck with our security system. In our old house, the converted livestock barn, we had nine, yes nine, “exterior doors” on three levels. None of the doors had locks and we had no alarm system. We lived there for 16 years, and the only breaches were in-laws who sometimes wandered through the kitchen when we weren’t expecting them.
            When we moved to our current house, our insurance company not only insisted on covering us at two times the purchase price (“We have to go with replacement cost!”) but also insisted on a central station alarm system.
            The previous owners had used Vector Security, and the remnants of the system were still in the house. So we called Vector. They sent a salesman who was exceedingly proud of his literary name. To protect the guilty, I won’t give his real name, but it was the equivalent of “Shelley Melville.” He told us that we would need all new sensors (doors, movement and fire) throughout the house, to the tune of thousands of dollars. Luckily Joe the technician said that “Shelley” was nuts. Joe replaced a couple sensors, added a few new ones, and reactivated what remained.
            The system was intimidating. The User’s Manual was (and still is) 120 pages long. The main panel has three rows of seven buttons each. The “fobs” for turning the system on and off from a key chain have a complicated pattern of how many times to press which icon for what outcome. We never turned the darn system on. We did lock the doors, though, since having the ability to do so was such an interesting novelty.
            Election Day 2007. Jon and I are heading home early from our respective offices in PA and NJ so that we can all vote together as a family for local school board representatives. I’m 20 minutes from home when Annie calls. She has arrived home from school (she was still in high school at the time) to find the kitchen door bashed in.
            We had been robbed.
            The only thing the thief took was Annie’s jewelry box, which was worth more in sentiment than cents. But we were stunned.
            As for the local constabulary, Annie could only marvel at their tramping and shouting through the house with flashlights at 4:00 in the afternoon, slamming doors and talking to the cats, while looking for the perpetrator(s). The lead detective was also puzzled by our quixotic housekeeping: Jay’s TV on the guestroom bed, for example. But they were especially censorious about the fact that we hadn’t had the alarm turned on. They didn’t recover Annie’s jewelry box, but they did give us a lengthy lecture.
            So we began using the alarm system. And so began the false alarms.
           June of 2009. Jon and I both had our cell phones off so we didn’t even know it had happened until we got home and listened to all the voicemail messages. We also got a nasty note from our township office threatening fines for false alarms. (How this squared with the lecture about always turning on the alarm system I do not know.)
            The summer of 2011. Jon and I were heading into Philadelphia, looking forward to a movie at the Ritz Five and a light supper afterward at Zahav, when my cellphone rang: Vector Security. Burglary alarm.
            My heart racing, I tell Jon to turn around (well, get off north I-95 and then back on south I-95) and head for home. The police are still there. They could find nothing. They said, with some disdain, that the cats must have set off a motion alarm. But we hadn’t turned on the motion alarms. Vector said it was the right living room exterior door.
            And now the alarm has interrupted vacation rest instead of movie-going. (Plus, earlier in the summer Annie had arrived home to find that the panel buttons wouldn’t work to turn off the alarm. When she couldn’t tell Vector the password the local constabulary arrived at the house again. They and Annie were old friends by now.)
            So something is wrong. I’ve called Vector to come out and check the whole system. Who will they send?
            Joe or “Shelley”?

Monday, April 2, 2012

From the Back Seat

When Jon and I first met in 1980, we uncovered some uncanny childhood coincidences—in spite of the fact that his father was a Philadelphia lawyer raising his family 25 miles north of the city and my father was a doctor delivering babies in the Altoona Hospital halfway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and raising his family in Hollidaysburg. Perhaps most astonishing, Jon and I figured out that we could have crossed paths at the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1962. How many East Coast fathers decided that the summer of ’62 was the time to take a family trip across the country?

There were differences. Leaving the older sisters at home, Jon’s mother drove Jon and his brother in the family station wagon to Taos, NM, where his father met them after taking the train. (The Broadway Limited to Chicago before changing trains.) They spent most of their extended trip at campsites or rustic ranches. They even walked down into the Grand Canyon and the next morning rode mules back up.

Not for us the “roughing it” version. My parents packed all four kids and four weeks of suitcases for hotels and motels into our white four-door Sedan de Ville. My brothers were 17 and 14; I was nine and my sister was seven.  Since brother #1 was practically a grown-up, he shared the driving with my mother and father. To have any chance at extended peace, it would not work to have the 14-year-old brother in the back seat with his two elementary school sisters. So through complicated calculations that kept some configuration of grown-ups and brother#2 in the front seat as much as possible, my sister and I saw the U.S.A. not in a Chevrolet but from the back seat of a Cadillac.

And what do I remember from that trip? The first morning we left very early, driving to Bedford to get on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west. Our goal was a motel on the outskirts of Chicago. My dad, an avid golfer, talked about a PGA tournament due to start that same morning. Not long after the comment, we could see in front and above us a walkway over the turnpike. Sure enough, overhead and through the mist appeared a number of men in pastel pants on that walkway, followed by lackeys lugging golf clubs. It was almost too good to be true.  (Jon tells me that it must have been the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, Jack Nicklaus’ first win.)

The car clocked mile after mile, every AM radio station in the country playing Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or the spooky space music of “Telstar.” Through the back windows we saw abattoirs, buffalo, and twisters, things as alien to us as pagodas, volcanoes, and windmills. Billboards were our reading material. (We never visited anything that started with “World’s Largest…” nor did our pleas result in a stop anywhere that ended with “Caverns.”) But we did hit more highlights than I can list. In addition to the Grand Canyon (where I may have passed my future husband in a gift shop?), we saw the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. We stayed overnight in Las Vegas, where the temperature was 107° and we went to a grand hotel to see Victor Borge, who made us laugh while he played the piano. We toured Beverly Hills and Fisherman’s Wharf.  We visited Knots Berry Farm, and at Disney Land I was allowed to go on the scary rides with my brothers, as long as I could keep up with them. (To this day, I walk very, very fast.) We saw Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL, and Route 66’s home in Springfield, MO. We gazed in awe at the Hoover Dam and we crossed Lake Michigan on a ferry. (The trip was so rough I still avoid ferries— and as a result have never set foot on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.)

Over the course of four weeks surprisingly few things went wrong, although we each had our difficult moments. My dad found a Rotary Club lunch to go to in San Francisco, where the president of the club mispronounced my dad’s name when introducing visitors. (No mean feat that, mispronouncing “Taylor.”) When we were in Jackson Hole, WY, my mother had an unhappy time on a trail ride when she would kick her horse as she also pulled back on the reins, saying “Whoa!” (The horse probably had an unhappy time as well.) At the same stop, brother #1 went to a “hoe-down” at the Lodge and the girl he had his eye on danced with someone else. Brother #2 left his prescription sunglasses on the roof of the car when we stopped to take pictures in the Badlands and for the remainder of the trip had to wear clip-ons over his regular glasses. (Not cool.)  Because my mother liked to buy us matching outfits, on several occasions I had to put up with people mistaking me for my sister’s twin. (Also not cool: I was 21 months older!) And my sister was never allowed to pick the radio station.

Nevertheless, we arrived back home without much incident in mid July, and summer settled back to normal, with swimming during the day and catching fireflies in a glass jar after dinner. The trip out West became a collection of photographs.

That was 50 years ago. Impossible.