The woman flipped open my chart. I was there to talk about my teeth. A routine check up. Count them. Scrape them. Polish them. Set me free.
“Are you still nursing?”
“How old is your baby?”
“Do you have other children?”
There’s always a silence afterward.
This interaction has become routine. Where I live I could be a grandmother and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of ordinary. I feel her eyes scan my date of birth. Some mental calculations are made. I have a few more years than her notched on my belt. And my son is more than a decade younger than her oldest. I smile.
What I consider saying:
He took a long time to get here. I feel lucky to have him. Every night I thank God my one is in my life. And, yes, it’s none of your damn business.
Instead, I lean back in my chair, look at the tips of my shoes, open my mouth, and wait.
At about 19 weeks, human fetuses begin to hear from inside the womb. The first sounds they likely register are the gurgling of their mother’s stomach and the steady drumming of her heart. Her voice will be a sound they recognize and respond to before ever seeing her face. In other words, by 19 weeks, it will never be quiet again.
The value of silence is something I am trying to teach my son to appreciate as he grows. Because the world is a noisy place. It seems that every inch of available concrete is increasingly being used to prime us to open our wallets. Billboards scream at us from across the highway. Our phones nudge us for attention with chronic push notifications. Even my nearest gas station recently installed television screens on its pumps that blast advertisements 24 hours a day – even if no one is around to hear them. I find this disturbing.
The other day as I took refuge in my car from gas station TV, I recalled running errands with my mom as a kid. I remembered the sudden quiet when she’d park and cut the engine. How the radio stalled mid-song and the world outside seemed to operate as if on mute. I can still remember happily sitting in the cocoon of the car in the parking lot of Market Basket while my mom returned the shopping cart. I remember curling into the pocket of sunshine warming the backseat and just watching the world walk by.
That’s what I want for my son. Moments of quiet observation. Moments where he just has to sit and wonder without some device yelling at him. I want him to understand the importance of standing still.
So I started a new tradition this week. I pulled out our copy of A Field Guide to Western Birds and started birding with Gabe in our backyard. Truthfully I can’t say that he understands the point, but he seems to enjoy being plopped in the middle of the grass every afternoon. We sit on a blanket and I listen for birds while Gabe pulls at the blades of green at his feet. Sometimes the cat emerges from a bush and circles the blanket before returning to his hideaway in the garden.
It isn’t long before the chatter of birdsong begins. Within a few minutes a robin will perch in one of our cherry trees and a hummingbird will zip through the yard. While I’m certain Gabe rarely sees any of the birds I point out, he knows to listen for their call. He pauses from playing with the grass and looks to the sky. His eyes widen and he waits. And for now, for me, that is enough.
Every night before bed I hold you and whisper a prayer into the space between your neck and mine. Sometimes it’s just the standard Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes I make up one of my own. Deep down I suspect that these prayers are not really for you. They are for me. I think I am really just praying to be better tomorrow than I was today. For you. And for the world I have brought you into.
Every day I watch you play on a colorful mat with whimsical drawings of turquoise elephants in a place where palm trees are pink and the sun actually smiles back. I watch as you furrow your brow as your try to make sense of the world at your feet. Why does everything you throw ultimately, and always, fall back down? What does the color red taste like? Does everything make a sound?
You do. These days you are testing your little voice. I think that is what is most profound for me to absorb. You have a voice and you are learning how to use it.
Your voice can be loud. You emphatically tell me that you do not like it when I use the blender. Your voice can convey excitement. Nothing seems to delight you more than when the cat comes almost near enough for you to touch. Your voice can be gentle. After we nurse, and right before I lay you down for the night, you stand on my legs and coo into the darkness. In those moments it becomes clear to me that you feel safe. I pray that this is always so.
My job as your mother is constantly changing. In the beginning my mandate was simple: Keep you alive.
Six months later my role has already expanded. I am supposed to create a space where you feel loved enough and secure enough to explore it without me. Because you seem to smile biggest when you are showing me the things you can do all by yourself. Like directing a spoon into your mouth. And banging plastic cups together so that they create a noise. (I am certain that there will be times ahead when I wish you wouldn’t.)
These days I find myself silently adding to the list of things I pray for you. Perhaps one day I will share them all. Perhaps one day I will share both my hopes and my fears with you. But right now, all you need to know is that you are loved, that you are safe, and that you have a voice.
The garden is a dangerous place for a tomato. Back when we lived in Utah, I wrote that gardening is primarily a form of backyard warfare waged against insects with just two goals in life: eat your food and hatch babies that will do the same. Therefore if you’re going to garden you have to be on high alert for intruders. And take no mercy.
Every day you have to inspect your crops for change. Don’t be distracted by the adorable baby okra that appeared overnight. Note its location on the plant. Because it’s now a target and you aren’t the only one waiting to take it out. No. No. This is the time to stay focused. Look for tiny patches of eggs dropped by some sneaky moth on the underside of a leaf. They are ticking time bombs with stomachs waiting to gorge themselves on your squash.
Monitor the patches of shade near your peas and lettuce for snails. They will munch on your kale, shit on it, and keep going. Take them out with poison pellets or ground bone meal. They want nothing to do with your little pools of beer to drown in. Spy a grasshopper on the fringe? Step on it. Don’t be a sissy.
Four years ago when I started gardening I did so because I valued life. I wanted to watch something grow and thrive. That is a romantic idea held by people who know nothing about gardening. The hobby will harden you. I write this post with a BB gun propped against the front door. And the only thing I have planned for today is killing the damn squirrel that keeps stealing my heirloom tomatoes. I don’t care that it’s Sunday. He will not feast again on my behalf.
It all started two weeks ago when I caught the furry offender with his paws wrapped around a butternut squash I envisioned roasting and stuffing into ravioli with cheese. I rapped on the kitchen window and yelled. He looked at me and continued stuffing his fat face, prompting me to run out the house and chase him up a tree. He climbed to the first bow all the while maintaining eye contact.
“You stay out of there squirrel,” I said. “This is a warning. I catch you again and I will take you out like the rodent you are.”
He just stared at me with his black eyes and I knew he’d won this round. I couldn’t stand under that tree forever. And the garden would never be safe. He would be back. A week later the first ripe tomato disappeared off the vine.
To be fair, I had no proof it was him. Earlier this spring I lost every infant mustard green I planted to the grackles. I didn’t even know they ate salad. Suddenly everyone was suspect. The neighbors who let the last tenant’s garden go to seed because they don’t like tomatoes? A likely story. I went to bed feeling watched.
We were robbed again last night. But this time I knew exactly whodunit. Underneath the tree was a plump green tomato with sizable teeth marks. I scanned the branches, but he was nowhere in sight. I asked D to get the gun. I never felt more like the Texan I am not.
“I warned you squirrel,” I said aloud in case he was in earshot. (I suspect he was.) “I told you what would happen. I am going to shoot you dead.”
That brings us to this afternoon where I sit writing in the kitchen with one eye on the garden. Waiting. Because the garden is a dangerous place for a rodent.
Recently I have developed an interest in people who haven’t pursued careers that require sitting in traffic, punching a time clock, a work issued ID card, or even a resume. Probably because I am not one of those people. I’ve sought out connecting with people who produce tangible things. Things they don’t make by double clicking on a mouse. Things they create in their basements and garages. From their gardens and backyards. I’ve been interviewing people about their craft. This is one of those stories I am working on telling.
The head of a nilgai – an antelope native to the grasslands of India – stares down the driveway of a ranch home in Austin. David W. is sweeping the floor of his garage. He is not what one might expect when meeting a taxidermist for the first time. David is not a recluse. He is not Norman Bates. David is an affable father of two with a close shaved beard and the thick, black-framed glasses of an architect.
When I arrived he handed me a mug of coffee and led me to the backyard carrying two moist deerskins. Sun streamed onto a patch of dry grass covered with a wooden board. He inspected a deerskin draped across a plank that he salted the day before. Underneath the pelt, blood soaked salt dried brown in the sun. He unfurled the other two and reached for the bag of salt.
“We are dealing with things that will rot or decay,” he said.
The plan for the day was to watch him mount a whitetail deer and catalog the process from fleshing the skin to the final touches of tucking in the eyelids. I wanted to know what it was like to try to bring something back to life.
I wasn’t really worried about feeling squeamish in the workshop. I am not a vegetarian. I have no problem with hunting. I’d much rather an animal be taken out in its natural environment than packed in a feedlot, pumped with antibiotics and driven to a slaughterhouse where it can sense its death because it can smell it coming. Growing up on take your daughter to work day I donned scrubs and watched my dad wield a scalpel. I saw the inside of the human breast. It looks a little like chicken fat. Still. Taxidermy is a little different. It is dealing with the dead.
Taxidermy is a memory taken down in its prime. It is death disguised as life. There are a number of ways one can taxidermy an animal but they all start with the same beginning: a death. Then the skin is removed and excess flesh stripped from the hide. The pelt is then cured to remove moisture that can cause bacteria to breed and decay the skin. Tanning happens next. Without any muscle or flesh attached, a deerskin looks kind of like a furry sock. With eyelashes.
David handed me a strip of sandpaper and let me sand off the seams of the deer manikin he would eventually pull the skin over. I imagined I was his apprentice. David is a third generation taxidermist. It isn’t something he was always proud of. He used to hate telling people what his dad did for a living.
“I thought there was a lot of shame to it,” he said. “I thought it was a crude way to make a living. I remember all of our customers coming in dressed in business clothes and thinking oh man, those guys, they’ve got the good life.”
It would take him years of working in front of a computer crunching numbers, making sure Excel columns made sense, to realize that maybe it wasn’t all what it was cracked up to be. After David’s dad got sick a few years ago he inherited his tools. David showed me his favorite mottling tool – a thin six-inch piece of metal with two tiny spades on the ends. It looks like something you would find in the drawer of a dentist office. He lifts his dad’s mottling tool to show me the difference: it’s thicker and made entirely out of wood. His dad died in 2010. He never got to meet David’s kids.
“My dad was a really interesting character. You just don’t meet people like him anymore,” David tells me. “He just didn’t have respect for artificial things. I never really understood the whole rest in peace thing, but that was the only thing I could think after he was dead. I hope that saying is true. I hope there is peace.”
Taxidermy makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Even though most of us wear animal skins on our feet or around our waists in the name of fashion every day, the moment one is mounted to a wall it becomes something macabre. I get that. Most of us aren’t running towards death. It’s not something we like to think about or talk about. Taxidermy puts it in your face. It forces you to think about how you live your life.
“You see how quickly life can be taken from you,” David said. “I’m pretty sure that if we really grasped how short our lives are we would live it a little differently.”
I thought a lot about that as I watched David score the inside of the deer’s ears so it wouldn’t warp as it dried. I thought about it as I looked at the ceiling and saw dozens of antlers hanging from it. I touched the inside of the pelt before David stretched it over the manikin. I ran my finger across the deer’s nose. Once David inserted glass eyeballs into the empty sockets of the maniken the deerskin was no longer a deerskin. I reached to touch the eyelashes and found myself pulling back for a second. I was worried it would blink.
David never does. He never forgets the animal was once alive. It doesn’t bother him that it’s not now.
“Death is a part of living,” he said. “Someone shot this and they’re going to eat it. This is allowing someone else to continue to live. When someone shoots a deer purely for meat and then it ends up being a trophy, I kind of think that taxidermy is a more of way to continue to honor the animal. Otherwise it would just go to waste. You can’t eat the skin.”
One day you are out checking the mail and dodging icicles hanging from the roofline so you don’t wind up as one of those freak accidents on the news. The next week you are no longer focused on the danger above, because at some point they melted and you forgot to take notice. Now, underneath your mailbox the first of the crocuses have made their ascent through the topsoil. It’s only a few degrees above freezing, but there they are in their golden glory, telling old man winter just where to kiss it.
Every morning over the past few weeks I took a mug of coffee and walked to the edge of the backyard hoping to see patches of dead grass appear. And then expand. Finally, the last of the snow receded from the lawn and melted off the garden boxes. Saturday it was in the high forties and sunny. In Utah this means the temperature is warm enough to work in jeans and a T-shirt and run inside to grab a cocktail while you work. Because outside you get to be your own boss.
Readying the beds for planting is one of my favorite aspects of gardening. You get to take an inventory of the past. Popsicle sticks scrawled with permanent marker lay on their sides. Each was labeled with a vegetable followed by the date I last stuck them in the ground: spinach 3/21, arugula 3/24, and chard 4/6. They were my gambles that paid off. The rows of carrots rotting in the sun behind them are the ones that didn’t.
I removed the leaf cover blown over from my apple tree in the fall, and uprooted the carrots that didn’t make it out of the ground before the first freeze of winter. Next I pulled a few limp heads of chard. Their roots were nearly a foot long and two inches thick at the base. I snapped one in half and for some reason immediately lifted it to my nose. It smells like life, I said to myself.
Afterward I hoed the dirt and inspected the compost pile. This probably sounds gross. But I assure you, it’s awesome. Flipping over the pile reminds me of hiking in the woods behind my house as a kid with my little brother Matty. We would turn over rocks and fallen branches and watch as bugs we didn’t recognize scuttled out of the sunlight. And then repeat.
This time I found a ladybug. This is her. I am hoping she sticks around long enough to have babies that will grow up in my garden – at least for the first crop rotation.
After my discovery I turned and looked into my neighbor Jack’s yard. It was brown and dead too. He was raking leaves from his raspberry bushes when I called over to tell him of my find.
“So you’re going to garden again?” he asked. “That’s good. It means your going to stay. You’re going to at least be around for the harvest.”
I nodded. And for the first time, it hurt to think about. Just a few hours before I walked to the seed and supply shop down the street and bought packets for peas, spinach, onions, kale, chard, carrots, and beets. I swept my fingers through the strawberry patch and noticed new leaves beginning to sprout. The truth is I always knew I would plant again this spring. I just haven’t thought beyond putting seeds in the ground and waiting for something to happen.
When we moved in to our house three Aprils ago, the planter boxes were filled with spaghetti squash somebody grew and left behind. At the time I thought it was sad. Even disrespectful somehow. I clipped the dried vines from the beds and tossed them onto the compost heap wondering just who these people were and why they left without their damn squash. Now I realize that it isn’t always about the harvest in the end. Sometimes all you can do is plot your garden and try to keep the weeds out. Because life will come whether I am here or not.
Mobile messaging. That’s the new thing I’m told. All the kiddies like to text. They are over email. They use Facebook but not what you want them to use it for, and are not that into Twitter. Now I am supposed to text people. A really nice man told me this the other day. It took all of my strength to not slide off my chair and throw a temper tantrum on the carpet.
Instead I smiled, accepted the fancy paperwork detailing what the research shows, and waited for him to leave before banging my head against my desk. I work in communications, but I am getting tired of all the different ways we are supposed to communicate with people. Am I allowed to say that?
Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Blogger. Vimeo. Other shit I don’t use but am told I should. I feel like I am stalking a boy who doesn’t really like me. Hiding in the bushes behind his house. Calling his home, work, and gym. Analyzing the geotags of his Instagrams and showing up in the neighborhood in the off chance I might run into him ordering a latte. Jesus. It’s exhausting. Now I am supposed text him?
I am starting to feel a little desperate. And like it’s all a lot of noise. I am told it is not. That people tailor their information feeds to only what they want to receive. That these are opt-in services. Yeah, for how long? I spent two hours yesterday unsubscribing to email listservs I never signed up for—I just happened to buy a pair of shoes at their store online or donated to save the whales one day. It doesn’t mean I want to buy a matching handbag or save orphaned salmon too.
I guess I just miss the old way of communicating. You know, fifth grader style. When boys passed you notes in wobbly handwriting asking you to go out with them. You circled yes and sent it back across the aisle because it didn’t really change anything because you never actually went anywhere with each other anyway. I guess it’s the equivalent of a like on a Facebook these days.
I realize I don’t really want to communicate like I did in elementary school. It would just be me literally chasing boys around the playground and pretending to be mad when they pulled my hair. I would like to think I have grown. Somewhat. I just don’t think communicating with audiences who supposedly want to hear from you should be that hard.
Maybe I am wrong. And I admit, that is entirely possible. (Unlikely though.) You see I work at a non-profit. People supposedly come here because they want to be here. Why the need to hunt them down on nine different platforms to tell them the same thing? Don’t their alerts just get filtered to one junk yahoo account anyway?
Perhaps I am just acting out to change. But I feel like my phone is my last private place. I am on the national no-call list. I haven’t received a phone call or text from someone other than friends, family, my bank or my dentist in years. Is nothing sacred anymore? Must we share everything with everyone in our networks?
I write this on a public blog. One of my three. I have Facebook and Twitter accounts. I realize how ridiculous I sound. But then again many folks do. And don’t people grow a little weary of listening to everyone they supposedly wanted to listen to post things they should read, attend, or buy? I know I do. Between all the shouts for attention, are we really listening to what anyone is saying anymore? Or are we just waiting for our chance to respond?