March company


Our cat, Cuddles
These monotonous March days, Cuddles, our tortoiseshell cat, spends a good deal of daylight contemplating springtime. When she’s not napping on a chair beneath the kitchen or dining room table, she jumps up on her stool by the kitchen’s sliding-glass door.

I love how she curls her front paws under her chest and ponders the frozen view. She’ll sit for hours without moving a whisker, her beautiful eyes fixed upon our neighbor’s snow-covered woodpile—her hunting ground when the snow melts and the earth thaws.

Sometimes her eyes close as if dreaming of mice. When she spies a passing wing or our chickens downhill strutting in their pen, she swags her tail, slowly. Oh yes, come Spring, birds beware!

Cuddles and her sister, Mittens, now thirty-something in feline years, seldom play inside any longer. I enjoy their sporadic wrestling matches which provoke echoes of my mother’s voice. “You girls fight like cats and dogs!”

Oh, those were the days. Once, when my parents left us alone, one of my sisters dared take Dad’s barber shears from the bathroom to use in the living room. Well, guess whose rear-end landed on the point of those scissors?

As I seemed unharmed by the puncture with no show of blood for evidence, my siblings and I agreed it best to keep the incident our little secret.

All’s I can say is God’s angels worked overtime with the O’Brien girls when Mom and Dad left us alone—which they seldom did. Otherwise, we may have been maimed or fatally wounded ourselves.

Back then in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, I couldn’t imagine keeping myself out of mischief with reading books like “Old Yeller,” “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and the Nancy Drew series. My parents read the newspaper. The neighborhood where we grew up in Warren didn’t provide a local library. Two strikes against developing readers of my sisters and me.

Nonetheless, I sit in my study including dictionaries of three different languages, literary anthologies, “how to write” books such as William Zinzer’s “On Writing Well.”

The top shelf of the bookcase my Uncle Jim built for my mother holds her collection of American and English classics, most I have yet to read.

For they have firm competition for my time. Jane Austen’s “Emma,” for instance, the novel that called my name last week which I have completed midway. Indeed, Austen’s wit and circuitous romances make engaging company in March.

A slow reader, I cannot plow through a book, sometimes reading until my eyes ache. Last night around midnight I read this dialogue, “My good friend, this is quite unnecessary; Frank knows a puddle of water when he sees it, and as to Mrs. Bates’s, he may get there from the Crown in a hop, step, and jump.”

Dear Reader, such prose humors me. Written between February 1811 and August 1816 in England, Austen endured several months of March while developing her plots, places, and characters.

All lost on my sweet cat, Cuddles.

Beating the bushes

My darling junipers, after my beating

Well, it took winter long enough to arrive, and let loose when she did. My local library cancelled their “Pride and Prejudice” book talk two consecutive Wednesday nights due to icy roads. Then, somehow, this past Wednesday night, I missed the discussion.

“P&P’, as Jane Austen fans say, first enchanted me in 1967 when Miss Liennemann, my senior year English teacher, included the classic in our syllabus.

I’m eternally grateful for the assignment that influenced my reading and writing life more so than “Kon-Tiki” and “Great Expectations.” I enjoyed Thor Heyerdahl’s adventure on his raft with a team of sailors—and Dickens’ boy, Pip, coming of age in nineteenth-century London. Yet, they don’t call my name as does Jane Austen.

Perhaps it’s due to an investment I made years ago. A fellow reader and writer led me to a collection of antique copies of Austen’s work. I spent every discretionary dollar in my possession to purchase the treasure. Miss Austen’s seven stories in ten volumes rest under a glass dome until she calls my name.

My antique collection of Jane Austen's novels

You’d think wintertime ideal for holding one of Austen’s brittle, faded, green bindings. I did, too. Instead, I’ve been beating bushes.

Literally. That’s what happens when I fail to protect my ornamental junipers and boxwoods from heavy snowfall. The most efficient and merciful relief for shrubs and trees in snow distress is to grip the handle of a sturdy broom. Then trudge through snowdrifts and beat sagging branches laden with snow.

This exercise began with the junipers, two darlings planted beside each other nineteen years ago in my upper, backyard garden. The tall, thin shrub barely reached my knees back then. Now, I cannot touch its top. The other juniper I’ve trimmed into the shape of an umbrella. The two stand as inseparable attractions, no matter the season.

I whacked the broom on the bent branches of the tall juniper, clumps of snow falling on me and the ground as the branches sprang up. Easy-peasy.

The canopy of snow on the other juniper also gladly fell under the beautiful, blue sky. Invigorated, I spied our barrier of evergreens on the west side of the house, braches in the most humbling posture I’ve seen in our thirty-three years on this homestead.

“Take that!” I said and beat the branches with the broom. The boughs sprang up happily.

I bashed all the evergreens within my reach and walked uphill and indoors for a cup of green Earl Grey tea, and chocolate shortbread. Although beating bushes is great fun and exercise, I noticed the bent branches of the tall juniper did not recover upright. I’d have to tie the shrub together before the next snowfall, or risk damaged limbs.

Dear Reader, yesterday, I saw snow in the forecast and at last secured the branches of the skinny shrub. Which means I slept well last night and didn’t have to rescue my darling this morning. that “Emma” calling from under Jane Austen’s glass dome? It’s been too long.

Terms of endearment


The daffodils behind the garage 

This past February 20, between snow and ice storms, a friend emailed, “My narcissus are popping up, the little stinkers!”

            Amused by her sentiment, and happy to oblige a truthful report, I replied, “And my daffies are popping up, the little stinkers!”

            For I keep a patch of yellow daffodils behind the garage for this very purpose. Within view from the kitchen’s sliding glass door, they snuggle the garage and pea gravel border of our backyard patio. Often before the snow melts, their shoots drill through the soil to my applause.

My dependable showoffs, the daffies think they’re in the Mediterranean and usually bloom for my first Lenten bouquet. I’ll sometimes cut a magnolia branch and include it with the daffodils in a vase indoors and force the buds to open.

White Helleborus bloom, now covered with the last snowfall.

Although my Helleborus bloom first in winter, their short stems and white flowers seem too shy and matronly to consider them “little stinkers.” There’s not a narcissistic gene in the Helleborus. 

Indeed, Nancy, a fellow writer and gardener, revived in her email the endearment I used for my three girls while changing their diapers. Cloth diapers. Although Pampers appeared on the market in 1961, most young mothers of my means considered disposable diapers a luxury—and pun intended, a waste of money.

From the moment our third-born and baby could walk, she spontaneously performed fashion shows for every guest who entered our front door. Between wardrobe changes, she appeared in her diaper to the provocation of a unanimous, “What a little stinker!”

Today, she remains our family’s fashionista, her shoe and clothes closet the size of a small boutique.

As my children grew, I cheered them on in their passion to cross the finish line first, jump the highest pole vault, achieve academic awards, star as lead roles in high school plays, and design the latest fashion.

In a recent phone call from California, my second daughter used, “the stinker,” in reference to her eighteen-year-old son. I remembered my eighteenth year, the awkward and unprepared passage into the age of accountability and sensibility.

I remembered my daughter’s eighteenth year away at Alma College, responsible beyond her years.

Lastly, I considered my grandson, a young man taking his studies seriously as a student of Wayne State University, adapting well as a transplant into a different culture and city scape. Like narcissus, he’s driven to be first.

Now, being the second born of five daughters, striving for first place never crossed my mind. However, I achieved the highest score in cheerleading tryouts between my freshman and sophomore year in high school. One of the judges volunteered the information, otherwise I would’ve never known.

Oh, and in 2013 my lavender farm received the Keep Michigan Beautiful Award for my “outstanding contribution to beautification.”

Dear Reader, nonetheless, a good friend claims I’m “a stinker” whenever I tease her about working every job but prostitution to support her domestic hobbies and charitable donations.

I take it as a term of endearment.