The three baby owls dropped by for a visit this evening, but it was too dark to get a decent shot.
The tomatoes are really starting to take off just before we do. Blossoms everywhere. Pin-size to golf-ball-size green tomatoes here and there. This year, I’m doing the opposite of last year when I simply let them be. This year, I’m pruning, pruning, pruning. The manager of a local university’s sustainable organic gardening program told me I could do two things to get bigger, juicer tomatoes: snip the suckers mercilessly (which I’ve not been as successful with as I would like), and snip the stems so that they only have the first to leaves remaining. The former I’d heard of; the latter was new to me. He explained it this way: “Either you can have your vine spending substantial energy and nutrition growing stems and leaves, or you can have the putting that into the fruit.” He assured me that each stem only needs two, maybe three leaves. And so our vines look a little different this year.
Especially when the late sun hits them just right. (And of course Lightroom hits them just right.)
The Girl sang in her school’s talent show this morning. She sang “Dziś idę walczyć, Mamo!” which is a song about the Warsaw Uprising. She’s been practicing it for weeks. I’ve found myself humming it as I walk down the corridor at school. E sings snippets of it every now and then. K sings it as she’s working around the house. It’s infected our whole family, but what a wonderful infection.
After dinner, we got another concert, a performance of a music that’s thousands and thousands of years old, a music that both calms and excites.
The owls have nested in our neighbors’ backyard, and they came down for a visit today. The would sing and hoot, caterwaul and even almost purr. It was hypnotic.
In a lot of ways, today seemed like a typical May Saturday. Coffee, eggs, a chat with Babcia. The morning sun made the backyard glow. It all appeared typical.
But the weather — it’s Polish summer here. Today I don’t know that we ever broke into the sixties, and if we did, it was just barely. Add to it the chance of afternoon rain, and given one of my major chores of the day, the day scheduled itself. Morning work had to be the mowing.
As I was cutting the edges before transitioning to the long, almost hypnotic straight lines, a bit of motion in the deep grass caught my eye: a fledgling was hunkered down in a patch of tall grass. I cycled back and forth, nearing the bird, and I noticed that mother was near, flying in when I was away, taking off again as I approached. I knew I’d have to move the bird, and I worried a bit about how that might impact the situation. Since I always wear gloves when mowing, thanks to eczema, I didn’t fear the old thought of transferring my scent to the bird and somehow making its mother reject it. I’m not even sure if that happens. I was just wondering whether the mother would find it if I moved it too far.
First I it near one of the round planters in the yard, but I knew I’d have to move it again when I neared the end of mowing. The second time, I moved it over to the corner of the house, to a patch of grass that I never manage to cut because I don’t have a working weed wacker. Each time, mother bird had no problem finding the baby.
Yet I knew it was doomed. The second time I relocated the baby, it fluttered out of my glove and plopped straight down: no chance of it flying back to its nest. And with two cats in the yard, I knew it was only a matter of time before one of them made a natural discovery. “Wouldn’t it just be better to put it out of it’s future misery?” I wondered. Yet how could I do it? I could think of no quick and painless, and besides, who was I to say that it didn’t stand a chance of survival.
Thankfully, the Girl was away at an amusement park with her school chorus. Had she been there, I would have had to fend her off and deal with her eventual frustrated sadness when I would have tried to convince her that, no, we couldn’t take it into the house and try to raise it ourselves. That would be a sure death sentence.
When I walked back to empty the grass catcher, though, I saw that the chick had disappeared. Where it had gone remained a mystery for the rest of the day. Mother bird still fluttered around here and there, but I couldn’t figure out where the bird was.
And as I type this, I find myself wondering if mother bird has nestled up to the chick for the night to protect it and comfort it. And I’m glad I’m not a bird parent facing that impossible situation.
So much to do on a Saturday. Backyard to mow, soil to “till” by hand with a shovel and rake,
grass to plant, floors to clean, lunch to prepare, flowers to plant,
wood to cut, shopping to complete, wings to season, cabbage to prepare,
fires to build, dinner to cook, children to clean, movie to watch, wine to drink,
photos to process, and post to write.
I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.
This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.
It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)
On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.
So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”
It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.
But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.
And time to play guitar with your neighbor.
Spring Saturdays have their own rhythm for years now. Almost all Saturdays begin with an eight o’clock Skype chat with Babcia. They talk about family, friends, recent events, changes in our life, changes in her life — the little changes that can accumulate in a week or that pile up unmentioned for weeks. The only thing that’s changed is the instrument. At first, it was downstairs on the main computer. After a few years of that, it shifted upstairs to the laptop in the kitchen. These days it’s via K’s cell phone.
The Boy and I head out after breakfast. We’re building a small fence to hide a now-visible, now-empty area that was once held our buggy gas pack air system hidden by Leyland cypresses. Like always, the Boy wants to help, and like always, it’s less help than one might really want in order to call it help. Instead, I think of it as helping him — helping him grow, helping him learn the value of work, helping he learn how to use tools properly. I show him how to use the square and he’s off, scoring lines all over the four-by-four that will eventually be the final two posts of our fence.
Next, it’s time to dig the holes for the posts. Here, patience is the key. I take a shovelful of dirt out, and he follows suit with his little blue shovel. But here’s the thing: he has to have a shovelful that suits him. A dab of dirt at the tip is not acceptable, so he tries again and again, frustrated as the dirt slides off the end as he tries to pull the shovel out of the growing hole. Or later, he starts kicking dirt back into the hole.
But shortly after, he’s genuinely helpful: he holds the post for me to get some measurements and check alignment. He helps shovel the concrete around the posts and smooths it once it’s in. Of course, in between, there’s time to play.
And once it’s done and the other chores are behind us, we head down to the swing and hammock for some early-evening silliness.
It’s like so many other spring Saturdays. And ritual is always comforting.
Just when we thought spring was here, we knew we couldn’t possibly be right. There’s always one more last stab of winter, one last attempt to hold on to the short cold days and remind us how thankful we are for a little warmth.
There are two trees in the back corner of our lot that worry me. One worries me as a cause of a potential problem; the other is the potential problem. They’re both tulip poplars, with one having a diameter of at least five feet. The smaller of the two has succumbed to some kind of disease or infestation or both. It’s been dying for a couple of years. The bark has just about completely fallen off, and the base of it is beginning to rot. It will fall of its own accord within another year or so, but I’m worried that the enormous tulip poplar next to it — the biggest tree by far that we have in our hard — will develop the same problem. If the sick tree falls, it won’t be a big problem, especially now that the top third of it fell this week, leading to a change of Saturday plans and extensive use of the chain saw. Falling of its own accord is not always an option, though: the large tree if it were to fall, would cause some major damage. It might take out a power line that runs behind the house, and it’s tall enough that it could even damage a house behind us.
Besides the fact that I’m not really what the financial ramifications might be for a tree falling on someone else’s property (from my rough research, we might be held responsible if it was a question of negligence, which would be more of what we’re doing about it now: nothing), there’s the simple fact that I love that tree. It must be at least two hundred years old, possible older, and so it’s a history lesson right in our own backyard. It was around when Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. It was a large tree when Somme Offensive became the largest killing field in history to that point. In a country of new things, I value the old.
But falling down is a part of life.
As a Catholic, falling down has a spiritual, metaphysical sense to it: it requires a visit to the confessional. Like with the tree, there can be collateral damage when I fall down. A lie might tell someone could have far-reaching repercussions. The angry word spoken in spite might damage more than the moment. That’s what this Lenten season is all about — thinking about that collateral damage that accompanies sin no matter how we try to compartmentalize it. Our parish priest began a Lenten homily series on the nature of sin, and the communal nature of sin is a key Catholic teaching. We are responsible for our own actions, of course, but we always seem to rise and fall together.
As a parent, falling down is something my kids just have to do. They have to learn how to fall, how to absorb the impact without breaking bones or, later, hearts. More importantly, they have to learn how to get back up. That’s a lesson many of us never learn, I’m afraid. L has learned how to take a tumble and hop back up, or perhaps even laugh about it.
The Boy is slowly learning the same. Sometimes he’ll fall with a thump and hesitate for a moment before hopping up and proclaiming, “I’m okay!”
With L finishing up fourth grade, though, K and I have begun thinking about the simple fact that we’ll soon have to start thinking about considering middle school. (We’re masters of procrastinating at times.) That will begin a whole new cycle of learning: the broken heart. I don’t necessarily mean crushes that turn sour, though that too is in the back of the mind. I simply mean the cruelty with which teenagers can treat each other: the cutting comments, the fair-weather friends, the peer pressure, and all the sundry stresses of teen life.
But for now, sometimes it’s probably best not to fall down but just let yourself down, gently, and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon. Those worries will wait. For a while.
With the coming hurricane, which won’t necessarily affect us with wind but might dump some rain on us, I decided I needed to speed up the plan for re-treating the deck with water repellent. I didn’t really need a little helper, but that never really matters: the Boy will help. Period.
The good thing about today was that there were no worries about potential streaking or such: the bare wood drew the water sealant in as if we were applying it to sand.
We’ve had that table for ten years. Before that, my parents had it for at least twenty. My uncle made it; I refinished it. Yesterday, we said goodbye.
It’s staying in the family, though — don’t worry. No chance of it leaving the family.
Saturday is for the house, and while we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time and money on one part of the house — namely, the kitchen, we’ve neglected other parts of the property. With all the rain of the last few weeks, the yard had gone absolutely crazy, and there was much cleaning and rearranging still to be done in our downstairs.
K started with some final painting — the baseboards in the living room. The Boy, of course, just had to help.
“Daddy, you can’t touch this paint because it will just hurt you, okay?”
I tackled the yard.
It was finally not all that hot, but the humidity was stifling. Despite the discomfort, the Boy came out to help mow. This means he walked beside me for a few minutes, pretending to mow the steep section near the ditch.
After a shower, I checked out our oven.
The burners work, but the oven doesn’t ignite. In the end, the Boy and I decided that we should just call the experts who sold us the equipment and let them decide if it’s something I just didn’t do or there is some defect in the appliance.