Frank and Opal

Some men have a corny sense of humor. Sam especially. I usually just stare at him. This week I worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle and asked him, “What’s a five-letter word for ‘more dry, as in humor’? Drier can’t be right.”

“H-mmm,” he said.

As it turned out, the word was wrier. “Wry is a good word. I haven’t used that word in, well, I never use that word.”

“I used it just last week,” he said, and I began to be impressed.

“Yes, I used it when I ordered a Reuben sandwich.”

See what I mean?

The columns of fog move and twist over the pond like ballet dancers in silent, slow procession. And then the sounds of the geese break the morning’s quiet. “Sam, they’re back!”

One of the highlights of living on Flesher Pond is the return of Frank and Opal. They glide in on the first day of March more often than not. One year it was February 29. “It’s Leap Year,” I told Sam. “They don’t know it’s not March 1.”

Each spring, Opal rebuilds her nest in the same spot. Beside the pond she sits, tucking in grass and twigs that are within reach. That done, she roams around searching for anything else suitable. She also pulls out her down to stuff in and around. Miss Fussy toils for a couple of days, and then she sits. Frank stands guard, and swims and eats at leisure, but Opal just sits. Once a day, in late afternoon when the sun slants through the trees, she gets up and waddles to the pond to feed.

We named the geese after my paternal grandparents. Grandpa was gruff and scary, but Grandma Opal was just good. Our visits were always to see her and not Grandpa. As little girls, my sister and I thought Grandpa was called Opal, too. Grandma and Grandpa Opal.

Frank and Opal, the geese, take a proprietary view of Flesher Pond and consider it their personal front yard. Arguments are rare, but Sentinel Frank is loud in his disapproval when any other geese want to land. When his “calamity is coming” honking begins, Sam and I know something’s up. Frank lifts in flight to head off the interlopers, but the new arrivals are indignant and challenge him. Attacking and swooping, Frank steers them away from the nest. If several birds land, Opal gets up to join in the fracas. The honking from all sides is loud and serious, but Frank always wins. Opal resumes her brooding, undisturbed.

We don’t always get to watch the goslings grow. Some years a raccoon or fox upsets the peace and harmony, and we find broken eggshells scattered in the grass. One year Frank flew away before sundown. He does that sometimes. When Opal started honking and didn’t let up, I finally said to Sam, “Something is wrong.”

She honked all night. Each time I woke up I heard her still calling. In the morning, she flew away from seven perfect, white eggs and never came back. We missed them and their little family that spring. The next year she came to build with a new “Frank.” Forty-five degrees a few days ago and sixty yesterday should thaw the pond. In about five days we look for our goose friends to return and try again.

“The only real failure is the failure to try. And the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment. As we always must. We get up every morning, we do our best. Nothing else matters.” from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


Last week the polar vortex plunged us to a wind chill of 35 degrees below zero. The day before it hit, I helped Sam stack extra firewood in the house. Four days later, the temperature soared to 60 degrees in Indianapolis, the snow melted off the roof, and the living room ceiling dripped in four places. Two days later we bundled up against more frigid winds. Crazy is the new normal.

Between the storms, I went again to visit Miss Ellie and her husband who have a new kitchen in their 1850s two-story brick home. [See Two Good Women] Down the hall from the front door and through the living room, I stepped into a work of art. The old summer kitchen now had a built-on dining room with a bay window looking out over the farm. Custom-made walnut cabinets designed to their specifications graced both rooms. I did a double-take at the tall standing cupboards. At first glance, they blended in with her grandmother’s antique corner cupboards. The cabinetmaker had done a superb job. Walnut dining table and chairs completed the harmony.

Miss Ellie now makes pies, and preps for canning at an over-sized island. Light and airy, and clean as a pin, the room is delightful. She said, “For decades, I had to clear away whatever I was working on to lay the supper table each evening. It’s nice to have the extra space.”

After admiring every inch and nook and cranny, we stepped back into the old living room and chatted beside the handsome wood-burning stove. I looked at the outdated room. She must have noticed my glances, and said matter-of-factly, “The carpet has a tear and the plaster ceiling’s cracked, but we stay warm.”

From my seat, I looked back into the attractive kitchen, and then turned again toward her. I felt whiplash between the two – one part of her home new and the other worn. How could her artistic nature design rooms that belong in magazines, and still be comfortable in the old? I had a glimpse of true contentment. Her living room is long familiar, which can bring a safe feeling. She doesn’t need everything perfect to live in peace.

After the snow melted from our roof, the insurance adjustor came. We stared at the old living room ceiling – water-stained and poorly hung knotty pine tongue and groove, with unsightly cracks at every joint. As a rule, I try not to look up. A few years back, we had to replace the south wall of windows that look out into the woods. Sam and I designed them to complement the roof-line of the vaulted ceiling, and carefully selected hickory trim boards from a nearby lumber mill. We also trimmed the west windows, baseboard, and door casings. I sanded and varnished forty boards, a week-long labor of love, and then Sam finished everything in his wonderful, meticulous way. The spacious room is inviting, and the view to the woods soothing. The ceiling is not. And it may stay that way.

I hadn’t realized how much I have in common with Miss Ellie – farming and the love of the land, and I’m learning to not only “not look,” but be content with the good part. Don’t get me wrong. I like to be comfortable: warm, dry, fed. Sam calls me part cat. But maybe being a little cold/hungry/dissatisfied allows me room to grow. And when a storm hits my personal life, faith brings a stillness in the midst. The beautiful and the needy live side by side. Doesn’t one consecrate the other?

Two Good Women

I tossed another log in the stove. Out beyond the bridge, I watched two deer step across the circle drive. “Sam, the deer are headed toward the apple trees again. Oh, there’s a little one, too.” I lost the fawn behind the parked teardrop camper. And then, through the binoculars I noticed the healthy, bushy-tailed fox.

“There’s a fox, too, following the fawn.” Sam looked up from his paper. “Wait. It’s not a fox. It’s a coyote, big and brown, handsome black tail. He must have eaten well this fall. It’s going after the fawn!”

The moms disappeared into the woods. The young deer, white flag raised in alarm, bounded and zig-zagged into the brush beyond the apple trees instead of following mama into the woods. Mr. Coyote loped after. A long moment later he came out of the brush, alone, crossed the drive and headed toward the open field. Whew.

“He didn’t get the fawn,” I said. “I’ve never seen a coyote this close. I’m not going outside.”

“Aw, the coyotes won’t hurt you,” Sam said as he went back to his paper. I still wasn’t going outside.

Sister K.S. called the next day. “Miss Ellie has made do for forty years with that old summer kitchen off the back of the house. Let’s go see her new kitchen.”

Miss Ellie grew up in an 1850s red brick house built by her great-great grandfather on a rise along the Mississinewa River. White limestone lintels grace the tall windows. Inside, the floors and walls are still straight as a die. Made from native trees on the property, the original untouched walnut doors, cupboards and woodwork are superb. K.S. attended grade school and graduated with her, and still lives only a few miles away. Not many of us enjoy the cheer and comfort of a well-built piece of historical architecture or a sixty-year-old friendship.

An herbal guru, including medicinal remedies, Miss Ellie still cans and freezes fruits and vegetables, putting up enough to see them through the winter, and then some: tomato juice, apple pie filling, cherry jelly; gallons of dill pickles, dried peppers, a crock of sauerkraut; freezer slaw, sweet corn, and sugar peas. Today “organic” gardens are something of an achievement. Hers has never been anything but.

She met us at the front door, her hair pulled back into a bun. We stepped into the tall hall and down into the old living room where I noticed her gun-safe. They say she’s a better shot than her husband. As we passed through the covered porch, I saw knives and saws on a side table. She helps Billy butcher deer, hunted and otherwise.

“Did K.S. tell you about Billy makin’ ’at dere jerky?” Miss Ellie laughed as she handed me a cup of tea. Although ninety-nine percent of her speech sounds like a schoolteacher, she had slipped into the common vernacular.

“Uh, yes. I heard about that.” [See Jerky and Pears]

“Well, we had another road-kill. When a button buck got hit right next to my mailbox, I called the conservation officer and then K.S. She drove straight over, still in her pajamas, although she made time to tie a couple of scarves around her neck. [See The Red Truck] She backed up to where I stood guard. We looked at each other and hoped no one would drive by. I took the heavy end at the head and shoulders, and said ‘On the count of three, up and in.’”

Later at the local bar Billy chuckled as he told a buddy, “Both of them sixty-eight years old . They throwed that deer in the trunk.”

His buddy took another drink, thought about the girls taking care of business and said, “Well, I’d call them two good wimmen.”