Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The 70-pound puppy

Buddy was the ultimate Akbash, 
raised with bummer lambs and always their devoted friend
 and patron saint.
I’M COUNTING THE DAYS — 21 — until Sara comes from San Diego to collect Jake, her Akbash puppy who we’ve been fostering since January.

Someone — you know who you are — decided not to adopt Francis Sweet’s puppies. Francis saw John at the men’s prayer breakfast and offered us one "for free."

John said yes, because Sara, whose house burned to the ground in a wildfire in 2007; who lived in other people’s houses and in a small trailer for 6 years until the new house was finished; Sara, whose husband died suddenly, six months after they moved into the new house; who adopted Moose, an adult Akbash, to keep her company and then, he died of cancer — Sara is ready another dog. Another Akbash.

Francis’s little boy was perfect, except for the timing. Sara had trips planned to Scotland (her home country), Mexico (to see the mariposa butterflies), and to Burma (I know, it’s Myanmar, but that’s a change I refuse to accept). She couldn’t take delivery of Jake until the middle of June.

“No problem,” said John.

The Akbash is a livestock protector dog that bonds with the sheep and keeps them safe from coyotes and mountain lions and crows. When we had sheep (and I miss them!), we had two Akbashes in succession. Buddy died of bone cancer when he was four; Moose, a slacker, we sold to Sara.

Moose never liked sheep. They’d wander off, and he’d glance up from the porch and yawn. He never barked. He just said, “Later,” “Whatever,” and “Ain’t gonna happen.” There are coyotes in the barren hills of Escondido, but Sara doesn’t have sheep. In his new, royal role, Moose had been able to walk to the side of the wrap-around, poured concrete deck, raise his nose slightly, and woof before wandering back into the house to listen to Swedish jazz.  Before he died of lymphoma, Moose was featured above the fold in a four-color photograph in the “Mansions” section of the Wall Street Journal. All of this is true.

The Akbash breed is native to Turkey, but it is thought to originate from a single line coming out of central Asia in the time of the Mongols. Europe boasts many breeds that are likely family members: Anatolian shepherd, Great Pyrenees, Komondor, Kuvasz, Cuvac, Ovtcharka. The breed, minus the occasional slacker, is vigilant, intelligent and calm.
Threats to the flock are handled by an Akbash with speed, grace, and overwhelming power. A ditz from the City showed up a few years ago with a Rottweiler. It immediately killed six chickens and then headed toward the pastures, a lamb in its crosshairs. Buddy, a full field away, raced like a greyhound, soundless and swift, and reached the Rott before it reached the lamb. No snarling, no growling, no unseemly violence: Buddy flattened the intruder with one paw.

The breed is immense. It’s the Dodge Power Wagon of dogs.  Jake is five-and-a-half months old and he weighs 70 pounds. He’s very happy when I come home from work. He runs into the driveway at the speed of light and knocks me over.

And if that isn’t a constant barrel of fun, he’s cutting teeth. His chew-toy of choice is our entire sprinkler system, a teething ring of black tubing.  He’s also been ingenious in creating his own living space. In the front yard, in what I used to call the garden, he’s made a homeless encampment.

Jake at six weeks. This is the point where we didn't think we
could ever bear to let him go. We began thinking of how we
would break the news to Sara. Note: There are still living
plants in the garden.
From the clothesline in the backyard, he dragged blankets from the guest room and spread them on the ground. Around the edges of the blankets, he placed attractive femurs, mandibles and skulls.  Straw mats from the burn pile were shredded into thousands of strands and artfully scattered on the adjacent lawn, where he has already begun landscaping by digging several holes to China.  Two empty Tupperware containers, the handle of a shovel, a pair of green rubber gloves, a partially eaten bag of whole wheat macaroni, and more black tubing complete the eclectic décor.

If there were a canine version of “Design Star,” Jake would be its host.

 “What’s he eating?” John asked.
I looked out the window.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t think of anything edible that’s navy blue.”

The telephone rang. I found it and walked to the precise spot on the property where we have reception.

“Wendy, Sara. I don’t want to alarm you, but you know I was able to recover from the broken hip to go to Burma, but now, I’m supposed to be in Scotland, and I’m not, because while I was at rehab for the hip, I slipped — and to break my fall and protect that precious hip, I put out my arm and landed on it. On a scale of one to ten, I have a ‘ten’ wrist fracture, and —”

“Can you drive? Do you want me to fly down in June and drive you up here to get Jake? Do you want me to drive you back to San Diego and I’ll fly home?”

“I think I’ll be able to drive by the middle of June, and if not —"

“If not, we’re here for you, Sara. We’ll move heaven and earth to make sure you don’t have to spend another minute without this precious, sweet, little love.  Jakey, your mommy is on the phone. Oh, Sara, I wish you could see his face — wait, I’ve got my cell, I’ll take a photo — smile for mommy, Jakey …”

I left for work, and stumbled on the edge of the front porch. Half a board had been eaten since last night.

Twenty-one more days.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

It's all sausage

SUNDAY MORNING, I dressed in the dark and quietly let myself out the front door without awakening John; our three indoor sleeping dogs (don’t get me started on that one); or our houseguests, Rosalie Paine and her husband, Scott Davis, who were in town to celebrate the birthday of Rosalie’s childhood friend, Pete Bansen.

Happy big 6-0, Pete, but this story isn’t about you. It’s about sausage.

I left our house stealthily in the darkest dawn of the year, the one that comes in the first moments of the spring-forward Daylight Savings Time change, because I had forgotten to stop at the Valley Grocery on Saturday to buy fixings for breakfast.

I drove down Centerville Road slowly, trying to avoid kamikaze deer and families of robber raccoons. In addition to presenting a constant choice of creating new road kill or becoming one, Centerville Road has, I believe, been quietly designated by the county as an official hazard raceway for drivers of immense trucks hauling four-wheelers and dirt bikes. (“What’s the history of that deep crevice, that path, up to the cross?” Rosalie asked, after returning from a “very brisk” walk on the beach. “Mountain bikes,” I said.  Natural erosion isn’t happening fast enough: let’s crumble those bluffs before the sun goes down.)

Alarmed by my headlights, barn owls left their fence posts and soared over the top of my car. I counted four between our lane and Robert Miranda’s house. This happens often in the dark on Centerville Road, and I try not to remember — which means I never forget — the Kwakiutl Indian belief that “I heard the owl call my name,” is the warning of imminent death.  My hope is that I’ve changed my name so many times, the owls have lost track.

At seven a.m. on a Sunday morning in early March, the lights of the Valley Grocery are a shining city on the hill. I was happy. I could already taste those sausage patties, plump and juicy, not overcooked. The handle of the Sunbeam electric frying pan (a 1964 wedding present) has everything a bride needs to know written on its handle. Sausage: 300. The glass top steams after the first sizzle, and the spices in the secret mix warm up…well, as a New Yorker cartoon once observed, “When did our relationship move from the bedroom into the kitchen?”

I walked up to the meat counter and there were three hillocks of ground meat. Two seemed redder than the third. Lean, ground grass-fed beef.  Lovely, but where is the pig that inspired Shakespeare? (“Those are pearls that were his eyes; nothing of him that doth face, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange..." Yes, rich and strange, and, as Chris mixes it, hot and sweet and spicy and those are pickles that were his eyes.

The sausage appeared remarkably pink and pure.

“What’s this!?”  

Dot Wentworth, who has retired from managing the grocery store, came around the corner to answer.

“I’m not here,” she said. “I’m just helping out because Loretta and Chris are both gone this weekend.”

“Where did this pale pink sausage come from?”

“They mixed it for us at Hoby’s,” Dot said.

“It doesn’t look the same,” I said.

“No,” she said quietly. “It’s not.”

I took two pounds home with me and tried to guess at a few of the ingredients used by the butcher, Chris Cowan. My efforts were satisfactory, but no cigar.

I gave Chris Cowan a few days to recover from his vacation, and then I called.

“There was no sausage on Sunday,” I said. “Where were you?”

“I went to visit my uncle in Alturas. We were hunting ground squirrels —“

“You don’t put that in the sausage!?”

“Oh, no, no, no! That would taste kind of funny. My uncle is friends with one of the ranchers over there. They’ve been having problems with the ground squirrels tearing up the land, the alfalfa fields. Cattle and horses step in the burrow holes, and the horses break their legs.”

Although I realize that Chris has family obligations — he and his wife, Celeste, have an 11-year-old daughter, Tracey — he can’t take any more vacations. Or, the least he can do is give advance notice so we sausage junkies can stock up and freeze, if we have to.

Chris is originally from Beaumont, in Riverside County; he moved to Fortuna years ago with his mother and step-father, Julie and Phil Ross. His career started at Fortuna’s Safeway, where he trained for two-and-a-half years. He came to the Valley Grocery three years ago when Josh Adams left.

“The recipe for the sausage was from when Josh was here,” Chris says. “He gave it to me, and I added a few little things. Almost all the meat I use is choice cut, really good flavor. I basically determine the percentage of fat and leanness when I grind it. I try to get an even ratio. That gives the best possible flavor. I grind it, and then I hand-mix the ingredients. It’s all done my hand at that point, and although I try to be as consistent as possible, there sometimes is a little pocket of pure spice. You’re eating and suddenly, there’s a burst of flavor.”

 Mmmm. I didn’t think he appreciated how grim Sunday morning had been. “The stuff Hoby’s sent over?” I said. “There was no face.”

“I do the faces, too,” Chris said. “I get my inspiration from the children. They come in and stand by the case, look at the sausage, and give me suggestions, ideas. They’re always battling later about whose face, whose idea, won.
A pleasant story. Nonetheless, the experience has left me shaken.

What if, one day, the Valley Grocery no longer hosts the olive-eyed, pickled-nosed pork?  What’s next, the tractor parade?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Spin cycle


I noticed something was wrong shortly after Christmas when the children and grandchildren went back to New York and I was processing what eventually became 23 sequential loads of laundry.

Whenever I went into the laundry room to do a washer-dryer transfer I found the clothes floating in a dark sea. The “on” light was “off.” I dialed a spin cycle and turned the machine back on. As long as I did this two or three times for every load, I got the job done, and I didn’t have to bother the live-in handyman, who has become the shoemaker in the aphorism about the shoemaker’s children.

Then, one day last week, Mr. Handy did the laundry.

“The washing machine is broken,” he said. “Have you noticed?”

He found the manuals and the warranty information, and we tried to determine what year we bought the machine, a Maytag/Neptune stacked washer-dryer combo.

“It was the year I went to New Jersey for a graduation," John said, "and while I was gone, you got someone to gut the laundry room. You gave away the old washer and dryer.”

“They weren’t old.” (This is a tactic I use often: divert attention away from the big fact by exposing vulnerability in a little fact. It usually works.)

“Most of this stuff the warranty covers expires after five years.”

“Okay, 2010? We bought this long before then. That was the year I started working for the musuem, the year after you won the poker tournament and we went to Cyprus."

"Which of Mike’s kids graduated when we tore out the laundry room's closets? I think it was after David but not as recent as Josh. Matt’s graduation? And he just graduated from Rutgers? Or was that last year?”

“What about 2007?”

“I rented the office that year, and I think it was the year the creamery went bankrupt."

"We know it wasn’t 2002; that summer, we fixed up the yard from the cattle in the storm thing the winter before….”

“What about 2005? You wrote the book, we went to Mexico.”

“Wait!  We bought the ironing basket in Morelia. It was because we had installed the built-in ironing board. It was 2005. Well done!”

“Ten years ago. Nothing is covered.”

John went upstairs, researched the parts, watched a video on YouTube, read several pages of caveats about Magtag Neptunes, returned to the laundry room and pulled the machine out from the wall and into the middle of the room.

Have you looked behind your washing machine lately?  Believe me, it’s not dinner party conversation.

I swept the floor and John took the machine apart. A few hours after he fixed it, the fan on the furnace died.

Earlier in the month, all the knobs on our six-year-old KitchenAid gas stove broke and fell off. One knob is less broken than the others. We rotate it around the burners as needed, which is every few seconds when we’re cooking for company.

Meanwhile, random pieces of the 20-year-old refrigerator fell off, without warning. Fortunately, the result is only ugliness: whatever function these pieces were intended to perform doesn't seem to have any affect on keeping food cold.The seven-year-old dishwasher complains a lot, but we’re ignoring it.

When I inherited the farm, all the appliances were at least 25 years old; at least one, the stove, was considerably older. It had all its original knobs. They were not made, as the KitchenAid ones are, of plastic and what looks like duck tape. Everything machine in that house, when I moved in, worked well.  For about two months. And then, within days of each other, the washer, the dryer, the refrigerator, and the stove died. Sizzled and fizzled.

Ed Matthews, our local electrician, was philosophical about it.

“I’ve seen this happen before,” he told me. “Someone new in a house, and everything quits.”

I suggested that it could be related to an energy field. Since our bodies have an electrical system, and since the previous occupant of the house had been 92, maybe my energy field – I was 49 – was too hot for the old motors.

Ed shook his head and left the room.

Some items, of course, are perverse and never break. We’ve been waiting throughout our entire marriage for the huge Sony television set with the big rear-end to die so we can haul it to Eel River Disposal and get a flat screen with high-definition like everyone else.  We don’t even remember who brought it into the marriage; neither of us can recall buying it. 

The Sony notwithstanding, large appliances are no longer built to last more than 10 years. And we are. Medical technology is keeping us alive seemingly forever. At the current ratio of machine degradation to body enhancement, we can expect to ultimately own over a dozen washers and a dozen dryers and a dozen stoves and a dozen refrigerators before our own warranty expires.

We work to earn the money to buy the machines to do the other work so we can do all the fun things we want to do. Like whatever it was we did in 2007.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Going, going, gone

I FEEL A JOKE COMING ON, but it may take me a long ramble ‘round the barn to get there.

It begins in the early 1980s, when John bought a king-sized, goose down pillow at a farm auction in southern Minnesota.

Farm auctions were a thrill if you weren’t related to the family whose century-old homestead was on the block.  Picnic tables and folding chairs filled barnyards and local folks sold barbecued chicken, iced tea, potato salad, and lemon cake.  In the years John was bidding on boxes of household goods from old family farms on the Midwestern prairie, I was in western New York, waving fans marked with my number.

The last quarter of the twentieth century was not kind to Allegany (that's how they spell it) County, New York. Its dairy industry could not survive the needs of the market, and there were no other industries. As grandparents died or were moved to rest homes, families sold farms to bed-and-breakfast aspirants or the Amish.

These far-western New York auctions were not attended by dealers from Manhattan: Allegany County is a long, mostly dull, eight-hour drive from the City.  Therefore, there was little or no competition for items useless to farm survival, but wildly hip in the City, such as vintage clothing.  

In the summer of 1985, staying, as always, in Nana's Cuba Lake cottage, we followed signs to an auction in the nearby county seat of Belmont, population 950.

 The auction was sited at the farmhouse where the recently deceased Miss Elizabeth Kinney had lived since her birth in 1888. Miss Kinney’s adult life, as the auction program informed us, had focused on her job at the Bank of Belmont, and her volunteer work with Belmont charities.

We arrived before the noon start, registered, and wandered over to the preview. Miss Kinney had seemingly divested of nothing and neither had her parents. The well-kept possessions dating back to the town’s founding in 1853 included tools, farm implements, dishes, glassware, kitchen supplies, garden ornaments, framed pictures, furniture, jewelry, books — and a vast wardrobe of Miss Kinney’s clothing.

The styles ranged from 1908, when she was 20, and ended in mid-1950s.  The chic suits were hand-tailored. The dresses were of silk and jersey, cotton and wool; they had matching belts and wide collars. Miss Kinney was an accomplished seamstress and a fashionista: the lot came with an album of illustrations she had cut from magazines to inspire her hand-made patterns.

I tried on a blouse — a silky shell Ann Southern might have worn in “Private Secretary.” The fit was perfect.  My heart raced. I avoided eye contact with the other potential bidders and feigned disdain.

Good auctioneers are brilliant performers, and the boss and crew at Miss Kinney’s was an all-star cast: the drama of the sidemen’s shouts for bids, the rejection of an object in the queue as the auctioneer senses the mood of the crowd, the quick judgment that a bread box is hot and a rocking chair is cold. Move it along, fan the fever.

The afternoon became increasingly hot and muggy. My son and his stepfather lost interest. I said I couldn’t leave. They said they could.

“Give me your cash,” I said.

Three hours later, only the clothes remained. The auctioneer held up a wool coat with a velvet collar, satin-lined, covered buttons, a stunner. He opened at $50. I sighed. Not in my budget.
No bids. He dropped to $25, then $10, then $5. I raised my number. I was unchallenged.

I had a coat.

The auctioneer changed strategies. He waved his arms directing his crew to gather up the clothes.

“$100,” he said, “One hundred and go.”

No bids. He dropped to $50. Silence.

He pointed at me. “$5 and go?” I nodded.

When Ewing and Max returned, they packed the car with Miss Kinney’s 107 pieces: dresses, coats, nightgowns, suits, jackets, shoes, belts, and gloves.

Home at the cabin, I staged a fashion show of my purchases. As I studied the individual pieces, the life of their creator took shape: Miss Elizabeth Kinney’s dreams, her modesty, her vanities, her humor, her elegance.

Over the decades since that summer, I have worn the pieces until they fell apart, like a beloved pink chenille bathrobe, its closely fitted silhouette capped with 1940s shoulder pads. I gave away a number of rockabilly housedresses. I sold an evening gown with a beaded décolletage (where had she worn it? Did she have a suitor?). I donated the shoes.

Today, all that remains is a turquoise felt “Mexican” jacket appliquéd with bananas, donkeys and sombreros. I don’t wear it often, but I keep it visible, in memory of Miss Kinney, she of impeccable, adventurous taste, the patron saint of my closet.

Now… where had I intended to go with this story? The king-sized down pillow?  Oh yes, John’s auction purchase, which, on Monday, was in serious need of a washing.

I tossed it in the machine with a couple of towels and some tee shirts.

The thin cotton covering -- not ticking -- chose that moment to go to glory. The washing cycle finished, I opened the machine to a bushel of goose feathers — everywhere, on everything, embedded in the toweling, permanently driven into the tee shirts, plugged into every open surface of the machine’s interior, and, as I tried to move the mess, all over the laundry room floor.
I gave up and went to the office. In the late afternoon, when I left work and headed west, it became necessary to cross Main Street at a critical CalTrans construction moment.

“We’ve just resurfaced,” the traffic control woman warned. I roared through.

Driving down our lane, I heard the gravel sticking to my tires.

John greeted me in the yard.

“How was your day?”

“Not bad,” I said, “considering I was tarred and feathered.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raisin Wives

STACKS AND STACKS OF COOKBOOKS fill Dayton Titus’s dining room.
“Help yourself,” he said. “The kids have already taken the ones they want.”
Post-it notes stuck up from the bindings.
“Did you mark your favorite recipes?”
“Hell, no. Gayle did.”
Gayle Klingler Titus, who died in October 2011, was acclaimed in both the Mattole and Eel River Valleys for her cooking and baking. I wanted to load up the back of my car with the entire lot and spin out in the driveway before Dayton changed his mind.
I didn’t, of course. I chose “Favorite Raisin Recipes.”
I picked it out because of the cover line: From the Raisin Wives of California.
A raisin wife.  That was a life possibility that had never occurred to me.
Before I baked anything, I went to the ‘net. The Raisin Wives of California, a fairly new organization, was founded in 1972, a year before the cookbook was published.
I called the president, Lladona Estermann, who lives in Kerman. (The parents of Lladona and her husband, David, immigrated as children with their families from Indiana and Iowa, respectively, arriving in the Central Valley in the early 1900s. Once in the valley, both families became raisin farmers.)
“We only have about 30 members now,” Lladona said, “we’re down from well over a hundred members fifteen years ago. We’re old. The young wives are too involved with their kids in sports.
Until that moment, everything I knew about raisins was centered on the vision of a dark-haired young woman in a red bonnet on a red box with  a yellow sun.
“We Raisin Wives all belong to the Sun-Maid co-op,” Lladona said.  (Sun-Maid, 94 years old, is owned by raisin growers who live within 100 miles of each other in California’s San Joaquin Valley.)
The dark-haired girl on the Sun-Maid box was Lorraine Collett Petersen. As Sun-Maid’s website says: “In May 1915, she was discovered drying her black hair curls in the sunny backyard of her parents’ home in Fresno…she was then asked to pose for a painting while holding a basket tray of fresh grapes. …the treasured original watercolor painting is today kept safely in a concrete vault at Sun-Maid’s headquarters in Kingsburg, California…sometimes we forget that in 1915 there were no electric hair dryers…”
(The last comment reveals that no cynical editor touched the Sun-Maid website copy. I would have deleted that line with margin notes: “Off-point!” “Spoils original image!”)
Tell me about making raisins, I said. I’d already consumed a bag via a Brandied Raisin Applesauce Cake (p. 9).
“We grow Thompson seedless grapes, same as green table grapes, except that our culture practices are different. We don’t want ours to be great big, with tough skin. Raisin grapes have to be smaller. If they weren’t, it would take forever and a year to dry. It takes four to five pounds of grapes to make a pound of raisins. We figure 2.5 tons per acre, if everything goes well. Lack of water, like now, you just never know. We just got our first water today — we can get water when the west side of the San Joaquin Valley can’t — we get water from March or April through September or October, from a reservoir of melted snow in the mountains. Irrigation water comes through ditches from the mountains to the valley. We belong to the Fresno Irrigation District.” (The FID, publicly held and controlled for nearly a century, serves 245,000 rural and urban acres in Fresno County.)
“This year, we’ve had 25% less than normal snow, and it’s dry on top of that. If we don’t get water that way, we have to pump ground water. Some farmers’ wells are going dry.
“Anyway, Thompson grapes are also used for commercial sweeteners — they’re very sweet — as a wine blend, and in one of the steak sauces. A1. They’re green until they’re really ripe, and then they’re kind of yellow. That’s when they’re really, really good, but people won’t buy them because they think the raisins have gone bad.
“We start picking the first of September. We put the bunches on paper trays, craft paper, like grocery bags, 2 feet by 3.5 feet. We put the trays between the rows.  All hand work. The raisins dry there, in the sun.  Then, we put them in big boxes and take them to the Sun-Maid processing plant in Kingsburg, where they’re cleaned and stemmed and fumigated for mites.”
What happens to the grapeless vines, I wondered.
“We shred the canes, stack them in the middle of the rows, and a machine cuts them up and works them into the ground. We’re trying not to burn anything. We have the worst air quality in the state. The prevailing summer winds from the north blows in the junk from the Bay Area, there’s a dust from farming, trucks on I-5 and the exhaust…”
I had a question for the expert. We have a grapevine at our place, tiny purple wine grapes that came from Italy as grew from a slip carried in Paolo Gabrielli’s coat lining. Years ago, I was told by Fulmina Borges that the time to prune the vine was after the first full moon in January.
I mentioned this tip in an effort to wow the president of the Raisin Wives of California with my knowledge of the lore of viticulture.
“Never heard of that one,” Lladona said. “We prune after a frost. Otherwise, the leaves are still hanging on the vine.
“You can’t see to prune if the leaves are on.”
There’s so much life wisdom in that comment, I have nothing to say.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The new dog

Tikvah, in a photo taken by her fostering family.
Peggy Hartley Rice died on February 10 and on March 10, one of her many friends, Leanne McCulloch, sent this mass e-mail:

I’m asking everyone I can think of  in hopes that they may know someone who needs/would like/might be looking for a little companion dog.

Tikvah belonged to Peggy Hartley… She’s about 6 or 7 years old. Is a loving little dog that tolerates cats. She’s good company, but Peggy was always a little nervous with her around toddlers.

What’s with people only wanting to adopt babies and puppies.

If you can think of anyone, please let me know.

PS  Tikvah means hope in Hebrew.


I searched Google translations. I’m always optimistic about English translations of Hebrew, in the off-chance that something touted as a law punishable by death turns out to be only a suggestion.

Leanne was correct. Tikvah means hope.

Still, while we prefer to adopt house-broken members of all species, we also prefer dogs that can be easily called.

I went to the back door and practiced yelling “Tikvah” a few times. There are two distinct and linguistically incompatible syllables. I tried a few variations. Frank wandered around the corner to see if I was announcing an exotic table scrap.

Not going to work, I decided. 

For a moment, her adoption had been a consideration. Frank is aging; he and John share the glucosamine.  We’re not sure of Frank’s true age because he was an adult adoption from the King Salmon pound. He joined us in 2003, at the time when Viola, our previous Australian shepherd/border collie mix adopted ten years earlier from the same pound, was apparently in her last days. It was my theory that Viola’s life would be extended by a loving companion – and if not extended, at least significantly enhanced over the screwball fellowship extended by the chickens.

Theory proven. Viola lived another full, blissful year.

We had more or less agreed to seek a similar twilight plan for Frank. (Recently, about to have a routine medical test, I was asked by the receptionist if I had an end-of-life plan. I do: it is to go to sleep at some reasonable chronological point, have a lovely dream, like skinny dipping in a warm and isolated mountain lake, and never wake up. I didn’t mention that to the receptionist. She needed an answer that would fit in a check box.)

Like most big ideas, the best end-of-life plan is Biblical, from 1 Kings: Now King David was old, advanced in age; and they covered him with clothes, but he could not keep warm. So his servants said to him, "Let them seek a young virgin for my lord the king, and let her attend the king and become his nurse; and let her lie in your bosom, that my lord the king may keep warm."…

Two nubile nurses were ultimately involved, as I recall, but maybe that’s the Hollywood version.

I especially like the part about staying warm and having servants.

So, finding a pleasant, adult female companion for Frank was a priority. Toward this end, and before Leanne’s email came, I had visited the King Salmon pound.  I figured they’d be delighted to have our place available again, with two successful, long-term adoptions to our credit.

I was wrong.  I had to fill out a form with the longest list of questions I have ever been asked, including foster parent applications and government security clearances. After I answered the questions, I was asked to wait for an interview.

Eventually, a pleasant young woman sat down with me and reviewed my answers. I offered that surely there were records somewhere attesting to our responsible pet ownership history. She smiled patiently. Things are different. We are more concerned about the type of home... When you come for your first visit –

The visit, she said, would require the attendance of all of us.  John and I.  And Frank. It was critical, she explained, that Frank interact with his intended companion in a neutral zone and under supervision.

Wow, if the pound were a dating service, I could have spared myself a couple of husbands.

Then, she asked – much too gently -- if I thought I could offer a dog “at least 15 years” of a stable home.

That’s what you get when you stop dyeing your hair. I said I’d be in touch.

When I returned to my email, Leanne McCulloch had sent a bit of history. Peggy’s daughter-in-law, she said, had found the dog, abused and starving, in a parking lot in Davis. She nursed her back to health and brought her up to Humboldt County to be with Peggy, who was battling cancer. Peggy named her “hope.” Since Peggy died, Leanne wrote, Tikvah has been living with Jeannie Fulton, Peggy’s friend and neighbor.  “Jeannie will keep her if no one else will, but the family is away most of the day and they don’t think the dog should be alone that much.”

Attached was a photo.

We call her Tickie. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Following a Silver Star

The eBay lot of medals, at least one of which is stolen
property, sold on April 13, 2014 for $611.
IN AUGUST OF 1980, I left my house in northern Westchester County, New York, and moved into Manhattan to sublet a loft in Soho for the month with Robert Hard, a man I was dating. (I was divorced; my son, who was five, was spending the month with his grandparents in Humboldt County, California.)
It was a glorious summer, much of which was spent on the fire escape, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine.
On the last day of August, we packed up what belongings we had brought with us and shoved them into Robert’s car, which may have been a ’73 bronze Mercury Capri hatchback. We drove from Soho to the way-upper West Side, where Robert’s twin brother Gordon shared a flat with four other guys.
The next morning, we went downstairs to 104th Street, where we’d parked the Merc. The windows were smashed. Our stuff was gone.
The sublet had been furnished. All I’d packed from my house were necessities (clothes, cosmetics) and sentimental items I was reluctant to leave in an unoccupied house in the woods -- such as the the Silver Star awarded posthumously to my father, U.S. Marine Lt. John D. Robertson, Jr. for valor (“…which resulted in his death…”, as the proclamation read) on Okinawa in May 1945.
The guilt and shame of losing his medal lingered with me for a long time.
Two or three years after that August night, Robert called my house and said he had something he thought would interest me. Could he drop by?
He arrived with a package of letters from officials in the Pentagon documenting his long and utimately successful effort to have all of my father’s decorations and honoria, including the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, replaced.  
Last week, I was pulling into a parking space outside a class at Humboldt State University when my cell phone rang.
“A kid from Pennsylvania just called,” said my husband, John. “He asked if you knew that your father’s medal is for sale on eBay?!”
“That’s a scam,” I said. “The medals are at U.S. Bank, in the safe deposit box.” A beat, two beats.
My God. It’s the real one.
I called “the kid,” a 19-year-old pre-med student who collects military memorabilia.
“The seller doesn’t know what he has,” the kid said. “It’s listed wrong, and it’s with a bunch of common medals. But dealers will spot it. The bid could go up to a thousand dollars. If it had kept its ribbon and pin it would have been worth up to five thousand. Especially since there’s a story with it.”
I asked how he found me.
“The seller has included a photo of the back of the medal. Your father's name is engraved there. I Googled it, and found all the stories about you, and the movie you made — ‘Letters Home’ — and from the newspaper articles it didn’t sound like you were someone who would have sold this or given it away…”
He sent me the link for the eBay listing. The Silver Star, battered and dulled, surrounded by a dozen or so lesser medals, was nearly unrecognizable in the flea-market lot. A second photo showed the flip side.
I enlarged the image. A rifle shot went through my heart.
Up to that point, I had thought, well, amazing story, how unlikely, I already have a medal in storage, I don’t have time to pursue the red-tape labyrinth of getting this back, it’s just a symbol, a thing — and then I saw my father’s name, belly-up, exposed, tossed in a box like a piece of junk jewelry, abandoned and dismissed.
I wrote the seller, who is known to me only as Canuprovethat2010 -- by eBay regulations, he is allowed his anonymity regardless of whether or not he is selling stolen property, unless a police officer produces a report. I explained the circumstances. I also emphasized that in no way did I believe that he was the original thief. (“The people who stole our stuff probably only had possession for 10 minutes. The only things they collected were syringes,” I wrote.)
The seller responded, asking for more information about me, to prove my right to the medal. I produced the proof. He responded, writing that he didn’t know what to do, as there was already a bid on the item. (There is a simple procedure: eBay allows a seller to end an auction without giving cause, at any time before the auction closes.) The seller chose to stonewall; someone had probably clued him to the fact that he had missed a high-worth item. Last Sunday evening, the “box of medals, good stuff” that included my father’s Silver Star, sold for $611. The winner, from the looks of his history of eBay transactions, is a dealer.
I called eBay and spent most of Sunday on hold. I was transferred and transferred. I repeated the story eight or nine times. When the evening ended, I had had conversations with representatives in both the Mediation and the Trust & Safety departments.
As it now stands,  Mediation is pursuing the case, notifying both the seller and the buyer that eBay is aware there was prior notice that stolen property was being sold, and encouraging them to join a three-way e-mail conversation (in which, unfairly, only my identity is known to the others). The ideal is, says Joseph in Mediation, for the three of us to “work out something.”  Joseph emphasized that by this, he, and by implication, eBay, did not mean that I was expected to buy the medal back.
The Trust & Safety department of eBay deals a much heavier hand on stolen property issues, but that level of disciplinary action (lifetime exclusion from eBay, for starters) requires the involvement of a police officer and a copy of the police report.
Robert Hard -- I’d emailed him as soon as I learned about the medal, under the subject line, “This will blow your mind” -- was discouraging about the chances of obtaining a police report for a car break-in in 1980. I hadn’t been too optimistic myself. I seem to recall that there are warehouses somewhere in Brooklyn filled with pre-computerization paperwork from the NYPD.
In my most recent conversation with Mediation’s Joseph, I told him I was not going to let this incident pass.
“I always do that,” I said. “I’ve never sued anyone, I’ve never pressed charges, I’ve never taken a cent in a divorce. I’ve always decided that the hassle wasn’t worth the bad energy, and I’ve walked away. But I’m not walking away from this, not now, not ever. Tell the buyer and the seller that. Tell them that I am not going to lose this medal twice. I am not going to rest until his name is with people who are his family, people who look like him, who laugh like he laughed: his daughter, his grandson, his great-grandsons.

"We will know him by his things.”