Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Magic of Blackcaps

Every mid-summer when I was a kid, my dad would say, "You wanna go pick some blackcaps?" Blackcaps, I didn't know then, were black raspberries, and picking blackcaps with my dad, pails in hand, is one of my fondest childhood memories. I don't remember where we found them, he seemed to have some secret blackcap spot. What I do remember was hanging out with my father, getting scratched up by thorns, and arriving home with pails full of fruit. My mother was not so enthusiastic. Upon our return she would demand I sit with her and look at each and every berry before later processing into pies or jam or freezing. We were looking for worms. Apparently my mom had a bad blackcap experience once, worm-wise.

In any case, when I moved into my current house I discovered a small blackcap bush in the back yard. I was delighted and nursed the little bush through several summers until it managed to produce maybe 15 berries, which I picked and gulped down, never having enough to do anything other than sprinkling a few on my cereal. Not long after moving in I hired a local fellow, just a kid then, named Riley Webster who has a magic gardening thumb and was willing to spend hours in my overgrown yard pulling weeds and planting flowers. One day during his first week of work I went outside and, horrified, saw that he'd yanked my little blackcap bush out of the ground and thrown it onto a pile of brambles. Poor Riley, I screamed and demanded he replant it (I'm surprised he didn't quit on the spot). "But...but...it's a weed!" he told me. "Not in this yard, it's not!" I announced. Bless his heart, he was determined to convince me the blackcap bush was garbage growth, but replant he did.

Nature is such a strange thing. The little blackcap bush keeled over that summer and still today has never really come back right. The berries are puny and awkward-looking. But Nature, in its strangeness, must have known how important blackcaps are to me because now my back yard has become overrun with bushes that are bursting with the black raspberries. They're climbing the fence, they're choking out the peonies, they're wrapping themselves around the rose bush. They've even jumped the fence and are now growing next to the carriage house and opposite the driveway steps. Every morning for the past week I've gone outside and picked a half a quart. My freezer is stuffed with blackcaps and don't ask me what I'm going to do with them all. I gotta say, though, when I walk into my house and dump the berries into the strainer for washing, and then pile them into freezer bags, I am completely elated. I'm thinking about my dad and our foraging. I'm thinking about my mom and her stern finger-wagging about searching for creatures in the little blackcap cup (sorry, Mom, I don't do a worm search these days). I picture the sunny kitchen of my youth and spending special moments with my parents. It's a lovely thing, and rather amazing that a little black berry can transport me so instantaneously to simpler times.

As for Riley, well he isn't working in my yard anymore, though he did work here for several summers after what we've come to call "The Blackcap Incident." He's in college and is working elsewhere this summer, no doubt making more money, though he stops by now and then and can't help but pull a weed when he sees one...a real weed. We haven't talked much about the berry bush overgrowth, though he knows they're there. And I don't say the word "blackcap" to him. I'm afraid his memories won't be quite so fond as mine. Maybe I'll make him a blackcap pie this Christmas as a peace offering.

Saturday, March 20, 2021


I spent part of this morning drinking coffee in my family room and watching birds. I have a little birdhouse in my back yard that I can see through the window, and for 30 lovely minutes I sat quiet and watched Mama Bird (I assume it was the mother but I guess it might have been the father, I don't know much about my feathered neighbors) fly back and forth, bringing straw to make a nest. I attached the birdhouse to a fencepost a few years ago and this is the first time I've seen any kind of bird nest there, which made me happy. I have bird friends in Tennessee who are Purple Martin experts...and I kind of hope they aren't reading this because the busy bird making ready for her chicks is a starling. My Purple Martin friends tell me starlings are bad birds, and Internet research for the most part agrees: they're invasive, territorial, and "compete with, displace, and kill many native birds and their young." I've been hearing this for years because I have another starling family that returns to a nesting spot under the eaves by my kitchen window. I'll be washing dishes in the spring and watch the parents come and go, then I hear peeping, then the babies fledge. I feel a little guilty about providing a nesting place for the starlings, but the alternative -- flushing them out with the hose or rooting for the feral cats to do away with the chicks -- seems too awful. I don't have it in me. I even apologize to every summer fly I swat.

So...I've decided to enjoy the annual show and turn deaf ears to the bird experts. I don't love the starlings, but their arrival means spring is close behind. The temperature in Sherburne today is 36 degrees, not exactly tropical, but the clock is ticking forward and the starlings tell me the pile of snow in my driveway will soon melt and the flowers will push on up through the soil. Then I can drink my morning coffee on the patio and watch Harry spin in the bee balm.

We had a snowy winter, really lovely, but I'm done. At this point I might welcome a grizzly bear making a nest in my back yard if it meant spring is near. With that said, bring it on, starlings. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Let it Snow

The snow has finally stopped (I think). It's been snowing for three or four days, and before that, back in December, we got three feet, so the view has been white through my window for more than a month. There is a certain kind of fortitude in people who live in the Northeast, and specifically in Central New York. We're used to snow, and are accustomed to bundling up in coats and hats and gloves and scarves and boots so we can march out there and take on whatever the weather has doled out. I wake up every morning to the sound of snowplows, and when I burrow back down under the electric blanket I say a silent 'thank you' to those hardy souls who get up before dawn to clear the roads for the rest of us.

People who live in southern climates are always posting photos of sunset beaches and green golf courses to torture (they think) those of us who live in the north. My Florida friends say "It was 75 today!" and my Memphis pals talk about taking walks -- in light jackets -- by the river. Another friend, this one in Arkansas, was griping about the temperature being in the high 30s one day last week. I felt like telling her, "When your 15-pound dog goes sliding off the back porch into a snowbank and disappears, then you can complain."

Yes indeed, there are days when I would like nothing better than to see some grass or sand and be able to go outside in a tee shirt. Still, there is something really special about this white world. There is a silence that's hard to explain if you haven't experienced it, a hush that falls over the town that makes me take a deep breath and be thankful. Snow is magic, crystalizing on every twig and sprinkling the houses with sugar. When I get up in the middle of the night and look out at snow falling, glistening in the streetlights and sparkling on my neighbors' roofs, there's a purity of nature that words can't quite express.

So today I thought, for all my southern friends, I'd post some photos of February in this part of the world.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Is a Mask Really Too Much to Ask?

I've been wearing a mask pretty religiously now for nine months. This wearing of a mask thing is interesting, and a little weird. It's particularly weird to see everybody else wearing one, at least here in Central New York. People in my region have been really good about masks. I don't go anywhere -- the store, the Post Office, the bank -- without seeing my fellow New Yorkers complying with this simple protective measure. There are always a few folks, of course, who think they don't need to wear one, who think it's a political statement not to, but I steer clear of them and hope they don't get sick. I certainly don't want them to make me sick. Then I come home and wash my hands before I touch anything, including the dog, and wipe down the door knobs, maybe give the mail a spritz of Lysol. You know, just in case.

The other day I was thinking about the benefits of being masked. It's inconvenient, and sometimes annoying when I leave the mask in the car and have to go back to get it, but all in all not that big a deal. Turns out there are some real non-health positives to mask-wearing: 

  • I only have to wear eye make-up, and if I have on sunglasses I don't even have to do that. Saves time and money.
  • If I'm in a hurry, I don't have to pluck unsightly hairs from my face.
  • Bumping into people I don't want to talk to, I can pretend I didn't recognize them with their mask on.
  • Even if I get trapped into talking, the conversations are short because we can't really hear each other anyway.
  • I'm protected from the smells of society: garbage, body odor, bad breath, over-zealous perfume-wearers. 
  • If I've eaten garlic or onions and forget to brush my teeth, no problem.
  • I can talk to myself in public and nobody knows.
  • I can mutter curse words to rude store clerks and they can't hear me. And if they do, I explain, "Oh no, these darn masks! I said 'Luck to you!'"
  • There's a certain sense of invisibility that I like, cruising around incognito. Unfortunately, my red hair is usually a tip-off that it's me, which no fewer than ten people have said to me in the past week.
  • I suppose I could rob a bank without any extra disguise, but bank-robbing isn't really in my wheelhouse. Besides, they'd know it was me because of the hair.

I'm sure there are other benefits I haven't thought of, but for now these will suffice. Of course the most important benefit is staying safe. This weirdness will pass, the virus will get managed sooner or later, and the pharma industry's scientists will come up with a vaccine and therapeutics. In the meantime, let's give a thought to those quarter-million-plus families who have lost loved ones in this strange time in history, and to the "long-haulers" -- the people who got sick and got better but who are still struggling with long-term effects...and to all those businesses gone forever, and to the millions of unemployed, and to the kids who may have psychological trauma for a long time from this new normal. We are living in history, a year (or more) that will be written about for decades to come, and that's interesting in a "Wow, look what we lived through" kind of way. In any case, when this is over, when we're actually back to normal, let us never forget what this felt like: staring at our four walls, not seeing the people we care about for months on end, filling our freezers to bursting "just in case," and looking at fearful eyes above the masks of our neighbors and friends and loved ones, those who are close enough to see but not close enough to hug. 

Another benefit of wearing a mask just popped into my head: staying alive to see another day, and being able to raise a glass with friends to the end of this wretched pandemic. Yeah, that's a big one, isn't it? 


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Back in March of this year, my high school class of 1974 lost a classmate and a friend, Paul Harvey. Another classmate of 1974, Bob Carrier, was good friends with Paul and sent me this touching tribute and photo. I post both here with his permission.

It's November and I just learned today that my friend, The Fifth Brother, is gone. Hard to say why it took so long for the news to reach me, but so it goes. Since 13 years old, we had each other's back, grew up together and grew together. From Sherburne to Austin, to Baltimore and then Boulder, Paul always went out of his way to spend time with me, stay long weekends and our friendship continued as though there had been no gap. He would arrive with that big, infectious smile and wrap me in a bear hug. We shared our deepest secrets. We shared our successes and we shared our failures. I was best man at his wedding, he at mine. The depth and breadth of our friendship goes on and on. There was so much texture. I lost Paul in September of 2017 when things became untenable. It was a very sad moment, but I am content to know that now things have come to a closure. Rest in peace my dear friend.

Monday, September 21, 2020

We're Not Toast Yet

God I'm so tired. I'm so tired of politics and vicious ads and the endless griping. My friends are tired of it, too. If I bring up politics I can hear them sigh and want to change the subject. So I'm changing the subject.

I've been having a toaster issue. I'm crazy about toast, my mother's child. Sometimes at night I make buttered toast and tea to calm my troubled mind. A couple of years ago my toaster stopped working so I went to a discount store and bought two toasters for five bucks apiece. An heir and a spare. The first toaster worked for a while, maybe for six months, and then it started acting up. The five dollar toaster burned the bread on one side and left the opposite side untoasted. I had to keep flipping the bread and watching the process carefully. Fiddling around with the light-toast-to-dark-toast dial didn't work, so I had to keep popping up the bread to make sure I could get the kind of toast I wanted. If I walked away for even a minute I'd return to find smoke blustering out and when I popped the toast it was burned up. Then that toaster died. I pitched it and installed "the spare," the second five-dollar toaster. That one made it for almost a year, until it made a big sparking sound and was dead as well. I vowed I was going to buy the most expensive toaster on the market and tossed the five-dollar toaster in the garbage can, muttering to myself that what you get when you buy a five-dollar toaster is a five-dollar toaster.

Another year went by.

In this twelve-month period, I made toast with my oven broiler. Ridiculous. All I had to do was go to Walmart -- or for heaven sake order a decent toaster online and have it delivered at my doorstep in two days -- and solve the problem. Still, every day went by and every day I didn't buy a new toaster. Until a month ago. I pulled myself together, got in the car, and drove to Walmart. There was some sort of something going on at the Walmart near me, some seven-year re-organization situation where the aisles were all screwed up and I entered a maze trying to find my way to the toaster aisle. Which I finally did. 

There in the toaster aisle, I found many toasters ranging in price from twenty dollars to seventy. I was determined to buy the most expensive toaster. Maybe it'll last me for the rest of my life, I thought. Oddly, though, all the toasters in the toaster aisle were out of the box and bolted to the shelf. There were no boxed toasters at all. None. This sent me on a journey to find a salesperson. Not one in sight. I finally wandered into the make-up aisle and found a young girl with a Walmart employee tag. We were both wearing masks. I said, through my mask, "Excuse me, but I'm trying to buy a toaster and all I can find are toasters bolted to the shelves. Can you help me?" She shrugged, dead-eyed (since I could only see her eyes), and said, "I guess we're out." Then I came closer and said, my own eyes blazing a bit, "Please call your supervisor." Astonishingly, she said, "No."

Now yes indeed. I am older. I worked in customer service in my younger years, and in those days, I subscribed to the idea that the customer is always right. My bosses told me to think that way. I would have been fired if I hadn't. With this said, I stood staring at this Walmart girl and was truly amazed. "No? You won't call your supervisor??" The answer was no.

So I drew closer to this young lady, probably closer than social distancing advises, and said, "We are living in a third world country, and it's because of you." Then I and my cart stormed off.

Before leaving the store I ran into a man who had a handheld computer thing, one that tells him about what's in stock. I explained my problem and he said, "I'll check it out." I asked him, "You mean on that computer thing?" "Uh...no," he said. "I'll need to go into the back and look."

Apparently this nice-enough man thought I was going to stand there for who knows how long while he rummaged around in some giant stock room looking for a boxed toaster. I told him, getting close, "Forget it." Then I added, "We're living in a third-world country."

I have no doubt he thought I was nuts.

When I got home, I got online and searched "toasters." I found one that I liked, a retro appliance that promised perfectly-browned toast. I read the reviews, did my due diligence, went through all the appropriate online stuff, name and address and credit card and so on, put the toaster in my virtual cart (it cost $169), and when I got to check out I was told by the toaster-buying site that the toaster I'd selected could not be delivered to my address. No reason. Just, you know, "Sorry!" I'm afraid the frown that formed between my eyes is permanent. What the hell are you talking about?? I'm about to spend almost two hundred bucks on a machine whose sole purpose is to toast bread and you all can't deliver it to my address? I don't live in the outreaches of Siberia, I live in Central New York! But there was no one to talk to, no one to whom I could say "WE ARE LIVING IN A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY!" I collapsed in frustration.

That was last month. And let's be clear: all I've been trying to do is buy a freaking toaster!

I returned to my computer last week and ordered another one. A nice stainless toaster that cost around fifty dollars. I closed one eye when I got to check-out and Behold! The stainless fifty-dollar toaster people said they could deliver to my house. The toaster arrived today. I opened the box as though it contained the treasure of King Tutankhamun. The toaster is beautiful. I plugged it in and immediately inserted a piece of bread. The toast popped up, lovely brown on both sides, not too light, not too dark. I buttered the toast and sat in a chair, munched on my prize. 

Good grief. Two years later and I finally have the perfect piece of toast.

Maybe this staying home business is starting to get to me. Or maybe staying home, being away from my friends and staring at these walls for six months, is a strange and secret blessing. I appreciate well-toasted bread again. I appreciate listening to the birds sing early in the early morning when Harry is snuggled in bed against the back of my knees, sighing his dog sighs. And how Sherburne's weather has been sunny and glorious most days this past summer. I appreciate my friends' sweet voices at the other end of the phone, friends who are far away in Virginia and Tennessee and Mississippi and California, and look forward to seeing their faces when, one of these days, I can see their faces again. Living in the midst of a pandemic has been a remarkably weird thing. I'm painting walls and rearranging furniture and ordering toasters. We are living in history, something that will be written about for decades to come. The politics, the unnecessary deaths, the masks, the fear, the hate, the fighting with our friends and families and neighbors who we love in spite of the fact that they think differently than we do. In the end, we are not living in a third-world country. We're living in the greatest country in the world. And we'll get through this.

I'm going to go downstairs now to have a piece of toast, prepared by my new toaster. I'm going brush my teeth and wash my face and hug my dog and go to bed. 

Then in my pajamas, I'm going to climb into clean sheets and pray. I'm not much of a praying person, but tonight I'm going to pray. Sorry, but I guess I'm talking about politics again. I'm going to pray that the name-calling will stop, that the lying will stop. I'm going to pray that the true leaders of our beautiful country will rise, that the good guys of America will do the right thing. I'm going to close my eyes and pray. 

And hope.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Teach Your Children

I grew up in Sherburne, New York. My father's parents were Lithuanian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the early 20th century, what family lore reports was a successful journey escaping the Russian Revolution. Somewhere along the way my father's family ended up in upstate New York. My mother's ancestral background is somewhat murkier, though certainly upstate-New-York based: French, Dutch, Native American and likely other bits and pieces of Europe that added up to become a genetic background that produced a tall, blue-eyed, high-cheekboned White girl.


Sherburne when I was growing up -- and, indeed, Sherburne now -- is not particularly diversified. Back then there were a few Black families in the area whose children attended my school: the Thompsons, the Hadleys, the Picketts, and the Moncurs, although I didn't know the latter back then. Dawn and Kim Thompson rode my school bus. Larry Hadley and I were in Drivers' Ed together. And Carl Pickett was in my grade, the only Black person in the SECS Class of 1974. Carl played the tuba in band and is still today a fine musician. I never thought of Carl as anything but...Carl. A great diver on the swim team. Fine sense of humor. A friend with a good-natured smile. Not Black Carl or White Carl. Just Carl. 

In 1979, after graduating from college with a degree in journalism, I moved to Northeast Arkansas to take a job as a newspaper reporter in a town called Blytheville, a place distinctly more diversified than my hometown. I was a cub reporter, and as the most recently hired I got what no doubt were considered the lowest-level assignments: working the wire desk (which required getting up at 5 a.m. and opening up the office), taking obituaries over the phone, and snapping local pictures of questionable news value -- a fallen tree blocking traffic, the biggest squash grown in the county, and school pictures. Lots and lots of school pictures. Parents loved seeing their kids in the paper, and The Courier News owner, Hank Haines, understood his audience. Photos of kids in the paper meant more papers sold. Hank was a smart man.

Blytheville was a wake-up call for me. Back in 1980, the White to Black ratio there was about 60/40 -- that's 40% Black, something to which White-girl me from predominantly White Sherburne had to adjust. I'm embarrassed to say it, but at 23 years old I did have to adjust. My upstate New York upbringing played a part, as upbringing does for us all.

So I went to the schools with my camera, schools with fleshy pigment very different from my own. The schools were divided into three: elementary, junior high, and high school. I visited these schools every week, not interviewing anybody but taking shots of kids in the hallways, on the playground, the football team, or photos of kids who had achieved certain awards. I don't remember much of those visits after the first time, but it was that first time I remember best. The elementary school was my initial stop, where I watched grade school children -- Black and White -- play together and hug each other and kiss each other, holding hands and rolling in the playground grass like little kids do. Half an hour later I was at the junior high school. Black and White kids were still in groups, but with decidedly more reserve. By the time I got to the high school that first day, there were two sides: The Black kids and the White kids. A portrait of...dare I call it racism? Albeit silent, but yes, there was a racial divide. In two hours' time and right before my eyes, I captured it on film. At the tender age of 23, I understood the tragic divide between Black and White and it broke my heart. The grade school kids didn't see color. By the time they reached high school, color was all they saw.

In the early 1980s after having moved to New York City -- a fabulously diverse place to live -- I organized a reunion of my Courier News co-workers, one of whom was Frankie, a Black girl who worked the front desk. Everyone loved Frankie, and while she wasn't in my immediate social circle I considered her a friend whose warm smile greeted me every day for almost two years. I was looking forward to seeing her again at the reunion and was disappointed upon returning to Blytheville that she didn't come. I asked someone at the reunion if they knew why. "Yes," they told me. The place I'd booked for the reunion because of its great barbeque "didn't allow Blacks." In 1982. I was speechless. Horrified. Disgusted. Embarrassed. I'm sorry, Frankie, wherever you are. Such a thing never even occurred to me to ask.

I will not sit here at my keyboard and say that today, 40 years later, I don't see color. Obviously I do if I can name the four Black families in my home town decades ago. If I see a turban I see Muslim; if I see a yarmulke I see Jew. I see Asian and Latino and White. I see them all, but what I don't do -- and maybe never did, if truth be told -- is judge. When I see Andrew Yang, I don't see a man with a Taiwan ethnicity, I see a man who ran for President. When I see my neighbor, Frank, I don't see a White guy, I see my cousin's husband who tends my front flower bed. When I see Tiger Woods, I don't see a Black guy, I see the greatest golfer who ever lived. Am I aware of color? Sure. But I also see that we all work toward the same goals, of freedom and acceptance and kindness. We all want the same things for our kids and our loved ones, don't we? A comfortable home and good food, a way to earn money to pay the bills, and a safe place to lay down our heads at night. We all want good health and a government that pays attention to our needs. And we all bleed the same red blood.

Sometimes I wonder about those Blytheville kids whose innocent faces filled my camera lens. I especially think about the grade school kids who hadn't yet been poisoned at home with racism. Because that's what happened, right? They didn't see color when they were five or six or seven, but by the time they hit 15 and 16 they had turned their backs on each other, White and Black both, because of what they heard at home. I hope at least some of those grade school kids held onto the moments when they hugged each other and tumbled in the Arkansas grass, hearing giggles not slurs, understanding in their five-year-old minds that skin color and nationality and religion have nothing to do with what is in a person's heart. While not perfect people, my parents set me on the path to understanding -- maybe by accident, I guess I'll never know -- but they did. Though they are long dead, I honor my parents every day for teaching me some simple concepts. To look deeper than skin color. To see a poor person and think maybe they aren't lazy, but instead need a helping hand. To know a lie when I hear it, and in kind to recognize the truth. The most important thing they taught me, though, is the difference between right and wrong. That's the bottom line, isn't it? To understand the difference between right and wrong? And to act on it. To do our best to do the right thing, and to speak up when what we see is  something that is simply and always wrong.

I saw my friend Carl Pickett the other day in a store parking lot. We were both masked and at first I didn't realize it was him as I walked to my car. When I recognized him, we approached each other and gave a virtual hug from a safe distance. SECS classmates. Not best friends maybe, but without a doubt, old friends with chocolate skin next to pale white, sparkling brown eyes greeting light blue. We chatted and I reminded him of a conversation we'd had back in the 1990s, when I'd just gotten back from a trip to Kenya. I told him back then how strange it was to be in a country where everyone was Black, and that to be the only White person in a sea of Black faces was...unsettling. I could only see his eyes (those pretty sparkling eyes), but I knew behind the mask he was giving me a sad smile. This was something he certainly understood. Then I told him to be careful out there, America is in a strange place. As Carl walked away and I was getting in my car, a man was getting into a pickup truck next to me. I saw him scowl and give Carl a funny look. Carl didn't see it I don't think, but I did. I think I did. Did I?

Indeed. America is in a strange place. Or maybe it always has been.

Please teach your children not to see color, or if they do see it, teach them not to judge. Teach them to base opinions on character, not pigment. Teach them to be kind and not to name-call. Teach them that diversity is a good thing. Teach them to love others, all others. Please. Teach your children well.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum