“Thank God for hollyhocks,” the ranch wife said
as she stood by the side of her truck.
“They go untended, not like everything else
around here.” She glanced at the house,
the barn, the cows in the field beyond.
Some say a hollyhock is a large, coarse plant,
like the plainest girl at the dance.
But their colors are pure,
the sturdy stalks stand up to the wind,
the seeds easy to give to a friend.
“What’s best is they are familiar,” she sighed.
“When I see hollyhocks, I know I’m home.”
I have been thinking about the ways we teach young children how to interpret their sensory experiences. In doing so, we often teach them what to hate, what to fear, and, hopefully, what to remember with love. Here’s a case in point.
No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom.” Harry Houdini
We were there the day Harry Houdini
entangled himself in rusty old chains.
We wondered about the man we would see
sink into the cold enclosure he disdains.
We gathered with friends and naysayers, too,
murmured together, moved closer to know
more of the bind Harry put himself through,
yet afraid to imagine the trials below.
When he rose from the depths, free from dire straits,
we breathed his relief as if a brother,
then we turned to go home dragging the weights
we wore to the shore and told each other
if Harry Houdini can beat the odds,
if Harry Houdini knows a few tricks,
if Harry Houdini can challenge the gods,
there’s always a way to get out of a fix.
Variations on a Theme: "Lady with a Little Pet Dog" (apologies to Anton Chekhov, Joyce Carol Oates, and dog lovers everywhere)
Yet Another Lady with a Pet Dog
I knew a woman who owned a devoted dog. With floppy ears and big paws, this shaggy mix of mongrel and pedigree followed her everywhere. When she said, “sit,” it sat. When she said, “fetch,” it lay the teeth-marked stick at her feet.
Everyone remarked how lucky she was to have such a dog, one whose loyal eyes followed her about the room, who wagged in the driveway when she returned from a trip, a dog who slept at the foot of her bed and lapped the toast crumbs beneath her table.
Unfortunately, the dog’s devotion began to get on her nerves. Some days, the canine’s eyes appeared red-rimmed and rheumy, and when she looked into his brown pupils, she suspected dog dementia.
Whenever she prepared for a trip, the dog sensed her departure. When she opened the door of her flashy coupe, the big dog made himself small and tried to fit into the back seat. Angry at the dog hairs and muddy paws, she raised her hand and yelled, “Get out!” As the dog left the car with his tail between his legs, she hated him for making her feel mean and coarse.
The feeling didn’t go away. At night, she loathed the sound of his breathing and the smell of his doggy breath. Once again, she yelled, “Get out!” The dog skulked down the stairs. Her ire only increased his devotion.
One day she realized that the dog, the house, the village itself had become intolerable. She packed a bag, caught a plane, and moved to the other side of the world.
The dog waits for her return.
Still Another Lady with a Pet Dog
I know a woman who cannot rid herself of her pet dog. She says, “”Don’t visit today. The dog might bite you.” Or, “I can't go out today. The dog wouldn’t like it.” She confides. “He doesn’t like anyone to get too near me.” It is difficult to tell whether she is proud of this possessive dog or afraid of it.
She has developed two explanations for the dog’s behavior. “It’s the breed,” she says. Or, as if the mystery lies in early kennel life, she says, “ I didn’t train it, you know.”
Everyone in her family hates the dog. At first they were intimidated by its pedigree and their lack of familiarity with the breed. They admired certain traits, its fastidious eating habits for example. After a while they made fun of it, imitating its clipped bark and peculiar tail.
In the beginning, she took the dog to family gatherings, but the dog didn’t travel well. That created a dilemma for her: take the dog or leave it.
Fifteen years of ownership have made her reluctant to part with her problematic pet She says, “Perhaps some day the dog will run off.”
Her friends tell her, “You can’t spend your life waiting for your dog to disappear.”
Lately, she blames herself for the dogs’ recalcitrance. “I’m not a good owner, “ she says. “I haven’t learned the right commands. My voice is too soft.” Once, in a moment of soul searching, she said, “Maybe I don’t like dogs. Or this dog.”
Nevertheless, she feeds it doggie vitamins and gourmet dog chow and keeps its kennel spotlessly clean.
Frankly, I think this is an incredible amount of trouble to go to. After all, it’s just a dog.
Lady Without a Pet Dog
I once knew a woman who insisted on throwing a bright red ball into her empty yard. When she finally retreated to her house, she was angry that no clever canine returned the ball to her slippered feet.
When friends confronted her with a simple solution, “Why don’t you buy a dog?” she shook her head.
“Too much training and trouble. I’d rather play fetch with my disappointment.”
I doubt you would like this place.
Blue light on crusted snow,
sage drained of chlorophyll,
grey sky mirrored in the pond.
You say, "The dead of winter."
I hear revving in the distance
as a rancher warms his truck
to feed the bawling cattle.
This below zero day
freezes complicated thought.
The death of desire makes me tired.
I want to sleep until spring.
A badged man waves paper over my hands.
I ask what he wants to find.
"Traces of explosives," the man explains.
"Wow!" I remark to my palms.
After takeoff, I ask the steward,
"What do they want to know?"
"If you built a bomb or fired a gun."
The man across the aisle snickers.
"She's old enough to be my mother."
I want my forefinger to grow bony
so I can poke him in the ribs and hiss,
"These old hands have strangled cats."
Instead, I fold my dangerous hands
in an age-appropriate way,
and smile when the snickering guy
peeks to see if I am his mother.
If mothers and grandmothers were screened for violent thoughts,
airlines would go out of business.
I won. I think my mother gave up because she was tired of the routine, dragging a truculent, dusty twelve-year-old to a piano lesson. That July afternoon was typical. I saw our black, three-holed Buick coming down the dirt road towards the stables at the Elko County fairgrounds. “I’m in for it,” I said to my best friend, Karen. We were in seventh grade and crazy about horses.
My mother didn’t scold. She leaned across the front seat, opened the passenger door, told me to leave my bike, get in the car, and, no, I couldn’t go home to change clothes. It was time for my piano lesson. Not until I was seated at the grand piano next to Mrs. Watts did I see the dirt under my nails, feel the dust on my shirt, and smell the horse sweat on my jeans.
It’s curious that after more than sixty years I remember that my piano teacher, Mrs. Watts, had been the accompanist to Madame Schumann Heink. I recently googled Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) and, according to Wikipedia, she had quite a career: operatic debut in Dresden as Azucena in Il trovatore and final performance at the Met in 1931, belting out Wagner at age seventy-one. Wiki notes, “In the movies of the 1930’s, many a buxom opera singer/instructor/matron was modeled on her.”
My question is this: How did Marie Watts, her accompanist, ended up in our cow town in the l950’s, married to Mr. Watts, a building contractor? I guess I will never know. Their house on Ash Street, a series of three flat roofs, classic mid-century modern, was built into a hillside. The piano studio was on the bottom floor, the dim light and cool room accentuating my horsey scent.
My opportunity to learn to play the piano from an exceptional pianist lasted six months. Mrs. Watts started me with two instruction books, one of scales, boring and intimidating. The other, First Lessons in Bach, intimidated me even more. I was in one recital playing a piece called “The Bells,” which seemed to be pressing with feeling on the g key above middle c with the fourth finger of my right hand. What little practicing I did was fear-based. I hated the thought of disappointing both refined and patient Mrs. Watts and my mother.
Other girls my age started taking piano lessons about the same time, but they went to Mrs. Clark, a flamboyant little lady who dressed in primary colors and taught girls to play popular tunes and watered-down classics. By high school, my friend Gail, who stayed with Mrs. Clark, could play the “Moonlight Sonata,” at a high school assembly. The boys were impressed by her athletic prowess, stretched fingers pounding chords up and down the keyboard, crossing the left hand over the right and back. Another friend, oldest daughter of the town’s favorite doctor, could play Bach on the violin, an incredible social liability. The brazen boys would put their fingers in their ears and make pained faces.
I wish I hadn’t won. I know there is no point in dwelling on missed opportunities. I remember a quote from a character in The American by Henry James: “I have the instincts—have them deeply—if I haven’t the forms of a high old civilization.” I did want to become a cultured person, well-read, educated, and familiar with the arts. Eventually, I learned to love classical music. I became a college English teacher, which guaranteed a lifetime of reading good literature. But I have never become accomplished at anything.
I am at the age of regrets and bucket lists. To have hectored my mother out of piano lessons from Mrs. Watts is the least of my regrets. However, when I turned seventy, I had a strong urge to learn to play the piano. So, I bought a piano. On the internet I found the name of my piano book with the ochre cover and antique lettering--Beginning Bach from Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics. With some chagrin, I noticed my old piano book is listed as a collectible on Amazon.com.
I found a piano teacher in Elko, a lovely woman who doesn’t seem to notice when I come in from Tuscarora for my lesson, slightly dusty from the drive. I don’t mind being a beginner. Actually, the going wisdom is that at my age it’s healthy to be learning something new. I figure if I practice an hour a day, by the time I’m eighty, I could be quite accomplished.
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Nancy Harris McLelland taught creative writing, composition, and literature for over twenty years and Conducted writing workshops for the Western Folklife Center, Great Basin College , and the Great Basin Writing Project . An Elko County native with a background in ranching. McLelland has presented her "Poems from Tuscarora" Both at daytime and evening events at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Her essay, "Border Lands: Cowboy Poetry and the Literary Canon" is in the anthology Cowboy Poetry Matters .