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My Weekly Post

A Night at the Oscars

Last night, I watched the Oscars which usually gets me to thinking about Georgia at this time of year. My parents made an annual pilgrimage there to a place called St. Simons Island. They rented a place where they sat out the months of March and April in that sun-drenched place before reluctantly returning to their northern home. My mother disliked winter and craved this hiatus in the South. When I was growing up, we used to make the four-day trip to southern Florida in the car, a big station wagon which my father piloted along narrow state roads, past sharecropper’s cabins where tenant farmers walked behind mules turning the spring earth with hand-held plows and past gas stations that had separate bathrooms for whites and “coloreds.” This was all new to me as none of the public bathrooms at home were segregated in that way. I think back on this as if to another century, not that I feel so old so much as I’m so amazed at how quickly and dramatically our country has changed. My mother hated the segregation and we would talk about this in the car as we drove. What she really cared about was a clean bathroom and these were very hard to find along our route. All bathrooms and motel rooms were thoroughly inspected by my mother before any of us were allowed to go inside. We often stopped at many before finding one that she found acceptable. She couldn’t do anything about the segregated bathrooms but this was something she could control, at least to some extent.

In the Carolinas, we often passed “Indians” in tribal dress, selling baskets by the side of the road. The roads were two-lane, narrow, no breakdown lane, and these women, always women, would be sitting in the dirt or else on a small stool as close to the pavement as possible, stacks of baskets surrounding them. We would always stop and my mother would choose a basket or two. She didn’t like the baskets so much as she wanted to help these women sell what they had and hurry home to safety. I still have some of the baskets, interesting creations woven of reeds.

Once we crossed the border into Florida (a great cheer would arise from inside our car), there were miles and miles of orange groves that smelled like the best perfume. By then, our windows were all rolled down and we were all happy. Even now, so many years later, it is very easy for me to summon the smell of those groves on the newly warm sweet air we had driven into from the cold of the north. Occasionally there were roadside stands that sold big bags of fresh grapefruits and oranges. We bought webbed sacks full of both and pushed them into whatever space was left in the back of our overloaded station wagon. Every day we were down there, we ate grapefruits and oranges (which weren’t really orange but rather a greenish orange – my first realization that some produce is dyed to make the fruit more appealing).

Once my sister and I grew up and went away to college, we no longer accompanied our parents on this journey but they continued on without us. Sometime in the 1970s, they decided to shorten the journey by going to Georgia instead. They found a place that they liked near the water on St. Simons and went there every spring for the rest of their lives. My life was too busy to be able to spare the time to join them, though they always hoped I would come. But after my husband died, so young, it appealed to me to make the trip down to visit with them for a week or two. I flew in to Savannah and took a shuttle from the airport to St. Simons. The scent of oleander greeted me as soon as I walked out of the airport, Spanish moss hung from high branches of trees along the highways, and bougainvillea were in bloom when I arrived at their place. The sun was hot on my arms, so recently liberated from the sleeves of my winter coat. Even at their ages (high 70s, early 80s), they brought their one-speed bikes with them and we went on slow, leisurely rides beside salt marshes and on residential streets with wealthy domiciles, carefully landscaped and blooming abundantly at that beautifully nascent time of year.

My father always had sand dollars to give me once I arrived. He searched for them on the beach – they are the same color as the sand and so are easily camouflaged – and spent time cleaning them and bleaching these perfectly shaped, sand-colored discs, delicate but strong. He liked to find broken ones too, to illustrate the amazing structure of their interior, a web of supports, almost like a fort. He stored these featherweight treasures in coffee cans, stacking the dollars like pancakes with carefully cut-out pieces of paper towel set between each one. Sand dollars remind me of my father. I rarely found any on my own but then, I didn’t need to, he kept me well supplied. Today I have them on a small table in my dining room, memories of his fastidiousness as well as of a warm southern mid-winter getaway.

It seems as if every time I went down there to visit them, it was Oscar time. And so this became part of our agenda while I was there. Whenever there was something special, a birthday or holiday, Dad enjoyed mixing up a pitcher of whiskey sours (his own recipe – quite lethal) and he would do that for Oscar night. We’d put salty snacks into bowls, have take-out from the Crab Trap on hand, and settle onto the couch for this annual evening of Hollywood entertainment. Don’t ask me why, none of us paid too much attention to the movies, especially my parents. But we enjoyed the gowns and the glitter, all of it simultaneously dazzling and ludicrous. And we made notes about movies we might want to see sometime, though in those days, it was not really feasible to see a movie again once it had left the local movie house, unless they decided to bring it back for one more run, which sometimes happened. Inevitably, we would all fall fast asleep in our seats, awaken to see if anyone lasted to find out what was Best Picture, Best Actor, but we’d always have to listen to the morning news to find out.

And so it is that when the Oscars come on TV for their annual gala, I think of my parents, biking the sandy side roads of St. Simons, picking up sand dollars from the endless stretch of beach near their house, and indulging in whiskey sours with Crab Trap take-out while watching an entirely other world on display. In the past week, we’ve had another foot of snow descend upon us and more is falling as I write this. A flight to Savannah is tempting but there’d be no one to happily greet me and no coffee can of carefully stored sand dollars for me to take home in my carry-on. I’ll fall asleep watching the Oscars before the winners in the major categories have been announced. Some things never change.
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There is so much snow here now that Mayday, my 20-pound schnauzer, can walk on the crust of the snow over to my living room window and look inside. She puts her paw on the window, a window that most of the year is way out of her reach. I get the feeling she is as surprised by this as I am. The snowbanks are so high that, when I look out the window, I hear cars go by but I cannot see them. A strange deprivation since there is so little traffic on this road, I am used to looking out and knowing who it is, driving by. If I see an unknown car, I am curious. Of course. But being closed off like this, it is as if one of my senses has been switched off. This morning when I went out with the dogs, I could hear a pack of coyotes reveling close by so I hustled us back inside. But where were they? They sounded close enough to touch. Looking around, I could see nothing but blowing snow.

This is not the “snowiest winter” – not by a long shot. Not yet. In April of 2000, we had a storm that dumped three feet on top of what was already a record-breaking amount. At that time, I took an indelible ink Sharpie and drew a line where the snow stopped almost to the top of my downstairs window. The line is still there and it’s about three feet short of where we are now. But that was April and we are still in February so there is plenty of time to break records.

It’s all anyone talks about. The snow. I have been so entranced with the beauty of it, you might say I’m obsessed with taking photos of its shape and form, the way it stays on the branches after a storm, the way the roads narrow with each storm, big clumps falling into the road from atop the high banks. Coming out into traffic from a side road, the banks are so high, visibility nil, is nothing short of Russian roulette. The snow that has fallen to date is so light and fine that sometimes, on a windy day, clear blue sky above, the town plows have to come back around, as the wind has blown the snow back and closed the road as if it had never been plowed before.

With all this snow, people worry about their roofs caving in. It’s a legitimate worry, especially if one’s roof is flat, which, in this climate, should be illegal. Many schools are built with more or less flat roofs as are warehouses and factories. This does save money in construction but it doesn’t if the building caves in, which some have. To combat this, people get out and shovel their roofs or else hire someone to do it. (I heard about one elderly man who was fleeced by some eager young roof shovelers to the tune of $5,000 – modern-day highway robbery.) Driving along, I see many hardy men up on the snowy rooftops, heaving shovelfuls of snow onto the ground. I have seen men up on these flatter roofs driving snowblowers around which makes me wonder how on earth they get the snowblower up there. I went last week to have my car serviced, parked alongside the building and went in, only to be greeted by a chorus of mechanics, urging me to quickly move my car. I looked out and saw my car was sitting underneath an enormous row of icicles, each one tall and thick as a man. I returned at my fastest pace (more like a shuffle across the ice-covered parking lot) to drive my car away out of danger. When I did, the young man I had not seen before resumed his effort to dislodge the ice dam by banging on it with a long muffler pipe. I (and my car) was saved but others have not been so lucky. One man I heard about was in serious condition having endured the savage blow of these javelins known as icicles. Another person was up on his roof, shoveling. He went down with the big load of snow, a suburban-style avalanche, and was temporarily buried, just his hand sticking out. Fortunately his neighbor saw his hand and came to his rescue. The buried man’s nose and mouth were crammed with snow. He recovered. A heavy snow load on the roof of an old barn can act as a kind of euthanasia for an old structure that has not been shored up or maintained over the years. Driving by some of these landmarks, we watch to see when the day might come and then, one day, it’s down, shock and relief, all at once.

My friend Jamie has a farm in western Massachusetts with a chain of barns. One she uses the most is a building like a WWII Quonset hut. The inside is cavernous. She uses it as an indoor riding rink for training horses or just to exercise the horses in winter. It has other uses, including storage of trucks, tractors, boats and a myriad of tools. One day last week, it went down in a single moment. From inside the house, they heard a “thud.” That was all. When they went out, the big old structure had pancaked. The good fortune was that all the horses were outside, and no one was inside – as they certainly might have been. Momentary gratitude. But in the days that followed, they learned that their insurance policy does not cover collapsed structures (most don’t). So they are busy trying to recover what has been lost in the rubble. The remains look like a crown, the big round hump of the snow-covered roof in the middle surrounded by the splintered supporting beams which splay outward in a jagged circle. A casualty of this winter’s storms.

In all of this, wind has been my ally as it blows the snow off my roofs, eliminating the need to shovel. I do have a row of icicles outside my bathroom window. They thicken and lengthen with each passing day and, if things get worse, they will cause damage to my inside walls. I think about calling the young man with his muffler pipe to come over and bang on it. But the trade-off is roof damage which might require a new roof come spring. A gamble. While I ponder these odds, I take a photo of the ice bars on my window. I am going to send the photo to my cousin. Every time he comes to visit, he complains that I don’t have curtains, insists that I need to get curtains. But I hate to block my view of the field and the tall pines that lead up the road to my house. In all seasons, this is poetry. I am not so afraid of someone seeing in (since I have no neighbors, I don’t know who that might be) as I am of not being able to see out. For now, the icicles have shuttered my view. So I will show him my new curtains. If we all get our wishes and spring comes early, they will be gone soon enough.
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