WHEN DO I LOOK LIKE ME? – Marilyn Armstrong

Considering one thing and another, I have always been sure I could not possibly be related to the people who raised me. I suspect everyone, especially as a child, is sure they are a misplaced orphan. Sadly, there was always one problem from which I could never escape.

I look just like them. Both of them. They didn’t look alike, so how could this be?

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Apparently, you change as you age. So you can look exactly like dad when you’re three, but exactly like mom when you’re sixty. Periodically, depending on how the genetic package rolls, you can resemble one or the other — or both  — at any given point in time.

I used to look like my father, but I got older. Now, look like my mother.

I wonder if I’ll ever look like me? Whatever that means.

I know nothing about what brought me into the world any more than I know what will take me out. Probably, that’s just as well. I think I lack curiosity about my fate which others apparently have a strong need to know. I never felt any serious desire to research my ancestry or get my DNA checked. When I did it, it was a fun birthday present for Garry and I.

What was, is. What will be, will occur. I’m not in charge and never was. I am okay enjoying as much of the now as I can while I’m still part of it.

Yet, every now and then, I wonder if it’s possible I was actually put here by a transiting starcraft. An intergalactic seed dropped from the sky that somehow, wound up in this world. In this peculiar place. A bit of pollen falling from a drifting craft on its way to somewhere in an infinite beyond.

It could be true.

THE OTHER SIDE OF IMMIGRATION – Marilyn Armstrong

Learning (or, in my case, trying to learn) another language was high entertainment.
Immigration isn’t easy, isn’t fun.
These days, it can also be life-threatening. 


In English, I rarely if ever used a word the wrong way. I was a serious reader very young and had a big passive vocabulary. By passive, I mean I knew a lot of words but had never used them in conversation. I knew what they meant and how to spell them, but not how they sounded.

I had no idea that Too-son and Tucson were one place. Or that ep-ee-TOME was really an epitome. I remember those two examples because of the hilarity they caused the adults in the area. I was all of 8, but adults were not all that nice to kids. They still aren’t.

My feeble attempts to properly learn Hebrew was even more entertaining. I am sure that my fumbling attempts to learn the language, having caused hysterical laughter, probably played a part in my never properly learning Hebrew. I was so embarrassed by my errors, it didn’t seem worth it, especially since everyone knew at least a little English.

My first big discovery which occurred during my second day in the country was that Zion (Zy-on) means penis. In Hebrew, the pronunciation is actually tzee-own. So if you say that Israel is the “Land of Zion” using your good American pronunciation, you will reduce Israelis to tears of laughter.

They can be a rough crowd.

To add another layer of problems over the difficulty of just getting the words out through my teeth (which were not designed for all those gutturals), many words in Hebrew are very similar to each other but have different meanings. For example, sha-ah is an hour. Shannah is a year. And there you stand saying, “My Hebrew isn’t good. I’ve only been here for two hours.”

After a while, I spoke English and used Hebrew words as needed. Eventually, more Hebrew found its way into my sentences, though complex ideas never made the cut. I could say simple stuff. I could buy groceries. Chat about the weather, as in, “It’s really hot.”

The alternative was “It’s raining hard,” because you only had two seasons: hot and wet.

Eventually, I got to a point where almost everyone could understand most of what I said, sometimes without laughing, but not with joy. My accent made their ears hurt and they preferred English. It was less painful.

You might consider this when you meet immigrants who are trying to learn English. I mention this because having been on the other side of this experience, a bit of kindness to people trying to work through a difficult life transition while learning a new language and culture can go a long way to make them feel less lonely, threatened, excluded, and generally miserable.

Scape-goating our immigrants is identical to scapegoating our grandparents. Unless we are Native Americans, we are all immigrants.

FOWC with Fandango — Scapegoat

THE CRASHING SQUIRREL – Marilyn Armstrong

I’ve been going eyeball to eyeball with our local squirrels. First, I thought we had just a few squirrels, but lately, I realize we have all of them. The entire woods full of squirrels are part of our world.

Our fearless deck squirrel

They all come, hang around, decide they need to wrap themselves around the feeder and suck the seeds out of it. Garry fills the feeder in the evening and by the following morning, more than half of it — about 3 pounds of seeds — are gone.

Another snack

They used to get spooked when I tapped on the window. Then they only got twitchy if I opened a window and yelled at them. Eventually, that didn’t work either. Now, I have to actually go out on the deck and they sit there, on the rail, staring me in the eye. I’m pretty sure that eventually, I’m going to have to physically remove them. By hand. I’m not looking forward to that. I have a feeling these little guys bite.

It isn’t that I mind them having a meal. I mind them eating everything and never stopping. How can such small furry creatures eat so much and so often? It seems to me that their appetites are never satiated. There’s no such thing as enough … or if there is, there’s another one waiting on the rail to take over.

I have come to recognize some of them by their scars, by the colors of their tails, by their size.

This morning, our midday squirrel was back. I know they are supposed to be crepuscular — feeding early in the morning and just before the sun sets. But this one likes noon. Just about as I’m setting up the coffee, he’s hanging on the feeder.

Squirrel on the rail

So I opened the top of the Dutch door and said: “We’ve had this discussion before. It’s time for you to go home to your trees. Eat acorns. Find plants to chew.” He looked at me. I’m pretty sure he smirked at me, too.

I reminded him that I was getting weary of this conversation. I could see him thinking. “Shall I buzz off or shall I jump into that flat feeder? Hmm.”

Taking that fatal leap!

Finally, he decided I was NOT a force to be reckoned with and he launched himself into the flat feeder. But this once, the flat feeder fought back and tipped sideways.

Tail end of the crashing squirrel

All the seeds spilled down to the ground below along with the squirrel. I nearly caught the shot on his way down, but all I got was the fuzzy tip of his tail as he fell to the ground. Which wasn’t so bad because he landed in the forsythia bush, then on the ground where there were pounds of seeds he was now free to eat.

You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? Surely humiliation would stop him from further depredations.

You would be wrong. In fewer than five minutes, he was back on the rail.

I had to go out and forcefully explain that it was past feeding time and he was going to let the birds have a go at the feeder. They sit in the nearby tree limbs, waiting for the squirrels to move on and for some reason, they seem to know I’m yelling at the squirrel — not them. How they knew this, I have no idea.

The young Cardinal

I ultimately convinced him to go travel amongst the trees and give the birds time at the feeder. The first arrivals were a couple of Cowbirds, a few Goldfinches, and a big Red-Bellied Woodpecker plus a young Cardinal. I actually got some pictures.

Cowbirds

I’m sure he was back as soon as we left to go to my son’s birthday party because when we came home, the hanging feeder was nearly empty. We are running out of seeds and have run out of money, so everyone is just going to have to survive on their own for a while.

REALLY, MY MOTHER – Marilyn Armstrong

My mother was not a “regular” mom. This confused me a lot while I was growing up. Other mothers made cookies, kissed boo-boos. Hung out with other mothers in the summertime. Swapped recipes. Watched soap operas.

My mother didn’t bake anything, much less cookies. She was a terrible cook because she hated cooking. She was an unenthusiastic housekeeper and the whole huggy-kissy mothering thing eluded her.

She didn’t watch soap operas, loved the Marx Brothers and MGM musicals. She never graduated high school, but read voraciously and constantly. Especially about science and space. She was fascinated by quarks, black holes, and antimatter.

She never kissed a boo-boo; I don’t remember her kissing me at all. She wasn’t that kind of mom. She talked to me about everything and more important, she listened to me.

Mom-May1944

She had no interest in gossip, recipes, or cute stories about anyone’s kids. She wanted to talk about politics or the space program and which nations were so hopeless they needed a complete redo, from scorched earth up (she had a list). I think if she were still alive, she’d probably add this country to her list.

She enjoyed talking to me. I’m not sure if she talked to anyone else about being a young woman when FDR became president. How, when the NRA (National Recovery Act) was passed, there was a spontaneous parade in New York that lasted 24 hours. Ticker tape, and all.

How the government had surplus crops during the worst years of the depression, and government agents took the extra food, dumped it in vacant lots and put poison on it so no one could eat it. Even though people were starving.

I thought she was just paranoid, but I have since learned that it happened, just the way she said it did. For all I know, it’s happening right now.

She didn’t trust the government, was sure they were spying on us. Positive that  J. Edgar Hoover was out to get us and he had a long list — and we were on it. Turned out, she was on target about most of it.

Mom1973-3She was in favor of equal rights for everyone, everywhere. Pro-abortion, in favor of birth control, gay marriage, putting wheat germ in everything (yuk) and holistic medicine before anyone knew what that meant.

She wanted all religion out of the schools and government.

She was in favor of the death penalty. She felt there were people who should be taken out and shot. No long terms in prison (too expensive). No years of appeals. One well-placed bullet in the brain and justice would be served.

That was my mom.

She gave me Knut Hamsen to read and a grand piano for my 14th birthday. As well as appropriate anatomical books about sex. She figured I needed accurate information so I could make informed decisions.

She hummed most of the time, sang the rest of the time. She got the words wrong all the time.

She read me poetry when I was very small and treated me like an adult. She was a grimly determined atheist and would debunk any hint of religious belief should I be foolish enough to express it. I always felt she had a personal spite on God for failing her and the people she loved.

She was the most cynical person I’ve ever known. It seems I am following in her footsteps.

So here I am. Older than my mother was when she left this earth. I think my mother would like this version of me. She always liked me, probably more than I liked myself.

RETURNING WEDGEWOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

It must be something about me. Dishes come back. First, there was the Spode’s Tower, which was passed around the family for 25 years until one day, it came home. Again.

Spode Tower Pink
Spode Tower Pink

This time, it’s the Wedgewood.

This morning, a large heavy carton arrived via UPS. It was from my sister-in-law who lives in northern Maine. I haven’t seen her for a long time, though we’ve emailed back and forth occasionally and exchanged Christmas presents and cards.

There was a card taped to the box which said: “OPEN ME FIRST.”

96-Card-Wedgewood_04

Translated into years and a timeline, Garry — the man to whom I have been married for almost 29 years — was my first husband’s (now deceased) best friend and my son’s godfather. He had just come back from vacationing in Ireland when Jeff and I were married. It was August 1965 and he gave us the Wedgewood as a gift. That was merely 55 years ago.

Jeff and I separated in 1978. My son and I went to live in Israel at the end of that year and didn’t come back until 1987.

I didn’t take the Wedgewood to Israel, so Jeff gave it to his mother. She loved it and had room to display it.

72-Wedgewood_10

Grandma Kraus died last year at 103. This morning, the Wedgewood came home. It is — for now — on the coffee table in the living room. I’m not sure what to do with it. I guess it can live on the coffee table, at least until Garry does laundry and needs to sort it, something he does on the big glass coffee table. Which is useless for any other purpose, unless you count barking your shins as useful.

72-Wedgewood-OIL_09

And so, another set of dishes has come home. I don’t know or can’t remember if any other china, porcelain, or pottery is lurking in my past. For all I know, it’s in the mail, winging its way back.

Life is circular. Stuff comes back.

Especially dishes.

LIFE AS A DEPUTY ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICER – Marilyn Armstrong

I live in a small town. Just under 13,000 people call Uxbridge home. The village, or as we say around here, “downtown,” has a classic brick town hall, circa 1879, an elegant old library, and several other historic buildings.

Our neighboring town, Millville, makes Uxbridge look like Metropolis.

Millville town center.

Their town hall is a unit in an old condo building. The center of town is a sub shop. There’s no sign to indicate you are in Millville, so it’s easy to miss. When you get there, it will be closed anyway. The following notice is posted on Millville’s website:

Due to budget constraints, effective immediately the Town Clerk’s office will only be open on Mondays from 9am-1pm and Wednesday evenings from 6pm-8pm for public assistance. If you cannot be at the Municipal Center during these scheduled hours, please call the Town Clerk’s Office to schedule an appointment.m

There are approximately 3100 people living in Millville.

Perhaps 9 or 10 years ago, the town of Millville decided they needed a Deputy Animal Control Officer. I don’t remember how I heard about the job. It may have been a tip from our local animal control officer who knew I liked animals and needed part-time work.

This was about as part-time as a job could be. The pay was $1200 per year, payable semi-annually. Before taxes.

Millville already had a Senior Animal Control Officer who was theoretically in charge, but passionately fond of golf. I suspect he also had a full-time job elsewhere. So, in exchange for $600 every 6 months, I would have the official title of Deputy Animal Control Officer. I would be on call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

I’m basically an optimist. I figured Millville is tiny. How many calls could there be? I took the job. I was sworn in, just like in the movies, hand on the Bible. I promised to protect and serve.

A mere couple of hours later, I got my first call. A homeowner had found an almost dead skunk by their trash bin and wanted it taken away. It was my first call — a Sunday morning — so my “senior officer” thought he should come along, show me the ropes as it were.

Photo: Greenshield Pest Control
Photo: Greenshield Pest Control

Luckily, the skunk did the right thing and went from nearly dead to absolutely dead while I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was informed by my erstwhile boss that the skunk had probably been rabid and I should not touch it. If the skunk had not died on his own, I would have been obliged to shoot it.

Me: “Shoot it?”

Boss: “Yes, shoot it. With the rifle.”

Me: “Rifle? What rifle?”

Boss: “Oh, didn’t I mention that? We have a couple of rifles in the office. When an animal is behaving suspiciously, you have to shoot it.”

Me: “Behaving suspiciously?”

Boss: “You know, approaching people rather than running away. Acting weird. Most of the animals you’ll get calls about are rabid. There’s a lot of rabies around here so you don’t want to get close. Just shoot’em.”

Rabies. Shoot the animals. $100 a month. I was getting that creepy feeling I get when I think maybe I’ve signed up for something, the implications of which I had failed to fully grasp.

After we bagged the skunk to send to the county animal medical examiner, I promised to go to city hall as soon as they reopened to discuss guns and the other equipment I would need. Like shovels, leather gloves, heavy-duty plastic trash bags (the non-human version of body bags), tags for the medical examiner. Forms to fill out. Oh, and where to put the corpses. Turns out, you can’t just stack them up in city hall.

My boss was not upset that I’d never handled a real weapon. I’d never shot anything currently or previously alive. I was puzzled about what I was supposed to do if I got a call, actually needed a rifle, but it was locked up at city hall which was pretty much always closed.

72-wildflowers-cooperstown-ma_078

Would the offending animal make an appointment for a more convenient time? Or wait for me to call someone, get them to unlock the gun cabinet, then hang around while I drove over to get it, then drove back to shoot him? Are the rabid animals of Millville that cooperative? Was I supposed to keep the big hunting rifle in my house in case I needed it? The rabies thing had me spooked, too.

When I was finally able to get to city hall, I demanded a rabies vaccination. No way was I going to handle rabid animals without a vaccination. They pointed out rabies vaccinations are expensive and I was only the deputy. They suggested I pay for it myself.

Me: “How much will it cost?”

Clerk: “Around $450.”

Me: “That’s four and a half months pay.”

Clerk: “Well, we don’t normally pay for it.”

Me: “I’m not doing this unless I’m vaccinated.”

It turned out that the animal medical examiner could provide me with the appropriate vaccination, so Garry — who had begun to look alarmed — drove me to the doctor. While the doctor prepared the inoculation, we got a rundown of exactly how common rabies is in our neck of the woods.

“Why,” he said, “Just last week they found a deer with rabies. Chipmunks, skunk, fox, coyotes, squirrels, deer … even possums get rabies.” The only exceptions are rabbits who are naturally immune. Go figure.

The following day, I got another call. A really big snapping turtle had wandered into the road and was blocking traffic. It didn’t sound too threatening, so armed with my shoulder-high heavy leather gauntlets (no rifle), I drove to the site and met the snapping turtle from Hell.

Keep in mind that there is water everywhere in the valley. Not only the Blackstone, but all its tributaries, feeder creeks, lakes, brooks, ponds, pools, and swamps. Snapping turtles are called common for good reason. They live just about everywhere you find water. Undoubtedly, the big snapper had wandered into the road, lost his bearings. Someone needed to grab the turtle and carry him back on the river side of the road.

The someone was me.

This turtle was not in the water, not docile. His beak was sharp. His neck was extremely flexible. Not my kind of nature pal.

So there I was, by the side of the road, trying to figure out how I could grab him. He was approximately 30 pounds of pissed-off turtle. He seemed pretty agile to me. He could move. Okay, maybe he’d lose a footrace to a rabbit, but he could trundle along at a nice pace. And he had that snaky neck and was determined to bite me.

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Meanwhile, an entire construction crew — big brawny guys who were supposed to be repairing the bridge — were watching. They didn’t seem eager to help. In fact, they were the ones who called in the first place.

I eventually herded him across the road. I looked at those jaws, looked at my leather gloves, did a quick mental calculation about the strength of the gloves versus the power of the turtle’s jaws. I decided the gloves weren’t nearly strong enough.

My personal weapon: a Red Ryder BB rifle
My personal weapon: a Red Ryder BB rifle

Have you ever tried herding a turtle? Of course not. You can’t herd a turtle, but I did. I don’t know exactly how I got him across the road. I know there was a big shovel involved, but otherwise, it’s a blur. The next thing I remember doing after getting the turtle over to the river side of the road was calling the clerk and resigning.

The turtle was enough for me. I figured if I didn’t get out quick, they’d have me hunting rabid coyotes with a large gun and I’d shoot my foot off.

They tried to bill me for the rabies shot. We settled for not paying me. I think I got the better part of the deal.

THE JOY IN JERUSALEM – Marilyn Armstrong

The odds favor that, if you live a full life, you will witness events that are historically important. Depending on your definition of “witness,” you’ll inevitably witness a lot of history. You can’t avoid it.

Some events are more dramatic and make better stories. Even if your witness was via television or the news, you are no less a witness. Certainly, we are all witnessing history now … and wondering if maybe we are witnessing the end of the world we knew and thought would last forever.

My favorite “witness” experience was being in Israel when the Camp David Accords were signed. I had only arrived there a few weeks before. I was still trying to figure out what this place was. It definitely wasn’t the romanticized venue in the novels I’d read … or even the idealized “homeland” my mother imagined.

It was far more complicated, textured, and nuanced … which should not have been a surprise, yet was.

I bought a car shortly after I arrived. A Ford Escort. Ford had a little factory in Israel and Escorts were “Everyman’s” car. Small, and by American standards, underpowered, they were a “best buy” on Israel’s new car market.

The Ford dealership was across from the King David Hotel, which was where Begin, Sadat, and Carter met and made deals. As fate would have it, it was also the day on which I was supposed to pick up my new car. When I got to the street, bigger events were taking place.

My car would wait.

The King David Hotel

There were armed men everywhere. On the streets, the rooftops. Everywhere you looked, and probably thousands of places you couldn’t see, armed men stood guard. No one was getting assassinated on Israel’s watch. At least, not that day.

Around midday, to the enthusiastic cheering of the crowd, the official limousines swung past, each sporting the flags of its nation It was a sight to see.

King David Hotel entrance

All over Israel, there was great celebration and joy. It was one of the happiest, most optimistic moments in Israel’s short modern history. Finally, there was real hope there might be real peace. Hope that somehow, out of the bloodshed and wars, this was a significant step forward.

Not long thereafter, back in Egypt, Sadat would be assassinated. Ten days later, Moshe Dayan who had crafted the accords, would die too. He had been sick with both cancer and heart disease for a long time, but I believe he died of disappointment.

After that, optimism faded. The joy was dampened and life was “business as usual.”

I was there for that brief, bright moment, witness to the great moment when joy exploded in the streets of Jerusalem. No matter what anyone says nowadays about Israel’s intentions in the region, if you were there that day, you could not fail to know that the foundation of everyone’s hopes, was peace.