TRAVELING WITH FAIRIES

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Living on the lake has always been coupled with a driving desire to leave, partly because we know we will always return. Another reason lies in the fact that a lot of what happens at our house and yard requires constant attention and upkeep. It’s rare that a day at the lake is spent resting on the dock reading a good book between naps and a long swim. One of those things might happen after a day of chores. So I am always thinking about the next trip.

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Photo by Robert Forlini

As an Italian, Rob has a difficult time getting in the car and actually driving away. The unspoken fear is, “Who will watch the house?” Growing up in a close-knit compound where three neighboring homes were occupied by blood relatives, there was always someone around to keep an eye on things. The only people around us are an odd collection of neighbors we refer to as “The crazy house,” “The troglodyte,” “Buzz bomb,” “The drug addicts,” and “Scary.” Not exactly a rousing recommendation. But after the trip has been planned and the light timers are set, the wooden pole is slipped into the sliding glass door and the alarm is turned on we barrel away on an adventure accompanied by any number of talismans.Image

These trinkets hold deep and guarded powers over our lives except they probably only hold the power we have assigned to them. There’s Gobo the little Italian hunchback who hangs from the car’s rearview mirror. If you rub his hump he wards off the evil eye and brings you good luck. I’m not sure what evil spirits await us on our journeys but it’s good to know we have that covered before even pull out of the driveway.

Inside our pockets we have silver Chinese coins that have pictures of the animal of our birth year. I was born in the Year of the Dog and I have two of them. I lost the first one and Rob diligently replaced it. The other day I pulled out a pair of shorts for the arrival of warm weather and the original dog coin fell out of the pocket.

“That’s a good omen,” Rob said.

The next day we discovered a long lost blown glass fruit bowl we had decided a visiting handy man had stolen. For years we pulled up the example of the missing fruit bowl as another indication for why you just can’t trust people and you can never have enough safeguards. When we found the fruit bowl buried under platters in the back of a high cabinet we changed our tune.

Rob declared, “When you found that coin your luck changed. Maybe now you’ll find your lost watch!”

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My Chinese zodiac symbol is earth dog. It is associated with the turn of each of the four seasons. It governs the spleen, stomach, mouth and muscles. Its negative emotion is anxiety and its positive emotion is empathy. But I really like the way rabbit coins look so I have one of those too. Rob tells me that the rabbit isn’t doing much for me.

Rob and I have placed guardians all around us. Garden gnomes watch over the lawn, a Lucky Cat statue safeguards the books. We pay homage to our ancestors with their pictures on the mantel.

But the charm I hold most dear is a small silver fairy that I wear around my neck whenever I fly on an airplane. My oldest sister gave me the fairy in 1970 and I partly believe in it’s power because I haven’t ever lost it. It harkens back to an era of hippies and free spirits. My fairy and I lift the plane into the air and safely land the equipment onto the runway. The captain helps but I know that my fairy and I assure our safe return.

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Admitting all of this goes against what I have always believed about our adult selves. We travel with plans. We scope out a detailed itinerary that includes roadside attractions, well researched restaurants, side trips and we only stay at hotels with high marks on Trip Advisor. We allow logic and reason to guide us through most of life. We are firm believers in science and evolution and scoff at organized religions and the zealots who hold their faith dear. We do not believe that catastrophic weather is the result of a pissed-off God. We laugh at the television evangelists preaching to thousands of blinking congregants who nod their heads in agreement.

“Sheep!” Rob barks as he changes the channel.

Followers of God accept truth in the unseen. Their faith is something deep inside them and they believe life’s randomness are acts of God. “God works in mysterious ways” or “only God knows” are common responses to unexplained events.

So you might think that our affection for good luck charms is more than a little duplicitous. We could probably become members of the Church of the Good Luck Charm. The difference lies in the fact we know these things are trinkets. At the end of the day I know the fruit bowl was there all along and why the coin fell out of my pocket and the pilot, weather conditions and air traffic control landed the plane safely.

But the fairy makes me feel better.

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EASTER AT THE LAKE

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Easter at the lake is marked like everywhere with the arrival of Spring. As a child my first brush with the excitement of Spring came with the arrival of crocus peeking up in our yard in Illinois. I would run outside each day and count how many of tiny colored plants had arrived overnight. The blooming crocus overlapped the burgeoning forsythia bushes that framed our yard in yellow which was followed by the daffodils. Once the tulips arrived we were deep into springtime.

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We have the same flowers here at the lake but the event we look forward to each year is the blooming of the cherry tree. The tree sits in front of Quinn’s bedroom window and at some point I declared it “her tree” and nominally dedicated it to her. This did not sit well with her brother who felt this arrangement was preferential because of the arbitrary location at her windows. Later in the season when the enormous rhododendron bloomed giant deep pink flowers outside his window I made a similar declaration for him. He was having none of it and continued to claim the cherry tree which drove his sister crazy.

When we moved into our home we realized that the landscape down to the water held a lot of pitfalls for the lay gardener but it didn’t take a great deal of imagination to see the potential for a grand Easter egg hunt. So when the first Easter rolled around I stealthily snuck outside at daybreak and peppered the yard with colored plastic eggs. The tradition endured over the years as nieces and nephews showed up to help find the one hundred eggs. Each year we came up short because the yard was too good at hiding treasure. In the middle of July while digging up dandelions or turning over a rock a small pink or green egg would materialize and be added back into the bag filled with Easter eggs in the attic waiting for another year, another hunt.Image

When Anne, Rob’s mother, moved into assisted living she spent all of her holidays at our house. We began each Easter with the ceremonial egg dying. It was always Anne’s favorite part of the day. She would start with solid colors and then branch out and joins us as we tried to individualize our creations.Image

“This is my Italian flag egg,” Rob said resting a striped red, white and green egg back into the egg carton.

“This is my Quinnie egg,” I’d say to my daughter’s delight setting down one with a yellow top and pink face. “And this is my Jackson egg,” I’d add pointing to the one with a red top. I’d enhance the colors with pencil drawn caricatures over the subtle colors. Anne soon took up the pencil and started drawing bunny faces on the front of her eggs.

As the years went by we had to make more and more hard boiled eggs because Anne could not get enough. She suffered from short term memory loss that manifested in various forms. One Easter after sitting around the table dying over three dozen eggs with her I selected a pretty assortment of our craft and arranged them on the table in a bowl as a centerpiece. The rest of the family arrived and we all went into the dining room to eat dinner.

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My mother-in-law came in to take her seat and noticed the bowl of eggs and gasped, “Where did all these beautiful eggs come from?”

We all paused and silently noted that her memory had shifted down a notch. Holidays have always served as benchmarks in time. Cultures and families celebrate events and holidays to help mark that time in memory as a reference point to remembering the rest of the year.

“You just made them,” Rob said to his mother very slowly. “In the kitchen a few minutes ago.”

“No kidding!” she said smiling and then clapped her hands at the thought of it.

Then we all laughed and ate our meal knowing that in addition to celebrating Easter we were little by little observing the steady march of time that in the end changes everything.

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HOUSE BOUND OR TALKING ‘BOUT MY GENERATOR

Life on a lake takes on new meaning during the winter months, especially our view from the kitchen window. With the absence of leaves the vista expands and the black branches are a stark contrast to the now frozen water crusted with thin white snow. A red tailed hawk circles overhead, waiting.

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Black ice before the first snowfall. ©Robert Forlini

After the first leaf season ended we settled into what we believed would be an almost sublime skate across a wide open sheet of black ice. This would be followed by a cozy scene of a happy family toasting marshmallows in front of the open fire while the snow floated past the picture window. Who could ask for anything more from winter?

During one of our tours of the house before buying it the owner highlighted all the selling points. The house had new windows, it was wired with an alarm system and oh yes, it was wired for a generator.

As city transplants we cocked our heads and asked, “Why?”

“Just in case the power ever goes out,” she said.

“Does that happen often?”

“No, but best to be prepared,” she said.

A thinking person would have investigated this a little further and asked around. Instead we looked at the large red metal box on two wheels and asked, “Is it difficult to use?”

The owner, a petite woman weighing no more that 100 pounds answered. “Oh no, it’s so easy. I simply wheel it outside that door, plug it in and it starts right up.”

I know what you’re thinking. Did you ask her to demonstrate it? Wrong again.

A few days before the sale was final the husband of the petite woman talked Rob and I through a series of steps to hook up the generator.

“Okay, now first you have to shut off the mains.”  He pointed to the circuit breaker.

“All of them?”

“Oh yeah, if you don’t shut this down you’re likely to blow up the place when the real power comes back on.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” I said.

“Then you wheel the generator out, fill it with six gallons of gas, but you better have extra tanks of gas on hand,” He said.

“Extra?”

“You wouldn’t want to run out.”

“Now after you plug it in, click this,” he moved his hand quickly past a small, black nondescript button. “Then adjust the choke, you gotta fiddle with it sometimes, then just pull the crank until it starts. Piece of cake.”

Again you would think we would have asked him to actually demonstrate it. I looked at Rob with a concerned face. “Do you understand this?”

The owner, a man we later always referred to as “the Strunz,” from the Italian “stronzo” made his own face. “Listen, my wife can do it,” he disparaged.

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©Robert Forlini

Exit “the Strunz” and return to that first winter. Long before a flake fell a strong wind blew down a power line and we rushed to get our generator running. Standing in the dark Jackson clutched a flashlight in the cold night air while I held the funnel in place and Rob sloshed in six gallons of gasoline.

“Shine the light here,” Rob shouted.

“Where? Here?”

“Just stand still.”

“Maybe we don’t need all that gas,” I suggested.

“Maybe you should shut up,” Rob barked as he tried to steady himself on an uneven walkway holding up six gallons of flammable liquid.

He finished and staggered back a little with the empty can.

“Can I go now?” Jack asked.

Rob grabbed the flashlight without answering and went to switch over the power. Jackson went back upstairs to play with his sister by candlelight.

“And don’t flush the toilet until I say it’s okay,” Rob called after him.

“Maybe we should just go out to eat or to the movies,” I said.

“Maybe you shouldn’t talk,” he said, nervously as he handed the light back to me. “Shine the light here while I set the choke.” Rob moved a small lever and stepped back ready to pull the crank. Which he did repeatedly until he had to sit down on a nearby lawn chair and catch his breath. I’m leaving out the string of curse words that filled in that span of time.

We regrouped and tried again and low and behold  the engine suggested it might start the way an old lawnmower sounds when it wants to help you out one last time. Encouraged, Rob took a deep breath, braced himself against the machine and pulled with every last article of strength he had left.

“F#*K!” Rob spat.

The little red generator roared. Rob beamed. He proudly turned on the alternate power circuit breaker and low and behold we had a smattering of lights come on in the house including the refrigerator and well pump. We were back in business.

Quinn came to the top of the basement steps and cried, “What’s that horrible noise?”

The sound sputtering from the generator was deafening but we had overlooked it in light of our recent success. We went inside and tried to shield ourselves from the din but it vibrated up through the walls and could not be ignored. Again I suggested we head out to the movies which was again rebuffed.

“We can’t leave the house with a running generator.”

And I hummed, “…we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”

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©Robert Forlini

Jackson cupped his hands around the kitchen window and declared that all the houses across the lake had lights on. Either everyone had a generator or the regular power had been restored. Rob looked deflated as he turned off the motor reversed his steps and switched back over to the main line. But nothing could take away the fact that he had been able to make it work when needed. The cursing returned as he tried to figure out how to drain the generator of the remaining six gallons.

In the thirteen years that followed the little red engine that usually couldn’t sometimes came through in a pinch. The process never changed, Rob cursed his way through each encounter but he and little red began to get to know one another a little better. Each time Rob begins to switch over the lines he mimics the previous owner’s wife. “…it’s so easy. I simply wheel it outside that door, plug it in and it starts right up.”

When Superstorm Sandy hit last fall we had been prepared with a row of filled gas cans, gallons of drinking water, candles, lanterns, batteries, dry firewood and plenty of food in the fridge. True we still have to shout to be heard and Rob still curses but you can’t have it all. With life on the lake you sometimes find you get what you need.

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©Robert Forlini

MOLOTOV COCKTAIL MIXED WITH LEAVES or LEAF BOMB

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In 2000 we moved from an apartment with no lawn responsibilities to our current lake house with a naïve perception of what lawn care entailed. The house sits one hundred and fifty feet above the lake at a steady incline. So steady that if you walk up to the house from the dock you’re out of breath.  In a previous post, Satan Zero Us One, I wrote about the challenges of mowing this lawn but all of that pales in comparison to leaf season. Just after the spring flowers pass and the trees are ripe with bright green leaves I pause and remind myself that this is the longest point in time when we can enjoy the benefit of the leafy trees and not have to think about raking. Leaf raking season lasts from the middle of October until the first week in December and no matter how much you rake and bag more leaves always seem to fall. One year we completed our leaf work on Christmas Eve.

That first autumn, the task began brightly as we piled into the station wagon and headed down to our then local hardware store to buy rakes.

“Oh, they’re so cute,” I cooed as I plopped two shrub rakes down next to the regular size rakes. I imagined our two young children heartily joining in the chore.

Ready to pay, Rob lifted a galvanized garbage can patterned with holes onto the counter.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Leaf burner,” the gruff hardware lady said, in a matter of fact tone that didn’t illicit any more comments from me. “Don’t forget to get a permit,” she added.

Dear reader, I know what you’re thinking. Leaf burning? Isn’t that illegal? Most places yes, but in lawless Putnam County it was legal and encouraged. Having a permit meant that we simply called the local sheriff and informed him we were commencing with a leaf burn and then called him back again when we had completed the task. I’m not sure what the phone call did to protect the town from a raging wildfire.

Rob’s idea was to rake all the leaves into the burn can, throw in a match or two and sit back while the fire did all the work.  This plan lacked some basic considerations. All the leaves still had to be raked into a central location to be close enough to pile into the burner which was the same amount of raking it would take if we stuffed all the leaves into paper leaf bags.  The only time saver was hauling the bags up to the curb. Our burn can was only twenty-five gallons which was equivalent to less than one packed paper leaf bag.

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The shrub rakes became swords until one was lost under a pile of leaves my seven-year-old daughter spent the day playing in. Our son Jackson raked just enough to stick around and watch the miracle of leaf burning.  It was a concept he had never thought about until that morning. Which meant I raked masses of leaves down hill to the burn site while Rob supervised the entire burn operation. The way he saw it, he would start burning leaves as fast as they arrived. After we had accumulated an enormous pile, but really a fraction of the sum total, the three of us peered into the can with holes.

“Why aren’t they burning?” Jackson asked.

Rob had already worked his way through half a box of large kitchen matches. “I need a stick so I can stir them. They need air.”

“Isn’t that what the holes are for?” I said.

“Don’t talk. Just find a stick, a long stick.”

Whenever Rob says, “Don’t talk,” you can be pretty sure he doesn’t have a clue about what he’s doing. Nevertheless a stick was procured and Rob stirred and stirred his smoldering cauldron as he continued to drop in lit matches.

“Maybe we need newspaper to get it going.” I suggested.

“I’m not even going to point out how idiotic that sounds.”

“You just did.”

Eventually he ditched the stick in favor of a shovel and started to turn the leaves over. After about an hour of this method the only fire he managed to generate was a few singed leaves and a heavy aroma of smoke on his clothes. At this point Rob declared it was time to really get this leaf burning going “Mario” style. Mario was Rob’s father, who believed that a little gasoline or naphtha could cure just about any predicament, including lighting a household barbeque or killing weeds. Rob went to fetch the gas can. “Now stand back,” he warned as he poured in a splash of gas. We all took one baby step back. He folded the mixture up with his shovel and tossed in a lit match.

What happened next is the stuff legends are made of. The instant the lit match hit the inside of the can a homegrown mushroom cloud explosion erupted upward about ten yards, knocking the four of us off our feet and onto our rear ends. The sound was so deafening it caused our ears to ring and it was several seconds before we even knew what had happened in order to react to the now blazing fire streaming out from the top of the burn can and out through each hole. Rob shook himself off, jumped to his feet and began to control the blaze with the small garden shovel. You could tell he had been raised to think fast in the event of a self-made disaster. Mario would have been proud.  In the end the gas did the trick and Rob and Jackson happily burned leaves until dinner.

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I know we’re lucky we all lived and the house didn’t burn down and it makes sense the county eventually outlawed the practice in 2010 but I look at this picture and I can’t help but feel nostalgic for that day.

The following year we purchased a leaf blower. The things we give up in the name of progress.

SATAN ZERO, US ONE

ImageThirteen years ago this week we moved into our lake house. About three years into ownership I decided the house had been a huge mistake. The complaints were long and varied: it was small, there was no place inside for the children to entertain friends, my daughter’s bedroom was on the first floor facing the street, there was no garage, and the yard…well let’s just say we had nicknamed it Satan’s lawn.

That early lawn was actually a combination of crabgrass and plantains posing as grass. The front lawn sits three feet above the front entrance and is held back by an ugly cement block retaining wall. The backyard drops down one hundred and fifty feet to the dock. The lawn mower had to be lifted by two people section by section to keep the weeds at bay. So when we heaved the mower to the lower yard it tended to stay there. Mowers that are left out in the rain don’t last very long.

         “Help me move the mower.”

         “Ask my father.”

          “His back hurts.”

           “So does mine.”

I am not mechanically inclined. My husband thinks he is, which is interesting since we break lawnmowers with reckless abandon.  He explains it this way.

            “Just because someone is mechanically inclined doesn’t mean they understand all machines. I never studied small engines.”

            “Oh.”

We have owned (no exaggeration) nine lawnmowers. We average about one a year. This year we had two repaired. Having two mowers has cut down on the hauling. After thirteen years there are only two small sections of yard remaining that ever get mowed, yet we need two mowers.

Another big lawn issue is tree maintenance. Several years ago a two hundred year old maple tree silently pulled from the ground and landed in the lake, smashing the docks and rowboat in the process. Nobody heard or saw it fall except a neighbor who came over to inspect the damage.

“Oh, that was what I heard last night,” she said, as we stared fifty feet out into the water searching for the end of the tree.

Numerous tree men were called in to bid on the job.

            “That’s a doozy, alright.”

            “How much?”

            “Well seeing that it’s in the water… and the street is two hundred feet up, I’d say…seven thousand.”

            Next.

            “Have you ever thought about moving?”

The man we hired only charged two thousand dollars and brilliantly used a winch that he ran through other trees, pulling the fallen tree out of the lake by a truck up on the street. Then of course we had to hire two men to chop up the tree into fireplace size logs. We could have a fire every day for a decade and still have wood left over.

One of the early draws of the lake house was that we were planning to throw a lot of parties. I don’t know why we thought this since we never threw many parties before buying the house. For our daughter’s high school graduation she wanted a big party. We invited seventy-five people and needed the use of the whole yard, but the whole yard wasn’t available. A month before the graduation party I sat on the steps in the middle yard and cried.

            “How are were ever going to fix this?” I sobbed, pointing at the remains of a giant, rotten railroad tie sandbox. (That I had to have, eleven years prior.)

            “Don’t worry mama,” my son said. “I’ll fix it.”

            I stared blankly at this twenty-one year old who had feigned illness to get out of any and all yard work for his entire life. “You? How?”

            He shrugged. “This is nothing.”

One month and hundreds of dollars in plants and supplies afterward (which included a power saw with a burned out motor) we had a Japanese garden complete with a floating wooden walkway that he built from discarded lumber. Two summers later, I still can’t believe he pulled that off. It proved to me that miracles can happen.ImageImage

            In the years of ownership and with the help of various handy men we have also built tiered garden beds, erected three different types of fences, connected the upper and lower decks with a staircase, installed an interlocking brick walkway and patio, dug a flagstone walkway, erected a stone wall, designed and built a solitary reading deck, rebuilt the dock three times, installed two fountains and an outdoor shower, transplanted dozens of perennials in the hope that one day, the yard would be care free or at the very least easy to maintain. The other hope was that our marriage would last. With every winter season I never know what disaster lurks for the following spring. I don’t know why we stayed but I have only recently stopped wanting to sell it.

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