Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Tough Stock

Carolyn J. Rose

I like to think I’m not a princess. Unless I’m paying for the service, I don’t expect to be waited on. I pump my own gas. I know how to use a plunger and chop firewood. I’ll trap rats and chase down spiders. I try to solve problems on my own before I yell for help.

But I’m not in the same league as my father’s parents. I’m nowhere near as tough. Especially when it comes to snakes.

My grandmother Elfleda was short and round. She wore gold-rimmed glasses and rolled her long gray hair in a bun. She wore lace-up black shoes with low heels, cotton stockings, corsets, dresses, and aprons. Somehow she managed to coax plants to set down roots in our rocky Catskill Mountains soil. She enjoyed exchanging seeds and bulbs and cuttings and sharing garden lore. My cousins and I enjoyed the fruits of her labors—raspberries and blackberries and apples that became pies.

We also enjoyed racing each other to the small hillside pond to chase frogs and feed the goldfish. We often counted them as they darted about. That’s how we noticed their population was declining.

My grandmother blamed raccoons—until we spotted the snake. 

It emerged from stones laid up where spring water trickled into the pond. It undulated through the water, coming right at us. Screaming, my cousin Renee and I bolted for the house to deliver the news. We did so with high-pitched squeals and much garbling.

My grandmother said nothing, but set off for the pond at a pace we’d never seen her hit before and would have said wasn’t physically possible. She reached the grassy bank, flung down a curse like a gauntlet, gathered up her dress, and waded in. While Renee and I gaped in amazement, the snake retreated and lived to hunt another day.

The next snake I encountered wasn’t as lucky. It was huge and black and slithered onto the diving board as I bounced on the end, preparing to do a back flip into the family pool. I was in my teens and smart enough to know I could easily have turned, dived in, and made it to the far end. I was also smart enough to be able to identify poisonous snakes, smart enough to know this one wasn’t.

But I didn’t do any of that. Instead I screamed. And screamed. And screamed.

My grandfather Ishmael, known as I.J., flung aside the scythe he was using to cut high grass around the apple trees on the hillside. He came on the run—a measured and deliberate run given that he was about 70 at the time. Never mind that he was wearing sandals, he stepped up on the diving board and pinned the snake’s head beneath his foot.

As he put more weight on it, the snake thrashed and coiled around his leg. I screamed. Its tail reached his knee. I screamed louder. My grandfather, saying nothing, ground the snake’s head against the wooden plank until it was dead.

Eventually the snake’s body fell away from his leg and my grandfather stepped from the anchored end of the diving board, picked up the snake, and tossed it into the woods. I stopped screaming, dove in, swam to the far end, and climbed out. My grandfather, still silent, went back to his scythe.

These incidents will play across my mind until my memory is no more. But I often wonder if they were memorable for my grandparents. These were people who came though the deaths of two young children, two world wars, and the Great Depression. They were tough. They’d had to be. And for them, taking on a snake was no big deal.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Carolyn J. Rose

Sometimes I feel like a duck in a shooting gallery.

Except, unlike those metal waterfowl, I have the ability to dodge bullets coming at me.

And, in my case, the bullets are figurative. They take the form of accidents, incidents, opportunities, rejections, windfalls, entanglements, penalties, illnesses, and all the other variables of life.

Sometimes, when “bad” bullets flew, I’ve been quick enough to escape unscathed. Sometimes I received only a scratch or a minor wound. But sometimes I took a more serious hit—a hit to my health, my finances, my pride, or my heart.

I dodged some serious bullets before I was even born. I was conceived in a democracy to parents who valued education, hard work, humor, and an inventive spirit. As a toddler I was struck by the polio bullet, but was fortunate enough to shake off the virus and suffer only the fever. After that, the comparatively smaller-caliber bullets of mumps, measles, and chickenpox seemed like marshmallows.

As I grew to my teen years and the world entered the 60s, new projectiles came at me—or maybe it’s more realistic to say there were times I threw myself at them. I rushed toward stupid choices, listened to bad advice, and allowed my emotions to rule. I tried cigarettes and alcohol, puffed marijuana, had sex, and questioned authority. Mostly I hid all that from my parents. Or I lied about it and convinced myself they believed me. At the same time, I longed to be “grown up” and “finally on my own” because everybody knew “I could take care of myself just fine.”

And then I was on my own.

And I discovered how large and fast and powerful some of the bullets coming at me were. I discovered how badly they could damage my mind, my body, and my future.

There were toxic friends who played on my insecurities or steered me down roads less traveled—less traveled for darn good reasons. Some of those friends were obviously needy and greedy. Some were more subtle. They all sucked time, money, and energy. Some sucked at my soul.

There were job choices—decisions made because I wanted new experiences or because I wanted to escape a boss in possession of the title but not the skills.

There were poor health and wellness choices—too much of what tasted good or numbed the pain, too many late nights, too little exercise.

There were the boys and men I convinced myself I wanted to be with. All were charming or fascinating or addictive in their own ways. Many also—whether they would admit it or not—wanted me to live my life according to their rules. And sometimes I did. For a while.

Now, scarred and bullet-riddled, I’m still upright, still crossing the landscape of the shooting gallery called life. I’m the person I am now because of the bullets I dodged. I’m also the person I am now because of the bullets that struck. The bullets I didn’t dodge because I couldn’t. Or because I wouldn’t.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Cheese—A Metaphor for my Life

Carolyn J. Rose

Recently—for no reason I can recall—I thought about cheese as a metaphor for my life, my personality, and my growth and development.

 For the record, I love cheese. For many years, I was all about cheese sauces, grilled cheese sandwiches, wedges of cheddar on warm apple pie, extra gratings of Parmesan on my spaghetti, slabs of Gouda sandwiched between crackers, and cream cheese slathered—not smeared—on bagels. Beyond that, I never passed up the opportunity to dip my fingers into a bag of cheese puffs or a box of orange crackers in any shape or size. To this day, they have me under their spell. They beckon from supermarket shelves, airport gift shops, and vending machines. I can smell them from across the street. I can hear their crunch above the conversations in crowded rooms.

Given my cholesterol level, however, I now limit my daily intake to a few crumbles, a thin smear, a small slice, or a handful of puffs. But, given the background on my romance with cheese, thinking of it in symbolic terms isn’t a stretch. Neither is comparing myself, at different times in my life, to various types of cheese.

As a baby, I might have been cottage cheese or perhaps ricotta. Without parental arms to hold me or clothing to swaddle me, I would become, if not exactly formless, then more or less a puddle of flesh and baby fat and soft bones and muscles.

As I grew, I became like cream cheese or Mascarpone, soft and perhaps a little sweet, but able to hold a shape and have enough substance to resist—even if just for a few seconds—the knife of authority.

As a teen, I was more like Gorgonzola or blue cheese. I crumbled at the slightest slight. I fell apart over loss or failure.
 Time and experience, however, made me firm and sharp, like white cheddar, perhaps Vermont Cabot. Later I grew even more firm and sarcastic, with a bite like aged Gruyere. But, like Jarlsberg, I maintained a hint of nuttiness.

Now, I think of my life as a block of Swiss or Emmental. There is still shape and strength and flavor, but there are also empty places. 

They represent interests abandoned because of physical limitations or lack of energy. They represent bucket list items I may never check off. Most of all, they represent people who are no longer with me. There are large holes for those who died, smaller holes for those who moved or drifted from my orbit, and still smaller holes for those whose orbits I launched myself away from.

As I grow older, it’s inevitable that the holes will grow larger and more numerous. The cheese between them will soften and diminish.

How much will be left in five years? In ten? Or twenty?

How long until there are far more holes than cheese?

How long until, as the children’s song says, “the cheese stands alone”?

Friday, November 23, 2018

Towel Art

Months from now, when we look back on our recent vacation, we’ll recall a number of events, incidents, adventures, and misadventures—spotting whales, gorging on lobster rolls, getting an eye-boggling glimpse of Fantasy Fest, and being surrounded at dawn on the Lido Deck by herds of animals and flocks of birds.

 It would have been a nightmare worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock movie except for one thing—these creatures were crafted from towels.

Still, we were startled. Up until then we’d seen only single critters, and only in our stateroom. 

We’d marveled at the way a few choice tucks and folds and a pair of stick-on googly eyes could transform simple towels into a seal or a koala, a penguin, a squid an anteater 
or a . . . 

Say, what are you anyway? 

The Lido deck display, however, took us well past mere marveling and into the awed-and-amazed zone.
A giant towel monkey sat at a table as if waiting for a refill on coffee to enjoy with the morning paper.

Spiders hung from the rafters of the gazebo.


 Alligators and lobsters made their way across the deck.

A giant cobra slithered up a pillar.

 Smaller creatures swarmed the pool enclosure, occupied every lounge chair, and perched on the branches of potted plants.

  The stewards aboard the Rotterdam had risen earlier than usual that morning and created hundreds of critters—all kinds, all sizes, all shapes.
  Like many of the others on board, we grabbed our camera and darted here and there, making ooh and aah noises, clicking away, and trying to stay out of others’ shots.

One passenger, however seemed unmoved by the whole experience.
Who knows, maybe he overdid happy hour at the Crow's Nest Bar.

 As they say, “if you snooze, you lose.” Within a few hours, the on-deck zoo was no more. The towels were back in service. And only the photographs remain. Carolyn and I were, as usual, astounded by the talent, smiling can-do attitude and artistry of our Holland America crew. They made our trip a memory we'll cherish forever.