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The Little Engine That Could, Part Deux

In December, 1,500 toys were collected one by one for the children of our Vermont town’s “sister city” in Ukraine. Once again, our town thought it would be a miracle if our shipment made it. Once again, we gave it a go anyway.

Thought it might be nice to remind people of the good in this crazy world. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen. Here’s a great little video from the woman behind the sleigh. Break out the Kleenex®.

O Come, Let Us Assemble It    

There seems to be some pushback this year, in various media, against the “Magic of Christmas.” I understand. Times have changed. It’s not Bing Crosby’s holiday so much any more. Hallmark’s cookie-cutter Christmas movies seem woefully out of touch. (The personal assistant saves the day and wins the heart of the widowed billionaire… again! The guy on the Snow Ball committee helping the down-and-out girl, able to value her quirky ways, is secretly… a prince… again! With the requisite cookie-baking scene…flour on his and her noses… adorable!). What happened to the good stories? They used to be good.

This year perhaps more than most, money is an issue, germs remain an issue, and weather, fuel costs and world events are bringing us down. Power outages have caused many people and businesses real hardship.  Perhaps a creature or person you love died. It’s hard to care much about the Perfect Gift—or even wrapping it. I, for one, used to get very, very into wrapping.

They say nostalgia glosses over the past. Makes it seem prettier or more enchanted than it was at the time. As a nostalgic, who talks to other nostalgics, I don’t buy that. We say it was in fact enchanted. The following story illustrates when Christmas was pure magic. 

I preface the tale with my own childhood proclivity for holiday snooping. Driven in part by our keen sense of smell, my siblings or I would notice something in December when we went to, say, get a towel from the closet. That smell. Sniff, sniff. Why does it smell like that in here? The unmistakable smell of… fun

The smell of toys. Plastics. Whatever they pumped into the air in toy stores to make you want live there. That smell was, weirdly, right in our own closet. Let us get a step stool and investigate! Dear Reader knows where I’m going with this. Snooping for presents secreted away by the parents during the weeks leading up to December 25th. Many of them mercifully already wrapped by the grandparents and aunts who’d mailed them. 

On to the story. I hope to do it justice.

My Vermont friend was a little boy growing up with his older brother in the 1960s. Remarkably, their parents took seasonal nighttime jobs in addition to their already demanding day jobs in order to pull together a nice Christmas for their two sons. Which left the sons entirely to their own devices several nights per week. At which point the snooping naturally began.

They found in a closet one year a well-made and elaborate Lionel train set they had badly wanted. Overcome with excitement, they got on the step stool and brought it down. Very, very carefully, they unboxed it. And proceeded to put it together. It was complicated and took a long while. Then they played with it happily for hours. With an eye to the clock, they very, very carefully re-boxed it, got on the step stool, and put it away. Each night they went through this ritual. Each night they got faster at assembling the set, and at re-packaging it perfectly.

On Christmas day the boys could have won Oscars® for the gleeful surprise they displayed upon opening the well-made and elaborate Lionel train set they had badly wanted. They were eager to put it together, this time without fear that they might get caught. The train set was finally theirs.  

The parents were beside themselves with the Christmas Day delight they had brought to their sons. All their hours of hard work had paid off. They felt as much joy as their sons. Their joy was overtaken by astonishment. Look at them go! Our boys! How could our sons be this clever, this talented, that they could assemble the thing with such rapidity? They must be advanced, possibly even geniuses! Clearly, they must go into engineering.

I love that story. I don’t know if they ever told their parents—ask David Atkinson for the full story. For now, it stands as is: a charming, true tale told at dinner one night at a holiday party in Vermont. It brought the house down. Magical times revisited.

The story takes me back to our own childhood. When Mommy would make a huge deal about  snowfall, illuminating the outside lights and opening the curtains so we kids could gaze at the different sizes and shapes of the swirling flakes. When Dad building a fire was a thrilling and special occasion; even the dog got excited. When hot chocolate was made by us children with 50% marshmallows—the big, fat, “jet-puffed” kind—as tinsel clung to our polyester pants and dog, and the parents sloshed brandy into their eggnog. Our hearts soared at the holidays.

Now Mommy is gone and Dad can’t build a fire. But there is still something about snow falling, seeing someone drive by with a carefully selected tree atop their car, children terrified or overjoyed to meet Santa at a town gazebo, and the first few bars of pretty much any Bing Crosby carol. It legitimizes our nostalgia. There was holiday magic. There was. I was there, I felt it. As, hopefully, Dear Reader, did you. If we can’t feel it this year, for whatever reasons, let us quietly watch others feel it. It’s out there. Even if we’re taking a year off ourselves. Good (holi)day to all, with love and memories.

Tip for Parents: Hide the step stool.

The Underdogs of Foliage

All the old Vermont post cards depicting fall foliage had on the back the phrase, “ablaze with color!”

Ever since I had a tiny bush at my then-house go ablaze 20 years ago, I’ve looked for the underdogs during foliage season.

Look at this runty little feller, admired by none.

Virginia Creeper, I presume.

Truly sad. But it’s happy you’re looking at it!

This is some kind of weed. But ablaze.

I love this thing. No idea what it is. Wait –there’s an app for that (“Seek”)!

It’s a Smokebush. I highly recommend. Obviously can stand nasty winters and summer drought. Doesn’t grow too quickly.

It drops mini tumbleweeds. And it’s turning…maroon.

Surprised you made it this far.

Every dog has its day? Not always, IMHO, but today they did.

THANK YOU from the underdogs of foliage.

NBC Mission: Impossible

The NBC did NOT bloom last night as I badly needed it to before I skipped town. Unable to leave her to bloom unobserved, I enlisted a kindly neighbor to get her in the car, knowing full well how unlikely the bud would hang onto the plant during my drive east. What with my crap suspension system and Vermont roads and all. She is buoyed by an old printer, a pillow, a beater bathing suit, and a back rest.

We stopped at my favorite gas station in the world, Irving (Hello!). I added an ugly brown fleece to the support system.

There is no way I am the only nutter in the history of the world to take a blooming cereus on the road rather than let it bloom alone. Hopefully another nutter will report in.

Praying this one makes it to New Hampshire, but if it doesn’t, hell, we tried.

I have never named the plant. On the drive it came to me: Luna.

We made it to New Hampshire. Thank you, Forces!

My hosts and I took a celebratory pond dip. Heavenly.

See the fraying tip?

IT’S HAPPENING.

It’s uncertain, though, because the stem is too bent where it comes out of the leaf, due to sag during the drive. I’m afraid to adjust it. We’ll report in as able, Luna and I.

Fingers crossed!

Meanwhile, Back at the Monarchs

There has been a series of hatchling batches over the last few weeks, so they’re different ages. I missed my shot with this big fatty elder-pillar who was perfect to bring indoors in a container to do its chrysalis thing.

But I was going out of town and didn’t want to drag the poor thing along. I only hope it wasn’t eaten by a bird.

The milkweed plant serves several purposes. A place to hang your hat, a buffet to be ravaged, and…

And a latrine.

I’m not sure where they sleep, but they climb down the milkweed well before dusk. Surely napping not far from their beloved milkweed plant that provides All. A home you can eat!

Hoping to show you a chrysalis from one of the now-toddlers one day soon.

Update on the Night Blooming Cereus

Daily, the bud elongates and gets fatter and fatter. When I return from work, it has grown! Stretching and swelling and becoming more defined, it seeks to grow and bloom just as we crazy humans do.

This is a couple mornings ago.

And this was yesterday morn. Boom!

More on her precarious positioning later. Every year it’s dicey, and for a different reason. Not sure how to solve this year’s dilemma, or if I’ll even try.

Sometimes we just let nature run its course, no?

Togetherness Is Making a Comeback

This summer we were overjoyed to revisit our most beloved spots, events, and people – before the snow flies and COVID handcuffs us anew. Yet another winter where we don’t get to hang out with people indoors? Oof. We’ve gotten clever, though. We’ll find new ways not to lose our minds.

Temporarily freed this summer, we jetted around like dragonflies suddenly winged. We went to Chandler, the Bethel Drive-In, Montague golf course, Vermont’s rivers, ponds, and lakes (nice and full due to RAINS), White Cottage, Blue Moon, and Red Door (free jewelry cleaning and inspection! Watch batteries!), hardware stores, and pizza joints, to name a few. Now we’re scrambling to do things outside even when unmotivated because, suddenly, the sun is low in the sky. Winter is coming.

Which is good news because sometimes summer goes on a little too long, no? Maybe not for college kids, whose schools summon them earlier and earlier, but, growing up, the last two weeks of summer were just painful. That lingers today for me, though I still manage to be saddened by the closing of each pool, park, festival, and outdoor eatery at end of season.

Like many, I hates change and was crushed to return to Vermont and see Belmains and the Woodstock yarn store gone forever … among other places … poof! But gladdened to find other joints afloat or nascent, with open doors and rules in place. Randolph’s Playhouse Movie Theater and Chef’s Market and Rumor Has It. Colorful Life Creations in Bethel. Libraries, public pools, and post offices. Hair salons galore. Must be more heads around here than are evident.


Togetherness made a comeback, carefully. People got together in ways they have been unable to for a long time. With travel still iffy, looking for ways to connect? Try a chorus, or house of worship – before the COVID numbers go up and make things go virtual again (one church in Randolph is in a thrift store—I’ll bet it’s good). It can give you a real boost. Most Sundays I cry at incredibly poetic or moving words, spoken by ordinary folk. Or try volunteering with youth. That’s cheering, for whatever reason. Their little faces? Their energy? When they listen to what you have to say, and you listen back? Another option: talk to strangers, where convos are very surface-y and likely to be upbeat and interesting. There was a great article in The Atlantic on this.

Or create togetherness. Start a blog. What’s that? A Web-log. You’re reading one right now. No one does these any more, some say. But I believe that everyone who wants one should make one. It’s easy and free. You can count your viewers and countries of origin. Heartening. My most popular search terms people use are hilarious (to me): The Mullet is Making a Comeback, Dear Certified Finalist, and Skinny-dipping in Vermont.

I have not actually seen the mullet make a comeback, but other things have. The Rolodex® (you can’t mistype what you’re entering into it, repeatedly – it’s paper!); the flip-top desk (hide your mess from view with a swing of your arm!); going to bed early (why stay up soaking in bad global news?). Also a resurgence in nature:  birds, bees, and butterflies everywhere.

Other things making a comeback, from the nutters I call friends: puzzles, Pinochle, cribbage, bridge. Sundays at the lake. Eighties fashions, overalls, rompers, hair scrunchies, hair bonnets, high-waisted jeans, hot dogs, fanny packs, the ukulele (again?), state fairs, tumbleweeds, saying Eureka!, steak sauce, shoe cobblers (let’s hope), fascism. My boyfriend when they were invented loathed the term “fanny pack.” He swung his around to the front and called it a Crotch Pouch.

 

 

Mercifully, Randolph’s New World Festival made a delightful, controlled comeback. Mental snapshots I won’t forget: women dancing in the rain; the little boys talking to their idols, the big boys; Le Vent du Nord whipping the dance floor into an otherworldly frenzy. These musicians are intergalactic beings sent by God to uplift. 

Next up, Tunbridge World’s Fair. Catch you there, even if we don’t recognize each other masked. Name tags might make a comeback. Good health, and good day.

 

 

The Chrysalis Plot Thickens

And along came larva #2. Having concern that #1 (now a pupa) is dying on the vine, I quickly jarred this one, using more visible glass (not plastique) so that we hopefully get to view at least one emerging Monarch butterfly.

And so a predator or parasite doesn’t get him outdoors!

I build a gorgeous condo. Does he hang upside down from the perfect stick? No, he hangs from the cheese cloth. So I can’t open the “lid” to show you photos.

He looked a little sickly — note drooping antennae — and did not build his cocoon that night, though I checked many, many times and barely slept.

He goes into the classic J pose. I wait for the big moment. I’m dying to see this with my own eyes.

Nothing.

Annnd the moment you blink, he does it. In broad daylight. I totally missed it again! Though I checked on him every single time I checked the US Open, on TV in another room.

The early hours of the chrysalis (pupa) stage are dicey; the exoskeleton is soft and delicate. So don’t move yours!

Meanwhile, #1 is either rotting or changing color for the big reveal.

He is supposed to turn black or clear. He is turning golden brown. Against all odds, I remain hopeful.

A Watched Chrysalis Never…

To refresh (from 7th grade science class?), butterflies go through four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult butterfly.

Friend says: 8-14 days till he emerges. He is on Day 7 and the chrysalis is getting lumpier, pointier. I believe the wings are forming inside! I’ll report how in the next post.

Cool feature: you know when he’s about to hatch because the chrysalis turns black or clear. Then it’s about 48 hours. Can’t wait.

He or she? The gender story is complicated.

Monarch Metamorphosis

A friend told me how her young sons pick a caterpillar from a milkweed plant every year. They put it into a container with some milkweed leaves for sustenance, and mesh over the top.

Crazily, the next day, this guy crawled towards me as I sat on our steps. I texted my friend a photo; she confirmed this was indeed a monarch caterpillar.

No idea what he was thinking, there was no greenery whatsoever in the direction he was headed. I grabbed the only container I could find. Clearly, the Forces had sent him my way.

It wasn’t a great container, but I was in a rush, afraid a bird would grab him.

He didn’t like it in there too much. He curled into a sad lump despite my careful selection of soil with clover growing in it. My friend said I needed some milkweed leaves and a stick for him to hang off of to do his thing.

Sure enough, he sprung to action.

You can see this is basically the container you get sesame noodles in. Not roomy. How was I to move him to something larger without causing permanent mental damage to us both?

Turned out I didn’t have to move him. Because I saw him that evening hanging upside down from the twig, shaped like the letter “J.”

I wondered, what’s he doing in there, man? I should have stuck around…taken some video…because look what I awoke to the next morning. I know I can watch it on YouTube, but I could have seen it live for God’s sake. It’s astonishing.

As my friend put, “They are like babies being born — always seem to do it at midnight!”

I don’t know what the heck is going on inside that chrysalis, but will research and report in for you. Honestly, how does it HAPPEN? How does he coat his entire self with silk? For that one, watch the short, time-lapsed link above from Fish and Wildlife.

This is how we know there’s something greater than ourselves in the cosmos. Stay tuned.

Ann Aikens

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