All along the backwater, Through the rushes tall, Ducks are a-dabbling, Up tails all!
Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails, Yellow feet a-quiver, Yellow bills all out of sight Busy in the river!
Slushy green undergrowth Where the roach swim— Here we keep our larder, Cool and full and dim.
Everyone for what he likes! We like to be Heads down, tails up, Dabbling free!
High in the blue above Swifts whirl and call— We are down a-dabbling Up tails all! ~Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willows
I miss having small children around to show me how to look at the world.
When young (or even older) children discover something new, it often is something I no longer pay attention to, so I get to rediscover it with them. Suddenly I’m young again, seeing things through their eyes: the wonder, the questions, the sense of “what else is out there that I need to know?”
So when I return to something that is familiar, like Grahame’s “Duck Ditty”, I’m back to thirty years younger with preschool age kids – life was busier then but oh so sweet.
On my blog Hankerings, I’m sharing with children in mind. You and kids in your life might enjoy the pictures and the stories, as I look with fresh eyes at the wonders around me. Check it out when you have a chance.
Dabbling at this and that, head down, tail up, a-dabbling free!
He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager. He greeted me like a long-lost daughter, as if we both came from the same world, someplace warmer and more gracious…
…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning, coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register which were still and always filled with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens. Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs, these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…
I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water and he returned my change, beaming as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees, as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow, and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips. This old man who didn’t speak English beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death so that when I emerged from his store my whole cock-eyed life – what a beautiful failure ! – glowed gold like a sunset after rain. ~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”
During the COVID-19 quarantine, we’ve chosen to shop at small locally owned markets in our rural county rather than the large chain groceries we usually frequent. They are less busy, more personal and desperately need the business. As we walk in, we are greeted with “hi kids, let me know if I can help you find anything!” – there is something nice about two gray heads being called “kids” because in our hearts, we still are – see below.
Yesterday, the market cashier/manager noticed a cane that had been left in one of the aisles and said “oh, Harry must have left his cane behind again, I guess he won’t get too far without it so I’ll leave it right here by the door for when he comes to get it.”
You wanna go where everybody knows your name…
These stores make me think of the rural markets only a couple miles from where I grew up in two different communities in Washington state. These were the stores that often provided the basic provisions for farm families like ours, as well as an informal community gathering spot. In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, it’s called Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, where “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it.”
It still wasn’t that unusual in the fifties and sixties for a rural “mom and pop” operation to have a small grocery store in the front part of their refurbished home, often with a single gas pump sitting in the front yard. The store had a reversible sign in the front window that said OPEN from dawn to dusk, unless the store owner needed a shower or a nap. When you’d walk through the creaky front screen door, it slammed behind you with a bang, automatically notifying the store owner in the back of the house a customer had arrived. They knew us by name, knew what our typical purchases would be, and always enjoyed a chat to catch up on the neighborhood news. It meant a cup of tea or some pretty powerful coffee for mom and a stick of chewing gum for the kids.
There was always a cork board for flyer postings, with hand written notices of the latest community events, plus “for sale”, “for free”, or “lost” items. There might be a polaroid picture of “Tinkerbelle — looking for our lost cat, children can’t stop crying” , or a hastily scribbled note from a harried mother “seeking a mother’s helper to do laundry and ironing”, or “free puppies–take your choice.” This was “Craig’s List” before Craig was born.
Sitting at the intersection of farm roads, corner stores were a natural outlet for local produce to be sold, from fresh eggs to seasonal berries and fruit, to pumpkins and squash piled up in the front yard in the fall. Some store owners even did their own butchering and meat cutting before regulations made it too difficult to meet government standards.
The “bread and butter” for a store to thrive and stay in business was just that: they supplied the basic staples that families might need in a pinch– cornflakes and cheerios, loaves of Wonder bread and milk, bags of sugar and flour, toilet paper and wieners, Crisco for a pie crust or a cube of butter for baking cookies, Elmer’s Glue, scotch tape and construction paper for rainy day art projects. Children were frequently sent on errands to the corner store on foot, or on their bicycles, or occasionally on their horses to get some immediately needed missing item.
Or perhaps they were sent to the corner store with a list just to get them out of their mothers’ hair.
The motivation for kids to make the store trip was the reward of a cold soda pop or an ice cream bar in the summer, hot chocolate with a marshmallow in the winter, and a carefully selected variety of treats from the bulk candy bins. I had a particular affinity for multicolored jawbreakers and red licorice whips.
The store my mother frequented in the tiny hamlet of East Stanwood, Washington had pretty much everything she needed, and the shopkeeper always had a fresh cookie for my brother and me. We often brought extra eggs from our flock that mom would bring in for credit, but our raw Guernsey cow milk could not be sold through the store so was sold directly to our neighbors instead.
Once we moved to a rural neighborhood outside Olympia, Washington, the local corner store was at the “otherwise nothin’ happening” corner of Libby Road and Ames Huntley Road, almost three miles away from our little farm on Friendly Grove Road. It was a long walk, though an easy bike ride along narrow country roads. We kids could usually think of a good excuse at least twice a week during the summer to make that trek to the store and stock up. My older sister would ride her horse to the store, using a telephone pole as a hitching post while she shopped.
On our visits to family in Japan, there are plenty of small family-owned corner markets in the huge cities, each with their own flavor and personality matching their owners. It’s good to see the persistence in the U.S. of small local markets that actually sell produce, not just convenience store beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. With the emphasis to “eat local” and county farmers marketing and selling their own produce, there are more of these now in our area.
Just a few miles from us is a market owned by an East Indian family and has an eclectic combination of curries, chili peppers, and all kinds of spices and ethnic ingredients sought by our local Hispanic and Indian farm neighbors.
There is an orchard nearby that has opened a store not only marketing their boxes of apples, but also sells cider, frozen apple pies ready to bake and home ground honey peanut butter.
We have local dairies producing their own homogenized pasteurized milk and ice cream, others making and selling cheese, some that raise grass fed organic beef and lamb, as well as heritage breed pork and turkeys. This time of year there are lots of end-of-the-driveway vegetable and flower stands as farmers sell their wares on the honor system, with the money going into a lock box right there by the road.
It almost feels like going home again. When I walk into a small market, it is tempting to think of pulling up a chair next to a wood burning stove, sipping a cup of tea and catching up on the neighborhood news. That can’t happen with social distancing, but my hope is to help these markets survive for when, someday, we can sit and visit and learn each others’ names and stories.
At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn. A view of the horizon, the entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of the horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.
I have learned, from those much wiser than I, to recognize moments meant for quieting. The news of the world constantly rushes past; there is suffering beyond imagining in the lives of a few I know and millions I don’t know. There is much I can do to make a difference but so much more beyond my feeble reach.
Instead of feeling abandoned on the shores of overwhelm, I seek out the familiar, the routine, and the ordinary, immersed in the recurring patterns of the day and night as the world turns on its axis. I turn myself around to witness what surrounds me.
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. ~Kathleen Norris
I remember well the feeling of restlessness, having an itch that couldn’t be reached, feeling too rooted and uneasy staying in one place for long, especially if that place was my hometown. I knew I must be destined for greater things, grander plans and extraordinary destinations. There exists in most human beings an inborn compulsion to wander far beyond one’s own threshold, venturing out into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings simply because one can. It is the prerogative of the young to explore, loosen anchor and pull up stakes and simply go. Most cannot articulate why but simply feel something akin to a siren call.
And so at twenty I heard and I went, considerably aging my parents in the process and not much caring that I did. To their credit, they never told me no, never questioned my judgement, and never inflicted guilt when I returned home after the adventure went sour.
I had gone on a personal quest to the other side of the world and had come home empty. But home itself was not empty nor had it ever been and has not been since.
There is a Dorothy-esque feeling in returning home from a land of wonders and horrors, to realize there is no place like home. There was no way to know until I went away, searching, then coming home empty-handed, to understand home was right inside my heart the whole time. There was no leaving after all, not really.
So I’m here to stay–there is no greater, grander or more extraordinary than right here. Even when I board a plane for a far off place, I know I’ll be back as this is where the search ends and the lost found.
My head now rests easy on the pillow.
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