Fall

All through my childhood, fall meant the end of summer. The end of T-shirts and shorts, bare feet and flip-flops. The end of running through sprinklers and swimming in ponds or pools. The end of long days, short nights.

Fall meant the beginning of school, which put me among too many noisy people. Ask me to concentrate in the classroom battlefield environment? Forget it. Ask me to do schoolwork at home in my free time? Torture. Who didn’t prefer being outside with friends or inside, reading books, playing with Matchbook cars, or watching TV? I attended three different elementary schools, one in North Carolina, Ohio, and Taiwan. They were all the same. Well, Taiwan differed in one way: the absence of fall. I didn’t miss it.

In Ohio, preferring spring and summer, bikes and bare feet, to fall and winter, classrooms and snow boots.

In Denver, I attended one of the most experimental junior high schools in the country. Students were treated as agents in their studies. In most of the classes, the learning material came in plastic tubs. Laminated sheets filled each tub. Each sheet; a lesson in history, English, or algebra. Finish a lesson, and move on to the next. Complete as many as you could in fifty minutes. If you had questions, ran into trouble, or fell behind, the teacher or an assistant would help you. No teacher stood at the front of the room, barking at us. Students worked quietly. And in this peaceful environment, I could immerse myself in my lessons. Self-management came easier to me than taking orders. And if a heating pipe pinged or a fluorescent light crackled, I didn’t notice.

In other classes, we sat in circles, the teacher joining us like King Arthur at the Round Table. Discussions replaced listen-and-repeat teaching methods. Our thoughts, experiences, and curiosity about subjects were welcome. We felt invested in subject matters—we felt as if we mattered.

I thrived in the Denver school. Unfortunately, we moved at the end of one year. Oregon returned me to that familiar and untenable structure of hierarchy and bullying. My grades fell back to their pre-Denver, you’re-not-touching-me levels. My sister begged to be allowed to attend community college and sit the GED exams. A great idea—I wanted to be included. Dad shook his head. “And miss the best fun of your lives?” he said.

The best fun of my life followed high school graduation. My entry into college felt like a return to the Denver school where I could manage myself. At first, I failed. I’d forgotten how. But I figured it out.

It’s taken me decades to recover from the sinking, end-of-summer feeling that fall always gave me. First, I learned to smile at the joy it brought so many people. Then I allowed myself to appreciate some of its charms: the morning sun shining through golden tree crowns, the wind blowing a murmuration of leaves across a trail, and the glitter of an early frost at sunrise.

Small changes to my life have finally endeared fall to me. The installation of a tiled stove, a Kachelofen, in our main living space is one. When temperatures drop below 13°, I build morning fires. The heat is absorbed by the stove’s tiles, which in turn radiate it. Touch the Kachelofen hours after the coals have burned to ash, and it’s as warm as a cat. For the love of flickering flames and radiant heat, I now look forward to the colder seasons.

The fire’s lit. The coffee’s brewing.

Another change came with the pandemic forcing Markus and me to work from home. We began taking 15–minute walks. Being outside so often, we experienced the sun’s movements—not just the length of day changing through the seasons, but the tracking of the sunrises and sunsets along the horizon and back again. We experienced temperature fluctuations and weather changes: daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonally. As we made our walks, trees leafed out, flowers blossomed, fruits and crops ripened. Seed-carrying fluff drifted on breezes. On the neighboring farm, cows calved, and ducklings hatched. Swifts returned, paired, and raised their young. Now, starlings chatter in the treetops, preparing to migrate.

October has slipped into November. The forested hills around us broke out in reds, yellows, and browns. Deciduous trees shed their nuts and leaves. At the local farm store, pumpkins and bottles of apple cider appeared on the shelves. In all of this, I’m learning to appreciate that fall has its place. It makes sense.

A burrow under the hazelnut tree.

This morning, I lit a fire to warm the Kachelofen. The flames flickered. I worked at my desk, and the day broke. Outside my window, yellow and brown hazelnut leaves carpet the lawn. A very fat mouse slips in and out of its burrow beneath the tree’s ivy-covered bole—which looks more like a cluster of saplings rising from an ivy plinth. The mouse skips over rocks and leaf litter. It returns with its foraging finds. Frosts are on their way. Soon, while I work, cozied by my winter fire, the fat mouse will be hibernating. I’ll keep watch on the world, working at my desk and padding barefoot around our warm house until Markus and I lace up for our walk, off to see the world safely through to winter and then spring.

Names

I. The Surname

When my parents married in the mid-fifties, Mom took Dad’s family name, Wadley. Each of us three kids carried Wadley into adulthood. My brother’s wife took our name when she married into the family, but my sister and I each shed it.

I had considered keeping mine. I’d known enough women who’d held on to their family names to feel eyes upon me, and I even preferred my family name to my husband’s. Hyphenating the two hadn’t appealed: they didn’t pair up well. My husband’s name didn’t pair well with my first name, either. Still, I reckoned, no one had asked me what name I’d wanted, and at a pivotal moment, I had a choice. Okay, so I got to choose one man’s name over another’s—but still. I took the new name.

The two of us paired as comfortably as our names, it turned out. Following our divorce, I returned to Wadley, entered graduate school, and began publishing short stories under my father’s name. One of my stories won a big contest judged by Ursula Le Guin.

I finished school and planned an extended backpacking trip throughout SE Asia. As a child, I’d loved living in Asia and longed to experience it as an adult, thinking I might just stay and work there a few years. Maybe work my way around the globe, ending up in Europe. I liked Europe. Felt it would be a safe place to grow old. Just before packing up, I met this Swiss guy traveling around the States with a friend. He had loose plans to travel in SE Asia, too, and we agreed to meet in Bangkok. That meet-up resulted in lifelong love, marriage, and three great kids—and a shortcut to a life lived in Europe.

On our travels, we decided to marry and settle in Kaiserstuhl, Switzerland, where he’d grown up and where most of his family lived. Again, I took my husband’s name. We were an expecting couple, and I figured our child’s life would be easier if I carried a Swiss name—a common Swiss name, no less. We visited the town’s registrar to put our marriage in our Familiebüchlein, our “family book”—my name being officially recorded as Suter geb. Wadley, Suter née Wadley. In the phone book, my maiden name went into parentheses, but it was there. The link remained.

My two passports and our Familiebüchlein.

A few years ago, I set out to renew my Swiss passport. The use of hyphenated names had fallen out of use and despite all my protests, I lost Suter-Wadley. Why did a functioning wheel get fixed, I wondered. In my American documents, I kept my hyphenated name, but Americans don’t read it as a German-speaker would. To them, the hyphen signifies that I was born a Suter and married a Wadley. Tja. For years on social media, I flipped the hyphenated surnames to accommodate an American sensibility, but I simply confused people and stopped.

When I began writing short stories after a long hiatus, it seemed natural to return to the name I’d earlier published under, Meredith Wadley.

So that’s me. I can be Meredith Wadley, Meredith Suter-Wadley, Meredith Suter, and the odd Meredith Wadley-Suter.

II. The Forename

My first name can be pronounced in two or three syllables. Growing up, whenever I heard my name in three beats, I knew to disappear. The assurances that I’d earlier made about not having any homework had been exposed as a lie; the plate I’d broken and shoved into a drawer had been discovered; or the mussed coif of my sister’s doll—which was off-limits—had tattled on me. Or maybe there was some chore I’d skipped doing?

Quick! Hide!

To this day, Mere-dith sounds happy-go-lucky, and Mer-ah-dith sound damning.

My family sometimes used the single-beat Mere—pronounced “mare.” Some friends picked that up, too. I didn’t mind. At school, teachers would ask on Day One what I “preferred” to be called. I never asked them to use Mere, and they immediately fell into the two-beat/three-beat, friendly/scolding usage pattern. Inserting that third syllable heightens any dramatic slowing down of pronunciation.

Many people struggle to spell my first name. I’ll see Maridith, Merideth, Meridith, or Merrydith. Some ignore the “dith” and go straight to Mary. My name does not fall easily on German-Swiss ears. If I try saying it the way I pronounce it, confusion registers on Swiss faces. I quickly learned to resort to their way of pronouncing my name, either Mare-eh-deet (hard “t”) or the attempt at a softer pronunciation, Mare-eh-dees. When the Swiss think they’re correctly pronouncing the “th” sound, I hear an “s.”

Sometimes, I have to break down my name, explaining, Mein Vorname ist wie «Edith» [pronounced eh-deet] mit «Meer» als Vorsilbe. Meer-Edith. “It’s like Edith,” I’ll say, using the German pronunciation, “with Meer as a prefix.” The breakdown usually draws a smile. It’s a tweak of fate that the German noun das Meer means “the sea” in English, and Meredith is anglicized Celtic for Sea Lord.

When expecting my first child, I briefly considered putting Philomena on my list of girl names. I imagined calling a daughter Philly to my Mere. But—if I were to have a son, would I name him Colt? And what would be my options for names should a third or fourth child came along? Ryder? Buck?

Ney.

Years later, as I was teaching Helena and Calvin and Celeste to be riders, I sure felt relieved that I hadn’t saddled my firstborn with a name like Philly—leaving any consideration of Colt, Ryder, and Buck in the dust.

Hey, Colt and Ryder! Where’s your sister Philly gotten to?

Moving

Recently, I read a letter my dad had written to me in 1968, during his Vietnam tour. In it, he mentioned how happy he was to be coming home soon, and he asked if I was excited about our upcoming move to Cincinnati. At the time, we were living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a mile from Fort Bragg and Pope Field (where my dad had been stationed), and moving was part of our lives.

The military culture I grew up in was about disruption—not roots. My friends were all military like me, coming and going, and we adapted, realizing friendships fast. The year Dad served in Vietnam, I had five different first-grade teachers. The first four were military wives, three moving away before the end of the school year, and one losing her husband in Vietnam just before the summer break. The last was pulled from retirement to teach us, and she was a firm believer in corporeal punishment. To this day, I can feel the sting of a wooden ruler being smacked across my open palm.

I have no single memory of being sad to leave friends behind. My parents practiced the art of keeping us looking forward. They’d hype up a destination. Dad usually enthused about the new house and school while Mom dove into the new destination’s history, filling us in on just what kind of place we’d be settling into.

I live in Switzerland, now. I’ve settled in my husband’s hometown, a medieval micro city with a bridge linking it to Germany, a watchtower, and stone townhouses; population 400 strong. Located close to a commercial airport, the town gets overflights. At one point, a local group campaigned to cut back the flight load. They claimed, among other things, that the air traffic was harmful to kids. A television news crew rolled into town. They saw a bunch of children playing—my three among them—and asked about the planes. “What planes?” the children cried, their eyes traveling skywards. I laughed when my kids told me about the news crew: for a great chunk of my childhood, I lived within spitting distance of runways, and I have a single memory of plane noise. We were in Fayetteville, playing outside, when a pilot broke the sound barrier. We cheered. The memory of that window-rattling kerpow! still fills me with joy.

This August, my husband and I flew to Central Texas, to the town where my grandparents settled after retiring, and where my mom moved, several years after my dad’s death, in 1990, to look after them. She’d left Oregon—a place she loved—fully intent on returning, but by the time my grandmother passed, at age 102, Mom had settled in Texas. Another move did not interest her. My brother, who’d relocated himself Eastern Oregon after retirement, coaxed Mom into a return to Oregon.

The bulk of the moving operation involved preparation. My brother, his wife and kids, and my sister and her daughter did all that. Markus and I arrived in Central Texas to oversee the packing of Mom’s household goods, tick off a short list of final errands, and drive Mom’s car—packed with orchids, which themselves had gone through many moves—up to the small university town of La Grande.

For nearly a week, Markus and I had the Texas house to ourselves.

It felt surreal being on our own in that town. And the closer we got to the end of that leg of our journey, the more sentimental I began to feel about how much of my life had been tied to the place. It’d been a part in my life for circa sixty years.

When Mom had first settled back in Texas, she bought a house a ten-minute walk from my grandparents’ house, a place they’d built post-retirement. We all loved to hate that little town, and my husband and our kids never made sense of it. Its layout cannot be beat for strangeness—and I’ve been to and lived in a lot of towns. On one family trip to Texas, Helena’s boyfriend refused to use turn lanes, crazed by how they ran down the middle of road, serving both directions of traffic. I insisted he use them. When in Texas, drive like a local, or you may end up festooned upon a V8 pickup’s grille guard.

On this last trip to Texas, I wrestled with my sentiments for the town I hated. Should I stop by my grandparent’s old house one more time before leaving? Drive by the church they attended and I detested (and still feel all that emotion in my marrow)? Markus pestered me about stopping into the cowboy supply store we’d always visited with the kids, the manager shouting, “Well, hello, Switzerland!” as soon as we walked through the door. No. What was Boot City to just the two of us? We packed Mom’s car and left town our final time, heading west before turning north. I watched the familiar scenery rolling by and wondered if I’d ever see it again in my life.

I may go back about five generations in Texas territory, but I’m no part of it. No insider. No Texan. I can remember family gatherings at my grandparents and feeling like a stranger among cousins. I used to tell myself that I’d never have kids unless I could raise them among family. Give them roots. I’ve done just that. Outside of living five years in France—which thankfully gave everyone a feel for what I’d experienced growing up and being an immigrant—we’ve lived in my husband’s hometown. His sister is our neighbor, and a brother lives a three-minute walk away.

Growing up, I was always an outsider to everything I am. As an immigrant adult, I still am. I don’t know any other way to live. Without family with roots in Switzerland, I would be awfully tempted to return to Oregon, myself.

South of La Grande, Oregon.

August

As day breaks this morning, I’m tempted to build a fire. Overall, it’s been a cool, wet summer. I’ve been into the Rhine only once for a swim, and if the weather improves this month, I won’t benefit; I’ll be away.

The last cold, wet summer we experienced was in 2000, the year we were returning to Switzerland from living in France. The kids were little. We planned on seeing some sights on our drive back, camping along the way. We delayed our departure repeatedly, hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came, so we made the 6.5–hour shot straight, from Limay to Kaiserstuhl. Markus would return solo to oversee the packing up of our goods.

We were to move into an old, rambling farmhouse up the street from my in-laws. It was supposed to be a temporary base—until we found a place of our own to buy. We stayed for eight years. The plastic veneer on the kitchen cabinets was brittle and breaking off. The oven didn’t work. The basement flooded regularly; we insisted on the installation of a pump. And the walls and ceilings were nicotine-stained; I suspected the paint to be lead-based. At least my brother-in-law (mayor at the time) had insisted on the installation of a new bathroom suite before our arrival. The house had been left recently to the City of Kaiserstuhl, and we were their first tenants. The city’s forestry crew occupied the attached barns and old milk parlor. They were good but sometimes noisy neighbors.

I insisted on a working oven. When the city director, who’d occupied the house before us, approved my request, I baked him a cake, using my mother-in-law’s oven and enjoying a morning visit with her. I presented the cake to the director, and he said, “Oh, so the old oven does work!” He’s a bit of a twitch, that man.

When I insisted the stained walls be painted, the councilwoman in charge of the property told me I should give them a proper scrub.

On a pre-move visit to Kaiserstuhl from France, I engaged my father-in-law to help me establish a kitchen garden. He tilled the soil, and we planted Swiss chard, potatoes, snow peas, runner beans, carrots, zucchini, sweet corn, pattypan, acorn squash, pumpkins, and crookneck squash. He tended everything until the day we moved in. In the cool, wet weather, and under his mastery, a vigorous garden awaited our arrival.

When I first moved to Switzerland, I adored how the grocery stores stocked little more than local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Many vegetables were unfamiliar to me, and I couldn’t find one of my favorites, astonishingly: Swiss chard! There wasn’t any kale around, either, which I did not miss—having already OD’d on kale (I’ve never recovered). I discovered fennel, which I adore roasted.

Many vegetables familiar to me weren’t available: sweet corn and my favorite summer and winter squashes. My mom sent me packets of seeds. One day, my grocery store had pattypan and acorn squash for sale as “decorative gourds.” I bought and ate them all. Nowadays, sweet corn, pumpkins, and Swiss chard are readily available. Kale, too. Helena and Celeste love it! And nowadays, as in the States, many fruits and vegetables are available year-round. They’re flown in from ports all over the globe. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing.

In the first five years of marriage and living in Kaiserstuhl—before our five-year stint in France—Markus and I rented a garden plot from a retired carpenter, Herr Winzenger. Two fingers on his right hand were missing two digits; as a young man, he’d sawed them off. “Threw them to the dogs,” he said, “who snapped them from the air.” He got himself down to the doctor, a five-minute walk into town. “Doc asked for my fingers, to sew ’em back on. ‘Too late,’ I told ’im, ‘the dogs got ’em.’” Herr Winzenger would watch us tending our patch of vegetables and chuckle. “You never stop learning,” he’d say, shaking his head. I adored the man.

Recently, we attended the funeral of a longtime Kaiserstuhl resident and the mother of my brother-in-law’s wife. She’d also been our first landlady. A kind and generous woman, she’d helped me feel welcome—less of an outsider. In contrast, our neighbors across the street would greet me only when Markus was present. When he wasn’t around, they ghosted me. Toddler Helena would stand on our balcony, wave at them, and call, “Hoi, Zämme! Hoi, Zämme! Hoi, Zämme!” The pair always ignored her spry greeting. They never waved back.

That hurt.

At our former landlady’s funeral, Markus pointed out a white-haired and stooped man. “That’s Herr Winzenger’s son.”

“The chemist?”

I was astonished. Having moved around so much as a child, I’m still easily flabbergasted by the evidence of time’s passage. Before arriving in Switzerland, I’d never witness neighborhood children growing up or adults aging (to me, only siblings and cousins grew up; only grandparents and aunts and uncles aged). The only funerals I’d been vaguely aware of had been for men who’d returned from Vietnam in body bags or who’d gone down in planes—and one neighborhood drunk who’d accidentally smashed through his sliding-glass door, fallen into his backyard pool, and bled to death. At the age of fourteen, I attended my first funeral, my nana’s.

To sit here this morning, watching a summer unfold as wet and cold as one twenty years prior—in the same setting—is a privilege and a gift. For this gracious and kind family I’ve married into and this life I’ve lucked into, I am daily thankful. They give me the strength I need to get through serious trials. My life is not absent pain.

On the day of my former landlady’s interment in Kaiserstuhl, the sun shined, and the cemetery grounds were carpeted in purple herbal flowers. Her party of mourners crossed the soft, giving carpet to where the priest awaited, the air abundantly perfumed by thyme.

Wet

I’ve planted foxgloves in the garden to remind me of the those in Oregon growing wild along roads. Photo by Carol Ann Wadley.

When I was fourteen, my dad retired from a career in the military, and my parents bought a house on five acres west of Portland, Oregon. We added animals to our cats and dogs. My sister and I got our first horses, and soon, we were waking to the soft neighs of hungry horses, to roosters crowing, and to geese and ducks murmuring themselves awake. Mom got the Earth Mama bug. She sewed herself and us girls Afghani-style dresses; she took up macramé, spinning wool, and knitting cable sweaters; and she enrolled in a community college course in subsistence farming. Dad tilled and deer-proof fenced a plot of ground for a substantial kitchen garden. He next planted an orchard of fruit trees and set up a colony of bees in our front pasture. Sadly, the bees failed to thrive, but under Mom’s care, her garden, orchard, and our animals prospered.

Her summers were soon occupied by freezing, drying, and canning. Dad built her a dryer. Lightbulbs supplied heat, a fan circulated the air, and screen trays supported the produce and meat slices Mom wished to dry. I still salivate at the memory of her fruit leather. She entered her garden products and her quilts in the county fair; she won ribbons and prizes.

Dad got a little plump.

Mom with her quilt “On Golden Pond.” In Oregon, she established herself as a nationally known fibre artist. Photo owned by Carol Ann Wadley.

Here in Switzerland and decades later, we’re having a cool, wet summer. I’m reminded of times Mom disparaged what she’d call a “Green Tomato Summer.” Her tomatoes rotted on their vines before ripening, her chilies lacked kick, and her tasteless melons went to the horses. Until moving to Oregon, I equated summers with blistering sidewalks and cooling swimming pools, tasty ripe tomatoes and thumping sweet melons. It took me years to appreciate Oregon’s cool wetness, to accept and appreciate the Willamette Valley’s greenness and abundance as a gift. To accept and appreciate Oregon as Home. Of course, there were summers of heat, Augusts when our well went dry. Mom used our gray water to keep her garden plants alive. Over time, I’ve found myself increasingly distressed by heat. The perfect summertime temperature for me has gone from 95° to 75° (35° to 23°).

Today, by sunrise, I’m sitting at my desk facing the garden. Under monochrome gray skies, the abundance and vigor of the foliage illume the outside like a neon light. I think of the golden hour and the blue hour; this is a rare green hour, and it takes me home. Ironically, as I’m reminded of Oregon’s Green Tomato Summers, the actual temperatures in the Far Northwest are breaking records. It’s a terrible time. While we’re being lashed by occasional fierce winds and thunderstorms, Oregon is buckling from the heat.

In the early 90s, widowed Mom left Oregon for her native Texas to look after her aging parents. Now, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law’s epic efforts, Mom’s returning to Oregon in the coming weeks. What timing: Oregon is suffering temperatures exceeding those in Texas. Next month, Markus and I will be doing our micro-bit to help with Mom’s move. We’ll be driving a carload of her orchids and odd valuables out of Texas and up to Oregon. Whoo, boy! I sure hope the mercury drops before we land in Dallas! We might just be making the scenic drive in the relative coolness of night. Still, I’m looking forward to returning home.

An Oregon hike with my grandmother, mom, and brother. Photo owned by Carol Ann Wadley.

Horses

Horses have been a large part of my life. Before I owned one, I listened with adoration and envy to my dad’s stories about galloping his sister’s horse, Smokey, across the West Texas flats. He’d carry his .22 to hunt hares for the soup pot. At Christmastime, he’d shoot mistletoe out of cottonwoods and sell it to neighbors. Riding a buckskin across the desert made Dad a cowboy in my eyes. But he was just a Depression-era, upper-middle-class kid.

On a visit to our Nana one year, my sister and I were treated to a horseback ride. Irrigation canals crisscrossed our route. We rode alongside them, crossed culvert after culvert, and zig-zagged our way along. At one point, my sister’s somnambulant cayuse suddenly woke to the idea of heading home. Boom, off he bolted, my sister crying out in shock. He flew over every canal in his path, and Cathy—bless her—made it back to Nana’s with her love of horses intact.

Like Cathy’s naughty mount, my first horse, April Annie, would run home flat out. She also knew every tree within ten miles that had a branch she could pass under but not me. Her secret power: she’d clear any obstacle I pointed her at, ditches, logs, and picnic tables. I didn’t have a jumping saddle at first, so I jumped her bareback.

Melody, April Annie’s daughter, was the sweetest horse that ever lived and the first horse I ever bred and trained to saddle. She won a reserve championship at the county fair. Her daddy was a local hunk.

Dakota. Cathy’s first horse and an equine Keystone Cop. He could pluck ripe blackberries from a bush and pull a hammer from Dad’s work belt without being noticed. Off he’d gallop with the hammer in his mouth, Dad chasing him. Fences took some time to mend.

Dari. Cathy’s elegant, blood-bay Arabian. This beauty knew only one gait under saddle, the prance. A person can grow awfully tired of prancing awfully fast.

BD. Sweet like Melody. She helped me earn a place on the county rodeo court but couldn’t tell one end of a cow from another. She also didn’t understand the meaning of a jumping obstacle. I’d point her at one, and she’d kindly send me flying over it—solo. The lesson learned, that horses needed to be trained to jump, would send me in a new direction, three-day eventing.

I discovered Four Slats the summer I groomed at a local show stable. A top-ranked racehorse in his day, he ended up boarded and forgotten after his owner died in a car crash. When I told Dad of the stallion’s plight, he and our neighbor Rocky bought him. Four Slats was considered too old to be trained for the show circuit, and I, a minor, couldn’t legally show him anyway. He ended up in Eastern Oregon on Rocky’s ranch, siring crop after crop of gorgeous foals.

BD’s son, Tyke, grew up to be an intelligent, go-getting athlete. I trained him to compete in the sport of three-day evening. Nimble, he refused only one fence in competition—at the regional championships. Moments before we were called to start the cross-country run, a horse reared and fell over, knocking Tyke and me to the ground! Just as I finished checking if Tyke was alright, we were called to start. Off we cracked, flying over the first and second obstacles. Yet I still suffered butterflies from our fall and unthinkingly ran Tyke too fast at a demanding rail-coffin-rail obstacle. He balked, and I landed in the coffin. Twenty points plus time penalties dropped us from third to sixth place. Years later and under an owner who took him to the level of Prix St. George, Tyke made the cover of the US Dressage Foundation’s magazine. Talented fella.

When we bought Herba for the kids, we nicknamed her Reverse. If she didn’t want to do something, she simply shot backward. Fast. (She was the only horse to ever unseat Markus, meaning she made him a real horseman.) I rode her exclusively our first three months together to “bombproof” her; it worked. One time, I was out hacking my big black Irish horse, Bodhran, after dark. Celeste on Herba and a friend on an Arab rode alongside. Out of the darkness, a bobbing light came at us, a jogger wearing a headlamp. The Arab bolted, my dumb-dumb blindly following. Desperately worried about Celeste, I got Bodhran under control and back to Celeste on a staid Herba. “Where were you?” she asked. “Why did you run away?” Few horses can resist joining a bolting herd mate, but for Herba, Celeste’s safety had come first.

Bodhran was the dumbest horse I ever knew. Rearing with me once, he nearly flipped over backward, skewering me on a iron-rail fence. A white flower in the grass could send him bolting in a blind panic. God forbid, should he see his own shadow at night. Tiring of his headless bolting, I rode him to a steeply sloped field one day. I pointed him in the direction of home, which was heading downhill, and asked him to gallop. To plan, he bolted. I grabbed one rein short and pulled him ’round, so he found himself heading uphill. When he tried to stop, I urged him on. At the top of the field, he was lathered in sweat and plenty ready for the gentlest suggestion of whoa. That trick ended the bolting well and good. Not long afterward, I was heading home, Bodhran on the long rein, when some dude flying his remote-controlled plane decided it’d be fun to dive-bomb us. To my eternal surprise and relief, Bodhran didn’t flinch—no rearing, bucking, or bolting. Okay, I thought, let’s just turn this around. We picked up the gallop, and I aimed Bodhran at the idiot pilot. Seeing this big black Irish horse thundering his way, the wide-eyed pilot tossed his controller, abandoning his plane. He jumped into his car and roared off.

Weranja adored Markus and the kids. A dream jumper, she could be demanding under a dressage saddle. Out trail riding, you could race her to where she levitated, straighten your shoulders ever-so-slightly, and she’d be back in a gentle, rocking-chair canter. One time, the kids and I were galloping alongside a creek when Calvin gave a little cry. Weranja had bucked, popping him forward so that he sat on her neck just in front of the saddle. She abruptly stopped and dropped her head to graze, Calvin sliding down her neck and landing on his feet. A few months later, she repeated the trick with Celeste. The kids had gotten sloppy, allowing their legs to swing in the gallop, which Werjana detested. In the gentlest way, she taught my pair an invaluable lesson: keep your damn legs quiet!

Justin the big joker: one time, Markus and I took him and Weranja out for a walk, and Markus cut in front of Justin, who shoved his massive head between Markus’s legs, lifting him right off the ground! Justin loved being Celeste’s equestrian vaulting horse. He participated in her club’s spring training camp and its open-house event, introducing kids to the sport. At the end of the event, the kids lined up, nervously offering apples and carrots on outstretched palms. And Justin, acting like a king receiving tributes, allowed each child to pet his nose before he accepted their treats with grace. How bright his eyes shined.

I miss them all, even good ol’ dumb-dumb.

Nests

Our house is built on a slope. The kitchen and dining room windows overlook a school and its athletic fields, and a huge walnut tree grows between the playground and our yard. When the tree’s leafed out, and I stand on our terrace or at the dining room window, I feel as if I live in a treehouse. Walnut trees sleep in. They take forever to leaf out but are the first to drop their leaves in the fall. While every other crown within view—the hazelnut, plum, cherry, and dogwood—is greening this time of year, the walnut tree looks lifeless. And if you gaze upwards into its highest branches, you’ll spot a magpie’s nest.

View out the dining room window in mid-April, 2021.

Our bedroom window also faces the walnut tree. Several years ago, we were awakened in the night by the sounds of animal screeches and screams, a terrific battle between two creatures of different species. In the morning, I spotted a trail of blood and black and white feathers on our terrace. The culprits must have overtaken the brooding female. I knew who they were.

At the time, the poor magpie lost her life, European pine martens nested in our roof space. We had the roof redone that same year, and the workers came across a cache of mummies. It included rats, a hedgehog, a chicken, and the magpie. When we redid the siding, the workers found trails chewed through our insulation. The builder tied scent bundles at strategic points around the house to discourage the martens from returning, which have worked, thank god! No more martens galloping over our heads in an evening. It’s incredible how much noise such a tiny animal can make. You’d have thought they were all outfitted with tiny, bespoke clogs.

Under the roof, a scented bundle deters the European pine martens.

Our neighbor, who hadn’t heard the fight, was delighted to learn that the martens had carried off one of the magpies. Killers, she calls the birds (not that she likes the martens any better). She claims to have witnessed a magpie slicing open the throat of a songbird, aggressions I know starlings are capable of. I don’t mind the magpies, their crisp white and iridescent black plumage, and how playful they are as a couple.

That widowed magpie found another partner quite quickly. The following spring, the pair built a nest atop a pine tree I can see from the kitchen window. For several years, they nested in the pine tree. Last year, for some reason, the pair decided to move, rebuilding the walnut tree nest. They raised a family there without incident.

Dining room view once the walnut is happily leafed out.

Two weeks ago, I woke to screams equaling in volume to any rabid toddler’s tantrum and as lengthy as they were loud. Only as each tapered off, did the screams sound vaguely avian. One lead into another. After three or four, the decibels and duration began falling as if being lowered down a series of locks. When the screams stopped altogether, a dark silence followed.

I suspected martens to be involved in another attack, although I heard none of their usual predatory cries. “That’s it,” I thought, “they’ve got the female again.” My heart sank in pity for the male.

But the screaming started again and followed the same pattern in volume, duration and sad descent. A final, deathly silence reclaimed the night. And despite my heart aching for the pair, I fell back into a deep sleep.

At daybreak, I stood at the dining room window, peering up at the nest, now disheveled. A single magpie fluttered among the lower branches. When a pair of crows alighted beneath the tree, the surviving magpie chased them off. It treated several house sparrows with the same aggression, returned to the walnut tree’s branches, and pecked at one furiously. I read anger and despair into the behavior. Certainly grief.

Hours later, though, and with enormous relief, I spotted the second magpie sweeping by. As much as one partner seemed to be guarding the tree, the other seemed to be avoiding it. The second bird flittered from the playground to the pine tree and onto one of the floodlights of the sports fields. A day later, both were gone. Several days before they returned, and I don’t see them as often as I did before the night screams. The nest remains derelict, and one bird remains protective of the walnut tree while the other avoids it.

We all want to live in safety, to mitigate as much danger as possible. But when lethal forces breach our neighborhoods, homes, and sense of security, we scream, flee, lash out in despair and grief. In the case of martens and magpies, it’s clear what underlies the struggles between the two species, the need for sustenance versus the need to procreate. The need to survive.

With us, the biggest threat or act of violence we’re likely to suffer is intraspecific. What underlies this phenomenon? And what would it take to replace lessons in proliferating conflict with those supporting communion, dignity, and respect?

Engineers

Several years ago, I worked for a machine manufacturing company owned by an Italian holding company (owned by a woman). Mr. C–, a man from a famous Milanese family with ties to the House of Grimaldi, headed the holding company. At a Christmas dinner one year, my husband and I were seated at Mr. C–’s table. Small talk fluttered around television shows, and Mr. C– said, “Why so many police and doctor shows?” He turned to his wife. “Engineers are just as sexy, aren’t we, darling?” Mrs. C– patted her husband’s forearm and said, “Engineers are boring, dear.” We all laughed. Mr. C–, in true boss fashion, laughed the boldest.

At a company dinner party.

Surely a program about engineers could captivate an audience. Imagine a diverse team of sexy engineers, an Asian woman, a West African man, and a South American gent of indigenous and European ancestry. A pharmaceutical company’s late-stage-customization packaging line is down. Vaccine end-users depend on production and logistics adhering to tight schedules. Actually, life on earth depends on the team getting a malfunctioning printing unit operating 24/7 again. Hear the clock ticking? Now, add in complications: the team must work in clean conditions, but the Asian woman is an amateur equestrian, and she’s been exposed to an unknown pathogen at the luxury stable where she boards a gorgeous black Trakehner stallion; the South American’s running shoe has a bit of dog poo on it—in his rush to make his flight, he laced on the compromised shoes. And our West African engineer has the jitters. En route to the crippled manufacturing plant—in a hot and steamy location—his dear mother’s messaging about his cousin’s engagement to a surgeon. “When,” she asks, “are you planning to settle down with a lovely young lady, preferably a doctor or lawyer?” Not anytime soon, groan. He’s in love with the long-distance runner (that long black glossy hair! Those broad shoulders!) Tricky repairs and tight conditions in situ give our love angel the sweats, especially when the runner shares a secret. He’s in love with the equestrian (who, we learn, loves animals more than people).

Our team is turning to excessive energy drink consumption.

Sounds like a hit, right?

My dad studied chemical engineering. Fresh out of college, he worked for a petroleum company, a job he hated. “I never got to do the work I loved,” he explained. “I managed people.” He decided flying planes better suited him and joined the air force. A man in uniform, he wooed my mom.

When I was a toddler, Dad returned to school, doing his graduate work in industrial engineering. The air force then put him to work in procurement.

On the campus of Dad’s alma mater, Texas Tech, 1963.

At forty-five, Dad retired from military service, joined a civilian company, and moved into contracts and negotiations. (The math geek also knew his grammar. His dad, a journalist and editor, came from a family that had owned small-town newspapers and a printing company.) I recall a time Dad thrilled at having saved his company “millions” by using precise contract language. “Their lawyers tried cracking our terms and failed!” Dad would have chuckled over an employee dispute that made the news recently. Due to a missing comma, a company had to pay out on its employment contracts.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Dad memories. Working on a DIY assignment from Mom, he measured a 2 x 4 to cut into lengths. “Ah, hah,” he said, tucking his pencil behind his ear. He stared at the board, nodded to himself, and reached for the pencil again. At the top of the board, he scribbled out a mathematical equation. He scratched his head with the eraser and scribbled more. “Right, right,” he kept saying to himself. Soon, equations covered the 2–meter length of the board. He straightened, stepped back, and smiled. “Well, well,” he said to me, “the old engineer’s still got it!”

He then cut the board into the wrong lengths.

Pockets

The other day, I was tidying up our bedroom and came across a brown wool cardigan my late mother-in-law had knitted for her husband. For some reason, she ended up wearing the cardigan herself. It doesn’t button up and it has two pockets. I remember her wearing it around the house frequently. When she passed away, my father-in-law took to wearing the cardigan himself around the house and in the garden. It held up well. When he passed away, the cardigan came to me.

I’m surprised I still have it, actually. I’m surprised none of the kids have taken possession of it. I can imagine one of my daughters treasuring it—possibly even my son. There’s a small hole in the right arm. I can imagine it got snagged on one of my father-in-law’s roses. He had one planted in the garden that he’d taken from his childhood home; the original rose had belonged to his mother. He always talked with a great deal of love for his mother. I never met her. Sadly, she died when my husband was a teen.

My father-in-law kept a small watercolor hanging behind his desk of a cavalry soldier astride a handsome horse. “I had a horse like that, once, when I was in the military,” he told me. An Oldenburg, a German warmblood originally bred as carriage horses, they often had long legs and arching, high-set necks, perked ears and great intelligence. When off duty, the soldiers took their army horses home, and my young father-in-law did so with pride. He considered himself very lucky to have received such a fine mount. His father admired the handsome horse—but required that it earn its keep on the farm.

One day in late summer, while my young father-in-law attended school, the horse was hitched to a wagon used for the potato harvest and taken out into the fields. The elegant warmblood detested horseflies, and when one bit him, he bolted. Across the field, down the road, and through the cobblestone center of Zofingen, the horse galloped. I picture the wagon careening dangerously behind him—its load of potatoes long scattered. It ran until it either exhausted its fear or energy.

My father-in-law’s father wasn’t amused by the incident—luckily no one was injured. “I returned the horse to command the very next day,” my father-in-law told me, shaking his head. Most of us have known what it’s like to hold something we prize and admire only to have it slip away.

This morning, I put on that brown cardigan, and when my hands went into the pockets, my fingers found an ironed and folded handkerchief. It’d belonged to my mother-in-law who’s been gone nearly 20 years, now. She always carried a handkerchief—kept a stack of them in a cabinet by the dining table. How many years did my father-in-law wear this cardigan, finger the handkerchief as I’m doing, now?

It’s a little bit of heartache, missing my in-laws. Fine people. Fine pockets of memories.

Spiegelei

The Swiss signage for a priority road is a diamond with a thick white border and canary yellow center. When the kids were little, they’d see one and shout, “Spiegelei!”—fried egg in German. Collect the most fried eggs on the drive from A to B, and you win!

Spiegelei!”

I first learned to drive at the age of fourteen. Living in the country—we’d moved to Oregon after my dad retired from the air force—meant I qualified for a learner’s permit. Pass a written test, and I could drive in the company of a licensed adult. My brother was off at college, my sister never around, and Mom and Dad tired of being my driving buddy; soon, I journeyed solo. When I turned sixteen, I could have taken the full drivers exam, but driving course classmates told intimidating stories about malicious examiners. I dawdled. The summer before I left for college, though, Dad was doing insurance paperwork and asked for my license number. I brought him my expired permit, and he paled.

I funked my first driving test by failing to stop at train rails embedded in the street, remnants of an industrial spur that’d been abandoned circa WWII—or was that WWI? To either side of the pavement, not even gravel remained of the old spur. “If I’d stopped,” I argued with the examiner, “the driver behind us might have plowed right into my backend.” The same man failed my second attempt. We were stopped at a traffic light when an ambulance approached. Left of me was a traffic island; right of me, a column of cars. The examiner said I hadn’t “pulled over to allow the ambulance room to pass.” Seriously? On my third attempt, my nerves spiked higher than a cat’s back: I didn’t want the same examiner. I got lucky, even receiving praise for my driving skills. But oh, how my family teased me.

In 1990, I moved to Switzerland. Since I had a valid US license, the canton of Aargau issued me an Ausweis. Legal to drive, I hopped into our Opel, and off I went. Markus and I never went over any rules of the road or signage possibly alien to me, including the European concept of priority roads.

Five years later, we lived on the Île-de-France and Normandy border west of Paris. At a T-intersection one day, a driver turning left cut across my lane. I slammed on my brakes. Luckily, no kids were with me. I complained to Markus about the weird intersection, drivers frequently honking at me there. He paled and said, “Take me to it.”

A fried egg and its vital cousin.

Well, I learned about the fried egg and its vital cousin with the bold black line, informing me when I did or didn’t have priority. All those drivers honking at me? They’d been on the priority road and I should have céder le passage.

Rights of way might not always appear logical. It’s best to understand the signage.