Emerging from the chrysalis—a month and a half ofcoronavirus lockdown and spine surgery recovery—it feels like a brand new day. In Sonoma County residents are now allowed to walk or bike (but not drive) to a park. Keep your mask on.
I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to sit in one place and concentrate on anything for any length of time. I always knew I had a very short attention span. Holly thinks maybe I have undiagnosed ADHD. Anyway being flat on my back and having to concentrate on recovery from surgery has helped me if not to focus better at least to understand my problem better. I was pretty happy listening to novels especially when I was in the first stage of recovery and could barely get in and out of bed. As I recovered I felt more and more like multitasking, as if I actually could pick up my iPad and read Facebook posts while I’m listening to a book. Not! I can work on a jigsaw puzzle and listen to a book at the same time. Holly says that’s because you’re using different parts of the brain. Don’t try do two tasks that require words at the same time.
So I have been trying to practice doing one thing at a time. Then, reading the Audubon newsletter, I learned about bird sitting. It’s easy. You just sit and listen and watch and use all your senses to experience birds. I expanded this concept to pollinators. Bee sitting.
One sunny April day after I was able to walk around and sit outside in a zero gravity chair, I spent an hour or so just watching pollinators. The air was full of flying and floating things. Filaments of spider web, falling blossoms, puffs of seeds and insects moved through the air in the soft breeze. Honeybees populated the orange and the apple tree. The native bees went for the native plants. Bee segregation! Our pollinator garden starts blooming early. The native carpenter bees and bumblebees especially love the red salvia. And there are all these other little pollinators that may or may not be bees, the kind that fly in squares turning quickly at right angles, the tiny gnats that circle endlessly around each other. I was surprised at how many bugs I couldn’t identify.
Two years ago we had a great population of carpenter bees. The females are big and shiny black, the males smaller with a smidge of yellow. A tub full of purple flowers bloomed near where I like to sit on the patio and my purple hair was constantly being dive-bombed by purple-loving bees. Then last year the bee population declined. I saw one maybe two carpenter bees and we began to wonder if they had been living in the old original redwood fence from 1948 that we had replaced the year before. My brother Don told me that when they remodeled their house in Olympia they destroyed the carpenter bees’ home in the exterior trim on their building. That year and some years after their apple orchard did not get pollinated and had no apples. So I’m delighted that the carpenter bees have returned.
I plan to celebrate Beltane bee sitting.
Sending virtual hugs to you all. Take care of yourselves.
Continuing the story of my spine surgery. This might be TMI for some. For the first chapters, go to my previous post.
Screws and plates
I checked into Oakland Kaiser March 12 and was in the hospital two nights. I got good care but hospital personnel seemed like they were trying hard to look calm and relaxed when covid-19 had become the focus. Two covid patients were already there in isolation. Staff were flustered and distracted and their assignments changed continually. Some wore masks, but most did not. Our floor of the hospital was emptying out. I might have been the last elective surgery, just under the wire. We couldn’t wait to get out of there.
The nadir of the whole surgery experience was the hour-long drive back home from Oakland to Santa Rosa. In excruciating pain, I got overly familiar with every damn bump in the highway. What a relief to lie (carefully) down in my own bed!
I Love My Wife
Working construction when you come home after work so tired that all you can do is throw some food in your mouth and go to bed, we tradeswomen often wished for wives like our male coworkers had. We all needed a wife. Well I now have a wife and I can tell you that it’s just as great as I imagined, especially when you’re laid up after surgery. My wife Holly was chief nurse, cook and bandage changer while I recovered. When I first got home from the hospital just getting in and out of bed was a painful chore. I needed help to do everything. What would I have done without my wife? I began to think about what people do when they don’t have a partner to care for them in situations like this. If you have money you hire someone. I would’ve had to hire someone to be here 24 hours a day, at least at the beginning. Holly, sleeping in the guest room, woke up in the middle of the night to check on me and give me pain drugs. Or maybe the hospital would have sent me to rehab or to a nursing home. We have a friend who, after she suffered an injury, is now stuck in a nursing home that is locked down. And Holly‘s mom is locked down at her assisted living place in Windsor. No visitors allowed. I feel thankful and lucky.
Did Rush Ever Shit?
During the time he was addicted to opioids and was caught buying them on the black market, did Rush Limbaugh ever have a shit? Perhaps he was literally full of shit. This is what I couldn’t help thinking as I faced my own opioid crisis. I just don’t understand what people see in these drugs. They didn’t get me high and they totally fuck with my digestive system. I couldn’t wait to get free. In the meantime I resorted to disgusting and painful methods of evacuation which I will not go into. You can imagine.
Recovery has been like baby steps. You mark every significant newly gained ability. I can reach up to put food in the microwave. Yay! I can bow my head to look at the computer screen. Yay! I can carry five pounds. Yay! I walked a half-mile neighborhood loop up and down hills. Yay! Now lately I have been able to do a bit of cooking and Holly’s telling me she appreciated the several weeks when I was not leaving messes in the kitchen. Most recently I tried cooking rice pudding with some 2% milk that had been substituted for half-and-half by our Instacart shopper. I guess some people think there’s no difference? Anyway it turned out fine except, while I was resting, it burned the bottom of two pans. Milk is a binder, once used in paint, and my brother said that in his activist days they used evaporated milk for postering. You can never get it off, he said. Stuck milk sucks! So at least for the time being I’ve ceded most of the cooking back to Holly.
The first week of April I put my shoes on to go out for a walk, looked down at Holly and said “I feel taller!” Looking up at me she said “You’re right. Alice, what was in that bottle you drank?”
A month after the surgery Holly drove us back to Kaiser Oakland to get my stitches taken out and to let a physicians assistant, Jose, have a look at the incision on the back of my neck. Protocol had changed since we were there for the surgery and when we tried to walk in the door we were met by a phalanx of workers in protective gear. Holly was told she couldn’t come with me; she waited in the car. I had to get a special pass and then sanitize my hands before they let me in. There had been two coronavirus patients in isolation in the hospital when we were there for the surgery. Now there were 12.
The receptionist at the spine surgery desk confessed that he was bored. Kaiser was dead. All elective surgeries (the most lucrative procedures for hospitals) had been canceled and he was trying to find ways to look busy.
Jose looked terrible. A loquacious guy who sometimes is a little too cheerful for me, he was very glum. I asked him if something was wrong and he said he just had a death in the family. Oh dear.
Am I really taller? And why am I dizzy?
Jose explained that there is a part of my brain that makes and regulates spinal fluid and because my spinal fluid has been so cut off for so long it’s having to readjust. That can make you dizzy and it might be six months before things get back to normal. Also he said your spine is kind of like a spring. I guess they sprung it. He implied that might create more height. Anyhow I am delighted by this side effect. I’ve been losing height as my spine compresses and osteoporosis has its way. I used to be 5‘8“ and the last time I was measured I was only 5 foot 5 1/2 inches. Perhaps I’ve regained a half inch!
In which I Encounter a Wizard at Kaiser Oakland
Before leaving the hospital I was directed to the lab to have blood drawn. Themasked phlebotomist was an older black man with a gray beard andstylish glasses with filigreed hinges. He settled me in the chair, looked me in the eye and said, “You know a squirrel.” I said, “Why yes I do. There’s a squirrel outside my window that entertains me endlessly. What kind of sixth sense do you have?” He said he didn’t know exactly but that he was particularly prescient with pregnant women. He could tell what the physical traits of their babies would be. He told me about one woman who came back in after the birth and told him that he had correctly identified everything about her baby including that she had eyes of two different colors.
They tell me it takes six weeks to recover, (but a year for the bones to knit fully) and so I have less than two weeks to go. Then I’ll join the rest of you—bored in lockdown.
My regular pagan holiday post comes in the form of a (late) diary. Here are the first four entries.
March 30, 2020
In what might be seen as supremely good timing, considering the pandemic lockdown, I have spent the spring equinox (March 19) and the advent of this new season recovering from spine surgery. Now at the end of March I’m still mostly lying in bed flat on my back so I am speaking into my phone to tell you the story. I’m thinking installments.
I was scheduled for the surgery on March 12 at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. The surgeon was the same one who worked on me three years ago when I had surgery on my lower spine, Timothy Huang.
My deteriorated cervical spine
The MRI. My spinal cord was being strangled
Good friends know that I have been complaining about pain in my right arm for years now. According to the actuarial tables I can expect to live to be 82, twelve more years. The prospect of living with worsening pain was depressing and prompted me to seek relief. After years of pain killers (we call ibuprofen vitamin I around our house) I finally got Kaiser to give me an MRI. The expression on the doctor’s face when she saw the picture disturbed me. Even I could see that my spinal cord was being crushed by deteriorating bones in my neck. The doctor said “Don’t fall down. Trauma could result in paralysis.” I began to consider what life might be like as a quadriplegic.
My cervical spine was a mess. Nerves were being pinched, my spinal cord was permanently damaged, vertebrae four through seven are worn down to the bone. I was told it could only get worse not better. So surgery was a no brainer. Oh I looked forward to it.
Including photos from our backyard garden, my savior during this recovery/pandemic period.
April 2, 2020
It’s April now and I’m feeling better three weeks after my surgery. I’m still spending quite a bit of time lying on my back but I’ve been getting up and around a lot more.
Here’s the next chapter of my surgery story.
Holly and I went to a pre-op meeting with the surgeon about a week before the scheduled surgery. We drove to Oakland Kaiser looking forward to hearing what they were planning to do to me.
I was tested and found to have a good strength and reflexes. My worst symptom was the pain in my right arm and hand. We looked at the MRI together and the surgeon said “This won’t get better; it will only get worse.” He said it wasn’t the result of a particular injury, just long term wear and tear. I thought of all those hours spent working over my head looking up at light fixtures as an electrician.
We learned that spinal cord tissue is less resilient than nerve tissue. The most pressing problem was not the nerve pain in my arm but the compression of my spinal cord, even though that was not as painful. He recommended first tackling the spinal cord compression. To do that they would open the back of my neck, cut the vertebrae, crack them open and screw small plates in. That gives the spinal cord more room. He said this surgery might not feel like a big improvement. It’s more to hold the decline. The basic surgery is called laminoplasty, essentially decompression.
To repair the nerve damage that creates pain in my arm he said they would have to go in from the front of my neck. Sometimes they do both operations all at once but they would like to do just the back, wait six months and see how much improvement there is before surgery from the front, which is much more risky.
Why hadn’t I felt more pain in my neck I wondered. The surgeon said that because the deterioration had been gradual over time my body just got used to it. Also we know that I have a high tolerance for pain. I guess this is a good thing.
The surgery was a week away and I was glad that we’d been able to get an appointment so soon. I wanted to get it over with.
April 5, 2020
It’s been nearly four weeks since my spine surgery and I’m feeling ever so much better. I still spend many hours lying on my back listening to podcasts and novels on my phone, but I’ve been sitting up more, taking little walks and sitting in the sun in the garden. I’m not ready yet to be a planter. Holly is doing that. But I actually pulled some weeds yesterday. Like three weeds. Still it felt like one small step for woman.
Not yet up to gardening but I can watch my wife
Wearing my “cone of shame”
Here’s chapter three of my surgery story.
Our Oakland Adventure. March 11, 2020.
We planned to drive to Oakland the day before my surgery. Holly had reserved a motel room near Kaiser hospital where she could stay while I was recovering. I would be staying in the hospital for at least a couple of nights so Holly would have a place to park and a real bed within walking distance.
We thought we would probably have to be at the hospital at 6 AM. Isn’t that always the way it goes? But we found out the day before that we wouldn’t have to arrive till noon the day of surgery so we would have 24 hours in Oakland California. Just like in one of those travel magazines. In this case we would just experience the half mile around the Kaiser hospital. I resolved to be a tourist.
By this time the coronavirus was here in the Bay Area and we all knew it but there wasn’t a lockdown yet and, while some people were wearing masks on the street, most of us were not. We were just anxious. I had already been sheltering in place for the past month because I didn’t want to get any virus that would compromise my surgery.
We ate dinner that night at a newish Mexican place just up from Kaiser on Piedmont Avenue, the upscale walking and shopping street. We tried to social distance by sitting in the outdoor patio area. It would be my last meal in a restaurant for weeks, maybe months (maybe years?).
At the corner of Piedmont and MacArthur waiting for the light to change a young Chinese man asked us a question. We didn’t understand and so had him repeat it.
“Are you lesbians?”
“Yes,” we said, a little surprised at the bold question.
Then he explained by telling a story about his grandmother and something about style or fashion.
“Is your grandmother a lesbian?”
No that wasn’t it. He smiled politely. We decided his grandmother likes lesbian fashion and style. She must be about our age—old. I imagined she must be in China. He knew English but his accent was so thick we couldn’t understand. We smiled as we parted, amused at our flannel shirt fashion plate status.
Kaiser hospital sits at the confluence of Broadway, MacArthur and Piedmont streets, a dividing line between two very different neighborhoods.
I have spent a lot of time on Piedmont Avenue because I often visit my friend Pat who lives near there. But I have never spent time on the MacArthur side. Our motel on MacArthur was only half a mile west of the hospital but a world apart from Piedmont on the east side with its restaurants, shops, movie theater, and sidewalks packed with pedestrians.
Wide, commercial MacArthur had been known as a haven for hookers, and while we didn’t see a single hooker, we soon realized our hotel had been part of that scene. We could see it had undergone a recent renovation with new paint. But check-in was accomplished through a barred window.
Our room had a new paint job and the bed was perfectly comfortable. Yet the barred windows didn’t open. And we could see that the door had suffered a break-in. The card lock was secured on the inside with electrical tape. I tried to imagine what had prompted breaking down the door. Had someone died in there?
In the morning there was no coffee in the lobby. No lobby. We hiked the half-mile to the closest coffee shop, a Starbucks in the hospital, where we watched a diverse population of hospital workers come and go, start their shifts. Oakland Kaiser seemed endlessly interesting and we would get to know some of the staff in the coming days.
April 9, 2020
I can’t believe I’m on chapter 4 and I haven’t even gotten to the surgery yet. But this is it!
Many of the nurses at Kaiser were men. And the guy who was my pre-op nurse told me he had worked as an ironworker before studying to be a nurse. He worked in San Francisco, he said, before OSHA made you tie off when you walked on those big I-beams. Yeah, I thought. Working without safety measures. It’s a dick thing. Anyway I got all excited because he was a construction worker brother. I told him I had worked construction and I told him about the new ironworker union‘s pregnancy leave policy which we tradeswomen are all very proud of. That didn’t interest him and he showed his hand when he said, “Women were given all the easy jobs.” I told the story to another construction worker friend of mine, a sprinkler fitter, and she said, “Hell there are no easy jobs in the ironworkers. They’re all hard. That’s one of the hardest trades there is.” She had worked on some construction jobs with our friend Fran Kraus, one of the first women ironworkers. Fran was assigned to place and weld steel stairs, a job that requires smarts and precise planning. Few of the men were capable and that’s why they gave the job to Fran. Maybe they thought it was easy, but it was not. And I thought of a few women ironworkers I know who worked in San Francisco. None of them would’ve wanted easy work. It was bullshit, but I think typical of the prejudicial thinking of our male coworkers. Sigh.
I’d had my hair shaved into a cool newfangled cut right before I went into surgery but it wasn’t short enough. A woman came in to cut the back of my hair even shorter and she did a pretty good job. She shaved it right across the back from ear to ear and so now I have an even cooler haircut. Then I got the blue net over my head.
The surgery room was shining bright, full of stainless steel. Five or six gowned workers, including the surgeon Tim Huang, surrounded me with smiling faces. Whenever they come in to give you medication or do anything nurses and doctors always ask you your name and your birthdate. Well I can remember that but when they wheeled me into surgery they asked me my name, my birthdate and what operation I was getting. I was flummoxed. I have not even tried to memorize the medical description of my surgery. I said “neck” and they said that was good enough. And after that I don’t remember anything more.
Here is what the written operative procedures said: Cervical laminoplasty, 3 or more levels; Cervical posterior instrumentation, 2-5 levels; Cervical far lateral discectomy or foraminotomy, 2 levels; Cervical laminectomy for decompression, 2 levels. Now why wasn’t I able to remember that?
I forgot to post my regular pagan holiday greeting and here it is almost spring equinox! Since I wrote this, buds have broken in Santa Rosa. Our mini fruit orchard is at the end of its bloom and we’re seeing a few pollinators buzzing the yard. Goldfinches are chattering melodiously and a few other birds visit as well. Nature touches us with a tinge of hope. Sending virtual hugs (because, Coronavirus pandemic. Sigh.) –Molly
If you celebrate the Lunar new year, happy new year! It just occurred to me that I first learned about Tet from the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive, launched in the wee hours of Jan. 30, 1968, against the American invaders is what I think of when I think of Tet. How sad. Forever associating the Vietnamese new year holiday with war is a curse of my generation.
Here in Santa Rosa Holly and I are celebrating the pagan holiday of Imbolc on February 1. To me Imbolc marks the start of spring (even though it’s technically still winter) and the most beautiful season here. Hillsides have turned a hallucinogenic green, like the artist had only one color left in her palette. Today is sunny and 60 degrees. I can see that the sweet peas I planted in December are sprouting and the greens are producing tender new leaves. The artichokes have spread their giant gray-green leaves out into the garden and a black-eyed susan planted last spring still flowers. Poppies and bulbs are sprouting up all over. The neighbor’s lemon is full of bright yellow fruit but our orange has a smaller crop this year. I’m continually amazed that these citrus trees can thrive in this climate. But it’s only gotten down below freezing a couple of times this winter, and not for long. We’ve had plenty of rain this season but only one atmospheric river.
On Imbolc we shall ceremoniously mount the bird house on its pole (we took it down last fall after rats started nesting there). Last year we watched titmice (they are little gray birds) fledge from the house and we hope the parent pair will return again. We love watching birds though our picture window but this winter there are many fewer birds than last year.
This is very disturbing to us. What has caused the drastic decrease in bird activity? Are there more bird-killing cats in the neighborhood? (friends, please keep your cats indoors. They are the number one enemy of wild bird populations). No doubt climate change plays a role. Another factor might be the death of the mature sycamore tree in our neighbor’s yard. The backyard house, which had a reputation as a drug house, was condemned, remodeled and sold to a new owner who promptly cut down the huge tree. We thought perhaps the insurance company required it, a frequent demand now in fire country. But we learned that wasn’t the reason. According to neighbors the tree was in bad shape (although it looked good from our yard). The drug-addled previous owner had used it for target practice. Yikes! The removal of the tree, along with all the living things on and in it, saddened us. The Western Sycamore, Platanus racemosa is native to California and we felt it belonged here in our neighborhood.
January saw us down at Courthouse Square for the Women’s March (smaller this year) and the impeachment rally. Plenty of people in Sonoma County have political anger issues. I’ve been writing postcards to voters all over the country at local postcard writing parties hosted by a few activist women. This at least makes us feel better and provides a sense of community with like-minded folks. We resist the onset of fascism any way we can. If there is an Imbolc goddess I implore her to help us now.
It’s been a long time since I celebrated the christian holiday of christmas. And from the looks of me in a whole series of family pictures, I hated the holiday even as a little kid.
My little brother Don and littler brothers Tim and Terry are always smiling, especially Don who was an adorable child (now old and still adorable). Why was I so glum? I wasn’t a pouty kid in any other pictures.
Clearly I was never a fan of christmas, but even less so after I left home and developed a critique of capitalism and christianity. I hated the consumer aspect but also the religious stuff. I joined theChurch of Stop Shopping, led by the charismatic Rev. Billy with backupby the incomparable Stop Shopping Choir protesting at malls on black Friday. I still avoid shopping after September (it gets earlier every year) because I can’t stand the holidaymusic played in stores.
In college, researching the history of religions, we learnedthat christians had stolen their holidays from pagans and those who had gone before. Christmas co-opted pagan solstice celebrations. They even stole the virgin birth thing. Why not recapture our history; there were so many ancient solstice traditions to choose from!
In the early ‘70s, we dissidents at the Rosa Luxemburg Collective chose to celebrate the Roman winter solstice holiday of Saturnalia. It was essentially a great big party. Traditional roles were reversed. Masters served slaves. Men dressed in women’s clothes and women in men’s. All were setfree of their marriage obligations and could have sex with anyone they wanted. The festivities lasted for a couple of weeks at least (no research here; just remembering). Of course, we had already dispensed with gender roles and monogamy so the holiday was really just a continuation of our chosen lifestyle. We cooked sumptuous feasts and ate a lot. We set up an aluminum tree with rotating colored lights in the Vulgar Americana Room. It stayed up all year.
Lately Holly and I have been adding to and making up our own traditions. They change every year because we tend to forget our brilliant ideas from the year before, but for many years now we have been celebrating what we call the Twelve Days of Solstice. The holiday starts on solstice, which this year is December 21, and ends on New Year’s Day.
We incorporate pagan rituals and customs—greenery and garlands, feasting and lights. Solstice signifies the return of light in the Northern Hemisphere, important to our animistic ancestors who worshipped nature. My Swedish grandmother set in her window a brightly painted wooden candelabra which looked very much like a menorah. Her decorations were figures of reindeer and elves made of straw. She made tree ornaments of fat candy canes wrapped in red and white tissue paper. And I still have the slender santa and elf figures that she hand knit and brought out every year.
This year we added some days to the holiday since the fullmoon appeared on Friday the 13th of December, an especially witchy occurrence. How did we celebrate? We planted winter greens and bulbs in the garden. We made apologies to our mother earth for what our species has wrought. We donated to the porta-potty fund for the homeless here. I archived some papers, an ongoing project. From the hot tub I watched the moon rise twice from behind cloud banks. We toasted our good fortune. And then, with Holly’s reminder that winter is for hibernating, we settled down for a long winter’s nap.
Wishing you a good solstice or as the Swedes say god yul.
One thing I love about living in Santa Rosa is seasons! Our garden still flourishes and flowers bloom, but one day in August, we could suddenly see that the height of summer was over and summertime had begun falling down. And now it’s the autumn equinox. Called Mabon by the Wiccans, the fall equinox marked the second harvest festival to the Celts. Day and night are of equal length and now dark will lengthen till the winter solstice when the light will start to gain again.
I don’t know exactly what the Celts harvested at the second harvest but here in Sonoma County September is the month of grapes and figs, and of course cannabis. Last year at the Heirloom Expo we drooled over a slew of fig tree species. I had grown figs in San Francisco but the one time a lovely Mission fig finally ripened a raccoon got to it before I could harvest, and broke the whole branch off in the process. That was it for me. That winter I dug out the entire plant. San Francisco’s foggy cool summers just don’t go with figs, although I did see some happy trees there, just not in my backyard. But figs love it here! So this spring we planted one. It’s called a Celestial, a small, rosy sweet fig, and we ate the first one in August. Also our neighbors T and JJ have a mature fig tree and I’ve been making myself sick on them. There’s nothing like a ripe fig perhaps eaten with a slice of local sheep’s milk cheese.
This is not an indictment of San Francisco weather (except when you’re freezing your ass off in the cold wind and fog waiting in line at the gay film festival in June!). I gardened in the same Bernal Heights yard for 38 years. There are some plants that thrive there. Nasturtiums! One year they took over the whole yard. I bought local gardener Pam Peirce’s books, learned about micro climates and the secret season that we didn’t have in my hometown of Yakima, Washington. I became friends with Pam and visited her abundant Excelsior back yard garden. But early on I gave up tomatoes and embraced flowers. Bernal Heights is just up the hill from the Alemany Farmers’ Market where every Saturday I could find seasonal organic produce. Why kill myself fighting shade and fog to grow some tortured veggies?
But tomatoes love the hot summers here. We are still harvesting tomatoes but it wasn’t like last year when we had to give bagsful away to neighbors. One plant suddenly died and gardener friends suggested gophers were eating the roots. Yikes! We had been happily gopher free. But I figured out the problem. I had watered the plant with a hose that had been sitting out in the hundred degree heat. I boiled the roots to death!
I didn’t make it to the climate march September 20. But I did eschew the car and take public transportation to Tradeswomen Inc.’s 40th anniversary celebration in Oakland where I got to commune with 400 tradeswomen. Then on Saturday night I took the Lamplight Tour of Santa Rosa’s historic rural cemetery. It’s a phenomenal production requiring the work of 120 volunteers who wrote, performed and organized eight vignettes about local history. We learned about the influence of the KKK in Sonoma County in the 1920s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Jack London’s story about a local miner and more. Something tells me I’ll get sucked into working with this group of citizens interested in local history.
And next week I’ll travel to Minneapolis for the Women Build Nations national tradeswomen conference where history will also be a focus of discussion. A lot of us old timers realize we need to be recording it now before dementia sets in. Along with Brigid O’Farrell I’ll be leading the writers workshop. Methinks a book is in the offing.
The noises started in late spring, sort of an irregular popping sound, occasionally loud enough to wake us at night. It sounded like someone was bouncing tennis balls off the fence in back. What were the raccoons up to? It couldn’t be the opossums. One lumbered along the fence every evening as night fell. But she was quiet as she moved to another yard.
It took a few weeks before we figured out the noise was made by apples falling from our side yard neighbor’s tree. It just got louder as the little green apples grew larger, thudding onto the garden pavers, banging onto the metal shed roof. When the tree leafed out last spring, Holly was delighted to find it’s a Gravenstein, the apple of her youth. Grandpa warned Holly and her sister not to eat the unripe apples. “They’ll make you sick.” But they just couldn’t wait. They ate them and liked them and never got sick. Grandma would make apple sauce for every dinner during apple season.
I come from apple country too, in Yakima, Washington. But we didn’t grow Gravensteins, which ripen earlier and don’t require the cold nights up north. Our Macintoshes and Red Delicious apples ripened in October and in my day school was let out so kids could help their families with the harvest. To me there is nothing like the taste of a ripe Red Delicious picked right off the tree. I never tasted a Gravenstein until I moved to California.
The iconic apple of Sonoma County was brought to the continent by Russian fur traders. It is said they planted the first tree in 1811 at Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast. Gravensteins ripen in July and August here. The tart fruit doesn’t last long and must be processed or eaten quickly. This year we had a bumper crop. Branches grew far over into our yard so that we had to duck under on our way to the recycling bins.
By the third week of July the emerging red stripes on the green fruit told us they were ripe. Fortuitously Holly’s cousin Kerri is an apple aficionado. She lives in Roseville and travels to Santa Rosa annually to buy a lug of Gravensteins for pies. Her method is to process them all at once, coring, slicing, sugaring enough for each pie (seven cups of apples) and then freezing in plastic bags for the making of pies and crisps all year long.
Just as the apples ripened we were lucky to be visited by Kerri and her apple coring machine. She came with all the ingredients for making pies—sugar, cinnamon, flour, crisco. Holly’s sister Diana was here too, from San Diego.
Our first chore was to pick the fruit, reliving our childhoods. We gingerly climbed the six-foot ladder, each taking a turn and being especially careful. We were sobered by the recent death of a friend, Chris Jones, who fell from a ladder while hanging a gay pride flag in his yard in San Francisco.
Then we set up an assembly line, coring, slicing and sugaring. What music goes with apples? We chose Lady Gaga. You can dance and core at the same time. Then Kerri made three pies. One we gave to the neighbor, whose apple tree it is. The two others we ate with gusto. And we still have ingredients for many more pies in the freezer. Then Holly and I cut up the remaining small apples and made four quarts of apple sauce.
And that’s how we celebrated the cross-quarter pagan harvest festival. Called Lughnasa by the Celts and Lammas by the Anglo-Saxons, it’s one pagan festival not appropriated by christians. The first of three Celtic harvest fests, Lughnasa is celebrated on August 1 or 2, about mid-way between summer solstice and autumn equinox. But, as with the other pagan holidays, we extend festivities for as long as we like. We will continue to celebrate the apple harvest at the Gravenstein Apple Fair this year in August 17 and 18 in Sebastopol.