susan d abello

Painting pictures with words, sharing vignettes of a colorful life.

Outward Bound

On a cold and moon bathed night while attempting to hike through a snowy pass in the Colorado Rockies, sometime between midnight and sunrise, I experienced both the depths of despair and the heights of elation. Hip deep in snow with a seventy-pound pack on my back, I found myself doubting my ability to move ahead. The gravity of my situation seemed almost pathetic to me. Only one month earlier, hadn’t I been sitting safely in my Connecticut home feeling as though my life was speeding by and I hadn’t lived it yet? Hadn’t I complained to anyone who would listen that I had no direction? Who could have guessed that within a few weeks, that direction would be so obvious; to get out of the hole I was in, or die trying. It was that simple.

Back at home; before I signed up for this life and death moment, I had been coping with the fact that the guy I lived with for three years had left me for a woman who he said was, “more interesting.” That was over a year ago and still, each and every morning as I awoke, I felt the hollow ache of loneliness in my gut. I decided that it was time to take drastic measures. It was time to become interesting, so I signed up to do something I never would have done before. I would risk my life in the Colorado Rockies in the Outward Bound month long survival training program. Without thinking twice I sent my check, bought my gear, even though I didn’t know what half of it was used for, and flew out to the mountains. How hard could it be to be interesting?

Holding my ice axe with hands that burned with the beginnings of frostbite, I pierced the ice in front of me so that I could pull my numb and exhausted body out of the hole, only to find that the weight of me would collapse into the snow once again just three feet ahead. This was my progress that morning. Sweating in the frozen air, struggling to keep myself in a positive frame of mind, I had only hours to make it through the mountain pass before the temperatures rose and the chance of avalanche increased dramatically.

I remembered that my Outward Bound Instructor had said, “It’s a matter of will power; your body will do what your mind tells it to do.” Of course I knew that, but the saying took on a whole new dimension up there above the tree line, under the vastness of that ultra marine sky, where there was only my fellow climbers, each of us dealing with our own holes in the snow, struggling to move forward. Coming to this mountain range, putting myself in danger, was my own choice and now that I saw the full impact of my decision, I knew that although I was not alone, it would be up to me to make sure that I made it home again.

Every move we made on that midnight hike through the pass would affect the whole group. We had to be efficient and smart. We had to move quietly, so as not to disturb the snow with any sound waves that might trigger a deadly avalanche. We had to help each other by not becoming a burden, by not giving up.

One step at a time I pulled myself forward until we reached firmer snow, a sheet of ice where we used the ice axe again to move ourselves along, being sure not to scream out if we suddenly slipped and began to tumble downhill. We had been trained just days earlier, in the lower areas of the mountain, at basecamp, where the late June snow was barely a foot deep, to use our ice axe in case we were falling out of control. Since my whole life had been about falling out of control up until then, the idea of using the ice axe didn’t scare me but rather, it seemed like a wonderful way to get my footing once again.

Down at the basecamp, playing around, laughing with my fellow survival-training classmates, life was not so serious and the ice axe lessons had seemed too grim, but tonight I understood. I hadn’t really been living at all, just passing the time. There in the bitter air, as I stood at the top of the pass, trembling, elated to have made it, I embraced my companions.

Together we looked up at the sky full of stars and realized we had arrived at our beginning. We were invincible.

The Spurtle

My neighbor, Gordon, buys and sells other people’s treasures. Weather permitting, on the first Saturday of each month of the summer season, he will hold an estate sale of sorts in the lily lined driveway of his ornately trimmed, Victorian home. The event is advertised in papers as far north of us as the Springfield Republican and as far south of us as the Hartford Courant, but after all of the years he’s been having the sales, anyone within reading distance, who enjoys antiquing and collectables, knows when to come without being told. Friends, neighbors and strangers arrive by car or bike, with a basket of course and sometimes pulling a wagon. Everyone marvels at the history they encounter there, where past and present mingle and an affection for vintage goods is a shared passion.

One afternoon, I was surprised to see my father there, bent over a long table, a sturdy black cane supporting his 99 years as he poked through the items on display. There were ancient hammers whose grips and faces were worn and chipped and pointed awls with bulbous handles, there was a six inch mortise gauge made of fine grain wood with brass fittings, browned with age, there were planers and saws, hatchets and clamps and even a wooden box to keep one’s favorite tools. He picked up a bevel edged chisel, obviously admiring the quality of the tool, the heft of the steel and wood in his hand. The traces of paint that remained on the handle, the fact that it had seen better days, didn’t seem to take away from his appreciation of its utility. His eyes sparkled under the weight of his sagging brow and the corner of his mouth turned up just a bit.

“What are you looking for dad?” I asked.

“Files, I’m looking for files. I need a half-round.”

“Oh really, what are you making,” I asked.

I found myself talking to him in a sweet tone, as if I were talking to a child, which was silly, because at 99 he was still as sharp as ever. It wasn’t his partial hearing loss or his slow and uncertain steps that made him seem vulnerable to me, it was really his refusal to recognize his own frailties. He hadn’t asked me for a ride to the sale that day; instead he drove his John Deere Gator through the woods, over muddy trails and across a small stream.

“A spurtle. I’m making a spurtle,” he said, as though I would know what one was.

“Haven’t seen one in years so I thought I’d make it myself,” he continued, running his thick old fingers, rough with New England life, darkened from the sun and hardened from handling rope and rigging on sailboats, for most of his younger years, over the piles of trinkets strewn before us on Gordon’s table.

Many people arrived that afternoon and the tables were picked clean except for the old tools. People seemed to gravitate toward the table lamps, the ones with the rooster base or the blue and white dish set with just a few chips and not enough cups. They liked the furniture too. Mahogany desks and bedroom sets, tables and chairs and sofas. I myself, furnished three bedrooms for a very reasonable price, just by showing up first to Gordon’s driveway one Saturday morning. But the tools were always a hard sell, most likely because there were newer and better tools to be had.

We searched through the heaps of items on every table for the files, but there were none to be found and so my father, brushing me aside as I tried to help him return to his gator, motored off into the woods where the trails would lead him home.

Many months later, on Christmas morning over at my parent’s house, I received the most wonderful gift. In my stocking, I found a long wooden spatula of sorts, or maybe a flat spoon would better describe it. It was smooth and sleek, carved from Maple, the wood from my father’s property and tied with a red ribbon. From the ribbon hung a tag that read, “This is a spurtle. Love Dad.”

The spurtle turns out to be a very useful tool. My husband loves it because it slides across the bottom of his nonstick pans and causes no harm. I love it because it mixes my blueberry pancake batter so nicely and scrapes the curving sides of a bowl unlike any of our less gracefully shaped spoons or spatulas.

I never asked my father where he got the files he needed to make my spurtle, I suppose I’ll never know. Surely he searched far and wide, risking life and limb, which is what living requires when one is 99.

Cereal

My four children sat together along one side of the long farmhouse table. It was late in the afternoon, dinnertime, and they were hungry from all of the activity of their day in the hot Florida sun. The fact that they had chosen to sit facing me as I poured the Cheerios into their bowls was not lost on me. It was almost comical to see their faces, desperate for whatever I prepared, staring at me as I worked behind the kitchen counter directly in front of them. As usual, my middle children, Andrew who was six and Juliana who was five, began to fight. I was surprised when their older sister, Christina who was eight, turned to them and said with authority and perhaps a bit of distress, “Shhhh, mommy’s cooking!”

I froze in mid pour, one Cheerio rolling off of the counter and onto the floor. We heard it land, a crisp little smack and then nothing. Quiet. What was I doing to my precious children? How is it that I could be raising children to believe that pouring cereal was the equivalent of cooking and that it was so stressful that I needed quiet in order to concentrate?

For a fleeting moment I thought of the benefits, both in the saving of energy and cash and how much easier my life would be if I let this hoax continue. And then I looked into Christina’s face, in her huge turquoise eyes, almost tearing up as she stared back at me, and I found my conscience. She was a sponge, intelligent and eager and always alert. I sighed and realized that I had to step up and admit to her, to all of them including the baby, Gabriela, who was only one at the time, that pouring cereal into bowls and adding milk, albeit fortified with calcium and extra vitamin D, was not really “cooking” at all. When, I asked myself, did I stop enjoying cooking in the first place? Was it after the first child, or the second or maybe the fourth?

When I was growing up, my grandfather kept a garden where he grew the rhubarb and the strawberries for our pies and the grapes for his own brand of sticky sweet wine. Every meal at his house, which he prepared together with my grandmother, featured his tomatoes, red and plump, his crisp lettuce and green beans that snapped like a pencil when you picked them. There was the famous family recipe for spaghetti sauce, whose secret ingredient turned out to be more than a pinch of sugar. There were also years of hand made birthday cakes and Christmas pies, fudge and plum pudding with hard sauce and each and every summer there were whoopee pies by the tray full. So what happened to me? Why was I not sharing this wonderful family legacy with my children?

I imagined that one day they would be asked, “What was your favorite family recipe?” Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch; certainly one of these would be their answer. I knew that for me that question would be difficult only because there were so many wonderful memories having to do with the preparation and the consumption of food in my family, that I would be hard pressed to choose one recipe over another. Perhaps my grandfather’s strawberry rhubarb pie would win-out, at least today anyway, tomorrow I may remember something else. At any rate, I never asked for their recipes and I never helped them cook. I was a spectator and I let the family tradition die with my grandparents.

Ever since that day in my kitchen when I learned just how little my children knew about the wonders and diversity of food and the joy that “cooking” can bring to a home, I have tried to step up, to be a better example for them. It will never be a passion, I can’t fake that, but my cooking has improved over the years. I am sure now that one day, if they are ever asked, “What was your favorite family recipe?” they will actually have a few choices to consider other than the list of cereals they once enjoyed.

A Quiet Gift

Her artist friends wore colorful jackets. They wore silk scarves in brilliant hues, jewelry made from their own hands; large stones and silver expressions of joy, of passion, of wonder with the world around them. They wore skirts made of linen and gauze, long and flowing ikat or flowery blossoms floating along behind them, dancing and swirling in the sparkling sunlight that seemed to wash over these women as they moved from place to place.

Her clothes were plain. The simple white tee, the dark pants, did not announce her passions when she entered a room. Her art was tamer too, tamer than her friend’s art at least. Their boldness was a vivid brush stroke upon the canvas of her day and she harbored an inner fascination for the women that wore those colors, those patterns, those textures, women whose creativity spilled from their insides out and into the lives of everyone around them. They splashed their paints onto canvases, or smashed the cobalt and ruby glass to make marvelous patterns held together with lead; melted, bent and shaped to evoke a narrative of sorts, the same narrative that they expressed through their personal style.

Had she imagined her own story was a simple one? Maybe her clothes were misleading at best. Behind the white, the darkest of blue, that were her choices of clothing, there were the colors she used to paint the sky in the landscapes she tried to capture on canvas; the umber, the ochre, the ultra marine and yes, the white. The colors in the eyes of her children, the green, the gold, the cerulean; the colors that filled their home with warmth, the browns and blues and golds, the apricots and warm yellows that surrounded her as she went through the day.

Her personal style did not reflect her artist’s soul, as her friend’s did, it wasn’t in her to reveal herself for all to see as they passed her on the street. She was glad though for those artists who had embraced her, even as her lack of flair should have given them the impression that she was not like them. Instead, they saw through her, realizing that her creative self was a quiet gift she shared with only those who knew her well.

The Last Visit

Sometimes when you close the door, you say to yourself, I will never touch this knob again. Sometimes you know. You know when cardboard boxes are packed full with your belongings and your voice echoes through the empty rooms of a house, that you won’t be back. You know when you take one last look around your dorm, on your last day of your senior year; that you won’t be back. You know when you travel abroad and you stay in that nice little room in that quaint little hotel, that you probably won’t be back. I might have known that I would never see my sister or her house again when I pulled the door shut behind me some ten years ago, but the thought was buried deep under my denial. The kind of denial you need to stay sane. The kind of denial that allows you to believe that you’ll be back.

“See you at Christmas!” is what I would have been shouting over my shoulder on any normal summer visit to my sister’s house in far-away Chicago, but this was no normal visit, it was my last visit.

I wish I remembered what her house smelled like. Maybe it didn’t smell like anything at all. Maybe it smelled like tollhouse cookies, warm chocolate and brown sugar or maybe it smelled like her cat, Ricky. Ricky, who must have searched everywhere for my sister after she had gone, searched the white kitchen with its rooster plates and collection of mismatched teacups, the bedroom with her medicine bottles spilling from the bedside table onto the carpeted floor, the bathrooms where the wig and the walker and the bed pan would all sit abandoned, like Ricky, like the rest of us. Or maybe the house had smelled like impending death and Ricky already knew what we didn’t know and didn’t want to accept.

It was the last time I would ever step foot in my sister’s house and I forgot to look around, to take note of how she had lived there. I forgot to ask her the name of the color of paint on her parlor walls or where she found that little rug in the powder room. I forgot to appreciate once again the way she organized her linen closet or to find out what exactly she kept in those sweet hat boxes in the guest room closet, the ones with the lavender flowers that were tied shut with a wide grosgrain ribbon. I forgot to tell her how beautiful her garden was, the deep blue hydrangea and the fat orange roses that flanked the back porch door. I didn’t mention that the bed I slept in was soft and the sheets lovely and smooth, cool on my skin even in the heat of the July nights.

Sleep didn’t come easy in her house that summer but not because my sister hadn’t made her guest rooms so hospitable. No, sleep eluded us because she cried out sometimes. When she moved her pain became a moan that escaped through her mouth and sharp like a blade, it cut us to the bone, leaving us wounded and anxious in our own comfortable beds, braced for her next cry.

Beside her my brother-in-law may have propped pillows for her, adjusted her morphine soaked body on the Tempurpedic that burned the skin off of her back, her buttocks, her calves. Around her was all of the softness and beauty that she poured into her home over the years and none of us could feel it, could see it, could smell it. She had become all there was in that house. Her pain, her every breath, her moans, her smell of bed pans and diapers, the sight of her, small and white and withered.

No, there were no Tollhouse cookies baked the last time I went to my sister’s house. There were no farewells that included, “See you soon!” There was only denial.

The kind that causes you to shut the door behind you and not to look over your shoulder, to tell yourself that you’ll be back, to tell yourself a lie.