The Hydrangea Nearly Won

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Last week I was whining about the dead hydrangea bush I was having a hard time removing. Actually “hard time” is putting it too mildly. I dug and chopped and pulled at that thing for weeks. I kept coming back to it like a dog trying to get at a rat under the house, digging and pushing and bending, nicking up my piano-playing hands. It was thoroughly dead, its branches turned to bamboo. I blame the freeze of 2014, plus the blackberries that grew up around it and choked it to death. I had given it two whole seasons to recover, but it didn’t.

IMG_20160412_110723903[1].jpgTwo weeks ago, I saw that this job was getting too big for me and contacted a gardener. After a week, he had not responded, and it was bugging me, so I dug and chopped and tugged some more as my good shoes got crusted with mud. The branches that were too thick to cut kept scratching me. I went at it with a hatchet. The branches laughed. I tried to cut it with my loppers. Nyah, nyah, they said.  I gave up for a while, but I’m not one to quit on things. I did a search on YouTube and watched a guy named Bob demonstrate the proper technique. Okay, I can do this, I thought. I didn’t own the fancy spade that he had, but I did own a spade.

It was working. Then I got down to the last mega roots, thick as parsnips. I chopped with my hatchet. I dug with my spade. I grabbed and pulled with all my might. I could hear roots popping. Progress. But then with one of those mighty heave-hos, I heard my back popping, too, and thought, uh-oh. Time out.

I threw myself on the grass in a sweaty savasana and let it go. It was hard. I knew I was close. I also knew I didn’t want to end up in the hospital.

The gardeners finally contacted me on Monday. They would charge $40 to get the plant out. Fine. Late Wednesday afternoon, they came. Three guys, two speaking mostly Spanish. One of them grabbed my rusty spade that was still leaning up against the wall. He shoved it down into the ground hard about three times, pulled on the plant and it came out, roots and all. Just like that. He carried the corpse to the truck. They smoothed the dirt, and they were done.

I was so close! I almost had it. Just a little more upper body strength and it would have been my victory. It should have been. After all, I am the founder and CEO of Blue Hydrangea Productions. That was my glorious standard for my company. I loved it when it was blooming and I should have been the one to perform the final rites. But no. Because I’m a freaking girl. I thought they would bring fancy equipment to dig and cut. Wrong. They used my rusty old spade that I found in the shed after I watched the YouTube video. Not fair!

Two minutes! They should have paid me for doing all the prep work. I should have had Annie help me. If that dog can bite through an allegedly indestructible Kong or a log from the woodpile, why can’t she take down a dead hydrangea?

Everybody says I should have called them in the first place. They also say I need to hire a gardener. Mowing the lawns kills me. My lawn is like a golf course. Huge. But there’s wonderful satisfaction in watching that lawn get neater with each row I cut. So, not yet.

Any day now, I’ll be planting a new blue hydrangea, all by myself. And I took down a dying rosebush yesterday in five minutes. Thank you, YouTube.

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Why I don’t move back to San Jose

Last week in Newport, it was “Dine Out for Samaritan House” day. Once a month, a local restaurant offers a percentage of its proceeds to support the local homeless shelter. That shelter was founded and is maintained by people I know, mostly from my church. Years ago, I even did a story about it for the local newspaper.

This month’s restaurant was Nana’s Irish Pub in Nye Beach. I had a hankering to try bangers and mash, so I invited my friend Pat to join me for dinner after her shift at Samaritan House. When I walked in the door and paused by the bar to scan the crowded tables, I realized half the people in there were people I knew. It soon turned into a party, complete with beer and Irish music in the background. We talked, gossiped about our priest, and compared Irish dishes. I don’t have a Celtic palate—more Mexican and Italian—but my bangers and mash were good and Pat nearly swooned over her bread pudding.

I had already been to Nana’s the previous week for the church ladies’ monthly lunch. Best Reuben sandwich anywhere.

The same thing happens at Georgie’s Beachside Grill every Sunday when friends fill the tables after church. Party time. That simply does not happen back in San Jose. People commune with their phones.

Newport has 10,000 people, fewer than fill the average professional sports stadium. Everywhere I go, I meet people I know, and that makes my life as a childless widow a lot less lonely. For example:

* I go to the hospital for minor surgery. The anesthesiologist is a music friend. The nurse goes to my church. All of my friends have the same doctor.

* When I visit one friend at the local rehab facility, another friend is just down the hall, and I pass yet another just leaving.

* When I shop at Fred Meyer, I meet at least one and more likely a half dozen friends as I peruse the vegetables and stock up on dog food.

* I go to see a play. I know the guy handing out programs and most of the cast members. One is my hair stylist; another is a writer. And I know the performing arts center so well it feels like home. I have been on stage, backstage, in the dressing rooms, and in every section of the seating area. I have sung in the lobby and in both theaters. Unlike the enormous airport-like facilities in big cities, there is no way I can get lost here.

* When Annie and I go hiking, we wave at the drivers of every vehicle that passes us, and they wave back.

* I not only know where everything is at the J.C. Market, I know what the J and C stand for: Jim and Cleo.

* My neighbors have promised to take care of me should the mega-earthquake and tsunami come. I know they will. They have already helped me plenty, feeding Annie when I go away, fixing my gutters, power-washing my house, and sharing halibut and elk from their fishing and hunting trips. My dog Annie and their dog Harley are in love.

Also:

* My mortgage for a four-bedroom house on a massive lot near the beach is a third of what people are paying to rent apartments in San Jose.

* I get paid to play piano and sing solos at church, even though I don’t have a music degree.

* We don’t have black widow spiders, yellow jackets, poisonous snakes, or poison oak.

* I can run four or five different errands in a half hour because everything is close, and there are no crowds. I can even renew my driver’s license in a half hour.

* We complain about the traffic if we have to wait for three cars to pass.

*“Nature” is right outside my door. I don’t have to drive for hours to get to it.

* I am still awed by the beauty I see in every direction. Not concrete and cars, but the ocean, hills, forests, and wildflowers.

Some of my relatives don’t understand why I stay here. Sometimes I do want to go home. I miss my family so bad it hurts, and the rain gets tiresome when it comes day after day. I’m not fond of ice and snow. It gets frustrating when I have to drive for hours to the airport or major stores. What I wouldn’t give for an Olive Garden restaurant. And I’d kill for an electric or gas heating system to replace the pellet stove. But I don’t miss the traffic, the smog, or the crowds in which everyone is anonymous. My father doesn’t even know most of his neighbors. When he goes out, he almost never meets anyone he knows, and no one gives way for an old man with a cane.

We born-again Oregonians don’t want lots more people to move here. With luck, the weather and the lack of jobs will keep out the crowds. Maybe I can claim some rights to Oregon soil. My Fagalde great grandparents settled in Oregon back in the 1800s. If only I could visit them on their ranch and talk to them.

This summer I will have been here 20 years. Fred and I lived together on the Oregon coast longer than we lived together in San Jose, and I have stayed five years since he passed away. Someday I may have to go back to California to help my dad or deal with his house. Maybe I will need the kind of health care I can’t get here. But not today. This is where I live. Like the dead hydrangea I have spent the past week trying to dig out of the ground, I have put down thick roots that would be nearly impossible to cut.

 

P.S. Somebody help me get this stupid plant out of the ground. I have company coming this week, and it looks awful. Anybody got a chain saw?

 

Playing the Funeral Circuit

Why is it that as soon as I sink into a hot bubble bath I get ideas? But for you, I got out, tracked water and bubbles all over my carpet and passed by my window naked—hi neighbor!—to get this down because God forbid I relax when there’s an idea buzzing around my head. Here goes.

Most of you know I’m a musician. I sing, play piano and guitar and write the occasional song. I have played here, there and everywhere, but these days, in addition to playing the Masses at Sacred Heart Church, I play the funeral circuit. Most of your major showbiz performers play clubs, fairs and concerts, but funerals? Not so much. Me, I check the obits as soon as the newspaper arrives so I can plan my life.

I always hope nobody I know has died. Beyond that, I hope nobody Catholic has died. Lots of people in our rural coastal community are not having services these days. It’s expensive, their families live elsewhere, and who needs all that commotion? Many others opt for non-church functions, such as potlucks, barbecues and other gatherings at local lodges, restaurants, or people’s homes. I have played for funerals/celebrations of life at community centers and funeral homes, for the religious and the nonreligious, but with my music minister job, most of my funerals are Catholic. I always feel relieved when I read that the Baptists, Presbyterians or Lutherans are taking care of things.

I  usually have only a few days to plan, especially if there’s going to be a body in a casket instead of ashes in an urn. We start with a phone call. I’m always nervous about talking to the recently bereaved. I’m afraid they’re going to fall apart, but most of the time they’re calm and just want to take care of things.

Ideally, they either have a list of songs they have picked out from the church hymnal or they let me pick the songs. We have a pretty standard list to work with. Frequently, they want the dreaded “Ave Maria.” It’s a gorgeous song. I want it at my funeral, too, but it’s a bear to play, so I never suggest it. I cannot sing it and play it at the same time, and I have been saddled with soloists who come in at the last minute. It’s not always pretty. I still feel bad about the guy whom I assured I would lower the pitch and I forgot. That poor fellow was hurting trying to get those high notes out.

Sometimes they want a choir, sometimes just me singing, sometimes no singing at all. Whatever. I’m easy. Although the next time somebody wants me to play “Wagon Wheels” on my guitar at a funeral, I think I’ll decline. Or “You’ll Never Know.” Scratch that one, too.

I just did a funeral in Waldport at a tiny church that is not my own with a priest whose ways I did not know. The people planning it picked songs out of the air that I was sure the priest would veto. Nope. This priest is easy-going. I hit musicnotes.com, downloaded the songs and was half-way to learning them when the person arranging the funeral changed the song list. Yikes. “Wind Beneath My Wings” in church? Really? Okay. First time in history the bread and wine were consecrated to a Bette Midler hit.

Like mortuary workers, you have to have a funeral wardrobe to play the funeral circuit. Black is still the standard. I own a lot of black slacks, skirts, shirts, jackets and sweaters. In other performing situations, you go for the bling, but not at funerals. No sequins, red scarves, or sassy hats. The folks in the pews may wear anything from jeans to black cocktail dresses, but my job is to be invisible.

In a standard Catholic funeral Mass, I play about 12 pieces of music, including four or five full-length songs and various Mass parts such as the psalm, gospel acclamation, and Holy, Holy. Before the Mass, I play instrumentals for about 15 minutes, all songs designed to console the bereaved. Then the Mass starts with its usual sitting standing kneeling sitting kneeling bowing sign of the cross aerobics while the non-Catholics sit looking confused.

Funerals are naturally emotional. People may be crying, sobbing, fighting to hold back tears, or grabbing for the Kleenex box in the front row. More often than you might expect, they are calm, especially if the person who died was old and had been sick for a long time. The worst funeral I ever played was for a 21-year-old man who died of a brain tumor. His hysterical fiancée had to be taken outside, and the front rows were filled with sobbing young men. I struggled to keep my eyes on the sheet music and think about anything but death.

There’s usually at least one baby ratcheting from giggles to tears and back to giggles or a toddler running up and down the aisles. That’s okay. It helps us all know that life goes on. And yes, somebody’s cell phone inevitably goes off during the service.

Family members giving the eulogies nearly always choke up, which causes the rest of us to do likewise. I get teary, too, missing the person who died if I knew him or thinking about my own loved ones who have died or may die soon. I also get the willies when there’s a casket, usually placed very close to the piano. I start picturing the body inside.

When my husband died (five years ago this month), I sat in the front row while my choir and his friends from the barbershop chorus sang. I was dying to jump up and join the music, but my dad was next to me giving me the sit-and-be-quiet look. I would much rather be the musician than the bereaved. I don’t want a front row seat for that show.

The funeral circuit isn’t so bad. My name is on the program, I get paid, and sometimes at the reception afterward, I get cake. But if you’ve got a gig where I don’t have to wear black, I’m available.

 

Who needs words when you’ve got a beach?

Recent trips between rainstorms to Otter Rock, north of Newport, and South Beach, south of Newport, yielded some stunning views last week of beaches scoured by the wind and covered with bubbles that blew around like tumbleweeds. Great for walking, meditating and taking pictures.

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All images copyright Sue Fagalde Lick. Republish them without my permission and I will send Annie to eat your computer.

Who’s Calling Me from Prison?

Last month, I started getting messages on a phone number I rarely used. Same female voice, same words. It sounded like “f— you.” Could also have been “thank you” or “press 2.” All through the Christmas season, even though my outgoing message explained who I was (and wasn’t), they kept calling. The ringer on this phone, which was connected to my cell phone company and which I used only to make long distance calls, wasn’t loud enough to hear if I wasn’t in the same room. The reception was terrible out here in the woods, but I was stuck on a two-year plan that the company wouldn’t let me out of. Anyway, I kept getting those messages. Finally one day, I answered it in time to hear “This is the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. An Inmate is trying to reach you. Press 1 if you will accept the call.”

I didn’t know anybody in prison, didn’t even know where that particular prison was. If I could reach a human, I could explain that they had the wrong number. As I hesitated, the computer hung up on me. The next day, I got a different recording that asked me to punch in my authorization number, which I guess I would have had if I knew somebody inside. When I didn’t respond properly, the computer hung up again.

Another series of F.U. messages followed over the next week until on Christmas Eve I got a message with a name, Joshua D., and an 866 number. I wrote it down. They’d been preaching at church about mercy. Should I call Joshua to wish him a merry Christmas and tell him he’s calling the wrong number?

I didn’t call. The phone stopped ringing. No more F.U. messages. But I couldn’t throw away the note with Joshua’s number. I pictured a young guy in prison clothes, eyes filled with sadness and anger, nobody to talk to at Christmas. All I really knew about prisons was what I saw on the screen. Orange is the New Black. Chicago. That movie about the nun who opposed capital punishment. In those pictures, the criminals were always good people who got into trouble. Even the murderers and drug dealers loved their mothers and sisters, right?

I kept thinking about Joshua, wondering if he was waiting anxiously for a call from whoever I was supposed to be. I looked up Coffee Creek. It’s near Wilsonville, Oregon. Did you know you can Google prisoners online and get their vital statistics, charges and status? You can. After much clicking, I found a Joshua D., age 32. He was charged with possession of controlled substances. He had a shaved head and bags under his eyes. Status: released.

So, that’s that. If this had gone on longer, I might have called. The reporter in me would be too curious to let it go. But now we’ll never talk.

My two-year contract for the lousy landline finally ran out. Last week I disconnected that  phone and that number. But I keep thinking I hear it ring. I still want to know if she was really saying “f— you.”

If I Wanted to Slide Down a Hill, I’d Buy a Toboggan

I prefer my ice cubed and floating in a drink, but that’s not what I see this Sunday morning. As music leader for the 8:30 Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Newport, I need to leave the house by 7:30. I’m ready by 7:15, but it’s still dark. My indoor-outdoor thermometer tells me it’s 53 degrees inside and 30 degrees outside. This makes me nervous.

At 7:30, I see a glimmer of daylight. Time to go. I know this trip is going to be tricky when I set my foot on the sidewalk to walk to the garage, and it slides—the foot, not the garage, although in view of recent events, that could happen, too. I walk on the grass, say a prayer and back the car out at 1 mph. Okay . . . now down the road, make the turn, make the next turn. Whoa! The road to the highway slants downhill. Suddenly I’m flying. Press the brakes. Crunching sound, no stopping. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Here comes the highway. Can’t see whether anyone is coming, but I am. I can’t stop.

I spin out onto the road, chanting Oh God, oh God, oh God. Nobody else is fool enough to be there. I right myself and aim the car north toward Newport. Everywhere I look is a sheet of ice. Living here on the Oregon Coast, we get used to looking for patches of black ice. It’s all black ice. It’s a skating rink with not a Zamboni in sight. Just get me into town, Lord, just get me into town. Please don’t make the stoplight red, it’s green, whew, cross the bridge, now I’m in town, still icy, going slow, going very slow. Oh God, I have to stop and turn left into the church. Parking lot is sheer ice. I land in a spot next to Father Palmer’s car. Shut off the engine and send up a thank you prayer. My hands are shaking. My whole body is shaking as I hold onto the car and inch my way to the back door of the church.

The church is nearly empty. I’m surprised that I have three brave singers for the early Mass. All everybody is talking about is ice. I’m thinking I might stay in town until it thaws, whether that’s in a day or six months. Over coffee and donuts between Masses, I mention to the burly guy serving that I have chains in the car. Maybe I should put them on for the return trip. Won’t do any good, he says. I have four-wheel drive, I say. Useless with ice, he says.

Okay. Shoot. A person can’t even walk home because the sidewalks are, to use a popular local saying, “slippery as snot.”

Meanwhile, choir members for the 10:30 Mass are texting en masse. Not coming, too much ice. I prepare to do a solo act. But two singers do come, two good ones, both from my neighborhood. The roads are slightly better, and the sand trucks have been around.

I keep asking the usher if he’ll go defrost the parking lot. Not his job. But it turns out there are bags of sand in the gift shop. Somebody pours the sand around. So far, no broken hips.

The Mass is good, the music is good, but all I can think about is the ice. How will I get home? How will I get up that hill I slid down? Oh God, my cell phone is now saying we’re going to have sleet. It’s snowing in Portland. Wasn’t it enough punishment to have 26 inches of rain in December, almost an inch a day? God have mercy. I’m from California.

On the way home, the roads are not so shiny. Plus there’s a layer of sand. But it’s only up to 32 degrees, and something wet is falling on my window. All I can think is get home and stay there. Defrost the dog, eat lunch, build a fire and hibernate until spring.

For the last two days, when Annie and I walked our wilderness trail, the ground was oddly crunchy. Ice crystals everywhere. The dirt caved underfoot. All the puddles left over from the rain had frozen. I touched one to see how solid it was. Annie jumped on it with both feet. It cracked into shards, like broken glass. I’ll bet it’s still there, but the puppy and I are not hiking today. We’re staying in and drinking something with ice cubes, which is how ice should be formed at all times. Note that as I slid past Hoover’s Bar at 7:44 a.m., I saw several cars in the parking lot, no doubt locals getting ice in its proper form.

A day later, the ice is gone, and the temperature is up to 39 degrees when I get up. Hallelujah. Unfortunately, other parts of Oregon are still iced in. Oregon weather is always interesting.

God be with you, whatever weather you’re having where you live. Do you have weather stories to share? Feel free to add them in the comments.

 

We pause between holiday church music marathons

Whoever decided to put Christmas on a Friday was not thinking about church musicians who would be thrust into a marathon that would leave them with shredded voices, weary fingers, and monotonous Christmas carols playing endlessly in their heads. Four days in a row of church music! This week we get to repeat the exercise with Masses for New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Saturday vigil and then Sunday. If this doesn’t get us into heaven, nothing will.

Unfortunately, we have a memorial service this Wednesday right in the middle of it all. Tom Taylor, a longtime choir member and wonderful human being, died suddenly last Monday of a stroke. He and his wife Sally were getting ready to head to Washington to spend Christmas with their children. She went out for a little while, came back and found him on the floor. We will miss Tom terribly, and we hurt for Sally. It’s definitely a lesson that we never know when God will call “Time!” and all the earthly stuff we put ourselves into a dither about won’t matter.

I won’t be at the service. I’m having an endoscopy, a procedure in which the doctor sends a little camera down my throat into my guts to see what’s going on in there. I’m thinking he’ll find a pile of musical notes, with the edges of all those sharp notes poking my stomach.

Meanwhile, back in California, my family saw the advantage of having a judge living in the house. On Christmas Day, my brother the judge performed a marriage ceremony for his son and his fiancée right there in the living room. Total surprise to most of the family. Congratulations, William and Courtney.

Christmas wasn’t so happy for some families living at the north end of our little town of Newport. With the ground saturated by record-setting rainfall (25 inches so far just in December), portions of two houses slid into the ravine behind them, and several others may slide off, too. The residents of the damaged and endangered homes were evacuated with no chance to grab anything or make any plans. Luckily, no one was hurt. These houses are across the street from a friend’s house. I saw them on Christmas Day. Wow. Again, you never know when everything will change in an instant.

All those Masses were exhausting. So many songs, with a varying cast of singers who may or may not have known the songs when they arrived. Sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, chanting, praying, communions, collections. Red and green clothing everywhere. Between Masses, gifts, wrapping paper, ribbons, cookies, chocolate truffles, bourbon balls, singing the same songs again and again, hearing them on the radio, on the TV, in the stores. Christmas trees, Christmas lights, elves on shelves, lines at the gift exchange counter.

Then bam, it’s over and we’re back to walking the dog in the rain and hoping the money lasts until the end of the year—which is this week! For some, the events of the last two weeks have changed their lives forever. For most of us, we’ll be trying to shake “Jingle Bells” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” until Valentine’s Day and trying to get back on our diets to lose the extra pounds we’ve gained.

One more good thing happened recently. A new book called Biting the Bullet: Essays on the Courage of Women came out on Dec. 19. It includes an essay of mine titled “Tubes.” You might want to buy a copy.

I hope your holidays have been happy and full of blessings, and that 2016 is a fantastic year for all of us. Feel free to share your holiday experiences in the comments.