Spatial Relationships

Have I ever told you about the time I rode home from Mexico on a giant bag of sugar? As with all things, I find that assuming a comfortable position and maintaining a positive attitude are helpful when facing life’s challenges.

It was the summer of ’73, Nixon was in his second term, Viet Nam was over, the World Trade Center had just opened, Skylab had been launched, Watergate was surfacing, and our family of four headed to Mexico. I was barely nine, and my sister, majoring in Spanish, had recently finished her freshman year of college. My grandparents had taken her along with two cousins to Mexico that spring, and my parents thought it would be fun to cross the border for our family vacation.

There are things about that trip, I’ll never forget. We headed south through Texas to Del Rio, and we crossed into Ciudad Acuña on Monday afternoon. In one of the shops, I saw an elderly lady in the back watching Spanish language television, and I was so fascinated. The next morning, I saw my first episode of I Love Lucy (the one where Lucy sneaks into the new neighbors’ apartment, thinks they are spies and pretends to be a chair), and I thought Ricky spoke Spanish because we were a few miles from Mexico and the show was being translated.

Restless, my parents whisked us away from Del Rio after a quick morning in Ciduad Acuña, and we arrived in Eagle Pass, crossing over to Piedras Negras. While I’m sure we missed a few of the must-see sights (probably all of them except the market), I had what would become one of those “stories you’ll tell your grandchildren” experiences. Seeing that I have no grandchildren, and if I did they’d probably be the sort who wouldn’t appreciate my stories, I’m going to share it here.

My mother got the idea that we needed to buy sugar because it was—well, I don’t remember the reason. I’d just turned nine and was traveling with these three adults. They’d taken me into a foreign country with my sister as translator, and the next thing I know we’re being driven around the city to find someone who’ll give us a good deal on sugar.

This was before Sam’s Club and Costco with their bulk-buying business models. We were in the Energy Crisis and doomsayers were out in full force. Did we think an apocalypse would drive sugar prices higher than gold? Were cookies and cakes on the verge of extinction? I can’t say. I’m often accused of not paying attention, but it’s really a case of what’s going on in my head is of more interest than what’s going on around me. My baking skills were still in their infancy, but even I could see 100 pounds of sugar was a tad excessive.

The giant bag got loaded into the taxi’s trunk, and the driver took us to our car in Texas. He and my dad lifted it into the back seat of our Ford Custom 500 because there was no room in our trunk. Why wouldn’t there be space in a vast Ford trunk? Because our mother had purchased two large clay pots in Ciudad Acuña, which she thought would perfectly flank our front entrance. Side note: they did not. Keep in mind it was the 70s and decorating was just an outward display of an anxious nation grappling with cultural transition. Home décor photos of the era should be used for nothing more than cautionary tales.

With no room in the trunk, they moved the Coleman ice-chest next to the sugar, my sister got in the front seat (younger readers should note that old cars provided the opportunity to put three adults up front), and I slid into the back with a few small pieces of luggage where I reclined for the next 500 miles while wondering what would happen should the giant sack begin to leak.

I thought we were to have been gone for a week, but when you’ve filled your car with oversized clay pots and the biggest bag of sugar they make, you really have no choice but to go home. Upon arrival, out came the bag of sugar, and then came the work of storing it. One gets a box of plastic bags and starts scooping. Five sacks into the process, and shelving it becomes an issue. You also notice that you’ve barely made a dent, but you can’t close the giant bag. It’s open, and you have to keep going until your kitchen cabinets resemble ones you’d find in a drug dealer’s house.

I zoned out after a certain point. I have no idea if we gave any away, used some as currency or if we didn’t have to buy sugar again until Reagan left office. I just know that for the remainder of my adolescence I’d open that set of cabinets to the left of the stove and see bags of white.

I’m reminded of this incident because I inherited my mother’s estimation skills. One might describe them as a lack of skills. We tend to look at things and say, “That will fit!” A 100 pounds of sugar? No problem. “Where do you plan to put a grand piano in such a tight space?” I’ll find room, don’t you worry!

Lately, my failure to comprehend volume has manifested in “the garden,” which is a few acres of woodland in need of some “subtle manipulation.” The elderly former owners were unable to keep up with things for their final years there, and I feel like I’m in a race against time to restore pathways, eradicate invasive non-natives and push back against the vines and branches in order to uncover the beauty beneath.

There is no green waste disposal service, and that’s great when I start trimming and futzing with various areas. I can go on for hours and days with clippers and saws of varying sizes, but the downside is trying to keep the refuse in tidy piles. We had a remarkably wet winter, so burning days were limited. We’d burned a modest pile in October, but it started stacking up quickly. Then I kept trimming and cutting and piling all over the place not realizing exactly how much we’d removed when in most places it looks like we’ve not done a thing. With no burn days to clear away the mess, Gary was beginning to fret, while I said over and over, “It’s just a few piles. No problem!”

The once giant burn pile in the left of the photo is now a pile of ash. Some of the clearing efforts are becoming evident.

As of this writing, we’ve burned 17 of approximately 20 piles of varying sizes ranging from two giant handfuls to the massive burn pile over four feet high and approximately ten feet wide. Our new friend Dave came over one Saturday and joined us in burning. This is one of the truest gestures of selfless friendship because I don’t know of anyone but an arsonist who’d enjoy hours of fueling a fire at somebody else’s place. Until I started having to gather the small piles and bring them to a central burning location, I’d not realized exactly how much progress we’ve made or how much physical work is required. It seems so little when I look down from the house, but we’ve started to put our stamp on things.

I see the forest as a big-picture project. Gary shakes his head and says wearily, “There’s just so much to do.” He’s probably right, but I’m not bothered. Such an undertaking keeps me stimulated. In my mind I can see the finished project, and I remain in denial that when we reach a certain level of satisfaction it will be time to start over.

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at


12 Replies to “Spatial Relationships”

  1. As always I enjoy your writings. Love the “sugar” story and how you’re progressing in your “woodland garden.” You’re right, the minute you finish it will be time to start over. Those plants have a way of taking over before you know it. But you’re enjoying it and that’s the important thing. I can also visualize, but some people can’t. Keep up the amazing work because you’ve accomplished so much in such a short span of time. I’m very proud of you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been writing (editing) all morning, but I must get outside and get to work. It’s sunny and warmer today, and I have much to do, as I do every day!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You and Gary have accomplished a lot in a short period of time with your place. It was a hard day of labor but fun spending time with you and Gary. Anytime you need help all you have to do is ask and Frank and I will be there to lend you a hand. We are truly blessed to have 2 amazing new friends and cherish our friendship with you guys.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. OOH-RAH!! The Marine battle bellow just seems like the only appropriate response of admiration for Your continuing documentation of the wilds of Washington State. From natural splendor to labors that would match Paul Bunyan — you’ve got us hooked. I’m addicted to One More Thing To Read……..this after swearing to never become enchanted by an author again. Bad Patrick! Bad!………..and Thank You. Long May You Write, Sirrah!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Burn piles, yes, I remember my father loved burning everything. He burned tree trimmings, yard waste, garbage, anything he could get his hands on. And when the tent caterpillars arrived (every few years I believe) he would make super long torches and burn their tent nests. Have you guys encountered the tent caterpillars yet? I think they come out in April. They can be nasty. Great writing Patrick, always enjoy the stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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