I love things that are old.
I am having fun tinkering with this little story about the old days, based on my grandmother’s childhood memories and stories that occurred before she was born. The ancient oral tradition . . . as I listened to her, faint images of people partially materialized in my mind. I wondered what their extended stories might be, what their lives were like on family farms in this remote, woody place that I visited each summer. In my lifetime, it was nearly all woods; few traces of the community remained.
The wisteria remains. It hangs in the trees where the farm houses once were, its abundant, pale purple flowers the very image of April in North Carolina, whispering of long ago.
I starting wondering what stories the wisteria could tell, what it had witnessed across the years.
Then I heard its voice.
I guess I’ve always had a wild imagination . . .
It’s also fun to relate Wisteria’s story, beginning in the 1880s to the turn of the twentieth century, thus far, in segments somewhat like a serial in newspapers or magazines of that era.
In the preceding installments (Wisteria, Wisteria, part 2 , and Wisteria, part 3), the vine tells of its mysterious origin on the Griffin farm and its developing kinship with a girl named Jennie Jay, who’s become a teenager harboring a secret. Mr. Griffin, father of six, has just lost his wife in childbirth with the seventh. The vine isn’t able to bloom, not an uncommon condition.
In today’s post . . . well, just sit back and listen to what Wisteria has to share . . .
I woke the next spring to find Mr. Griffin building a porch on the front of his house. Every day, neighbor women stopped by with fudge or a pot of chicken and dumplings or stew for his family. The married women stayed only minutes, but the widows . . . they lingered, smiling and chatting at Mr. Griffin as he tried to work. By now I understood a lot more about humans than I used to. I stretched myself closer to the house for snatches of conversation.
Mr. Griffin, it seemed, had little to say.
He managed, somehow, to finish the porch. He left the gardening to his children and whitewashed the house. It stood tall, narrow, and bright in the sunlight by day; it glowed in the moonlight at night, as white as the stone markers just across the dirt road.
In all this time Jennie Jay did not make an appearance.
Her mother walked over one afternoon, bearing a basket, when the Griffin children had gone Up the Swamp to visit their mother’s relations. Mr. Griffin leaned against a porch column, smoking his pipe, gazing at the place where his wife, his baby, and his parents were planted.
He straightened, nodded, when he saw who was coming.
Hello, Thomas. Here, I fried a chicken and made some biscuits for you.
I greatly appreciate it.
Your porch is lovely.
Thank you. The children enjoy it. Just got the swing up this morning.
How are you?
Can’t complain. You?
We’re all well.
A pause. Then—
Jennie Jay came home today.
Ah. So she’d gone away, had she.
Mr. Griffin puffed his pipe. He took a long moment to respond:
How did she like Raleigh?
She says she likes the shops but hates the city.
They both chuckled.
My sister said she was terribly homesick. She couldn’t understand why Jennie Jay wanted to come back to the ‘sticks,’ you know.
A slight smile played on her face.
Mr. Griffin just stared ahead. He made no reply.
She asked about you. Wants to come by.
He turned and looked directly at her for the first time since she arrived.
His voice was suddenly hoarse:
Well, by all means, Aurelia, go and tell her to come.
From my high perch on the arbor they built for me, I knew she was coming before he did.
In a yellow dress, her wide-brimmed hat a corona, she gleamed against the reeds and trees, a far cry from the tottering child who once escaped her mother.
He’d hurried in the house to shave, then waited for a while in the new swing, which faced the old Mixon road. Where she’d be walking. Then he took to pacing back and forth out in yard by me, until she finally came into sight.
He stood in my shadow as if rooted, drinking her in the way I drink in sunlight: Jennie Jay, pink-cheeked, blue eyes shimmering, pulsating with life. Her pale hair, long tendrils that my thin green ones could never begin to match, hung loose under her hat.
His gray eyes were as sharp as knife blades when she drew near, his expression unreadable.
He extended his hand:
Welcome home, Jennie Jay.
She grasped his hand, smiling.
Is that all you have to say to me, Mr. Thomas?
He trembled. Oh, could I feel it.
Just say it, man, say it!
God above, Jennie, you are beautiful.
Did you miss me while I was away?
That is good, because, Thomas Griffin, I. Missed. YOU.
She threw her arms around him.
Her hat fluttered to the ground beside my trunk; there were no more words. He clasped her to him like he might never let go. He sobbed, but Jennie laughed, even as the salt water flowed down their faces; she reached up and pulled his to her own.
By my calculations, she was in her eighteenth year.
I was about sixteen.
On the day Thomas Griffin married Jennie Jay Mixon and brought her home in his old mule-drawn buggy—by her request— he had a special wedding gift waiting. He wouldn’t let her look; she had to keep her gloved hands over her eyes until he was ready:
All right, love, you can look now.
It was me, of course. In full bloom for the first time in my existence.
My heavy lavender clusters spilled like grapes over the arbor; my fragrance filled the air. I was majestic and I knew it, nearly as resplendent as the young bride. My one regret—if my kind is allowed a regret—is that I couldn’t bloom yellow for her.
She laughed and cried at the same time, just as when Mr. Griffin first held her in his arms.
It is amazing, amazing! Oh, Tom, how…?
It just happened, Jennie. Of its own accord. All for you, I’m sure.
That wisteria is the most beautiful thing in the world.
Ah, my sweet, salty Jennie Jay.
This isn’t the end of the story. Not yet.
To be continued, one last time . . . Wisteria, part 5.