Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Roses in the smoke

Red rosebud

Rosebud. Jan SoloCC BY-SA

By the chain link fence of our backyard, a rosebush grows. 

It’s really growing in our neighbors’ backyard, but, according to my mother, there’s an agreement that the roses hanging over into our yard are ours, and the roses on the neighbors’ side are theirs. 

So, early one Sunday morning, my mother ushers my sister and me out to the fence. In one hand my mother holds pair of shears. In her other hand is a cigarette. Salem. Menthol Fresh.

“Pick out the rose you want to wear,” she says. “From the ones on our side.”

The roses are vivid red with a hot pink tint. Some are wilting. Some are big and full. Velvety. Their fragrance is heavy in the air. 

“This one!” says my sister, pointing to a large bloom.

That one might fall apart while you’re wearing it. Find one that’s not all the way open yet.”

Why did she tell us to choose?

We finally select tight rosebuds that my mother thinks are acceptable. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and clips the two buds. Then she clips a third one that’s partially open.

“Why are you cutting three roses?” I want to know.

My mother blows a cloud of smoke into the air. Menthol and tobacco mingle with the scent of roses. “One’s for me. Grannie is living, so I’ll wear a red rose to church for Mother’s Day, too.” 

She has three straight pins in her sleeve. She removes one to pin my sister’s rose to the front of her dress. 

I am thinking about Grannie. Her mother is not living. “What color rose will Grannie wear, then?”

White,” says my mother, pinning my red rosebud to my dress.

I am sorry for Grannie, her mother being dead, having to wear a white rose. One day my mother will wear a white rose on Mother’s Day. The thought floods me with sadness. The colors make me wonder—why?  Why red for living mothers and why white for dead mothers?

Is red for the blood?” I ask.

My mother, in the midst of pinning her own rose, leans in. She can’t hear well. Sometimes she doesn’t catch everything other people are saying. “What?”

Do people wear red for living mothers because they still have blood in them and white for dead mothers because when they die there’s no more blood?”

My mother frowns. An upside-down V appears between her eyebrows as she looks at me. I can tell she heard me and that she doesn’t understand the question. Before I can try again, she says, “All right, we’re ready. The bus should be here any minute. Let’s go wait out front.”

We ride the bus to church because my mother doesn’t drive. She never learned how. And Daddy is asleep because he’ll be getting up to go to work while we’re at church.

We stand out front, my mother, my sister, and me, wearing matching dresses that my mother made, with our three red roses pinned on, waiting for the church bus. It’s really an old school bus, now painted navy blue and white. My mother lights another cigarette. My sister plays with her necklace—a tan-and-white rabbit’s foot on a piece of yellow yarn around her neck—and I think about colors. Red and white. Living and dead. Blood and no blood.

Good thing we have our own red rosebush for Mother’s Day, or what would we do?

It would be many years before I wondered what color rose a person might wear for a mother in an altered state. As in the case of, say, addiction. As in, if the relationship had disintegrated because of it, because the mother is consumed. Because it happens, somewhere, to somebody, every day. What is the color of dysfunction? Of existing, but not really living? Surely not a blend of red and white, for pink is too cheery. Gray? Does a gray rose even exist in nature? If it did, why would anyone wear it as homage to a mother?

One would just not wear any rose at all, rather than wearing one the color of ghosts, of shadows, of clouded memories, of the mists of time, even if the sun occasionally breaks through to shine on what was good, as on a rosebush blooming along a chain link fence and a bud like a drop of blood on a little girl’s dress, even as swirling smoke envelops it, before the ashes fall.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.

Wisteria, part 5

Wisteria long arbor

Wisteria arbor. Jason BakerCC BY

Here’s my last installment of a tale told by a wisteria vine.

“Setting is everything,” said the facilitators at the writing workshop I attended last summer. “Setting drives the plot, the actions of characters . . . .”

That’s certainly true of this story.

All my life I’ve been haunted by an old house in the woods beside my Dad’s childhood home. I looked for it every time I visited my grandmother and we walked down the narrow dirt road. She’d point it out through the trees (she knew where to look; I had trouble finding it):

“There it is, the Griffin house.” 

I’ve seen many old, abandoned houses since, in various stages of falling down, but the Griffin house, obscured by thick woods, was the first. The allure, the spooky wonder I felt as a child, was immediate and intense.

It’s never left me.

None of the people who lived in this house were my relatives. They’re in my blood only because of the place and the stories, real and imagined. My aunt, as a child, used to run on a path between her house and the Griffins’ to play with the Griffin grandchildren. Eventually, said my aunt, the wildflowers and weeds grew taller and taller, and then . . . well, everyone and everything grew up.

The Mixon road began across from the right front of my grandparents’ yard. Standing in the Griffin yard, to the left of my grandparents home, the Mixon road would have been visible to the far right, branching off of the main dirt road. By the time I came along the Mixon road consisted of only two wheel tracks in the grass, a path leading partway through the woods and fading away where fields were still being farmed. There’s no trace of the road at all now; scrubby brush has overtaken it. No one would know a road, or a house, was ever there. Grandma said that the Mixon home down this vanished road was beautiful. It was two stories with a double porch, dating back to the Civil War. That house was gone long before I ever came to be. 

Perhaps this story springs only from a hopeless romantic streak, but as the wisteria grew heavier and heavier in the trees of my ancestral homeplace with each passing year, it stirred the stories, imaginings. For fractions of seconds, I could see the old, hidden Griffin house as it was. I could feel the thrum of farm life, see a mother surrounded by little children, sense a man pouring his soul into the earth to make it produce enough to feed his own.

That house is, for me, an abiding image. I can forever pull back layers to find new and deeper meanings: the passing of time, “memento mori,” we are mortal, and who will remember us when we’re gone?

The wisteria is another abiding image. If it has attached itself so to me, then why not to my characters?

When I happened upon an science article about plants having memory, I wondered, What if such memories could be tapped? What if a botanist actually had a means of, say, sticking a needle in a plant to extract its memories? 

As a writer, I get to do just that. Without the needle.

In previous segments of this story, Jennie Jay Mixon has grown up to marry the widower neighbor, Thomas Griffin. The wisteria finally blooms for the first time. The affinity between girl and plant deepens; their lives, their maturity, mirror one another. In this final segment, the mirroring takes an unexpected, divergent turn . . . .

*******

So Jennie Jay transplanted herself in the Griffin household as the mother figure to six children, the oldest being barely younger than she. Jennie rooted herself in the family as if she’d always been there. And in some ways, she had. She wrapped her love around Thomas Griffin the way I wrapped myself around the arbor frame. Like my arbor supported me, Tom’s strength secured Jennie Jay. Under the arc of their love, the children, the farm, flourished.

Until their first baby died, weeks after birth.

She spent that day drifting between the house, the cemetery, and me, wandering as if she were that lost toddler of long ago.

He finally pulled her to a bench he’d placed under me, sat her on his lap.

I did all I knew to do, Tom. She seemed to be getting stronger. What did I do wrong?

Nothing, my love. She was just too little. You can’t blame yourself.

I ache to hold her. To feel her warmth. I think somehow I needed her more than she needed me. I am just so empty. 

There’ll be others to come, who need you. And I need you, Jennie.

She smiled a little then. She pressed her wet face against his coat. He leaned his head back against my trunk, let her cry, and cried along with her.

But he was right. In time, more babies arrived: Twins, then two more.

I was a part of that last fertilization. Really, I was.

They crept out of the house one balmy summer night under a waning crescent moon when I was blooming riotously, having been pruned back a few times for my own good. I sheltered them as they loved each other, murmuring of long ago: dandelions, destiny, The Powers That Be.

And me. Jennie Jay and Tom whispered of me, even then.

Let it be duly noted, however, that I find the efficient business of self-pollination far superior, although this interlude did clarify some finer points.

And children grow almost as fast as vines; one by one, they all left home.

Tom began to wilt.  Rheumatism, Jennie called it. She fussed over him, waited on him. He basked in her attention much like I bask in the sun.

Considering the span of their ages, everyone expected him to go first; it was the natural order of things.

I perceived it before she did.  How, I cannot convey, but I discerned something stealthily growing, snaking its way silently through her inside parts, bit by bit. The terrible truth is that this Thing was like me. Powerful in the way it grew and took over. I had not fully known my own power until Tom extended the arbor with an enclosed walkway of trellises. My new shoots, innocent, so tender, had spiraled through the lattice. As I grew, my tendrils tightened; I began to pull the lattice into myself, out of control, until Jennie Jay and Tom cut that part of me away.  They left the overhead beams of the new walkway for me to extend myself and luxuriate, but no more lattices, as I would only destroy them.

I sensed nothing good in the Thing that slowly choked the life out of Jennie Jay. It wanted to live, she wanted to live, I wanted to live; but I could not desire to live if my living was at the expense of hers.

The elongated arbor allowed me to get near the bedroom window. Jennie Jay, so small and white, lay still on the bed. Tom’s cane remained in the corner, for he seldom left her side, even when the neighbors came to relieve him, or when the children came to say good-bye.

He held her whenever she screamed, when the Thing, out of control, took, bent, consumed, destroyed. He was holding her on that last morning. The sun had just risen; dew sparkled like scattered seeds of fiery rainbows.

Her eyes opened, looked through the window at me.

It’s morning, Tom. Time to get going. I’ll wait for you under the wisteria. Come on whenever you’re ready, dearest.

Humans say envy is green. I am green. I know envy. I envied the pine tree given for her casket. I wanted to be the one, would have sacrificed myself, to hold her forever and ever.

Of course he knew. Before he nailed the lid shut, he hobbled outside with a pair of shears to clip a little sprig of my purple flowers. When his children and the neighbors attempted to help, he shooed them all away. He carried my flowers, placed them under Jennie Jay’s white fingers, kissed her hands, her face, one last time, and nailed the lid himself.

He planted her beside their first baby, a wise distance away from the first Mrs. Griffin.

In his grief I was powerless. I could offer no condolence, could not weep, could not acknowledge our loss in any way other than shedding my blossoms, borne by the breeze to collect on the mound where she lay.

I lost track of time then. So did Tom.  He did not come to me again but went quickly after her, his existence too intertwined with hers for him to adapt to a world without Jennie Jay in it. She was his world.

By then the garden was no more. The yard soon went wild. Grasses and weeds grew tall; the pecan tree rotted away. The Griffin children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, came back from time to time, always in a hurry, visiting the graves, showing the land to potential buyers.

No one wanted it.

The barns collapsed. The house and I kept standing, even as saplings grew into trees around us. My arbor could not bear my weight; I crushed it. I latched onto a sturdy oak, where I climbed and climbed above the darkness of the woods which claimed for itself what was once the productive farm of a good, kind man.

I reached the house, at last. All traces of the whitewash were long gone. I wove myself through the bare clapboards and window frames, up the narrow staircase, back out between the cypress shingles.

She lived here, she was happy here. Her babies were born here. The walls and I were the last testaments to their love, that peculiar human gift. My tendrils tasted it all, absorbed it, took every bit and stored it deep within myself. My twisted trunk attained the girth of a man. Parts of my vine grew larger than Thomas Griffin’s muscular arms when they first wrapped around Jennie Jay.

I am all that remains. The house caved in from the ravages of time, weather, and me, but I am compelled ever onward and upward. Trees do not grow fast enough to suit me, for my goal is to reach the sun, that life-giving, golden orb beckoning from the periwinkle sky; I sense that something of Jennie Jay is there, just on the other side.

Until then, I draw from the essence of her deep within myself, where every sensation is preserved, where she lives on and on and on.

Her first and last words were of me.

First and last, first and last. My images of her keep circling, circling, ever-circling.

She was the first child I ever saw . . . .

Wisteria & old house

Old North Carolina home covered in wisteria. David R NCCC BY

*******

The End.

But maybe not.

Wisteria’s last line is also its first, so, back to The Beginning . . . .

Wisteria sprig

Wisteria sprig. Maggie McCainCC BY-SA

Wisteria, part 4

Wisteria vine

Wisteria. Asiya QureshiCC BY

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.

Miss Aurelia.

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?

I did.

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.

****

It happened.

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.

Wisteria blooming

*******

This isn’t the end of the story. Not yet.

To be continued, one last time . . . Wisteria, part 5.

Wisteria, part 3

Wisteria arbor

Wisteria arbor (cropped). Jon CallasCC BY

Here’s the next installment of a short story based on a tiny North Carolina farming community at its peak, circa 1880-World War II.  While short stories typically don’t cover a period of years, this one does, as it’s told from the perspective of a wisteria vine that may have lived through the entire period, and may be living still; I will have to visit the area again, just to see . . . 

I grew up on my grandmother’s stories of long ago. Here I am basically just having fun weaving bits of them together, taking liberties, watching the story unfurl with the long tendrils of the wisteria vine. 

Another source of inspiration was an article posing the question, “Do plants have memories?” That’s all I needed for fact and fiction to take root in my mind; the wisteria sprouted then and there, and began to speak.

In the previous two installments (Wisteria and Wisteria, part 2), the vine relates its beginnings on the Griffin farm and its attachment to a little girl named Jennie Jay. Sent to the Griffins to escape diphtheria at her home, Jennie Jay is miserable. Mr. Griffin (Thomas) offers comfort by reminding her of her first encounter with the vine, which vows, whenever it blooms, that its blossoms will be yellow—Jennie Jay’s favorite color. Now we discover that plants, as well as people, harbor secrets . . . 

*******

I couldn’t bloom at all.

The seasons came and went again, one after the other, on and on. I grew thickly over Jennie Jay’s arbor, but I was all leaves, spirals, and shoots, without flower. I made a nice shade, however. In the dead of summer, when nothing but mosquitoes, dragonflies, and snakes desire to move, the Griffin children—six of them—sought refuge under me. I was strong and healthy. Every spring I woke back up to the world, sure my flowering would come. Every autumn when I began ebbing away, it was having failed to flower.

Mrs. Griffin had no such trouble. She budded out yet again.

One black summer night, as lightning flickered and flashed, and thunder shook the earth, Mr. Griffin drove the mule and buggy up the Mixon road. He came back with Miss Aurelia. Bowed against the pounding rain, the wind whipping hard enough to rip away a portion of my leaves, he ushered  her into the house. He set off again, yelling at the mule when it shied at the thunder. After some time, he returned with Doc Martin.

The storm raged all night. As it subsided, and the morning dawned gray, Miss Aurelia left the house. She ran toward her home, holding her skirts up from the muddy road. Within moments, she came back with Jennie Jay.

How she’d grown. Taller than her mother, now.

Holding onto each other to keep from slipping, minding their skirts against the mire, they hurried back to Mr. Griffin’s.

They stayed all day, washing, cleaning, cooking, consoling the sobbing Griffin children. Other neighbor women arrived with more food and husbands for Mr. Griffin’s chores. Jennie Jay’s Papa, Mr. Mixon, took the doctor home and returned with a pine box on the mule cart.

Late in the evening Jennie Jay came outside and rested her head against my frayed leaves. I felt her warmth, her energy; she radiated aliveness. Strong and healthy, like me. Always like me.

Wisteria, she whispered, I wish you could know what’s in my heart.

Tell me, I longed to say.

I’m not a good person.

Oh, but you are.

I wasn’t fond of Miss Rachel. She wasn’t especially kind to me. But I didn’t want her to die. Honest, I didn’t.

It comes to all of us sooner or later, Jennie Jay.

And the baby, that poor baby . . . 

I had no words for that.

Mama says Mr. Thomas wants them buried together. They’ll be together forever and ever.

Jennie Jay fell silent for a while. Then she sighed as deeply as any human ever did, I am certain.

I can’t stop thinking about Mr. Thomas. He’s so good and gentle. I will never forget how he comforted me when Papa nearly died, how he got me to help him build this very arbor. Look at you now, how great and green you are.

Thank you. Look how tall and strong you are yourself.

Why haven’t you ever bloomed, Wisteria?

Alas, Jennie Jay, you cut me to the quick!

Can I tell you something I can never tell anyone, any person, ever?

Yes, of course; I can never divulge your secrets, you know.

I’ve loved him ever since.

Naturally.

I think she—Miss Rachel—knew. It’s part of why she didn’t like me much. Do you know she told Mama once that she wanted to tear this arbor down? She despised it. She’d have gladly destroyed you.

She is dead and gone now. She cannot hurt me. Or you.

—Jennie Jay?

She jumped.

Y-yes, Mr. Thomas?

Please come eat a bite before you and your Mama go home. The children are asleep now. Don’t know how we would’ve gotten along without you today.

Jennie Jay’s long fingers lingered on my leaves, caressing, as she turned to go. I caught her parting whisper: Well, I owed you, didn’t I.

Tell him, Jennie Jay. Tell him every bit of it.

*******

To be continued, in two more installments … here’s Wisteria, part 4.

Wisteria, part 2

 

Wisteria leaves

Wisteria leaves. “Leaf edge.” Rebecca SiegelCC BY

I recently posted the first part of a short story about a real wisteria vine that grows in an old, forgotten place. Forgotten people are buried there. An article about plants having memories made me wonder what this hardy old vine may have witnessed in its long lifetime . . . here’s Part One , if you’re interested, in which the vine relates how it mysteriously sprouted, took note of its surroundings, and had its life saved by a little girl, Jennie Jay, and her mother. It was the beginning, shall we say, of a very curious friendship.

Here’s Part Two. The vine has lain dormant during its first winter . . . 

*******

I awoke to a gentle sun and delicious, cool dew. I felt new greenness coming on, so I spread what there was of myself.  I was bigger, definitely bigger. Several days went by before I realized how much time had passed while I slept. A whole season, it seemed. For one thing, the cow had a calf.

For another, Mr. Griffin had a Mrs. Griffin.

Intriguing.

As they planted the garden together, I learned her given name, Rachel, and that she came from Up The Swamp. She must’ve already bloomed, as her fruit was showing right in her middle. I wondered how the fruit would transform into a miniature human like Jennie Jay; did new humans burst forth from pods fully formed like that, or did they just drop off? The fruit kept growing but apparently never ripening. Something taking that long to grow surely could not be healthy.

Finally, near harvest time, Mrs. Griffin shut herself in the house with other female humans. Mr. Griffin scoured his garden for the last of the beans, peered at his pumpkins, sighed, repeated the meaningless motions and hoed, although nary a weed was to be found.

He didn’t see the door when it opened, didn’t see Aurelia Mixon until she called, You’ve a fine son, Thomas! Squalling his very lungs out! Come and see him, Papa.

Mr. Griffin’s face glowed like the risen sun, but I considered myself cheated not to have witnessed the human fruit falling.

****

The seasons cycled and cycled again before Jennie Jay came back to me.

I knew her at once. She’d grown. A lot. I’d grown, too. I no longer needed a cage. Mr. Griffin hadn’t built an arbor for me so I squatted instead of standing upright, but my trunk was decidedly thicker.

By this time there were three little Griffins, one in his Mama’s arms and two hanging from her skirt as she went partway up the Mixon road to meet Jennie Jay, who trudged along wearing a straw hat tied with a wide yellow ribbon. She dragged a curious bag behind her, making a noise like Mr. Griffin’s beagle pup when it got its back leg stuck in the fork of the grapevine.

Mrs. Griffin’s face looked ominous, like storm clouds gathering. Heavens, what a fuss, Jennie Jay. Quit that howling and pick up that valise. You’re getting it filthy. Come on and I’ll fix you a bite to eat.

Ain’t hungry.

Your Mama wouldn’t like that. Say ‘I’m not hungry, thank you.’

Ain’t hungry!

What a stubborn little cuss you are. No matter. You’ll do what you’re told until your Papa gets over this diphtheria and you can go back home.

I want my Mamaaaaa!

She can’t come, she’s tending to your Papa. Besides, you can play with Tommy and Molly; I’m sure you’ll all have a big time together, now won’t you?

They made it to the house but Jennie Jay didn’t stay inside long. Within minutes, the door flew open and she ran as hard as she could toward the garden. She flung herself down so close to me that if a stiff breeze blew, I might bend just enough to touch her. A drop or two of the water flowing from her eyes seeped into the earth, to my underparts. The taste surprised me: humans are remarkably salty.

Mr. Griffin drove up in a cart pulled by one of his more pleasant mules. He saw Jennie Jay, called Whoa, hopped down.

Well, if it isn’t little Jennie Jay.

She paid him no attention. She continued dripping.

He knelt beside her. Tell me what’s the matter.

I want to go hoooommmme!

I know you do. I know your Papa and Mama are missing you as much as you miss them. But your Papa has to get well first. He wouldn’t want you to get sick too, would he?

Jennie Jay sat up and wiped her face, leaving smears of earth.  She shook her head.

It’ll be all right, Jennie. Don’t cry, now. Want to know something?

What?

See that vine there?

Mr. Griffin pointed to me.

The funny bush?

Yes. Know what that is?

Jennie regarded me thoughtfully. She shook her head.

It’s wisteria. Once when you were very small you got away from your Mama and came here to pick every last one of my dandelions. We found you here by this vine. I didn’t even know it had sprung up. I aimed to yank it right out of the ground but your mama said no, let it be, on account of you called it by name and that was your first word.

It was?  A flicker of recollection crossed her face.

It sure was. I witnessed it myself. You didn’t start with something easy, no sirree; you had to go and try to say ‘wisteria.’ It came out something like ‘siria’ or ‘siwia.’

Jennie giggled. The dripping had ceased.

Your mama said I ought to make an arbor here, so this vine could grow and grow. It might even bloom one day, Jennie Jay, with flowers hanging all over.

 Ohhhhh . . . will it?

 It just might. Of course I have to build the arbor first, and see, the trouble is, I ain’t had anyone to help me.

 I’ll help you, Mr. Thomas!

 Well then, let’s get started.

 Mr. Griffin held out his hand and helped Jennie Jay to her feet. She stared up at him with shining periwinkle eyes.

  Mr. Thomas, will them wisteria flowers be yellow?

  Probably not. Usually they’re purple.

  Oh.

  Reckon that will be all right, Jennie Jay?

  I reckon.

Mr. Griffin unhitched his mule and off the three of them went toward the barns, Jennie Jay skipping, Mr. Griffin smiling, the mule laying its ears back, looking altogether like Mrs. Griffin at the doorway.

As for me, I vowed that, whenever I finally bloomed, my blossoms would be yellow.

*******

To be continued . . . here’s Wisteria, part 3

 

 

Divine appointment

Cardinal

Cardinal Singing Along. Don and Janet BeasleyCC BY-SA

Broom in hand, I descend the brick steps where moss has newly sprung. The sidewalk needs sweeping and I’ve only a minute. Must get to school early, to prepare for the day; the minutiae of all that has to be done circles round and round my mind. 

But I have to do this first. Oddly. Sweeping the sidewalk is not part of my morning routine. 

Hurry. Hurry.

All is still but for the light chatter of a few birds, waking. The sound of early spring. The sound of April. Of a new day. I pause, listening. How cheerful, how happy their bird voices are, even if to them it’s just regular conversation. My spirit eases, just hearing them. I note that the light is unusual. Against random trees and shrubs, the dawn gleams amber in patches. Everything else is a backdrop in half light. There’s an edge to it all, a starkness. The sky is moody. Altocumulus clouds, dark in their middles, gleaming around their rims, are gathered in bands or waves; this is what scientists call a mackerel sky, I think. Strange light.

—Time. Be aware.

Right, I must hurry.

Just as I put broom to concrete, I see it.

Over in the neighbor’s yard, in the shadows under the bushy, unpruned crape myrtle. 

The brightest spot of color I’ve ever seen. Red. Rosy, electric red, brighter than any neon light, as vivid as fire, glowing, but not burning. Just being. I blink. How does such a color even exist in nature? It has to be a cardinal but I can’t see the rest of him, just his plump breast. A half-memory from childhood stirs in my mind, of pretending I had a pet cardinal and spraying pine-scented air freshener throughout the house to create his forest, where he could fly freely— but for all my attraction to the male cardinal’s plumage, I’ve never seen it to the intensity and brilliance as right now in this capricious light.

I want to see him better but I dare not move. 

I think I’ve quit breathing.

Could I, maybe, get a picture? If I’m stealthy, can I make it into the house and back with my phone? 

I have to try. I have to capture this image.

I watch him as I ease toward the house. He moves a little, hopping in the dappled grass.

As soon as I reach the steps, out of his field of vision, I race through the front door to the kitchen, grab my phone, turn, shoot back through the door, take the steps without making a sound, stop, and creep to where I can see the crape myrtle.

He’s still there! I can’t believe it!

An astounding spot of color, radiating an otherworldly light.

Holy.

I aim my phone and zoom in . . . 

On the screen I see the thin myrtle branches up close. The grass, the shadows, the sunlit patches. —Where’s my bird?

I look away from the phone back to the scene, to get my bearings . . . don’t know how I could have missed, I aimed right where he was standing . . . .

Gone.

He is gone.

In the second between my sighting him and my lifting the phone, he vanished. Without a sound or any perceptible movement. He was and then he was not. Just like that.

Nowhere to be seen at all.

I stand frozen, phone in hands, an inexplicable feeling sweeping through me. 

The moment passed and nothing remains of it. Stunning, that spot of fiery color like no other, in the shadows under that tree. One glimpse of glory. He was so beautiful and I never even saw all of him. Even if I do see him again—and I’ll try, at this same time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after—it will never happen again, not just like this. The clouds will not be the same. The position of the sun will be slightly different. It can never be again exactly as it was. 

I so wanted to capture his image, the holiness of it, to keep it forever, and I could not.

But I hold it in my mind. I cling to every breathtaking detail. 

I write it before it leaves me, wondering at the tears burning behind my eyes over this one bird, this one moment, why it should be so significant, to make me feel so much.

I was just there, unexpectedly, and so was he.

For one shining moment, we just were.

Blowin’ in the wind

Yesterday, while outside with my old dachshund, Nikolaus, I saw this old dandelion.

It stood trembling in the soft spring breeze, holding its seeds tight under its parachute sphere, and I thought Any second now they’ll be blowing in the wind.

Which reminded me of the song.

When I was a child my parents had a stack of record albums, and in it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s In the Wind. Only now do I wonder which of them purchased it, for my young father and mother seemed more representative of the fifties than the sixties. No beads and long hair or tie-dye. Daddy wore a crew-cut all of his adult life. My parents were . . . just parents. Pretty mainstream. I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the album, but as a child I played it over and over on the old stereo, a huge, bench-like piece of furniture on four legs that took up half the length of the living room wall.

Bob Dylan’s “Blowing’ in the Wind” was one of my favorites, mostly because Peter, Paul, and Mary’s harmony was as haunting as his lyrics. But it wasn’t the song I loved most on the album.

That was “Stewball.”

It’s about a racehorse, the underdog, and how a man laments betting all of his money on “the gray mare” and “the bay,” how he wishes that he’d bet on Stewball, who somehow managed to win the race.

The ballad’s content is mournful—Oh, the hoot owl she hollered, and the turtledove moaned, I’m a poor boy in trouble, I’m a long way from home—but the instrumentals jingle along, almost incongruous with the words. Perhaps not as incongruous as me, less than ten years old, swinging as hard as I can, round and round on a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from a pecan tree in the yard of my father’s childhood home, singing at the top of my lungs: Oh, Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine, he never drank water, he always drank wine . . . .

So long ago.

Funny how songs can weave their way through chapters of our lives, as they do through movies. There are stories to be told about the poor choices of adults, and the consequences, with “Stewball” playing in the background.

Nik the dachshund makes his way back to me, staggering in the grass. At sixteen he’s unsteady on his feet and blind; he plows into the old dandelion. Instantaneously the perfect white sphere dissolves, the seeds go airborne.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Maybe it’s answers I seek.

Maybe they’re seeking me.

I do not know.

But I do know that ideas are everywhere, blowing in the wind; I sense them and I know they’ll land, somewhere, sometime, that they’ll take root and grow. If I write them, they’ll spawn more and more ideas.

I gather Nik in my arms, careful of his old, fragile bones, and go back inside the house, humming.

 

 

Like Superman

Superman

Superman. Ian HarveyCC BY-SA

I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.

“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.

Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.

“My turn!” he insists.

I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”

“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to  . . .”

If I want to?

How can I say no?

“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.

Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.

There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.

“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”

He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”

He remembers.

At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”

His perception of everything around him is astonishing.  Whether he has all the words for it or not.

I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.

“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”

“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”

I take the paper and pencil.

“I like baseball,” he says.

“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”

“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.

“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”

He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .

“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”

He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”

Superman . . . 

The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.

He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.

Wearing a Superman shirt.

My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

I pointed to the on his little shirt.

He didn’t understand, but he smiled.

Now, he understands.

Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.

So you run like Superman when you play baseball.

Maybe you really mean that you fly

because you do

because you ARE Superman.

We shall stand marveling in your wake

it’s a bird, it’s a plane

it’s you.

Supersonic.

*******

For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English

For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.