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

 

 

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.

Wisteria

In recent years, I’ve written lots of short stories, beyond those as models for students or posted here on the blog.  Some of my stories are realistic, usually centering on a character making a self-discovery or a difficult decision. Other stories are more ethereal, with a slightly supernatural element.  

“Wisteria” is one of the latter.

April in North Carolina brings life to the heavy vines snaking through the woods. One day the woods are dark, gray, forlorn, and the next, it seems, they’re bursting with color. Along the highways and back roads, cascades of soft purple blooms reminiscent of grape clusters swathe the trees. The wisteria is beautiful. Its perfume laces the fresh spring air. To me it speaks of old things, old ways, long ago, things we cannot see and did not know, but are with us still, even so.

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I frequently write of my grandparents’ country home in eastern North Carolina, where I spent many childhood summers. It is a tiny, old, remote place. Utterly foreign and mysterious to a little city girl. The images abide with me to this day for myriad reasons: I was happy there. To be with my grandparents was to be in a stronghold of love and safety. Absolute sanctuary. Not until I was grown did I realize how much the environment, the setting, nature itself wove its way into my very being much like wisteria stealthily weaves its way through a forest, grabbing hold of anything it can. Like it did in the thick woods looming eternally dark and secretive around my grandparent’s home. Suddenly, in the spring, these tall, ominous trees were laden with wisteria blooms. They made my grandmother sneeze; they made me stand still and dream. 

Grandma told stories of long ago, before these woods existed. When a whole community thrived along this old dirt road. When the people in the cemetery in the tiny clearing  across from her house were alive. As a child, listening, these people lived and breathed once more, just briefly, in my my mind. Like ghosts temporarily made corporeal before dissolving again. I stood by their aging white stones, some eroding or so weather-streaked or moss-covered that names and snippets of verse were hard to read, seeing my own moving shadow cast over the grass of their graves, as a soft breeze picked up. Leaves and pine needles rustled; birds chattered with wild abandon; frogs plopped into the tiny canal at the cemetery’s edge; crickets chorused from the recesses of the woods because it’s always night there. 

The cemetery vibrated with life. 

I looked up and saw the wisteria nodding, high in the trees.

I tried growing it myself, once.  

A few years ago, a friend of mine, knowing my affinity for the vine, brought me a potted wisteria. I planted it by the back deck with great glee. Another friend built a trellis for me on the deck, so that as the vine grew—which is alarmingly fast—I could tease its tendrils through the lattice. Soon I’d have a glorious arbor of soft purple bliss.

That is not what happened.

Those tendrils, so tender and unassuming, grew daily; they began reminding me of something out of science fiction. Like thin green antennae, they grew out and up from the woody trunk. They held themselves aloft in the air, swaying, twisting—I could actually see these movements. Some tendrils eventually reached the deck and coiled around its posts. Still others stretched, as if consciously, toward the lattice; I guided these green strands to spots where they could weave through in their ever-onward and upward way. 

The first small blooms appeared.

-Joy.

And then one day as I walked across the deck I realized that the lattice was bending, was already quite convex. The wisteria, pulling and pulling, continually gaining strength and momentum (as best I can describe it) was destroying the trellis, was literally drawing it into itself. 

I gazed in fascinated horror. How did this happen so fast?

I noted that one sweet little tendril had reached the gutter of the house, so benignly . . . 

It had to go. 

I cut down the vine. Hacked it to bits.

And mourned.

Not long afterward, I read a science article that posed the question: “Do plants have memories?”

Oh. Oh. Oh . . . .

That wisteria in the woods by my grandparents’ home surely must. . . it’s been there for how long? A century? More?

What, exactly, would it remember?

And that is how my story “Wisteria” was born.

My friends enjoy it. Contest judges and magazine publishers apparently do not.

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve decided to share a bit of the story here, maybe tinkering with it as I go, just because it’s April and the wisteria blooms are once again hanging in the trees, nodding high above whenever I pass by.

*******

She was the first child I ever saw.

I did not recognize her as human. Tiny, clad all in white, she was rather daisy-like, with her upper petals drawn toward her capitulum. I have since learned that this curiosity is a bonnet, for shielding the female’s face from the sun.

I have never understood this.

I came up craving the full sun over my entire being, excepting my under parts that forbid any relocation, that stretch incrementally downward and outward, darkly drawing moisture. This flower possessed the astonishing power of locomotion. She tottered along the dusty road and into Mr. Griffin’s yard where the pecan tree shadowed the patchy grass. Apparently she attracted dandelions; wherever a fuzzy yellow head dotted the ground, she paused and somehow drew it right to her.

Nearer and nearer she came. To her own fate, I suspected, should she enter Mr. Griffin’s garden. Vigilant about his cultivation, he allowed no weed or creature of any kind to interfere with it. I’d poked my way aboveground to discover him plowing painstakingly straight rows, followed by weeks of planting, fertilizing, constructing poles for his beans, staking his tomatoes, scanning the sky wistfully for rain. The black earth bubbled up into greenness, a ceaseless unfurling, blooming, enlarging. The garden was, I must confess, a magnificent human endeavor. If this mobile daisy dared invade, Mr. Griffin might well appear with his shotgun, as he frequently did with four-footed fauna. I preferred not to witness the annihilation of the only known walking-flora specimen.

I shuddered when the vibration came.

Not the crack of the shotgun; a human cry, a scream:

JENNNNNIEEEE! JENNNNIEEEEE JAAAAAYYYYYYYYY!

A harrowing sound.

I know about harrows.

Mr. Griffin heard it from the cow barn. He came running, pitchfork in hand, looking every which way. He couldn’t see the daisy; she had fallen flat behind a sprawling squash vine. A movement at the road caught his eye: A woman, running hard, clutching her long skirt.

JENNNNNIEEEE!

By this time the daisy had righted herself. She proceeded on through the furrows, right in my direction.

They saw her. Just as her warm shadow fell upon me, the woman was there, Mr. Griffin immediately behind her.

Up into the woman’s arms went the daisy.

Oh, Jennie Jay, you frightened Mama to death. You could have fallen in the creek and drowned.

No harm done, Miss Aurelia. Looks like she was just hunting dandelions. Got a whole bouquet of ’em clutched there in her hands, don’t she.

She loves anything yellow. She’s strong-minded, to be such a little thing. Lord-a-mercy! Sound asleep on the quilt under the oaks one minute and gone the next, when I stepped in to stir the soup!

She didn’t get far.

Thank heaven. Your garden’s a wonder, Thomas. What made you decide to start a wisteria?

Ma’am?

Miss Aurelia pointed to me.

Your little wisteria, there.

To tell the truth, that ain’t my doing. Ain’t even noticed it.  Here, I’ll pull it right out . . . 

Oh, no, Thomas—don’t. Let it be. You could build an arbor for it, train it up. That wisteria would make the place real pretty for a bride, now wouldn’t it?

Mr. Griffin’s sun-browned face burned as red as the kerchief in his bibbed overalls. Miss Aurelia grinned and turned away. A little face peeped over her shoulder, and that’s when I perceived that the white-petaled thing was no walking flower but a miniature human, as capitula do not have two great blue eyes.

Siwia, she said.

My land! Did you hear that, Thomas? Jennie Jay just said her first word! Say it again, Jennie.

Siwia. Siwia.

What on earth?

Sounds to me like she’s trying to say ‘wisteria’, Miss Aurelia.

Well, I never. Not ‘Mama’. Not ‘Papa’. Wisteria! That does beat all. I reckon you have to leave that vine now, Thomas, to mark this occasion for Jennie Jay.

From the moment she spoke my name, I was enchanted. As her mama carried her away, Jennie Jay’s eyes stayed fixed on me.

Thus our kinship germinated.

We were both so new.

That evening, Mr. Griffin cut some chicken wire and made a cage around me.

Just you stay out of my garden, he muttered, the first and last time he ever addressed me directly.

I vowed to try.

Some weeks later he brought mulch—oh, so rich and warm!  Before I knew it, I slipped into a deep sleep.

*******

To be continued . . . see Wisteria, part 2.

Wisteria in yard 2

Wisteria and spring blooming. Ryan BasilioCC BY

Last times

To commemorate my last post of the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge with the Two Writing Teachers community—this is my second year of completion—I write about “last times.”

Yesterday I shared the “first time” heart map template from Georgia Heard’s Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing. I use these templates when I lead professional development for teachers in writing; it’s astonishing how often I hear teachers say, “I used to love writing but I don’t do it anymore.” More frequently, I hear: “I’m not good at teaching writing.”

The first step is simply to start writing.

The first and last time maps are excellent guides for this, and, furthermore, when teachers have taken these back to their classrooms, they tell me they’ve been amazed at what they learned about their students: “One of my boys wrote ‘the first time I rode a camel’. The class was so intrigued that he had to tell the story right then! We never would have known this if we hadn’t used the first times map.”

On to last times . . .

Here are mine, maybe to be spun out into full stories, one day:

The last time I walked through my baby’s nursery before moving. My older of two sons was born when my husband was in his first pastorate. The parsonage where we lived was a former sea captain’s house, built in 1915 (the year my grandmother was born), two blocks from the Chesapeake Bay. The congregation was mostly elderly; there hadn’t been a baby in the church, or the parsonage, for a long time. I was just twenty-two when my husband and I moved in, and I got to choose the wallpaper for the bedrooms. For the room that adjoined the master bedroom, I picked an ivory paper with little muted-red hearts between dusty blue stripes. A year later, I bought ivory crib sheets and bumper pads along with coordinating quilts and wall decor all adorned with these same little rustic hearts, teddy bears, and rocking horses. Our son was three when we left the Eastern Shore of Virginia to serve a church in North Carolina. I walked through the empty nursery last, where the only the little hearts remained on the walls; I stood there, running my fingers over them, and wept.

The last time I had really long hair. From kindergarten and first grade, when my hair was cut in an assortment of horrible shags, not to mention my cowlicks, I wanted long hair. By fifth grade, it was finally beginning to happen. In sixth and seventh grade, my hair reached down to my waist, was parted in the middle and as straight as a stick. In eighth grade I had a crush on a boy in my algebra class. He sat behind me. He’d speak to me occasionally, sometimes asking for help (which shows what dire straits he was in, to ask ME for help with algebra). I decided to cut my hair solely to get this guy’s attention . . .

The last time I played kickball. That was about a week ago! Due to a series of unfortunate events, there was a shortage of substitute teachers at my school on fourth grade’s quarterly collaborative planning day. I found myself taking a class to recess. It was a sunny, first true spring-like day, and the kids produced a kickball. “Mrs. Haley, will you pitch for us? Pleasepleasepleaseplease?” I haven’t played kickball since I was ten years old . . . but I was good at it, so . . . I took my place on the pitcher’s mound. My beginning teacher in kindergarten, walking past the game with her class on the way to the gym, stopped to gleefully take pictures.

The last time I quit a job I disliked. I’d had enough. I told the employers so and walked out. I never went back. Better things came along. Since then, when colleagues and friends have spoken of how much they detest their jobs, I’ve asked: What are you going to do about it?  Life is too short to be spent doing something that makes you miserable every day.

The last time I performed in a play. I was in my second year of college. I planned to be a theater arts major, having performed in numerous high school productions, and I’d just auditioned and been accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. This really sounds like a story of beginnings, doesn’t it? To stay immersed until I left on this huge new venture, I performed in community theater. At the audition for the very next play, after receiving my letter of acceptance to the Academy, I walked in, saw the handsomest man I’d ever seen in my life . . . and got married that summer instead of going to acting school.

The last time I went to my childhood church. My husband and I attended the service honoring my retiring childhood pastor, who’d become mentor to my husband, the last of over fifty young men my pastor ordained into the ministry. The church building was large; I remembered how, as a child, I’d occasionally run upstairs—there were flights and flights of stairs, some of them not adjoining; I’d have to run across some entire floors to pick up other staircases—and I’d go as far as I could, up to a little door with a dark window. I tried the doorknob. It was locked. I wondered: What’s behind there? Can I go any higher? Is God on the other side, somewhere? Who keeps the key?

The last time I spoke to my grandfather. He was dying of lung cancer, at ninety-two. He stayed at home with hospice care and refused morphine. From his years around loud equipment in the shipyard, Granddaddy was notoriously hard of hearing. He never talked on the phone for this reason, but one day when I called to see how he was, he answered the phone. Grandma had stepped outside. I talked to him for just a few minutes, almost shouting into the phone so he could hear me. He understood every word. I said, I love you, Granddaddy. You’re safe in God’s hands. He said, emphatically: I love you, Honey, and there’s no better place to be.

The last time I saw my dad. It was the week of July 4th. I’d come home with my boys to stay a few days, as Daddy wanted to take us to the shipyard to see the fireworks. He was retiring at the beginning of October, after almost forty-one years as a security guard, so this would be the last time, the only time, we’d get to do this. There’s a lot to the story that I’m not up to telling, even now; maybe one day . . .  so we went, my boys and I. As I sat there in the dark, watching the sky explode in lights over the vast, beautiful river of my childhood, sipping the ginger ale Daddy brought to share, I thought: Surely this is the beginning of better times. Daddy’s going to have more time to spend with us now. In my heart, I celebrated for him, that his working days were just about done, that soon he could take it easy and enjoy life . . . I could never have imagined it would be the last time I’d see him.  In September, just three days before he was to retire, he died with a massive heart attack. In uniform, on his way to work.

Writing about last times can be so hard, so hard, so hard.

But not always . . . as my workshop participants tell me, there’s that last car payment, that last mortgage payment, causes for celebration, indeed. Maybe even a step toward health, as in the last time someone smoked a cigarette.

So I close my thirty-one day writing streak, celebrating that I made it to the last post, celebrating my fellow Slicers who did the same, who wrote alongside me, who walked a part of the journey with me every day. Here’s to writing, friends. Here’s to sharing each other’s stories as long as we can, though perhaps not daily until next March.

Thank you all.

Here’s to your first and last times, to what’s in your heart, and to life.

Keep trusting.

First times

Georgia Heard’s book, Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing, has been out for a couple of years now, but when I facilitate writing workshop training for teachers in my district, many still haven’t heard of heart maps.

Since the first step in being an effective writing teacher is to write, I show teachers how to use this tool for themselves first.

The photo is of Heard’s “First Times” heart template. I’ve filled in many of my personal “first times” which can be spun into stories. Such as . . .

The first time I had a serious injury. I was in the fourth grade, on the playground, standing on a tire cemented to the end of a pole (two of these poles would be used to hold up a volleyball net; this pole was lying down, and I was standing up on the tire’s edge) with the intent of jumping and grabbing hold of the tallest chin-up bar. I missed. I broke my left arm. When I get around to writing this story in all of its gory detail, I must also include my dad, who came to take me to the orthopedist. He brought me an old, smudged doll that I didn’t play with anymore. It was humiliating, but at the same time, seeing him there, holding that bedraggled doll I’d outgrown, his face pinched because of the pain I was enduring, I understood that he was trying to help in the best way he knew how. Yes, I’ll need to write this story, one of these days.

The first time I directed a play. I was a high school senior and my drama teacher was  asked to send two students to the elementary school to lead a small production for advanced learners in the fifth grade. I was chosen to direct the play and a classmate was chosen to teach the students some of the tech, such as scenery and lights. One little boy in the elementary group was painfully shy; I gave him the role of the bad-boy motorcyclist and, well . . . I need to write that story.

The first time I cried over a book. Fourth grade again. The teacher read Charlotte’s Web to the class. Later in the year, she read Old Yeller to us. I didn’t think I’d live through fourth grade (broken arm notwithstanding).

The first time a teacher praised my writing. Fifth grade. The class had written “All About Me” books and the teacher complimented my description of the allergy medicine I had to take. Until this moment, I had no idea my writing had any real value.

The first time I felt sorry, really sorry, for my father. When he got paid at the end of the week, he would cash his check and go to the store for our family’s groceries. Once the shopping was done, he’d put the rest of the money in the bank. One day, when I was a young teenager, Daddy got in line with his loaded cart, reached for his wallet to pay the cashier—and discovered that his wallet was missing. Along with his whole week’s pay.

So, I walk teachers through the process of brainstorming their own “first times” for writing inspiration, before we ever talk about how students might use the heart maps.

And the teachers write. Some stare off into space, thinking; others smile. There’s not a lot of tears when we write about first times.

Those tend to come when we write about last times.

Happy blog birthday

Cake & two candles

Matching candles. Ray_LACCC BY

My blog, Lit Bits and Pieces, is two years old today.

I celebrate with a little recap.

My first post, Seeing past the surface, combines a bit of memoir with teaching struggling readers. When I was a child visiting my grandmother in the summer, she took me crabbing. This activity takes a little more finesse than one realizes . . . as does helping readers make meaning of their reading.

The post with the most views is Deeper than data. It opens with a conversation during a meeting at school, where a child’s reading data is projected and I, as the literacy coach, am expected to make a pronouncement on what all this data means and what to do for the child. I say I can’t answer these things until I listen to that child read first. This post is about seeing the children behind the data points.

The post with the most likes occurred just a few days ago: Blanket. I wrote it when I was too tired to write, and I am still sitting in amazement at the response.

A post frequently mentioned to me, that seems to strike a deep chord in others, is Fresh-cut grass. As long as I live, the fragrance of cut grass will remind me of my father and evoke my childhood.

I can’t say I have a favorite post, really.  It’s akin to saying which of your children is your favorite.  I think a couple of my best are To love that well, a tribute to my mother-in-law’s life on her passing, and What child is this, remembering a former student killed in an accident. I ponder the importance of college and career ready versus life ready. Especially when a life lasts only eleven years.

One of the great joys of writing is turning back time to relive moments too precious to live just once. Here I am as a child with my Granddaddy: Red rubber boots. I walk the old paths with Granddaddy again many times in these posts.

I started this blog for a couple of reasons: to stretch myself as a writer and to walk the walk as a writing teacher and coach. If I’m going to be encouraging students and teachers to write, I’d best be writing myself. And, as Dr. Mary Howard says of her Facebook posts, that they’re her “writing playground,” so this blog is my my own writing playground. I didn’t want it to be all about education; I want to write about whatever comes to my heart and mind at given moments.

Here I simply ponder the meaning behind experiences, images, and ideas. I strive to capture what I find as best I can. If you come away feeling uplifted, then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.

I celebrate two years of writing Lit Bits and Pieces. I celebrate life.

I celebrate you.

Thank you for reading.

Hearts