A slice of long ago

My mule neighbors

All my life, I wanted to live in the country.

I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard. 

I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.

To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.

Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.

The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.

I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.

See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul. 

Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.

So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there. 

And, in a way, I was.

In 1937.

*******

He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.

I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.

I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .

All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.

“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.

He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.

Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:

Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.

That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.

“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.

“Bless you.”

******

Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.

That is how my father came into the world.

Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”

Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.

Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.

Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before. 

Living here means that long ago is never far away.

*******

Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”

The gift

I remember what you wrote but I came to find the book anyway, to read the inscription again.

I hold it in my hands and think about you for a long, long time.

You were the baby who was always smiling, the cheeriest toddler, until I had to launder your blanket. Then you leaned your head against the washer and cried.

You were the little boy in preschool who sat beside classmates on the playground when others overlooked them, excluded them. From the start you noticed the outcast, offered comfort, pulled for the underdog.

You were:

The middle-schooler who won an essay contest for writing about the person you most admire, Pa-Pa. You listened to his stories of service in World War II over and over.

The winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award at the end of your senior year.

The college student who started teaching the men’s Sunday School class at church.

The young man who returned to high school, where your Leadership Award still hangs in the front office, to teach Social Studies. Remember how, when you were setting up your classroom, you cleaned out a cabinet and found your old history exams in that stack of papers?

The teacher who taught your students to dance the Charleston—and who taught your own brother in AP U.S. History (your Dad and I weren’t kidding when we said, “Don’t even THINK about calling us in for parent-teacher conferences”).

The soccer coach who built the program and took the team to the State playoffs for the first and only time. 

An inspiration to so many kids. Their parents still tell your father and me.

—I remember it all.

Teachers don’t make a lot of money; you took an extra job at night.

I remember the call. You’d been taken to the hospital. You’d been assaulted. Emergency surgery, jaw wired shut, liquid diet for six weeks. Having to carry wire cutters if you should vomit, or you’d suffocate.

How you chose to visit that young man in prison, forgave him, became his friend.

How you adopted a rescue dog, reached a crossroads in your life, came back home, quit teaching, enrolled in seminary.

Almost immediately followed by your meeting the loveliest young woman and her little girl.

I think about all these things as setting sunlight spills through the blinds onto this book in my hands, illuminating the words you wrote to me that Christmas, years ago:

It is the first book I read that made me want to change the world.

You may not think so, but you’ve been changing the world since the day you first entered it, baby boy. One word, one breath, one heartbeat at time.

I’m quite sure you always will.

Maybe we should have named you Atticus.  

No matter, for things have a way of working out as they’re meant to. I watch you with your new loved ones. I marvel at the gift of it all, the sheer poetry of life writing itself a day at a time, in the most curious of rhythms—like how pages of a book that stirred your heart long ago should come to us, living and breathing.

In a young mom who loves the same book.

And in a little girl named Scout, crawling into your lap for a story.

Happy place

Sitting in the surgical room, waiting for a minor outpatient procedure, I try to redirect my sense of dread by listening to the nurses chatting:

“The knees, they’re the most unforgiving body part.”

“How about the uterus? The uterus is a vindictive organ. You mess with it and it’s going to fight back.”

Immediately I am looking all over the room for something to write with: The uterus is a vindictive organ –! That’s got to be one of the best lines I’ve heard in my entire life. Profound and very possibly inarguable . . . .

But pens apparently aren’t needed in the surgical room, as I can’t see one anywhere, and even if I did, I can’t get to it, I’m hooked to an IV, and besides, here comes a nurse, still talking: “The liver, now, it has a great sense of humor, but the uterus has absolutely none. —How ya doin’?”

She’s addressing me. “Oh!” I say, still etching the dialogue into my brain in a desperate attempt to preserve it. “I’m, um, good.”

—What does she mean, the liver has a great sense of humor? Because it’s able to regenerate? Or is there some other reason? What can that possibly be?

“So, you know you’ll get propofol, right, and this will all be over in a jif,” she says cheerily, busying herself with the tubes and such.

—Propofol. Isn’t that what killed Michael Jackson?

I am just about to ask when the anesthesiologist comes in and says, “All right, let’s do this.”

I want to say, Hang on a second, I really need to know about the liver’s sense of humor, when the anesthesiologist says in a low, silken voice:

“Do you have a happy place?”

I so know what THIS is. Get me talking about something happy so I’ll go under peacefully. A completely obvious ploy.

I don’t want to be put under, I don’t want to talk about my happy place, I want to know about the liver’s sense of humor before I wear myself out wondering about it.

But the moment’s upon me and suddenly this question about my happy place makes me want to cry.

See, I think my happy place is a little like Heaven, and if I start talking about it—will I wake up?

No need to fight. Just embrace it, says my own voice in my own head. At least, I think it’s my own voice.

So I say, “Yes, I have one.”

“Tell me about it,” says the silken voice, as warm as a blanket.

I sigh. “My grandparents’ home.”

“Where’s that?” asks the liver-humor nurse.

“In Beaufort County, out in the country. Some people say at the end of the world.”

“Why were you happy there?” coos the anesthesiologist.

“Well, because they were there. My grandparents. I always wanted to be with them.”

And they always wanted me, I think, but I don’t say it aloud. I can see them, faintly, as I speak. Standing out in the yard, watching for my arrival. One or the other or both, every time they knew I was coming. Watching, waiting.

“What was it like there?”

I’m not sure who asked this.

I can see it as I speak, as if through a window in my mind. The blue sky, the trees. Grandma’s azaleas, the camellia bush, the orchard, Granddaddy’s garden, the old hen house. I am not sleepy, yet. Maybe I can fight this, a bit . . .

“I grew up in the city and in the summers I’d go stay with my grandparents. I loved the country. It was a little paradise . . .”

It was love personified, love-infused, love written in the veins of every leaf, in every blade of grass, in the black earth itself that gave back so abundantly of what was given,  love echoing in every birdsong, in the vibration of every cicada, love painted on the iridescent bodies of dragonflies in a place more alive than any other I have ever known.

“Time to wake up, now,” says a gentle voice in my ear.

Grandma? Is it morning, already?

I’m so sleepy, still.

“Here you go. It’s all over, and everything is fine. You did great.”

It’s the liver-humor nurse.

I’m dressed, wheeled out to the car, buckled in beside my husband who’s driving, and well on my way home before I realize:

I STILL don’t know why the liver has a great sense of humor.

The gazebo

Gazebo at Night. Lori L. StalteriCC-BY

At first he thought he never wanted to see it again, the little gazebo on campus.

How perfect it was when he last saw it.

He couldn’t have orchestrated things better than they’d played out: the June sunlight just beginning to wane after dinner, shining in a deep, golden slant through the magnolias, the fragrance of the last blooms heavy in the air.

And her.

At last, and again, for they’d broken upon once. This time he knew it was meant to be. Side by side they sat, and he gave her the ring.

She started to cry.

“Will you marry me?”

She wiped her tears, laughed, hugged him. “Yes!”

Perfect. That one afternoon, in the whole of his life, was perfect.

In two weeks she was gone.

Not ready, she told him. They were too young.

That’s it then, he told her. Not now, not ever.  

His friends consoled him: “You ARE too young. Just enjoy life before you worry about getting tied down.”

Trouble was, he didn’t know how.

For days, all he wanted to do was sleep. He slept the rest of the summer away. He ate his way through autumn into the winter until he decided (while standing on the scales) that enough was enough.

He started walking, counting his calories. He lost seventy pounds.

He reconnected with old friends.

One asked, “Whatever happened, exactly?”

He told her all of it, just as they were driving past the campus. On the spur of the moment, he said, “I’ll even show you the gazebo where I gave her the ring.”

It was getting dark. He parked the car. They got out, walked the magnolia path. Lights in the lampposts flickered on. It was chilly; he hadn’t thought to wear a coat but he hadn’t planned on strolling to the gazebo tonight, or any night. He shivered as they stepped into the clearing . . .

The gazebo wasn’t there.

For a minute he thought he was dreaming. He looked every which way—yes, this is where it was. This is where it stood.

It’s gone!”

“Gone? How could it be gone?” asked his friend. “Are you sure this is the right place? That you haven’t made a mistake?”

“I made a mistake here, all right, but it wasn’t forgetting where the gazebo is. Was. I even used to ride my bike past it when I was little. Right here.” He scratched his head. “This is like something out of the Twilight Zone.”

His friend laughed. “Well, it’s twilight anyway. And maybe that gazebo didn’t disappear. Maybe it never existed at all, and maybe you never made that mistake because it’s been erased. It just never was.”

To this day, he hasn’t asked anyone who might know what happened to the gazebo, because, as far as he’s concerned, his friend is right.

Although he still occasionally checks, when he happens to think of it, which is less and less often.

It’s not there.

As if it never was.

*******

(True story)

Beautiful child

At a recent meeting of educators, I heard a woman speak of her child’s transition to a new school. The child came home bubbling with excitement on Day One:

“Mom, my teacher looks like me!”

This is the first time her child ever had a teacher of the same race, the woman said. In fact, she went on to say, with quick finger quotes for emphasis, her child was “the only ‘beautiful’ child in the class last year.”

I understood what she meant: Her child was the only one of their race in that classroom.

I’m a mom. I know the protective, fiery love for one’s own, above all else. A proverb comes to mind: “There’s only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it.” This mom didn’t say there’d been a problem at the previous school but as an educator I know that a sense of belonging and identity are vital to learning. I know that every school and classroom should strive to value, support, empower, and celebrate each child (as well as the adults). For that is how children learn to value, support, empower, and celebrate each other. That’s humanity at its best.

Which is why, as a human being hearing these words from another, a mother and educator, I came away with one heavy, lingering question:

Aren’t ALL children beautiful?

Tale of two chocolates

Last night I was privileged to have guests, one of whom is a three-year-old girl.

While seated at the dinner table, my son’s Valentine stash on the counter caught her eye.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a giant Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in red foil.

“Chocolate,” we told her.

“I want it!” she said.

“No, that’s too much chocolate,” said her mom.

Our little visitor looked at my husband (for support? For overruling authority?). She maintained solemn poise for a few seconds: “Mom says no.”

Then her mouth quivered and her blue eyes went watery.

Poor brave baby, I thought. Trying to accept ‘no’ is so hard.

Her mom got up and reached into the candy basket. “Wait, here’s a little one. You can have this little chocolate, okay?”

The watery eyes brightened: “A tiny one? I can have a tiny one?”

“Sure,” smiled her mom, handing over the regular-sized Kiss.

Small, chubby fingers nimbly divested this Kiss of its pink foil. But the child didn’t eat it. She studied it, then observed: “It’s a baby.”

The rest of us chuckled.

Our small visitor pointed back to the big Kiss and told my son: “I want to see it!”

“Okay,” he obliged. He got up from the table and fetched the giant chocolate.

“Open it! Open it!” demanded the girl, bouncing up and down in her chair.

Her mother looked hesitant as my son unwrapped it: “Just look—you’re not going to eat it, okay?”

As soon as the foil fell away, our little visitor’s face glowed. “It’s the mama!” She held the little Kiss up to the big Kiss: “Here’s your baby.” Wiggling the little Kiss, she said: “Hi, Mama! I missed you.”

As the rest of us dissolved in laughter, a grin spread across the child’s winsome face. She promptly ate the “baby” Kiss and went back to eating her dinner while my own thoughts enveloped me, momentarily drowning out the grown-up conversation.

The beauty, the lightning-quickness of a very small child’s mind, stirring, brimming, spilling over into a narrative with which she identifies, a defining of her world—a child, in fact, who hasn’t been verbal for very long. Easy to dismiss as a simple spur-of-the-moment burst of imagination, but in reality, it’s so much more. This is understanding at its finest, coming naturally through play, through story.

Oh, to bottle it . . . no. Never that. Oh, to open it, let it breathe, let it steep, becoming ever more potent each day, invincible against time and factors that will systematically dilute and evaporate it. Imagination, play, story, the core of who we are from our very beginning . . . the Mama Kiss.

—How we miss you.

I see you

From the desk (so to speak) of Henry Rollins Haley (HRH), “pawthor” of the Henry Writes posts

[With right paw, adjusts laptop lid for best camera angle. Commences typing with one foreclaw]

Hello again, at last.

It’s been a while, has it not?

I’ve not forgotten you.

It’s just that I SO RARELY get screen time.

Can you see me—?

Because I can see you.

And, frankly, I’m worried. A lot.

You seem tired. Tense. Does your head hurt? Your bones? Your heart?

Something does. I sense it.

It makes me anxious.

Not for myself.

For you.

See, I have this innate, overwhelming, all-consuming need for everything to be okay, and it can’t be, if you are not okay.

I have no alternative but to dispel this disequilibrium. I am utterly compelled to restore a balance of Well-Being and Goodwill, for, otherwise, I simply cannot cope.

I’m unable to speak this, as you know. I must communicate via the only means I have.

Fortunately, I can type . . . .

But better still, I come as close as possible to you. I wait for you to see me. To acknowledge me, welcome me, invite me. Give me a sign. Then I will offer you my questing paw, my nudging nose, the long, velvety-warm magnificence of Me, custom-made for absorbing your sadness, your tears, your aches, your angst, so that they melt deep and far away, into insignificance, to irrelevance, nearly to nonexistence.

My gift is calm. My presence, peace. Your being, my being.

And so I wait and watch, hoping, hoping, forever hoping. Can you see it in my eyes?

Can you see me?

I see you.

*******

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

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.

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 . . . .

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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

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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