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

 

 

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

New life

Baby robins

Baby robins. DanCC BY

Easter morning.

I have a new spring wreath for the front of the house. I should have put it out before now. What’s taken me so long?  

I step out onto the wide front porch, wreath in hand. It’s chilly out here. A light fog hovers;  I shiver in the pre-dawn grayness. The smell and taste of salt from the Bay hangs heavy in the air. I will hurry, as there’s lots to do to be ready for the sunrise service down on the beach. Waking, feeding, and dressing a toddler takes time. Maybe I will wait until after the service to show him his Easter basket . . . 

The old wreath on the front of the house is in terrible shape. I’m ashamed of how it looks, that I’ve left it up for too long. It’s a grapevine with flowers and greenery at the bottom center, behind two white stuffed geese wearing blue bows around their necks. Except that the geese are gray now, speckled, mottled by the elements, and the blue ribbon is faded almost to colorlessness. 

I reach for the old wreath and something dark flies out, startling me so that I drop the new wreath onto the porch floorboards.

A bird. 

I notice, then, the rim of a nest tucked into the wreath’s artificial greenery, behind the stuffed geese. The dry grass of the nest blends in with the bits of fake Spanish moss.

And I hear squeaks.

Standing on my tiptoes to peer into the nest, I see four baby birds. They’re still mostly pink skin, with just the beginnings of dark, downy fuzz. Their wide yellow beaks open.

Mama, feed us. 

I stand, hardly daring to breathe, watching, awed by this new life. How fragile it is. What a precarious place for it to be, for this wreath is attached to the house by just one nail. If it doesn’t hold . . . I cannot bear to think of it.

I retrieve the dropped wreath and step slowly, carefully away. Mama Bird is somewhere nearby, fussing and fretting over the safety of her babies. I will leave them in peace.   

As place my hand on the handle of the old door, I think about this big old house, how long it’s been standing, the storms it’s weathered in a place where storms tend to be more violent due to the proximity to the sea. That it’s a strong shelter, a parsonage provided free to my husband, our little boy, and me. I am going to worry about those baby birds on the front of this house, but I have to believe that the sheltering grace will extend to them, cover them, as it has done for me. 

The sun is just beginning to pierce the fog as I take one last look, as Mama flies back to her own, and Papa Bird shows himself for the first time, landing on the white porch rail by the column, his head cocked, watching me. In the pink light of a new day, I think of the old words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Doesn’t matter how old, faded, ruined, broken . . . new life begins in the most unexpected ways, in the shabbiest of circumstances. 

Easter morning.

I wipe my tears. I go back inside, new wreath in hand, to my own new life.

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.

Memory box

Memory box

Memory Box. AntaraCC BY

This weekend I caught a bit of an interview with Jon O. Newman, a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Newman has written a memoir entitled Benched. The subtitle is rather epic, something you should experience on your own . . .

What caught my attention, however, was the Judge’s statement that “everyone should write memoir, for your children, your grandchildren.” He went onto say how valuable a person’s memories are to the successive generations, especially for the unique knowledge they impart.

These statements were both invigorating and validating to me for a number of reasons.

First: I’ve been writing a good bit of memoir here on Lit Bits & Pieces. It may well be my favorite thing to write. When I am composing a piece, it’s almost like I have “street view” of moments and people as they were long ago; I can see it all from so many angles, from within and beyond my childhood self.  Judge Newman said, “The more you write, the more detail you will remember.” It’s astonishing, really, the little things I begin to recall, one after the other, once I start writing. The images return in startling clarity. I write in scenes, small moments. I tell writing teachers that memoir is really small moments on steroids, all pumped up and full of meaning.

Secondly: I write these pieces of memory because they hover so vividly, begging a landing place, and because I truly love the time-travel. They’re meaningful to me, so I try to preserve them as best I can. What’s astonishing is the response I sometimes get from a  reader; I never anticipated such deep chords would be struck. It leaves me, every time, in wordless awe at the power, the “magic,” of writing.

Lastly, having watched my mother-in-law and grandmother suffer the ravages of dementia — and the loss of their dignity — I write to celebrate the human brain at its most glorious, the triumph of the human heart over its darkest moments, the joy and the story of lives well-lived.

In this way, my blog serves as a memory box for me, homage to those who’ve gone before, and perhaps a gift to those who come after. As the photographer of the beautiful image at the top of this post wrote: We should save part of our memories in a box . . . we may need it later . . . 

Tonight I celebrate memory. My own and the bright fragments given to me by those I loved — those I still love, for in truth, when I write, they are ever so near.

Fresh-cut grass

Grass

Grass. montillon.aCC BY

As daylight hours grow longer, spring stretching toward summer, the hum of a lawnmower is ever-present in my little neighborhood.

Yesterday my younger son mowed our lawn. When I arrived home after work, there stood Banjo, our yellow Lab, with his front paws on the wooden gate leading to the backyard, barking his welcome. As I walked from the car to pet him, the clean, green fragrance of fresh-cut grass also rose to meet me.

It’s the smell of home, of childhood, of long ago.

I closed my eyes against the waning afternoon light. In the cool of the day, for a second, I was there, in another neighborhood, another yard.

My father was so proud of the corner lot he bought in the summer before I started school. This was our first house. Up until then our family had lived in apartments. At the time, having two bathrooms (really a bath and a half – my sister and I dubbed them The Big Bathroom and The Little Bathroom) seemed a great luxury.

By the front steps to the left of the sidewalk stood the black lamppost. Beyond this, the yard sloped toward a chestnut tree and the ditch, which entered our yard from under the street and joined the backyards of all the houses on the block. When I wanted to visit my friends, I took the shortcut, running alongside the ditch. (This ditch sometimes caused flooding, which is  another story starring my dad: The secret gates.)

A maple tree stood on the right side of the front yard. My mother’s gardenia bushes and forsythia comprised a small hedge near the front steps, and at the right corner my father eventually planted a camellia bush, brought from his own childhood home.

My father kept our lawn immaculate.

He did it for years with a push mower. I wonder now if he ever rued having that corner lot with so much grass to cut, especially in the summer when his fair face grew florid from the sun and heat. He wore a towel around the back of his neck to wipe away the sweat.

I played outside a lot as a child; the scent of grass wafted through many games and adventures with my sister, the neighborhood kids, the dogs.

I can’t remember the first time the fragrance brought a pang. It just hit me one day: I stopped, inhaled.

Fresh-cut grass.

Daddy. 

For a split second, I was a child again, standing in the front yard in the cool of the day, glimpsing the streets, feeling the hum of everyday life, lazy afternoons, the maple tree stirring.

The sense of order, continuity, stability behind it all is my father.

All present and real in that clean, green smell.

Our last phone conversation was about his cutting the grass. He had a riding lawnmower by then:

“My chest is sore. I think it’s from turning the wheel on the mower. I probably shouldn’t have gone over the yard twice.”

“Why do you need to do it twice, Daddy?”

“Well, I don’t need to do it twice. I like to cut it in one direction and then the other. It makes a pattern. Looks so nice.”

“Has that made you sore like this before?” 

“Not really. I overdid it this time.”

“When do you go back to your heart doctor?”

“I don’t go to him any more. Once you’re healed they see you for a while but then they release you. I only see a regular doctor when it’s time for check-ups.”

I don’t like the sound of this. He’s been mowing his lawn forever and hasn’t been sore. It could be overexerted muscles, but . . . 

“Daddy, you should go back to the cardiologist. Just in case.”

He didn’t make the appointment. His mind was on getting through his last week of work and retiring after nearly forty-one years as a security guard at the shipyard.

Four days later, on a bright, early-fall morning, he walked across his prized lawn for the last time. He was in uniform, going to work. He had three more working days to go.

The neighbor across the street happened to look through her window and saw him lying beside his car.

It was his heart, of course. It just blew, six years after his first attack and bypass surgery.

He died there by the green, green grass of home.

That’s a damned sad song, he once told me, shaking his head. “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” That and “Danny Boy.” When I was stationed in Las Vegas, at the nightclubs somebody always asked for “Danny Boy.” Why do people like songs about dying? Why not ask for something cheerful, for God’s sake?

Something cheerful.

It’s not a song, Daddy, just a blog post about fresh-cut grass, but there’s cheer in it, because the grass, though cut, always heals itself and grows again, and you are always present in that sweet scent, and I am a child without a care in the world, only I don’t realize it yet.

I do now.

Thank you for everything. I owe you much.

Love you.

* * * * *

Daddy - USAF

Daddy served in the United States Air Force before I was born. Memorial Day seems to be a fitting time to honor him. Although his service to his country was long past, he was nevertheless in uniform and on his way to perform his duty when he died – one of the most dutiful men I’ve ever known. He was also a storyteller. With Daddy, stories occasionally became epics, as he liked to talk and frequently got in trouble for that in school, according to my grandmother. I owe my love of story in large part to them. Here are two favorite stories of mine derived from theirs, featuring all of us:  Born and Baby’s breath.

Born

“They said it would be a while,” announced the young man, as he came through the apartment door. “I gave the nurses your number – I figured I could wait here just as good as at the hospital, since it’s so close.”

“Yes, that’s true!” beamed his mother, closing the door behind him. “I’m so glad you came!”

The young man’s father nodded from the table. “You’re just in time for strawberry shortcake. Come have a bite.”

The young man seated himself at the table while his mother dished up another serving of shortcake topped with freshly-whipped cream. He’d hardly tasted it when the telephone rang. He froze – it couldn’t be the hospital, could it? 

His mother darted to the phone: “Hello? Yes … yes he is.”

She held the receiver out to him.

Was something wrong? Despite the juicy strawberries, his mouth was dry as he took the phone.

“Congratulations!” said the chipper nurse on the other end. “You have a daughter! Mother and baby are doing fine.”

He managed to thank the nurse. He hung up and looked into the rapt blue eyes of his parents.

“It’s a girl,” he said, blinking. “She’s already here!”

His mother hugged him. She began to cry.

In a flurry, they gathered the dishes and set them in the sink. His mother took off her apron and grabbed her pocketbook. His father put on his black cap, and the three of them fairly scrambled out of the kitchen door and down the back stairs.

His mother-in-law and sister-in-law were standing at the nursery window when the young man arrived with his parents in tow. 

Said his sister-in-law: “It’s a girl – finally!” She sounded almost wistful, having no children of her own.

Turning to hug the young man, his mother-in-law said: “Looka there – a granddaughter, after five grandsons! I thought this baby might come fast. All of my mine did.”

“Mine did, too,” said the young man’s mother, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

The mother-in-law took her by the arm.”Come up close and see your first grandbaby.” And she stepped back to let the new grandmother near the nursery window.

“Ohhhh,” whispered the young man’s mother, gazing through the glass. “She looks just like a little angel.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, unabated. 

Her son, the brand-new father, peered through the glass beside her, frowning. He hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but one thing was for sure – the newborn wasn’t pretty. “Good Lord. She looks just like Daddy.” 

Everyone laughed at that. It was true – the wrinkly, ruddy newborn had hardly any hair and looked like a little old man – indeed the image of her granddaddy, who beheld her silently, smiling, his heart bursting with pride. He thought of the twenty silver dollars he’d collected  for his first grandchild. One day when this baby was old enough, he’d give them to her.

The in-laws congratulated each other on one side of the glass as the baby slept soundly on the other, while somewhere in the bowels of the hospital, the baby’s mother wanted to know when she was getting some supper, since the baby’s arrival had preempted it.

Thus was I born, that long-ago evening in May, strawberry season, in the city, when fathers were relegated to waiting rooms instead of witnessing and participating in births, before Cool Whip was even invented – alas.

As the day rolls around yet again, with every celebrant who gathered at the nursery window long passed on, it occurs to me that knowing the story of my birth is a gift. It ranks high, priceless, among all the gifts given me over a lifetime. I owe this mostly to my grandmother, a tireless storyteller, and some to her son, my father, who, in his matter-of-fact way, told me that my mother grumbled about missing her supper and that newborns aren’t pretty – not even his own! He made a similar observation at the funeral of his father – my grandfather – as we stood by the casket. “He looks really good,” I said, stroking Granddaddy’s snow-white hair for the last time, marveling at the smoothness of his skin. My father frowned: “I don’t know why people say that. Corpses don’t look good.”

Geez, Daddy.

Nevertheless, I cherish my birth narrative as told by those who were there.

Tonight I celebrate them and their truths, their personalities, their wit, their lives – and their stories, which allow me to see events from their perspectives. Tonight, for just a moment, I am at the window, watching through their eyes, when I am born.

The fascinating reciprocal, of course, is that because of their stories, they live on through mine.

Reflection: Do you know your birth – or adoption – narrative? If you do, write it down! If you don’t, ask, if possible. If not possible, well, that’s a powerful story in itself. Explore your beginning, experiment with perspective  – and write. And, by all means, if you know the birth stories of others – tell them.