The watchfulness of love

 

A snapping turtle visits Erna's gardens

My earliest memory of watchful love goes back to my adolescence sixty years ago.

                A dark December evening, I returned home from babysitting the Zablocki children five doors down on Wagner Street. I opened the front door to find my mother and granny sitting on the living room sofa. They looked up with a threaded needle and tiny doll clothes in their hands.

                Granny smiled. “Well, hello Irish.”

And that’s how she spelled my name on the birthday cards she mailed from her home in Phelps, Kentucky to my family’s mailbox in Warren, Michigan.

                Both Granny and Mom had arrived at the house after I left at 6 p.m. This meant Mom brought our new baby sister home from the hospital.

                Mom stood, her belly and the bounce in her step considerably deflated. Old enough to know a bit about the birds and the bees, spontaneous sympathy and respect for my mother smarted my eyes.

                In the quietude of night, my mother took my hand and led me to my parents’ bedroom where our new baby slept in the crib.

Mom hovered over my shoulder as the soft glow of the hall light shone upon her fifth newborn.

                “What’s her name?” I asked.

                “Sonia Ann,”

                A decade later, I stood by my firstborn’s crib with engorged breasts and watched her breathe and sleep. I may have forgotten the moment beside Sonia’s crib, yet my body and spirit remembered.

Love and instinct knew to hover over my baby in prayer and thanksgiving.

                This week, twenty-two years after watching my third-born accept her college diploma, I stopped by Erna’s house in Washington Township. A fine day, I spied my friend digging holes in her vegetable garden for her homegrown tomato seedlings.

                I waved and hollered, “I’ve come for my book!”

                Erna promptly retrieved 7 Women from inside her house, then uprooted three huge succulents to embellish a terracotta pot in my backyard.

A visitor never leaves Erna’s place without something yummy to eat or rooted to grow.

Wally and Erna Hermann help their visitor make her way safe across their street to the lake

We turned toward my car when a strange figure appeared on the sidewalk leading to the backyard. Was Erna’s husband Wally playing a prank?

                “What’s that?” I asked.

                “Oh,” Wally said, “do you like turtle soup?”

                “That’s the largest turtle I’ve ever seen!” I said.

                Wally pointed to the lake behind the houses on the other side of their street. “She’s making her way home. This happens almost every year with the snappers.”

                The creature fascinated me, its neck stretched in pride to display a two-foot long prehistoric reptile.                         

                “They lay their eggs in my gardens,” Erna said. “Let me show you.”

                I followed her to a tiered garden where canna lilies laid uprooted. “The turtle buried her eggs here. One year I counted nine.”

                At last, the snappier moved. The claws on her toes scraped the cement on her way down the driveway.

                Dear Reader, Erna called today. “I found the turtle at my front door! Can you believe it?”

                Yes I can. That ancient mother knows Erna watches over what she grows and loves.      


Part Two: The mystery of the yellow cart

 

Robert Bloomingdale, the rescuer of Amy's cart, and his wife Dana

I turn my car into the driveway of a large, purple-gray house adjacent to the vacant lot where the happy yellow wheelbarrow sits.

I admire the stone fireplace, twin bay windows, light tower, and wrap-around porch with hundreds of spindled posts—someone’s Victorian dream come true.

                Finally, after fretting about the cart for several months, I walk up the steps onto the porch and turn the switch to a door chime—one of many feminine touches to the lovely home and surrounding gardens. I ring the bell again.

No answer.

I leave a note with my phone number secured under a heavy bell, well placed by the door for my apologetic inquiry. I drive away with a hope and a prayer.

My phone rings at 4 p.m. with “Robert Bloomingdale” on the caller ID. “Hello, this is Iris.”

“And this is Robert Bloomingdale. My wife found your note. We’ve wondered who would be the first person to turn off the road and ask about Amy’s cart.”

“Amy’s the name of the gardener?”

“Yes.”

“She didn’t abandon the wheelbarrow, or something tragic didn’t happen to her?”

“Oh no. I never met Amy. I acquired her yard cart before her house in Rochester was demolished to clear the property for a new house,” Robert says. “She left her estate to her nephew who sold the house to me.”

“Amy must’ve loved flowers to own such a sweet little thing,” I say.

“I found her garage full of interesting and useful tools. Amy’s garden shed was stuffed with potting soil and pots. She’s the only woman I know who decorated the outside of her house with ladybugs and painted her house yellow.”

“Aren’t you concerned someone might steal Amy’s cart?” I ask.  

“I’ve thought about that possibility,” Robert replies. “But it’s worth the risk of losing it to entertain people in an unexpected, whimsical way.”

“Well, you’ve certainly entertained me, and at last granted me consolation,” I confess.

A man born to build, Robert and his wife, Dana, own a salvage business—an occupation for those anointed with eyes to see “the potential and purpose in everything,” as Robert says.

“I’ve attempted to leave the salvage business several times, but the salvage business won’t leave me,” he adds.

For instance, October 4, 2020, Robert drove Amy’s yellow barrow, “too cute to let it go,” with one of her hoes to their property. He stopped at the entrance of his vacant lot.

“I knew that’s where the yellow cart and hoe belonged, and hoped they would make someone smile as they drove by,” Robert says.

In Amy’s honor, he’s playing with the idea of planting flowers around his charming acquisition with a “vignette” of garden tools.

“I also envision growing grapes on the five acres to make wine. We’d name the business Yellow Cart Vineyard—Amy’s legacy.”

Dear Reader, of all the possessions we attain in our lives, the humble and utilitarian speak most quietly yet powerfully of the beautiful, purposeful life.

And I’m first on the growing list of people who want the happiness of Amy’s yellow cart.


Mystery of the yellow wheelbarrow

 

A lonely wheelbarrow waits for rescue 

More than a year ago, driving our usual route south on Rochester Road on a Sunday morning, I noticed something new. A bright yellow wheelbarrow sat alone on a mown lawn at the bottom of a high, sloping hill.

A little gem, the abandoned two-wheeled cart provoked a tinge of sympathy and worry.

“Did you see the yellow wheelbarrow?” I asked my husband.

“Yes. I saw it when I went grocery shopping the other day.”

A retired outside salesman, Mel must drive someplace every day for his mental health. And mine. A homebody, I’m glad to oblige his kindness to bring home the bacon and fetch the chicken feed.

                Last night, Sunday, May 23, on the last leg of our long drive north from a visit to my Appalachian roots, we passed the mysterious cart again.

I sighed. “It’s still there. In the rain.”

“Oh no.”

For my spouse knows I respect garden tools. He once felt my wrath when he left my Warren hoe in the elements to rust.

As driving, writing, and gardening encourage contemplation, over the months I’ve puzzled out reasons why tool maintenance matters to me.

One most significant childhood memory came to mind. My father stands before his workbench in the garage with his oil can in one hand and a rag in the other, a tool secured in a vice. Ashes fall from the cigarette clamped between his teeth.

I hear the click of the can with the drone of Van Patrick or Ernie Harwell’s voice with the roar of Tiger fans. Dad wasn’t a tidy man, and didn’t possess an abundance of equipment and machinery, but he lubricated what he owned and put it back in its place.

Mom did too. She hovered over her Brother’s sewing machine with the tiniest oil can I’ve ever seen. A remarkable seamstress and cook, Mom sewed for pay and catered dinner parties for our family’s doctor.

We didn’t know the word “entrepreneur” or the term “cottage business” in the fifties and sixties. Nonetheless, I observed my mother’s skill, efficiency, and adherence to “use what you have, and return it to where it belongs.”

With this nurturing in mind, I lean to the minimalist side when acquiring all manner of household and yard gadgets. One shopper in the house is more than enough to overwhelm our budget and storage space.

So, now comes summer, another season and there sits that darling wheelbarrow disused. Once upon a time, someone cared enough to paint the metal its happy daffodil color. For what purpose did the owner push this little burden-bearer downhill?

I want to know what happened to the owner, solve the mystery of the orphan, why the prolonged desertion.

Dear Reader, life’s too short. This morning I drove down and turned into the driveway where the object of my concern languishes.

What did I find? A fallen limb and rake resting in the barrow. Perhaps it’s time to drive up the hill and knock on a door.


Affection for life and place

 

Joan and Elmore Higby, May 1947, Romeo High School Senior Prom

I delivered my bee equipment to Mary Jo for her to relay to our bee-maker. We’d pick up our installed hives when notified.

This season, after several years beekeeping with a son in his back forty, Mary Jo’s going solo on the Hosler homestead where she raised her four boys.

Change—a constant element in the skill of producing honey and a healthy environment in our own backyard. It is good to control what we can, for if yellow jackets don’t attack honeybees, verona mites may oblige if you don’t apply the treatment at the precise time. Oh, and wax moths also prey on the Apis mellifera.

Sound similar to the challenges of raising children? That’s why I appreciate Mary Jo. We encourage one another, do our best and accept the results of our efforts.

She gathered the hive she built from a kit and painted the color lavender. Her husband, Bob, offered to transfer my gear to Mary Jo’s van. Within minutes, I became acquainted with a man who’s passionate about genealogy.

“We know so much about our families because of Bob’s research,” Mary Jo said.

Bob lit up. “Nothing makes me happier.”

Elmore and Joann Higby, June 1950, Romeo United Methodist Church
They led me into the kitchen of their beautiful home. Spacious windows granted a panoramic view of Mary Jo’s backyard gardens, plowed fields, and distant barns and farmhouse.  

She smiled. “That’s Ingleside Farms where I grew up. My dad Elmore had the vision seventy-two years ago as a young, second-generation farmer. My sister Connie and her husband Rick Schapman now operate the farm with their three boys.”

I imagined four generations observing seedtime and harvest from their kitchen table. What a wonderful life.

“Mom lives in the next house down from us. She enjoys painting watercolors, and she’s very good,” Mary Jo said.

We stood around a large, marble island—what seemed the hub of family activities. The motion of Mary Jo’s projects at hand, growing sunflowers for an outdoor wedding on the farm, and producing a tribute for her mother’s ninetieth birthday, drew my eyes to an old black and white photo.

“This is my mother, Joann Higby, and father at his high school prom,” she said. “Mom’s a sophomore. Dad’s a senior. My grandmother altered Mom’s dress from a hand-me-down formal.”

Mary Jo walked me to my car. “I’ll call with the time and place to pick up our bees.”

Driving home, I remembered the diaspora of my family from our Kentucky farm where my ancestors grew crops, raised livestock, and kept bees. The words of Kentuckian Wendell Berry, farmer and prophet who penned his Jefferson Lecture of 2012, came to mind.

Delivering our nation’s highest prize for “distinguished intellectual achievement,” Berry titled his essay, “It All Turns on Affection.”

As his mentor Wallace Stegner, Berry observed Americans have divided into two kinds: “boomers” and “stickers.” “Boomers ‘pillage and run,’ whereas stickers ‘settle and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.’”

Dear Reader, this settling and loving the life she has is what I witnessed within the Hosler’s kitchen. Why Mary Jo and I carry in our bones the affection for honeybees.

As she noted about four generations operating the family farm, “I guess that’s a lot of sticking around.”



A trillium story

 

Jack's Wake Robin trillium purchased last spring from Telly's Greenhouse in Troy

Unbeknownst to me, my friend Jack planted trillium last spring from Cottage Lake Gardens in Washington State, and our local Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy.

With tender care, Jack planted the seedlings under a black walnut tree, sheltered between his garden shed and the Clinton River Trail. A hopeful patron to natural beauty and the eye of its beholder, this April, Jack began scouting to spy the pleasure of his investment.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Jack, Sunday, April 25, on a saunter of my country roads, the first trillium blossom surprised me in the timber along Stoney Creek. The three, white petals usually appear around Mother’s Day.

I learned this fact upon my family’s introduction to Addison Township in spring, 1989. Back then, this native species of the family Melanthiaceae blanketed the forest floors in our little patch of the world.

I also discovered red blooms in the windrows of our serpentine road, an old cow path. Pioneers of the area knew the red trillium as Wake Robin, analogous to our State bird.

Sadly, each spring as subdivisions arise around us, the deer population grows and the trillium diminish. And I’ve yet to find the lone red flower at the foot of a bank west of us.

On schedule, Jack sent an email that same evening of April 25, addressed to our writer’s group named Leaps. Mind, Jack’s the veteran cowhand who casts his lasso every Sunday to gather our submissions for critique.

           “Faith,” he wrote with a photo attached. “That's what you practice when you put things in the ground. Almost one year ago I planted five trilliums. Here is the first evidence that there is life below the leaf mold. Product of the same faith that produces when you plant on a page. Who'll be sowin' seed tomorrow?”

“This is remarkable,” I replied. “I saw my first blooming trillium a few hours ago.”

          Thus commenced Jack’s email reports.

          May 1: “I should tell you we have foliage of two more trillium.”

          May 2: “The trilliums increase. We have three to celebrate now, with hope for more.”

          May 3: “Hope you're all enjoying the rain. The trillium are.”

          May 6: Jack phoned. “Iris Lee, four trillium are up!”

In the midst of our enthusiasm, Jack paused. “I think I planted six seedlings.”  

Yes, this is serious. You see, Jack’s a retired driver of eighteen-wheelers, musician, storyteller, and poet who’s learned the succession and significance of such delicate, enduring, and serene matters of the human experience.

While we rejoiced, I said, “Do you remember my favorite book about the history and spirit of storytelling?”

“It’s on my desk before me.”

“I know there’s several passages that apply to what we’re experiencing now. I’ll email them later.”

In Jack’s call for submissions at the conclusion of Mother’s Day, he emailed, “According to Ruth Sawyer in The Way of the Storyteller: ‘During these early racial beginnings of storytelling, story was not distinct from poetry.’”

Please know, dear Reader, our stories of faith, hope, and love in our modern day are not distinct from poetry. And like trillium, poetry is perennial.