The Grand Life of My Bucket List

The view at breakfast in the Grand's dining room.
It was two against one, but I stood my ground outside the Grand Hotel.  What if I never made it back to Mackinac Island?
“It’s only $10 per person to enter,” I said.  “It’s worth it to walk inside the lobby and sit in a rocker on that beautiful porch.”
My husband didn’t buy it. Our 12 year-old grandson sympathized with Grandpa. 
I made a split second decision. No well-fed, grumpy old man was going to stand between my bucket list and me. “Okay, see you two later.”
I walked up the steps past the young woman who guarded the door, entered the scent of lilies and roses, and paid my non-hotel guest fee at the floral counter. The first necessity for a woman with a bucket list is to have her own cash on hand. She never knows when and where opportunity will knock. 
Harp music wafted the length of the lobby and drew me closer to the musician wearing a long, black dress. The tinkling of spoons on china cups and saucers brought tears to my eyes. There, in the midst of teatime within the Grand Hotel, gentle conversation and laughter surrounded me, one of millions who have treaded upon her carpeted geraniums.
I vowed to return with my ideal tea-mate. The second necessity for a woman with a bucket list is to have a companion with whom to share common interests—particularly, one who with a nose for affordable deals.
Compelled to behold its preserved, pristine tradition, I aimed for the famed dining room. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” I’d often heard.
Truly, one forgets the rat race with carriages and the clop of distant horse hooves. A waiter dressed in a tuxedo granted I enter the sea of fanned napkins and sunlit goblets on tabletops. With the Straits of Mackinac outside the window, it seemed a dining room in a cruise ship.
“See you next year,” I said to the waiter.
Dear Reader, four weekends ago my Art Buddy and I drove north through the most beautiful autumn colors for teatime in the Grand’s lobby.
“Would you ladies like to start with champagne?” the waiter asked.
“Yes, please,” said my friend.
“No thank you,” I said.
“Would you prefer Sherry?” he asked.
The word recalled an elegant feeling from a forgotten source, perhaps from a poem or passage in a novel.  “Yes, please.”
The Sherry and tea went quite agreeably with the savory and sweet delicacies on our plates. The harpist, dressed in a long, red gown, was unaware she partook in a heart’s desire fulfilled.
Carol and I carried our second glass of champagne and Sherry onto the longest porch in the world and pulled rockers close to the front. We sipped and admired the panoramic view of land, water, bridge, and sky.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat dinner tonight,” Carol said.
“Oh, we’ll walk off our tea.”
The third necessity for a woman with a bucket list is a hearty appetite for the grand life.

Wally's Footprint

Wally Hermann's Golf Shoes
By hardship, Wally and Erna learned to take good care of what they have and whom they love. A beneficiary of their kindness, I hereby thank my Good Samaritans.
            When I wrecked my hedge trimmer in the midst of pruning a lavender field, Erna said, “Wally can repair this.” Those Black & Decker blades still hum away. And well they should, for Wally is a master machinist by vocation. His heart is in his hands. Nothing goes broken within Wally’s household.
            Soft-spoken and hard working, Erna is her husband’s domestic equal. Believe me, no dust gathers under her feet. Be it hoeing beans or stitching a quilt, Erna sings her German folk songs with a smile on her face. No matter my effort, I fail to master one verse.
            Weeding with her in my gardens, I’ve heard my friend say with a sparkle in her eye, “Wally tells me every day that he loves me.”
            Theirs is a remarkable romance I’ve pieced together through the years.
Wally Hermann was born in Wohlinia, a German town in Ukraine within White Russia. Several years later, Erna Weiss let her first cry in Maniersch, a German village in Romania. Both families were vintners and farmers by heritage.
When Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine, Wally’s father made Vodka for them and saved his life. He later found a route to Germany and led his family to freedom in America. Meanwhile, Russian troops marched into Romania, seized the land of Erna’s birth and placed guards in their vineyards.
“We could not take one grape,” Erna said. “On May Day, we school children had to wear a white blouse or shirt with a red scarf around our necks and march before government officials. My mother cried. Food was scarce.”
Erna’s parents trusted God to guide them to freedom. They were amongst the first to leave their homeland during the war. Miraculously, their family escaped Romania into America with her father’s Warren hoe. A treasured possession, Erna carries this heart-shaped blade into her gardens. My soil also knows the smooth, rhythmical tilling of Erna’s hoe.
Last summer, Erna called upon Wally to remove an ash stump from our property. I stood by helplessly while Erna whacked her shovel at the tree’s roots. Tall and lean, Wally swung his ax. At last he severed the taproot with his Sawzall.
Dear Reader, I considered how to return their tender mercies because Erna and Wally accept no paybacks. I offered some grapes from my arbor, but Erna had juice frozen from my crop last year.
She did, however, accept lavender plants from my field to transplant into her flowerbeds. When I drove into their driveway, I saw shoes sunning against the garage wall.
“Wally went golfing this morning,” Erna said.
Home from fetching apples to make applesauce, he pulled his car next to mine. 
I nodded to his golf shoes. “They tell a story, you know.”
“Yes!” Wally laughed. “I’m the only one left of my foursome!”
Oh! I praise the blessed footprint he’s left on my land.

Autumn's Daughter of the Wind

There’s something magical about an October sunset. Low, golden light ignites red geraniums, apples, and red maple leaves with an inner fire. The landscape transforms into an open treasure chest of sparkling gemstones. Among the most beautiful is the pink Japanese anemone.
           One fine fall day twenty years ago, her airy personality caught my eye while strolling Shakespeare’s Garden in Stratford, Ontario. Smitten, I posed with my husband for a photo before her masses of blooms five feet high. Pink has always been my favorite color. So peaceful and soft.
Then, I knew nothing of anemones, nor the legend Shakespeare borrowed from Ovid’s Metamorphoses for his amorous poem titled Venus and Adonis. The goddess fails to lure the young mortal into her lair. A boar mortally wounds Adonis—his blood stains the forest floor where he’s metamorphosed into a purple anemone. The wind blows the petals away. Thus, the Greeks named the new beauty “daughter of the wind.”
“The mystery of a single flower”, as John Ruskin said, possessed me until I found a greenhouse that stocked plenty anemones. Garden designers say uneven numbers arrange balance in small to large spaces, so I planted three healthy anemones around our pergola. The two plants in full sun thrive; the third under the lilac tree vanishes. Perhaps the tree’s roots deprive the anemone’s rhizomes of necessary nourishment.
In search of answers, splayed open before me is a book I bought in Stratford titled Portraits of Flowers. The artist, Gerard Brandis, provides growing conditions and illustrates each plant with an intricate woodcut of his creation. In another book, A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare, Brandis pairs his woodcuts with flowers mentioned in the bard’s poetry and plays. I savor both books with fine chocolate and Earl Grey tea, dream of blooming “windflowers” my height.
Of the Ranunculaceae family, windflowers include buttercups, delphiniums and clematis, all native to the Mediterranean, as is lavender of the Lavandula family. My land will not grow delphiniums, and the clematis teases me with a season or two and then gives up the ghost.
 “Fall is the best time to plant, but given our rough winters most catalogues sell them in spring; the confused anemones may not flower until next May—if they survive,” says Brandis.
Since I prefer punctual windflowers, today I planted and composted six new pink anemones, three in two different gardens. Then I transplanted several Hidcote lavender shrubs close by for companionship, seasonal color, and fragrance. Hidcote blooms in July—the Japanese anemone in September-October. The low, bright green foliage and slender stems of the anemone should contrast just fine with the compact, grey-green lavender shrub.
Dear Reader, wouldn’t you know—as I tamped soil around the last lavender transplant, a gorgeous sunset splashed autumn’s daughter of the wind with gold dust. I rested my gloved hands atop the shovel’s handle, warm sun on my back, and admired her yellow face and pink petals. 

“Now, you two, please grow and love thy Mediterranean neighbor,” I said, and called it a magnificent day.

Learning How to Lose

Three hillbillies and a playmate in the backyard on Yacama Street
One day on Yacama Street in mid 50’s Detroit, my older sister and I sat on the back porch playing. Mom worked in the kitchen, watched over us like a long-legged hen.
Up the steps came two older girls. “I’m Italian,” one announced. “I’m Polish,” said the other.
I looked to my older sister Linda. “Sisser and I are Hillbilly,” I said.
“Hillbilly isn’t a nationality,” a girl said.
“Is too!” I replied with Scotch-Irish pluck and sincerity. Later, in private, I asked Mom what a nationality was.
With a gleam in her eyes, my mother related the incident to every transplanted relative from Kentucky who afterward sat with us for dinner. She made me proud to be a hillbilly, built my sense of security with every telling.
Yet, I pined for my home in the McCoy Bottom. There, my maternal uncles waited for my father’s maroon Chrysler to drive down the runoff and say, “We’ve come back home!”
Alas, Uncle Tab and Aunt Alma Leigh gave up waiting and went to remodeling the homeplace to suit my aunt’s haute couture. They removed the wrap-around porch and banister where my earliest memory of the mountains remains embedded. When attached to emotions of comfort and safety, some images are indestructible.
My uncles claim I beat them in foot races around the homeplace one summer. I did love to run. A snowball bush marked the start and finish line. Lordy! My cousins and I loved pulling apart the plump, white flowers and throwing them up so they fell like snow.
As an adult, I’ve returned to Kentucky almost every summer to glean my uncles’ stories, sustain vivid relationships, landscapes and colors within my mind’s eye. Sadly, the Sears house Grandpa Floyd McCoy built in 1925 has stood vacant for two years now. I worry about it, abandoned in the midst of a remodel gone awry. I would rescue the house if the means were mine.
I’ve come to understand my Italian and Polish neighbors were also immigrants who yearned for their homeland—many lost their birthplace to warmongers. I admire those who escaped tyranny and invasion in Europe and pledged their allegiance to the United States of America. They’ve found their place in this “one nation under God.”
I mourn their loss with them, follow their example and at last let the home of my nativity go. I will never sleep within its walls again nor set at table and commune with kinfolk. It must be enough for my homeplace to remain a living structure within memory—great strength within my mind, heart, and spirit.
Dear Reader, this morning I awoke within my house built with love and prayer in 1989. Rooted with books scattered around me on my bed, I remembered our rented house on Yacama Street, destroyed by vandalism. I knew this house is where I belong, considered how to best share the home I have.
A gray-headed woman, at last I learn how and when to lose without struggle.

Proper Priorities

Foraging bittersweet with friends Elaine and Sue (left to right)
“I’d rather gather acorns with my kids any day than clean house,” said a fellow young mother forty-six years ago. I couldn’t relate to her then, but sure do now.
           To think I could’ve lived my entire life as a diehard neat-nick had we not found our country plot twenty-nine years ago. Nature is alluring, colorful and fecund with native flowers, shrubs, and trees unknown to me back then. Bloodroot. Elderberry. Linden.
Our first spring here, my younger daughters and I trekked down the open field into the forest. We found yellow trout lily, white trillium, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Then wild geraniums dazzled us along the roadsides.
My late mother said Grandpa Floyd could name everything that grew in the Appalachian Mountains. Whenever I meet a plant person like him, my jaw falls in awe. After many tangles with poison ivy, you’d think I could at least identify her nasty three leaves. You have to grow up with plant life to truly know it.
To honor the acorn mother’s proper priorities, I’ve established the ritual of picking up the first three acorns in my path come fall. I place them on my kitchen windowsill where I admire them through winter.
Some twelve falls ago, I stepped off the road to inspect red patches in the foliage. Bittersweet—invasive vines with clustered berries turning from gold to orange to red. I harvested arms full and gave sprigs to friends, decorated my house with a Thanksgiving wreath. Nature’s menopausal hot flash is a bit messy, but worth it.
Fond of bittersweet, my friend Elaine would rather forage and arrange the vines any day than clean house. So we met at my neighbor’s place.
“You caught me cleaning my stove,” Sue said when she answered the door. “Please, take all the bittersweet you want. And don’t pet the cows. The electric fence is on. ”
Sue guided Elaine and me on a hunt for bamboo, Sweet Annie, Sea Oats, and lilies with seedpods. We made our way to the bittersweet and each gleaned a trunk load.
Katy, Sue’s older daughter, carried a basket of beautiful fresh eggs. “We lost six of our ten rescued buff orpingtons to raccoons.” She offered to save my five old girls from my hatchet for her rescue called Henny’s New Home.
Elated, I said, “My husband’s going to be very happy about this.”
“Would you like some tea before you go?” Sue asked.
Sitting around her table, Elaine and I learned what began as Katy’s dream two years ago is now a family farm of two generations living under one roof, an affectionate revival of the ancient vocation of growing your own food.
Sue’s husband Jerry is the soil expert and builder. Katy’s husband Jason is the nutrition expert and Jerry’s end man.
Dear Reader, Katy sat her vintage set of Foxfire Books before me, unaware those stories recorded in the sixties about resourceful mountain folk could’ve been my grandparents.
I’d rather gather with kindred spirits any day than clean my house.