Two Immutable Things

Male Cardinal poses on the raised lettuce bed in the backyard early spring
Some years ago, our neighbors across the road built a horse ring addition to their barn. Watching the Amish build the roof entertained me for a month.
          Our house sits on a hill overlooking the Nikolic’s historic Townsend homestead. I’ve walked passed it thousands of times. We go back almost thirty years before Velco and Martha found and purchased it.
At twilight, I’d sit in our backyard and listen to cattle lowing in the distance. Back then, before light pollution reached us, shooting stars streaked the night sky. Imagine that natural show and sound track.
          Thus, I was emotionally attached to the Townsend farm when I first met our potential new neighbors walking the lay of the land.
          “This is what I’ve dreamed of since I came to America,” Velco said.
The buildings had fallen into desperate disrepair when he and Martha rescued the old hip barn’s collapsing timbers.
With Michigan’s four seasons, I never tire of the panoramic view of our neighbor’s meadows and hayfield. The past several winters have offered the surprising scene of two pyramids, one of sand, the other gravel.
I paid the duo no mind until this winter’s meditative, daylong snowfalls. One morning over fresh eggs and toast, I noticed the piles had transformed into two white peaks near the road’s tree line.
The pyramids enchanted me on my walks and drives up and down the road. I spied them from our windows upstairs. My winter Arabia.
Mealtime with the pair became a ritual. This month, the snow melted from the south and west side of the mounds, then snow fell again.
Robins in summer
Now, their north side is bare. Buds swell on branches. Robins and cardinals flirt and mate. Squirrels gather food from mast beneath leaf mold. This time next month, the illusion of Egypt won’t be visible from our house and property.
So I spy them at sunrise and dusk while I may. One pile of sand, the other stone, most likely left over from the horse ring, transform into silhouettes and whisper holy words.
Perhaps it’s the influence of The Ten Commandments, a childhood memory of Moses leading the Israelites’ Exodus from bondage and pyramids—Khufu at Giza, the largest Egyptian pyramid, also the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in existence.
The most humble in appearance, Khufu has outlived the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and The Colossus of Rhodes.
Remember these Wonders from world history? They imprinted our minds with images from books, movies, and stories. They tease our imagination to see them, attempt to understand humankind in another time and place.

For we know change comes by seasons. All things come from, through, and to God.
Dear Reader, my five senses perceive the weather and my neighbor’s piles of sand and stone stand for two immutable things—God’s love and faithfulness.
As the birds proclaim, this is the risen season.

Pie Seasons

We're looking forward to Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Season here at Yule Love It
The following is an excerpt from Iris's memoir cookbook in progress. 
I pedaled north to the end of the block and eyed the woods at the corner of Wagner and Frazho Streets. From the day we moved to Wagner, that last patch of wilderness spared by development called my name with powerful yearning, the same feeling when I saw the   first mountain range come into view on our drive home to Kentucky. Didn’t my heart leap at what awaited within those timbered hills?
Now I was in fourth grade and knew copperheads and rattlesnakes didn’t live in Michigan. And Mom didn’t say I couldn’t go into the woods alone. Aunt June had said Jack in the Pulpit grew in the forest.
I crossed Frazho and walked my bike into the cool dark scent of moss, bark, and leaf mold. My skin tingled under the thick green canopy, light peeking through in lacy patterns like Granny’s doilies.
Barelegged, I stepped carefully in deep grass, fallen logs, and branches, watching for those prickly blackberry canes that drew my blood in Kentucky. My goodness, did I love Granny’s blackberry cobbler with milk!
Birds flew from one tree to another, chirping real happy. Wagner had not one tree for a bird to perch, so they all came to this oasis. If I were a bird, I’d live in this place and sing, too.
I searched for Jack in the Pulpit. Aunt June said they liked to hide. Camouflage, she named it. The plant’s green and yellow striped flower resembled grasses that grew around it. Although I didn’t find Jack in the Pulpit, I learned what camouflage meant.
My nose led me to a swamp where a huge tree had fallen across. Did I ever want to climb upon it! But moss was slick, and I’d probably fall into the murky green water and drown. The sun broke through an opening in the treetops and glistened on the pond and cast shadows in a hundred shades of green.

Something like a sparkling ruby caught my eye. Rhubarb! Bunches of it in the woods surrounded by concrete. Had I known about Huck Finn, I would’ve felt just like him. I knew not to touch the rhubarb without asking Mom’s permission.
Arms crossed at the kitchen sink, Mom smiled at my discovery. I didn’t tell her about the swamp or she wouldn’t let me go back.
“Yes, Iris. Bring some home and I’ll make a strawberry rhubarb pie. Leave your bike here, and take Linda with you.”
Exhilarated, I led Linda into the woods to the rhubarb patch. We pulled out as many stalks as our arms could hold. All the while, I tasted Mom’s warm strawberry rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream melting on the side.
Triumphant in muddy school shoes we’d outgrown, we carried our bounty down Wagner, huge leaves bobbing in glad submission to Mom’s recipe.
“Mom! Come look!” I hollered as we turned up our driveway.
She stood in the door and put a hand to her heart. Mind, my mother laughed the most peculiar way when something tickled her soul. I didn’t understand why she laughed until she cried.
Now, I can only surmise she saw something she believed was lost—food from a remnant of a farmstead in the midst of a wasteland. The strength of our joy in that moment has never lost its power. That’s why I grow rhubarb today.
In this manner, I learned Mom’s pie seasons. Spring’s strawberry rhubarb and lemon meringue. Summer’s cherry and blackberry. Fall’s apple and pumpkin. Winter’s pecan and coconut cream.
I developed a hunger to grow my own berries and orchard, to raise hens as my grandmothers did to gather eggs for rich custards and fluffy meringues.
Dear Reader, that’s the way with food. It teaches the growing seasons in an unbroken chain from one generation to another.

Women and Windows

Interior with a Lady by Vilhelm Hammershoi
Modern & Contemporary Galleries, Detroit Institute of Arts
My husband mentioned his favorite painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts is of a lady knitting by a bright window. The name of the art and artist eluded him.
                  Of all the museum’s collection to capture a man’s eye, this surprised me. Was he referring to one of the DIA’’s “women and windows” paintings I’ve come to admire?
                  “Which gallery?” I asked.
                  “It was in a hall.”
                  “Which floor?”
                  “Can’t remember.”
                  This happens when you’ve gorged yourself on art.
                  Later, during another volunteer shift, I found Interior of a Lady by Vilhelm Hammershoi in the hall outside the Modern and Contemporary Galleries. As I suspected—Mel’s favorite.
                  Hammershoi’s Danish lady is one of the DIA’s pieces that pair a woman with a sunlit window—in this case with a white curtain tied back, a large white door to the right. However, the seated woman in the black dress is not knitting, It appears she’s sewing or mending a hanky.
                  A small detail, I admit, yet significant to me. And, I believe, to the artist’s composition.
                  With his bee in my bonnet, after Friday night’s fish fry in Romeo, Mel and I returned to the DIA and settled before Interior with a Lady.
                  “Is this your favorite?” I asked.
                  “I don’t see knitting needles, do you?”
                  Mel drew closer to the dark figure. “No.”
                  “I see a hanky.”
                  “Looks like it.”
                  We absorbed Hammershoi’s stunning light and shadows.
                  “Why is this your favorite?” I asked.
                  “Because it’s serene.”
                  Serene? To me, the painting seemed profoundly sad and empty. The lady’s solitary figure is draped in black from neck to floor. Does she stitch the handy for her tears?

                  “Do you want to see my favorite painting?” I said.
                  We hurried into the American Galleries to Mother and Child by Enoch Wood Perry. The loneliness of Hammershoi’s lady is a stark contrast to the tenderness and contentment expressed between Perry’s mother and child. Diffused light casts slanted shadows upon rich blue, gold, and red.
Mother and Child by Enoch Wood Perry
American Galleries, Detroit Institute of Arts
                  Mother and Child appeals to that brief season of six years bearing my children, the joy and pleasure of them nursing, their sighs and smiles while they sleep.              
                  “This is serenity,” I said.
                  It is natural to see these two paintings differently, as most art. To me, Interior with a Lady” reveals the demands of loss and grief—the barrenness of a house without a child, mate, sibling, or parent.
                  Serenity comes by the unspeakable cost of forgiveness and faith. With all my heart, I want to see Hammershoi’s lady lift her head to the healing light.
                  As Perry’ American mother, I held my infant’s hand and gazed upon her face in awe. Praise the artist for reflecting these domestic sensibilities that recall our ancestors’ gentility and propriety following the Civil War.
                  Dear Reader, I find myself in both paintings—a woman who sits in sunlit windows to watch the shadows they cast. To lift my eyes to face the light.
                  Pray for forgiveness and faith.

Food is for remembrance

El & Angie, Mel & Iris: Cross Country Parents: 1987
A retired outside salesman, my husband dismissed the weather forecast with a wrinkled nose, an Underwood trait. Like his dad, he’d driven in every road condition imaginable. Besides, Bravo’s chopped salad and spaghetti called his name.
What I hungered for was Angie’s smile and El’s laugh—to catch up on family. Food sealed the deal.
Over forty years have passed since we first met Angie and El in church. For two decades, once a month we partook in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper together. Our three girls attended our church’s school with their three girls, ran cross-country, and skied Blue Mountain during winter break.
Indeed, we’ve shared many meals with Angie and El, including our firstborn’s funeral luncheon. The storms of life may defy such bonds, but cannot break them.
This thought assured me as we searched for Ann Arbor’s Briarwood Mall in almost zero visibility. Since I failed to enter Angie’s cell phone number in my phone, I dialed information for Bravo’s hostess. She promised to find Angie and El and tell them we were close by.
What joy to see their relieved faces awaiting us! The hostess did not relay our message, after all.
“Sorry, we ordered our salad,” Angie said as they finished their plate.
“Chopped?” I asked.
“What else?” El said.
The waitress took our orders and we dove into conversation.
“You know, we’ve never heard how you two met,” I said.
“Cody High School,” El replied, “10th grade Algebra class. I liked math and asked questions while Angie clowned around in the back of the class.”
Angie laughed at the memory. “El was shy.”
“That’s what she likes to think,” El quipped.
In our younger years, El sometimes played guitar and led our church’s worship service. And I’ve never seen a Father of the Bride party like El. Three times.
The following sixty minutes at the table reminiscing family history seemed like six. Angie’s mother, Nunnie, is from a large Italian family in West Virginia’s coal country. Her parents migrated to Detroit in 1954, the year my family left Pike County’s coalfields in Kentucky for the Motor City.
“The Italians are fiercely loyal,” Angie said. “Mom and Dad moved to Michigan twice. Each time she cried to go back home. We finally settled in Detroit when I started school.”
I savored our similarities as I twirled Bolognese pasta on my spoon. My father, born in Matewan, West Virginia, loathed Italian food. They, in turn, shunned Dad’s Scott-Irish fried potatoes, pinto beans, and cornbread.
When Angie’s cell phone insisted, we hugged our friends good-bye. They returned home and discharged the Hospice nurse who cared for Nunnie. After our three-hour drive, I called Angie as requested. “We just walked in, safe and sound.”
“I feel badly you drove that distance for such a short visit,” she repeated.
“Please don’t. It’s what we wanted to do.”
You see, dear Reader, food is for remembrance—those who have gone before us, and those who remain.

The Beatitudes of Forcing Magnolias

Blessed be the magnolia tree
for her sacrifice
three branches from Winter’s icy heart

Blessed be their wooly buds
stolen to befriend
sprigs of evergreen

Blessed be the thief
her trespass forgiven
blooms upon her table

Pink blossoms on long thin branches caught my eye the instant I entered Elaine’s house. “How beautiful!”
The scent drew me close. Peach, I guessed, the same wine colored stems as my peach tree, although a paler pink bloom.
          “From Trader Joe’s,” Elaine said. “I couldn’t resist.”
One of her strengths. She bought three bunches—two to share, one to keep.
The stems splayed open from a sparkling glass jar upon her countertop. Elaine delights in designing flower arrangements. Our Monday night writing group is one of her many beneficiaries.
I placed my covered cake plate near the stems. “To celebrate my birthday,” I said and lifted the lid. “Aunt Alma’s Leigh’s famous prune cake drenched with caramel sauce.”
Elaine’s blue eyes lit up. As many women, we can’t resist sweets, either.
“First time I’ve made it, so hope it’s good.”
Her flowering stems elicited “Beautiful!” from each writer when they set their dish amongst the others—a potluck feast for body and soul.
At our meeting’s end, I left our hostess a hefty slice of my aunt’s specialty. Without my notice, Elaine slipped her bundle of branches into their cellophane cone.
“For your birthday,” she said.
Her countertop looked forlorn. I felt reluctant to accept.
She smiled. “I’ll buy more.”
Spoken like a woman who hungers and thirsts after the friendship of flowers.
Afterward, I called Trader Joe’s to confirm the stems are indeed harvested from a peach tree. Enthused, the employee consulted their inventory.
“Almond, peach, and cherry stems,” Ken said.
“I believe my stems are peach because they’re pink.”
“Yes. The cherry blossom is white,” he said.
“Good. Thank you very much.”
Come Thursday, I’d suspected my birthday gift from Elaine wasn’t happy here. Partially opened, most petals withered on the wands. I regretted taking them from her home, as much a greenhouse as a residence, potted plants clustered before her many windows, including a lemon tree.
In consolation, I recalled cutting magnolia branches from my garden several Februarys ago. Starved for color, I had mixed evergreen sprigs with their buds, soft as pussy willows, for my kitchen table.
Several mornings later, to my joy and surprise, I found fuzzy shells hatching pink petals in a bath of sunshine. The fragrance caused a swoon.
Nature’s double blessing.
Seldom successful at forcing flowers to bloom indoors, I remembered Magnolia was no respecter of person. So out in the wind I went and harvested her offspring and a handful of juniper greens.
Arranged on my table as before, I hope Magnolia will do what comes naturally and repeat her forced performance.

Yet, dear Reader, my friend with two green thumbs comes to mind. I think Magnolia’s branches are not mine to keep.