To Name A Plant

“What’s the name of this plant?” Carrie asked.
           I pulled a weed from my only hibiscus, hoped the deer wouldn’t eat the shoots, and looked to where Carrie pointed. Doggone, my brain’s neurological pathways refused to connect and say, “Heliotrope.” How could I forget the name of the delicate, fragrant flower?
           “Why didn’t you ask me to name yarrow,” I joked. “The deer don’t touch it.”
           “I’m sorry. About the deer, I mean,” she replied.
           Out of the blue last May Carrie called. “I want to learn about growing lavender. Do you accept volunteers?”
           I scanned the property, assessed the magnitude of work awaiting my two hands. Mentoring takes time and thought. Did I have some to spare?
           “You can think about it and call me tomorrow,” Carrie offered.
           I appreciated her consideration. That meant this stranger was listening to me, what I did and didn’t say. “Thank you. That’s a good idea.”
           After consulting my husband, we decided Carrie might be what the farm needed this season to help us groom our lavender hit hard by April’s ice storm. Jubilant, a few days later, Carrie followed me to our neglected west plot.  
We swept three season’s worth of poplar leaves and lavender stems from the weed cloth, and then scooped the piles into garbage cans. She’d never driven a golf cart, so Carrie preferred to drag the loaded cans downhill to the compost bins while I pruned shrubs.
           Week after week Carrie came back. Like a pro, she cleaned my former gift shop floors and windows for my book signing, then the chandelier in the hen house.
           “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” I asked.
“You bet. My Dad owned rental properties. My sister and I cleaned them,” she said. “I find it relaxing.”
Truly? One more thing this former social worker and I have in common—the first being the love of flowers and learning their names.
At last, the bees showed up in the lavender fields.
“Time to harvest,” I announced when Carrie stepped out of her car a fine July morning.
           She almost ran to the field. We sat on our stools while I demonstrated how to clip stems.  
“What’s the name of this lavender plant?” she asked.
“Violet Intrigue, an English lavender. Some growers consider it the finest culinary variety.”
Carrie sighed. “I’m in heaven.”
After bundling Violet Intrigue, we carried our stools and empty baskets up the hill to where my volunteer had cleaned the field.
“What’s the name of this lavender?” she asked and held a few blooms to her nose.
           “Royal Velvet, another English lavender, a lavandula angustifolia in botanical terms.”
“This is the purest, cleanest scent I’ve ever smelled.”  
I smiled at her observation. “That’s why botanists named it lavandula from the Latin root lavare, which means ‘to wash.’”
This, dear Reader, is what life is like on the farm with Carrie—to name a plant is the delight of our day. 
Now we wait for hibiscus blooms.

Red Shoes at My Kitchen Door

Cameron poses for a Senior picture before a Belle Isle greenhouse 
When nine-year-old Cameron followed his mother into my kitchen with book in hand, my heart leapt.  And when the boy parked his little red shoes on the rug, I knew two remarkable people had just walked into my life.
     Not only had I gained Laurie, a new farm hand who proved to be an excellent gardener and tough as nails, she brought along her well-mannered son who loved literature. That summer morning in 2009, of all the unfilled desires of my heart, Cam and I talked about the Harry Potter series.  
     “Who’s your favorite character?” I asked.
     He smiled. “Hagrid.”
     Mind, because my ninth year concluded in 1959 as the happiest a child could ever imagine, it is my intent to lavish each nine-year-old I encounter with the loving-kindness of my grandmother—the Hagrid of my childhood. 
     I recall Granny’s firm supervision and tenderness, her voice calling me inside from play for dinner, then again as another summer night fell upon the Appalachians. I taste the crumbled leftover cornbread in a glass of buttermilk for a bedtime snack. I hear her prayer.
     With this memory, I said to Cam, “You know, the ninth year is the best of your life.”
     He looked above his glasses and smiled as only nine-year-old Cam could do.     
     While his mother worked the lavender fields with my staff and me, Cam sat under the pavilion and read one book after another. During lunch, the highlight of my day, we’d talk about the storyline and cast. I wish I’d taken notes of Cam’s insights.  
     My home knows that season of 2009 as the summer of Cameron’s shoes at the kitchen door. They’d change from time to time with Cam’s mercurial sense of style.
     That summer a child sat amongst us and read—built his vocabulary and sense of adventure. In turn, we built a lasting friendship.
     In November 2012, when our daughter Kelly, son-in-law Steve, and adopted grandson Amulen arrived at Detroit Metro Airport from Uganda, Laurie had boxes of Cam’s winter clothes waiting for our eigth-year-old boy.
     To welcome Amu to America, Cam and Scott, his father, celebrated our grandson’s homecoming with a host of guests at Seven Ponds Nature Center, Cam’s home away from home.
     It was his sister’s wedding reception several years ago where I found Cam in a tux, all debonair. “So, what are you reading now?”
     He offered a grin and shrugged. “I’m not.”
     “Everybody needs a reading break.”
     Yesterday I walked into the company of Cam’s family and friends and joined his high school graduation party. We embraced as we always do when we meet again. This time I had to stand on my toes to hug Cam’s neck.
     “What are your plans?” I asked.
     “I’m going to Grand Valley.”
     “What are you studying?”
     “Let’s have lunch before you go,” I said.
     “I’d like that.”
     Dear Reader, I intend to lavish eighteen-year-old Cam with the loving-kindness of my grandmother. I could’ve used a second helping before I left for college.

Bugging Beans

Heirloom Greasy beans, the tastiest on the planet

Bugging Beans

I feel like I just hoed the cornfield
Mom says and sinks
deeper into the sofa cushions.

I hold her parchment hands,
smile at her fresh expression,
no small victory over a nine pound
weight loss the past two weeks,
anemia caused by evasive internal bleeding.

I’ve never heard that one before,
I say and provoke her eyes to flutter
with a trace of wit,
a stronghold of memory
still holding her childhood hostage.
I bet I know what you hated
most about farming.

Oh yes, Mom’s face animates.
Bugging beans. 
We’d pick the bugs off the beans
and drop them in a can
with a bit of kerosene.

She revives for a cup of tea,
pushes her walker around the house,
returns to the sofa and her mother’s quilt.

Honey, I’m at the end, she confides.

Well, there’s one good thing
about the finish line, Mom.

Her eyes wait.

You won’t have to bug beans.

The one who gave me life
blinks, smiles. I pull familiar
patchwork patterns to her chin.

She rests from hoeing the cornfield.

Iris Lee Underwood

Mel waters his beans, first crop he's planted. Mom lives in our garden. 

Summertime Gatherings for The Mantle

Half past five they flew in by instinct and divine assignment. They eyed our open windows and perched on silver maple, Bradford pear, pine, and redbud branches.
They gathered above the blessed, cool dew following a heat wave—sang me awake with their Ode to Joy as songbirds are designed to do.
“This is the day the Lord has made,” they declared. “We will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Indeed, these creatures praised a remarkable morning, a day of another gathering long anticipated in our household. Since April’s thaw, our birds have observed where my husband and I have walked, the labor of our hearts and hands to plant food, prune lavender, and groom flower gardens in good time for the Seventh of July.
Our robins, wrens, and bluebirds sensed we grew something special, but being birds, they couldn’t see the celebration we planned. Rather, they fussed when we disturbed their nests and tidied their messes.
In their innocence, they forgave our trespasses and sang until they could sing no more. Scattered chirps from those who must have the last note surrendered to dawn—the open gate to a meeting of old and new friends to witness a dream come true: the release of my first novel.
High noon our guests drove in, and by everyone’s observation, strolled down the hill under the most pleasant sky of summertime. Good reason for Michiganders to roam and make new acquaintances.

I rang the dinner bell under the shelter of the pavilion and welcomed one and all to our tables. Without meddling and mishap, the birds serenaded us in those glorious hours of fellowship and sustenance. Their wings fanned the air above my head as I read about the writing process, the faith required to develop, complete, and bind a book.
Robins sang outside our former gift shop windows where The Mantle waited in stacks upon our repurposed dining room table. The Englander Triangle purchase of forty years ago served perfectly the auspicious occasion of signing books.
To order The Mantle, please mail a $33 check
payable to Iris Lee Underwood to PO Box 61
Lakeville, MI 48366 
Joyce Harlukowicz, retired Imlay City public school educator and artist of The Mantle’s illustrations, sat by my side. In a condition of awe and gratitude, we penned our names on the title page for our guests.
At five the barn wood tables and benches sat silent in the afterglow of gentle laughter and conversation. Slanting sunlight infused the blue canning jars filled with flowers and ferns.
I collected the twenty-two bouquets I had arranged with a volunteer who called in May to learn about growing lavender. Like our birds, she’s nested here, drives in one day a week to work where needed.
Huddled on my potting table, the mass of daisies, calendula, and larkspur held my breath with their beauty. How could I pitch them into the compost bin when they showed no sign of wilting?
With regret, dear Reader. But before I did, I shot my only photo of the day’s gatherings, a proverb hung on the wall above.
“It’s a wonderful life,” the birds sang at sundown.

Click here for an interview with Weam Namou, Vice President of Detroit Working Writers

Click here for a video taken by guest Laura Verhaeghe:

Observations While Zesting Lemons

Lemons to zest for Cook's Farm Dairy Lavender Lemon Ice Cream 
By Iris Lee Underwood, July 2014
I hold a lemon in my left hand,
splotched with liver spots
(my hand, not the lemon), and scrape
the zester over it (the lemon, not my hand),
up and down with my right hand,
also freckled with age, at the end
of a fine June day, just four
sunsets into summer, the tenth
of my zesting lemons occupation, and feel
relief in my shoulders, back and hips
after a long day on the farm.

For I perceive from my kitchen window
the days decreasing and know this
July concludes the necessity to zest
piles of lemons to pair with lavender
ice cream, scones, and lemonade –
not that I am not fond
of the clean scent of lemons –
it’s just enough zesting for a lifetime,
I reckon, and smile as the Muse sings
her song of a new season, one of more words
in hand – and less lemons.

Less lemons, dear Reader? Enough zesting for a lifetime? What was I thinking four summers ago?
           In this kitchen, there’s no such thing as a retired zester—my trusty Microplane with a razor-sharp stainless steel blade. A new season, particularly one with more words, will not be denied its due celebration with the farm’s favorite foods.
In other words, our barn wood tables and benches await my book release party July 7, and I’m also the cook.
           Fifty bald lemons later, I ask you, isn’t it wondrous how a lemon fits into the palm of your hand? Doesn’t matter which end is up, bloom or stem—nipple or navel if you prefer anatomical terms. That’s between you, the lemons, and zester.
By the way, avoid lemons on steroids. They’re too swollen to cradle with your fingers. After all, the objective is to relax and zest, listen to your favorite radio station, or birdsong, or sing your own heart out for a good, long while.
Perhaps you’ll see a semblance in the zester’s movement to that of a bow upon violin strings. The faster the music’s tempo, the faster the zesting.
Today while I zested lemons to freeze for ice cream and scones, WRCJ aired Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Truly, the timeless interlude lifted for the movie Somewhere in Time is rapturous. Again, my skin tingled as naturally as the taste of lemon puckers my lips.
My first memory of the sour flavor of lemons is set in Detroit’s Edgewater Park. One of my kinfolk walked away from a lemonade stand with a cup filled with ice, sugar, and a lemon sliced in half and squeezed. One happy lad, he sucked on the sugary pulp while we strolled by the roaring roller coaster filled with screaming people.
Such memories justify time spent with lemons to gather folk who’ve guided me to this remarkable moment as an author.
Yes, I reckoned wrong four years ago. I’ve observed again what I’d forgotten—the solitary and communal benefits of zesting lemons.