To Watch Laurel Grow

Laurel, age nine, Lavender Festival 2006

Eight-year old Laurel had a job to do.
“Please keep Mandy in your room until our meeting ends,” Laurel’s mother said.
“Okay, Mom.” She bounced up the stairs, her dog following.
Maureen, then President of Detroit Working Writers, welcomed fellow board members to her kitchen table. From start to finish we conducted business without a bark from Laurel’s hostage. Once released, Laurel and Mandy wormed their way into my heart.
Because my ninth year was the most remarkable of my lifetime, I have a soft spot for children that age, or on the cusp. There’s a glimmer of innocence in their eye, a ray of doubt-defying faith.
And the child loved to laugh.
A year later, I embarked upon developing my lavender farm on our property and hosting a festival. “What may Laurel and I do to help?” Maureen asked.
For hours, they stamped gift bags and filled sachets with dried lavender buds, amongst other boring tasks. Laurel never complained. The following summer Maureen said, “Laurel and I would love to help again.”
I couldn’t believe how the girl and her sandy blonde hair had grown. She wore a long white dress and yellow sunhat, passing for a pre-teen. “Would you like to demonstrate how to harvest lavender for our U-pick guests?” I asked.
She smiled and nodded with wide eyes.
Laurel took her positive attitude into a blooming field where she stood all day, scissors in hand. A volunteer photographer captured her profile as she held lavender stems. The following season, I painted Laurel’s photo for the festival’s poster. In 2007, Laurel appeared on the cover of my poetry book titled Growing Lavender & Other Poems.
As a graduating senior in high school, Laurel returned to the farm with a professional photographer to pose for class pictures. Later that summer during her graduation picnic, Laurel’s laugh rang above all others.
To witness another rite of passage, Maureen drove us to Albion College last week for the Honors Convocation and Laurel’s senior thesis presentation. “She’s the outgoing president of the Chevron Chapter of Mortar Board, a national organization of scholars. She’s announcing the names of the incoming inductees,” Maureen said.
I thought my friend would burst her buttons.
As we walked down the aisle of Albion’s United Methodist Church, I recognized Laurel’s face, the one I studied and copied thirteen years ago. She sat on the platform with other presenters.
Dear Reader, it has been a pleasure to watch Laurel grow into an accomplished, responsible woman. To observe her honor ceremony and thesis presentation was an unexpected privilege.
Laurel plans to leave for Maine after graduation. She’ll work as an outdoor education leader, advancing from four years as a cabin counselor. Eventually, she hopes to use her psychology degree in some capacity.
The girl who took dog-sitting and lavender U-pick demos seriously will find her place in this wide world, I believe. For Laurel carries laughter and a ray of doubt-defying faith wherever she treads. And with a glimmer in her eye.

Easter Seasons

L to R: Patty, Libby, Linda, and Iris O'Brien, 25708 Wagner Street, Easter circa 1960
Every Easter time of my childhood, my mother walked into Sew-N-Save. She selected three patterns, and then slipped her fingers between the raw edges of fabric to find the perfect material for three dresses. Finally, she searched for notions and pushed her cart to the cutting table.
Back home, her Brother sewing machine hummed morning, noon, and night until she approved the final fittings for my sisters and me.
She completed our ensembles with hats, gloves, and shiny black patent shoes and white socks with lacy trim. Eventually, our baby sister followed our Easter parade, tallest to shortest, out the front door to shiver on the porch while Dad filmed home movies. Once released, we twirled around and round in our dresses and can-cans.
Year after year, our neighbors observed the O’Brien girls grow out of our crinolines into hose, heels, A-line skirts, and purses we held like Mom did hers. I imagine the Rivards across the street laughed at my tantrum the Sunday I refused to claim that awful, bowler straw hat.
Sadly, before the fifth O’Brien daughter could join our Easter parade, our parents divorced. Soon after, in birth order, the first three girls began our leaving and marrying. In not too distant a time and place, we commenced our sewing.
One visit to my mother-in-law’s home, AKA Grandma Rosie’s, she carried a portable sewing machine to our car. “To sew for the girls,” she said.
I followed my mother’s footsteps into Sew-N-Save, slid my fingers between raw edges and sewed my best. The only Easter we resided in Plum Borough, Pennsylvania, I dared sew matching dresses, coats, and bonnets for my youngest two. What frustration to line a coat! And Mom made it look easy, like she did every domestic art.
Grandma Rosie loved to mail Fanny Farmer chocolate bunnies and eggs to fill our daughters’ baskets. The girls were thrilled to consider Grandma Rosie their Easter Bunny.
My mother-in-law also shipped darling handmade personalized ceramic ducks for each daughter and filled the wagon they pull with foil-wrapped chocolates.

My mother, Sadie McCoy, Easter 2007
Every Easter more chocolates and ceramic creatures arrived. Grandma Rosie favored her jumbo bunny with one floppy ear and false eyelashes. I named her Harriet, English for “rules the home.”
In birth order, my girls eventually shed their anklets for pantyhose and heels—my turn to endure that constant, awkward leaving and letting go.
What seemed impossible, doctors diagnosed my resilient and gifted mother with Alzheimer’s. We cared for Mom in our home for her last Lenten season. Of all Grandma Rosie’s critters, she loved Harriett best.
It takes a ruler of the home to know another.
Dear Reader, while I returned Harriet and my daughter’s ducks to their perennial stations in celebration of this season, I pondered the source of my mother’s and mother-in-law’s labor of love for their children and grandchildren.  
The only explanation is their faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am witness. In their last breath, He was their hope, joy, and strength.
We can trust the one who died for us.

Sustenance Worth the Cost

I load $164 worth of groceries into my car. I’ll take Shepherd’s Pie  to pass for my Monday night writing group, and the hens will gobble up our kitchen scraps. Otherwise, my husband and I will consume the bulk of this bounty in one week.
         How has this exorbitant cost and consumption happened the past forty years? In the 1980’s, I fed our growing family of five on $93 every two weeks
         Thank God for pantry stretchers like spaghetti, salmon patties, and tuna noodle casserole. I plated our meals from the stove to insure everyone received a fair share. With the jar under my guard, one batch of chocolate chip cookies lasted five days for four lunches.
         But $164 for two of us? For one week?
         Looking for soothing music, I tune in to 90.9 FM. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue soars as I turn north onto Rochester Road. I see my father standing by his turntable, punctuating vivacious piano notes with his index finger.
        Mom would say Dad spent more money on his stereo and albums than food and shoes for his girls. I understand, for we witnessed Mom in the kitchen and living room doorway, dishrag in hand, all but on her knees, begging Dad for grocery money.
         Dad would say Mom could whip up something out of nothing, which we knew wasn’t a compliment to her culinary mastery, but his defense to spend his income however he pleased. Kentucky bourbon, for instance.
         Much older, wiser, and under the influence of Gershwin’s spell, I don’t resent my bunions. They’re not that troublesome. Food and shoes are perishable. Every week or so I must buy more groceries. Every year or so I must shop for shoes. What we moderns call the cost of living.
         Music, the purest language other than birdsong, abides forever. Gershwin knew that. I like to think my father did also.
         Halfway home, Dad and I suspend our breath. We anticipate Gershwin’s tender, light as a feather strings, the movement that lifts us into heavenly places. And when the violins begin, with my hands on the wheel, my father and I ascend together through the hallowed door of forgiveness.
         I turn onto our dirt road and navigate around potholes. Gershwin’s rhapsody concludes another triumphant march into the future. In the continuous circle of love and melody, Dad and Gershwin depart. They shall return again and again to comfort me until I leave this temporal world.
        With thankfulness, I restock our refrigerator and cupboards and prepare chicken stir-fry for dinner. Other than my black patent Easter shoes, I cannot remember one pair from my childhood. Yet, the clarinet’s sassy sliding first note of Rhapsody in Blue echoes in my mind.
        Dear Reader, my father never walked into a symphony hall or took a music lesson. Neither of us could foresee the dividends I would gain from the purchase of his album. I consider his investment a marvelous gift of God’s grace.
        I would say sustenance in the truest sense. Worth the cost.

Erna's Garden Wisdom

Erna hoes a lavender field, 2007 Yule Love It Lavender Festival
 Don’t fork or spade soil until it is dry enough for the clods to crumble when they fall.
The Gardener’s Bed-Book by Richardson Wright, 1929

This time of year I recall my friend Erna Hermann and her weeding methods.
     First, she collects her garden wardrobe: long-sleeved shirt, pants, gloves, hat, socks and shoes.
     Second, she takes up her Warren hoe.
     Third, she works with a smile and song, a sanguine disposition inherited from her father, a German born immigrant who obeyed his relative when he said, “Come to America!”
    When Erna left Romania at thirteen-years old, weeding had already settled deep into her bones. She’d learned how to till the earth with her father’s Warren hoe in his gardens and vineyards.
     After she married Wally and moved to Romeo, they planted vineyards and a vegetable garden. Orchards. Berry patches. Flowers. You name it, they grew it.
     Erna tilled their Romeo vineyard twice a year with her father’s hoe. The “entire” vineyard, she likes to emphasize. Now at seventy-something, there’s no thought of retiring her primary garden tool. Wally has the heart-shaped blade sharpened at the ready.
     “To me, Dad’s hoe is more versatile than any other. Maybe I prefer it because I’m left handed. This is the only spade I’ve ever used for the past fifty years,” Erna says.
     She compares the Warren hoe to the common grubbing or nursery hoe, curved blade of the cavex hoe, or the “action” variety with its push-and-pull feature, and finds them lacking in performance.
     Erna uses the sharp point to whack under the weed’s root to extract it from the soil. Then she drops the weed on the earth for the sun to dry out the roots. Unless the nuisance has gone to seed or rainfall is pending, she leaves it for natural compost. 
     “In a small garden, you can gather weeds, but not in a large plot or vineyard. Turn the blade sideways to skim the soil for aeration and leveling,” Erna says.
     She also uses the spade’s point to dig furrows for planting and weeding between narrow rows. There’s no doubt about it. Erna’s Warren hoe is the star of her gardens, lifting weeds like they were sprouted in soft butter. All other tools are replaceable.
     Yes, I imagine Erna’s gathering her garden paraphernalia about now. She’s walking and watching her yards, the sky, and listening to the birds and weather forecast.
    “The soil shouldn’t be too wet, but damp,” I hear her say. “You don’t want to till the day before a rainstorm because the weeds you’ve removed won’t have time to dry out and most will re-root.”
     Dear Reader, several mornings ago, I read Erna’s garden wisdom again in Richardson Wright’s The Gardener’s Bed-Book. Those two often agree when it comes to cultivation.     
     I see my yellow-checkered long-sleeved blouse in my closet. I hear Erna hum with pleasure, her father’s Warren hoe striking the earth—sweet and fruitful music, an overture of praise for another growing season.