Silver linings

Charlene and Dan Sutherby before their home in Leonard
I cried inconsolably when my father uprooted us from our Kentucky farm to Detroit in 1954.
To soothe my homesickness, Mom taught my two sisters and me how to make hollyhock ballerinas with toothpicks. She bought us ice cream at Brown’s Creamery. I loved spinning on the stools.
But that didn’t last long. Dad moved us to another house in Detroit where we climbed the peach tree in the backyard, and ran around the flowerbed that bloomed tulips and roses.
Then, of all delicious things, the Good Humor man appeared in his white truck. If Mom found loose change in her purse, she bought us ice cream on a stick.
  The summer before third grade, Dad drove Mom, my three sisters and me north on Wagner Street in Warren. Naked as it could be, I didn’t see one tree or speck of green. Not one bird for half a mile.
To my delight, I captured little frogs in mud puddles in our backyard. Mom found an old pie pan for my pets. “No frogs in the house,” she said.
I put some water and mud in the pan with the frogs and placed it on the kitchen windowsill outside. 
When Mom called my sisters and me for supper, I found my little amphibians fried to a crisp. I killed the only living creatures in our habitat.
Thankfully, those unsettling times prepared me for a migratory marriage during the Vietnam War. When we at last bought our first home in 1975, I planted several J&P dry root roses and a vegetable garden in the rich soil of our first home in Berkley.
Yet, it was here in Lakeville where Mel and I first heard the spring peepers in 1989. They’ve since serenaded us from every swamp and bog in our neighborhood and the Polly Ann Trail.
A silver lining to this present dark cloud of pestilence, we’ve passed several families on the trail this week. Jacob, a kindergartener of Leonard Elementary School, rode his bike while his mother jogged with their black lab. A young family from Almont noticed my Great Smoky National Park baseball cap and prompted hiking stories.
At trail’s end, we admired again the large green house where a couple burned leaves in a cauldron. “Hello!” the woman called and waved.
“That’s Char Sutherby. You met her at the library,” I said, and waved back.
Mel and I made her husband’s acquaintance without the handshake.
“Dan, what material is your house made of?” Mel asked.
“It’s handmade cement poured into a mold, a Sutherby pattern. My grandfather built it in 1904,” Dan said.
“How long have you lived in the house?” I asked.
“Forty-eight years. We moved in as newlyweds, and we’re not going anywhere,” Char said.
“Neither are we,” Mel and I said.
Blackberry lily, or Leopard lily
Today, when we walked the trail, Char gifted me blackberry lily seeds. “They grow most anywhere.”
Weather permitting, I’ll sow seeds tomorrow, another silver lining in life’s long succession of adversities.

Blackberry lily seeds

Birdsong and a prayer

Baby robins born several years ago under our pavilion, perhaps great-grands many times over
A harbinger of spring, we tackled the asparagus patch this week. Mel pulled dried weeds and pushed loads of compost uphill.
With shovel in hand, I assessed my half of the labor. Yes, our food is worth the work.
Fastidious about my gardens’ borders, I began with a sharp-edged moat on the west side of the plot. I first saw this trench method thirty years ago in Shakespeare’s Gardens, Stratford, Ontario. The effect is aesthetic, and hinders grass and weed invasion.
Now, there’s something potent about the resolve to put your boot to a shovel that opens your senses to God’s goodness. The more I dug and lifted clods of earth and grass, the louder the birds sang.
Oh, those robins! Plump with fertility, they hopped and flapped their wings like cheerleaders. “Go, Iris, go!”
As my shovel turned south, I heard my neighbor’s children at play, and that piercing squeal high enough to break the sound barrier.
I met the parents two years ago when I passed their home on foot. I thanked them for their children’s free entertainment after school, on weekends, long summer days, and nights by their bonfire.
“Your daughter’s screech is magnificent,” I said.
The father laughed. “I told my wife we could never live in a subdivision.”
“I’m glad for that,” I said.
Their two boys and girls gathered to check out the stranger. With the sweetest smile, the younger boy looked down to his feet.
The mother said, “Go in the house right now and take off your new church shoes.”
Having been a child and young mother, I empathized with both.
The little guy looked me in the eye.
”Wow, those are really cool church shoes!”
That’s all he needed to hear, and ran off to obey.
Warm with exercise and memory, I turned the last corner of the asparagus plot and recalled the subdivision where I grew up in Warren.
In the later summers of polio epidemics, our playmates flocked to our house as they did every season. Our little lawns in front and back provided a safe place for endless hours of Mother May I and building snowmen.
Not once did my parents or neighbors complain about our commotion. And believe me, several screamers resided on our block. Not once did an adult speak “polio” to my sisters and me, nor in our hearing.
I understand we live in different times. Yet, in this present, global darkness, the robin still sings her perennial song of rebirth. We turn the earth to sow food.
Dear Reader, let us call upon the prayer we learned in childhood.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen

Light upon an unraveling world

My friend Joyce sees a still life painting in the sun 
Last Wednesday began in my sunny kitchen, chopping broccoli and onions for soup with Joyce.
At 10 A.M. she arrived towing two photo albums, her memoir in progress, and coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate.
            Her immediate eye spied the ruffled bowl holding Granny Smith apples. “That’s beautiful.”
            “My mother’s.”
She fetched her camera. “May I use a teacup? Do you have a doily and one of your
little spoons handy?”
My friend takes honey in her tea, and the pot of black currant stood ready to pour. But Joyce envisioned a still life painting in my heirlooms.
Of all things, she replaced the spoon and cup with my little pot of bacon grease. She exclaimed, “Look at the light and shade on the doily!”
She went for the antique stool that called my name at the Armada Flea Market years ago. “You’d better ask the kittens’ permission,” I teased. “That’s their property.”
Joyce arranged the doily over the stool built to brave generations. She set Mom’s bowl of apples on top, stood back, and focused.
In the shelter of this bliss, we invested the remains of the afternoon with lunch and reading a fresh passage of her memoir, unaware the world unraveled outside the door.
Next morning at 8:30, I sat before my computer to write my weekly column. Inspired by Joyce’s visit, I poised my fingers to begin a bright narrative of friendship and creativity.
At that moment, my youngest daughter called and turned the day toward an emergency room on the west side near her home. This is what she’d hoped to avoid with Monday’s doctor visit.           
“Mom, the nurse never called back with test results to explain my bleeding.”
As my husband drove, the radio reported coronavirus updates to the point of frustration. My sister who lives in Kentucky called. “Iris, I don’t want you and Mel to go to Scotland.”
I know she would’ve held her concern had she known our circumstances, which I felt untimely to reveal.
We found our daughter resting. “I’m still waiting for the doctor and test results.” Exhausted, she smiled and mentioned her sister’s call the previous night. “Kelly asked if I would take care of you if you got sick.”
“You need to take care of yourself,” Mel said.
At last, two doctors arrived with the diagnosis of fibroid tumors and ordered a blood transfusion. While a donor’s B+ blood dripped into her veins, we stopped by Trader Joe’s for some butter to bake pies for our church’s Friday fish fry.

Ranunculus caught my eye amidst the frenzied shoppers. I made my purchases to later discover a canceled fish fry. We returned to the hospital Friday and took our daughter to her home, so glad to see her recovering.
That night, our Sunday worship service bowed to the pandemic.
Dear Reader, on this Sabbath day, we walked the Poly Ann Trail. We lifted our face to the sun—the antiseptic for all without cost.
The light upon doilies and ranunculus.

Babysitting honeybees

My honeybees take a cleansing flight last Friday
My one and only beehive survived the winter. Ecstatic with joy and disbelief, I want to shout it from my housetop, but have a feeling those pollinators are planning to swarm.
My favorite beekeepers, heroes who know honeybee behavior, say swarming is a sign of a healthy hive—the goal of every beekeeper.
But it’s like babysitting. You have to watch their every move and catch the swarm before they fly a quarter mile or more from the parent colony. Last thing I want is my bees invading a neighbor’s attic. 
These bee mentors make moving a swarm sound like a picnic. I’ve watched YouTube demos to prepare myself for the inevitable, and can’t believe the ubiquitous short sleeves and bare hands from coast to coast.
One southern guy picked up a drone from a swarm he guided toward an empty box to accept the nucleus colony, AKA nuc. That’s why a smart beekeeper wants a hive to swarm. A healthy hive multiplies.
Worker bees produce cells for daughter queens to inherit the hive, then many follow the mother queen when she exits her home to wherever she goes.
Although my affection for beekeeping is genetic from my mother’s side, I’m sorely detached from the experience and intuition of my former McCoy honeybee masters.
Considering this, why did my bees live to emerge from their hive for cleansing flights the past several days above 40 degrees?
Well, let’s begin with this premise: they’re not my bees in terms of my grandfather’s bees, or my uncle’s. They propagated and swapped their queens and colonies amongst their fellows like every beekeeper of their generation. They never bought a bee in their life.
After the varroa mite swept through Appalachia in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the last McCoy beekeeper burned his hives and much later handed me his smoker.
“I never heard of a mite until my bees died. It took out ever’body’s bees along Peter Creek,” my uncle said.
As many modern beekeepers, I adopted my nuc last spring from an apiarist for $150. I’m very thankful for this business of selling nucs installed within my bee equipment, ready to inhabit my backyard.
I don’t ever have to shake another bee package into a brood box and release the queen. I’ll never again accidentally kill a queen in the dark and inclement weather.
After fourteen years handling frames crawling with worker bees and drones, I still cannot identify the queen. Perhaps it’s my progressive lens eyeglasses and opaque veil. Unlike the pros, I suit up for bee inspections and feedings.
Thus, in spite of my handicaps, my bees live! I had my doubts throughout the winter when I found dead bees on the ground below the entrance.
“Drones,” said a honeybee hero. “The worker bees kick them out.”
“Smart creatures,” I replied.
Dear Reader, today’s too windy and cold for a swarm, so I read and write. Tomorrow’s forecast is a different story.
Feeding and babysitting my one and only honeybee hive.

Leap Days Ago

The Zaiglin Family: Laura, Dave, Joey and Eddie
 Last night, the thumbnail moon and shimmering Venus stole my extra night of Leap Day’s sleep to count my blessings.
           I recalled the four Thursdays in February, thankful for safety to and from a memoir class. The thermostat fell the lowest, and snow piled the highest every Thursday night we met in Romeo.
Laura, a kindergarten teacher, read a memoir titled “Eddie’s Entrance” about her second son’s birth. The group’s seven stories ranged from childbirth to the disappointment of returning to one’s childhood home as an adult. The coal furnace, windows, and rooms all looked so much smaller.
For two hours we fell under the spell of family history and story—hallowed memories of the human condition.
The third week, another night for polar bears, Laura’s older son, Joey, followed her into the room. A sixth grader in Romeo Middle School, Joey listened to each writer.
“I like how you began and ended your story,” Joey said to a reader. 
Between a boy and teen and avid sports fan, Joey related to the humorous account of a toe rope dragging a beginner uphill on a ski slope.
“I’m coming back next week for the last class,” Joey announced.
That night, I parked in the church lot and waited in my toasty car for the class member with the key to unlock the door. Laura parked next to me.
There sat Joey in the passenger seat, his predictable smile and new strawberry blond hairdo. He sipped a small to-go coffee cup.
This smarted because I first met Laura during my lavender farm years when Eddie was an infant. She harvested bundles for a few hours “boy free.” We talked about farm life. I learned that day we’re neighbors.
How many Leap Days ago? Two?
Our last class, three members read poignant stories about trusting God’s will, the charity of a fellow shopper, and discovering a child’s grave in the desert.
Three writers ventured into poetry. A soprano sang her poem. Laura wrote her verse to celebrate her best friend’s birthday Leap Day night. The poem took us to her banana seat bicycle with her best friend and best friend’s sister behind while Laura’s legs pumped them around the neighborhood for endless hours and miles.
How many Leap Days ago?
Joey read “Bounce Back,” a poem. “I love basketball and Shakespeare.”
“We can tell,” a writer said. “That’s what makes it a good poem.”
“Dad doesn’t like competition and says to play ball for fun.”
“Can you do that?” asked a mother of four boys.
Joey shrugged. “Yeah, but it’s fun to win, too.”
After two hours, we turned off lights and locked the church, richer than when we entered. 
High above in a black, clear sky, the waning crescent moon and Venus guided me home.
Dear Reader, I pondered how many Leap Days I have left with Joey and Eddie in my neighborhood and church. Maybe two?
While I lay on my pillow, I decided it’s time to watch Joey play basketball.