Forsythia Seasons

Our grape arbor and finicky forsythia bush 

I rise before dawn and drive south. The spring sunrise glows upon daffodils and forsythia along Rochester Road. I recall this golden hope in a season of grief while en route to my eight-o’clock class at Oakland University twenty-six years ago.
          Forsythia blooms her wild, arching boughs in a fen. A decade ago, the previous owner of the homestead kept the branches pruned and the landscape groomed around his columned farmhouse. The white paint now peels from the wood facade.
          Whenever I pass this estate, it pains my heart to see it fall into decrepitude. In travels throughout the north and south in April, one often finds forsythia nearby the collapsing front porch of an old home place.
Yellow never fades from garden fashion.
I turn west onto Tienken Road and pass two of my favorite farmhouses bordered by blooming forsythia hedges. Surrounding subdivisions also grow this shrub from the olive family Oleaceae. Some hedgerows stand trimmed as living walls. Others splay their flowers without restraint.
Everywhere, sun shines upon lemony shrubbery along Square Lake and Middlebelt Roads.
Have confinement and the ubiquitous threat of death opened my eyes to this beauty more fully? Or has this golden hope returned to encourage my youngest child and me?
At 7:20 a.m., I park in her driveway and knock on the door where she lives alone. This worries me. That she may be admitted to the hospital for surgery this morning worries me. Will the authorities permit me to sit by her bedside?
I spy forsythia blooming in her backyard as she opens the door.
“Hi Mom! Thanks for driving me.”
“My pleasure.”
Little Miss Independent smiles.
I step up into the hall where she displays a large vase of leggy forsythia branches.
As I drive to the hospital, she repeats the doctor’s report. She points where to park.  
“Shoot, I forgot my mask,” she says.
I dig into my purse and hand her a clean hanky.
“Where’s your mask?”
“You’re holding it.”
A security guard approaches. “Do you have an appointment?”
“I do,” my daughter says.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he says to me. “You can’t go in.”
I amuse myself in the car for an hour with CDs, WRCJ, and scribbling notes until my daughter returns.
“No surgery today, Mom. The doctor said the meds should hold me over until she’s permitted to do surgeries again.”
I deliver my daughter to her door and hug her good-bye to meander home, nod to every forsythia and daffodil within sight. For I know the natural world and human condition enough to understand such a splendid excursion may never avail itself again.
When I turn onto our gravel drive, I see I’ve marked our homestead with only one forsythia, a finicky variety at that.
Dear Reader, it seems there’s an intuitive yearning for the flowering plant named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth.
Perhaps to ease his grief, he craved to gaze upon yellow some sunny April sunrise.

Wayfaring gardeners

I prune my boxwood, commonly known as "box" amongst botanists

For our Founding Fathers, gardening, agriculture, and botany were elemental passions, as deeply ingrained in their characters as their belief in liberty for the nation they were creating.
From Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf

While I write in my study, my husband Mel pounds a crowbar into the earth with his sledgehammer. When the wind holds its breath for a second, I hear Ping! Ping! Ping!
           It’s Richardson Wright’s old-fashioned way he advocates in his Gardener’s Bed-Book to deep fertilize tree roots. First published in 1929, Wright puts a smile on your face and blooms and food in your dreams.
I often obey this book because Wright appeals to my organic bent. For instance, after Mel pounds the holes almost two feet deep and a foot apart around the breadth of the branches’ circumference, he pours chicken manure water into the holes.
He’s not particularly fond of this task, but he knows the healthier the harvest, the more pies a la mode on his plate. I know this crowbar labor first hand and award our efforts throughout the long winter.
I also value Wright’s “use what you have” mantra; one my mother learned as a child and passed on to me. Thus, there’s bottomless chicken manure water per our little hen house to feed flowerbeds, shrubs, and vegetable garden.
Furthermore, our fire pit provides maple and oak leaf ashes. When this squall gives up, I’ll shovel buckets of ash on every growing thing.
“Spray currant bushes today, then again ten days later,” says my Bed-Book in perfect timing. And Wright warns if I don’t prune my four champagne grape vines in this cold snap, I’ll most likely miss my last open window.
             Bit by bit, these botanical lessons sink into the soul of our three acres. Although I’ve accomplished minimal deadheading and pruning this week with hail and snow chasing me inside, I’ll catch up eventually.
             No, I don’t fret, even though there’s no sign of asparagus shoots. The vegetable has been around since Thomas Jefferson planted it in Monticello’s kitchen garden. This is about our tenth asparagus harvest.
Meanwhile, there’s good ole faithful rhubarb unfurling her green leaves outside our kitchen window to soothe my eye. I have Benjamin Franklin to thank for this vegetable and my mother’s strawberry rhubarb pie.
As you see, a modern gardener toils in esteemed company. When I return to my terrace with my trowel, I’ll “encounter the marks of wayfaring,” as Richardson Wright says in The Story of Gardening.
 George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Paine also found pleasure in creating gardens, and solace in the growing seasons.
“What pace the political summer may keep with the natural, no human foresight can determine. It is, however, not difficult to perceive that the spring is begun,” Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man.
Dear Reader, I’d like to know the wayfaring botanist who brought gladiolus from Africa and Blackberry lilies from Russia to America.

The meaning of things

Daughter Ruth on the left, me on the right, out for our Easter Day after dinner walk
A girl learning to read cursive, I discovered a piece of paper on the kitchen counter one day. Mom’s pretty handwriting listed words like flour, baking soda, tea bags—things she used in the kitchen.
                  Then, in the middle of the list she wrote TP. What was that? I heard her walking up the basement steps. She came to the counter, picked up the pen next to the paper, and added Tide and Clorox to the list.
                  “Mom, what’s TP?”
                  “Why, that’s toilet paper,” she said, as if I should know.
                  Well, I didn’t. And I couldn’t remember hearing her or anyone else say TP, for that matter. Furthermore, I hadn’t yet grasped the expansive application of abbreviations within the English language.
Of course I understood what USA meant. Everyone did. But TP puzzled me. Why did Mom use the first letters of both words instead of spelling it out like she did baking soda and tea bags?
I’d stumbled upon my mother composing her grocery-shopping list, which meant she’d be driving to A&P after dinner. She might bring home a bag of M&M’s and hide it for Sunday night with Disney. I knew what A&P or M&M’s were, but not what the letters meant.
I knew Mom depended upon her grocery list because she couldn’t remember everything our family of six needed without it. Asking Irene next door for a roll of toilet paper wasn’t like borrowing a cup of sugar.
Women of a more genteel generation, my mother and Irene didn’t speak of such bodily functions in public. When I overheard Irene mention changing her daughter’s diaper, she said BMI asked Mom about that, too, because she never said BM.
A farm girl from Appalachia, Mom didn’t talk about such things to my sisters and me. We didn’t know she grew up using an outhouse. In her sixties, Mom at last declared, “I hated that thing. A lizard ran up my back and I had to have tetanus shots. They were very painful.”
When visiting our Kentucky uncles throughout my childhood, they’d allude to the Sears and Roebuck Catalog and outhouse with a smile and glint in their eye. Mom never did.
In the 1960’s, TP took on a mischievous meaning. Teens went to wasting their household’s toilet paper on another’s property by stealthy nighttime visits. My parents couldn’t imagine such behavior.
Neither could I until a sleepover with a good friend at her house.  I’m ashamed to admit I followed the crowd and TP’d a mutual friend’s home. I felt awful and eventually tracked her down forty years later and apologized.
A woman who escaped childhood polio and recovered from the Hong Kong flu in 1968, I’m learning to read the signs of the times. What would my resourceful parents think about folk hoarding toilet paper when there’re washcloths in the house?
Dear Reader, foremost, who will tell the whole truth about this present pestilence termed Covid-19?
I don’t want to follow the wrong crowd again.

Stories of faith and tradition

Debra and Martin Darvick prepared to celebrate Seder with their family, 2019
Comic relief Youtubes and email about the present plague fill my mailbox. The “mask controversy” leads. But that will change.
                  Zoom and Skype keep folk connected and business rolling forward best they can. My heartfelt thanks to the farmer and hunter who feed us, and medical teams on firing lines.
I ignore the majority of unsolicited email. Most include sincere advice and strategies to promote the writer’s success in these trying times. Believe me, trials are nothing new, just different.
My heart leaps when I see Debra’s email Wednesday, April 1. She attaches the link of her new blog titled, “What? No Seder?” I anticipate another fresh drink of life. 
I recall the beautiful April day in 1999 when I met Debra in the Detroit Public Library. In the Fine Arts Room before an audience of our peers, she read her award-winning memoir about her Jewish grandmother.
I saw her grandmother complete the process of stirring and baking ├ęclairs with her granddaughter, the spatula’s chocolate touch. Her story related to my Pentecostal granny who served my sisters and me fresh, hot buttered biscuits with fried apples.
Food and faith connected us that day of pink crabapple blossoms along Woodward Avenue.
Here I am in April again with another relatable story from Debra.
“My rabbi told me he and his colleagues are hearing from congregants who may well forgo Seder completely this year,” Debra begins.
I understand. One lonely empty-nest Easter, I didn’t have heart enough to carry my mother-in-law’s Easter ceramics upstairs and decorate. No yellow ducklings, chicks. No pink bunny on the dining room table. No Henrietta, the rabbit with fake eyelashes. No ham, scalloped potatoes, mandarin orange salad, and Coconut Bunny Cake.

Henrietta the Rabbit, Easter houseguest

Afterward, I realized the injury I’d done to myself and Mel, and the dishonor to my mother-in-law and her ritual of remembering Christ’s Resurrection.
As Debra says, “But if ever there was a time to have Seder, this is it! Rabbi Asher Lopatin commented that this year’s Seder will be akin to the first one in Exodus—families huddled in their homes eating their own meals—while mayhem carries on outside.”
Debra relates to my family and faith again.
“When we carry on a tradition, we honor and fulfill commandments dictated to us in an ancient scroll. When Exodus 12.24 says, ‘You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants,’ that means us. ”
Debra observes Seder with her husband Martin. I observe Easter with Mel. We did so before children. We do so after.  We must sustain the life of our faith to sustain ourselves. Only then may we help sustain the life of our children’s faith.
Dear Reader, I bless that April day I met Debra. Listen to this. “People of faith are people of faith. Your struggles are mine, and visa versa. May we all find a way to celebrate the bitter and the sweet in this terrible time.”
Here’s one more drink of hope. “What a story we will all have to share afterwards.”           

For Debra’s complete blog, visit here: