Reconciliation of summers

Tennessee greasy beans for our table
I awake before dawn to the roar of rolling thunder. After another dry spell, the heavens at last shake the house with the sound waves of kettledrums and cymbals. I smell the crescendo of rainfall before I hear its blessed tap-dance on the rooftop.
           My abused bones and muscles relax. Hallelujah! I’m saved from dragging the hose from our rhubarb patch to flower gardens!
           Perfect timing; for I believe I’ve run out of gas. I’ve burned a double portion this droughty summer.  
            I rest; know my beloved honeybees will find raindrops on grass, leaves, and flowers. Perhaps I’ll chance upon another bee drinking a sparkling drib on a begonia petal—my wage for faithfully watering birdbaths, pots, and window boxes in ninety-degree weather.
            A cool, clean breeze carries the scent of soil, foliage, and rain to my pillow. Like a good convalescent, I turn on my side and welcome Nature’s cure.
            I listen to the storm’s fireworks explode above our land, glad for the married elements of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.
            Water. We can’t survive without it. Even my potted succulents need moisture. Beware, without drainage, a succulent is doomed.

A succulent blooms in my rock garden
Since I’ve nowhere to go and nothing to do this hour of the morning, my mind considers such necessities as food, healthy plants, and family.
I’m grateful for the fallout of nitrogen fixation onto our weedy lawn. It shall be green again, unlike our dehydrated tomato plants. We’ve learned no amount of rainfall will revive them. Although my husband soaked the vegetable garden with well water, there’s nothing like a drenching shower in due season for a robust crop.
Yet, we’ve seen worse dry spells—say twenty or so years ago before we grew a vegetable garden. We didn’t dare light a bonfire back then.
As summers sweep over me, it seems we built our little homestead in a drought zone. The earth is green and lush just south, east, and west of us, and a few miles north.
Thank God we can’t foresee the future.
When our girls lived here, what seems a century ago, yet just yesterday, fierce storms sometimes sent us to the basement. Once, the wind blew all the straw off the grass seed we’d sown. As we raked the straw back in place, our daughters declared country living wasn’t for them.
And they’ve kept their word.
With our cat Cuddles sleeping at my side, I recall my mother, her passion for growing food and flowers. Whenever my family arrived on her Kentucky doorstep for our annual summer visit, we found a huge pot of white-half runner green beans on the stove, a pone of cornbread in the oven, and a bouquet of zinnias on her dinning room table.
This hospitality we enjoyed until the unsettling of her memory.
Dear Reader, with the tail end of another summer making a spectacle of itself with lightning and thunder, my younger self reconciles with my older self.
I rest, consider the two-week lifespan of the worker honeybee.

The Storytelling Tree

Olivia learns to play croquet
Andy loved building things. He worked a good, long day on my whim to swing like a kid again.
           Up and down his extension ladder he went, drilling two holes into a limb of a maple, turning giant eyehooks until secure, knotting the rope and threading it through the wood seat.   
“Want to test it?” he asked at last.
I did for twelve years until the weathered rope gave up the ghost this summer. Unable to find someone like Andy to tackle the replacement, I forewarned my friend Debra that her granddaughter, Olivia, wouldn’t be able to swing when they visited the following week.
“Olivia said she would help you fix it,” Debra replied.
I understood the child’s whim to swing again.
On the scheduled day and time, Debra and Olivia arrived on my doorstep. “I’m three and seven twelfths now,” Olivia announced.
The second she devoured her first scone with cream, she ran to examine the swing. “It doesn’t look broken.”
The man of the house came to the rescue. “Hello Olivia,” Mel said, aware of the child’s disappointment.
“Let’s ask Mel to test the swing,” I said.
The frayed rope snapped in two.
Olivia played the good sport. She rolled down hills, ate another scone with cream, and taught Debra and me her version of croquet, which evolved into bowling.
Yet, Olivia wandered back to the broken swing, longing to fulfill her heart’s expectation, and came close to whining.
In consolation, Debra sat beside her three and seven twelfths grandchild on our swing-for-two, but “it didn’t go high enough,” Olivia said.
“Is it time to go home?” Debra asked.
What else is a grandmother to do?
Then the sugar maple by the fire pit called our names. “Let’s go to the storytelling tree,” I said.
To my surprise, Olivia took Debra’s hand and followed me.
“Who wants to go first?” I asked.
“You go,” Olivia said.
I sat with my back to the tree trunk. Olivia snuggled in the cradle of Debra’s lap, the girl’s dress and green crinoline slip splayed over Debra’s legs.
“Once upon a time,” I began, “there were three hens: Blackie, Goldie, and Whitey. Every night Blackie, a pessimist, worried Mel wouldn’t show up to close their chute and then a critter would walk up the ramp, through the chute, and into the house where they roosted. And then no more Blackie, Goldie, and Whitey.” 
“’Don’t worry Blackie,’ said Goldie, ‘Mel always shows up.’”
“’And if Mel doesn’t, Iris does,’ said Whitey.’”
“Then they heard Mel at the door. ’Hello girls!’ he said, and closed their chute. ‘Sleep tight!’”
“‘Bock! Told you, Blackie!’ Goldie and Whitey sang. Then they all slept tight. The end.”
To my utmost surprise, Olivia cheered, “Tell the story again!”
Debra took my cue and told her embellished version.
“Tell the story again!” Olivia pleaded.
You see, dear Reader, Debra and I love building stories. Unlike tangible things, good stories stand the test of time.
Especially when they’re built for a three and seven twelfths year old.

Granny's church

Larkspur and Cosmos bloom beside Granny's church, a little battered by the weather
While deadheading Cosmos beside a garden gift I named Granny’s Church, the blissful summer I spent a month vacationing alone in Kentucky came to mind.
Nine years old, my aunts passed me from house to house in the McCoy Bottom where I ran and played from sunup to sundown with cousin Kathy and Kenneth Ray. The first a McCoy on Mom’s side, the second an O’Brien on Dad’s.
When my aunts had had enough, my uncles dropped me off at Granny’s house where I ran her alleys with neighbor boys Paul Ray and Buddy Boy.
Meanwhile, Granny sewed me two blouse and skirt outfits— one yellow, the other blue. “School clothes,” she said.
When Sunday rolled around, Granny drove us to her church. I wore the flowery blue school clothes.
I knew the way to her church because Granny took my sisters and me to the Phelps Free Pentecostal Church during our summer vacations “back home,” as Mom said. Granny turned off the road and the steeple appeared. She parked in an alley.
I followed my grandmother’s wide behind through the back door to a rope she unwound from a wall. She pulled again and again to ring the bell, calling neighbors to worship.
Upstairs in the sanctuary, a wooden plaque on the wall with slots for “Attendance” and “Offering” implied a flock much smaller than that of Van Dyke Baptist Church in Warren where my family lived.
That morning, I didn’t ride Van Dyke Baptist’s yellow church bus to Sunday school and church with my two sisters. I sat in Granny’s congregation in Phelps, Kentucky, where she stood behind the pulpit, sang songs and preached.
Of course I don’t remember the Bible verse or her sermon. But it didn’t matter. I’m witness. Every single day of Granny’s life declared what God provides is enough. Always.
Years after her family dispersed Granny’s belongings, Uncle Tab, the youngest of her eight children, placed a little ceramic church in my car.
“I want you to have this. I bought it for Mommy one Christmas.”
“Thank you. I know the perfect place in my gardens,” I said.
“Law no, honey! I paid good money for that to go into a garden.”
“And I put good money into my gardens.”
Soon after, the State of Kentucky razed Granny’s church and the surrounding neighborhood for a football field. The rope and bell also disappeared.
Dear Reader, I couldn’t know as a child what blessed gifts my grandparents had given­—t­­hat Grandpa Floyd built Granny’s church from wormy chestnut timber he harvested from our mountains.
The rope and bell confirm my grandmother’s place and purpose on God’s Earth—a humble country church where she preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Such glorious music and moments catch a child unawares. They come and go unexpected without knowing their power, and often vanish without persuading memory to hold them close.
Not so with my blissful summer when I was nine years old. Not so with Granny’s church.

The rite of a haircut

My pixie haircut twenty some years ago
“I like it. You look twenty years younger,” my husband says.
             And men say women exaggerate.
             “You haven’t worn you hair that short in almost twenty years.”
             Well, he’s closer to the truth on that one.
             My revived pixie hairdo and I sit at the kitchen’s island with a Sloppy Joe, Mel’s standby for a pound of ground grass-fed beef when I’m not around to cook. I spoon homemade gazpacho on my plate.
He picks up his iPad in the living room while I enjoy my Joe and the first fruits of our vegetable garden. I ponder his observation of my hairstyles the past twenty years, the generation we turned gray together.
I recall the beauty salon, clumps of my fine locks falling to the tile while my beautician clips away with glee. I already miss my little ponytail. Gathering the length of my hair in a band felt like I was nine-years old again.
But who was I kidding? In my case, Mom was right when she said long hair makes some older women look older.
I remember looking up to the mirror and asking my beauty operator, “You’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, haven’t you?”
She smiles big as Texas. “Yeah, since you first mentioned it.”
“That was years ago!”
She snips above my ears. Silver clippings slide off my cape. “You needed time to know this is the right cut for you.”
I subdue winces as her thinning scissors chew wads of six months growth and spit it out. Eleanor knows what she’s doing, I coach myself.
As if reading my mind, she says, “My first job was at Eastland when I was nineteen.”
“At Hudson’s?”
She nods and we both let a mournful sigh to those glorious bygone days of J. L. Hudson’s quality customer service and merchandise—the experience of lunching on Waldorf salad and Sanders Hot Fudge Sundae.

My pixie today

As Eleanor blows dry what hair I have left, her confidence as she fusses with styling my meager bangs, she convinces me she’s right.
We glance to the photos I brought of my younger self in short hair. “There’s no doubt about it. You look much younger,” she says.
Well, I know better, but lifting spirits is what beauticians do, so I embrace it when I take cash from my wallet for a service she provides with skill and joy.
After waiting spring and summer for this improvement to my appearance, I look to what I’ve left behind. My wet, graying strands dry on the floor around Eleanor’s chair, a memorial to patience and hope in my country's most anarchistic and trying times within my seventy-one years.

Dear Reader, as I drive home to dinner, I mark our first generation as senior citizens with this rite of a haircut. I praise God from whom all blessings flow and place the next generation into His loving hands.
And when someone says I look younger, I’m glad Eleanor is much younger than me. 

Lifecycle of the tomato hornworm

Tomato hornworm caterpillar

If you plant tomatoes, they will come.

     No respecter of the nightshade family, the tomato hornworm consumes tomato leaves, knows when green shoots sprout for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

     No respecter of soil, overwintered moths emerge from the earth in early spring with a vengeance to mate and invade our paradise.

     Meanwhile, we harvest our first cucumber, oblivious to greenish-white eggs laid on the underside of our tomato leaves.

     Perennial masters of camouflage, the eggs grow unawares within four weeks to its larval stage of the hawk or sphinx moth.

     No respecter of the gardener’s labor and investment, the larvae grow legions of legs: five pairs of prolegs and three pairs of thoracic legs.

     A dreadful looking black horn spikes on the back abdomen of their plump, green belly fed on nature’s bounty. Hornworms will decimate a tomato plant and patch if not plucked off and destroyed.

     Simple enough, you experienced gardeners may say.

     Not so for this greenhorn growing thirty some tomato plants a decade ago.

     “Eww…” I said at first sight when a farmhand spied several hornworms fastened to denuded tomato stems. My mother’s voice echoed in my mind. I hated bugging beans and tomatoes.

     Then Kim, my right-hand farm friend, plucked a worm off a stem without a wince. In awe of her self-confidence, I followed her lead. In minutes we debugged seven hornworms and carried them to the hen’s pen.

    There’s not much in the entertainment industry that can compete with hens chasing the one with the worm in its beak.

     That fun long behind, I’ve devoted this summer to writing, weeding, deadheading, and mulching gardens—left the vegetable garden and hornworm watch to my husband.

     When a young friend and her daughter visited one lovely evening this week, we strolled the farm. Thoroughly enjoying the rare pleasure of one another’s company during this prolonged season of confinement, we found ourselves before the vegetable garden.

     “I’ve not opened this gate for days,” I confessed. “Mel’s the vegetable guy. I’m the flower girl.”

     Cheryl, the mother of two teenagers, said, “It’s beautiful. We don’t have room for a vegetable garden, or the time to grow one.”

     Jenna, her daughter, spied a baby cantaloupe.

     “Good eye,” I said.

     We moseyed back to the garden entrance where the tomatoes grow. “I may as well look for tomato worms, if ya’ll don’t mind,” I said.

     “Not at all. We’ll help. What do they look like?” Cheryl asked.

     “Green and gross.”

     Indeed. In plain view, the largest hornworm I’ve seen to date, chewed away a leaf on an upper stem.

     “Eww…” Jenna said.

     Clueless of its demise, I plucked off the spongy worm.

     “It’s huge!” Cheryl said.

     They followed me to the henhouse where we laughed a good while at five hens chasing the one with the worm in its beak.

     “I think it’s finally a goner,” Cheryl said.

     Dear Reader, I appreciate Nature’s food chain.

     Nothing goes to waste in the cessation of the lifecycle of a tomato hornworm.