Gone to the dog park

 

My daughter Ruth with Lily (L) and Layla at the Orion Oaks Dog Park

Absence makes my heart grow fonder of my grand-dog Lily. I didn’t realize the depth of my affection until my daughter Ruth emailed a week ago Friday. “Want to meet us at the dog park tomorrow morning?”

            I glanced at October 16 on my desk calendar. Wide open. “What time?”

            “9ish.”

            I’d been curious about the Orion Oaks Dog Park from the day a friend said, “Amy loves to play on the beach and jump off the dock.” A longtime cat owner, I had no occasion to visit the park.

            Until Lily came along.

            Ruth soon found their “heaven on earth,” a 24-acre plot with a spacious parking lot, paddocks (one for small dogs), woods, trails, lake, picnic shelters, hose to spray dirty dogs, and clean bathrooms for humans. Only twenty minutes from home on Joslyn Road.

            A beautiful fall morning, I spied Ruth’s blue sweatshirt within a ring of fellow canine owners of all ages. She held a coffee cup while tracking Lily’s red collar and other dogs chasing one another willy-nilly in and out of the circle.

            I hollered for Lily. She raced toward me with a stick in her mouth. After two months of no Lily time, she still recognized my voice. I could’ve cried.

            In a tangle of black lab muzzles and paws, Lily and her best buddy Layla blind-sided me. But I didn’t go down.

            “Mom, don’t lock your knees. Bend them, or you’ll fall,” Ruth said.

Ruth and Lily with Layla and Joe, her owner

            To observe numerous dogs of all breeds play in one communal space is to witness much sniffing, stick stealing, barking, ball fetching, and conversations between adults who stand with bent knees.

            Although I cherish the quiet, low-impact companionship of our two cats, and appreciate our mouse-free house, Mittens and Cuddles suddenly seemed boring. Especially when Ruth and I walked a trail with Lily and Layla. They disappeared into the woods and returned with twigs clenched between their teeth. More trophies.

            “Lily’s such a sweetheart,” Ruth said.

            “I’d forgotten how much fun a dog can be,” I confessed.

            We passed a young couple with two Great Danes. Lily and Layla, both one year old, aimed for the leggy Danes.

            “This is our first time here,” the man said.

            “We just moved from Connecticut,” said the woman. “This place is amazing.”

            Yesterday, a week later, I emailed Ruth. “Going to the dog park tomorrow morning?”

            “Yes. You coming?”

            “What time?”

            “I’ll call when I leave for the park.”

            Lily and Layla didn’t notice a sparser crowd this damp, chilly morning at Orion Oaks. They rolled and growled and chewed each other’s ears just the same.

            Dear Reader, this time of year on Saturday mornings in the early nineties, I followed Ruth on Cross Country courses when she competed for Romeo Schools. Fellow parents cheered on our girls to the finish line.

            Nowadays, whenever Ruth calls a Saturday morning, I’m gone to the dog park. For Ruth’s and Lily’s presence also makes my heart grow fonder of my daughter and grand-dog.


Synchronization of the seasons

 

Our bar wood benches and tables stowed away for winter

Season: n 1: suitable or natural time or occasion: 2: a period of the year associated with some phase or activity of agriculture (as growth or harvesting) Season vb 1: to make palatable by adding salt or condiment 2: to make fit by experience

Considering what might be the last fine day in 2021, yesterday we stowed away the pavilion furniture inside my former gift shop—one of many outdoor projects we aim to complete before snow flies.

                Since April, we’ve hefted mulch, compost, and garden waste which conditioned our bodies for this ritual of putting summer to bed.

I confess, lifting and stacking eleven barn wood tables and twenty-two benches claims every bit of our physical and mental fortitude. Yet, in the exercise of this annual task the past eight years, we’ve mastered a pattern for maximum space economy.

Our procession of preserving our belongings began last month when I parked my golf cart inside the pavilion’s storage room. For the first winter in twelve years, she won’t be left out in the cold.

                Betsy, my Club Car, hasn’t seen a golfer since I purchased her as my garden buddy—my back and step saver to and from beehives, and up and down hills from gardens to burn piles.

                Now Betsy rests amongst harvest baskets, coolers, bins of hot and cold cups, and other acquisitions.

Betsy, my golf cart, with garden companions 
                Rest. That’s exactly what my body craved when I closed the pavilion doors upon our completed chore. Instead, I asked my husband “What’s the weather forecast for this afternoon?”

                “Rain.”

                “Better plant my garlic,” I said and fetched my buckets of compost and oak leaves.

                On my knees with trowel in hand, I mused at the brevity of summer’s companionship with friends, flora, and honeybees.  

                The sun on my shoulders and the sore spot between, I tamped soil and oak leaves above forty-two garlic cloves. At last, I sat back on the heels of my chicken boots. “Finished! Praise God!”          

Oh yes, I’m surfeited of gardens. Their needs to meet my needs: beauty, fragrance, food.

                Indeed, homegrown garlic waits in our basement on the shelf with canned tomatoes, peach butter and jam, and currant compote. Squash and asparagus soup and raspberries fill our freezer.

                God is good. Faithful.

This is why we gather with family and friends to give thanks. Why we will soon find our bottles of sage and allspice in our spice racks.

For our hearts praise God in seed time and harvest for our land, food, and liberty.

Glad and exhausted, I carried my empty buckets, swinging by my sides in synchronization of the seasons, to the greenhouse.

Come suppertime, hungry with plates of barbequed pulled pork and roasted garlic, red potatoes, and broccoli before us, rain fell fast and hard.

Dear Reader, if you know the meaning of the Yiddish word “verklempt”, you grasp my emotional condition. If you grow food and are over seventy years old, you’ve been there and will be again.

Yes, I slept well last night.

 

 


A memorial to my Sweetie dog

Sweetie in my garden at last

You never know what you’ll stumble upon when browsing The Weed Lady’s place. As we drove north toward Fenton, I assured my friend Maureen something beautiful and valuable would call our names.  

     My two previous visits to this gardener’s paradise dated to more than a decade ago. Maureen’s recent birthday presented the perfect occasion to return. We’d spend the afternoon celebrating with plants and dine on beef tenderloin afterward at Lucky’s.

     “They have the best steak,” a friend of Maureen’s and Fenton resident had said. And I’d heard the same vote of confidence from Imlay City friends.  

    Maureen’s phone guided us to our destination on Fenton Road. I didn’t recognize the area for all the recent development. At last, The Weed Lady’s wooden house appeared on our right.

     As I remembered, the scent of every square inch surrounding the landmark welcomed us. A gurgling pool and begonias of various varieties sat amidst repurposed furniture and garden structures.

     Urns of all sizes and prices and succulent plants led us into the gift shop. Maureen spied Italian terracotta pots. Mama and Papa pots with offspring of all sizes waiting for a sunny window or garden. And our adventure had just begun.

     “Ready for the greenhouse?” I asked.

     “Yes! I’d like to find a succulent for my kitchen window.”

     On our path to the greenhouse, every garden structure imaginable sat arranged with like kinds. Again, the urns tempted me.

     “I cannot buy what I cannot carry to the car and into my gardens,” I said.

     Maureen smiled. “Good idea.”

     I spied a group of dog statues lounging under a huge tree. “I wonder if they have a Lab,” I said, thinking of my grand-dog, Lily.

     Approaching the odd doggie park, my heart leapt at the sight of a small collection of cocker spaniel figurines. Their sad, puppy-dog eyes reminded me of my ginger-colored pet named Sweetie Lee.

     I lost Sweetie forty-five years ago and had since searched for a proper memorial to place in my gardens. The price on the cocker spaniel was right. I lifted my little Sweetie with no effort and carried her while Maureen and I browsed tables of succulents in the greenhouse.

     “Look at the pattern on this urn,” Maureen said, pointing beneath the table where we stood.

     The vase, embellished with wine-colored flowers and filled with wet potting soil, appeared to have been abandoned. Again, the price compelled me to purchase the unique treasure. But I couldn’t lift it on my own.

     My birthday friend and I selected our succulents and made our purchases, including the rejected vase the clerk emptied for me.

     Dear Reader, I placed my Sweetie dog in a garden today to view from my kitchen window. Her sad puppy-dog eyes drew loving tears.

     For as Maureen and I dined on Lucky’s steak, I recalled my boyfriend who bought Sweetie for me, for she became my confidant during my parents’ divorce.

     Thanks to Maureen and The Weed Lady, I at last found the proper memorial to my beloved and faithful pet. 


All the trees of the world

 

The white pine above my three hives

A youngster born near the border between eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, I imagined all the world resembled mine—green mountains, far as my eyes could see. 

     Within these mountains lay flatlands Appalachians named “bottoms”. My folks called our home the McCoy Bottom, and our farmhouse the “homeplace”.

     My mother’s grandfather, Lark McCoy, had cleared the bottom’s timber for crops and built his homeplace, barn, smokehouse, henhouse, two cabins, and beehives.  

     Mom’s father Floyd, however, had built his homeplace with a Sears kit on the opposite end of the McCoy Bottom. The roads being too narrow, Sears delivered the shipment via Peter Creek.

     A tributary formed by the runoff of rain flowing down mountain hollows, Peter Creek divides the bottom. My grandfather tended his honeybees along his side of the creek, and grew corn on a hillside on the other until his untimely death.

     From my earliest memories, Mom would point to the hill where young trees grew and say sadly, “That’s where Dad planted corn.”

    My grandfather also grew green apple trees along the path between his homeplace and my great-grandfather’s. The barn with bats in the haymow faced the orchard from the other side of the lane.

     Just when I learned to find toeholds in their gnarly trunks, Mom and Dad packed up our household and drove away. The mountains slowly shrunk into flat cornfields that endured throughout the eternal state named Ohio.

     After Dad crossed another river and drove into Detroit, I couldn’t believe the straight, paved streets lined with houses and driveways far as my eyes could see. Then he turned his car into one of those driveways and unloaded the trunk.

     Feeling sorely homesick for the bosoms of my green mountains, I found consolation sitting under the shade of the one tree in our front yard. Impossibly huge to climb, however.

     One school day I cried again to stay home.  Mom said, “Iris, you have to go to school. You won’t pass to first grade if you miss much more.”

     I walked down the porch steps to the tree and sat beneath it facing the street, out of Mom’s sight from inside the house. I fell asleep and awoke to find bird droppings on my head. Mom led me to the bathroom and scrubbed and rinsed my hair and scalp in angry justification of delivering my discipline.

     To my mother’s dismay, the incident encouraged me all the more to climb and sit beneath trees.

     The other day when I failed to spy the queens in my three hives, I laid down under a pine to stretch my back and put life in perspective.

     My goodness, dear Reader! I wish you could’ve seen what I saw. Under the clear, blue sky and sparkling boughs of the white pine, and the sound of bees restoring order in their home, their queens didn’t matter.

     The cool, green grass upon my neck, my Lord whispered, “I will never leave or forsake you.”

     All the trees of the world are His.


Under the Influence of a kitchen window

 

View from my kitchen window

My husband took the spray bottle of vinegar and water from under the kitchen sink. Then he retrieved a rag from the basement. What’s he up to? I wondered.

     After three rainy days, sunlight seized him to wash away the remains of our granddog’s slobber from the outside kitchen door-wall. A month since Lily’s last visit, I’d wiped her drool from the inside glass three days ago while on a cleaning spree.

     What else is a gardener to do when confined to a dusty, neglected house? So I set my favorite albums on the turntable and got down to business.

     At the conclusion of a congenial reunion with my household belongings, I returned the spray bottle and Howard’s Restore-a-Finish to the cabinet under the kitchen sink.  

     Very thankful for my home, I paused before the window above the sink. I’ve spent a good portion of the past thirty two years cooking, dreaming, planning, praying, and repenting there. And washing thousands of teacups and saucers.

     Tree branches thrashed in the wind and rain. “I know the feeling,” I whispered. “Trust me, this storm shall pass.”

     I thanked God for the mind and strength to vacuum and polish what my husband and I have accumulated in fifty two years of marriage—many small treasures now stowed away in plastic bins in the basement. Four thousand square feet wouldn’t be enough space to display the love and life lived in this little house and on these three acres.

     I observed the rainstorm long enough to notice splatters of dishwater between the window panes, yet resisted the urge to grab the spray bottle.

     Rather, I watched the last blossoms of phlox and rose stand their ground against autumn’s tantrum. I remembered our house in Detroit, the view of our neighbor’s lush and lovely backyard while I cooked and washed dishes as a young mother.

     Our three girls learned to wash and dry dishes in that sink and before the side window, although not tall enough to appreciate the view. Perhaps that’s why they negotiated opting out of the chore.

     Nonetheless, the landscape of passing and emerging seasons nourished my soul, mind, and spirit. And enhanced what I fed my family. A culinary prompt of sorts.

     I’d like to say my fondness for the Detroit kitchen window consciously influenced my choice for the generous window I stand before several times throughout a day. Truth is, in my hours studying our house plans, I cannot remember focusing on the kitchen window’s location.

     But God is good. He knew my needs. My family’s needs.

     Because when the cook is happy, the house is happy, especially after the cook dusts the furniture and floors and wipes windows clean.

     Dear Reader, when my husband retired, he assumed the biannual wrestling match with washing our windows. This makes the cook of the house happy.

      At the conclusion of his reunion with the spray bottle and rag, he consumes beef tenderloin and baked potato with sour cream. And perhaps apple pie a la mode.      

    


A constant memorial to Albert Newman

 

Driving north on US23, my husband passed a sign between Ossineke and Alpena. You are now crossing the 45th Parallel, Halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.

            “Dad would point to that sign when he drove us to Gram and Gramp’s on Grand Lake,” Mel said. “Perhaps that planted the seed of my love for geography.”

            I imagined us crossing the 45th Parallel line, our car a speck amongst millions of vehicles on America’s highways—one reason we chose the road less traveled to Cheboygan.

We also preferred the old route with stately homes in small towns with attractions that provoked Mel’s childhood memories. Pinconning’s vacant Deer Acres Fun Park, for instance.

“Yeah, Dad stopped there. And the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox Park. But someone’s taken them down.”

“And your dad probably stopped for ice cream.”

Mel grinned at another seed his father planted.

We dined on enchilada and chili relleno in Alpena—checked in to our hotel in charming Cheboygan before nightfall.

“Thanks for taking this trip with me,” I said. “The last time Al and I talked, he said, ‘I love Mel.’ And I said, ‘Al, you love everybody.’”

My husband first met Al Newman four summers ago during my fiftieth high school reunion for my graduating class of 1967. There, we met Al’s wife Denise. Sitting under a pavilion within Stony Creek Metropark, we talked for hours with fellow classmates and their spouses.

Two Octobers later, Mel and I met Al and Denise in Mackinac City before we toured Mackinac Island with other friends. Again, we recalled our past and present families as time permitted.

From Vietnam’s jungles to his prison ministry, occupation as an upholsterer, and the joys and trials of parenthood, Al and Denise kept us in fits of laughter and tears.

As we promised, we phoned or emailed one another until a good friend notified me of Al’s passing last month. I called Denise and made travel arrangements.

On the beautiful Saturday morning of September 18, Cheboygan’s Northshore Community Church filled with folk honoring the life and times of Albert Newman. Of all blessings, Mel and I met his son Albert, and Denise found a moment alone with us.

After a fellow Vietnam vet presented Denise with the American flag, their Pastor spoke the concluding words. “Al loved the language of Scripture, and he loved to eat. He anticipated the Supper of the Lamb together with fellow Christians.”

When we stood to leave the sanctuary, the woman to my left turned to me. “Pardon me. Are you related to Al?”

Iris O'Brien and Albert Newman, senior prom 1967

“No. We dated our senior year in high school. He stood by my side through my parents’ divorce, and broke up with me before I left for college. We met again at our 50th class reunion.”

Dear Reader, I imagine Al ascending above the equator, poles, and parallels of Earth into infinite realms of our Heavenly Father. And I’m watching the signs.

I, too, anticipate the Supper of the Lamb.                                                                


The apple didn't fall far from the tree

 

(L-R) Hunter, the Pie Lady's right hand, and Ruth, the Pie Lady

The other senses may be enjoyed in all their beauty when one is alone. but taste is largely social. Diane Ackerman

“You were the pickiest eater,” my father once said when I served him spaghetti at my family table. He spoke in reference to his five daughters. I’m number two.

Justifiably, my father expected his children’s gratitude for the forty-five hours he stood on his feet barbering each week to feed, clothe, and shelter us. Even when Mom cooked beef tongue and liver with onions.

“Eewww,” chimed my sisters and me in agreement to the “gross” thing on the platter, or the “stinky” meat in Mom’s frying pan. We would rather devour her hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes.

A former farm girl who cooked for her family of seven from age eleven until World War II, my mother mastered every dish her palate approved.

Chop Suey and Italian spaghetti, for starters. From allspice to turmeric, my mother’s spice rack sparkled like a queen’s jewels. She knew how to perfectly use them.

My sisters and I loved “spaghetti night” because it meant entertainment by our baby sister who sucked the noodles into her mouth. Even Dad laughed.

An Irishman who preferred meat and potatoes, my father barely tolerated spaghetti. And he vowed in Guam’s trenches to never eat a mouthful of rice again.

Furthermore, Dad could not countenance a casserole of any kind. His meat and potatoes must be served in separate bowls.

Such restrictions tested my mother’s culinary creative streak. Employing an alternative, she cooked Italian spaghetti or Chop Suey on Dad’s bowling night. My older sister’s raving reviews spread to her boy-friends who just happened to drop in on Dad’s bowling night. For Mom usually concluded dinner with dessert. Apple pie her specialty.

                Incidentally, Dad “never met a pie he didn’t like,” particularly Mom’s pies in season.

“I could fill this kitchen with fried pies I packed in your father’s lunch bucket,” Mom once said with her hands wrapped around her coffee cup.

I suspect that’s one reason why my father latched onto Sadie McCoy when she met him at the Williamson, West Virginia train station upon his return from World War II.

Since our apple trees didn’t produce this year, I drove north on our backroads through farmland and orchards to Hilltop Farm with pie on my mind.

                “I have one caramel apple pie left,” Ruth, the Pie Lady said.

                “Oh my goodness! Caramel apple?” I cried.

                Ruth smiled. “Yes, and we also have caramel apples for sale.”

                “Thank you, but I’m on a mission for pie to celebrate autumn and my heritage. Caramel apple is perfect. I think my husband will like it, too.”

                Dear Reader, my father was right. I am a picky eater. What I don’t grow and preserve myself, I try to buy organically and locally grown, prepared by folk like the Pie Lady.

               If my father were here today, I’d say, “You know Dad, apple number two didn’t fall far from the tree.”

 

 

 

 


The communion of congenial conversation and coffee

 

Loppy, so named for his lopsided ear

The Daubenmeyers across the road came to mind yesterday while I picked raspberries. 

The family with three boys and one married daughter.

The dad who transferred thousands of files from my old Mac to new PC.

The mom who homeschools and works part time.

Why hadn’t I heard the boys in their swimming pool this summer, pitch breaks in howls of laughter? Had they outgrown such fun in the four years since I carried raspberries to their back door?

So I gave Amanda, the mom, a call. “Sure!” she said, “We’d love raspberries. And you can meet my sister-in-law, Laura. 7:30 is good.”

                With my husband visiting his Presque Isle relatives, I prepared a stir fry dinner—leftover lamb kabobs, homegrown bell pepper, onion, and golden crookneck squash sautéed in olive oil.

                In the pleasant atmosphere of low humidity and anticipation of good company, I walked the short distance to the Daubenmeyer’s backoor. “Anybody home?”

                Amanda appeared. “Thanks for the raspberries! Would you like some cherry tomatoes? Our one plant went crazy!” Amanda said.

                I set the bag of raspberries on the kitchen counter and followed Amanda outside. There I met their cat, Loppy, lounging under the patio table.

Loppy in his favorite place and pose

“He was in bad shape when we found him,” Jason, the dad, said.

Loppy lifted his beautiful eyes to us. I fell in love with my thousandth cat. “He looks healthy to me,” I said.

Then Loppy stood on his lean legs. The poor kitty had obviously suffered some rough times.

Amanda led me to the main attraction in their vegetable garden. Indeed, a plant on steroids. We filled a “to go” container in minutes.

“There’s Laura!” Amanda said, looking toward the only house visible.

“I’m glad to meet you at last!” Laura said.

I nodded. “Likewise! I hear you’re one of Amanda’s favorite sisters-in-law.”

In the chill of September’s first nightfall, we three mothers sat around a table Jason had made large enough to seat their extended family.

Several times in the communion of our congenial conversation, I almost excused myself for my final farm chore of the day: closing the henhouse chute. Yet, I decided to linger and listen to Amanda’s wedding and Laura’s grandmother stories.

Amanda shivered. “Would you like some coffee to warm up?”

“Yes!” Laura replied.

“Half a cup should do it,” I said.

Inside, Jason emptied their raspberries into a glass container while Amanda brewed coffee. I understood the meaning of Laura’s expectant smile as Amanda placed coffee toppings on the table.

 A shaker of cinnamon, can of sweet whipping cream, and half and half.

Later, I stepped off the Daubenmeyer’s lighted driveway onto our dark, dirt road. Arms outstretched, I blindly wandered into the tree line and fought my way through the brush to my driveway.

Dear Reader, the black sky alight with constellations, I walked downhill, secured the henhouse, and said, “Good-night, girls.”

If I visit the Daubenmeyers after dinner again, I’ll take a flashlight. And a shaker of Ghirardelli cocoa to taste-test with Amanda’s coffee.


To appreciate a fine tomato

Mel's delicious, yellow tomatoes
 

One remarkable summer day of 1967, Uncle Tab said, “Come help tie up toma’das.”

An unemployed high school graduate on a visit to Kentucky relatives, I gladly followed. For time alone with my youngest uncle meant a diversion from discouragement. I could count on his stories about kinfolk and our birthplace to lift my spirit.

                A previous year, I’d helped Uncle Tab string pole beans in an outbuilding. Might’ve been the farm’s disused smokehouse. There I first observed the dance of his large hands stringing and snapping beans.

“I like my beans full,” Uncle Tab had said, meaning he preferred large kernels. “Your mommy likes hers small.”

After his day’s work in the coal mines, he led me behind the farmhouse to his large tomato patch. He held long strips of old, white bed sheets, the sway in his shoulders steady and sure. I admired his confidence.

“Tie ‘em like this before the stems get too heavy,” he said, looped the cloth under a stem with yellow blossoms and developing fruit. He then knotted the tie to a stake.

Row after row, we rescued his harvest from rotting on the ground. “Now, that’s too tight,” he’d say. Or, “That’s just right.” And, “I like my toma’das big, and so does Alma Leigh.”

A marvelous cook, immaculate housekeeper, and incomparable clotheshorse, Aunt Alma Leigh loathed dirt and perspiration. She therefore left all garden chores to her husband.

As if he’d reserved his most significant revelation for the last tie, Uncle Tab smiled and whispered, “After seven years, our mines finally made some good money.”

Fifty-one years later, upon our last meal with Uncle Tab and Aunt Alma Leigh in Lexington, he took my husband and me for a drive in his golf cart. He stopped by a row of tomato plants five-feet tall and laughed like a boy.

“Mel, pull some toma’das for dinner. Get the biggest, ripest ones.”

That night, Uncle Tab served us chicken and dumplings and sliced tomatoes—the largest, meatiest, juiciest, tastiest tomatoes we’ve had the pleasure to consume.

This summer, Mel completed his second year gardening for varieties to equal Uncle Tab’s. It’s not that I dislike dirt and perspiration. On the contrary! I still plant garlic cloves in October and pull the bulbs in July or August.

Truth is, I think something genetic is awry with common red tomato varieties. For four summers now they’ve refused to ripen, hogging valuable real estate, time, compost, and fertilizer.

“Let’s give them one more summer. I’ll grow more yellow varieties next spring,” Mel reasoned last year.

Because Uncle Tab exampled patience and appreciated a fine tomato, I complied only to throw up my hands this week. “Feed those pathetic red tomatoes to the hens! I’m not canning another jar!”

Dear Reader, all is not lost. Aside from one misshaped into a heart, our yellow tomatoes resemble the size and flavor of Uncle Tab’s reds.  

“Next year, I’m planting more yellow tomato plants,” Mel vowed. 

The toma’da will tell.


Picnic Memories

Children feed our hens during the church picnic

I knew Mom and my Kentucky relatives planned another picnic when she boiled eggs and potatoes on a Saturday. That provoked mixed feelings as a child.

                A day at Wildwood Park meant loading up Mom’s potato salad, fried chicken, chocolate cake, and sweet tea bright and early Sunday morning. After a long drive from Warren to Holly, my sisters and I splashed and played on the beach with our cousins. Then Mom hollered for us to come and eat. Then we played and ate again until the cake disappeared.

A picnic also meant I’d miss Mrs. Urban’s Sunday school class and reciting my memory verse. That meant missing another star by my name on the teacher’s chart.

But Dad and many uncles worked Saturdays, so we picnicked on Sundays with what seemed most of Michigan’s population.

Without a doubt, those glorious, sunburned days running back and forth from the beach to Mom’s chocolate cake redeemed the lessons lost in Sunday school.

For Sabbath mornings with fellow classmates and the Holy Scriptures far outnumbered the Saturday mornings my mother hand-blended potato salad in her white metal dishpan rimmed in red.

My favorite memory verse Mrs. Urban assigned my class remains Romans 8:28. Therefore, I knew God would work out a family picnic for my good because I loved Him and was called according to His purpose. Whatever that purpose might be.

This knowledge, one portion of my inheritance as a believer in God’s Word, granted confidence in the revelation of His purpose. Meanwhile, family picnics and reunions fell by the wayside as relatives passed or moved out of state.

I grew eager to plow my hands through a gigantic bowl of sliced hardboiled eggs, boiled potatoes, celery and olives, chopped carrots and onion blended with Hellman’s mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk. Finished with Morton’s Nature’s Seasons.

In the perfect dispensation of opportunity to fulfill my heart’s desire, our pastor’s wife announced several months ago, “We’re planning to resume our potluck picnic this summer. We’ll keep you posted on the date and location.”

I turned to my husband with absolute assurance in our purpose. “We have the location.”

After months of planning and preparation for 50-60 guests, this past Saturday I carried a punch bowl filled with Mom’s potato salad downhill to our pavilion.

Megan Schwetz of Living Grace Church packs up goodies to take home

In good time and humor, the pastor’s wife, daughter, and two other women arranged the bounty of food on four tables. I recalled reunions and picnics of my childhood: fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, greasy beans with onion, new potatoes and gravy, blackberry cobbler, and jugs of sweet iced tea, for instance.

The pastor’s wife rang the dinner bell I’d fastened to the wall fourteen years ago. Sixty-one guests fell silent to the unexpected clatter.

Dear Reader, a year ago I had no vision of the blessed moment when Pastor Tom asked the Lord’s blessing upon our feast.

Our home is no Wildwood Park, yet childhood laughter while feeding hens and running in sprays of our lopsided sprinkler provoked no less joy.


When the cicadas sing

 

At last, the solitary hibiscus blooms in my perennial island

I heard the cicada’s mating song last Saturday. Afterward, I read about the red-eyed menace interrupting golf games, delaying air travel, and creating cloudy spots on radar.

Sure, you can’t believe everything you hear and read, and Michigan’s cicada population isn’t what it is further south. Nonetheless, I prayed, “Oh Lord, not here, please.”

The following day, a solitary grasshopper showed up on the vintage setee I bought in Almont years ago. I stopped. Looked up. And listened for bugs.

For I’ve fought the good fight this summer digging up invasive species that blew in from Heaven knows where. I’ve applied a foliar spray on all perennials, aiming at aphids and larvae.

As Richardson Wright says in his Gardener’s Bed-Book for August 14, “Slay that foe, and the others you can take care of with your left hand.”

True. My left hand held the two gallon RL Flomaster while my writing hand held a wand spraying a recipe of water, Neem Oil, Castile Soap, Liquid Fish, and Kelp. I laid down the wand and handpicked Japanese Beetles from hibiscus leaves. Due to deer nibbles again, this pink shrub flowers late this summer.

For as a healthy human body fights disease and injury with better results than one malnourished, a well-fed plant better overcomes deer abuse, aphids, molds, and mildews to produce beautiful blooms.

Take the red drift rose for instance. For the first time in a decade, her canes claim new territory with leaves and miniature blossoms in testimony to persistent TLC.

Matter of fact, every rose bush on this hill flourishes again except one. And Flo and I plan to visit this blushing favorite later for a little chat and smelly bath. 

The primary garden concerns, however, are mildew and black spot rapidly spreading amongst the peonies. Not just any peonies, mind. My mother donated several roots of her light pink variety from her Kentucky home when we first moved here thirty-two years ago. The peonies grew like wildlings, bloomed without a care in the world.

Now, from what I’ve read, this lovely paeonia family needs both right and left hand for their cure. And a strong, patient heart.

Oh, and a stock of the recipe’s ingredients.

Will these efforts and cash save Mom’s favorite spring cultivar from destruction? Some experts I’ve consulted think not.

Well, hope prevails. You see, two springs past I filled Flo with the recipe’s nutrients and exterminated the worm produced by the common columbine sawfly. Not one worm showed itself on a leaf this spring.

And to my pleasant surprise, the columbine’s companions sprouted taller and bloomed more abundantly than any season in the garden’s history. The feverfew reached three feet like thick shrubs while clusters of wild geraniums bloomed in succession at its feet.

Thus I conclude, dear Reader, if I’m a faithful sprayer, the peonies will drink Flo’s stinky tonic like good medicine. I hope they follow the columbine and red drift rose’s example.

We’ll know next spring before the cicadas sing.


The power of peach season

 

Red Haven peach harvest at Yule Love It Farm

In August 1970, in the peak of peach season, my father-in-law helped my husband and I move our few belongings from Bay City to my mother’s basement in Warren. My childhood storehouse of memories.

The second of Mom’s five daughters, at nine-years old I ran to the furthest corner in the basement and cried when our dog Ginger died. Years later, overlooking the washtub, washing machine and dryer, I observed Mom’s meticulous methods with her Sunbeam iron and Brother sewing machine.

Another unforgettable marker of my generation, I first heard the Beatles sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while my eighth-grade cheerleading squad practiced our cheers on the basement’s unfinished floor. Before my Sweet Sixteen birthday party, Dad installed tile. A home improvement Mom, my sisters, and I appreciated.

My temporary return to my childhood home at six months pregnant, however, did not meet my expectations of independence and marital bliss.

Typical of the times, many young men eligible for the draft found themselves unemployed, college degree or not. Therefore, Mel’s father suggested his son pursue work in the Detroit area and offered to help us move. Mom offered the sofa-bed in her basement.

Unbeknownst to me, the day prior, my older sister and her husband transfered their furniture from Mom’s basement into their first home, weeks before my sister’s due date with Mom’s first grandchild.

When my father-in-law, husband, and I arrived at my mother’s home, she served her delicious spaghetti dinner with peach shortcake for dessert. My first taste of ripe peaches, cake, and whipping cream instantly created a craving for the flavor.

Her daughter who ate to live, Mom said, “Why Iris, you must be eating for the baby.”

By the end of peach season and a month’s imposition upon Mom’s hospitality, she declared, “I won’t be a bit surprised if your baby is born with a peach on its nose.”

Today, eight household relocations and fifty-one years of marriage behind, I climbed my ladder and harvested four baskets heavy with blushing fruit—more than enough for fresh peach shortcake, a shelf-full of peach preserves, and frozen peaches for winter crisps and cobblers served with ice cream.

Oh, and enough to share a basket with our youngest daughter, our one and only child close by to pass on our bounty.

For as my father said when he delivered the Red Haven peach tree we left in the backyard of our home in Detroit, “This is the sweetest and hardiest variety. Water it good and it will bear more than you can eat.”

Dear Reader, yesterday I craved peach shortcake, so I baked scones, peeled ripe peaches and whipped heavy cream blended with cream cheese, confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla. After Mel and I finished the last bite of our first peach dessert of the season, we peeled and sliced eight quarts of fruit for the freezer and a bowlful for preserves.

Then I carried God’s abundant blessing to the basement. My maternal storehouse of memories.


Andy's potting table

 

Andy's potting table 

In 2004, township officials approved my business plan to operate a small lavender farm on our property. A year later, my Michigan State University agriculture agent said, “Here’s Andy Meinhard’s phone number. He can build anything.”

                Andy showed up unannounced with a smile, introduced himself, and asked, “What do you need?”

I swept a hand toward the prairie. “I need what it takes to develop my vision of visitors harvesting rows of blooming lavender on this land.”

Andy nodded. “What else do you need?”

“A large, sturdy potting table. I’m presently using a card table to pot plants. Come summer, I’ll need a pavilion with a gift shop and storage room for drying lavender bundles and serving food.”

Andy shook his head. “I’m sorry, I no longer have a construction crew, but I can make your potting table and whatever else one handyman can do.”

Also a family farmer, Andy owned every machine necessary to transform a portion of our rolling vistas into my dream, and every tool necessary to build small structures and furniture.

“First, let’s talk about the potting table,” I said.

Andy followed me into the garage where I stored decorative ceiling tin I’d purchased from an antique shop in Staffordsville, Kentucky.

“I’d like you to include this fleur de lis tin into the table some way,” I said.

With a clip in his step, Andy carried my treasure to his truck, slid it in the back with his tools, and drove off. 

True to form, he returned the following week with his mammoth masterpiece. He’d inserted the fleur de lis tin like a mirror attached to a dresser, two drawers beneath the table, and a large storage shelf beneath the drawers. He’d sanded the rusted tin and painted it baby blue.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I love it. I could never have imagined something so magnificent yet practical.”

An enthusiastic expert when envisioning ideas and building them, Andy later assembled a children’s structure with ash saplings hewn from his property. I named the vine-covered hide-away Sweet Spot for its birds’ eye view overlooking the pavilion and blooming fields.

My farm hand also constructed steps descending Sweet Spot’s pinnacle, about thirty signs, our hen house, and thirteen barn wood tables and twenty six benches.

This week, several summers after Andy passed, I sanded and painted his potting table the color lupine. In the slow, meditative strokes of the paintbrush and roller, I recalled him say, “We’re goin’ up to the River this weekend.”

I miss the sight of Andy walking downhill to the pavilion. A fellow chocoholic, he’d lift a small bag of chocolate chip cookies before me. We’d sit and talk about deer hunting, fishing, and the peaceful living on his River with family and friends.

Dear Reader, Andy Meinhard could build anything, including the friendship of a loving brother. Nothing fulfilled him more than to work wholeheartedly on a project and rest well afterward with something chocolate in hand.

A business partnership made in Heaven.