The Yellow Birdhouse


The yellow birdhouse, a Mother's Day gift from my daughter Kelly

Around 5-ish, summer’s sweetness calls me uphill after a day’s work outdoors and one last peek at the bees. Now, to cook dinner—cheese ravioli with venison marinara sauce and lettuce salad from our raised bed.  

     “Food! Glorious food!” sings in my mind.

     The words and melody stuck when I first saw the musical “Oliver” in 1968 with my date, Mel Underwood. My first visit to Grand Rapids to meet his family, I sensed musicals weren’t Mel’s cup of tea.

     Twenty-five years later, our second daughter Kelly sang her heart out as Oliver in a Romeo High School production of the play. After she graduated from Alma College four years later, Kelly aimed for independence and a teaching contract in California.

     2,400 miles from home.

     In the early years of her married life, Kelly and her husband Steve left California to work for a Christian school in Uganda.

    Over 7,000 miles from our door.

    I recall my flight to Kampala, Uganda in December 2010 and am glad both Kelly and I were much younger and daring back then. The only white American educator on staff, she taught reading on a campus outside Jinja Town where she and Steve lived with Amulen, my grandson-to-be.  

     The boy sang in his native tongue as he cooked a rolex, Ugandan for an omelet with chopped vegetables.    

     Food! Glorious food!

     These thoughts converge with Mel’s as he rests from lawn mowing at the crest of the hill. I sit by his side on the green metal swing and observe its peeling paint. Again.

     Glazed with sweat and the scent of cocoa bean mulch and chicken manure on my clothes, I do not suggest another chore to our fleeting days of fair weather.

     Neither do we burden one another with the meditations of our hearts as a monarch butterfly flutters by a mother wren bursting from her yellow nesting house—a Mother’s Day gift from Kelly I promptly hung on a shepherd’s hook years ago.

    We smile, watch three fledglings, perhaps four, fly from their birthplace, and dart from limb to limb. We lose sight of their wings when they hide in the wisteria vines wound around the ribs of the pergola.

    We frown when the wrens warble their alert at the sight of our slinking cats. As if performing a strategic plan to confound their enemy, the birds dash from branch to branch and sing, sing, sing!

     I think of Kelly two thousand miles away, her beautiful voice, and marvel at the resilience of the yellow terracotta birdhouse against the high winds on this western rise.

     As if he’s reading my mind, at last the man beside me says, “We should buy another birdhouse just like that one.”

     Dear Reader, perhaps I read Mel wrong fifty-three years ago. Although the musical “Oliver” may not be his cup of tea, on a bright shining day under Heaven, he’s entirely taken with fledglings and birdsong.

     And I’m on the lookout for another birdhouse or two like Kelly’s gift.  

A Saturday blessing


My expanded apiary: the mother hive stands between two captured swarms

I shook the kitchen rugs by the back steps. Next, I’d make coleslaw and put chicken and potatoes in the oven for company.

     All was well on another beautiful, Michigan Saturday.

     Then my husband shouted from down the hill, hands cupped to his mouth. “Your bees are on the ground and in the pine tree!”

     Well, if you read my letters occasionally and memory serves you right, you may recall my misfortunes as a beekeeper, a misnomer in the following situations.

     As a beginner over a decade ago, I mortally maimed the impregnated queen when releasing her from her little box to her skep where she would lay her eggs. Her death left thousands of orphaned worker bees and drones until I obtained post haste another queen for $50 (more dough than my weekly grocery budget in the eighties).

     I’ve since fed my honeybees two parts sugar to one part water and vigilantly guarded against yellow jackets and wax moths, dreaded honeycomb and honey robbers and bee killers.

     This past spring, two weeks after I brought home my new nucleus of queen, bees, and brood, a hive beetle showed up nearby the apiary. A website recommended a product which I retrieved from our henhouse. "Spread diatomaceous earth eight feet in circumference around the hive and wet it down with a hose,” the directions said. 

     And even though I had applied a chemical treatment to the queen’s brood box to repel the Asian Varroa Destructor, invisible mite to the veiled, naked eye, I sensed this prolific queen would not be kept.

     Yes, honeybees on the ground and in trees could only mean one thing.

     My first swarm.

     I ran downhill and recalled the needed equipment to capture the runaways: hive stand, bottom board, box (skep), frames, entrance reducer, inner and outer boards, and hive tool.

     My goodness! Yards from the hive, TWO swarms hung from two branches in a young pine tree, and within my reach!

     Ecstatic, I ran to the greenhouse and slid the hive tool into my pants’ pocket, gathered parts for two brood boxes, placed two cinderblock stands in different locations, and carried the bottom boards and boxes with frames to the swarms.

     Even though I knew swarming bees don’t sting because they’re protecting their queen, I suited up because I had no time to risk another mishap. Our company was due in two hours.

     First, I tapped the branch of the lower swarm and watched the glorious downpour of apis mallifera fall into their new home, set the bottom board and brood box upon a stand, and added the inner and outer covers.

     Within minutes, the second swarm fell from its branch into its new skep. The swarm on the ground followed the queen pheromone of its choice.

     Dear Reader, I walked up the hill a beekeeper instead of a bee loser and served dinner almost on time. Ten days later, worker bees exit three hives to forage and feed their queen.

     Praise God from whom all blessing flow! All is well.

Remembering significant things


Uncle Herm and Uncle Tab, March 2018

“Iris, don’t be surprised if Daddy doesn’t remember you. And I can’t promise he’ll be awake for a visit,” my cousin said on the phone.

     “Thanks for the warning. It’s been two years since we last saw him, so we’ll take the risk. Besides, Mel and I plan to visit Mom’s grave in Lexington.”

     “I suggest you visit Daddy in the morning. He’s at his best before lunch.”

     I hung up the phone, for we still use our souped-up land line with our thirty-two year old number. Our flip phones serve for emergencies and road travel.

     Uncle Tab, on the other hand, embraced modern technology, his cell phone a form of abiding with his grandchildren.

     That was before the death of his beloved wife three years ago. Then my uncle suffered a stroke. He lost the privilege of his phone and never returned home. Therefore, Mel and I visited my uncle in a memory care facility in Lexington two summers ago. Tough as nails, he survived another stroke and facility transition this past year.

     How I anticipated his laugh again! For I believed nothing could quench his “early to rise” commitment to life as a farm boy, coal mine operator, and great-grandparent.

     He never lost his love for play after a day’s work, such as running leg races with my sisters, cousins, and me when we visited for summer vacation. I remembered his face blackened with coal dust. The white of his eyes and pink lips could’ve been any other coal miner’s.

     Yet, as everyone else, I knew Tab McCoy by the flick of his fingers and swagger in his shoulders.

     I can’t recall life without Uncle Tab for he and Uncle Herm lived with my parents in our Kentucky homeplace in my infancy until they married as young men.

     The two youngest sons of Floyd and Ollie McCoy bounced me on their knees and recited, “Ars Lee caught a flea sittin’ on her daddy’s knee.”

     At last, when we walked into Uncle Tab’s room, I said, “I’m Art Lee, and this is Mel,” he smiled and repeated my name.

     As we sat together outside during his lunch, he lifted a glass of milk to his lips and closed his eyes. “Lord, thank you for this food and my family. Please keep them from harm in your tender care. Amen.”

     Oh yes, my uncle is grateful for good food. As he dipped crinkle-cut fries in ketchup, I asked, “Do they serve you greasy beans here?”

     He paused, put down his French fry, and touched one large-boned finger to another. A family trait.

     “First, if you want to grow good beans, you’ve got to have good seed.”

     Mel and I nodded. Uncle Tab taught us how to save good seed from fresh greasy beans.

     He counted on another finger. “And you need fertilizer.”

     Dear Reader, I didn’t have the heart to tell my uncle that Mel no longer wants to string greasy beans and planted a string-less variety instead.

    That’s one significant thing he would’ve remembered.           

Use it or lose it

Cathleen, me, and Russ
Months ago, I drove my dirty 2010 blue Prius to Mister C’s Car Wash in Rochester. Thanks to my husband, personal grocery shopper and chauffer to church, restaurants, and Cook’s Farm Dairy in Ortonville, I hadn’t driven in weeks.

        I waited in Mister C’s long, hairpin queue and flipped radio stations to familiar voices and classical music. Meanwhile, young staff hustled moving all makes and models of autos.

       Opening doors. Wiping. Closing doors. Wiping. Reaching over windshields for the perfect shine. If they weren’t thoroughly enjoying themselves, they had me fooled.

     Amused by the synchronized movement of the machinery and employees, I forgot to shift into neutral when directed into the tire guides.

     Embarrassed, I couldn’t locate my gearshift in the dark. The word “Alzheimer’s” whispered in my head. “I’m sorry,” I said to the attendant. “I’ve not driven in quite a while.”

     He smiled. “Happens all the time.”

     I intended to call the Rochester Chamber of Commerce to praise Mr. C’s manager and team for their discretion with patrons who experience slips of mind.

     Rather, I forgot those ambitious folk until yesterday when I faced the challenge to finally hang new curtains in our master bedroom.

     What, you may ask, do those kids in Mister C’s Car Wash have to do with me hanging curtains?

     Well, for one, I didn’t forget this valuable reminder—if you don’t use it, you lose it.

     You see, my history with curtain rod bracket installation isn’t boast worthy. The screws fell out of the drywall, and although we have a stash of the appropriate anchor, I avoid using them. They fell out too and made a larger hole to patch and paint.

     Considering I didn’t marry a handyman, I was on my own.

     Secondly, the enthusiasm of those young men and women drying cars and trucks recalled the positive experience of bracket installation lessons from a friend several years ago.

     So I carried a pencil, hammer, nail, and Black & Decker drill upstairs where the project waited.

     After a deep breath and prayer, I climbed my yellow kitchen stool, an Armada Flea Market find. While my husband picked strawberries at Blake’s in Almont, I hung the sheers in one fourth the time it took to iron them.

     Down to the kitchen I went to compose the grocery list for our barbeque with Cathleen and Russ today. We can’t remember our last visit together.

     Truth is, we’re hungry for good company and strawberry-rhubarb pie with Cook’s lavender lemon honey ice cream.

     This morning, while the strawberries and rhubarb marinated in sugar, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt, I messed up doubling my butter crust recipe.

     Try, try again.

     While the pie cooled, I prepared summer’s first bowl of potato salad. Cathleen called from Dearborn. “All our roads have flooded! Will tomorrow work for you and Mel?”

     Dear Reader, I cannot thoroughly enjoy the first strawberry-rhubarb pie of the season without friends at our table.

     “Tomorrow at three. I’ll hold the pie and ice cream.”