Pots and Red Blooms and Sucking Marrow

I planted my back yard garden in pots this year. This came out of need—out of frustration and despair over the last two seasons’ results. No yield of tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes. I lost everything I planted to pests, rot, fungus, weeds, and disease. Oftentimes, before those menaces could even get a grip, birds pecked holes and ate the flesh and juice.

Nancy.Pots

I’m a Southern girl. I have to plant things in the dirt and watch them grow. I come from a long line of farmers, from my grandfather back. My father, too, had a garden in his town yard, a yard that was once a fertile Mississippi Delta cotton field before it was a neighborhood. My garden area is small—twelve feet wide and three feet deep, in a corner against the wooden fence.

In the past, come spring, I’d pull weeds, hoe and air the dirt, add some new soil. I’d select my varieties, pick some heirlooms, put in a few cool things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. I’d water, feed, and wait, and by June, tiny vegetables appeared, and then July brought an onslaught of hundred-degree heat. The plants curled, browned, gave in to it. I gave up, too.

I’ve lived in this house for six gardens. Before I got here, the yard was a pasture, prone to weeds, hard to tame. Beneath the bags of garden soil, conditioner, and humus I’d laid out was clay. There was nothing winning about this combination. The plants growing out of it were small, spindly, and sick.

Nancy.Garden Plants in Pots

Pots—my last hope. I bought big plastic terra-cotta-colored ones. Real clay pots were too heavy. I lined them up in my garden space and filled them with new dirt. In the first three, tomatoes. Then cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I tend them daily, water them, help their vines trail safely. I’ve been blessed with the fruits of their growth.

***

Having a seasonal garden is like watching before your eyes a sped-up version of life. New tender plants are put in their beds. Watered, fed, watched, fussed over, cared for. Their stalks are straight, leaves green, baby fresh, perfect, no flaws, nothing but potential, a blueprint to fulfill and feel out beyond. Then life comes and brings its good and bad. Plants grow and bloom and produce. Nourished by spring’s sun and rain, they flourish. Then it turns on them and beats them down and rots them out. It’s an all-out attack of the elements and the outside forces that begin to suck the marrow out of life. There’s nothing you can do. You can water with a hose, you can put poison out to kill the bugs, you can cut off the sick and dead parts, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and you sit and watch the deterioration, and wait for the decline. Until that once strong and happy life succumbs.

And then in winter you sit on your deck and wonder what else you could have done. Or what you could have done differently to make it work, and last. And the answer is, Nothing. Sometimes things are out of your control.

***

Last summer my friend Nancy gave me some bean seeds to plant. She’d already planted hers along her white picket fence in downtown Franklin. Before the bean pods came, flowering red blooms would appear against the green bean leaves. We’d watch them grow and have fun comparing our bean blooms during our regular get-togethers at Chop House for lunch and poetry and essay reading. Here’s what she said:

“In South Carolina we always grew Scarlett Runner Beans. They can be put on fences, posts, or anything they can climb on, have beautiful red flowers and tons of runner beans. Lots of foliage also. I went to four places here in the Franklin area and none had ever heard of them, so I ordered packs from Burpees. I planted mine along my picket fence and have a packet left. I want you to have them as I know you love flowers, gardens, and anything that is different. So when we meet I’ll bring your packet. They are so easy. Just drop about eight seeds into about a two-inch hole, cover them, and water. Sprouts start showing in about seven days. When the beans appear in about forty days, if you constantly pick them, they are prolific. I am planning on my little white picket fence having bunches of red flowers this summer!”

Nancy.Red Bean Blooms

The vines grew and trailed. I watered, waited, and we took pictures and compared, and finally I saw maybe a dozen beans. I picked them and steamed them with some carrots. I watched for more. Then I got distracted with work, with writing, and I grew tired of waiting. This spring, a year later, I pulled all the twining vines off the poles and fence and found a hundred or more bean pods. They were hidden inside all the foliage, had ripened, and were waiting attention that never came because I wasn’t patient enough to tend them every day.

* * *

It’s been three weeks since Nancy died. I wish I had another Burpees pack, some red blooms twining up my fence, and some bean pods to look for.

I’m reminded that the season of life may be a season, or it may be years and decades, and it’s never enough, and there’s never enough we can do to sustain it. We just need to remember to always put in all we can, to take hold of all the good we can find, and to get out of life and friendship all we can.

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Old Stones of Immigrants

I descend from immigrants.

My fourth great grandfather came here from Ireland. My third great grandfather fought in the resistance and revolution to separate this land from Britain and establish a new country of immigrants. At the end of the war he fought on the frontier, tracking and killing native people, the originals who owned this land.

Two hundred forty years ago today, John Mahaffey signed up to fight for America’s independence.

Here’s what happened to some of America’s first heroes, now rock-stone and dusty bone stiff and piled up in a quiet graveyard of Revolutionary soldiers in Ohio.

ebenezeroldstones

Here is the original stone for my Revolutionary era ancestor.

johnoldtomb

Granted, John Mahaffey did get a new tombstone.

John Mamaffey new tomb

John Mahaffey was born August 31, 1759, in Sussex County, New Jersey, one of seven sons of Scotch-Irish immigrants, Moses and Jennet McIntyre Mahaffey. In the fall of 1774, at the age of 15, John moved with his parents to Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, where they resided two years. In the spring of 1776, near the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in nearby Philadelphia, in his seventeenth year, John accompanied his parents to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

The War of Independence began in 1775. John Mahaffey served four voluntary terms, totaling twenty-five months, during the War of the Revolution.

John was almost nineteen years of age when, on July 3, 1778, he originally enlisted for four months. He volunteered for two seven-month periods in April, 1779, and in April, 1780, serving as a “spy or ranger, watching the Indians and giving the earliest information on the approach of the Indians.” During the year 1779, in the frontier settlements of Pennsylvania, British Loyalists and Indians attacked American settlers. The Loyalists soon were defeated, and Americans destroyed many Indian villages whose residents were fighting on the side of the British. The British surrendered October 19, 1781. America was officially independent.

John Mahaffey’s blood now runs through my veins. I take after him. I stand up for this country. I will resist anything that makes her less and harms her, that which keeps us from worshiping in the religion of our choice, that which makes us less equal and takes us toward authoritarianism.   


The “W” Word

Last week I went to the eye doctor. As expected, I had to fill out a standard medical form—you know, the one where they ask your name and age, medical history, insurance information, and social history.  The form that’s not really important because nobody ever looks at it. So I did on this form the same thing I have done on all forms for ten years. I left the Social History blank. I refused to check a box.

Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.

medical form

Nope. None of their business. It’s odd how I picked this one little thing to have an attitude on. If they added a box that said All the Above, I might’ve checked it. But I refuse to check the appropriate little white square sitting beside the “W” word. If they really care, they’ll ask, and then they’ll get a piece of my mind.

Once a nurse did ask. “My husband is deceased,” I answered. I got shot a look that said, There’s a box for that, to which I replied, “I refuse to be labeled that word.” My look back said, Don’t mess with this.

Ten years ago today, after thirty-six hours of surgeries on my husband, I became that…that word I abhor. After all the heroic efforts by surgeons, the not being able to pink him up, the flatline, he went, and I was left with a social status I didn’t understand and didn’t want. That was the visual summary of the chaos I was thrown into, like a rag doll in a wind strong enough to blow the seams apart, a wind strong enough to blow the accumulated dust out of it, a wind strong enough to blow the red stitched smile right off its face.

rag doll

Picking out one insignificant thing to take a position on, while holding on to the only self I knew, was within my rights, I figured. It was one simple way I could keep some control of my life, which was in splinters up in the air in a tornadic swirl of dust and debris and cloud and earth particles.

That is one of the important things I learned after my husband died. State what you need and want. If something bothers you, let it be known. (Be reasonable, be firm, and don’t be unkind in your positioning.) If it doesn’t hurt anybody, hold to it. Take some control where you can. Because you’re going to be tossed, bruised, banged around on many fronts. Getting the steam of grief out where you can is important to healing.


It’s Been Ten Years

My husband always told me that if anything ever happened to him, I’d get married again, fast. I always came back with, No, I’ll get a yellow lab. Well, something happened to him. Ten years ago today he had an aortic dissection, throat to groin. He had surgery at Williamson Medical and then was life-flighted to Vanderbilt for two more surgeries. He died during the third.

I dated someone for about five years…and he died.

I did not get a yellow lab. I got a yellow cocker spaniel.

alone

Life can come at us fast. Loss wrings us out. Losing someone who lives in your house every day, someone you depend on for the life you’re accustomed to living, someone you’ve built a history with, someone you’re joined to physically, emotionally, and mentally, is about the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I say “about” because I’m thinking losing a child is in that “hardest” category, too.

One of the key figures in my grief journey was my friend, Nancy Fletcher-Blume, whom we buried Monday. About two weeks after Charlie died, the shock started wearing off. I could feel my skin peeling up at the edges and exposing the raw bloody tissue under it…and a pain greater than any I’ve ever felt, a pain far greater than I could bear. I still remember the exact moment I thought, “I don’t have to feel this pain.” I’m not sure where that came from, but I instantly knew it was a thought of suicide and I didn’t need to be having it. This is a normal thought, but we have to get control of it quickly.

I called Nancy. She’d lost a husband and two sons, one just a few years earlier. I knew she’d had counseling, and I asked her who she went to. I told her I needed help. She took the ball and ran with it. She called her church and set me up with the family counselor. She told me when and where to go. I did. And that was the beginning of taking back some control in this new wild and mean and chaotic world I was living in. And for months and even years after, Nancy told me, Take care of you. And in many ways, without even knowing it, she showed me how.

After five years on my grief journey, I published a book about my loss, about my experience with grief, about my path from “our” to “my.”

And now, ten years. And it’s my house, my car, my decisions, my job, my dog, my choices. There have been some happy and satisfying moments, and there are some lonely moments. There are still the familiar “four walls” and then there’s the example of Nancy telling me to take care of me by getting out of the closed-in, isolated-from-people space. Sometimes I’m happy being there. That’s a good thing for my writing and editing. Sometimes I’m not. Do you know what it’s like to not talk to another human being for five days running?

That’s why I’ve got to be proactive, to take steps to make sure I am out and among people.

Maybe it’s time to explore ten years of changes and discoveries and growth along that road after loss. I have an opportunity to watch others as they negotiate this path. Nancy was one of them. I share this status with four others I’m with regularly. How do we live alone for the rest of our lives?

How do we live alone meaningfully?

My son worries about me and tells me not to write gloom and doom on Facebook all the time. Well, hell, that’s what life has given. I’m in it whether I write about it or not. Writing about it lets me process it and live this life more effectively, and if by chance I can speak to someone else along the way, then that’s good. That is fulfilling my life’s calling.


“Secrets of Southern Front Porches”

How appropriate is it to share today, a few days after summer solstice and a few days after our loss of writer friend Nancy Fletcher-Blume, her story about Southern front porches. Nancy loved her own front porch, loved to sit there early mornings with coffee and listen to the wind blow through the bamboo. She has often talked about the other front porches of her life. This personal essay was published in Gathering: Writers of Williamson County in 2009.

Secrets of Southern Front Porches

Nancy Fletcher-Blume

Secrets. Dreams. Joys. Heartbreaks. Could a stranger passing by, quickly glancing, but know what drama, what memories, what portraits are painted on our simple front porches as families, close friends, and neighbors sit rocking, whiling away the lazy days and evenings of hot Southern summers.

In the diary of my life, more secrets have been divulged, more celebrations of great joy, and the too-often heart-wrenching of a grief shared on porches than any other place in our homes.

My earliest memories are of standing in the first breath of springtime, watching my mother as she carefully painted the wooden floor of our large sitting porch. Dipping the brush down into the paint can, methodically painting each board with long strokes of “Battleship Gray,” she told me this was the color—when I had asked for red—that my daddy always painted the porch. Daddy was somewhere in the Pacific.

Pots of fiery-red geraniums soon filled this porch, along with snow-white painted rocking chairs with fluffy cotton cushions that my grandmother made. She kept a “ragg” bag of scraps from alterations she did for several family members, and its contents would remind me of my never-ending supply of cousins, aunts, and sometimes even an uncle, as I recognized these scraps on the cushions. My grandmother gave no thought to matching. She just sewed. And so we sat and rocked on kaleidoscopes of color.

All through the long summer afternoons and evenings, the women on our street would gather, sitting and rocking on this colorful porch, drinking pitchers of ice tea filled with the petals of my grandmother’s orange nasturtiums and sprigs of mint grown in the wet earth behind our wellhouse.

The children sat on the floor by my grandmother and our mothers. Their conversations were always about flowers, our school clothes, and recipes. But these conversations took on a different twist when children were not around. Sent inside to play with paper dolls so adults could talk, I would sometimes go out the back door and slip around to one of my favorite hiding places—behind the huge blue and purple hydrangea bushes alongside our porch—where I would secretly listen. They spoke in low voices of rationing stamps, censored mail, war bonds, someone’s brother, son, or husband being brought back from “somewhere” in Italy, and of a new star hanging in the window of another neighbor’s home.

Once—it was a July day filled with humid, heavy afternoon showers—we sat on the porch with several neighbors, and a lady who had not visited before ran up the paved walk. Grandmother had called out to her, asking her to sit awhile until the rain was over. She sat down on the gray, wooden floor beside me, declining the offer of a chair. I watched as she smoothed her thin, wet, purple skirt, while drops of water trickled slowly down her legs. She patted my hand, smiling, and asked if I liked her purple “broomstick” skirt. I immediately wanted one just like it and to have her for a friend. My grandmother told me later on when I asked about the skirt that the word and custom were brought into our country by the slaves, as they would “jump the broom” to seal their vows because the laws of our land did not allow them to marry.

Several of the neighbors had brought letters from overseas to share, and after one or two were read, this new lady, shaking her skirt and getting up off the floor to leave, explained she was not much for letter-writing and guessed “he” would just have to wait for home news. As she walked away, I remember the quiet, except for the slow dripping of water running down the gutters.

One of the neighbor ladies broke the silence, saying that it was such a shame, him being away and all that, the uncles coming and going, sometimes leaving early in the mornings. I thought that so strange. Uncles? My uncle, being my mother’s baby brother, came almost every Saturday morning around noon, fixed anything that needed fixing, and then sat at lunch with my mother, grandmother, and me. I never saw my new friend again. It was later said on our porch that she just up and moved away.

One by one, all the men on our street came home, and their voices would blend deep into the night as porches again filled on those hot summers. Conversations were different. I watched as my daddy would pull my mother’s rocking chair closer, his hand reaching, touching her auburn hair. Then pulling me close, he would tell us he always somehow knew he’d come back home to his girls. He also told my mother and me, one late evening, that he’d never put his feet in ocean water again. He did not.

Conversations on our porch now were all about the GI Bill, which made it possible for my daddy to return to school, taking night classes while working in the daytime. He also told us that he now could get a VA loan, which was available for servicemen and women, and we could soon get a larger house.

***

          We moved early the following year to a new subdivision. This house had a large porch, and it did not take long for my mother and daddy to create beauty there. The floors were painted Battleship Gray, and white banisters were filled with pots of blood-red geraniums, baby-pink petunias, and my grandmother’s ever-blooming array of gypsy-colored cushions.

We made new friends and neighbors, as folks walking by were greeted and asked to come and “sit a spell.” By the end of that summer, I knew almost everyone in the neighborhood and was now included in more of the adult conversations.

It was on this porch where I stood poised for my mother to take a Kodak picture of me wearing my first long gown. It was baby blue, for my music recital. My parents had sat on the porch listening as I sat at the living-room piano, practicing over and over “The Triumphal March” from Aida. My daddy told me that my hard work had paid off, as my teacher was so happy with the performance that she invited me to play for the ladies at one of the monthly DAR meetings.

Standing on the steps of this porch in a mid-April’s drizzling rain, I received my first sweet kiss from an early teen crush. On the long summer nights that followed and on into the fall, I would sit at night with my girlfriends, whispering about first kisses, clothes, and the taste of our Tangee lipsticks. On this porch, we vowed to keep these secrets and hold our friendships forever. But these conversations took on a different twist when adults came out and joined us.

I also had my first heartbreak standing on the steps of this porch. The mother of one of my best friends sat several afternoons, rocking and speaking quietly with my mother. I found them wiping away tears, and when I asked about my friend, I was told that she had gone away to live with her aunt for a while. She had left and not told me goodbye.

A few years later, on an early June’s night, the boy I would eventually marry sat beside me in our porch rockers and told of his love for me. It was on this porch, beside a pot filled with red geraniums, that I left a note for my mother and daddy. I crossed the state line into Georgia and married my young love. It was on a Sunday night, while others were in church. I was fourteen years old.

***

          For the first time in my life I had to find my own place of comfort on a different porch. This porch, deep in the dense kudzu gullies of South Carolina up-country, was filled with painted dark-green rockers, lush flowering plants, and heavy hanging purple wisteria vines that flowed up and over the roof of this rambling white farmhouse. Porch conversations here were different and foreign to me. They were about crops, weather, seining for fish, and exciting tales of the hunt. Some evening conversations were simply speculative, being about the comings and goings of cars and trucks that could be seen and heard going up the drives of neighboring farms.

***

          There is something magical in going back home to your old porch, the porch of your parents, one that has heard and kept a young girl’s secrets. On a late summer’s evening, Grandmother and I sat rocking, breathing the heavy sweet scent of August lilies, talking of her “ragg-muffin” cotton cushions and “Now, in my day . . . .” I took her hand, telling her my new secret of the tiny life I carried. It was a first for this porch.

***

          On a cold and bitter March day, my parents’ gray porch stood stark and empty of all its woven magic of rockers and colorful flowers. I hugged the last of my cousins, aunts, and uncles as they left for their homes after we had shed our tears, shared our stories, and divided the “ragg” cushions. We had said goodbye to Grandmother. My first son was born ten days later.

Over the years, our little family grew to three children, all boys. Our lives changed, but the porches did not. I was always drawn down to the wisteria-covered porch and the love of my husband’s large family. Many late Sunday afternoons, my husband and I would sit with his parents, brothers, and their spouses, talking of the unrest and times.

It was the Sixties, and it seemed to me that the whole world was shifting, quickly, a world for which I was not ready. I was privy to hearing sad and terrible things on this porch, as conversations took on much deeper, painful, and many-layered twists.

Our innocent children played outside, running free in the heat of late summer afternoons, while we sat fanning, listening, drinking ice tea on this flowered, vine-covered porch. The males of the family were speaking in low voices, repeating stories they had heard of Night Riders, the Klan, bloody beatings, students watered down with hoses and shot. These porch conversations of Montgomery and Selma, now part of history, will forever remain with me.

On one Sunday afternoon, the shaded porch was crowded with family. Most of the conversation that day never strayed far from the horror of more killings in the small low-country town of Orangeburg, South Carolina. The newspapers carried this story and told of students being shot in the soles of their feet as they lay dead in the street. This would later come to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

I felt fear on this porch for the first time, as we had both FBI and state troopers in our family, all living in low-country South Carolina towns. My mother-in-law and I went to the family church on a Wednesday night, where she said a prayer for her sons that they would not be called in to go to these places, not be a part of this terrible racial violence. I realized more and more that my safe world of the porch had expanded and gone somewhere I did not want to go.

***

          Late one August evening, a male member of the family found me sitting alone rocking. He told me he was leaving to live in another place several states away. He knew other family members would not understand. He told me he had to be true to himself and had to live his life in a different way—a way that could never be discussed by family, in polite conversation. At that time I was innocent of his reasons, but I knew his confiding in me should be a secret, well guarded.

***

          A few years later, my husband, three sons, and I moved to Tennessee for a job. The new house had a very small front stoop, so we usually retreated to a large back patio for our deep conversations. Sometimes I would try to capture the feel of “porch” as I planted red geraniums in pots, and occasionally sat on the steps of the small stoop. We made new friends, and when they came, we stood in the yard talking or invited them to the back patio, or inside. It just wasn’t the same.

The last week of May that year was sunny and bright. Saturday morning I sat on the stoop for a few minutes, missing my porch in South Carolina and all its flowers, but then left to do errands, leaving my family behind for fun things they had planned.

When I returned, driving down my street and turning into my driveway, I saw two of my friends standing on my small front stoop. I got out of my car and walked to them. They spoke, and my world was changed forever. We lost our youngest son that morning. He was eight years old. I have very deep, gray memories of me sitting on the steps of that stoop, rocking back and forth for a long time until they told me it was time to go inside.

Three days later we returned to the family cemetery, and the South Carolina home and porch of my childhood. Sitting in rockers on the familiar, brightly colored porch, were my mother, daddy, and the dark, row-braided woman who had helped raise my children. She had rocked our babies on this porch. She got to me first.

***

          Many years and many porches later, after the recent heartbreaking loss of my beloved middle son, I sit on a porch here in Tennessee, on this day, his fiftieth birthday. It is a peaceful porch, filled with beautiful brown wicker, wonderfully fat cushions, ceiling fans, and dark jungle-green potted plants and trees. It is a porch where music filters softly through hidden speakers, along with the sound of water flowing over rocks. But I am not alone on this day in late April. I am with my eldest son. And we both remember, without saying.

Our deepest conversation is unspoken. This day should have held laughter, cake, and candles. Instead we sit sipping on Scotch, listening to all of my son’s favorite songs, and talk of past porches, long-gone families, tales of the hunt, until way into the dark night.

***

          I have traveled back several times to the old porches of my South Carolina homes. The deserted yards are now tangled and overgrown, the thick wisteria vines gnarled and black. Where tulips grew, there is only brown earth. The towering magnolia tree, which gave children places to climb and shaded the porch for lifetimes, still has hidden, deep and high in its branches, the carved initials of our family’s young boys.

All of the voices have long since gone from these porches, and they will forever hold their silence and secrets.

 


Peel It Away

Stop. Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Take your fingernail and scrape around the edges of YOU until you find it—the thin silver sheet that represents your soul. Scratch at it, peel it away, remove it, hopefully in one piece, fold it carefully, put it away. And wait. Wait for better times. This is one way to make it through trying times like these. For without a soul, you won’t know. You won’t care. You won’t feel. Truth, lies, right, wrong, good, bad, hurt, pain, compassion, discernment…nothing will matter. You will just trail along, unaware.


Do You Find That Men Are Intimidated By You?

A few years ago, an old-man preacher asked me, “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?” The words slammed against me cold and hard. I started to stammer out an answer. “I mean,” he interrupted, “because you’ve written a book.” I was floored, and that wasn’t a good thing because I was driving at the time.

He’d bought my book after a loss of his own, we’d talked by phone a few times, and he asked me to have dinner with him as he was traveling through my town. So I’d picked him up at his hotel, and we were driving down Murfreesboro Road at the time, the blue lights from my Subaru’s dash filling the front seat.

How do you answer a question like that?

I was just living my life and my calling and passion to put words down on paper, to write things as I see them and feel them, hopefully helping someone sometimes, living in all my own doubts and flaws and imperfections and questions and trying to do it all right for myself. Not for anyone else. I’d had a husband who respected that, supported me, got into deep conversations with me about books, words, and writing before he died. At the time of this incident, I was dating someone, a professor and lover of English, who also respected me for what I did, supported me, read and picked apart essays with me, and shared a critique group with me.

And then, that question. “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?”

It’s not something I would have ever considered. I didn’t even know it was a possibility. I wish I had lived my whole life without hearing that question.

I’ve always thought of myself as . . . an equal.

The implications of that question still haunt me, and it’s unsettling. If I intimidate men because I write, then . . . what am I supposed to be doing? Sitting in my leather recliner all day with a Bible in my lap? Praying for other people, like men, to be achieving things? Cooking a meat and three? Lord help me, if I’m supposed to be cleaning the house.

At my age and in this time, should I even be wrestling with the issue of gender equality?

I don’t know how to answer the question or what to think about one who would ask it.

I guess . . . that’s a Baptist for you.