In the Shadow of the Steeple

AUGUST 1944 – 73 YEARS AGO – ANNE FRANK WAS FOUND BY NAZIS IN SECRET HIDING PLACE IN AMSTERDAM, SENT TO A DEATH CAMP

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” ~ Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it every year as a teen. I was a post-war child, born of a father who fought against the atrocities of Adolph Hitler in Europe, ended up at the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and spent a year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two hours from Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps.

From my scrapbook

I was fascinated by the genre, by the first-person voice of a girl my age recording real-life experiences. As a college student, I went to Amsterdam and took a tour of Anne Frank’s house with its secret annex and hidden staircase. I remember the swinging bookcase and the stairs up to the secret room—narrow, steep, and dark. I remember walking around in the large room that hid Anne and her family. It was filled with windows letting in sunlight when I was there. It was hard to picture that once, the windows were blacked out for secrecy and protection. I stood at one window and looked out at the city teeming with people and life. The most meaningful image was that of a church steeple.

If Anne could’ve looked out that window, she would’ve seen hope and help.

The steeple image has stuck in my mind for almost five decades. I’m now trying to make meaning of it.

It’s the Westerkerk, the West Church. Rembrandt was buried there in 1669. It’s old. It’s a church with a steeple that towers above the city, marking its location so people can find it, pointing upward, and portraying its purpose as a place of God, of believers, of love, of hope and help.

The steeple serves as a visual testimony to all who walk in its shadow.

What happened in the shadow of the steeple seven decades ago when Anne Frank was a twelve-year-old?

There were surely good and God-loving people in the church. As they sat under their steeple, surely, they sang, prayed, took of the Body and the Blood. And then what? When they walked out the front doors, on the sidewalks by the canals, to their homes in the shadow of the steeple, did they live out the church’s mission, their mission?

When I read Anne’s diary as a young girl, my underlying thought was of the people, the good people, who let this happen to her. I mean, how could they? Why didn’t they do something? I realize some did help—provided protection and a path to fleeing the insanity that was. But many did nothing.

Were they unaware? Were they afraid? Of taking a stand? Of carrying out the church’s mission? Did they hide in the shadows?

Ultimately, young strong men—soldiers, like my dad—from other countries were called in to save them from the madness they’d allowed.

Life experience has taught me that good people are mostly silent. It’s easy, better that way, more acceptable to stay quiet in the darkness, to align with similar others, to hold inward vigils, and to excise those who stand out of the shadows.

Anne’s is a tragic story, because hope and help never came.


Fighting Nature

This is the first summer I really don’t care about growing things.

I’m tired of growing things. Tired of trying to keep the weeds out, worrying about pests and infestations, Japanese beetles, poor soil, mockingbirds and towhees that fight over the blackberries, and possums that come to watch the ripening of the muscadines. Do you know that I have old pantyhose hanging outside on the blackberry vines next to my fence? Yes. I do. To scare away the birds. I didn’t pick enough berries this summer to make a cobbler. The birds got them all. And last night when I took Heidi out before bedtime, there was the possum sitting on the second shelf of the baker’s stand on my deck, as he did last year, come July. He tried to hide his head behind the church birdhouse he was kneeling beside.

I’m tired of fighting nature. You can’t win. Things are going to grow where they are not supposed to. And things that are supposed to grow, don’t. I look at the six tomato plants I set out in April. There’s not one single yellow bloom. The pole beans are running amuck and flowered out in red and I’ve harvested one bean. I’m too old for this. And too tired.

I clear the weeds out of the beds, and they’re back in a week. I can’t get a grip on this. And the Bermuda grass—that awful spreading stuff—will eventually cover the whole house. I just know it. I can’t tame my yard. I just can’t. Not anymore.

This is the first summer that in June, I’m ready for winter. I look out at my yard and think only of preparing it for cold. Defining the flowerbeds in a downtime when things don’t grow and take over. Fresh mulch to sit under snow. No vegetables to wrinkle up and host bugs and mold and leaf rot.

I’m ready to ditch it all.


Memorial Day 2017: I Have a Soldier to Remember

Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.

I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.

This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.

I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.

“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.

I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”

Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.

After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”

Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.

“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”

 And it was.

Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.

It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.

This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.


Irises, Rainbow Colors, and Courage

Irises have rich historical meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments: hope, faith, wisdom, and courage. The flower takes its name from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Another Greek word, “eiris,” means “messenger.” The Greek Goddess Iris acted as the link between heaven and earth. She delivered messages for the gods and from the Underworld and traveled along rainbows as she moved between heaven and earth. Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the Goddess to escort the dead on their journey upward into the afterlife.

I like to think this is symbolic and that the flower also inspires us with courage to rise up and reach out above our darkest times into growth and newness of life.

The purple iris also denotes royalty. During the Middle Ages, the purple iris was linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis design, inspired by the flower, eventually became the recognized national symbol of France.

The iris is also the state flower of Tennessee.

Iris spikes and blooms standing tall

Irises from my friend Colleen

I have iris rhizomes from friends in Tennessee, from my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, from William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, (white cemetery iris) in Oxford, Mississippi. I dug up some irises from my old house in Fieldstone Farms and brought them to this new house on the hill. They fill in my landscape with their showy spikes and their flowing, silky, spring colors. I am surrounded by hope and faith. By wisdom. And courage.

Irises from my grandmother – might be 50-75 years old,
growing on land that has been in our family since 1850

The iris provides the perfect cover image for Editor Susan Cushman’s anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. My essay, “Pushing Up the Sun,” is included in this new book, released in March 2017. The flower is soft, delicate, in a silky, flowing design—feminine. But you better believe she is hardy, and no matter what she faces, whether being pounded by snow, rain, or hail, being slept upon by rabbits or stepped on by children or mowed down by a careless landscaper, she comes back. And she comes back bigger and stronger. Every year, those spikes strengthen and rise up and reach high, producing wrapped blooms that grow tall and open into flowers, repeating in second bloomings, and more.

What a perfect gift of hope and faith and wisdom and courage for Mother’s Day! And a book signing for this anthology will be held at Barnes and Noble Cool Springs in Brentwood, Tennessee, the day before. May 13, 1:00. I welcome you to come! Susan Cushman, editor, will be there. River Jordan, local author and contributor, will join us.

And a big shout out to Barnes and Noble — the best book store a local author could hope for!


Birthday Go Away

Birthdays come hard now. I wasn’t expecting this at all. But today (the day before) and tomorrow (the birthday) have expanded meanings and bring an extreme of feelings. So I give in and cry.

One year ago, September 3, at this hour of the morning, I was calling the vet. I knew this was different. I knew it was bad. I took her in. Dr. Dave said, “We can do it now. Or we can do it at close of business. But you can’t let her go through the night.” I’d known this was coming, but no, no, I wasn’t ready. Are we ever? I held my Chaeli, wrapped in a blanket, looked in her eyes, stroked her face. “I’ll bring her back at five.” I took her home and spent the day readying myself, readying her, and fussing at my deceased husband for not coming back to take her naturally. He could have helped me out on this. He held me and we cried together over Molly, our golden retriever, when we had to do it to her. I did not want to go through that again. Alone, this time. I did not want to put this dog down.

But that’s what I did. I went back to the clinic at five and was ushered into the Death Room. I held her and talked to her and told her to go find her daddy (the alpha), as the injection was given. It was quick, so quick, as the dog who would never look at me in the eyes during her entire almost seventeen years, looked at me the whole time. I held her for a long time after life was gone. Then at my request the doctor wrapped her securely in blankets, and I took her home. She spent the night on her favorite vent in my living room.

The next morning, September 4, my birthday, I drove her to the crematory and handed her over.

Now she’s in a box on a shelf over my bed. It feels like everything in my life is in a box. Dead, gone.

chaeli in a boxDad with Chaeli and Chaeli in a box

Twenty-two days later little Heidi Deering was born. Chaeli and I had planned this together. I was on a waiting list. I picked out my little buff girl with the round head and had eight weeks to heal after the loss of the old girl before I brought a new baby home. Then life got so full, and now I wonder if I fully healed. Because September 3 rolls around again, and I hurt.

I hurt badly. And not simply over her loss, but she was the bottom layer of layers of loss. I won’t go there and name them all, but she was the last thing to go that Charlie and I shared together. And that’s a hard thing.

And Birthday, I don’t know what to do about you. I really don’t. I just really don’t. Birthdays should remind us of good things. There should be cake, there should be laughter, there should be balloons, and maybe sapphires . . . and telephone calls.

Thank you, Neil.


White Night

It was a white night last night.

For some reason, I thought of ice cold milk and couldn’t get the picture of it out of my mind. It was really a day for water, and lots of it, with a heat index of 103 and humidity so high I could barely breathe. It was too hot to go to the Blackberry Jam music festival and sit outside by the Harpeth all day. It was too hot to stand outside and talk to a neighbor; it was too hot to walk the dog very far. And I thought of ice cold milk. I had to have some.

When I was a little girl and spent a week each summer on my grandparents’ farm in Kemper County, Mississippi, I drank their milk straight from a cow. My grandfather was the first one up every morning to go milk the cows, and he always brought a pail back to the house. It was not homogenized, it was not pasteurized, it was not like city milk from a carton. My grandmother put ice in a glass and poured the milk over it. We never did that at home.

milkoverice

I remember the look of it. The milk seemed a little thin and yellow against the white ice, blocky parts of which floated above the surface, coated with cream.

So last night I stuck my glass under the ice dispenser, filled it, then poured milk over it. I shook it and let the ice hit the glass and make noise. I grabbed a few M&Ms and went outside on the front porch to sit under a cobalt sky headed to darkness. Clouds darker than cobalt were furiously building and boiling upward from the day’s heat, and lightning was flashing behind their tops and among them.

lightning

I chewed my chocolate and drank my ice cold rattly milk and watched the storm move closer, the sky flashing white all around me and sending bolts downward. It was coming at me from all directions, white everywhere. It was all show for an hour—no rain, no wind—just white lightning, a natural fireworks display. When it was on me, the heavens and the air all around me flashed white. And I sat there and rattled the cubes in my glass and drank my ice cold milk and remembered storm traditions of my little girl days.

At my grandparents’ house, when a storm would roll in, my grandfather would go get the car and drive it right up on the grass by the front porch. He’d make the five grandchildren sit in the car with him. The rubber tires would ground us and protect us from getting struck by the lightning. I don’t remember my grandmother ever being in the car with us. I think she took her chances and got a little peace and quiet inside the house. When I was playing at my friend Mary Sue’s and a storm came up, her mother brought us each a foam rubber pillow to sit on as we played paper dolls or drew and colored pictures because it would ground us and keep us safe. We didn’t do any of this at home. The storms came, the lightning came, the thunder came, and we kept right on doing what we were doing.

And so I sat on the front porch and drank my ice cold milk and watched the lightning.


Almost June

My goal every year is to have the grass manicured, the flowers in the yard beds and pots on the deck blooming, the little garden in and growing, and the weeds OUT by Memorial Day so I can sit outside and admire it all. It hasn’t happened in the last ten or twelve years, but this year it will be a reality. And it’s going to happen even though I hurt myself and am on full-time Ibuprofen. (I tripped over a puppy gate. I lifted my foot, but the Chaco didn’t lift or clear, and caught the top bar and I went splattering down the hall, slung my glass of water, which broke and cut me, and possibly broke something inside the very top of my leg.)

heirloomtomatoes

Yesterday, to finish off my garden, I planted five heirloom tomato plants a neighbor gave me. She was raised on a farm in McNairy County of West Tennessee, lived in Ohio for her professional career, and moved back to Tennessee to be near her grandchildren. She knows how to harvest seeds and plant them the next year. I want to learn. I told her this will be very helpful when the coming financial crisis happens or when our country declares financial martial law, as Ron Paul speaks of with surety. I thought of buying the book he promotes on this subject, but it costs $75, and I’m not paying that much for any book unless it’s about the Mississippi Delta. (I bought David Cohn’s book for $120.)

I’m writing about the Mississippi Delta — a little fictional town near Cleveland, on the river, with five women who are main characters. It will explore race, religion, family, and land — all good Southern topics for novels. I am taking my time on this book. Trying to say what I want to say and get it right.

And now, of all things, Cleveland, my hometown, and Cleveland High School, my alma mater, are in the news. The Cleveland school district has been given a federal court order to desegregate. People all over the country are making disparaging remarks because they are picturing an all-white school. No. CHS began integration in 1965. My class of ’67 might have been the last all-white graduating class. The one student who joined my class during our junior year in 1965-66 did not come back the following year to graduate. But others came, and the ratio grew over the years to almost equal in that one particular school. Here are the cheerleaders for the mighty CHS Wildcats this year! Yay, Black and Gold — conquer and prevail! Cleveland High, all hail!

chscheerleaders

I’m not sure what the world is coming to, or if in future months we will falter into financial martial law or if we will make a return to the 1960s, or just how much the federal government is going to stick its neck into our lives, but all I want to do is sit in my own back yard and look at all the handiwork and grow muscadines, blackberries, and heirloom tomatoes.