Friday, July 25, 2014

Inch Twenty-One: Afternoon On The Deck

This afternoon found me outside on the deck, in the pleasant shade by the house, the last of the towels drying on the line. The rudbeckia is in full bloom and as I wrote, I let my eyes stray to them often as I watched bees and other pollinators work over the flowers. In the farthest corner of the back yard, where Warren's shed is, the rudbeckia we transplanted along the west side of the shed now reaches above the lowest part of the sloping roof.

A cicada chattered somewhere. Finches and other small bird plied the feeder on the dogwood tree.

Need I add that it was an ideal summer day? The temperature was cool, the humidity was low, the sky was blue, the air was mild. It is evening now and rain is coming as I type these words, but they were penned in the sweetness of the afternoon. The rest of this post reflects that present time, not this one.

On the deck against the house and in the shade are three pots of coneflowers I brought home from the store earlier today. These will go into the ground this weekend. Against the garage wall, in the vegetable garden, are nine pots of daylilies (two crowns to a pot), also waiting to go into the ground. Warren and I have been discussing making a bed of daylilies in the back yard against the pine trees.

The daylilies, which are not in the Lily family at all, are mostly a creamy white/yellow flower, although three pots are of a bronzed red shade. The coneflowers are one of the new shades that recently debuted, these being a red color instead of the traditional purple.

Against all odds, I am becoming a lady gardener.

I don't use "lady gardener" as a pejorative. Gardening is hard work, regardless of your gender or your name. By lady gardener, I mean I see myself drifting away from food production (a few tomatoes aside) and increasingly establishing and planting perennial gardens that bring color to my eyes and peace to my spirits.

The rudbeckias are perennials. The black-eyed Susans  against the back of the house are perennials, along with the blackberry lilies (which are true lilies). Blanket flowers are also perennials, although I will likely have to reestablish them next year due to poor gardening tactics (mine) and even poorer planning (also mine) this year.

As I write these lines, I glance up at the rudbeckia. The yellow of the petals is so intense that it almost hurts my eyes.

I will move the spiderwort beds to the shadier north side of the house in the spring. They are in the front bed now, which is on the west side, and they always burn up in the full sun.

As I said, being a lady gardener is not easy.

I have two favorite books about gardening, but they are not gardening books per se. One is Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katherine S. White. It is a posthumous collection of her reviews of garden catalogues for The New Yorker, at which she worked for many years. While ostensibly she was reviewing the seed offerings for the season, White, a passionate gardener, added commentaries and observations about gardening as well. E. B. White, her husband, gives us a glimpse of his wife in the preface: "I seldom saw her prepare for gardening, she merely wandered out into the cold and wet, into the sun and the warmth, wearing whatever she had put on that morning...unhesitatingly she would kneel in the dirt and begin grubbing about, garbed in a spotless cotton dress or a handsome tweed skirt and jacket. She simply refused to dress down to a garden..."

The other favorite is Noah's Garden by Sarah Stein. Despite its title, the book is not about Biblical gardening. Instead, it is about re-establishing "the ecology of our back yards." Stein writes of turning her rather standard "dead" yard (mowed, fertilized, and sprayed lawns, hybrid annuals that did not seed, non-fruiting ornamental planting) into a living property with native plants and bushes, seed producing plantings, and increased cover that attracted back to her non-urban property insects (fireflies, bees, other pollinators, to name a few) and animals (quail, frogs, songbirds, foxes, to name a few more). Every time I look at the Bradford pear in the backyard, a tree of great beauty when it blossoms but of no use after that, I appreciate Stein's theme all the more.

Both books are by and about strong woman gardeners, both to me are lady gardeners.  And now I am drifting towards that rank. Each year there are fewer tomatoes (an apostasy in and of itself) and more color.

There will still be annuals: the marigold border around the vegetable garden (increasingly a flower garden), a large basil patch (some of it for pesto, most of it for the bees), the tomatoes, of course. But my thoughts will continue to be of perennials, of leaving a legacy in color.

The yellow of the rudbeckia! I cannot get enough of it. And the bees in the rudbeckia! And the intensity of the day!

And the brightness in my soul.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Inch Twenty: This Other Time, This Other Self 3*

It takes so little to trigger a memory: a photo, a flavor, a phrase in a melody.

A season.

First Glimpse: The Screen Door

The house I grew up in was a two story rectangle, deeper than it was wide. It started life as a one story, built by my grandfather and, most likely, my great-grandfather, in the early teens of the twentieth century. A second story was added sometime in the 1930s. It was plain and functional, inside and out. My mother was born in that house, in the downstairs front bedroom.

There was a front porch, big enough to hold a swing, that faced Flax Street. Three adults or five to six kids would fill the swing. The "back" porch was actually a side entrance at the rear of the house. The kitchen exited to that back porch, which was enclosed. The back porch lead to the "backyard," really the side yard.

The back porch was a stubby, little porch, about the size of a pantry, with a wood door between it and the kitchen and another one between it and the backyard. It was small. Maybe three kids or one adult could be in it at the same time. Both the kitchen door and the outside door had a single pane letting in light and providing the person on either side of the door a look at who or what was coming in or out.

In that pre air-conditioned world in which I grew up, screen doors were a hallmark of summer. When temperatures rose, a screen door allowed for some air movement throughout the day and evening. The screen door going up between the kitchen and the back porch meant hot days had arrived. Once the screen door was in place, the wood kitchen door was shut only at night when everyone went to bed, as was the outside door.

The slap of the screen door was the rhythm of summer. The front door of the house, the one facing the street, got plenty of use, but as a kid, it is the back screen door I remember best.

Slap to the back yard.
Slap to get a bike leaned up against the house or thrown down on the grass.
Slap to come in and get a drink at Grandma's sink, slap to go back out.
Slap to hang up the laundry.
Slap to bring in the laundry. 
Slap to feed the dogs.
Slap again to feed the cat.
Slap for my brothers and cousins and me to pour out of the house like so many ants and swirl up the street to Aunt Jane's house.

Somewhere in the midst of all that slapping would be an adult yelling "stay in or stay out!"

Surely there were other screen doors in my life—at my other grandparents' farm, at a friend's house, at the small grocery three blocks away—but it is the Flax Street screen door that I hear in my mind's ear.

Second Glimpse: The Indoor Summer

One summer, maybe the summer I was ten, I developed what my mom and our family doctor called "sun poisoning." I had itchy rashes sprinkled on my arms and legs and would sometimes develop a solid patch of spectacular color, deep brick red or purple, along with the rash.

The doctor said I was allergic to the sun. The remedy was two-fold: a topical ointment for the rash and an order to stay inside during the height of the afternoon.

It was a summer made to order for me.

The indoor summer was one of books and not being told "go play outside!" by an overworked mother. It was the summer of playing jacks in the front hallway of the Flax Street house, the linoleum cool and smooth. I mastered the  basic game and went on to learn variations, including some that required elaborate hand movements and tosses.

My girlfriends would join me on the floor, playing endless rounds of jacks. My best friend Cindy and I became jacks masters. When jacks would pale or someone was called home, I'd go right back to my books.

There are no pictures of me during that indoor summer. In those days of film cameras, my parents saved their roll of film for Bigger Events: a day at Lake Erie, a birthday, a visit from relatives, a vacation. There was no reason to take photos of a stringy haired, lanky blotchy child stretched out on the floor, her cheek pressed into the linoleum as she read and reread Misty of Chincoteague.

The sun allergy disappeared in the fall and did not come back for years. It made a brief appearance when I was in my early 20s, after I had spent a week outside painting the flat roof of the apartment building in which I lived. This time, though, no one said "spend your summer inside." No one offered me a set of jacks or knocked on the door to join me in play.

It is summer here as I write this post. It has been a amazingly mild summer, with many bright days that cool off deliciously once the sun goes down. This summer stirs those memories, those memories of that other time, that other self.

*This Other Time, This Other Self is an intermittent series of posts, triggered by a photo, a sound, a book, in which I dip into my past. The first one is found here, the second one is here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Inch Nineteen: A Letter to Ramona

Dear Ramona:

It is hard to believe that it has been almost seven weeks since you and your mommy and daddy were here. A lot has changed outside during that time and I thought you might enjoy seeing those changes.

The purple flow-flows (pronounced like "cow," for all of you readers who don't know how Ramona talks) in the chives are done blooming. The blue flow-flows out front have hit a low spot too. But don't worry: there are lots of other flow-flows blooming. Here are the coneflowers:

And here are the blackberry lilies:

The day lilies are all in bloom too. I think Grandpa Warning and I are going to plant a whole bunch of day lily bulbs around the pine trees this fall. Next summer they will be in full bloom and there should be large swaths of color in the yard.

When you were here, you more than once rolled your daddy's juggling balls into the rudbeckia bed at the end of the deck. Then, the rudbeckia was just above the height of the deck, which is 18 inches off the ground. Now the rudbeckia is taller than me, taller than Grandpa Warning, taller than your mommy, daddy, Uncle Sam, and even Papa Joe. If you rolled a juggling ball into it today, your daddy would have a very hard time finding it.

The yellow flow-flows on the tops of the stalks are starting to open, too. In another week, there will be lots of bees in it. I have already seen a few.

The biggest changes are in the vegetable garden. Most of the marigolds in the border bloomed. You would love to pick those flow-flows! And remember those little, little, tiny tomato plants that I had just planted when you came? Remember those? Boy, did they grow! They are much, much bigger than you now. And there are tomatoes on them! I am just waiting for them to ripen. (You would probably be a little disappointed if you were here today because you can't eat them yet.)

So that's the garden update! I hope you are having a good summer, Ramona. I know we are.

Grandma April

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Inch Eighteen: The Library Card

My first library card probably looked a lot like this one. 
Nana Mona (Ramona's maternal grandmother) sent me a note earlier this week:

Hi! I thought you and Grandpa Warning would be happy to know Ramona as of today has her own library card! She checked out Hands are not for hitting, the wheels on the bus, the potty chair story and the belly button book!

Mona was right. I was thrilled. Warren smiled at the news. My dad, when he heard, was very pleased.

"I bet she's reading before too long," he said.

Well, Ramona has not yet hit the 2 year old mark. Reading is still off in the future. But books, and the love of books, and, I hope, the love of reading, are already deeply engrained in Ramona.

But a library card before the second birthday!

When I was a child, you could not get a library card until you could print your name. I think you only had to be able to make it through your first name, but that was a solid benchmark from which the librarians did not waver. I remember practicing printing "April" over and over again. The letters were scraggly, skewed, tipsy, but, finally, I could laboriously print "April" and the card was mine.

The magic and power of that first library card (and all the cards since then) have exceeded countless times over the thrill Charlie Bucket felt when he found one of Willy Wonka's golden ticket.

The library world, like so many others, has changed with the times and gone digital on me. My card is no longer cardboard, softening with age and use. (I tended to wear mine out quickly—first from my book selections filling them up and then, when the librarians stopped writing the books on the card, just from sheer handling.) Now it is a slick plastic tab with a bar code on it. I no longer take my books up to the tall, forbidding main desk presided over by a steely eyed librarian, who would pluck the book card from the rear pocket, ink my card number on it, and stamp a date on the pocket. Now I check out my own books, bypassing the clerks at the low slung checkout station. The card catalogue of yore, the greatest pre-Google search engine of all time, has been replaced by computer monitors and an indexing system with a fraction of a card catalogue's intuitive capacity. (I still insist that the reason I can find things on Google so quickly is from decades of using a card catalogue, which required one to think of how best to put together a search.) And we have gone from the "Shhh! No talking, no laughter, no food, no drinks" age to the sound of children, the chatter of teens, and a coffee shop inside at the library's outer entrance.

And now Ramona has joined that  wonderful club: the Club of Library Card Holders. Indeed, this grandmother is very, very happy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Inch Seventeen: Summer

Summer is ripening, starting to hit its stride. Some days are pure Midwest: hot and humid. These are days when phrases like "steam bath" and "wet wool blanket" come to mind.

This weather breeds pop-up storms which race through quickly,  dropping rain and the temperature. These storms often come later in the evening and last night was no exception. For much of the evening the air was dead still, sultry. The sun went down, the night came out—not hot, but not cool either.

After reading much of the evening away, I wandered to the screen door to the back deck. Fireflies were flashing, as was faraway lightning to the east and the south. There was a faint coolness to the air, a whisper of movement.

I stood at the screen door, then pulled in a chair from the kitchen and sat down. (I don't go outside in the evening because of a long-standing, always losing battle with mosquitoes.) I smelled dampness in the air. I sat there for some fifteen or twenty minutes, watching the light show on the ground and in the heavens.

My skittish thoughts slowed. The tangles of the day unwound and slid away. It was meditation, it was revelation as I sat there in the dark and watched the lights.

Flash on. Flash off. A distant curl of thunder.

When we went to bed later, the sky show was intensifying and the thunder was moving closer.

Lying in the dark, the air not quite cooled yet, I heard the wind pick up in small increments. I hang chimes in the dogwood tree outside our bedroom window and the first sound was the clink of the ceramic chimes as the least breeze stirs them. As the gusts increased, the tubular chimes rang in pure tones. Finally I heard the clack of bamboo, the last chimes to sound.

I fell asleep to the gentle mix of clinks and tones and clacks.

It rained sometime in the night after I fell asleep. This morning the gardens and the outside planters were good and soaked. It is raining tonight again as I finish typing this post.

I am trying to be more deliberate, more aware of the outdoors this summer, mosquitos to the contrary. Life is hurrying by too fast and while I cannot postpone the inevitable, I can savor and soak up the small details.

The slim silver moon in the west last Sunday night as we drove home from a concert. The rudbeckia, which barely cleared the deck when Ramona was here, now towering high into the air and forming buds. The bees in the spiderwort in the cool of the morning, when the purple-blue blooms open up. The sweet fragrance of the linden trees overhanging the sidewalks. The sullen flicker of distant lightning.

Thoreau wrote of time in Walden, calling is "the stream I go a-fishing in." In drinking from it, he detected its shallowness and that the thin current slid away, leaving behind eternity. It is his concluding image that I have always found most haunting: "I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."

I'm a-fishing in time too, watching that thin current slide by. And in dropping into the moments of fireflies and bees, or of linden trees and blossoming flowers, I am testing that creek bottom pebbly with stars, finding my way by the flicker of lightning, the flash of the fireflies.