pink-white blossoms, clear-shine greens,
death by garden shears.
March passed, blurred gray with rain. The backyard trees, still winter stark, hung heavy with a dozen birds roosting in dark clumps. “Turkey buzzards,” grumbled the neighbor as he wheeled his green trash tub to the curb. Jane grabbed some binoculars; the birds’ shrunken heads were red, with small hooked beaks.
Jane walked outside at dusk and stared up. The invaders still clung high in the trees. Hissing, she heard hissing. The neighbor said they would not snatch her cat. She quit looking at the backyard. She quit mowing.
Jane hung four baskets of Boston ferns from porch hooks, and they swung gently. She hated the plastic containers and fat plastic hooks. Tacky. Next year she would buy wrought iron baskets with coco liner.
One morning Jane yawned and went to get the paper tossed carelessly at the edge of the gravel driveway. She wore an oversize T-shirt. Mrs. Brown, her across-the-street neighbor, always met the day with her rocker pulled up to her glass storm door, watching. Jane’s “Murphy’s Irish Pub” T was no shorter than a mini skirt. That was decent enough. She scrooched down for the paper. As she came up, one of the ferns was trembling.
A tiny brown bird dithering in the fronds darted to a low hanging branch. A slightly larger one, its head capped with red, chattered from atop a bronze trellis leaning against the porch. Jane didn’t know about birds. She didn’t care. Her father used to hover over field guides to American birds. His lifelong dream was to find a birdfeeder that defied squirrels.
The birds fussed every morning when Jane took her morning coffee. She lounged a tad uncomfortably in the resin wicker chair. She couldn’t get used to its stiff woven arm. Her parents’ wicker furniture rotted in the basement. Still, she claimed her hour on the porch. The no-name birds could keep the rest of the day’s twenty-three hours. She thought about watering the fern with a turkey baster. Perhaps a safe enough distance. But she shrugged off the notion. If the fern dried up, she would get another at Home Depot.
Jane lost track of time. Pollen lightly dusted the porch. She didn’t feel like hosing it off and sipped her coffee at the dining room table. Early one morning, high-pitched chirping broke her coffee-musing silence. The babies had cracked their shells.
The mother bird swooped in time and again. The chirping lost urgency. Jane left to toss some laundry in the washer. She dumped in some liquid detergent. Usually she carefully measured to the proper line in the cap. She ran back upstairs, but the nest was still. Jane yanked the pacing cat indoors. A fresh rain washed away the pollen dusting the porch boards.
Every morning Jane forgot her coffee and stood on the chair. After a few days, she set a stepladder on the porch, about three feet from the nest. Once she sneaked out barefoot after the parents had flitted away. She slowly climbed up two ladder steps and peeped between some ferns carelessly parted by the parents. Two feathery-fuzzed babies wobbled and stretched their necks and opened their beaks, with throats wide, ready to swallow. Jane climbed another step. They ducked and huddled.
The birds waited for feedings between longer stretches. Now she could watch them at the window. The boldest took to standing, beak up, beady eyes glittering, and breast puffed. He postured like Washington crossing the Delaware, so she named him George. He looked through the jungle of ferns. He flapped defiantly.
Copyright © 2014. Southward Down by Catherine Hamrick. All Rights Reserved.
Turkey vulture courtesy of Tim McCormack known as Phyzome
Soaring turkey vulture courtesy of Cathartes aura -Florida -USA -flying-8-4c
Forsythia courtesy of Amos Oliver Doyle
Ferns courtesy of Kor!An (Корзун Андрей)
Carolina Wren courtesy of Dick Daniels (carolinabirds.org)
Eggs illustration courtesy of H.M. Dixon
Baby birds courtesy of Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA
Cat courtesy of Serena (“Whispers”) Flikr
Cup of coffee courtesy of Julius Schorzma
Wind chimes courtesy of Jina Lee (c) 2007
Adirondack chair courtesy of Greg Hume
What means Lent? Abstinence of worldly want?
Delight in this good earth, these fleeting blooms, after winter’s fast.
No breeze, no rain
To salve meteor pocks,
The moon hangs
In forever night,
Pulling at earth.
Waters bulge and crash,
While earth fixates
On arid basins,
Raising crusty tides.
Two brilliant scientists of the 20th century eloquently spoke of the universe’s wonders.
“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”
—Richard P. Feynman, theoretical physicist (1918–1988)
Fourteen billion years ago, the Big Bang set off the miracle of the cosmos. Researchers probed the light that remained of that explosion, glimpsing the universe when it was less than one-trillionth of a second old.—March 17, 2014
“Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.”
—Albert Einstein, physicist (1879–1855)
Giant Impact courtesy of NASA
Earth and Moon courtesy of NASA
Ocean Wave courtesy of Mylene Thyssene
Earth courtesy of John McConnel
Moon over Eucalyptus courtesy of John Hollinger
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Le Voyage dans La Lune/Trip to the Moon (1902 French film directed by Georges Méliès)
“See America first.” For years, I ignored the slogan. British novels fed my imagination. I longed to wander the moors in a black dress or watch waves pound a rocky shore in Cornwall. I went to England and raced from castles to cathedrals, taking copious notes on period architecture and stained glass.
Yet after several weeks, my dog-eared, pen-scrawled journal did not satisfy. Something was missing. On a whim, I traveled to the Lake District. I arrived one afternoon when the sun broke through a mist and the trees stood damp and glistening. A few hundred yards from the train station, a woman was lining potted plants along the gravel path that led to her porch.
The scene reminded me of a March day when spring, having struggled against winter, sent the sap rising. My mother hung her ferns on the porch. Swinging in the warm light, they shed the fronds that browned in February.
Suddenly, I knew what I had missed: a southern spring. Images sunk dormant in memory now rose vividly. I gazed at the Englishwoman’s modest containers of primroses and trailing ivy and rediscovered a season and a people thousands of miles away.
When green-tipped dogwoods burst open in four-petal white, children rushed outdoors to test the water. Ritually, my sisters, brother, and I kicked off our shoes and hosed one another before wading in the rocky creek running shallow in the deep woods behind our house.
My parents shook off winter sluggishness. They pored over gardening magazines and seed catalogs. My father inspected the compost, a rich heap of leaves rotting since autumn.
By early April, he worked feverishly. He cleared his garden space by burning off last year’s dried stalks. To Dad’s way of thinking, gardening was the most pleasurable and economical way to expend energy. He would rather hoe five rows of beans than play two sets of tennis.
My father’s compulsion to dig and dirty his fingernails stemmed from his childhood. For almost two centuries, his family farmed hilly North Georgia soil, which, once turned, spilled clay red in its furrows. If a man worked that land hard enough, it ground into his skin. As a child, I shook hands with men who worked fields in the Great Depression and noticed fine lines running reddish-brown on their palms.
Aging hands—freckled and knotted with bluish veins—hold the past. When I looked at my grandmother’s hands, I wondered how many times they pressed a child to her body, pulled cotton from stubborn bolls, or husked corn and stripped fine silk from the ears. Her knuckles grew stiff and fingertips dry, but she weeded her garden, shelled peas, and put up preserves to a ripe, old age.
After years of living close to the land, Mama Hattie never forgot Appalachian folklore. “Plant your beans on Good Friday. . . . My daddy always said if plant your corn on Wednesday, the birds won’t take it up. . . . Don’t kill a hog unless the moon is shrinking in the last quarter. Otherwise, your bacon will curl in the pan when you fry it. . . .”
To this day, those words drawl in my memory, turning over like long ropes of homemade pull candy that children twist, shape, and wear down white with buttered fingers.
Perhaps nostalgia comes with growing up. I dreamed of heather-spread moorlands and castles by the sea until I found my family’s past. Almost one hundred years ago, my grandmother stitched quilts, washed clothes on a scrub board, read by a kerosene lamp, cooked on a wood-burning stove, and gave birth at home. She canned, dried, pickled, or preserved whatever my grandfather grew.
As a boy, my father milked the cow at dawn and again at dusk and drew water from a forty-foot well. He and his brothers cut firewood from black jack oak and knotty pine.
Today we buy bed linens online and complain about the power bill. We buy milk at the supermarket and absently turn on the faucet to brush our teeth. Specialty organic stores abound.
Few people rebuff modern conveniences. Nonetheless, they seek, in their small ways, solidarity with the earth. They savor spring onions and just-picked lettuce from the farmers market. Some grow planters of cherry tomatoes on their patios or hover over a modest row or two of beans, squash, and herbs bedded in the backyard.
Everyone has a zucchini recipe to swap with a neighbor. Urban gardens flourish across America—new life in a concrete-steel jungle. Flowers in mason jars and bottles sit in windowsills. Everywhere people grope for the comfort of a rural past.
At sixteen, my father left home, carrying little but his love of the land. This spring, John and I will study color-rich gardening images on tablets. The old hardware store down the street still sells seed packets.
John will turn up a small strip of ground and construct a crude chicken wire fence to protect tender, young tomato plants from deer. We will snip herbs from the container garden on the porch.
From our tiny patch of the South, green will grow. And if nostalgia grips the next generation, I will tell them to plant beans on Good Friday.
Celebrate International Poetry Day!
What is all this juice and all this joy?
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
–Gerard Manly Hopkins
Cotton bolls courtesy of Kim Hansen
Dartmoor courtesy of Herby
Chives courtesy of Jon Sullivan
Quilt courtesy of Jude Hill
English house courtesy of Marion Dutcher
Victory Garden poster courtesy of National Archives and Record Administration
Creek courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli
Community garden courtesy of Orbin Zebest
Dogwood courtesy of Derek Ramsey
Sunday, March 16, Dusk
I’m humming. In the back of my throat. The wind stirs the chimes hanging on the porch. A cardinal pecks at the suet feeder. It is the oldest of cycles, this cycle of new.
Now the green blade rises
from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth
many days has lain,
Love lives again
that with the dead has been,
Love has come again,
like wheat that springeth green.
On the other side of the world, the Syrian Uprising has long passed into the Syrian Civil War. Three springs ago. A generation lost.
Thrift or miss! That’s the weekend mantra. I just hit some no-name junk joints and went color mad. Soft neutrals–what a yawn after several seasons. I crave chaos.
Color is creeping back into Ballard Design catalogs. For a while, soft neutrals overran the pages. In contrast, my house looks like a carnival sideshow. Is that because my mind works like a circus . . . or because I like junk?
Miss Sunshine jumped off a cinder-block wall and into my arms. “Sunday Morning” anchor Charles Osgood may covet this lady, but she will radiate on my wall.
This 1970s vintage Violacci poster turned my head. Nothing could stop my pursuit of these loud pink ladies moving fashion forward on the concrete catwalk. Bella Daughter does some major legwork, but Stout Mamma Mia steals the show–in spurs!
If you love a style walk-back, you may find funky Violacci footwear on Etsy.
Then I hit kitchen kitsch. Bright 1920s enamelware is collector fun on the cheap.
This fruitful find–a 16-inch diameter bowl–will live large wherever I put it.
I’m in the early autumn of life. Color me brilliant!
Light up my life!
In the early 1920s, American architecture reached aesthetic heights in the Windy City. Chicago artist Frederick Cooper–known for his sculpture and watercolor paintings–took a fancy to lamp design, as innovative as the city’s period architecture.
I snapped up this bountiful lamp base, which pressed up against a dusty, dismal “Early American” hutch (1960s shudder).
American Pickers? Nowhere in sight. Evidently, their van jounced off the wrong beaten path.
You went dormant,
The Christmas rose opened,
Bearing false epiphany.
Their lances mounded low,
Tamped down chilly,
Promise bedded, evergreen.
Keep faith, you said,
For the Lenten roses.
Our ashes overwintered
In my fireplace, and
I sifted for hot-blue firestarter.
February rattled the beech,
with autumn’s papery leavings
Torn and littered.
Keep faith, you said,
For the Lenten roses.
Keep faith, you said,
For the Lenten roses.
I kept faith for the Lenten roses,
But my out-of-season passion
Could not tremble you awake.
Helleborus niger courtesy of Tom Pennington/licensed for reuse/Creative Commons/geograph 32881
Beech in winter courtesy of Rosser1954/Roger Griffith
La Douleur by Bartram Mackennal/Royal Academy Illustrated
Lenten roses at the Coker Arboretum
The hardwood floor chilled my bare feet as I fumbled for an orange from the creaky refrigerator bin. It felt tired in my hand.
The years rolled back.
On frosty mornings, I sometimes rode with my father to the farmers market in Birmingham’s West End. Fires burned in rusting drums while folks huddled in the dark, waiting for trucks hauling citrus from faraway groves, where winter went green year-round. Our city was then an iron-and-steel town, and furnaces cast a glow that flickered and played like heat lightning.
Then dawn streaked, and suddenly the sun would be upon us, as the trucks rolled in, bearing Deep South nectar.
I still feast on winter’s sweet goodness–fresh out of hand or from two favorite family recipes.
15 oz. crushed pineapple
1 c. flaky coconut
Sugar to taste
Peel oranges. Remove all seeds and white membrane. Add pineapple and coconut; sweeten as desired.
Note: I sometimes add ruby red grapefruit or blood oranges to deepen the color. Ambrosia is a lovely dessert served in gleaming martini glasses and garnished with mint.
MARTHA’S MANDARIN ORANGE SALAD
3-3/4 oz. slivered almonds
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 head Romaine lettuce, rinsed, well drained, and torn into bite-size pieces
1/2 c. green onions, chopped, including tops
1/2 c. chopped celery
1 (11-oz.) can mandarin oranges, drained (handy for time-crunched cooks!)
Mix together dressing ingredients (see dressing recipe below) and chill to meld flavors.
To candy almonds, place them in a heavy nonstick skillet, add sugar, and stir over moderate heat until sugar melts and coats almonds. Mixture burns easily; watch carefully. To cool, quickly spread almonds onto foil-covered surface.
Mix lettuce and next two ingredients in a large serving bowl. Add candied almonds, mandarin oranges, and dressing.
Toss to coat well and serve immediately.
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 c. salad oil
2 to 3 drops Tabasco sauce
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Note: This is my quick go-to salad–passed on by my sister Martha. I rely on this family chef for a few tips and tricks–and leave her to concoct “not-a-morsel-left” classics.
GRAB YOUR PICNIC BASKET, CAMERA–AND GO!
Take a detour from Whole Foods. For fresh incredible edibles and a taste of old-town Birmingham, drop by the Alabama Farmers Market–an “indoor, open air, daily, year-round” tradition since 1921.
Pop open the Encyclopedia of Alabama–with state history, culture, geography, and nature at your fingertips. Discover the story of the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. Structurally, it is a photographer’s dream. Aspiring artists can try their hand at metal arts, guided by masters in professional and public programs. For plein-air drama and music, Sloss is a startling, imaginative backdrop, as seen in this contemporary twist on Shakespeare’s Prologue to Romeo and Juliet (directed by Elizabeth Hunter in 2010).
Sunrise courtesy of FreeStockPhotos.com
Farmers Market courtesy of Missouri State Archives
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark courtesy of Greg Willis
Mandarin Bliss courtesy of Kaibara87
Farmers Market courtesy of Infogramation of New Orleans
Sloss Blast Furnaces Site courtesy of Robby Robinette
She and her mother (“Nannie”) had stopped at mid-stitch in the second-floor sewing room to spy on the college boys unloading their bags to move into rented rooms next door.
“Look, Mama, the blond has a car!”
My mother—nicknamed Bunny–never nabbed a ride in that shiny automobile. Instead, she began a perplexing courtship with my dad, Leon. Almost every afternoon, he scampered over to her backyard badminton court where gentlemen callers lined up to get whipped in match after match. Though an Old South Atlantan, Mom lobbed a hard birdie. (A country boy from Talking Rock—a hamlet tucked in the North Georgia hills–my dad studied the “whites” worn by her suitors and then fashioned his own from his sailor suit.)
“He’s saving his money, Sistah,” Nannie wisely drawled.
Finally, my dad pinched enough pennies for streetcar fare and an Atlanta Crackers baseball game. It rained that afternoon, but they fell for each other after just a few drops.
My parents married in 1949. Dad had just finished his first year of medical school at Emory University. My mother, a recent graduate of proper Agnes Scott College, worked in a research lab on campus. They lived on meager earnings and passion. They splurged on ice cream once a month.
Circumstances did not prevent their dreaming. As Christmas approached, my father noticed Mom’s eyes widening with pleasure at winter fashions in the newspaper—in particular a white satin blouse and a full black velveteen skirt. Enchanting feminine designs had overtaken utilitarian silhouettes after the war.
So Dad sold his blood to finance an errand to the fabric store. He must have been a sight: a 24-year-old man with large hazel eyes poring over pattern books. He chose the patterns and figured out which fabrics and threads to use and how much to buy. Then he presented his purchases to my grandmother and asked whether she would be kind enough to sew the gift.
My grandmother was thunderstruck. She had never known a man who would cross the threshold of a fabric store. Her eyes rimmed with tears whenever she told the story.
By the early 1960s, my parents had a full house. Our home at the time was so small that my mother had to set up her sewing room in a walk-in closet. Early one Easter—about 12:30 a.m.—my father came home after an emergency surgery shift to find my mother frantically sewing an Easter dress, with three others hanging up, half finished, along with my brother’s jacket and shorts.
“Let me help you,” he said.
“That’s OK. Go to bed. You’re exhausted,” she sighed.
“Let me help you. I can put in the hems,” he insisted.
“Honey, this fabric is French batiste. It’s very delicate,” Mom waved him away.
“Is there anything thinner than skin?” he quipped.
She handed over the dresses. Later as she pulled the frocks over our heads for Sunday school, she noted the small, even stitches—tied off with surgical knots.
The love nurtured in their first tiny apartment and modest house burgeoned, and so did the fun. On each child’s birthday, the honoree sat between Mom and Dad in their double bed at sunrise while the other four children marched in, carrying presents and singing. Then everybody raucously jumped on the bed. During thunderstorms, we took refuge in my parents’ bedroom. They usually woke to find four feet-pajama-clad girls piled in the bed, with my brother asleep on the floor.
We spent summer weekends at the lake, swimming, skiing, and feasting on catfish and hushpuppies. Ever efficient, Dad would bait and line up five fishing rods on the edge of the dock and reel in silvery, wriggly fish from murky depths. He cleaned them in a flash—my mother barely had time to pull out the fry pans.
Every June, he and Mom hosted an outdoor party for colleagues and their spouses. One year, however, the storm clouds rolled, and my parents faced clearing out most of the house to accommodate a crowd of 100. That included cleaning up the junk-filled playroom. With the closets already bursting with stuff, my parents stashed old toys, stacks of fabric, boxes of old books, and games in the trunks of all the cars and the washer and dryer. The band set up in the playroom, and company spilled into every room in the house, using every surface, including the ironing board, as makeshift eating tables. The crowd stayed two hours longer than usual!
(Nannie loved her whiskey sours that night. Dad pulled Mom aside to let her know Nannie was dancing with a bunch of residents, right in front of the band—crammed against one wall in the playroom.)
Mom went a little country when the boy from Appalachia grew a catawampus garden on the suburban easement. Their summer suppers were a feast to the senses—sliced tomatoes adorned with just-plucked basil leaves, pale green cucumber slices, green beans simmered crisp-tender in a pot with bits of bacon and topped with sunny yellow squash, silver queen corn, and sweet tea garnished with fragrant mint. My parents canned beans, tomatoes, beets, and peppers. Jars gleamed golden with applesauce and apple butter.
At Christmas, Dad commandeered the kitchen evening after evening while he stirred peanuts and syrup in large iron skillets—sometimes three or four at a time. The magical moment came with the addition of baking soda, and the sweet, gummy mixture puffed up into golden-brown brittle that he then cooled on cookie sheets. Dad broke up the brittle by joyously slamming the cookie sheets on the counter. Pieces flew everywhere, and Mom merely smiled and swept the floor.
Bags of the candy, festively tied with ribbon, went into baskets along with jams, jars of bread and butter pickle, and a package of buttermilk biscuits. My parents bestowed these handmade presents upon neighbors, colleagues, patients, and relatives.
Fifty-five years after my parents said, “I do,” Alzheimer’s struck. Though a cruel thief, it did not steal my mother’s loving nature. In the early stages, she kissed Dad good-bye when he left for work, waved until the car disappeared from view, and then rushed to his portrait where she stood a few moments, beaming. On one visit home, I saw them at the kitchen table, singing snatches of Big Band tunes spinning on a CD.
It was a handholding, sentimental journey to the end.
1940s car courtesy of Flikr photographer Don O’Brien
Sewing machine courtesy of Accuruss
Pincushion courtesy of Dvortygirl
Tomatoes courtesy of Hans-Simon Holtzbecker