British novels fed my student 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.
After several weeks, my dog-eared, pen-scrawled journal did not satisfy. Something was missing. On a whim, I traveled to the Lake District and took a ferry across Lake Windermere so I could backpack through fields of sheep and clamber over stonewalls. 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 lined 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 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.
My parents shook off winter sluggishness with dreams of garden bounty. They pored over gardening magazines and seed catalogs. My father inspected the compost, a rich heap of leaves rotting since autumn.
Before Valentine’s Day, Dad began sowing seeds in his early planting zone: the playroom. He outfitted several tiered rolling racks with “grow” lights. Then he planted tomato seeds in small plastic containers and placed them on the rack shelves. A trowel, a watering can, stacks of leftover containers, and small bags of potting soil lay ready on a worn-out gurney he had carted home from the hospital.
With all that rolling stock, the playroom truly was his private playground, not ours.
When dogwoods burst open in snowy four-petal blossoms tipped with tiny red stains, my sisters, brother, and I rushed outdoors to test the water. Ritually, we kicked off our shoes and hosed one another before wading in the rocky creek running shallow in the woods behind our house. Soon we battle-splashed, and at our joyful shrieks, the neighborhood children came running, their abandoned shoes leaving a trail.
By early April, Dad worked feverishly. He cleared his garden space by burning off last year’s dried stalks. To his way of thinking, gardening was the most pleasurable and economical way to expend energy. The country club held little interest. Dad preferred hoeing five rows of beans to playing tennis on a sedate court.
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 or husked corn and stripped silk from the ears. Her knuckles grew stiff and her fingertips dry. Under a burning sun, she pulled cotton from stubborn bolls, with spring only a sweet, fleeting memory.
Looking back on the Great Depression, Mama Hattie once said they never considered themselves poor. “We had land, a house, a garden, a cow, a mule, a hog or two, and church. Most of all, we had each other.”
Living close to the land, Mama Hattie never forgot Appalachian folklore. “Plant your beans on Good Friday. . . . My daddy always said if you plant 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. . . .”
Her 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.
As a boy, my father milked the cow at dawn and again at dusk and drew water from a 40-foot well. He and his brothers cut firewood from blackjack oak and knotty pine. They took turns riding the mule to Jim Dean’s Mill where their wheat and corn were ground into flour.
Today we buy bed linens online and complain about the power bill. We grab milk cartons at the supermarket and absently turn on the faucet when brushing our teeth. Specialty organic stores abound.
Few people rebuff modern conveniences. Nonetheless, they seek, in 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.
My father left home at 16, 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 build a crude chicken wire fence to protect tender, young tomato plants from deer. We will snip herbs from the container garden on the patio.
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.
Lovely posting, Miss C. By the way, my parents were from Grasmere so that I spent a large part of my childhood in the Lake District – when not being an army child in Cyprus, Germany and God knows where else! Keep up the good work!
You know how much I loved taking the ferry and hiking to Grasmere. Just for you: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” (The Tragedy of King Richard II)
You have such a way with words and bringing gardening and food alive. Have you ever thought of doing a literary cookbook with these beautiful nostalgia pieces accompanying recipes?
That is a thought. My mother and my sisters Mary and Martha were great cooks and keepers of more family recipes. My brother-in-law was a restauranteur. Now that would be his kind of book!
Sooo enjoyed reading this. Think I was born in the wrong era of time…..I have listened so many times to my Mother, telling of my grandmother and great-grandmother’s stories. They never threw anything out, it all got passed down to the next one. So glad of that now, that I can pass down to my children and grandchildren. Every day walking through the house and passing by some old piece of furniture or dish, it brings back all the sweet memories of them. Hope it will do the same for my family.
Life goes by so fast. I wish I had collected more stories to pass down. Thanks for reading and sharing many of the same memories!
Your stories are very good. The details are lovely and the descriptions are truly evocative of a by-gone era. It’s wonderful that you are able to pay tribute to your ancestors in such a memorable way.
Thanks, Shaun. It is so kind of you to remember my family.
I will grow beans on Good Friday. You’ve brought out the best of spring my Storyteller!!
Hello, my good doctor. I look forward to reading your new blog later this spring! Thanks for all the good words.
You can rest now. You have produced a perfect sentence, the one ending “buttered fingers.”
Ah, Dr. Dan, much toil ahead.
Catherine, I’m deeply touched by the words of your penmanship and the way you’ve expressed the imagery of Spring. Keep making us flow in the spirit of those beautiful words–and we shall be forever blessed by your wonderful and inspiring gift. Keep up the good works! 🙂
Catherine, I’m touched by your words of expression and the heartfelt joy that it gives me each time that I read your poetry and prose. Thanks for sharing, “A Southern Spring” with us and do keep up the good work
Devon, It has been a joy to meet you on LinkedIn. You lead a wonderful, creative, giving life. Thank you for sharing that with many.
Damn, Catherine, where’s the ‘LOVE’ button?!!
This brought back such a rush of memories for me! I grew up in a small farm community in Central Illinois and my maternal grandparents worked the land in just the way you describe. Both my mother and grandmother had gardens that encompassed an acre or more and my grandparents also had an orchard, pigs, cattle and chickens. Milk, eggs and meat came from right outside the door, while fruits and vegetables were enjoyed in season *and* throughout the winter due to my grandmother’s prodigious canning abilities. I loved wandering through the smoke house, gazing up at the sugar-cured hams that dangled from twine looped over the rafters, and delighted in being the first in the hen house every morning to collect the eggs.
One of my strongest childhood memories is of watching a litter of pigs being born and marveling at the fact that each came in its own ‘ziplock bag.’ 😉 My grandparents got a good chuckle out of *that* observation…..
Thank you for this wonderful harbinger of things to come!!
“Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.” Rainer Maria Rilke
My dear friend. You have just written a mini-blog post on this comment page. Now go write a longer one on your blog! I’m glad we can share similar memories.
We spent a lot of time in North Georgia. Unfortunately, the old-fashioned ways had started to disappear. My grandfather did have a country store with a potbellied stove. Men played checkers on the porch. That was very early in my childhood.
My second cousin Michael Wallace plays in a band called The Fiddleheads–bluegrass with a contemporary twist. Regionally successful. You can find a post about them under the “Creatives” section. Have a listen:
(The above links to their album “Good-by LA.”)
Well, it will snow here on Monday night! That must mean you will be buried again!
Thanks for Rilke! So appropriate. Most of all, thank you for friendship!
Thanks for linking me to this. I enjoyed the read. Love how you capture the overall “feel” of the south that makes it so special. Best wishes going forward!
Thanks, Dave, for connecting to my blog. I so much appreciate your career support and friendship when I first moved to Virginia. All best, Catherine
Catherine, this post was like music to my ears! My urge to play in the dirt is almost unbearable by now, and once the rain stops and I get caught up on school work, that is where I shall be! Beautiful, beautiful blog!
Here’s to a beautiful garden this spring! Thanks for reading!
What a beautiful tribute to family traditions and heartfelt memories. I love this post. 💕 I heard many of these from my Depression era grandparents…the curling bacon was a new one to me.
We do attempt, in our own way, to recreate some of their way of life. That’s a really good thing. ☺
My profound thanks for your comments. Although a short outtake, this is the heartbeat of my current book (almost finished). It grew out of reader response to my posts. Any author highly values readers who take time to offer feedback. In effect, reader response drives the narrative. : )
Reading through your memories of land really lived, it’s almost touching to acknowledge our small urban efforts at recapturing in some “….small ways, solidarity with the earth”. I’m city (cities) born and bred, and you may have finally convinced me to try out a few pots of kitchen herbs on the outdoor terrace!
Give it a shot! I’m trying to figure out shade gardening with a fairly recent move. Tracking sunlight for herbs–now that is my next yard mapping journey. And then there is the farmers market 1/2 mile away. ; )
Let me know how it goes: “Kitchen Gardening under the Italian Sun” (Container Style)
I’ll let you know – it’s a full blown project as I really have to start on square zero 🙂
I love this story. I long to live in this manner, but I’m of the rather lazy era of today. I have over the years gardened, made jam and chutney, bottled vegetables, gathered garden and wild fruits and nuts, even wild salads, but never consistently. This is the hardest part, living this way day in day out. I admire it so much.
Given the pace of today, if we partially return to our garden roots–it’s a good, healthy experience. Your comment means the world to me!
This was so lovely. Many of that folk lore traveled down to the piney woods of East Texas. So did that “they never considered themselves poor. “We had land, a house, a garden, a cow, a mule, a hog or two, and church. Most of all, we had each other.” Many left the land to earn a living and provide their families a “better” life in the city, but so many kept that deep urge and desire to feel dirt under their nails even as they lived in the suburbs.
I think you are right: ” Everywhere people grope for the comfort of a rural past.”
Enjoyed this read a great deal
Thank you for such a lovely comment. This made my day. I am delayed at the moment answering responses. However, that does not diminish my #gratitude.