Archive for April, 2012

An Uncut Patch of Buttercups

April 22, 2012

I clip the ipod shuffle to the frayed neckline of one of my oldest son’s threadbare tee shirts. I’ve stolen the shirt from his drawer. The sleeves are cut off and the faded gray form hangs loose on me, great for catching a breeze as it blows through.  I secure the ipod ear buds, slide the power button and feel the beat from Dwight Yoakam’s White Cadillac travel from my head to my feet. I rock across the front porch on my way to meet my nemesis, the red troy built push lawnmower. I prime the machine and pull the start cord. The mower roars to life and my battle with the grass and my exercise plan begins.

I hate walking a track, riding a bicycle to nowhere, or sweating on a treadmill. I want to know, right away, that the work on my muscles is providing a reward I can see. I’ve found that cutting the grass gives me some instant gratification, an increased heart rate, and a neatly manicured yard.

Bruce looks at me and shakes his head. It’s the ipod. He thinks I’ve gone all-teenager on him. He doesn’t own an ipod or anything with ear buds.  He’s a retired mechanic with a lawn maintenance and mulching business. The sound of his machines provides a melody only his ears can hear. He likes being able to pick out anomalies in motor sounds or just listen to a gentle smooth-running purr. The ipod may speak teenager to him, but our teenage years are well behind us.

We met when I was sixteen, a senior in high school. He was older than me, already graduated and working. He took me to my prom in his ’76 Ford Pick-up. We slow danced to Bob Seger on the radio in my mother’s kitchen.  Life was big, our future endless. Together, we could accomplish anything.  Some thirty years later, we find togetherness in yard work.

My mower is not self-propelled, and it takes me four hours to cut the entire yard. I usually break the work up into smaller parts during the week. At the end of seven days, it’s time to start over again.  Mowing would be easy if the task ahead of me was all flat ground, but we have some killer hills. I sweat and my legs burn.

Bruce takes the weed eater and heads to the steep bank at the front of the property nearest the highway. He cuts the steepest hills and follows behind me at a covert and safe distance to catch my misses. I’ve told him he’s not allowed to direct my exercise plan or my mowing. He’s a perfectionist; I’m not.

I head to the backyard and begin mowing rows back and forth, under the clothesline and around the outdoor wood burning furnace, all the way to the garden gate and just to the opening of the tin roofed shed. I move the youngest boy’s bicycle and prop it against the picnic table. Buttercups are tall and bright in the yard. Their height makes my visual track easy to distinguish. The right side of the yard where I’ve cut is all short grass and green, the left side, uneven and tall with thousands of yellow dots. Creedence Clear Water Revival sings Bad Moon Rising as I turn the corner to the side yard, mowing between the lilac and mock orange bushes, around the peonies and under the snowball bush. The slope in the yard is higher here and I work harder.

We used to listen to CCR when we camped by the river after we were first married. Fire-roasted hot dogs on sticks, Proud Mary rolling from the radio,  and star gazing outside a pitched tent was all we needed or wanted. We were the only two people in the world.

My legs begin to wobble and my throat is parched. I shut off the mower and grab my water bottle from the steps leading to the shed. I go in search of some shade to cool off a bit. As I round the corner of the house I meet Bruce. He’s leaning against the shaded wall, drinking from his own bottle of water. I join him and the two of us rest and wipe sweat from our faces.

My ipod switches to Bob Seger’s We’ve Got Tonight, the first song we ever danced to. I smile and take one of the ear buds out, placing it in Bruce’s ear. He smiles back, remembering. He takes my hand and leads me to a small patch of uncut buttercups in the front yard, and the two of us slow dance to a memory.

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Bring Your Camera

April 18, 2012

“Come with me to deliver this load of mulch,” Bruce said last night after supper.

I never know what our trips will bring. He doesn’t usually ask me along; so I know when he does invite me, there’s something he wants me to see.

“Bring your camera,” he added as I walked toward the front door.

The dump truck is an International road tractor. You need a ladder to climb up into the thing, but once there, you survey the world on your side from a high vantage point.  Bruce started the engine and pulled out of the driveway.  We bumped along Rt. 250 toward the foot of Afton Mountain. At Rockfish Gap Country Store, we took a left onto Old Turnpike Road. It’s a gravel road I’ve never traveled. On our right was an old factory with abandoned cinderblock buildings, peeling tin roofed structures, loading docks with bay doors rusted shut, old equipment smothered under weeds and vines, and off in the distance stood a tall, brick smoke stack.

Bruce stopped the truck next to the Realtor’s For Sale sign. “I wonder what this used to be,” he said.

“I don’t know, but it sure is a mess,” I answered.

He’s been looking for a little piece of land to move his mulch business to. He needs a place where a tractor trailer can get off the main road easily, turn around, and dump the load.

“I’d love to have it if the price was right,” he said.

“Oooh no,” I said. “There’s too much to clean up here and you don’t know what that factory made. It may be one of those situations where the EPA has to get involved, asbestos clean up, lead based paint, underground oil and gas tanks. Can you imagine what a mess that would be? How much money you’d have pour into it? And that would be after you bought the property.  You can just put this idea right out of your head,”  I stated with crossed arms.  My tone must have sounded firm enough, because he pulled back out onto the road mumbling something about “just a thought.”

The road was narrow and the truck is big and wide. I was glad not to have met any cars coming. They would have had to back up, or pull over if they’d met us.  The Blue Ridge mountains rose to our right. We were so close to the foot of the range that we could see individual trees where the slope graduated upward. Spring hay in the pastureland between us and the mountain waved under the breeze. A fence stretched along the roadside with rails arranged like clasped gray fingers. The sun had dipped below the mountain and the warm spring air had begun to cool.

I lifted my camera when I saw three deer standing in the field adjacent to the truck, but the side mirror obstructed my shot and I put the camera back in my lap.  “If you wanted me to take pictures,” I said, “we should have come back later in the car.”

“Keep your britches on,” Bruce said. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

We traveled for another two or three miles before making a sharp left and climbing a steep driveway. The road surface was littered with large loose gravel and good sized pieces of crystal quartz. I could hear them hit the bank as the truck rolled over them and they shot out from under the tires. The driveway was rutted from rain and we bounced from side to side in the truck seat. I hoped this realignment of my brain was worth it.

At the crest of the hill, spread out before us, was the acreage of our destination, a flat, terrace of spring green dotted with hot pink and white azalea bushes under weeping willow trees. The view of the mountains was crisp and clean. My intake of breath was audible. Bruce looked over at me and smiled. He pulled up beside an old weathered gray barn with a rusted tin roof. It leaned back against a tree, tired from years of holding farm equipment and bales of hay.

The farm house was circa 1920, a non-descript two story brown dwelling with square white pillars holding up the porch roof. I was not impressed with it.  What caught my eye was the small rock house to its right. It was quaint and old, probably dating back before the Civil War. The mortar around the rock was rough placed and the craftsman had taken something like a stick and traced a line in the mortar around each stone.  We have many rock walls, pillars and buildings in Albemarle County, but I had never seen one made like this. The roofline had been changed at one time to add height to the cottage, and the structure had a later addition, crafted by a different rock mason. The lines were missing. The two windows facing us were stained glass. The door was a wide paneled mahogany with a white porcelain knob.    “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“Thought you’d like it,” Bruce said as he tipped the dump body and unloaded the mulch.

The owners of the property had been spreading the last load of mulch Bruce had brought and came over to the truck to hand him a check. Bruce is not shy.  “She’d like to see the rock cottage,” Bruce said motioning to me with his thumb.

“Sure, come on in,” the woman said. “I’d love to show it to you.  As much work as I did to the place, I like to brag about it.”

And it was lovely, with its original hardwood floors, exposed beam ceilings, stone fireplace and walnut mantle. She had sanded the wood to its original burnished finish and was in the process of taking the layers of paint off the inside rock surface of one wall. A huge high four poster bed sat in a corner of the front room near the fireplace.  I had my camera in my hand as I walked through the cottage admiring the renovations that brought the original look back to the building. I didn’t take any photographs though.

We thanked the owners for the tour and climbed back into the truck. “I could stand there and feel myself transported back in time,” I said to Bruce.

“Why didn’t you take any pictures?” He asked.

“I felt funny taking pictures of the inside of someone’s house with them standing right there,” I said. “Like maybe they’d think I was casing the joint.”

Bruce laughed. “I think you look pretty trustworthy,” he said. “Besides, they have my name, phone number and address. You wouldn’t get very far before you were caught.”

“Oh well,” I said. “I guess I missed out. I’ll just have to keep the pictures I have in my head.”

We left the way we came. As we turned at the bottom of the hill, I pointed and called out, “Wait! Stop! Look at this.”

“Oh yeah, I saw it the last trip,” Bruce said. “I thought you had seen it.”

“No, I missed it. Pull over,” I said. “It’s so sweet. I want to get out and take some pictures.”

He pulled over in front of another stone cottage and let me slide out. He drove the truck down a ways from the cottage and waited for me.

The building looked to be constructed by the latter mason who had added onto the house we’d just come from up on the hill. This rock was smooth on the surface with neat mortared edges. The small entryway was framed by a pillared arch. Two round-top windows on either side of the front door reflected the yard’s white dogwood trees in their dark surface. A rock chimney rose from a roof shingled in weathered gray cedar shakes. A neat stack of firewood sat near the front door. Its small split logs ready to warm the little house.

To the right side of the cottage, a retaining wall made of the same rock rose behind the building with a set of stairs climbing along its side to access an upper level door that lead to a room that had been dug out of the hillside above.  The door mirrored the same rounded arch as the porch and windows.

Bordering the tiny front yard, a rail fence stood next to an old fashioned climbing red rose, its fragrance perfumed the evening air as no hybrid rose could.

I stood staring at the cottage for a long time after I took my photographs. I imagined its interior inhabited by elves or fairies. I smelled the aroma of meat stew simmering over an open flame in the fireplace. I tasted buttery cornbread cooked in an iron skillet. A grandmother rocked in her chair, reading to a child from a storybook written long ago.

“You alright?” Bruce called from the truck.

I put the camera into my pocket and walked down the hill to the dump truck. “I want that little house,” I said.

When we got back to the old factory, Bruce pulled to the side of the road again and stopped. “You want to take some pictures?” he asked.

I looked at him and frowned. “No,” I said. “I thought we decided against this.”

“We?” he asked.

“I’d rather have that cute little rock house back there,” I said smiling, my arms crossed over my chest again.

Bruce crossed his own arms and smiled back at me. “There’s no ‘For Sale’ sign there,” he said.

Grandma’s Lilacs

April 8, 2012

 

I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD

  APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the   dead land, mixing
Memory and desire,   stirring
Dull roots with   spring rain.
Winter kept us warm,   covering
Earth in forgetful   snow, feeding
A little life with dried   tubers.

–T. S. Eliot

 

 

 

I round the corner of my house with the lawn mower this evening and I’m met with an overwhelming sense of my grandmother. Her lilacs are blooming and their scent brings her right to my face. Years ago, she planted the bushes from several slips her mother had given her. She told me the story of the lilac’s trip east. She carried them with their roots wrapped in wet newspaper and as soon as she and Grandpa arrived home, they dug holes and planted the slips in the ground, one at the back corner of the house, one next to the back porch, and one at the pig pen. She planted them in the fall, when they could set their roots and rest over winter. By spring, she said, they were settled and ready to grow. Her lilacs are tall and full now, their roots run deep.

I stop mowing. The soft green leaves of the lilac press into my face; the sweet smell that always reminds me of my grandmother envelops me. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and stand with the lawn mower vibrating in my hands.

I remember her clipping bunches of the blossoms when I was a little girl. She’d set them in a quart mason jar on the kitchen table, filling the house with their perfume. I’d press my face into their lavender blooms then too.

“There’s no better spring fragrance,” she’d said. “When you get old enough to have a house of your own with a yard, I’ll give you a slip from my lilac.”

Sometimes, I helped her weed, prune and tend her perennial and annual beds. I handed her the clippers or trowel. I’d run to fill the watering can with water from the well.  I got my knees and fingernails dirty digging in the warm, rich soil. We knelt, side by side in reverent homage to the gifts of the land.

I wanted a slip from all her flowers. I imagined the yard of my grown self. It looked just like hers, the lilacs in exactly the same spots, the iris in a bed out front, surrounded by river rock, the mock orange at each corner of the property, their sweet fragrance carried to the center of my home by a spring breeze.  On Mother’s Day, I’d take out the hanging baskets from my earth floor basement around back of the house and fill them with potting soil, then add the salmon colored sultana, water their roots, and hang the baskets from eye hooks my grandpa would place around my front porch for me. My imagination did not wander far from the reality I knew as a child at my grandmother’s. My mother and I lived in an apartment with a parking lot instead of grass. We didn’t have flower beds like Grandma.

“I’ll put them on my kitchen table,” I said to her so many years ago. “Just like you.”

She died in September of my twenty-fifth year. Her body was planted in the ground where her roots could rest through the winter.  My husband and I bought her house, the only house I felt attached to growing up. The home and yard of my imagination came to me from my grandmother’s nurturing hands. Her lilacs became mine, her perennial and annual beds, mine to tend. Her legacy lived on through me.

The first spring she was gone, I clipped and carried a bouquet of our lilacs in a mason jar to her grave site. I wanted to bring a piece of home to her and a sense of peace to myself. The two of us visited a long time there in the cemetery.  I gave her the news of her snowball bush, the forsythia and japonica in the front yard and the bridal wreath out back. I told her how the peonies had sent up their shoots between our house and the Thomas’, and I let her know that the frost had not killed the cherry tree blooms. There would be pies cooling on her windowsill come summer.

My garden tools live where hers did. My hanging baskets swing from the eye hooks placed there by my grandfather. The scent of mock orange wafts through the house on a spring breeze the second week of May each year, and the lilacs bloom right on schedule.

Twenty-six years have passed since Grandma died, and on this Easter weekend, her spirit rises in me. I cut off the lawnmower and go to the basement in search of my clippers. I cut the blooms from her lilacs, fill a mason jar with cold water from her well, and place her gift to me on our kitchen table.

“I’m Sorry”

April 1, 2012

With my tax documents on the front seat of the CRV this morning, I drove to town. Mrs. Gordon was waiting for me at her apartment complex north of the city. She’s an elderly lady who retired from GE years ago, but prepares taxes to supplement her Social Security.

I hate the main drag north of town with its thirty traffic lights and twelve lanes, its strip malls hugging the highway, its allotment of daily accidents, so I try to avoid it. I took the off ramp from Rt. 250 onto Barracks Road. That’s where several of  the homeless people panhandle and sleep under the overpass.  The city clear cut the trees last year to discourage the vagrants from gathering in the undergrowth. The city put up no trespassing signs. The homeless population has decreased from this spot, but they are not extinct.

As I slowed at the traffic light there at the end of the off ramp, I noticed an older man with a slight frame. He wore a white goatee and his hair was a little long and tangled. He stood with his cardboard sign. “Trying to get to N.C.” it read. “Please help.”  I’d not seen him before. He was dressed in faded blue jeans and a brown button down shirt. He had no backpacks or duffle bags, only a fine tremor as he stood holding his small, square sign.

I pressed the button to lower my window and handed him a five dollar bill.  He took the money and said something to me, but I couldn’t hear him over the traffic sounds. He smiled though, and put the five in his front pants pocket. I looked up to see if the light was green and saw a city policemen walking toward the old man. I pointed out my window at the officer so the older man wouldn’t be surprised. I rolled up my window and started to pull away, the light had turned green.

The policeman held up his hand, stopping me, and motioned for me to roll my window back down.  I did.

“You know you are breaking the law,” he said, frowning at me.

“No, I didn’t.” I replied.

“He’s trespassing,” the policeman said, pointing to the old man, “and you are breaking the law by giving him money.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“He’s trespassing, you’re breaking the law, and you’re sorry,” the officer said, shaking his head and turning from me to the homeless man. I felt dismissed and pulled away.

Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who have quick come-backs. I never do. As I drove toward Mrs. Gordon’s apartment, my anger grew. I could feel its heat move from my stomach up to my chest and into my red face before my eyes began to water. I pounded the steering wheel and yelled inside the car for no one to hear, “I’m not sorry for breaking the law. I’m not sorry for giving someone five dollars that I worked for and can decide who and who not to give it to. I’m not sorry for rolling down my window to try to help someone.”

After dropping off my taxes and hugging Mrs. Gordon, I drove back the way I came. I hoped to see that police officer. I wanted to stop and talk with him. I wanted him to know how I felt.

I was ashamed of myself.   I wanted to let him know from my mouth what a disgrace I think it is to make a law that forbids someone from asking for help; and what a disgrace it is to make a law that forbids someone from trying to help. I realize he has to uphold the law, but I wanted to see a bit of compassion on his face. I wanted him to understand.  I wanted him to be sorry too. I wanted to know if he had ever been trying to get somewhere and needed someone to help him.