Mother and Grandmother fell for the great pressure cooker craze when it hit the South. But our neighbor taught us they might not be totally safe. Continue reading
You are about to read a letter that was written seventy years ago. To me it is a priceless document and a piece of history, both of my family, of my country, and the entire world. V-J Day was August 14, 1945. After suffering the devastating effects of two horrendous atomic bombs, Japan surrendered. World War II was over. Until I read this letter that was sent to my mother and grandmother by their former neighbor, I had never really comprehended how servicemen felt when they received the news that they had lived through a seemingly endless war. Continue reading
Last time we talked, I told you about how my grandmother outfoxed my ambitions to be a queen. Well, she wasn’t the only one who knew a thing or two about children.
The story is often told in our family of “Grandfather’s Miracle”. I am told that I crawled early, walked early, and got around with a single-minded speed that could be pretty unnerving. But apparently one day I simply woke up, went back to crawling, and would have nothing more to do with walking. Continue reading
I’ve been a little shaky in my resolve to come back here: after all, it’s been torn down for years. It’s all tract homes now, pretty and rural, but still…. They should have left it the way it was, the way it was when we had fun here. When we worked here. When we couldn’t wait to unfasten the latch and see our tiny fluff-balls of chicks. Continue reading
My great-grandmother lived during a time of great injustice. Slavery was practiced in the South; child labor was rampant in Northern factories. As the daughter of slave owners, she was too young at the time of the Civil War to comprehend all … Continue reading
My grandmother’s health took a downturn when she was in her forties, and the doctor ordered her to bed for almost six months. Dear Grandfather was beside himself. My mother took over many of the household duties and swore that was why she was such a good cook. But my poor grandfather felt helpless.
“What can I do?” he would plead, but there seemed to be nothing to do but what he was already doing.
Then one day he had an idea.
My mother was looking out the back door when Grandfather creaked open the metal arched gate to the back yard with a gorgeous pale yellow jasmine plant in his arms.
“Where’re you gonna put it?” My mother asked.
“Outside your mother’s window, so she can smell it all day long.”
He placed it just so, asking Grandmother if she could see it better here or there – sort of like an optometrist appointment. And after a half hour’s work and many anguished questions through the screen from my grandmother, the jasmine stood tall, proud, staked and fertilized just outside her window. She enjoyed the scent that came in on the breeze and the beautiful blossoms. Grandmother always swore it helped her recover.
This success went to my grandfather’s head. He had discovered a way to satisfy a very basic human need – the need for beauty. He was on a roll. Every bedroom – all two of them – had to have something sweet-smelling outside the windows. For my mother and father’s room, it was honeysuckle. What heaven! Then he attacked every other window in our little house, digging and planting and rearranging and paying visits to the neighbors to see if they would mind letting him have a cutting from an admired plant. He became a regular at the nursery. If “frequent shopper” rewards had existed back then, he would have been able to buy a new car.
He moved past the search for intoxicating scents and on to the aesthetics of gardening. Every window smelled good; now it had to have a beautiful view. More huffing and puffing and planting ensued. When my grandmother was up and around again, she decided that what was inside could help what was outside. To accent the yellow-blooming jasmine, she brought in yellow and white flowers with a long trail of ivy and put them in a milk-glass vase by the window to tie the two together.
Under the front windows was a stand of hydrangea. These she doctored with vinegar or lime to change the acidity of the soil and thereby the color of the blooms. As time went on, she had a multicolored group of the loveliest flowers in the neighborhood. And she could enjoy them from the kitchen window.
Their philosophy of gardening and decorating hinged on a deep-rooted love of nature that came from living in quiet country places blessed with lush vegetation, fresh air and abundant wildlife. Growing up in a naturally beautiful environment gave them sights into beauty that otherwise could take many years to learn.
I still think of my childhood home and the example set for me there, and at my own home there is something I love to see outside every window but one.
I’m working on it….
Modern methods of changing hydrangea color can be found at Gardenista.
Better Homes and Gardens has lovely ideas for planting window boxes.
Southern Living has a great list of the best spring flowers to plant.
For windowsill gardens, Better Homes and Gardens has good ideas on that, too.
For color theory in flower gardening, take a peek at House and Garden Television.
Text copyright ©Jill Teresa Farmer, 2015
I had always helped my mother and grandmother hang out the wash. By “help” I mean handing them the clothespins and singing “Bringing in the Sheets”, my mistaken rendition of the old hymn “Bringing in the Sheeves”. At least I was on key. How fresh everything smelled from clean country air!
I loved this small chore so much that I farmed myself out to help the neighbors. Across the street lived Mrs. Johnson. Having a grown son who lived in another town made her a bit lonely for small companionship, so she happily accepted my “assistance”.
Hers was one of those old clotheslines made up of a “T” of hollow metal tubes. But it wasn’t as drab as it sounds, as a beautiful yellow-blooming vine twined across one end. It was probably that vine that drew other lodgers to the clothesline. Every year a bird would build a nest in one arm of that end post, lay her eggs, and go through all the avian motions of raising a tiny family.
Now there is one hitch to all this: birds are easily disturbed by humans, especially mother birds. And we needed that clothesline. But Mrs. Johnson was a nature lover like the rest of us, and she knew the difficulties all new mothers face. So we started hanging out the wash – in the house. We draped towels and clothes over every available waterproof surface. But that still left the sheets. Where on earth would we put those?
We would have made any onlooker very curious. First Mrs. Johnson would take a delicate pinch of snuff to steel her nerves. Then we would peer around the back screen door. Was she home? We would hold our breath – did you hear a chirp? Was that a flutter at that end of the clothesline? Maybe we can’t see her for the vine. Better stand here a minute to be sure.
Once we were convinced she was away from home, we would tiptoe out and hang out the wash in mute silence, using hand signals for “another pin, please”, and the frantic one for “Here she comes – get back in the house!” We used only the end of the clothesline farthest from the birds, and many a sheet that would have dried wrinkle-free was ironed because it had to be scrunched up to fit on a tiny section away from the little nursery.
Afterward we would sit on the screened-in back porch in happy satisfaction, sipping ice tea with plenty of sugar. As the days went by, we were treated to a view of nest material hanging out of the pole, small eggs, the sound of little cheeps, then a tiny beak or two. Then flying lessons. Then, the big day – the little family would be raised and the nest deserted.
Despite the strain it had been on our nerves, it was always sad when the abandoned nest held no more life. We would change back into our off-season routine. No more wet clothes over the back of the Johnson kitchen chairs. Everything could go right out on the line. We could laugh and sing as we worked our way down to the end of the old rope.
But at the end of every laundry session, Mrs. Johnson would cast a wistful eye at the end of the clothesline. I knew what she was thinking, for I was thinking the same: “I hope they’re happy, wherever they are.”
From Mrs. Johnson and the wonderful women like her, I learned reverence for all God’s creation, and that chores shared with those you love are not really chores at all. She taught me that we can all peacefully coexist with just a few concessions, seeing things from the other’s point of view, a lot of consideration for others, and, if necessary, a pinch of snuff.
Text copyright © Jill Teresa Farmer 2015. All rights reserved.
The names in this true story were changed to protect privacy. And it’s a shame – “Mrs. Johnson” was a lovely lady and a real character. I was privileged to have her in my life.
A family reunion and a platter of corn on the cob earned me a reputation as a terrible dinner guest. Maybe I was, but in my defense I was only three or four years old at the time and my social graces were limited. Nevertheless, you would have thought I’d managed to violate every code of Southern honor and Emily Post rule of etiquette that ever existed. But maybe I’d better tell you what happened. Continue reading
Our home was surrounded by trees and flowers – a bed of hydrangea and snowball bushes rimmed with a ruffle of pink phlox, a wisteria vine so thick I could use it as a seat, fragrant jasmine and honeysuckle outside the bedroom windows, and a long line of redbud trees down the side of the house. A huge shade tree in the front yard made a wonderful place to play, and a beautiful, thick hedge rimmed the back yard. But the one plant everyone remembered best was my grandmother’s tiger lily.
The tiger lily bloomed each year in its special place by the back door. It was a sort of family treasure, a little piece of beauty that only the family saw. I would sit on the back steps and just bask in the glory of the soft air and the loveliness of those few perfect petals.
When we moved to a new home, my mother continued the tradition. Right under my bedroom window, if you bent down low and knew where to look, was a patch of tremulous, pink, heart-shaped blooms – a beautiful bleeding heart plant.
My best friend’s father was a horticulturist. At their home, in its splendid, creamy glory, was a gardenia. He took us on regular viewings (even though it was right outside the front door) and explained to us how delicate the petals were. We wouldn’t have touched one for all the money in the world. Then he would get into the more technical aspects, such as soil acidity, and our eyes would glaze over. But we got the idea – Mother Nature has all sorts of complications and demands, and we’d better respect them. We could end up living in a desert if we didn’t play by her rules.
It seemed that everyone I loved had that one special flower that defined who they were. Name a flower, and I will come back with the name of the person I associate it with. The agonizing wait for the plants to bloom and the joy of their blossoming are memories I treasure to this day. What a wonderful thing to give a child, a thing of beauty to be anticipated and then reveled in. How marvelous to have one special thing, no matter how inexpensive, to provide you with joy and beauty.
Through these stunning flowers my mother and grandmother taught me that life is a cycle. I learned the value of patience, of waiting for things of value. Never give up in the dead of winter – Spring is coming!
Text copyright 2015 by Jill Teresa Farmer
Some of the happiest outings of my parents and grandparents and I were treks in the woods. Sometimes it was a trip that ended in the Davy Crockett National Forest, where we walked under the many different types of pine trees and competed to see who could name the species first. I loved the “loblolly” pine. Who wouldn’t with a name like that? Then we’d rest on a bench and unpack our lunch of ham sandwiches, Fritos and Dr. Peppers.
Often we’d go to the woods for a different purpose – to get humus (not the edible hummus!), the wonderful soil that is produced by decaying leaves. Rich in nutrients and marvelous in texture, it is perfect for flowerbeds. Instant naturally composted topsoil! We’d bring our bucket and shovel and set out driving down the back roads, eyes peeled for side roads and a promising stand of thick trees and healthy undergrowth. All the while we’d be watching carefully for the “Posted, No Trespassing” signs that we often encountered. We knew to steer clear of them, especially the homemade ones with a rifle sketched underneath misspelled words. “Trespassers will be shot on sight” was also effective.
But it would always end in a good tramp in the woods, as we carried our bucket, shovel and Field Guide to Wildflowers. You never knew, after all, when you might spot something you’d never seen before. Soon we’d be shoveling a bucketful of rich earth, inhaling that wonderful fragrance that is so dear to the heart of every country lover.
The biggest thrills of these trips were the wildflowers we encountered. I still remember my first Jack-in-the-pulpit. And of course there were always the beautiful Texas bluebonnets that lined the highways. Indian Paintbrush was another favorite. There were so many. And if we hit a snag on naming one, my grandmother would whip out the wildflower guide, lick one long elegant forefinger, and turn the pages until she found it. Then she’d carefully annotate the description with the date, time, and place we’d first spotted it. Everyone would stumble over the Latin pronunciation of the names until my father could bear it no more. He’d take over and carefully pronounce the long, scientific name.
The most curious of all was one singular tree that grew in the woods, near the side of the road. We never understood why someone hadn’t dug it up and carried it off as a garden trophy long before. It was a Grancy Greybeard. Sound familiar? I didn’t think so. They tell me that up North it is called a Fringe Tree. In spring it is a small tree covered with lacy white blooms. The car would fill with “oohs”s and “aahh”s whenever we’d pass it.
Back then we lived among such a profusion of trees and flowers that it never occurred to us that we might be upsetting the balance of nature by taking home a bouquet of wildflowers and a handful of pine cones. Who knew that one day, in our lifetimes, these things would become endangered by their very admirers?
Once home, my father and grandfather would man the shovels and work the humus into the flowerbeds under the watchful eye and direction of my mother. My grandmother would be making the ice tea – plenty of lemon and sugar, please – and getting ready for the best part of the day: a long time sitting on the front porch, aching pleasantly from digging, talking to gathering neighbors about what we’d seen, passing around the Wildflower Guide for everyone to admire all those dates and check marks. I would always be trying to make an arrangement or a daisy chain as the family dog pushed her nose into the blooms, trying to get the attention she’d missed while we were gone.
Those were happy days.
Text copyright 2015 by Jill Teresa Farmer. All rights reserved.