Saturday, April 28, 2012

Garden notes

Take a deep breath.  What’s that you smell?  Could it be gardenias?  That is what I smell, anyway.  The three shrubs in my garden are in full bloom, and their fragrance infuses the early morning and evening air.  It’s my favorite flower scent, above roses even.  I can catch a whiff on a light breeze and my mind wanders to things tropical like beaches, blue water, and coconut ice cream topped with Kahlua and served in a hollowed-out pineapple.  

Gardenias are staples in Southern gardens.  My mother once told me about someone she knew from up north who wanted a gardenia corsage for a dance because she thought gardenias were exotic.  Mama thought that was so funny because being a Southern girl she knew by the end of the night that gardenia might still smell nice, but it would be wilted and brown.

This is the first year my gardenias have bloomed so prolifically. Usually they each have a few blooms, but this year they are all loaded down.  My husband and I planted them as a means of establishing bones in our garden.  Any garden book, magazine, or DIY show will tell you every garden needs good bones.  So for the first couple of years that is what I tried to do; make a skeleton for my garden.  First we laid a brick walk.  Well, it’s more like a patio.  We added some shrubs, some huge rocks, a low wooden fence, and a hollow tree trunk from a fallen tree.  The tree trunk eventually melted away so we replaced it with a claw foot bathtub, courtesy of my sister.

All my adult life I have wanted to have a cottage garden, and this year I am working hard to make it a reality.  My garden is too big for me to buy enough plants to fill it up at one time, so over the past few years I have bought and borrowed plants, adding them here and there until finally, this year I think it is going to happen.  My yellow coreopsis is finally blending in with my purple salvia.  My shrubbery, including pink fairy roses that were only about five inches tall when I planted them, have grown together in ways that give me perfect backdrops for my flowers, and secret nooks and crannies for staging an ornament of some kind (I do love a good garden ornament.)

So come on zinnias, cosmos, pentas, bachelor buttons, coneflowers, moonflowers, and everything else I’ve strained my back for this spring!  Take note of the good job the gardenias are doing and please follow suit.
There is still a month or so before I will see any real results in my garden.  Until then I will wait and enjoy, for the moment at least, my personal tropical vacation courtesy of my Southern garden’s gardenias.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Times have changed

I wish I could write like our grandparents did.  Especially the English ones, if you are of that lineage (like I sometimes like to pretend I am).  Lately I have been listening to a podcast of letters written by survivors of the Titanic .   When I think about the Titanic I can’t help but to think of images I’ve seen on screen of wealthy first class passengers strolling around on deck in their fine clothing, and dining in even finer fashion.  But the Titanic actually had more second and third class passengers than first class ones.  I am guessing these poorer people did not have the educational advantages we have today, yet to hear their letters you would think they held doctorates in creative writing.  Their accounts of their experience are so poignant I cry everytime I hear one.  Which is why I can only listen to a few a day or else I’ll have to break out the Cymbalta again.

But then again there is something about the Titanic in general that captivates me.  I feel an attachment to it for some reason.  Maybe it’s because my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island on the RMS Carpathia around the same time she rescued Titanic survivors.  I think about my grandmother’s experiences and know they mirror the same experiences of those ill-fortuned folks.  She made it safely, and if she had not I would not be here to tell it.

Still, that doesn’t explain why I can’t watch movies that take place in or below the water.  My Oldest Friend and Travelling Partner used to tease me relentlessly because I am afraid of the pool drain.  I have dreams of drowning, or someone else drowning.

I like to joke that in a previous life I was Edwin Charles “Fred” Wheeler, personal valet to George Washington Vanderbilt.  George and his wife were booked on the Titanic but changed their minds and did not sail.  Instead they sent Fred on with their baggage.  Fred drowned in the sinking.  George Vanderbilt built the Biltmore estate in North Carolina.  I visited there once and that same familiarity and unexplainable emotion I get when I think about the Titanic came over me inside the estate.

What does that reveal about my personality?  The fact that I imagine I was once the valet to one of the richest men in America instead of actually once being the richest man in America.  Too often I find I sell myself short. I must have been absent the day the self-confidence lesson was taught.

Anyway, don’t think me strange, or evil for thinking about reincarnation.  I can’t say I believe in it 100%, but it is fun and interesting to think about.  It’s the stuff of a good story, one I wish I was talented enough to write.

This brings me back to the letters.  Why is it kids today have problems forming a complete sentence intelligibly, but those less educated of a hundred years ago wrote so eloquently?  Take a listen if you get a chance.  You can access the letters in the iTunes store under Podcasts.  Search for Titanic Letters, BBC Radio Ulster.  They are free.

To those who read my musings (i.e. ramblings), or my occasional columns in the paper, I am grateful.  I know I am not the most entertaining writer, or the most eloquent.  I know sometimes I border on the sappy.  But for you to take time out of your day to read the words I string together is both flattering and heartwarming to me.  As heartwarming as listening to those hundred year old words.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Life and Death

I share this today as I remember my father, my daddy, on the anniversary of the day of his death.  What I’m going to say may be painful for my family to read, so let this be fair warning.  I do not write it to invoke pain, but to demonstrate my point of view that the act of passing from this world into the afterlife isn’t always wracked with turmoil and grief.  It can be a peaceful, joyous journey.

There have been deaths in my family that were not so peaceful.  Deaths that came too soon, in my opinion.  I lost a 16-year-old niece from injuries she sustained in a car accident.  She was in a coma for a week, unable to say and hear her goodbyes.  That week gave us time to come to terms with her condition, but the loss hurt no less for it.  

A friend as close as a brother succumbed to cancer in his late 30s.  He suffered too long.  At the time I was overwhelmed with the birth of my son that I never visited or said good-bye and other important words.  It’s a regret I’ve learned to live with, but not forget.  At his funeral the first person I saw and went to for comfort was my oldest sister, Barbara.  Little did I know then that only one year later she would be the next person in my life to leave me for heaven.  

At the age of 43 Barbara’s earthly life ended due to complications arising from heart surgery.  She was in a coma for two months.  By what can only be described as a miracle straight from God she woke from her coma and was awake for a few weeks before she slipped away again and then forever.  My family was blessed for that short time of lucidity.  It gave us time to tell her goodbye even though we had every hope and belief she would recover.

I had a 24-year-old nephew snatched away in a tragic accident.  My brother-in-law suffered a massive heart attack just as he was getting ready for bed.  These were the hardest, I think.  No warning, just phone calls that they were gone.  Within six months of each other.  

So you see, when my 89-year-old father’s health started to decline rapidly I knew the inevitable was coming, but I had time to prepare.  I knew he lived a good life.  He was a good man, son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, and undecorated war hero.  He was the kind of man who never wanted to admit to being sick.  He was proud of his independence and worked until his health absolutely would no longer allow it.  He even had all of his own teeth, something he proudly told the hospital nurse when she asked him for his dentures.  

His illness, congestive heart failure, weakened him so he could not walk without assistance.  This was not a quality of life he was used to, even at 89 years of age.  I knew he would rather go and be with his daughter, and parents, and all of his brothers and sister who had gone before him.  I knew he was ready when he told me to watch out for my mother’s finances because he knew she was not of sound mind to do so.  I knew then he was preparing himself, because otherwise he would have never admitted such things.

He died on a Sunday.  I had been with him the night before and I noticed there was a change.  So the next day I decided on a whim to stop and pick up my mother and take her to the hospital that afternoon.  My mother had serious health problems of her own at the time that prevented her from sitting with him at the hospital so she was eager to go.  I think my sister, Merni, was there when we got there, or she had just left.  My brother, Julius, was there for certain.  Even though I offered to relieve him he stayed for a good while longer.  Julius has a sense about these things, too.  I truly had not intended to stay too long because I did not want to keep my mother out late, but I couldn’t leave either.  I could tell he was weaker than the night before and I just didn’t want to leave him alone.  I knew my other sister, Becky, would be there about 6:00, so I thought I could at least wait till she got there.  Eventually my brother did leave right about the time the supper tray was brought around.  

I remember there was a big baked chicken breast, a salad with a cherry tomato, and pears.  Daddy told me to take the chicken home to my dog.  He didn’t even touch it.  All he really wanted to eat was the “little tomato” (as he said) and the pears.  He had been talking pretty good and eating good too.  But then something changed so fast, like a finger snap.  He stopped talking. He kept using his fork, pointing at the pears with it.  I went to feed him some, but he had some in his mouth.  I told him to swallow that first, but he just keep chewing and pointing.  Then I could hear the congestion rumbling in his chest.  His breathing got a little more labored.  At almost this exact time his nurse came in to tell us he was going off duty.  He made an offhand comment that he didn’t like the way daddy’s breathing  sounded so he was going to call respiratory in to give him a treatment.  Our eyes met and I knew what he really meant.  Another nurse came in and there were low murmurs between them.  She asked me to step out in the hall with her.  When we did she told me that if there was anyone I needed to call I should do so right then.  

Have you ever had a dream where you are trying to dial a phone but your fingers keep hitting all the wrong buttons?  That is how I felt.  Somehow I managed to call Merni and Julius.  He was just walking in the door to his house after leaving us earlier.  I called my husband and then I left it to them to call everyone else.

All this time my mother was oblivious to what was going on.  I had no heart to tell her.  I just went back in the room and put on a happy face.  By then Daddy already had an oxygen mask on his face and his breathing was much labored.  He was lying on his left side, so I stood where he could see me and talked to him.  I have no idea what I said.  I’m sure it was not important.  I’m sure it was not what I should have said.  But here is where it happened, that little miracle that assured me it was going to be alright. 

You see, I was looking at Daddy, and he was looking at me, or so I thought.  Looking into his eyes I knew he was no longer fully in this world.  He would not look AT me.  He looked behind me, over my shoulder, above me, all around me and there was excitement, breathtaking awe in his eyes.  What did he see?  Was it the gates of heaven opening?  Did he see my sister?  I know she was there with us because I had asked her to be.  Let me digress for one moment.  Sometime earlier, maybe weeks, maybe days earlier, I had a dream about my sister.  She told me it would be the last time she could visit me in my dreams, but if I ever needed her to call her, and she would come.  Well, I needed her, and I called her, so I know she was there.

My daddy lasted about three hours from the time the nurse and I spoke in the hall.  In that time my entire family gathered at his bedside except for two family members who were out of town and could not possibly be there.  My sons and two of my nieces did not want to watch him die so they stayed in the hall.  My oldest son asked me to tell him “Hi”, so I did and Daddy smiled.  That is when I knew he was aware of us, his brood, and he knew he was a blessed man.

I watched him take his last breath.  It was an easy breath.  There was no discomfort, no fighting, no labor.  Through him God gave me life, and I was there with him, my hands on his knee, when his life returned to God.   Beauty lies in the irony.

But did his life end?  You see, as I have said before, I know Jesus and so did Daddy.  And Jesus said in John 5:24  “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.”

Daddy saw something that night; something awesome and exciting.  Was it The Light?  I don’t know if I believe in “The Light” as such.   I believe there is so much more than just a light.  What, exactly, I do not know because it is not of this world and my mind cannot imagine it.  But surely it must be more like a supernova. 

I also believe those who die quickly and without warning also see the awesomeness.  Because if a day is like a thousand years to God, couldn’t a split second be at the least like an hour?  I do not think God would deprive us of the wonderment.

I am not remiss to say I was relieved my father passed on when he did.  I was joyful for his victory.  God saved my daddy from further weakness, pain, and nursing homes.  He gave him a gentle, peaceful ending to a long life well lived.  It was so much like the poem by Ben King, Daddy loved to recite, a poem we used in his funeral program because it fit him so well.

“The tall pines pine,
The pawpaws pause
And the bumble-bee bumbles all day;
The eavesdropper drops,
And the grasshopper hops,
While gently the cow slips away.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

More than a few jellybeans

Easter Sunday.  I know Easter, I’m Catholic.  If anyone knows Easter it’s the Catholics.  I know the meaning. I know the solemnity. I know the joy.  I know Jesus.  I’ve cried for Jesus’s pain and suffering more than once this weekend.  He has been forefront on my mind.  But there are other things I have cried about this weekend as well.   Easter is full of memories of my mother, and I have missed her terribly these past few days.  I don’t know why I have missed her more now than I did at Christmas, but I have. 
I regret the years I disappointed her by not wanting to participate in the Easter morning egg hunt at Kamper Park.  I was too shy to pick up more eggs than the other children so she would have to pick them up for me.  She was so competitive when it came to the egg hunt.  I was not. I know it was embarrassing for her.

I miss being little and hunting for my Easter basket hidden somewhere in the bushes in the front yard.  Mama was queen when it came to making Easter baskets.  I would find mine wrapped in colored cellophane, as pretty as if it came from a store already assembled.  Of course there would be a slug or two that had taken up residence that would have to be plucked off before bringing it inside.   Under the cellophane and nestled in the basket would be Gold Brick eggs, and Heavenly Hash, and some Robin Eggs sprinkled about with some sticky jellybeans, among other things.  And it was all mine.  Years later, when she decided to make just one basket for the table for everyone to share, I would raid the front bedroom where she kept all the candy hidden till Easter and sneak a few of this or that.  She did not mind, she would just buy more.

I still buy the Gold Brick and Heavenly Hash for my table even though no one in my family really cares for it.  I like them, but mostly I buy them because she did, and I want to remember.

For many years Mama would make a lamb cake for Easter Sunday.  She used a special cake mold and once assembled she would cover it in coconut and use jelly beans for the eyes, nose and mouth.   Around the lamb would be green coconut and more jellybeans, as if they lamb was lying in a meadow surrounded by Easter eggs.   My sister, The Middle Child, made it this year as a tribute to Mama.  I remember the cake to be quite large, but she used the same mold and I was surprised at how small it actually is.  I must say my sister did a great job, down to the jellybean studded meadow, as evident by the picture above.  Tasty, too.

At some point the lamb cake gave way to strawberry pie.  Mama would make the kind of strawberry pie with 7-up in the mix.   I’ve been thinking of strawberry pies for more than a week now, so that is what I contributed to the meal.  Like Mama, I went a little overboard and made six pies.  She never made anything in small portions, and I think I’ve inherited that practice.  I don’t mind the leftover pie so much as I do the leftover 7-Up. Blech.

I miss the Easter egg hunt Mama would hold each year.  I think the egg hunt was something that truly made her happy.  She would be almost giddy talking about hiding the eggs.  I can still see her standing on the sidelines, yelling “GO” to send us on our way to collect plastic eggs, and laughing at us if we couldn’t find them.  You wanted to find them for the prizes they entailed.  Prizes like soap, toothpaste, toilet tissue, and money.   She would sit on the porch and call out numbers.  If you had the egg with the same number you got a prize, and she would fling the prize to you from across the porch.  The only thing I can equate it to is being at a Mardi Gras parade, begging for strands of plastic beads to be thrown my way, and hoping I get the ones with the big pearls and they don't hit me upside my head.  

Today I hosted Easter at my house.  My sisters and brothers and their families came, as well as my in-laws.  I count myself to be most fortunate to have two families to combine so well they will share a holiday.  The traditional food was served; lasagna, ham, deviled eggs, strawberry pie, sweet potato casserole.  I wanted to do something special to include Mama, but to have a hunt without her would feel like having a party and not inviting the one who most wanted to be invited.  Nevertheless, I wanted to keep a piece of this tradition alive so I gave everyone an egg with a special prize.  They just didn’t have to hunt for them.  And I didn’t fling the prizes.  Maybe I’ll do that next year.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cleaning days.

I HATE CLEANING!!!  It is a necessary evil, and I do it reluctantly and without joy.  I’m not talking about the daily spiff-ups you have to do to keep from looking like a hoarder.  I’m talking about the mopping the closet floor, washing down baseboards, dusting ceiling fans, cleaning windows, etc. etc. etc.  And I love a clean house, I do, I do. There was a time when would pay people to come in and clean my house.  Nothing was more relaxing than coming home on cleaning day to a shiny, clean house.  Ahh.  But with thinner paychecks and fatter bills the cleaning help had to go by the wayside. Drat.

I remember when I first got married and lived in a tiny apartment I could clean the whole place on a Saturday morning and still have time to spend the rest of the weekend as I liked.  Now I’m good to do it once and whenever and it might take a few days to get the whole house done.  In all honesty I only worry about the downstairs and leave the upstairs to the teenage boys who live there to keep it clean and tidy.   I have every confidence they do.  I hear the vacuum at least once a week and on occasion the oldest can be seen carrying a mop up the stairs.  I don’t know for sure how clean it actually is because I don’t go up there.  What I don’t see can’t hurt me. Right?

The one thing that does get me on a cleaning spree is an event at my house; birthday parties, holiday get- togethers, potential buyers.  This year I am hosting my whole and entire family at my house for Easter.  I offered because I want to do it, but secretly I needed an incentive to get this place in shape.  What was I thinking?

“Keep focused,” I keep telling myself.  “Think of how good it will feel when it is all done,” is another sale pitch my brain keeps telling me.  But here I sit instead, counting the hours I have left till Sunday when the crowd pours in.  An hour for the bedroom, and hour for the laundry room, an hour for the windows… yeah, I wish.

Oh, well, off I go to find more dirt to wash away. It truly will feel wonderful when it is all done. Especially since the next birthday party isn’t until September (insert winky face here).