Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Spot For Me

It’s very hard not to think spring when temperatures here in Tennessee are averaging ten degrees higher than normal. This is what my Grandmother would call a False Spring. No doubt before the end of March we’ll get whomped with chilly temps and at least one more snow.

Although, I look forward to it, the last few springs have been difficult. This time last year, I never would have imagined that I’d be ensconced in the house of my teen years in Mountain City, Tennessee. In fact, if had asked I’d have told you this would be the last place I’d be. Looks like the last place turns out to have been at the head of the line the whole time.

I’m trying very hard to concentrate on the possibilities this year and not the fear of slipping further behind in life. At this point there’s not a lot further back that I can slip so why not look ahead, find several points of possibilities to focus on and start working those muscles.

My Grandmother hated the fall. She said it reminded her of death, but I always found the fall season stimulating, with winter being the time of relaxing reward. Spring to me is preparation for summer, a time of enthusiasm and work.

So as winter winds down and spring begins to bloom, I plan. Foremost in my head is the focal point most easily attainable. I find myself in the mountains amidst what’s left of the Melungeon farmers, so I plant. Or rather plan to plant.

We no longer have a garden. Growing up, we always had a huge garden, using the fruits of that labor to feed ourselves. This used to be tobacco country, so this time of year we’d begin that laborious grind to pretty much little gain.

I always hated gardening. Much of it I think now stemming from the fruitless acreage of burley. It seemed to me a waste of time and energy. As a project in school one year, I recorded every man hour we spent growing the tobacco and used the crop financial yield to discover we made less than one penny an hour.

Of course, the government pays you not to grow tobacco now, and the years of growing that crop changed the rich hardy soil into mere mediocre dirt. Crops here in Johnson County aren't as hardy and plentiful as they once were and as a family, seemingly world wide, most of our gardens are now the local grocery store.

Dad still grows tomatoes and peppers, the back porch covered with plants. I’ve already taken him to Boone to get his staples. Near the French doors in the dining room he has little seedlings stretching toward the Sun, avoiding the terror of frost until they can be transplanted around the back porch, away from Jackson’s paws and urine.

As for me, I avoided gardening like the plague just as I did Nicholas Cage movies and shoving firecrackers into my eyes. I kept my yards neat, trimmed and green. Unless someone gave me something potted there were no plants. Even the pots would find a spot on the porch until they died from lack of intentional inattention.

It was February of the early ‘90s when I moved into to my wonderful little apartment in Rising Sun, Maryland. It was the bottom half of a two level building literally in downtown. I was across the street from the pharmacy and from my front porch I could see the main red light of old downtown.

The yard was tiny. It actually took me longer to clean up from mowing than mowing. It remained for the first two years plant less, with the exception of a rosebush in the corner Uncle Horace’s son had planted and a few stray tulips my cousin Linda hand planted when she lived there. Those tulips I happily mowed down rather than bother mowing around.

My upstairs neighbor was a wonderful old lady we called Miss Grace. I think she was the first and only tenant in the upstairs apartment since Horace converted what at one time was the family home. I adored her; a character that one day will turn up in something I write that no one will read.

After two years there Miss Grace’s health began to fail her. It became difficult, then impossible for her to maneuver the stairs. At one point I offered to change apartments with her, but she refused. I visited her every day, usually shortly after I got off work.

Sometimes she’d give me a call and ask me to come up and just sit with her. We’d watch TV while she chain smoked and we’d drink hot tea. She got to the point where even maneuvering around the apartment became difficult. She’d managed to sit at her kitchen table and look out the window into our tiny yard and enjoy her days watching the world use the sidewalk.

I asked her that fall if there was anything she wanted or needed that I could do for her. She took a drag off her cigarette and gazed out that window with this hopeful smile and said, “Yes.” She motioned to share her view and pointed. “Could you plant me some flowers out there on our side of the sidewalk? Something pretty with lots of colors that I can enjoy from here.”

How could I say no to that? So I borrowed a few flower cataloges from my cousin Debbie and let Miss Grace choose what she wanted, grumbling the entire time I planted a couple of dozen bulbs. I also gave her a brochure I got in the mail with an offer of six rose bushes, of which I allowed her to choose and grumbled planting the things knowing my back was to her but she could see me put them in the ground.

It made her so happy. In the spring and summer she would have “God’s color”, as she called our tiny row of tulips, roses and Canna, to look at from her little space in the window. I just smiled, knowing the work was done, and figuring a 3’ by 6” space of weeds wouldn’t kill me.

Miss Grace never got to look at her flowers. She passed away that winter. To be honest I’d forgotten all about her “God’s Colors” until they sprouted that spring. After I bawled like a baby for a few hours when the first tulip burst up, I decided to take special care of that little bed in her honor, knowing full well she’d being seeing those colors sitting at the window of heaven with God himself.

From there my garden was born. It kept expanding and expanding, until I could practically mow the yard with a pair of scissors. The roses, tulips and Canna became home to a bounty of unique and beautiful lisianthus, dianthus, edelweiss and a host of perennials that were gifts from friends or cuttings literally from friends all over the country, thanks to My Space.

It was my refuge. I was always looking for something new and a new spot to put it in. When I was stressed from work, yanking the weeds and pruning calmed me down. When I was depressed watering and just breathing in the scent lifted me. When I was happy, finding a way to nurse a poorly bloom into health made me joyous. I loved my garden so.

Then things changed. I moved and my garden of Grace and God’s color was quickly yanked up and mowed down. One plant was transplanted into my Aunt Irene’s yard, a cutting from my Aunt Mag’s “snowball bush” which was planted by my great great grandmother. It’s still there, finally blooming again last year for the first time since the transplant.

Now I’m here. My parents have their own flower habitat, which other than watering I have no privy to. I contented myself last year by weed eating and keeping the creek banks trimmed and neat, but there was one bed by the garage that my Mother never could get anything to grow in.

Mom is a Zinnia and Petunia sort of gal, as opposed to my being a Chinese Magnolia and Lantana guy. We both agreed this little bed was an eyesore, but it’s in front of where we park the cars so she was content to let it look bedraggled with a lone scrawny not quite a weed something growing there.

Then I found some dianthus on the cheap and tossed them in there without permission, just to keep from having to look at the dirt. To Mom’s shock, not mine, before long we had this incredible burst of color consuming that ugly space. We kept looking for more unique colors and by fall we had this breathtaking mound where ugly used to be.

Because of its placement in the house we actually had that lovely color up through the second, I repeat the second snow. Those little dianthus just refused to admit that it was winter. Even now, the blooms are all gone, but I’ll be darned if those babies aren’t still a beautiful green and so perky even Jackson can’t smash them down.

To my pleasure, Mom and Dad have consented to letting me have my own little space for Grace and God’s colors. I’m thrilled that after a long dry spell, I’ll have a little “piece of Earth” to quote the musical “The Secret Garden”. I’m even more thrilled at the spot that has been chosen for me.

In the back portion of the yard there are two trees, several hundred years old where the branch splits making a little island at the foot of the trees. Knowing many may not understand the term, a “branch” is what we Southerners refer to when talking about a steady trickle of water that empties into the creek.

This land, our part a little under an acre of what used to be my Grandparents 86 acre farm, is full of natural mountain springs, most beneath the ground. They tend to bubble up and run off creating what we call branches making natural divides in the land. This little spot, an oval shape of maybe fifteen square foot, is made by a hill causing the “branch” of the runoff to split before meeting again two hundred feet before it empties into the creek.

The split begins just before the two old trees, travels on both sides around them and then meets again creating this little mound that hasn’t really been taken care of since I was little. Oh the times my cousins and I had on that little mound. We climbed the trees, fought imaginary Indians, caught lightning bugs and at least one of us broke an arm climbing the trees. To warm my heart even further, it’s a little mound my mother and her seven siblings did the same thing on.

When we built the house on this little tract in 1972, on the exact spot Mom’s Grandparents house stood, my Aunt Faye gave her four Wisteria vines from her garden as a house warming gift. Mom planted them between the two trees. Time past.

Mom and Dad sold the house and moved in with Granddad when my Grandmother died. That didn’t work so well and they ended up at a wonderful spot on top of a mountain. We all loved it, but as they aged they were unable to care for five and a half acres of grass that needed to be mowed and a small orchard. Then the house we built on a little piece of family land came back on the market and we all have returned.

So much had changed. Granddad, too, passed away. The “family home” on top of the hill now belongs to a wonderful “hippie” couple with a three legged boxer and a potbelly pig. The chickens and cattle are gone, but the barn I actually helped build still stands.

Soon, very soon, those wisteria vines my mother planted between the trees forty years ago will bloom, always the first blossoms of the year. They are one of the few things untouched in all this time. They have grown and twisted and become part of every branch of those two century old trees. Before they bud out and give us our first taste of leaves, they will first explode in purple blue blossoms engulfing the majesty of those two maples.

And this year, at their feet I will have my own little spot. Oh there will be a number of things, but I will be placing my own little mark there. Some things that can just be left there for as long as some one can sit at the window and enjoy them. It will be my own little spin on Grace and God’s colors in a spot that will catch the corner of your eye as you drive the highway until it curves around the mountain and out of sight.

With strength, purpose and happy tears, I have been sent home to be given control over the tiny little spot where my imagination was born, my mother played and somewhere along the way a legacy of spectacular visual candy is born annually.

I hope, no, I know that not only my ancestors will be pleased, but Miss Grace will be looking out her window with God at my shoulders as I work the soil, and tend the blooms with a smile of contentment on her face. As will I.