First it’s the fragrance of a phantom lady. She lingers a moment then vanishes, her scent, like her colorful scarf, caught by the wind, carried upwards to the green canopy of an elm tree. She tempts me to remember, to feel her warm embrace. Suddenly I’m overcome by her presence and I’m a child chasing her perfume to the source, a grove of honeysuckle in the pasture behind the red barn.
Summer is on her way. Soon there will be no more school buses, math problems, or reading assignments. My failing grade in handwriting will only be a memory like the great aunts, uncles, cousins whose graves I’ll help my mom and my aunt decorate on memorial day. In the garden I inspect the peony bushes, above their red leaves, ants crawl over a bud enticing it to bloom. I remember from last year, this one will be pink. Next to it, an iris, its lavender peeking out from a snug, green blanket.
And it’s my birthday, May 15th. Mom made a white cake with cocoa fudge frosting. I got to lick the bowl. Mom, Dad, my sister, Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Earl, Aunt Mary, Aunt Bessie we’re all going to Weldon Spring’s park for a picnic. Grandma brought a cherry pie, Aunt Mary potato salad, and Aunt Bessie strawberry jello with fruit cocktail. Mom fried chicken, an unlucky bird from our coop. All together they sing happy birthday. It’s my day.
Before long I’ll walk barefoot across the green grass, squish my toes in its coolness on a hot July afternoon, sip lemonade under Grandpa’s oak tree while we wonder whose raising so much dust on the road, and commenting on when it may rain, sit with Grandma in the green rusty glider on the screened in front porch and listen to the honey bees as they disappear into the ceiling. When Carol Devenport arrives I’ll run and hide. She likes to tweak my cheek and call me her Timmy Joe. But for now, I’m running now where. I’m going to enjoy being a child, waiting for summer.
“Mom, – can I go now?”
She was finishing up washing cloths in the basement. Mom worked during the week packing business forms at Wallace Press so laundry was always done on Saturday morning. “Are you finished with your chores?”
There are two questions I’ll always remember from childhood: Are you finished with your chores. Are you done with your homework? “I polished the stove and icebox. Mary Ellen is still complaining about having to use Clorox in the bathroom toilet. She says it stinks. She thinks she could die from the smell or the germs.”
Mom’s voice became more distinct as she climbed the basement stairs with a load of wash to hang outside on the clothesline. “Never mind what your sister is doing. I asked if you were done with your part?”
“I think so,” I say.
“Well if you’re not sure, then neither am I. Come help me hang these wet sheets and I’ll look when we’re done.”
There is nothing better than sheets dried in the sun. I can close my eyes and picture the sheets attached to the white, taught rope with wooden clothespins. A spring breeze puffs the sheets up like sails allowing my sister and I to wrap ourselves in their whiteness as they flop back to enfold us. But what I remember most is the smell. When I think of a sunny day, I think of that smell.
“Okay, the sheets are done. Let’s go inspect the kitchen young man.”
As we entered the kitchen, my sister was standing in the doorway with hands on her hips. “He didn’t finish the side of the icebox. And I’m not going to do the bathrooms anymore.” She jerked her head and let out a sigh as if she were Cinderella’s step mom bossing me around.
“I did too do the side.”
“I’ll be the judge of whether Timmy is done, and you mind yourself Missy or you’ll do all the cleaning.”
It was always nice for Mom to be on my side, so I flashed my sister a smug smile while shaking my head. I couldn’t say na – na – na- na –na so the look would have to do. Her lips pursed into a tight wrinkled line. She got the message.
Mom rubbed her hand over the stove’s white porcelain and then moved to the icebox. She ran her hands across it and looked at it from a number of angles. Finally she spoke. “It looks done to me. Doesn’t the house smell clean?”
It did smell clean: Clorox scrubbed toilets, end tables and coffee table shinning with Old English Furniture Polish, the icebox sparking with a fresh coat of Jubilee Appliance Wax, and of course, soft sheets dried in the sun.
Around this time of year when the brown grass doesn’t look so brown, when green sprouts appear that will soon be yellow daffodils, red tulips, white hyacinths, when blue bells ring, and when lilies of the valley perfume the yard, Mom would shoo my sister and me outside with a declaration, “Go outside and play, and don’t come in until I tell you to.” That meant she was getting into spring-cleaning. I was happy to be outside. It meant I didn’t have to: crawl under the kitchen table and clean the legs, take a rag full of Jubilee to polish the white refrigerator, or remove ice from the freezer section of the refrigerator after Mom let some boiling water loosen it.
I’d leave my sister in the yard to sulk over not being allowed back inside and go to find hidden treasures. My favorite spot was the junk pile in our pasture. Trash that couldn’t be burned was dumped in this little gully made by a stream. It was stuff from our house, my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents, things that John, the handyman, could no longer repair, sofa’s whose springs had given out or the fabric ripped beyond repair, and things that were just not wanted anymore. Much to my mother’s irritation, I’d always find something of value: rusted metal bookends, a portable radio. Once I even found a rocking horse. It only had a small crack in one of rockers.
This Easter I’m reminded of my junk pile. I often put God out with the junk because belief is outdated, old, or just not the fashion anymore. I’m going to search through that junk pile and pull out some valuable keepsakes.
Jim Beam was kept in the barn. Drinking was devil’s
work. It was Grandma’s conviction, confident
as Grandpa’s need to sow beans today. This Easter she’ll harvest
faithfulness for her children and Church. Bending low
to kiss her cheek, lilac scents float, lingering
as she looks in the mirror to arrange her hat. On the white
dress is a lavender orchard, violet veins so thin,
so delicate, a halo forms around its edge. At church the pastor
praises the risen word in robes of white and gold
where glimpses of decorated eggs are hiding
among the threads. The eggs will have to wait
for faith, Grandma and God’s word. Beans
planted, Grandpa will not wait his ceremony. In his
robe of bibbed, blue, denim overalls and a miter
of straw, on his knees he hides colored eggs,
his rite of faithfulness. So begins our rituals.
A kneeling rail isolates the altar where white
lilies frame an empty cross looking down
on the disciples’ images beneath. We take
the right aisle. Heads under Easter hat’s pause
to chat or nod, then we all proceed
to the front pews. The hymnal is scarcely
open when the organ begins. Down the left aisle
golden robes proclaim, He arose, He arose. At the altar
they become angels against white clouds, rapt. I jingle
the quarter in my pocket for the collection plate, and barely notice
the hymn’s end, the pastor’s “Amen”. With a nudge
then a poke Grandma points. The collection
plate has passed us by. She stares at my quarter
still in my hand. She points to the aisle,
“now go.” Newly polished shoes reflect bonnets
as I race the plate to the rail and think of Grandpa
resting, reflecting on his work as I make
my first deposit in the bank of God.
It was 75 degrees yesterday and still there are a few piles of black snow. It has me wishing for spring.
A Priest’s Prayer
When the sun summons spring,
and the damnable winter wilts,
I’m a dallier in the oneiric odor of dank, dark, dirt,
where worms waggle across warming soil
with the dance of dapper dandy birds.
When will I change my chasuble
and drink from this chalice of green spring?
Dappled at dawn with dew,
displaying their war-bonnet of winter,
daffodils dangle, dallying in their spring affair.
When will I change my chasuble
and drink from this chalice of green spring?
Dandified dandelions dot the green grass
and willingly with warmth
morph to white hairy seeds,
mischievous hitchhikers, chariots in the wind,
their sparkling sprinkles of spring
chased by children chagrined with winter.
When will I change my chasuble
and drink from this chalice of green spring?
Around this time of year when the winter temperature hoovers near unbearable, the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and fresh baked biscuits hover like a foggy morning in my mind. Coming in from the cold to Grandma’s kitchen brought warmth and the promise of good food from the black cast iron cook stove. Anything from that stove was fair game, except the last biscuit. It’s Grandpa’s for supper. Winter also brought the spicy, root beer, smell of sassafras tea. Grandma claimed it thinned your blood and made you warmer in the winter.
That stove was the heart of Grandma’s house. She had an electric stove but it was only for the son’s wives to cook on at holiday time: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Early morning Grandpa would haul up a bucket of coal from the basement and get the stove stoked for a day of cooking and heating the house.
There was no heat in the upstairs bedrooms, so at bedtime Grandpa would open the stairway door and a hurricane of heat would rise through the stairwell. Trouble is, once it was warm enough to go to bed under a few quilts, Grandpa closed the door. The result, when I woke the morning I’d run downstairs to the cook stove, thankful that Grandpa got up early to stoke the fire.
Grandpa would be doing chores in the barn and I’d find Grandma at the stove frying bacon or pork chops for breakfast. When the frying was done, the grease was transformed into brown gravy to go with the biscuits cooking in the oven. She’d add flour to the skillet, let it brown a little, then milk from a jug, and finally a ladle of hot water from the stove’s attached water well.
While she was cooking I’d beg to stoke the fire with another lump of coal or a log. Grandma would say, “Timmy, I think I’ve got the stove hot enough.” She’d take a couple of minutes to inspect the gravy and biscuits and then look at me. “Well, I guess it could use some more. Now mind you, just one lump of coal. No more.”
After breakfast, Grandma would take hot water from the stove well and wash the dishes. I’d dry because if I helped I’d get to bake a cake. I don’t think it really mattered if I helped or not but I thought it did. She’d have me go to the back pantry and pick out a Watkins Cake Mix. It was always white. I’d mix it, put it in a cake pan, and then help Grandma get the right temperature on the oven. There was no thermometer. “Timmy, stir those coals up a little more.” Grandma would wait a minute or too. “Put that small lump of coal in.” She’d put her hand in the oven, adjust a vent or two, and then say, “Okay bring the pan over. It’s ready. Careful now. Don’t burn yourself.” When it was all done, we’d let it cool and top it off with Hersey’s Cocoa fudge icing.
When it was finished and I had a taste, Grandma would shoo me outside with some chore or just to play. I understand now, she just wanted to nap. I was happy to let her have an afternoon rest, because I knew there would always be warmth around the cook stove when I returned.
Clara May and Frieda practiced their faith in everyday life, not just on Sunday and other religious days. They carried it with them out the door, not like some in town who put it in the pew pocket when they replaced the hymnal. I was honored to know them (or people like them) when I was growing up and I try to practice their simply faith.
After Mardi Gras Tuesday the season of Lent is upon us. Over the years church tradition has evolved this season into a ritualistic practice of penance and preparation for the resurrection. As I grow older I become cynical about the church’s use of these traditions. I am not sure I need to imitate suffering or practice penance to understand the significance of the resurrection and life of Jesus.
Lenten practices became codified at the Council of Nicea 325 CE. The root of the word lent is Anglo Saxon, Lencton, meaning spring. I prefer a more general definition of Lent than that offered by the church: returning to life, or returning from inactivity. Finding and exhibiting daily examples of love, caring, and resurrection of the spirit of Jesus’ teachings makes the season real to me, and takes it outside the doors of the church making Lent a universal concept: the anticipation of renewal, rebirth, creating and or gathering the necessary constituents to sustain and create life.
At Christmas I received an Amaryllis encased in its sepulcher of earth, and began watering it the day of arrival. I checked daily on its progress, sometimes not to patiently, while Dan made sure it was watered. Finally a tiny twig emerged which overnight developed a large bud atop its green stock. Suddenly on Valentine Day it burst forth in three glorious red blossoms, a reward for our diligence and anticipation.
The Amaryllis reminds me of my childhood, and a simpler meaning of the Lenten season. I have no recollections of church Lenten traditions despite my family regularly attending church. Lunch in the school cafeteria clued me in to the start of Lent because the Friday menu was fish sticks or macaroni and cheese. Only in adulthood did I know the significance of those meatless meals.
Though church traditions were not part of my childhood Lenten season, I understood the meaning of attentive anticipation. When Christmas holidays and the excitement of presents were only a memory, I looked foreword to Easter because it was the next major event in a child’s life. There would be Easter baskets full of candy, special presents, dying Easter eggs, hunting the ones Mom and Grandpa hid, a new suit, new shirt, new shoes, freedom from snowsuits, mittens, boots, and time to go barefoot in grass again. It was also a time when farmers and their families realized that the prosperities of their life were only partially dependent on their works.
Once farmers did their part, they realized a power higher than themselves controls rain, sun, as well the absence or presence of insects. At the hint of a spring thaw, Dad, Uncles, Grandpa, neighbors, all farmers could be found in machine sheds greasing plows, tuning tractor engines, cleaning planters, and generally readying all implements for fieldwork. As the earth warmed, colors of spring emerged from their winter sleep: yellow jonquils, white lily of the valley, red tulips, purple hyacinth, blue crocus, white pussy willows, and green leaf buds. It was time to till the land for planting crops and preparing a garden for food that would sustain us through the year. We all did our part in assuring a resurrection of earth’s bounty, here and now: our continued nourishment, our existence. In farm country it’s still a truth today.
Just like church history and its traditions compel us to a future life on the ghosts of those gone before us, I find unpretentious hope when my present day understanding of the Lenten season is augmented by youthful unsophistication. Perhaps it would behoove us all to recall that innocence: when we were excited by anticipation, when we didn’t know a friend’s religion, when church had no doors.
I’m retired from working at Dewers’ high school where I was the assistant to the president. It’s where I met Clara May. We both started on the same day, a number of years ago. I don’t have a town of Dewers pedigree like Clara May but I call it home. Kentucky is where I grew up, in the bottomland of the Cumberland River before the Wolf Creek damn created Lake Cumberland. My hometown of Rowena is now under the lake. The phrase, you can never go home again is literally true for me. I met my husband, John, in Louisville and we moved here to the town of Dewers because of John’s job working for the railroad.
Some would call me a fuddy-duddy. Changes in the way woman dress and an increase in the laxity of manners is dreadful to me. It’s not that I don’t accept change, I do. I like the way I dress and I dislike the changes in style. Besides I’m nearly seventy years old. If I were younger, I might like shorter dresses and hippie styles. Each generation of kids must make their mark somehow. As for me, wearing hats with gloves makes me feel elegant and presentable to anyone.
Clara May says I need to stop drinking the hot fudge milkshakes at Dairy Queen. She thinks I’m overweight. I told her fine, I’ll switch to hot fudge sundaes. So what if I’m a little overweight, the only person who may have a valid complaint is the undertaker, Thomas. He may have to split the back of my blue taffeta dress I’ve chosen for myself when I’m laid out in the coffin. No one will see it.
My favorite color is blue. I always look forward to spring and the smell of lilacs. Purple are my favorite. When I’ve grown weary of winter, I sit in my bay window, close my eyes, and think of lilacs. Just the thought can brighten my gloomiest day. I’ve got to be careful though, I’m prone to graphic dreams. I think they’re a gift. They help me solve crimes with Clara May, that is when she’s willing to listen to me.
Most importantly I’m a devout woman. Clara May and I attend the Methodist Church. Some would call us rabble-rousers. It’s only because Pastor Jenkins is a little too conservative for our way of thinking. I believe in the goodness of each individual and have no use for hellfire and damnation. We are all children of God.