Even though real summer set in weeks ago, we had a few mornings when both the temperatures and the humidity backed off simultaneously and early mornings outside were actually pleasurable. On one of those now rare, if not completely gone mornings, while I was watering my flower garden, I had an extremely satisfying revelation. I do some of my very best thinking while I am rambling around.
in the garden
When my boys were in elementary school, we took them on a trip to New Mexico and Colorado. We flew to Albuquerque, rented a car, and spent a week exploring those two states. Our last stop in Grand Junction, Colo., allowed a visit with Uncle Joe, the only living sibling in Daddy’s family. As Uncle Joe showed the boys his compact backyard garden and mini-orchard, he described one of his peach trees as a “volunteer.” Noting the puzzled looks on all our faces, he explained that a volunteer in the garden is a plant which grows on its own from last year’s seeds, sometimes with a little help from the birds or Mother Nature in general. Regardless how it came to his garden, a volunteer just shows up unexpectedly, and if welcomed, grows and flourishes and adds to the beauty and bounty of the garden.
Slowed down by April’s storms, I did not plant sunflower seeds until mid-May this year. But by the time I began preparing the bed, about a third of my sunflower-only garden was sprinkled with tiny sprouts. Before the hoe brought immediate demise, I realized with great joy that I had volunteers in my own garden. These unexpected guests grew rapidly, thrived on plentiful rain and created blossoms weeks before the human-planted seeds. One of them is actually about 12 feet tall and has managed to stay straight in spite of serious summer thunderstorms in the last few weeks.
My garden volunteers are much like the amazing volunteers who seemingly continue to show up out of nowhere to help us dig out of storm debris, destruction and sadness. We do not have to invite them, we often do not know exactly how they got here, but they are welcomed as they work diligently, effectively, and lovingly to complete so many needed tasks that add to the substance and effectiveness of our recovery.
In December, fire destroyed the vacant house on the corner next to our home.
For months the gloomy, charred remnants of a once lovely home caused drivers on Park Avenue to stop and ponder when the structure would be demolished and all the mess cleaned up. Several weeks ago, the process finally began. As the debris was removed, load by agonizing load, two bright spots on the scarred, now almost empty lot re-emerged and offered a hint of hope for an otherwise dismal scene.
These two color bearers are old crape myrtles — faithful badges of Southern summers with multi-flowered globes which scatter far and wide in thunderstorms.
They were planted about 60 years ago to replace Dutch Elm trees. The larger of the two crape myrtles dominates the far corner of the lot with its multi-limbed 5-foot base and branches towering as high as 30 feet. The smaller one stands on the corner of Park Avenue and Sixth Avenue, daring passersby not to notice it.
Cousins of these resilient, forgiving survivors of extreme adverse weather conditions are found all over town blooming inexhaustibly in shades of red, pink, purple, and white. This summer they appear particularly hearty, vibrant and attention-grabbing. Travels to other Southeastern states and opinions from other Alabama towns echo the thought that the crape myrtles are magnificent everywhere. Opinions vary as to why, and one might even wonder if perhaps we are noticing them this year more than usual after a spring that drained our emotions. But a local tree and plant expert believes the frigid winter and drought conditions on and off over the years might be part of the general explanation. In other words, like the fire-survivors next door and the recovering communities all over the country, the crape myrtles bounce back from adversity, and grow more beautiful in spite of all the odds against them.
on the porch
In my growing up years in the ‘60s, we spent most of our free time, weather permitting, outside. We rode our bikes, roller skated, played a variety of games, built makeshift playhouses and tree houses, and only came in when our parents insisted. Television was high tech but not all-consuming. Our homes were not centrally air conditioned, the den or living area might have a window unit for the absolute hottest days, and a window fan in a bedroom was a real treat.
On weekends during warm weather our parents sat out by the barbecue pit talking and enjoying their leisure time in folding lawn chairs and keeping an eye on us or on dinner if we were cooking out. If darkness or thunderstorms or mosquitoes drove us inside, the next best place to be was the screened-in side porch. Located on the shady side of the house, it was cooler, even at night. On some of those nights we talked, told stories, played cards, shucked corn, or shelled peas. Other nights the porch was just perfect for sitting in the glider or a rocking chair, hearing only their soothing squeaks or the lulling sounds of summer insects, and finding pleasure in not talking or doing anything else at all.
Other friends and neighbors had front porches, some quite large, running all the way across the front of the house and others much smaller, tucked in a small space, just big enough for a few folks and several chairs. On those porches, regardless of location or size or amenities, we learned how to be porch sitters, often content to sit and talk or read or just sit.
Modern technology and the comfort of air conditioning moved us off the porches and into the house. However, in my neighborhood, several of my neighbors have revived the lost art of porch sitting. Since we are most likely to be out early in the morning walking, we see them reading the newspaper, drinking coffee, savoring a visit with a friend, or just rocking before the responsibilities of the day and the heat set in.
My older son and his friends sit out on their porch in a downtown Greenville, South Carolina, neighborhood, enjoying the connection of conversation, each other’s company, and speaking to neighbors who walk by singly or accompanied by dogs and children. The porches are in place and in a world which often overwhelms us with technology and more information than we need to access, they become havens- reminders of the pleasure found in simple conversation or perhaps simple silence and the welcoming benefits of returning to these old customs.
Rambling with old friend Kathryn Tucker Windham
Kathryn Tucker Windham last visited Jasper in February 2010 on Mardi Gras, as the guest of Bevill State Community College’s Read Alabama. No one in her packed house, multi-generational, eager audience left before her arrival, even though she was almost an hour late due to a misunderstanding about driving directions to Jasper on Corridor X. She made her entrance to enthusiastic applause, accompanied by her friend, bookseller Jake Reiss, and her next door neighbor, folk artist Charlie Lucas. But all eyes were on Miss Kathryn as her outfit, a vivid red, sparkly embroidered shirt and beaded purple straw hat with green and gold ribbons, feathers, and tinsel, set the perfect tone for Alabama’s energetic, spunky, gracefully outspoken, and charming master storyteller, who was also a prolific writer, journalist, and photographer.
As soon as Miss Kathryn began telling stories in her captivating, deliberate drawl, the room was hers for as long as she wished, and each member of the audience felt as if they were listening to an old friend. Younger audience members were eager to hear about Jeffrey, the ghost who lived in her house and was the impetus for the 1966 beginning of her career as collector and teller of ghost stories. Older members of the audience delighted in her saucy response to questions about whether one of her stories was actually true. Miss Kathryn was known to quickly respond, “Well, if it didn’t happen that way, it should have.” She answered questions and stayed later than usual until all her books were signed and everyone who wanted to speak with her had that opportunity.
About a month ago, after 93 years of relishing her Southern roots and sharing her genuine love and unique understanding of the South and Southerners with people all over the world, Miss Kathryn died at her home in Selma. Her six-sided pine coffin, which she had built several years ago and stored in her garden shed, was taken from her memorial service at the Church Street United Methodist Church to the cemetery in the back of a red pickup truck. More than 500 well-wishers sent her off with “I’ll Fly Away” played on combs wrapped in wax paper, one of her favorite instruments.
In her always straightforward manner, Miss Kathryn had already made the instructions for her epitaph very clear in her 1996 book, Twice Blessed. “My grave marker won’t be one of those fancy examples of the stone mason’s art, nor will it have a flowery epitaph. I’d like to have some words from one of Jan Struther’s poems: ‘She was twice blessed: She was happy; She knew it.’”
Kathryn Tucker Windham was an exceptionally strong, lovely Southern woman.
She graciously lived an incredibly deep and luscious Southern life. Her contributions to preserving memories of this life- verbal, written, and visual- are unsurpassed. With enthusiasm, sensitivity, and humor, she enriched our lives with her enduring words and images, while quietly and gently teaching us to be proud of our rich Southern heritage.
Most likely, taking time to ramble around comes to us involuntarily, in the form of those little surprises age brings on a daily basis. However, like many other surprises in our lives, becoming a rambler is actually a blessing. It provides opportunities to reminisce with clarity, find meaning in the simplest of things, reconsider comforting habits, and value old friends.