Aunt Goldie's Legacy

Circa 1955: probably a potty break on our way through the mountains to Detroit
L/R: Dad the shadow, sister Linda, Mom, Aunt Goldie, me, sister Libby
Praise the risen season. Praise linens infused with April’s scented sunshine, forsythia, and daffodils. Praise the memory of Aunt Golda Mae.
As all her nieces and nephews, my sisters and I called her Aunt Goldie—the epitome of joy contained in a four-foot spinster. Dad’s home movies remain proof of Aunt Goldie’s honored place in our Detroit household. When Dad brought Mom home from the hospital with my sister Patty, the fourth of five O’Brien daughters, Aunt Goldie held our new baby as if she was her own.  
I was seven then. By my tenth birthday, the top of my head had inched above hers where she nested and pinned her long plaits.
In all the seasons Aunt Goldie lived with us during my childhood, I never heard a disparaging word proceed from her mouth. And believe me, she had reason. A survivor of infantile spinal meningitis, her deafness had claimed her disabled and dependent upon her older sisters and younger brother, my father.
Aunt Goldie was my dearest relative on Dad’s side. She was my grownup playmate who could skip rope faster than anyone without a miss. She’d hold the hem of her skirt with one hand and touch the ground with the other and sing her jumping songs.
I can’t remember her departures for Kentucky to help her older sisters for a spell. There’s no defining moment when she walked through our door again. As I reflect upon life with Aunt Goldie, I realize our household sparkled with certain order and spit shine when she dwelled under our roof.
Mom was happy for her helper. I doubt my sisters and I thanked her enough, if ever. Sometimes Aunt Goldie’s unconditional affection for my sisters and me overwhelmed her and she’d bite her tongue and pat us on our legs.
My little aunt loved laundry day. Dad barbered on Saturdays, so she took run of the house, stripping beds and sliding windows open to fumigate Dad’s cigarette smoke from mattresses, clothes, and upholstered furniture.
In pleasant weather, since my aunt was too short to hang sheets on the line outside, Mom kept charge of the clothes posts. I helped by holding up the opposite end of a sheet while Aunt Goldie’s stubby fingers, noticeably all one length, scrubbed whatever she could reach inside. The kitchen was her specialty.
Her pay came that afternoon with a walk to the local party store. “Now Goldie,” Mom would say, “I want you to take Linda and Iris to Pat’s and buy yourself whatever you want.”
That was a big deal because only with Aunt Goldie could we cross Hoover Road to Pat’s where she always bought cheesy popcorn. She shared with Linda and me.
Later that night, dressed in fresh pajamas, we slipped between sundried sheets.
“Thank you, Jesus,” she’d pray, then grind her teeth until she fell asleep.
Dear Reader, I awoke this Sunday morning with the scent of April on my pillow. “Thank you, Aunt Golda Mae,” I prayed.

Exciting News

The redbud outside my study window, about to bloom.
Dear Reader, did you know the gorgeous flowers of the Eastern redbud belong to the legume family? Glory be, they’re edible!
It’s remarkable what you learn when you relax with a cup of tea and the Michigan Gardener Magazine. It was as if Jim Slezinski, bless his botanical heart, was sitting right here with me in my study, eyes wide with enlightenment, speaking horticultural secrets.
Truly, I hunger all winter for the April issue of Eric and Jonathan Hofley’s monthly publication. The brothers comprehend Michigan’s natural and cultivated environments. They know the gardener’s needs.
The publishers have harvested arborists and gardeners who, like Mr. Slezinski, practice what they preach. Thus, I’ve come to depend upon the magazine’s “to-do list” and “plant focus” for knowledge of successful growing.
That’s why I nearly leapt from my reading chair and exclaimed to Mr. Slezinski, “No kidding? Edible?”
See, I appreciate wholesome food and my redbuds. Matter of fact, I keep both trees under constant observation: the mature tree on our house’s north side, the sapling basking in the backyard’s southern exposure.
Nothing could make a singular culinary experience more outstanding than showering a salad with the redbud’s magenta antioxidants. The author compares the flavor of her flowers to peas. If you’re a pea fan, another glory be! They do taste like peas!
Mr. Slezinski elaborates. “Eaten by Native Americans, fresh or boiled and fried, they are also a delicacy served by Mexican chefs.”
Do ya’ll know such a Mexican chef within the radius of a hundred miles? If so, shall we take a road trip for a sample when the Cercis canadensis blossom? Or, perhaps we might encourage Michael Romine of Mulefoot Gastropub to give them a stir.
Mr. Slezinski waxes poetic as he concludes. “Mature redbuds create ‘living structures’ in the landscape.”
I smiled in agreement as my eyes slowed on the following sentence. “Residents of the Appalachian Mountains use the green twigs when cooking to season venison and wild game…colloquially, redbuds are referred to as ‘spicewood’ trees.”
Now, my two surviving McCoy uncles didn’t hunt venison or large wild game, but I phoned them anyway to hear their voices and inquired about Grandpa Floyd using the spicewood tree.
“No, honey,” Uncle Herm said. “I can’t remember Daddy calling the redbud anything but redbud. There was a tall shrub he called spicewood. He’d cut green branches about the size of a broom stick and boil them for tea.”
Then I called his younger brother. Uncle Tab confirmed Uncle Herm’s story down to the “broom stick” detail. “I think Daddy called it sassafras tea,” he added. “We breathed in the steam. Did Herm tell you that?”
Uncle Tab told elaborated on the treatment and reported his potatoes were up. “Now don’t eat too much of the redbud,” he warned.
I promised to use precaution, but have plans to garnish my lettuces and cakes with pink-lavender clusters clipped from my redbud’s leafless branches. 
And glory be, the wild violets and their leaves will do beautifully until then.  

A Beekeeper's Heart

A week ago I returned home from San Francisco in slushy snow. Easter Day is green and sunny. 
A theory unfolds like our daffodils.
          Thankfully, my delayed flight to San Francisco on April Fools’ Day was smooth, so I read some First Lessons in Beekeeping by Keith S. Delaplane. “The very word ‘beekeeping’ implies the existence of a bee that can be ‘kept.’ And the wonder of this fact should not be lost on the writers and readers of beekeeping books.”  
I relate. After a string of beekeeping failures, I stowed away my supers and frames in fall 2015 for the following growing season and forgot about apiaries.
When this February rolled around, I took my last jar of crystalized honey off my pantry shelf. My heart ached as I climbed the basement stairs and placed the jar on the kitchen register to liquefy.
March 28 I hightailed it to Seven Ponds Nature Center for the Beekeeping Club meeting. The room was packed with men and a modicum of women, all relaxing in chairs or leaning against walls, talking in low, drone-like voices. Not one cell phone in sight.
I had forgotten what gentle, present folk beekeepers are, and was glad to be back in their fold. I wondered again why men outnumbered women beekeepers.
We split into two groups: beginner and experienced. I followed the “new-bee” herd and remembered the excellent speaker from my first lesson. I took notes, bought Delaplane’s book, paid my $10 dues, and ordered three packages of bees.
At last, my soul was satisfied.
While I pruned lavender the next day with a friend and farmhand, I couldn’t control my excitement. “Mary Ellen,” I said, “I bought three packages of bees last night. Would you like a beehive in payment for today’s labor? We could bee-keep together here on the farm.”
Her face lit up. “I’d love that. I helped my dad with his bees. It’ll be like old times.”
Not a week later, I sat alone in the San Francisco Airport and awaited another delayed departure. Surrounded by a sea of people from every tribe and nation peering into diverse electronic devices, I nibbled on a handmade dark chocolate turtle and turned the last page of Delaplane’s Epilogue.
“Finally, the theory and practice of beekeeping is dynamic, not static. Our knowledge of bee biology and management grows exponentially with the passing of years. Read, attend bee meetings, share your knowledge, and strive to be a good citizen in the fraternity of beekeepers.”
Dear Reader, I perceive it is our common need to nurture living things that returns us to the hive come spring. It’s the prize of a bountiful draw of wholesome, golden honey that induces us to risk the cost of bees and suit up in sweltering heat.
Ah, yes, at the heart of it all, the idea of a “kept” queen and her brood is what our good citizens find irresistible. The wonder of this fact is not lost on this writer and reader.

My Palmesel

A Palmesel by Christophorus Langeisen, carved in lindenwood, 1480-90, Ulm, Germany

During this Lenten season, I’ve become attached to a sculpture located in one of the DIA’s medieval galleries. It’s what late Gothic artists termed a Palmesel, a German word meaning Christ entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
According to my limited research, there’s no singular word for Palmesel in any other language. German craftsmen extracted the meaning from Zechariah 9:9 as they imagined Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, carried upon a donkey.
As this sacred day approaches, I think of these early Renaissance sculptors who lived in Ulm, Germany. I imagine their thriving workshop, chips of lindenwood flying from their awls and piling upon the floor. I hear their banter as they work—hammers thumping in competition of a patron. I smell the brew as they lift their steins to quench their thirst.
The Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Volume XXXVIII, Number 3, 1957-58, states these statues were created between 1480-90 ,“to be borne through the town streets in Palm Sunday liturgical processions.”
Then came the Reformation. Many Palmesels met their demise.
Today, only two Christ and donkey sculptures reside in the United States. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City owns the other. It is “one of about sixty such groups still preserved.”
I wonder how Mrs. Lillian Henkel Haass came to own Christophorus Langeisen’s Palmesel, and am glad she presented it to the DIA. With missing fingers, Jesus lifts his right hand in benediction. His worm-etched face is solemn and resolved. A brace secures the donkey’s submissive head to its body.
 True, the glass-encased sculpture is crude. Yet I weep at its beauty, the miracle of it. It is not the real Jesus and donkey, and is no longer pulled through a town on streets strewn with palm branches, flanked by worshipers.
Much more, its power rolls through the chambers of my heart, speaks of my Savior’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
Dear Reader, Herr Langeisen’s passion and mine are one.

My Palmesel

I awoke that bitter night,
a whisper from Zaharias in my ear.
Behold the king cometh unto thee.
I cursed and buried my face in warmth
my sheep provided. “Go away! I have no
mark of magnificence amongst my fellows.
They mock my lindenwood, rasp, and hammer.”

He is just, and having salvation.
“Bah! You have said this before. I see no justice,
no redemption. What do you want of me? I am no
Michelangelo. I am Christophorus Langeisen. This is Ulm.
Leave Germany. Go to Rome. Speak to her master. Rumor
says the Pope harangues the painter from the Chapel’s floor.”
Lowly and riding upon an ass.

I casted off my blanket—
shielded my eyes from the first beam
of sunrise, wept as the scent of lavender
soothed my troubled mind.
And upon a colt, the foal of an ass.
“Yes, my Christ and donkey are the least,
yet, they are what my Lord has given.”

Bandages unwound, I dressed and took up my awl.

A Thousand Things

The first Johnny-Jump Up of the season.
You never know when or where a Johnny-Jump Up is going to show its smiling face. Those nomadic violas don’t care where they hang their hat, as my grandmother-in-law would say. Bessy was her name, feisty, yet gentle. She loved to cook, bake, and laugh with her family and guests.
Gram, her grandkids called her, introduced me to begonias. A newlywed who’d never traveled north of Central Michigan University, I’d never seen or visited the place she and Gramps owned and operated. Presque Isle Lodge.
Now, the Lodge was a “one of a kind” destination, as modern marketing would tag it. During my husband’s childhood, it was the safe, rustic place where he and his cousins spent carefree summers doing what most Michiganders do for recreation. Swim, boat, and race old beat up cars until they fall apart.
I knew none of this history when Mel pulled our 1965 Mustang off the road and parked before the Lodge. But I guessed a place with window boxes bearing pink flowers had to be friendly.
And it was, with the exception of gigantic northern wood spiders. They rivaled what hung out in pump houses in Kentucky when I was a kid. That Memorial Day weekend at the Lodge, I learned many things about the north, one being the attraction of the local dump. We might see a bear.
Although we didn’t, I related to their community folklore. We had dumps along the mountainsides where I came from in Peter Creek. And I never saw a bear.
To quote George Stimpson from A Book about a Thousand Things, “Satisfying my curiosity about almost anything and everything has made my life a continual voyage of discovery, filled with surprising adventures.”  
A Thousand Things, for instance, was a $1 find on the vintage bookshelf at the Addison Township Library. The 552 pages contain 1,000 questions and answers, a catechism of information and instruction. A thorough index follows.
Since I’m a bird lover, George’s first question caused a chuckle. “Do any birds ever sing while on the ground?”
Answer: “Virtually all songbirds utter their characteristic song only while on the wing or while perched on a more or less elevated object, such as the limb of a tree, a bush or a fence post.” Shore birds and “certain species of American field sparrows”, are a few exceptions.
With all the songbirds entertaining me daily, why didn’t I notice the robin and cardinal didn’t sing when landed? After my walk the following morning, robins bobbed on the lawn without a sound, as if to say, “Yep, George is right.”
Then, lo and behold, if the first Johnny-Jump Ups didn’t appear in the gravel of our backyard patio—their yellow and purple faces plain as day in the morning sun.
Dear Reader, those little hoboes don’t mind where they hang their hat—one of a thousand curious things filled with family legend and surprising adventures in my own backyard.