The Back Garden

The Back Garden by Adolf von Menzel (1850-1860)

Granny would stand before the kitchen window and admire her back garden. Sweet corn. White-half runner stringed beans. Cabbage. And bushels of tomatoes she sliced for the table and canned for winter stews.  
A fence protected her garden. Although generous with her harvest, she didn’t appreciate local drunks and boys who’d smash her ripe melons for sport.
Of German descent, Ollie Smith’s short and stout figure vanished when she walked between her rows of corn, vined with pole beans. Awestruck, I never stepped beyond her fence.
Childhood wonder nestled in an Appalachian valley.

This is what I sense, what I remember, when I stand before The Back Garden displayed in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Painted by Adolf von Menzel (1815-1905), a German Realist artist, he, too, stood short and stout.
Menzel's biographers say he may have viewed his back garden from his bedroom window. His painting, The Artist’s Bedroom (1847) supports that probability.
Artists usually paint what they hold dear and desire to immortalize. Many of Menzel’s paintings depict historic and courtly events in elaborate detail. Yet, Emilie Menzel Asleep (1848) is a singular, intimate object.  

Although Menzel didn’t include corn, beans, and tomatoes in his humble vegetable plot, true to German cuisine, he grew cabbage.
I’m fond of Menzel’s gatepost and stick fence, elements in the composition that guarded his garden.
What I cherish most about The Back Garden is Menzel’s perspective inside the fence amongst the cabbages and lettuces. He welcomes me to stroll the weedy paths with him. He nods to the red roses climbing the fence and the shed where he stows his hoe.

To satisfy Granny’s hunger for flowers and color, she repotted overwintered red geraniums and set them on her back porch. There, she settled in the shade and strung beans.
With no radio reception in the mountains, neighbors kept her company. “Mrs. Smith, your garden sure looks purdy this summer,” they’d say.
Granny held her labor and pleasure in perfect harmony. One was the other.
Beside the steps of her postage-stamp front yard, my grandmother tended a rose bush that grew taller and wider than her and bloomed pink roses the summer long.
At nightfall, when she called my sisters and me in from play, I’d find my sentinel high on the front porch where she’d sit and swing above the roses.
My mother planted a back garden when she returned to Kentucky and built a house. My daughters observed their Nana stand by her kitchen sink and admire apple trees and sweet corn.
Thus my childhood and adult homecomings to my grandmother and mother guided me to the earth.
Dear Reader, for thirty years I’ve stood by my kitchen window and observed the seasons turn. I’m learning to hold my labor and pleasure as one.
This is what I remember when I consider Adolf von Menzel’s The Back Garden­—another window to see Granny’s patch of Eden.
To marvel how summer after summer, tall rows of corn swallowed my grandmother whole.

Author’s note: Adolf von Menzel’s The Back Garden, is presently in storage at the Detroit Institute of Arts and not available for viewing. 

The Scent of Strawberries

Someone brought strawberries Monday night to writing group. Fresh. Local. The real Michigan deal. Their scent gave them away.
Here I thought I’d missed strawberry season. Hope for strawberry rhubarb pie, strawberry shortcake, and strawberry sundaes leapt from my lips. “Who brought the strawberries?”
           “I did,” Debbi said.
           “Where did you find them?”
           “The Almont location?”
“Yes. I just love that place.”
Next morning, I drove 5.3 miles to Blake’s and couldn’t believe how they’ve expanded their operation. A large room with displays of garden structures caught my eye. I’m a sucker for beautiful horticultural enhancements.
As summer is prone to behave on a fair day, nostalgia struck. I remembered the drive from our Detroit home with our three daughters to Blake’s Cider Mill in Armada. We picked apples, gobbled up donuts, and washed them down with cider.
Mom visited from Kentucky to teach me how to make applesauce. These intimate events leave a lifelong impression on a woman’s heart and mind.
Twenty-some years later, I had the pleasure to interview the Blake twins, Peter and Paul, for a newspaper profile. Two of thirteen children, their parents founded the orchard in 1946, the year my husband was born.
Blake’s Johnny Appleseed logo personifies their mission, longevity, and history as growers. Their farm model and commitment to serving families good food and a happy adventure influenced my interest to develop a small lavender farm. This led to growing fruits and vegetables.
It’s exciting for a person who grows lettuces and loves to cook and bake to walk into an establishment that sells blackberry vinaigrette and smells of fresh pies and cookies. Oatmeal raisin an inch thick!
But first, my nose found the strawberries. What a gastronomical feast hovering over flats filled to the brim. Endless possibilities!

I carried eight quarts of ripe, juicy, delicious fruit to the cashier. While I waited for her to package two cookies, I tasted a berry. Two. Three.
You awaken your natural senses when you stroll through an open-air farmers market. Grounded to the turned earth with the sun above, the colors, textures, and shapes of food ask you pause and admire the architecture and personality of a Vidalia onion and green bean.
Standing close to the source of our nourishment on a remarkable July day evokes a sense of well-being. This romance with food buoys you through the task of washing, hulling, slicing, and freezing berries.
I felt the tingle of fulfillment when I ladled sliced, sweetened strawberries over scoops of lavender lemon ice cream. The flavors were worth every penny and minute in the kitchen.
“Why don’t we grow strawberries?” my husband asked.
I vacillated with a mouthful of magic. Did I dare spoil the moment and remind him that growing strawberries is labor intensive like lavender?
Dear Reader, we consumed our dessert in absolute bliss. Thanks to Debbi, I’ve stowed away several quarts in the freezer for repeat performances.
No, we didn’t miss strawberry season. The scent of strawberry jam lingers in the kitchen.

The Tyranny of Entitlement

How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?  
William Shakespeare, Othello

A suburbanite, I fell in love with Lakeville at first sight. The quaint community with curvy, tree-lined gravel roads called my name.
After moving ten times since we married in 1970, my husband and I found our new home in 1987 on a former sheep farm planted in alfalfa. There, we broke ground and built our little house.
The weekend after we moved in, two women stood on our front porch. One held a beautiful layer cake with “Welcome” scribed in blue icing.
“Hello!” the brunette said and turned west. “I’m Liz, your first neighbor that way, in the ranch.”
“And I’m Paula, your second neighbor that way,” the blonde said. “We baked this cake for your family.”
“Thank you! Won’t you please come in?” I asked.
“Oh no,” said Liz. “We’ll get better acquainted some other time.”
And we did.
I admired Liz for successfully petitioning the Oakland County Road Commission to designate our lane a Natural Beauty Road. This protects native vegetation within road rights of way. And I adored Paula’s two little girls who my two teenage daughters babysat.
Several years later, Liz and Paula moved away with their families. I was on my own to learn the ropes of living on a dirt road that collapses into cavernous potholes come March and ruts like a washboard in summer.
“Love it or leave it,” locals said.
So I embraced my muddy car and our road’s idiosyncrasies. I hailed the man who drove the grater and thanked him.
“I’ve done this route for thirty years,” he’d say. “All these roads were once cow paths, you know. They’re not engineered and will always wash out.”
In the midst of another March, a neighbor called and insisted I call the Road Commission. “We pay taxes. Demand they repair our road. We’re entitled.”
I declined.
After my favorite grater retired from the Road Commission, another filled his shoes. He didn’t stop when I hailed him. Neither did the guy who replaced him. I envisioned a photo with a red line through my face tacked to a bulletin board in the Road Commission’s office.
This May, the perennial problem of rainfall eroding the entrance of our driveway pushed me over the edge. After an estimate to install a culvert that would sacrifice our ancient oak, I called Addison Township and Oakland Country Road Commission staff for consultation.
Soon, a burly young man showed up on our porch wearing a caution vest with a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled big.
“You must be from the Road Commission,” I said.
After an apology and explanation of his department’s workload, he assessed the problem and determined the fix. By day’s end, three loads of crushed asphalt laid prepared to direct rainfall from our driveway.
Dear Reader, now we wait for rain. Patience annulled the tyranny of entitlement. Grace and mercy grant reason and understanding.
How I’d love to see my old neighbors again.

Sleeping in My Clothes

Sadie McCoy, my mother, summer of 2006
Mom hobbled down the hallway, her hand brushed along the wall for balance. A foot landed heavy on the floor. The other followed with a scuff of her slipper.
     My fingers paused on the keyboard and my shoulders tightened. I glanced to the right corner of the screen. 2:10 PM. Mom’s caregiver had left.
     “Come sit while I work,” I said when she reached my study door.
     She burrowed into the recliner behind me, her favorite place for watching birds in the Bradford pear and redbud.
     “The feeders are almost empty again,” she said.
     That was my mother, always thinking of those she loved. And she loved birds. Now she was all mine until my husband walked through the kitchen door at six for dinner.
     For three hours, I logged income and expenses, paid payroll, and returned email while I answered her same question repeatedly. At 5 p.m., in sudden fatigue, I swiveled my chair toward her.   
     “I’m sorry Mom, but I have to lay down awhile. Working with numbers wears me out.”
     She blinked hard. Only a migraine or flu would send me to bed in April’s daylight when my gardens needed grooming.
     “Okay, honey. I’ll take a nap here.”
     Growing up, my mother, sisters, and I napped only when ill. Dad never did.
     “Spaghetti is on the stove for dinner,” I said and climbed the stairs, knowing she wouldn’t remember and couldn’t smell the sauce.
     My bedroom was dark when Mom appeared at my bed.
     “Iris, are you okay? Can I help you put your pajamas on?” she asked.
     “No thanks, Mom. I’m okay. Just very tired.”
      The maternal pulse of her kiss on my cheek drew warm tears that trailed behind my ears.
     I heard three taps of her toothbrush on the sink, a signal of day’s end I knew from childhood. She found her bed. More tears fell when I had no strength to rise and help her with her pajamas and kiss her goodnight.
     My mother passed the following June 2007, surrounded by her five daughters.

Cindy in lavender field 2011
     Soon after, I hired an intern to work our lavender farm. A former WWOOF’er, “willing worker on organic farm”, Cindy told stories from her WWOOFing adventures. One granted sage advice.
     “Women own many of the small organic farms,” she said. “One farmer I worked for slept the night in a big chair. She went right to the field the next morning. Sometimes she didn’t change clothes for days. I’ve never seen anyone work that hard. The farm was her life.”
    Although I’ve not made a habit of sleeping in my clothes, there are nights I have no push left after I climb the stairs. I submit and fall onto my pillow.
     Dear Reader, farming is one part of my life. As long as my senses serve me well, my husband will never find me sleeping in dirty garden clothes. Not in my reading chair, nor any other place.
     And perchance he does, he knows where to find my pajamas.  

A Fertile Word

Bush beans grow in recycled horse trough filled with compost and sand

It’s been a humdinger spring for earthworms and happy, fat robins. The food chain makes exceptional entertainment—birdsong, morning, noon, and night.
While I fill buckets with compost, the red-breasted carnivores wait, bob here and there for their fair share of worms. “There’s plenty to go around,” I remind Mamma Robin.
Wherever my shovel travels, they follow. Robins know something tasty grows within decomposing leaves, lavender stems, and kitchen scraps.
They flit to our deer proof fence surrounding our vegetable garden and perch on a post; keep their beady black eyes on my buckets heavy with good health. Those birds anticipate a worm as I do a scoop of ice cream at day’s end.
What a miraculous partnership. Earthworms and beneficial nematodes produce nutrients to amend our gardens. The food we don’t consume or give away becomes compost to grow more food and flowers.
Grow. A fertile word.

It is a pleasure and privilege to own this land while I walk and breathe on this planet. That I own and hold a shovel to cultivate the earth humbles me with praise and thanksgiving.
To grow into a grower, to plant seeds and observe them germinate and sprout into green leaves is pure joy. There’s virtue to gain in the process: patience for sunny days to dry low spots, for one. Dealing with damping off, for another.  
Plant and replant is a grower’s mantra.
Of all the avocations in this modern world, tiller of the earth most satisfies my body, soul, and spirit. Whatever I nurture, nurtures me.
A bouquet of peonies. Fresh greens with vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper.
I attribute this relationship to my granny and mother. My grandmother devoted a lifetime of growing seasons to feed her family and neighbors. She grieved when she could no longer set a mess of pole beans and platter of roastin’ ears on her table. 
The last summer my family saw Granny on her feet, she said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t cook for ya’ll.”
Although I’ve never learned to plant by the stars and moon as Granny did, to see an earthworm and green shoot is good enough success for me. I feel like her and my mother when I fill my freezer with another harvest.
Mom left her freezer packed with plastic bags of pie apples. Dementia put an end to the most delicious fruit pie I’ve ever tasted. Gladly, Mom lived to see my shovel break ground for food.
Dear Reader, my ancestors’ affection for God’s good Earth grows within me. If genetics have their way, I’ll most likely mourn when I can no longer cook and serve those I love and hold dear.
And when the Lord calls me to Heaven, my spirit will fly to His bosom. Below, the sexton will turn the soil and bury my terrestrial remains. Robins will feast upon earthworms.
In time, my pine coffin and flesh will decompose as kinfolk of old. Again, I will feed the food chain. Robins will grow and sing.

Fourth Annual Yule Love It Farm & Letters Poetry Contest Winners

Judged by Mary Jo Firth Gillett
Theme: My relationship with nature in my own backyard

First Place: Aline Soules, Danville, CA

A hot, humid night perfect for fireflies. I give my son
a two-quart mason jar with a mesh lid that lets air
flow freely.  He and his friends zig-zag around the lawn,
swooping to catch the beetles mid-air.

Even crowded in a jar, these tiny insects punctuate
the night with luciferin shine, seeking a mate as if
they were still in the air, in the grass, flitting
through the trees.

When it’s time to come into the house, my son
stuffs lettuce in the jar, but I explain they want
plant pollen and nectar.  Before I can stop him,
he throws in granulated sugar.

I ask him to let the fireflies go, but he insists
on putting the jar on his bedside table in that age-old
desire to capture joy through possession.  When he sleeps,
I take the jar, not wanting the fireflies to die, not here,
not now.  They have only a couple of months.

Soft steady rain falls as I step outside.  This late,
the boys and fireflies have gone.  I unscrew the lid. 
The beetles rise, twinkle round my head
until I walk into the wet grass where they scatter,

Second Place: Vicki Wilke, Clarkston, MI


My aging deck creaks,
cradles me through births, deaths,
below nests in the greenery-
hopeful crooks. Sun. Shade.

Today I think of my hair,
once thick, wavy, free,
tucked beside me in a paper sack
against its will. 

Birds call in tender song, kindly
like they know what will come
when softness is gathered
in my hand, lifted to the breeze.

I close my eyes, imagine
pale shells, nestlings
warmed in abundance.  Sparrows
or perhaps a mourning dove.

Third Place: Mary Merlo, Troy, MI 

Flowers, Trees and Honeybees Awaken

Random bouquets of golden daffodils trumpet
emergence of season.  Tulips sing spring, purple
and cream crocus cover ground.  Dogwoods explode
with buds promising petals of red-stained crosses.    
Rioting growth contrasts fall’s rust-colored blanket
spread beneath bare trees about to sprout tiny
leaves.  Lacy veils shroud landscape to hide robin, 
oriole and blue jay nests ensconced in woodlands.   

A rosy-breasted bird streaks like a fleeting image
in slumber’s dream, darts across a wooden deck
where empty terra cotta pots stand ready to welcome
geraniums and spikes.  Squirrels dig for stashed acorns.
Light glints off iridescent blue wings of dragonfly
hovering near gardener dozing in chair beneath noonday
sun.  Honeybee buzzes near his ear, awakens him. 
Refreshed, he resumes tasks to arouse sleeping beauties. 

Letter to graduates and their parents

With my mother, graduation day, 1967
Dear Reader, 
            My parents were born in Appalachia in 1922. Dad completed eighth grade. He fought in Guam with the Marine Corps. Mom graduated from high school and riveted airplanes in Akron, Ohio. They married in March 1945.
            Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Dad earned his barbering certificate, the key to his financial success. Mom used her culinary skills to cater dinner parties for our family doctors.
During my parents’ divorce in 1967, my college prospects looked dim. Dad wouldn’t co-sign for a student loan. “Iris, you’ll never finish college,” he said.
Although it hurt, I forgave Dad. With losing his family, home, and car, he couldn’t risk another debt.
Before I graduated from high school, Dad and his meager earthly possessions vanished from our home. He didn’t attend my commencement ceremony. Neither did Mom.
The Bank of Commerce hired me as a runner for tellers. Dad dropped me off. Mom picked me up. I saved enough wages for one semester at Central Michigan University in February 1968. Dad carried my belongings into my dorm room, a gesture of newborn hope for my future.
Preoccupied with her man-friend and dependent daughters, Mom faded from my life. I cannot remember one phone call or letter to my dorm or while working summers away from home.
A mentor helped me obtain the National Defense Education Act Loan, my key to knowledge. The debt was mine to pay.
With Vietnam hovering, I married the man of my life in January 1970. Dad feared I’d fulfilled his prophecy of a college dropout.
Eighteen years later, Mel and I hosted our firstborn’s backyard graduation party. She had earned a partial college scholarship for track and cross-country. My husband and I co-signed for a student loan and contributed what we could.
Tragically, substance abuse derailed her beautiful life and higher education. She disappeared for months. We seldom knew her whereabouts.
Meanwhile, our middle daughter disciplined the balance between academics and extracurricular activities to the minute.
Same mother. Same father.
I’d invade her bedroom and bribe her with a cup of hot chocolate for some alone time with her. She watched the clock and reaped the dividends— Salutatorian of the 1993 graduating class of Romeo High School.
Spring of 1997, after we buried my father and our prodigal daughter, twenty family members attended our honor student’s college commencement. Her proud Grandpa picked up the bill.
Our youngest daughter shunned homework. When able, my husband and I supported her college fund. We’d learned not to risk debt.  
In 1998, thirty years after I graduated from Lincoln High School, I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree. The following spring, I waved to my baby, a glorious smile on her face, as she walked past our aisle in her cap and gown.  
I’ve come to believe forgiveness and wise mentors lay the foundation to a resourceful and peaceful life. Although capable in many ways, parents cannot provide their child’s every need. That is not our place.

This is a mystery. God permits challenges for good, to grant us mercy, the joy of liberty to achieve in our own time.