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.