Under the Pergola

One of several summer gatherings under our pergola 
I said “Sure” when Mary Ellen called Monday morning and asked if I was free to kayak Thursday at 9:30 a.m. with another friend. We never made it on Lakeville Lake and to lunch last year, so we hankered for the companionship.
That night at writing group, Elaine asked, “Are you available for company late Wednesday morning?” She had family coming in from Chicago and D.C. who’d never visited my place.
With writing projects, I wouldn’t have time to deadhead my gardens and dust the house. Yet, I adore Elaine’s offspring. 
I postponed business, swallowed my pride, and said “Sure.”
Blessed with the finest August morning Michigan can muster, I served what the garden gave us under the pergola— Elaine’s favorite haven on our three acres.
Enzo, not yet two and a former guest, walked downhill to the hen house with his beribboned walking stick and older cousin.
With Elaine’s son in the mix, my husband joined us for scones, cucumber-tomato salad, and lemon lavender ice cream.
“Rain,” Enzo said, dropping hands full of the pergola’s pea gravel to the ground.
How wonderful to have a child in our midst, the third of three generations gathered around our summer table.
How doubly marvelous to hear Anthony, second-generation patriarch, and his wife speak of resident life in D.C.
“Next time you’re in town, please be our guests,” they said.
It is a divine gift to hug folk good-bye who would rather linger.
The following morning, my kayak trio launched as planned, albeit breezy. My two friends glided before me, paddling and resting as I rowed behind without pause.
They stopped for me to catch up for our return to dock.
“Mary Ellen, can you tow me in? Even though I’m rowing constantly, I can’t keep up with you two.”
A woman who would rather have her feet on the ground than in or on the water, I was glad to touch shore.
The three of us lunched for two hours at the Celtic Knot. We disclosed we had wavered to give ourselves the morning off to spend with each other.
“This is the advantage of our age. We can choose what we most enjoy,” we all agreed.
I awoke Friday morning to a repeat of Wednesday’s blissful weather and menu for Debra’s annual visit under the pergola. This year, however, her granddaughter Olivia stood before Debra on the front porch.
“Good morning, Iris,” Olivia said in her two-and-a-half year old voice.
Oh my goodness. Two darlings in one week.
When Olivia saw the swing she said, “Will you swing me?”
“Sure,” Debra said.
“No, Iris.”
“Sure,” I said.
Olivia swung “way high” with the wind on her face. She swung on her tummy and found a lightning bug in the grass.
She played with the pea gravel.
Of all amazing things, she made a mustache of her melted ice cream that dripped from her chin.
“Ummm,” Olivia sang with closed eyes.                                                                                  
“Ummm,” dear Reader. Three mornings off with friends. Two under the pergola with Enzo and Olivia.  

August Reconciliations

This is the month of the test of the gardener. Were I running things I would simply cut August out of the calendar. Richardson Wright, The Gardener’s Bed-Book, 1929
My late mother, Sadie Lee McCoy, at her Kentucky home, summer 1997
Here I go again, quoting my favorite garden writer. You’d think the man lived next door and looked out his study window into my perennial island.
           He shakes his head at my scrawny red hollyhocks and wonders why on earth I waste my writing time.
           Well, I’d say, the seedlings sure do start off with a boast and promise of healthy blooms. I weed, fertilize, water, mulch, and enclose them in a decorative obelisk to protect them from deer.
Isn’t that enough TLC? After all, hollyhocks are mallows. They’re drought-tolerant, and not supposed to be finicky.
Take my mother’s pink hollyhocks, for instance. She planted seeds in the soil beside her backyard patio. Summer after summer, they grew taller and wider than me in her hot, humid Appalachian climate.
For proof, Mom posed for a photo with a blossom in her hand. I cherish that picture, dear Reader. I searched five hours before I found it in a scrapbook. 
I left Mom’s house with hollyhock seeds, which I promptly sowed in my Michigan garden, with all the faith in the world.
Speaking of world, this largely forgotten medicinal plant, Althea rosea, spread from China to the Middle East. The Crusaders named it “holy” and “hoc”, old English for “mallow.”
This I learned from the summer issue of Herb Quarterly featuring the malvaceae family, and spotlighting the stately hollyhock.
I fell in love with hollyhocks at first sight the summer of 1954 when my parents rented a house on Yacama Street in Detroit. Pink hollyhocks grew in the stinky, dirty alley between trashcans.
My sisters and I pulled off blossoms and made ballerinas with toothpicks. That must’ve been Mom’s idea. I certainly wasn’t that clever at five-years-old.
That beautiful memory prompts my perennial effort to grow the towering plant. The stalks will mature if I fend off the deer. Then come August, they die back.
Victorians adored hollyhocks, known for centuries as a healing herb “to soothe and warm the stomach” and “ease coughs and sore throats.”
From leaf to seed, the entire plant is edible and rich in medicinal value. I’d like to make a pot of tea with the seeds. A currant lavender lemon scone on the side would be nice.
However, it’s August. I’ve reconciled I may never grow hollyhocks like I remember on Yacama and my mother’s back garden. Yet, I think there's enough seeds to brew one cup of tea.
I may as well dig up the puny hollyhocks and seek a suitable replacement. A deer-resistant plant. Scarlet hibiscus. Caryopteris. Astilbe. Something that blooms heartily through summer while I deadhead lilies.
Meanwhile, I’ll experiment with hollyhock roots in green bean soup. Stimulating one’s digestion is a healthy way to reconcile garden regret.
Regarding Mr. Wright’s sentiments, since August yields stringed beans and tomatoes, I prefer to keep the month on my calendar.

More Than One Way Home

My Uncle Herm and Uncle Tab (behind), summer 2016 
Most every July of my childhood, Dad drove our family to Kentucky for vacation. The summer he couldn’t leave his barbershop, Dad dropped Mom, my sisters, and me off at the Detroit bus station. In Ohio, we boarded a train to Williamson, West Virginia. That meant a two-day trip to the place Mom called “home.”
           The pull of blood to Peter Creek ran deep in my mother’s soul.  It began with a phone call from Granny. “Sadie, the garden is in. When ya’ll comin’ in?”
           Not once did Granny’s green beans, tomatoes, and corn fail to draw her only daughter back to her table.
           Mom washed, ironed, and packed our clothes. She carried empty canning jars up from the basement fruit cellar and put them in the trunk of Dad’s red and white 1956 Chrysler.
I stood on the hump in the backseat and watched the city disappear. With his arm resting in the open window, Dad and his cigarette drove through Ohio, the flat and boring state with countless cornfields.
My father knew the shortest distance between our house in Warren and Granny’s porch in Phelps. After several vacations, I learned some landmarks. Then, lo and behold, he’d find another shortcut to shave off a few miles and minutes.
Point of a man’s pride.
Since he preferred to drive after a day’s work, I’d find my spot in the back seat window after dark. I’d watch the headlights of cars behind us, and the red taillights in the other lane. Sometimes I’d awake in front of Granny’s house before sunrise.
I’d climb her front steps in that fogging feeling of travel, her generous bosom waiting at the door to welcome us. Mom led my older sister and me to the basement bed where we slipped between clean sheets.
We woke to the scent of bacon, biscuits, and fried eggs. Fried apples and potatoes. After breakfast, Mom let us loose to play with the neighborhood kids. How I loved to chase Paul Ray and Buddy Boy.
Sixty years later, my husband and I take I75 to Lexington and our hotel room. Next morning we sit down for a Cracker Barrel breakfast, then groom Mom’s gravesite. Later, for the first time, we visit Uncle Tab, one of two remaining McCoy patriarchs, in an assisted living facility.
Me, Uncle Tab, and Mel, July 27, 2019
From Lexington, the Mountain Parkway carries us to US 23 south to Peter Creek where Uncle Herm, Uncle Tab’s older brother, waits. We walk Uncle Herm’s garden. He talks about what crop “didn’t do no good” this summer. We follow Uncle Herm through the shell of the old homeplace where I lived the first four years of my life.
The pull of blood runs deep in a niece’s soul.
We visit Matewan, West Virginia, where my mother delivered me February 21, 1949. My husband takes a picture of me before the vacant building. 
For old time sake, we drive US 23 through Prestonsburg, Louisa, and Ashland Kentucky before we cross the Ohio River into Portsmouth, Ohio.
Dear Reader, without a GPS or effort to shave a few miles and minutes, we look for landmarks that remain on our journey home.
Our place where four hens and two kittens wait.