Long Row

A friend of mine will soon move to a new house and has been consumed with the process of packing for quite some time. He lamented the fact that no matter how much he gets done he continues to see piles and stacks and shelves full of things yet to be boxed. Adding to the stress, he’s nearing the semester’s end of coursework towards a Master’s degree. This combination has him overwhelmed. He complained a bit more about the work left to do.

“I’ll never finish.” he moaned after his update.

“Well.” I said. “It’s like that row of tomatoes.”

He didn’t get it.

With no idea what I meant he stared into the distance preoccupied by stress. Then, remembering similar comments of mine in the past his head whirled back towards me. “Wait, is that another Nannie thing?” he asked.

“It’s another Nannie thing.” I nodded confirmation and began my story.

My grandmother was a master gardener – not certified, but instinctual. Nannie used one green thumb in her flower beds and the other in her massive vegetable garden. It was no garden for the weak as it fed her and the families of each of her five children. All pitched in. On most evenings you could see some combination of aunts, uncles, and cousins pulling, picking, weeding, or watering somewhere along the lengthy rows.

One year Nannie planted more tomatoes than usual. It was work enough to keep vines picked clean on a normal year, but that was a good tomato year and there were additional rows. Somebody was going to have their work cut out for them.

“Somebody” that year was me and my cousin Jan.

I didn’t recall our volunteering for tomato duty. Still, Jan and I ended up on the front lines the morning Nannie called to say there were tomatoes to be picked. We walked casually towards the long rows, empty buckets swinging from our hands, not bothered in the least by a few silly tomatoes. The picking began.

“I’ll never finish.” I moaned.

Sweat dripped from Jan’s nose as she bent to pick another tomato. She seemed to be handling the season pretty well so far. She always loved tomatoes.

“I hate tomatoes.” she stood slowly with a full bucket.

Once tomato vines start producing they don’t stop so the picking was a daily chore. The first week of the season Jan and I met under the grape arbor to have a few laughs before starting. This would be fun. By the second week we weren’t laughing. This wasn’t fun.

We didn’t pick alone. Nannie was right there with us and if she wasn’t it was only because she was shelling beans, pulling corn, or freezing or canning one ripe thing or another. Weeks into the season and Nannie never faltered. Each morning she’d grab a bucket, hum a hymn, and walk methodically down a tomato row. Jan and I limped along behind her.

The rows were so long that I swore green tomatoes I passed at the beginning were ripe before I got to the end. Each tomato became a lead weight and the end of each row seemed farther away than before. Jan and I sweated, clutched our aching backs, and whined that the rows were getting longer when we weren’t looking. Nannie never complained which added to our frustration. How could she be so happy about this? Why wasn’t she tired of it? How did she stay so happy about a chore that seemed never-ending?

We asked her just that.

“Well.” Nannie began. “Sometimes you need to look at how far you’ve come, not how far you have to go.”

Oh. And with that she effortlessly picked up two full buckets and headed back to the house, happily humming all the while.

I wrapped up the story for my friend by saying that while Jan and I did continue to pray for an early frost, we put Nannie’s advice to use for the duration of the season. Our muscles stayed sore and our backs still cramped, but admittedly the burden seemed lighter by looking at how far we’d come and not how far we had yet to go. I thought my friend might apply that notion to his packing and school work, or to any effort really.

He didn’t get it.

He politely thanked me for yet another Nannie-ism and grumbled that he had to rush home to the hassle of more packing and to finish a paper for his graduate class. I assumed that was the last I’d see of him for a while knowing his workload. However, I happened to pass him on the street just a week or so later. I prepared to hear the negative update on the packing and schoolwork, instead he was all smiles.

I didn’t get it.

He casually mentioned the packing he had left to do and although he’d finished the paper for school, he now had one more to complete. Still he continued to smile. I couldn’t help but ask about his new attitude.

“You still have plenty going on but it’s not getting you down as much?” I asked.

I was then afraid I’d given him a reason to sink back into the negativity of all he had yet to finish. I tried to clarify by saying I understood how stressful it was to have multiple things to accomplish and how understandable it was to feel bogged down at times. Knowing he had so much to get done I was happy to see he wasn’t overwhelmed by all he had left to do, which showed in his attitude.

“Well.” he grinned. “Sometimes you need to look at how far you’ve come, not how far you have to go.”

He got it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Get Dirty

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off just dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Baby Doll

My four year old daughter, Greer, resisted a bit when I told her bath time was over. After I’d scrubbed dirt from her that only a four year old could accumulate, she quietly played with her bath toys. For a good twenty minutes she casually poured water from a plastic toy telephone into a pink Barbie car, back and forth, until I urged her again to get out of the tub.

“Come on Baby Doll.” I said, using the nickname I’d given her the day we brought her home from the hospital.

I helped her from the tub and draped her with a towel warm from the dryer. That was something I began doing for her and my son Evan when I noticed their tiny teeth chattered the instant they stepped from the warm bath water. She hugged the warm towel and pulled it over her head as she spoke, mispronouncing her thanks as only a four year old comically could.

I couldn’t see her face but I could tell her lips were quivering.

“Tattoo Daddy.”

“You’re welcome Baby Doll.” I admit I choked back tears in the sweetness of the moment.

That was almost fifteen years ago.

During most of those years I continued to call her “Baby Doll”. I slowed up some when she became a teenager and the dramatic rolling of her eyes indicated she preferred to be called by her real name. At least in front of her friends.

As years passed I’d often recount the bath tub story and how she’d thanked me for the towel. She had no memory of that but thought it funny. “Tattoo Daddy” became her thanks to me again for a few years as our own inside joke. In recent years, however, both “Tattoo Daddy” and “Baby Doll” slowly faded away.

Greer is eighteen now. She drives her own car, the pink Barbie car from the bath tub a relic of the past and recently she called me on her iPhone, which has replaced her long gone plastic toy telephone. She called to talk about paperwork she needed for college admission and during the course of that conversation we also discussed how time has flown by so quickly.

That tiny baby girl we brought home from the hospital is now about to embark on a very big milestone in her life. I used to laugh at other parents when they became emotional about their children going to college. How silly, I thought.

It’s not silly.

We didn’t bring up the bath tub story, but Greer and I reminisced about a lot of things during that one phone call. I was impressed with her maturity, happy she remembered fun childhood moments, and surprised by the emotion in her voice.

Focusing back to the business of college paperwork I told her not to worry. Even though I was in denial that my tiny baby girl was about to set off into the real world, I would certainly get everything back to her as soon as I could. She probably heard the emotion in my voice as I told her I would do anything she needed. There was a momentary pause on the line.

I couldn’t see her face but I could tell her lips were quivering.

“Tattoo Daddy.”

“You’re welcome Baby Doll.” I admit I choked back tears in the sweetness of the moment.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Simple Hello

The evening commute home was a scramble as people rushed and crushed onto the train fighting for a place to sit or stand.  A last-minute couple pushed through the door dropping tourist maps in their haste. Forced by the crowd to split up, the man went one way and the woman another.

The woman sat down in the last vacant seat next to where I stood and began to refold maps. Beside her sat a well-dressed business woman who appeared to read something work-related even after a day at the office. The two glanced briefly at each other, said nothing, and went back to their tasks of reading and map folding.

Things calmed as the train doors shut and people settled into seats or places to stand. As we waited for the train to depart, only the rustling of newspapers or the occasional ring of a cell phone could be heard. The two women beside me were silent.

Finished with her reading, the business woman put papers back into a briefcase. The tourist woman fumbled with one last map and slipped it into a tote bag. Each woman stared straight ahead.

The train slowly moved.

Ms. Tourist turned towards Ms. Business.

“Hello.” Ms. Tourist said. That simple sound caught me off guard.

For the most part people say little or nothing on these commutes. Less a function of being unfriendly and more a symptom of preoccupied minds, people say nothing. Me included, but I’ve often wondered how funny, smart, or maybe obnoxious the person next to me might be during any given commute if we only chatted. Still, silence is the norm.

Not even a simple hello.

That’s why Ms. Tourist’s simple “hello” caught Ms. Business off guard as well. She whirled to face Ms. Tourist, stared at her for a second, and gave a “hello” in return. Each smiled slightly then stared straight ahead once again.

Perhaps shocked by the simple approach, seconds later Ms. Business returned the favor. “I saw your maps. Are you here on vacation?” she asked.

Ms. Tourist shook her head yes.

The train sped up.

Where are you from? Ms. Tourist asked.

Philadelphia originally.

Oh really? My son lives there now!

And you? Where are you visiting from?

Atlanta.

How funny! My daughter lives there now!

The train reached full speed.

And so did conversation between Ms. Tourist and Ms. Business. Questions flew, answers flew, and in the process the women discovered they each had family living within miles of the other, had probably crossed paths at several restaurants, and both had grandfathers from North Carolina.

The train was still going full speed when their conversation became louder. The women agreed on movies they loved, books they hated, what humidity did to their hair, and how they wished their husbands didn’t snore so much. They covered politics, parenting, and pantyhose for the remainder of the trip.

As the train slowed to approach the station, Ms. Business plugged Ms. Tourist’s number into her iPhone. When the train came to a stop the women stood, actually hugged goodbye, and Ms. Business hurried through the door to catch her bus.

As the thick crowd exited the train Ms. Tourist rejoined her husband. I followed them onto the escalator and listened as Ms. Tourist excitedly recounted to her husband all she’d learned from the woman beside her, how nice she was, all they had in common, and how they’d probably meet up in Atlanta the next time the woman came to visit her daughter.

As we stepped from the escalator Mr. Tourist stopped and turned to his wife. He looked sincerely puzzled.

“How did you learn all of that? What’s your secret?” he asked laughing. As I walked past them towards my bus I saw Ms. Tourist shrug her shoulders as she explained her secret.

“I said hello.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Tend the Garden

A longtime friend commented during dinner that her next door neighbor’s son was on the path to nowhere and constantly in trouble. She thought herself clever referring to him as “a weed in the garden of life”. Although an avid fan of barbed words and wit, I found her comment harsh directed at a kid who was barely a teenager. He was dismissed and labeled as worthless. A weed.

“But maybe he’s a pokeweed!” I said in a positive tone.

She rolled her eyes. I recognized the look of resignation on her face. The look many of my friends have when I spit out a puzzling one-liner and they know a story is coming. She sipped her drink and grinned, arms crossed in silent permission for me to proceed.

Years ago I had a yard packed with plants. It was full of boxwoods, azaleas, and geraniums surrounding a dogwood centerpiece. A problem area at one end of the garden saw pokeweeds sprout thickly every spring. I chopped them back, broke them off, stomped them down, but still they sprouted. I finally spent a day digging up the massive roots and unceremoniously dumped them in the woods.

The very next weekend I was in the woods again to dump my centerpiece dogwood which had spent two years dying a slow death until I finally cut it down. I noticed that some of the pokeweed roots dumped a week earlier had sprouted while simply lying in the open air.

A week later, back in the woods to dump grass clippings, I saw that all of the sprouting pokeweeds had died except for one scrawny stem with two leaves. It leaned feebly towards the light. I pondered the struggle of that weed and impressed by its determination, I picked up the withering root and took it with me. In the hole where my dogwood had once grown I replanted the weed. Right in the center of my garden.

In only two days the frail sprout became sturdy and turned a darker green. I watered the pokeweed daily and even fertilized the baby beast. It took off.

When friends dropped by they told me, as though I didn’t know, that I had a weed growing in the center of my garden.

“Why are you leaving that there?”

“What’s that doing in your garden?”

“What is that awful thing?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

My grandmother loved to garden and I learned all I know from her. Nannie said about various plants in her own garden, “It’s only weed if you don’t want it.”

I wanted this pokeweed.

Summer passed and the pokeweed grew. And grew. It was soon taller than me. Huge dark green leaves and red stems were supported by a thick reddish stalk. I trimmed and trained the pokeweed as it grew and by the end of summer it was a massive umbrella of a plant and a beautiful centerpiece in the garden. As fall approached, hundreds of tiny white flower clusters transformed into huge bunches of purplish-black berries. Cardinals, robins, and mockingbirds feasted for many days. Friends continued to drop by.

“What a beautiful plant!”

“That’s amazing!”

“What is it?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

In the end, this unwanted “weed in the garden of life” had given me weeks of enjoyment, triggered hours of conversation, fed countless birds, and for one summer became the centerpiece of my garden and was admired by people from all over. It took very little effort.

Amazingly still awake after that story, my friend at dinner leaned forward and took another sip of her drink. She grinned with understanding as she spoke.

“So, I get it. Instead of tossing this kid next door into the woods, train him a little, make him the centerpiece for a while?”

“He’s only a weed if he’s not wanted.” I shrugged my shoulders as I spoke. “It’s certainly worth the effort.”

As a reward for her staying awake during yet another of my stories I thought I would suggest we have dessert. My treat.

“So,” I began, “how about cheesecake, or maybe carrot cake?”

“I can’t this time.” She said. “I need to get going.”

Worried I’d irritated her with my pokeweed memories; I apologized and promised no more storytelling that evening.

“Oh that’s not it at all!” She declared.

“Was it something I said?” I asked.

“It certainly was.” She grinned as she stood to leave. “There’s a little pokeweed next door at home who might want to go see a movie or something.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Just Some Vanilla

I’m no fan of snow, but as my eyes roll in disgust at weather forecasts I concede there were times when snowfalls thrilled me. Not due to missing school, sleigh riding, or building snowmen, but because Vicki and I would go to the store for Nannie.

At an unknown point in our youth, after one snowstorm or another, my sister Vicki and I decided we must plod across the field through snow, no matter the depth, to see if our grandmother needed anything from the store. Nannie lived in a huge old farmhouse, had always cooked for many, and could have at any point in time prepared a meal for forty out of what she had in her cabinets and refrigerator. Not even touching what was stored in her cellar.

Still… Vicki and I were sure Nannie needed something and we’d save the day by trudging through snow to ask, trekking through snow to the store, then slogging back through snow with the precious items we knew she needed badly but was unable to get out and get. Proud of our impending usefulness, we stomped snow from our boots and headed inside for what was sure to be a massive grocery list from Nannie. How else could she make it to the spring thaw if not for our efforts?  It was important to her that we helped, we were sure. We waited for her to list all of the things she needed desperately from the store.

“Well,” Nannie began as she watched snow pile against the window, “y’all could get me some vanilla.”

She did a lot of baking, we knew, but no milk? No bread? Coffee even? A side of beef? Anything? Just vanilla? Still, if it was important to Nannie, it was important to us and this vanilla was apparently very necessary. How fortuitous that we were there! Off to the store in the foul weather, vanilla purchased, and back to Nannie’s. We returned cold, soaked, red-cheeked, and tired… but mission accomplished. We had value.

That pattern repeated for a few years after every snowfall of every winter. If there were two heavy snows in a winter, Nannie somehow needed two bottles of vanilla. Our timing was uncanny. How relevant we were. It was important for Nannie to have that vanilla and without us her hopes would have been dashed. We felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and pride after helping. We were just kids, but we mattered!

Years later as adults, actually during the heat of summer, Vicki and I sat talking with Nannie on her back porch. Somehow conversation worked around to those long ago winters. I laughed and asked her why she needed so much vanilla. She thought for a minute about what I’d just said, then grinned.

“I didn’t need vanilla, but it was important to y’all to help, so that’s what I asked for.” Nannie said.

She followed up by saying she didn’t remember exactly but there were times she probably could have used something else but she’d never have asked us to haul groceries in the snow. She only “needed” vanilla because she knew it mattered to us to be of help – and it was easy for us to carry!

Some years after that conversation, with Nannie gone and her house being emptied, I stood in her kitchen and absent mindedly opened a cabinet. Pushed into one corner were several bottles of vanilla, some still in their original tiny cardboard boxes. I didn’t know if any of those might have been purchased in a snowstorm of the past, but I slipped one into my pocket just the same.

I still have that reminder.

By trying to do something we thought important to her, Nannie allowed us to feel that we were important.

I often sent my kids for vanilla when they were little. Not literally, but when I recognized in their faces that need to please by doing right, to feel important, to matter, I made sure I needed vanilla and I made sure they knew I couldn’t have gotten it without them.

Every kid should be sent to get vanilla, and often.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Very Inspiring?

I sincerely thank Rebecca Daley at https://ohtogoawandering.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/753/  for nominating me for a Very Inspiring Blogger award.

Many of us who blog on WordPress joke that “awards” in this world are more like a game of tag. That’s true! But no one tags randomly and I consider a nomination for an award of any kind to be a great compliment.

We write to be read. We spit out our thoughts and imagine that everyone, or no one, is reading them. But how can we know whether anyone is reading them?

Well, now I know that Rebecca Daley is reading them because she recognized me in one of the only methods available to us here on WordPress. For that I thank her and am happy to follow the “rules” in appreciation!

Here are the rules for the award:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other blogs you enjoy, then comment on their posts to let them know that you have nominated them.

Seven facts about me:

  1. I currently live in Alexandria, Virginia and work at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. doing administrative work for the Lombardi Cancer Center.
  2. I was born in Richmond, Virginia and lived there my entire life before moving here about five years ago.
  3. I miss digging potatoes with my huge extended family, shelling butter beans on my grandmother’s back porch, picking tomatoes with my cousins, shucking corn by the barn, and picking blackberries in the pasture. And I miss childhood collie, Mitzi, my good friend.
  4. My daughter is now 18 and my son will soon be 17. In my mind they’re still playing in the sandbox while I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Barney is playing on the TV for when they come in, and after their naps we’ll go to Mama’s for a little while.
  5.  I love life in D.C. but I miss open fields. I’ve been known to go for a drive just to see grass and nothing. I appreciate open nothingness and a horizon.
  6. And cows. I appreciate cows. I’ve known quite a few fine cows in my life. When you imagine a strong, stoic, powerfully maternal, intelligent, social, gentle personality –  think cow. Just try it.
  7. I began to blog almost on a dare. A good friend of mine insisted that others might want to hear stories she’d long heard me go on about. I doubted that, but after a year of pestering I published my first post and it’s been nothing but fun ever since.
  8. And finally – my fifteen nominations. Numbered, but listed in no particular order because I appreciate them all for various reasons and none can really be compared to the other:

To the nominees – you may not care to take part or may have already been nominated. Either way, please take this as a friendly nod in your direction!

Stuart M. Perkins

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