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You’re an Abelia

“I believe you’re an abelia.” Nannie said to me as she slipped her well-used hand pruners into the large, practical front pocket of her hand-made cotton dress.

Had she called me an abelia a few hours earlier the label would have seemed meaningless, even nonsensical. Nothing my grandmother said to me had ever been meaningless or nonsensical and neither was her labeling me an abelia. In fact, after the conversation we’d just had, it made me feel hopeful.

Nannie had asked me one evening if I could come over the next day to help her trim some bushes that grew along the side of her old farmhouse. I always agreed to help her do anything she asked and not just because she was the perfect grandmother. She was also fun, funny, cheerful, and the most encouraging person I’ve ever known. Being around her was uplifting and helping her do anything meant a good time in the process. We especially enjoyed our times working in the yard together.

We carried on lively conversations as we trimmed the dead wood from a few of her ancient azaleas. I soon mentioned that I had applied for a different job but had recently learned it was given to another candidate. I often felt that whenever I had a chance to get ahead something always knocked me back. It seemed to happen every time. Earlier that summer I had earned an extra hundred dollars one Saturday. On Monday I found out my car needed a small part replaced. The part cost ninety-nine dollars. When I grumbled about my uncanny bad luck, Nannie disagreed.

“To me it seems like He provided for your need.” she said casually as she lopped a dead azalea branch. “Plus, you got an extra dollar.”

I knew the attitude of hers I was up against – an unwaveringly positive one – but I continued complaining about my station in life and how it seemed my setbacks happened far too often. As I tossed some dead azalea branches to the side, Nannie reminded me not to cut off any of the live ones.

“Azaleas bloom on the old wood, so if you cut them too far back it means no blooms next year.” she explained. However, as she spoke she chopped large amounts of live branches from the next shrub she had begun pruning. She noticed my puzzled expression as she hacked the massive bush back another foot or two.

“It’s an abelia and they bloom on the new growth. This won’t hurt next year’s flowers.” she clarified.

I started raking the clippings and branches we’d cut so far. As Nannie kept cutting huge amounts from the shrub in front of her I said, “Well, I must be an azalea!”

“How do you reckon?” she asked, grinning as she fought to remove a tiny twig lodged in her hair net.

“Because I feel like every time I get ready to bloom something comes along and chops me back too far.” I answered. “I keep trying to bloom on my old growth and things keep hacking me back!”

Nannie plucked the little twig from her hair net and looked at me for a minute.

“Look over yonder.” she said, pointing to a little shrub no more than a foot tall but completely covered in tiny blooms and fresh green growth.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t get it.

“That’s an abelia, same as this big one I’ve been cutting back.” Nannie explained as we walked over to stare down at the short but bloom covered shrub. “Last year a branch from the tree fell on it and broke most of it back, then I came and cut the rest of it almost to the ground.”

“Yeah?” I repeated. I was going to need a little more to go on here.

She continued. “That abelia tried to bloom and a tree fell on it. It tried to bloom again and I cut it to the ground. When it was finally able, it bloomed better than any of these others that were never cut back.”

All of those setbacks had actually made it bloom more. I finally got what she meant.

“Don’t worry about any old setbacks. Your time will come.” Nannie said.

I understood. Although I felt setbacks were stopping me, they really weren’t. Setbacks can make us tougher, more determined, and better prepared for the time when we really are ready to bloom. I just needed to be patient, work through my setbacks when they came, and my time to bloom would certainly come.

“I’m not an azalea.” I said out loud, almost relieved.

“Not at all.” Nannie said as she smiled and slipped her hand pruners into her pocket. “I believe you’re an abelia.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Stew Day

My Sunday morning walk took me by the local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from their truck seats, stretched, and waved to other vendors arriving to set up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out dozens of ears of corn alongside boxes of huge red tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of tomatoes, squash, butter beans and other vegetables rivaled any farmers market display. The mounds of our homegrown produce also meant it was time for a Brunswick stew…

I was an adult before I realized just how fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. My grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their children a bordering piece of land on which to build their homes. My grandparents’ farmhouse and the huge garden worked by our families were the focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who happened to be my cousins. From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on the swing set, an uncle on the tractor, or my grandmother Nannie under the apple tree by the well as she emptied a bucket of just picked tomatoes onto an old metal table. With so much ripe and ready at once, it was time for the stew.

It was exciting to wake up to the faint smell of wood smoke wafting through my bedroom window from across the field. Daddy and the uncles would have gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. It was no stove-top pot. That thing could easily hold two small kids. A cousin and I proved that once during a game of hide-and-seek! By the time we kids showed up on the morning of the stew, the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama and the aunts had readied the meat and cut up vegetables from the garden.

For the next several hours we kids would play – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between kitchen and the boiling stew. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what appeared to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. As a kid I remember thinking how interesting it was that Mama and the aunts were in charge of family cooking all year long, but on stew day Daddy and the uncles took over. I think they just wanted to play with the fire.

Even today I have no idea what stew recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to be swirled around the giant pot. I do remember that timing seemed to be everything and there was generally great debate over several major points. Time for the corn, no add the butter beans first, is the meat already in, should we add more water, have the tomatoes cooked down, add salt, don’t add salt, get that oak leaf out that just fell in, and on and on.

Hours later, after being properly talked over and paddled, the stew was ready. It was always good, but with Nannie’s homemade rolls alongside, it was even better. Since making homemade ice cream was a separate family event unto itself, Nannie had usually made blackberry roll for dessert instead, having picked the blackberries in the pasture herself. Naturally we washed it all down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about all of the family stews we had in the past and how long it had been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked my kitchen cabinets. I did have one can of store bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but I’m certain it won’t be as good as the “real” stuff. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables, the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews so memorable.

I imagine it was more likely the fact that each time I ate “real” stew I was surrounded by laughing aunts and uncles, Nannie in her apron, and the rest of my extended family. We were gathered there under a tree, bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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