Tag Archives: grandmother

Doing Corn!

Prompted by friends who insisted others might enjoy my stories from home, I began this blog. Seven years ago now! Below is the very first story I posted. Appropriate because it was this time of year when I began the blog, this time of year when the story occurred, and this particular memory which inspired the name “Storyshucker”.  Blogging has been fun, has led to other writing opportunities, and most importantly has shown me how alike we are. You can blindly pick a spot on the globe and know that the people you point to have memories of home, reminisce about the old days, and love to share their stories. You have a story too. Write it down.

 

Doing Corn!

Years ago I reminisced with coworkers about past experiences we longed to relive. One said “I want to do Italy again! The sights and sounds!” Another said “I want to do Paris again! The shopping!” When asked what summertime excitement I wanted to have again I whispered, “I want to do corn…”

Nannie, my grandmother, had acres of garden which were summer’s focus for our huge extended family. We anticipated nothing more than corn. Excitement began the day Daddy hooked the planter to the tractor, dropping seed kernels into the many long rows. Weeks later, we pulled suckers in the hot cornfield.

“Straighten up the stalks as you go.” Daddy said, wiping his face with a handkerchief.

As weeks passed, Nannie checked the developing ears by pulling back shucks just enough to stick a fingernail into a single kernel. Others leaned in to monitor her testing…

“If we’d get some rain it would go on and make.” Mama predicted.

“You could get enough for supper now.” Aunt Noody insisted.

More weeks passed and as the entire field neared “readiness” everyone waited for word from Nannie. On pins and needles we kids anticipated an exciting proclamation, but in true Nannie-style she only casually posed the question. “Y’all want to do corn Tuesday?”

Tuesday morning aunts started early “before it got hot”. Yawning cousins gathered by the barn with lawn chairs, buckets, tubs, and knives. Out in the field we saw tops of cornstalks jerk and heard the distant “sca-runch!” of an ear being pulled.

“Lord, it’s snaky in here.” Aunt Helen declared. “Sca-runch!” we heard again.

One by one, aunts emerged from the cornfield pushing heaping-full wheelbarrows. They made it to the shade of the ancient oak by the barn, wiped sweaty faces, and sat in chairs arranged around bushel baskets to hold the shucks. Shucking style was important and if we cousins didn’t get all the silks off “we just as well not shuck”. Wormy ears were passed to experienced aunts who flicked away the wriggling offenders and cut off damaged kernels with surgical precision. As each tub filled with shucked corn, a younger cousin ran it up to Nannie’s house to be blanched in huge pots of boiling water on her old stove.

Nannie hummed hymns as she took steaming ears of corn from the pots and plopped them into ice water in her old ceramic kitchen sink. Older cousins stood at her counter and cut corn from the cobs.

Aunt Dessie asked “How many pints y’all reckon we’ll get?” as cousins packed corn into freezer cartons.

“I’ve still got some from last year so don’t count out any for me.” Aunt Jenny demanded.

We snuck mouthfuls of corn as we cut it from the cobs, but we didn’t need to. Nannie always saved out “pretty” ears for lunch. We ate on her huge porch, leaning over plates, butter dripping from chins. After lunch we did more corn until Nannie announced “It’s just too hot.”

The steamy kitchen was cleaned, sticky hands washed, and freezer cartons full of corn were divided up. Mama and the aunts stacked the filled cartons onto trays and we all walked home across the field to put them in our freezers. We had done corn.

My coworkers’ favorite summer memories may be of Paris and Italy where shopping, sights, and sounds made them happy, but not mine. A hot summer day with sticky hands and a chin covered in dripping butter is what I long for again.

I don’t need to visit foreign places to hear the sounds I loved. I want to go home and hear Nannie hum, cousins giggle, and a “sca-runch!” in the cornfield. I want to do corn…

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

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A New Leaf

While working in the flower garden out back yesterday, I noticed a few “weeds” in full bloom. I was reminded of this little piece I wrote not long ago about those very plants:

A New Leaf

My bed felt too good to leave that early summer morning years ago. I yawned, fluffed my pillow a little, and rolled over. The house seemed quiet. Hopefully no one was around to tell me to get up.

“Get up!” my sister yelled from the hallway.

“For what?” I yelled back in a tone indicating I had no intention of leaving the bed.

“We told Nannie we’d pull weeds.” My sister loomed over my bed, hand on her hip.

My grandmother’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Richmond was surrounded by huge curved flowerbeds, with several more dotting the ample yard. In addition to tending to the yearly cycles that played out in her massive vegetable garden, there were also routine chores in her yard that required a good deal of work. One tedious task was pulling the first flush of summer weeds from her rose bed. The entire bed was periodically smothered in wild violets and other low-growing things we had to pull, which we at home simply referred to disgustedly as “chickweed.”

My sister and I pulled for hours. Starting at one end of the long bed, by the handfuls we ripped out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load until we had nearly reached the opposite end. Tired of persistent gnats and wiping gritty sweat from my face, I could think only of getting on my bicycle to meet friends down at Falling Creek for some cool relief. Just one more hefty patch of chickweed and we would be finished.

As I stood to stretch, I noticed a thick stand of violets under a nearby crepe myrtle. In years past we had never been able to get rid of that particular bunch of violets, try as we might, and we knew we would be back at it again this year.

“We’ll pull those violets when we finish this,” I said with resignation, pointing to the chickweed at my feet.

“You can leave the violets be.” Nannie responded as she walked towards them. She tossed a small handful of fertilizer into the center of the mass from the bucket she carried.

“Did you just fertilize those weeds?” I asked, puzzled. She had always wished the violets gone.

“It’s only a weed if you don’t want it.” Nannie said, tossing a second small handful of fertilizer.

Still puzzled, we agreed to leave the violets alone. Stretching again, I sat on the ground to rest and noticed several strands of chickweed lodged in my shoelaces. I plucked out one stem and absent-mindedly studied the small piece of nuisance.

Although I had pulled up pounds of that plant over the years I had never bothered to look at it closely. “Hey!” I yelled to Nannie. “The stems on these things are square, not round! And look! The flowers are like tiny orchids!” In my mind, I had discovered something remarkable.

What I had “discovered,” I learned years later, was that this was not chickweed. It was actually purple dead-nettle, a non-native intrusive plant with purplish-green leaves and tiny purple flowers. The plant is found, well, all over the place. That was unknown to me at the time.

“Can we keep these?” I asked excitedly, pointing to the last bit we had yet to pull from the rose bed. I was certain I was preserving something special. “These might be the last of their kind!”

“Yeah, except for those.” my sister said sarcastically, pointing towards the barn where at least two acres of pasture appeared dusty purple in the sun from the masses of dead-nettle growing there.

Nannie stared down at the remaining patch of green in her rose bed. “You want to leave these weeds?” she asked.

“But it’s only a weed if you don’t want it,” I grinned. The very same weedy problem I had cursed every year was suddenly something unique and worthwhile to me.

Nannie smiled and said nothing. She walked back to the crepe myrtle where she tossed another small handful of fertilizer onto the violets growing beneath.

Nannie had shifted her view of those violets. Practiced at picking her battles rather than fighting them, she embraced them and by doing so turned a headache into a showpiece. It was all about perspective. Satisfaction can come by a simple change in attitude. Nannie learned that lesson long ago. And now she taught it with the help of a few insignificant weeds.

I quickly understood Nannie’s change of heart regarding the violets, and I marveled at how smoothly she turned a problem into a bonus. But I wasn’t sure she agreed when I applied that notion to the scraggly green weedy blob remaining in her rose bed. Nannie walked towards the house, passing my sister and me still sitting on the ground.

She was just a few steps past us when she stopped, turned around, grinned and tossed a small handful of fertilizer onto my chickweed.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Hand in Hand

My grandmother, Nannie, died almost thirty years ago but I still tear up at her memory.

At the time she died I had never written much at all, and certainly not attempted poetry, but the urge to express what she meant to me kept surfacing. Her love of God and her insistence that we would all eventually be together again were on my mind as I thought about writing a poem.

Nannie was a second mother to all of her grandchildren, helping our mothers raise us, watch out for us, worry over us and pray for us.

Just after Nannie died I mentioned to a friend that I had a poem in mind, one that kept surfacing when I least expected it. I mentioned how I wished I’d written something for Nannie before she died so she could have read it. My friend had one response.

“Write it for her anyway.”

And so I did.

Some years later that same friend called to let me know her mother died. In discussing what the family intended to do for a service, my friend said she was going to write some things to say about her mother but wished she’d written them while her mother was still alive. I returned the obvious response.

“Write it for her anyway.”

My friend had long forgotten that she’d given me the same suggestion, one that would encourage me to write my first poem. Nannie wasn’t there to read it, but I wrote it for her anyway:

Hand in Hand

You held me tight in times I might
Not have wanted to stand.
A child so young, life just begun,
You there to hold my hand.

Your years flew past, painfully fast,
Sooner than I had planned.
Effort in talking, weakness in walking,
My turn to hold your hand.

But there’ll come a time, both yours and mine
To see wonderful things, so grand.
We’ll meet in that place, a smile on the face
And we’ll hold each other‘s hand.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Nannie’s Roses

Nannie would do it here, I think.

“Snip”

And probably right here.

“Snip”

This one could use it too.

“Snip”

With new clippers in hand I trimmed spent flower stems from sad looking rose bushes in the backyard. These were nothing like the ones my grandmother used to grow. When I was a child Nannie had dozens of healthy rose bushes vibrantly blooming in the yard around her farmhouse. I don’t think she had purchased a single one of them.

Some may have been given to her by friends, but most she had rooted herself. Usually people admire the gift of a flower arrangement for days until the flowers fade and are thrown away. Not Nannie. Almost upon arrival, flower arrangements of any kind and especially those containing roses were dismantled, clipped, stripped, dipped in rooting powder and plugged into her rooting bed. Some months later and voila! One more rose bush for her yard or to give to someone “down at church”.

As a child it seemed a miracle to me that short thorny sticks with a few wilted leaves could become anything at all. I said so to Nannie, remarking that I thought it a miracle and asking how she could be sure they would grow. She agreed it was a miracle and said she was never sure they would grow; she had faith they would grow.

Nannie’s faith was the backbone of her existence. I’ve never known a more faithful Christian than my grandmother. She didn’t preach about what should be done, she shared her faith showing what could be done. A true teacher by example. Oh sure, she often asked why I hadn’t been in Sunday School the week before, or said if I went to church the next Sunday she’d sit with me, and other guiding comments any grandmother would make but she had a way of weaving her suggestions and lessons into everyday conversations. We had many good and deep conversations while working in her rose beds, most of them about the importance faith and family played in her life.

I’ve never claimed to be a good Christian. Actually she never made that claim about herself either, being a modest woman, but to everyone else she certainly was. All who met her were struck by the love she had for her family and her endless solid faith in God.

Nannie died twenty five years ago. Only twice in my life have I attempted poetry and both pieces were written about her shortly after her death. I reread this poem after all these years and had to smile. Economy of words has never been my forte when writing but I had to get it out, I suppose. With few alterations I’ve included it below.

I’m solid in my own beliefs and thankful that a remarkable woman, who happened to be my own grandmother, was there to guide me in such a way that I learned early on about the power of faith and importance of family. But this poem isn’t about me and my beliefs or love of family as much as it is about Nannie and my respect for the lifelong commitment she showed to hers.

 

 

Nannie’s Roses

 

I loved helping Nannie

With her roses. One day

She tried telling me something

That went sort of this way:

 

“I like watching things bloom,

Not just flowers, you know.

With the right sort of touch

You make anything grow”.

 

People and roses,

She told me that day,

Both need some training

To grow the right way.

 

“Sometimes they ramble

To grow where they could,

But it’s for me to see

That they grow where they should”.

 

And I knew she meant us

For as everyone knows,

Each one in her family

She considered a rose.

 

She rooted us strongly.

We were tended and groomed.

Then she’d smile as she waited,

She knew we would bloom.

 

She said “Family and roses

Were trained by my hand.

The old ones grew tall

And learned how to stand.

 

My younger ones now

Are not quite so tame.

Their blooms may be different

But I love them the same.

 

And I know with some work

And the help of my hands

They’ll grow as the others

And with them they’ll stand”.

 

“But these older ones now,

Still need help today?”

I asked and she said,

“No I’ve shown them the way.

 

I’ve given them love

And plenty of room.

They’re on their own now

To grow and to bloom.

 

For both family and roses

There does come the time

To depend on their own strength

And let go of mine.”

 

Now we and the roses,

Alone we all stand.

Sadly she’s gone

With her strong guiding hand.

 

Each a rose in her garden,

We were guided with love.

Now she’s watching us bloom

From somewhere above.

 

As we bloomed in her garden,

We’re all sure somehow,

That she’s a rose blooming

In His garden now.

 

Stuart M. Perkins

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Virginia Living!

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in the June issue of Virginia Living magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine again (I also had an essay published back in their February 2016 issue) and as a native Virginian, like my parents and theirs, it was especially fun to contribute to a publication I’ve had in my own home over the years.

Below is a link to my essay in the online version of Virginia Living.  Check it out and if you like please comment on their site below the essay!

http://www.virginialiving.com/home-garden/a-new-leaf/

Thanks to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to some great opportunities.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Finial Moment

Friends and I enjoyed brunch the other day. Afterwards, I suggested we stop by the local antique store to see what was new…

No one got the joke.

Still laughing at myself, because it never takes much, I held the door for the others as we entered and went our separate ways down cluttered and dusty aisles.

We hadn’t been there long when I saw, tucked between Mason jars and wicker baskets, an old Thanksgiving decoration like one Mama used when I was a kid. It was a turkey with a cardboard head but the rest of it was the honeycomb style that opened and latched onto itself, giving the turkey a big round body. Its cardboard head was bent and its big round body didn’t latch anymore, but I held it up to look at it and wondered whose it used to be, where they might have placed it, and how many kids had ever touched it or crunched it.

“You want that thing?” one friend asked.

“No, I’m just having a finial moment.” I responded.

“Ok…” my friend said. He waited for an explanation.

For years and years, the same floor lamp stood in the same corner of the den at home. It was always positioned at one end of the couch regardless of how the room was arranged. Mama rarely rearranged, so the lamp stood in the same spot forever it seemed. The lamp sported three light bulbs and was about six feet tall counting the huge beige shade. As a kid I thought it was “fancy” because as you turned the switch you could opt for one, two, or all three bulbs to be on. Wow! Poking up above the huge beige shade was a tarnished bronze finial about an inch long.

Under that lamp at the end of the couch Mama sometimes worked crossword puzzles or sewed loose buttons. Daddy would temporarily leave his recliner to sit under the extra light to squint at a roadmap or at the faded date on an old coin. My three sisters and I took turns sitting under that lamp to do homework, color, or play games.

We laughed, argued, and watched television under that lamp. Daddy told stories about his workdays and Mama made sure he was caught up on neighborhood happenings, all under the lamp. That lamp saw holidays and birthdays and every day as soon as it was dark outside it was turned on. It was the last light to go out at night. That same lamp had been there forever and would be there forever. Such a thing couldn’t be replaced.

One day Mama replaced it.

I came home after school to see the old lamp standing beside the trash can. The shade itself, admittedly less beige and torn in two spots, had been smashed unceremoniously into the trash can. Poking up above the less beige lampshade was the tarnished bronze finial. I pulled at the finial and realized it could be unscrewed from the shade. I’d gotten it almost off when Mama walked by on her way to the clothesline.

“You want that thing?” she asked as she adjusted the laundry basket on her hip.

“Yep.”  I said. I removed the finial and kept it.

That was almost forty years ago and I still have it.

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve come across that finial, but each time, I’ve held it and remembered countless days and nights at home as a kid. That little finial sat in the same room with me and my family as we celebrated happy times, cried over sad times, or did absolutely nothing but be with each other one regular old evening after another.

Photographs are wonderful, but to hold an object in your hand that has the power to bring back so many memories is a gift. We should accept those when they’re given.

I have several boxes full of items like the finial. Sometimes I go to the boxes just to have a finial moment with one object or another.

When I hold a tiny porcelain giraffe I think about Nannie in her chair by the window. She’s crocheting and smiling because someone’s walking up the path under the walnut tree coming for a visit. Her rolls are almost ready in the oven and my aunt Dessie will be over later to fix her hair for church tomorrow. Nannie had a hundred houseplants and for years the tiny porcelain giraffe stood in the dirt under her Christmas cactus. When she gave me the plant I got the giraffe. The Christmas cactus died long ago, but I kept the tiny giraffe and when I look at it I see the plant blooming on Nannie’s table.

Three little magnets I keep in the box remind me of Granddaddy. When I was a kid he used those magnets to show me “magic”. He’d put one magnet on the dining room table and ask it to spin, which it did wildly for him but not for me! I never thought to look for him holding the other two magnets in his hand under the table, close enough to make the third one react on the tabletop. He could make two magnets stick together or make them push apart, all at his command. It was magic to me. Even when I was old enough to know how he did it, I played along. The satisfied grin he gave after each performance was enough to keep me playing dumb forever. One day he called me over to the swing where he sat chewing tobacco. He “taught” me the trick, swore me to secrecy, and gave me the three little magnets.

The jagged little puppy tooth I keep makes me smile. The collie we had growing up was a good friend to us all and I still miss her, my first dog as a kid. We got Mitzi as a puppy and for thirteen years she watched me and my sisters grow up. She walked Mama and Daddy back and forth to the garden and she was gentle towards the many smaller animals that came and went through our house during her time. As a puppy, she lost that tooth in the kitchen one day and before Mama could sweep it up I took it to my room. I remember when we brought Mitzi home and I remember when we buried her. A thousand fun times are recalled when I look at the little tooth that once gnawed my hand while a tiny tail wagged.

My boxes are full of items that spark “finial moments” for me. The hinge from a gate by the barn, a feather from a quail I hatched in an incubator, a pocket knife, and a simple brown rock are just some of the items. All hold stories and images stronger for me than any photograph could trigger. I remembered these things as I talked in the antique store that day.

My friend listened to me go on as I stood there with the old Thanksgiving decoration in my hand. Several times his eyes glazed over, boredom I’d assumed, so I cut my story short. As it turned out he wasn’t bored, he was remembering…

I leaned over to put the broken turkey decoration back on the shelf as I wrapped up my story but before I could stick it back between the Mason jars and the wicker baskets my friend took it from my hand.

“You want that thing?” I asked

“Finial moment.” he said, and headed to the cashier.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Couldn’t Believe It

Tolerant friends listen whenever I tell stories about Nannie, my grandmother. She was a fountain of valuable life lessons and something happens almost daily to remind me of a Nannie-story, so I tell it. Friends are not only tolerant but often ask unprompted questions!

Was she funny?  –  She could be hilarious and she loved to laugh.

She told stories too? –  Oh yes.

True stories? –  I believed everything she said.

You believed everything she said? – Well, there was this one time…

And so I told them about a spring years ago when she said something I didn’t believe:

“I ain’t going down there.” I squinted into the darkness. The dank smell of ancient-ness floated up through cracks in the old wooden door.

“Nannie asked you to.” Vicki said sternly.

Prodded by my older sister’s reminder, I looked down at the uneven cement steps in front of me. They were stained, covered in dead leaves, and a shiny black beetle scurried past my foot as I hesitantly took the first step.

The “basement house”, as we all called it, was Nannie’s cellar. It was more like a half-cellar with an old shed built on top. Nannie canned vegetables every summer and along with her homemade jellies they lined rough-hewn wooden shelves by the dozens in the cellar’s musty depths, just through the old door and to the right.

To the left were the potatoes.

Nannie’s potato field fed her, her children, and grandchildren. We as an extended family worked each year to plant, tend, and later dig the many long rows. Bushels of potatoes brought in from the field were spread out on large wooden racks down in the basement house. Stored there, the potatoes were used as needed by our families over the course of the winter.

By spring most of the potatoes were eaten. Some were still good. Some were shriveled and less appealing. Some were rotten – and only one hideous nastiness exists on earth greater than that of a rotten potato.

A lot of rotten potatoes.

Each spring the old and rotten potatoes had to be cleaned from the bins. This involved gingerly picking up squishy rotted blobs and scraping their runny putrid remains from the shelves. Apparently Nannie had done this by herself for decades and would have carried on the lonely tradition again but for a sudden flash of volunteerism.

Vicki volunteered me.

Nannie casually watered a geranium on the well as she verified. “You wanna clean out the potato bins?” I noticed she grinned. “It ain’t that bad.”

I didn’t believe that.

Vicki chimed in. “See? Nannie wants you to do it.”

I didn’t believe that either.

The smell of a single rotten potato can slap you in the face. The smell of dozens fairly beats you about the head and shoulders. It’s ghastly. Simply passing by the basement house while Nannie cleaned the potato bins smelled as if something down there had died a thousand deaths and she was wrestling with the aftermath. I remembered that as I stood on that first step leading into the cellar.

“Git!” Vicki said, poking me in the back. I turned to look at her one last time before taking another step towards the abyss.

“I’ll be right here the whole time.” she smiled.

I didn’t believe that.

I smelled the rot before I got to the bottom of the steps. The slight breeze created as I opened the old wooden door caused sheets of cobwebs hanging on the walls to float up quickly in the air then drift slowly back into place. It was dark in there. I reached over my head to pull the dusty string attached to the one light bulb in the center of the cellar and noticed the lovely tile mosaic on the ceiling. In the weak light from the dust-covered bulb the tiny tiles seemed to be moving.

They were moving.

Camel crickets by the hundreds coated the ceiling just inches above my head. Their legs and feelers wiggled in slow motion. I let go of the dirty light bulb string and slowly lowered my arm so as not to disturb a single cricket. Camel crickets don’t hop when disturbed, they pop. If one pops it hits another, that one pops, they hit three more, those pop and suddenly it’s cricket chaos.

“Vicki!” I yelled up the steps. “Camel crickets!”

“Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.” she yelled back.

I didn’t believe that.

Through the fetid fog of potato stench I ducked and moved slowly under the crickets, passed the wall of cobwebs, stepped over several dead bugs, and stood before the potato bins. I was sweating. I stared at the dimly lit mound of potatoes and decomposing mush and realized I had no training in this. Where did I begin?

“Vicki!” I yelled up the stairs. “How am I supposed to do this?”

“Just start scooping them up.” she yelled back.

“With what?” I asked myself out loud. Vicki heard me.

“Nannie just uses her hands.” she yelled down the steps.

I didn’t believe that.

Leaning forward I grabbed what appeared to be a semi-solid piece of potato. It seemed fairly sturdy as I slowly picked it up. Two inches into the air and it still held solid. Three inches into the air and the heinous sack of disgusting noxious potato juice exploded onto my hand and ran down my arm.

I retched.

Shaking my hand in the air in a feeble attempt to rid myself of the sticky foul potato goo, I accidentally flung some of it onto the ceiling. In doing so I disturbed several crickets, they disturbed many more, and those disturbed the rest.

Covered in rotten slime I stood in the center of a popcorn popper filled with crickets. I’d had it.

“I’m coming out!” I yelled up the steps and in two leaps I surfaced. Gasping for fresh air I waited for Vicki to run sympathetically to my aid.

“Nannie’s going to want you to finish that.” Vicki said from the swing under the apple tree.

I didn’t want to believe that.

Vicki and I loved helping Nannie. No matter what chore she asked us to help with we did our best and I had never told Nannie “no”. I thought about that as Nannie walked up, bucket in hand, and looked at me.

“Finished already?” she asked.

“No.” I said.

I explained the overwhelming stench, the beetles in my shoes, the crickets popping, and my nausea. I told her I couldn’t do it and I didn’t know how she ever did it.

“It ain’t that bad.” Nannie said again.

I still didn’t believe it.

“Well, it’s got to be done. Y’all wait here.” Nannie said smiling. Bucket in hand, humming a hymn, she headed towards the basement house and disappeared into the dismal pit.

I sat in the swing by Vicki.

“I just don’t know how Nannie can do that.” I wondered out loud.

“You stink and there’s a cricket stuck to your leg.” Vicki said.

As I plucked the cricket glued to my leg by potato goo, Vicki and I heard Nannie’s muffled voice coming from the basement house.

“Mercy!”

“Goodness!”

“Boy, oh boy!”

“Phew!”

We ran to the steps and peered into the darkness.

“Are you all right down there?” we asked.

“It ain’t that bad.” she called up to us.

We went back to the swing and waited. Soon Nannie appeared with a bucket of potato grossness. She had goo on her hands, it dripped from her arms, she was sweating, and a camel cricket dangled from her hair net by one leg. Still, she smiled.

Vicki and I asked in awe. “How can you do that?”

“I’ve had my hands in many a worse mess than this.” she said. With that, she walked slowly to the field to dump her bucket of rot. She smiled, hummed, and laughed at herself as she plucked the wiggling cricket from her hair net.

I still don’t believe she could have ever had her hands in any mess worse than those vile piles of putrid potatoes but, true to form, Nannie tackled what needed to be done simply because it needed to be done. When I couldn’t finish the job she smiled, took over, and laughed through the same misery that had caused me to give up.

I couldn’t believe that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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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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Filed under Family, garden, grandmother

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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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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