Tag: Gardening

Mom and Me

It’s near the end of Mother’s Day 2021, but I couldn’t let this day pass without paying tribute to Helen Johnson, my resilient mother. Today, as I puttered in the garden–a universal place she loved–and planted impatiens in a shady spot under the eaves of my Scottsdale home, I channeled memories of her. Here’s a little story about the two of us.

***

Mom was 74 and I was 40 on Mother’s Day 1998. This is one of my favorite photos of us, standing outside her south suburban St. Louis home that day twenty-three years ago. It captures the essence of the lifelong bond and love between us. As her edges softened in her seventies and eighties and my appreciation for her vulnerabilities, strengths, and wisdom grew in my forties and fifties, our relationship deepened.

What I’ve learned since her death in 2013 (and my father’s in 1993) is that our relationships with our parents don’t end when they die. They evolve. We carry bittersweet and tender memories of them with us everywhere (in my case from North Carolina and Missouri to Illinois and Arizona).

I no longer think of my mother every day, but her gifts are part of the fabric of my life in the Sonoran Desert (a place she never visited) in a far less obvious way than they were back in St. Louis in 1998. For that reason, she appears in all four of my books. Sometimes as true reflections of the person she was; other times in fictional flights of fancy.

As long as I’m around, I will carry with me her love of gardening, impatience with ineptitude, kindness for neighbors, thirst for knowledge, respect for the written word, and commitment to family. In good times and bad, I am forever grateful for the legacy of love my mother left me and the path she provided to follow with my two sons.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, who work each day to make a positive difference in the lives of their children.

Star of the Show

Hawks soar in a stiff breeze, palm leaves flutter, bougainvilleas bloom, and palo verde trees dab the blue sky in tufts of green and yellow.

Out-performing them all, under the shade of a fig tree, an unassuming amaryllis reappears outdoors in April. She is the star of the show.

For the Sake of the Fig Tree

With all the energy and enthusiasm I’ve bestowed upon my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, Tom and I are certain our middle-aged fig tree has been feeling sad and neglected.

We first observed signs of this in the fall as I labored to complete my manuscript. Tears began to appear on the trunk. (Actually, the moisture was wetwood-causing bacteria and/or sap leaking from several spots.) This was likely a byproduct of messy sewer-related digging outside our front door that disrupted the roots in the July of 2020. It was one more irritant provided by a despicable year that was supposed to offer us perfect clarity.

Fortunately, the oozing didn’t deter our beloved fig from bearing fruit or producing its typical canopy of green and welcome shade from the Sonoran sun. Even so, we were worried. So, in the fall, I bought some fruit tree spikes and planted them at various places around the circumference of the tree. This deep-root nourishment–along with more frequent watering and an occasional bath of bleach (which Tom has provided on the leaky spots)–seems to have solved the leakage problem.

Pruning the gnarly fig tree is another matter. It’s something that must be attended to every winter. In previous years, a few of our neighbors (Mario and Yolanda, who winter here from their home in Italy) have supervised and completed this task. Not in 2021. COVID-19 travel restrictions have prevented them from returning this year.

To fill the gardening void, Tom and I decided to step in and offer our services. If you read my book, you’ll discover this isn’t the first time we’ve trimmed fruit trees. We researched the best way to prune fig trees and paired that with our previous gardening knowledge and the love of plants and flowers that runs through my DNA.

On the morning of Thursday, February 4, we gathered our gardening gloves, two ladders, and three pairs of clippers. We cleared the area of potted plants beneath the tree. We pruned the fig tree.

This was a big job that involved climbing on a ladder, trimming the smallest branches first, and sawing off or lopping the medium-sized ones. The goal? To trim the fig down to a stump of its previous likeness, so that it will return with gusto and a new crop of branches, leaves and delectable fruits–remarkably all within six months.

After reaching, snipping, and sawing for two hours, we gathered the debris from the ground, deposited it in our condo community dumpster, guzzled a few bottles of water, and stretched our sore back and neck muscles.

Now, a mere skeleton of the fig remains. In a month or less, new growth will appear. That will be followed by longer branches, dozens of ripe figs in July, and a bouquet of green stretching toward the Sonoran sky.

Never fear, this annual haircut was just what the tree doctor ordered. It’s all for the sake of the fig tree. I don’t want its sense of neglect to intensify and become full-blown jealousy when that avalanche of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree sales I fantasize about starts rolling in.

Harsh Elements

Though September’s seventy-five-degree mornings are beginning to offer cooling relief from the Phoenix-area heat, the fire barrel cactus outside our back door is sunburned.

Fortunately, it’s still spiky, spunky, and nosy–always leaning to one side to eavesdrop as neighbors walk to the Crosscut Canal for an early morning stroll.

But the normally green skin of my old friend has turned to yellow. Matching the pot it resides in. More than fifty days of summer sun exposure in one-hundred-ten-degree heat will do that to you.

It isn’t practical for me to rub Aloe Vera gel on my plant with the piercing personality. That’s an especially bad idea for an avid gardener on a blood thinner. The spurting blood from my fingers would splash on our sidewalk.

Instead, Tom and I have shrouded it with two pieces of gauzy black cloth. This cactus shield of sorts (like a veil for an old Italian woman in mourning) should help it recover over time.

If I could, I would wrap the whole warming world and the body of every person in this protective material (along with a required mask, of course).

My scheme would give everyone a chance to breathe, grieve and heal away from harsh elements: devastating fires, thick smoke, high winds, swirling hurricanes, global pandemics, crippling anxiety, and one particularly- problematic-and-pontificating politician.

If only it were that simple.  

Garden Shadows

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It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.

 

Thelma’s Rosy Response

Stories of war, like global pandemics, aren’t only about those fighting on the front lines. There are the lovers, the brothers, the sisters, who worry and wait. They wonder about the worst and hope for the best.

***

World War II was winding down, while Walter’s older sister Thelma waited five long weeks in eastern Missouri for his next words. She didn’t receive his May 16, 1945 letter and photo of him linking arms with a somber Czechoslovakian girl until Friday, June 22.

Evidently, the Army bundled it with two others he wrote on June 10 and 12. The U.S. military transported all three across the Atlantic Ocean with a sea of other correspondence from service men and women stationed in Europe.

In 1945, Thelma was a single-and-sentimental-thirty-six-year-old secretary. By day, she worked at a branch of the Kroger Grocery & Baking Company in St. Louis. After completing her shift, she boarded the streetcar to 4218 Labadie Avenue on the north side of town. That’s where she lived in a modest, two-story, rented home with Louise and Albert Johnson, her mother and father.

My aunt was a gardening guru. A real rose and ballroom lover. Later, in the 1960’s when she and her husband Ralph owned a suburban St. Louis home, it was her ritual to lead us on a parade through her backyard to admire her flowers.

Through that gardening lens, I can imagine her coming home from Kroger on Friday, June 22, 1945, kicking off her shoes, flipping through the mail, and eagerly opening Walter’s letters while waltzing through her parents’ postage-stamp-size Victory Garden. That summer it might have been brimming with vegetables and herbs (perhaps even a few ruby-red roses) designed to supplement food rations and boost morale.

No matter how close or far my fantasy is from reality, I have in my possession proof that Thelma penned a rosy response to her brother later that night in an attempt to bolster his sagging spirit.

Here’s an excerpt of that letter, dated June 22, 1945 and postmarked June 26, 1945. She sent it via air mail from Chicago, Illinois. Incidentally, the Drake Hotel Thelma refers to, just east of North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast, still operates today. It’s a few blocks south of Oak Street Beach, where Thelma and Vi likely tanned themselves that weekend on the shore of Lake Michigan.

***

Dearest Walter, 

Your fine letters of June 10 and 12 arrived today and found us happy and anxious for word from you. Also, we received today those wonderful pictures taken by you in Czechoslovakia. They are really “super” Wal and that little girl is a doll. Vi was here for supper and she too was pleased and happy by seeing you again … if only in a photograph. You look thinner, Wal–but as Vi said–he’s regained his figure and looks wonderfully handsome, younger, and really on the beam. We surely are proud of our dearest Walter boy, and justly so. I have the negative you sent in a recent letter and shall have it developed too … it looks like another Czech girl, right? …

Well Wal, Vi and I leave in the a.m. for Chicago and since the weather has taken a change for the good … we hope to have nice sunshine and a chance to get a tan on the beach and am sure we’ll find the “Drake” the finest hotel in Chicago as it’s accessible to everything …

I am enclosing some snapshots taken on Mother’s Day, Wal, and with them comes all our love to you, our dearest and most missed member. I hope you get to be around Paris for a while … so you can take it all in … and I’m hoping too you’ll be assigned to occupation forces even though it would delay our meeting it would ensure its being permanent when it did come …

With all the love of your loving but lonesome family and many thanks for the fine pictures (and I hope there’ll be more later–I can send film so just ask Wal and its yours) until a little later then its ever and always.

Your loving sister,

Thelma xxxxx

***

I’m not sure if Walter, my father, ever made it to Paris that summer. But when Thelma wrote her letter six weeks after V-E Day, there was the frightening possibility he would be shipped east to help fight the war still raging in the Pacific Theatre.

Instead, he returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, carrying his dog tags, nightmares, a foot locker filled with possessions, and a fistful of family love letters. Dad received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on October 11, 1945.

This is one of the photos Thelma enclosed with her June 22, 1945 message. Thelma–the ever-exuberant, flower enthusiast–is on the right, smiling behind her corsage. Violet, my father’s twin sister, is on the left. On the back, Thelma wrote:

To our dearest brother Walter with all the deepest love of his adoring sisters

Violet & Thelma, May 13, 1945

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Early April in Arizona

I took a walk this afternoon. I brought my digital camera and telephoto lens. We didn’t venture far. We simply observed nature in our immediate neighborhood for thirty minutes. This is what we brought home.

March On

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Retreat from impending pandemics, pundit prognostications and presidential prattle. Play in the garden. Greet the grace of nature. Gaze at gliding coyotes and giant cardons. Grant Sunday succulents a proper home. Gather and savor southern-facing light. Stand tall and shine in the darkness. Apply aloe. Ease the pain. March on.

Snapdragons in February

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I suppose local meteorologists would tell you we have four seasons in the Valley of the Sun. But I wouldn’t characterize them as the same qualifying quadrants most residents of the northern hemisphere experience.

We don’t really have spring, summer, fall and winter in Scottsdale, Arizona. Instead, after living here year-round for the past two-and-a-half years, I would describe our seasons as spring (February and March), summer (April and May), mega-summer (our 100-plus oven existence of June through September), and autumn (October through January).

Nothing approaching arctic sensibility occurs here in February or anytime for that matter. Though, like this transformation of the seasons, I acknowledge that living in the Sonoran Desert I have become a different version of myself. I have shed my larger epidermis and middle-aged Midwestern fat deposits and reemerged as a trimmer-and-thinner-skinned desert rat.

Whenever I grab my hoodie on the way out the door on a sixty-degree day, after plucking another daily dose of Plavix generic substitute from my pill tray and gulping it with juice, it is evidence of my lighter persona. Now, my more swiftly-flowing, sixty-something blood often requires an extra man-made layer.

In addition to the physical changes in my Arizona existence, most assuredly February in the Sonoran Desert is nothing like the sled-riding, snow-blowing scenes of my past. It is sweet-and-sparkling spring time when the Acacia trees bloom. Cool forty-degree temperatures in the mornings. Bright seventy-degree afternoons. Just the right combination for wildflowers, which have suddenly decided to display their blossoms along roadsides, arid avenues and neighborhood yards.

Even our container of snapdragons is getting into the spring fling act. Tucked under the eaves of our front window, the elongated yellow blooms have begun to emerge from seedling skulls, which we dried and saved from the previous batch the year before.

In a few weeks, I expect our entire pot of snapdragons will be ablaze in color. Then, when the temperatures rise and April becomes May, the stalks will begin to dry and wither in the torrid summer sun.

Never fear. Tom and I will salvage the seeds. Save them for the next cycle. Wait for them to bloom again in a future February in Scottsdale, Arizona.