My father is a farmer. Not the up with the rooster, working the fields, dirt under nails kind of farmer. He is the kind who looks at a yard and sees a small plot of earth in which to grow things. The kind who thinks and plans and plants and eats and then thinks and plans….He is a man of letters with South Carolina agrarian blood generations old pulsing through his veins. He scrapes scraps, churns refuse, spreading and working it through the soil like a baker kneading bread. He sees life beginning, stretching, full of possibility, regenerating in every square inch of dirt he has sanctioned. I have heard the tenderness in his voice as he walks me through his garden, seen the loss in his eyes when he talks about leaving a place and leaving behind his plants. He has taken an impossibly cold, rock of an island in the St. Lawrence River and planted tomatoes and herbs. Dirt runs through his veins.
I have long hoped that this same blood runs through me—this love of the land and tending things. Maybe it will become more dominant as I age, settle and slow down but for now, it is still just a longing. I lack the patience, the attention to detail and the long view that characterizes one who plants. My desire is for the immediate, the applause, the back slap. I live for the dreams, the ideas, the process, the prototypes. My father patiently turns and nourishes the soil. Waters and dead heads and stakes his plants. He collects leaves from neighbors, hand washes delicate egg shells and sorts through the remains of meals to create the perfect compost cocktail.
These things don’t come naturally to me. So, for now, I emulate hoping that in the doing—the digging and planting—any remnants of the South Carolina soil that runs in my veins will be stirred and awaken the farmer in my soul.
There is just something wonderful about the beginning of summer. Maybe it is the freedom that we–even as adults–feel once school has ended. Or maybe it is the lengthening of days and the vegetable stands and sunburned skin.
I was reminded of the magic of a summer evening as I drove along a rural portion of a South Carolina interstate earlier this week. Mesmerized by the way the trees filtered the late afternoon/early evening sun, I watched as dust particles danced like fairies in the space between the trees and grass. My mind slipped easily back to a day in my childhood–summer 1974–in the small, mid-Western town of my youth…
A chair pushes back, side door opens and the screen door slams shut. The mother’s voice yells unheard to the girl bare feet, bed-messed hair, eyes minutes from sleep. The girl pauses on the steps and surveys the yard feeling the warmth of the sun on her cheeks and shoulders.
Her head snaps to the right, hair flying as the dog runs barking towards her. Slobbers and paws and too much fur greet her. Laughing she pushes the part-collie, part-cocker spaniel, part-dachshund aside and races down the stairs jump-stepping onto the stones with grass creeping around the edges. Finally—bare feet already hardened sink into cool, soft, blue-green blades. The day stretches out before her for miles.
The phone has already rung. Secret plans have already been whispered. The girl moves to the back of the old house picking her way across the sharp gravel to the dark, cool basement dug into the hill. Quickly, to avoid the spiders and bugs and musty smell, she retrieves her bike: purple frame, glitter banana seat, name plate, tall fluorescent flag to catch the wind.
Scrambling up the slope, she makes her way to the street and hops on. She pedals the flat stretch of road passing one, two, three, four Victorian houses. Then there is the hill. The hill where the car slammed into one of Dr. Donnelly’s Saint Bernards laying in the street smashing the front of the car while the huge monster lumbered across to its home. The hill that she flies down but dreads pushing the bike back up. The hill that the girl’s father walks daily down into the town and up onto the college campus.
Pedaling faster and faster to gain speed, she sails down the hill, trees and leaves and grass and houses all swooshing past. Finally hill turns flat and she pedals on to the house with white picket fence—the manse for the Presbyterian preacher and his family. The house with the quiet, serious, best friend. The house tidy and smelling of cooking and mother always home. The backyard a long slow slope covered in vinca vines sprinkled with purple flowers. The large bedroom on the second floor with two beds for sisters who read and play piano and study.
Slowly the group gathers at this house—white haired fairy-like girl, tough tom boy from two blocks away, smiling little sister of best friend, street-wise blond with the bad mouth and the parents divorced. An odd crew—best friends on street, strangers at school.
Alliances form. Negotiations begin. A decision made. Whatever the outcome—riding bikes to the creek, picnic under the trees at the college’s playing fields, roller skating in the freshly paved parking lot of the church, walking down the next hill into town to Ernie’s pharmacy for candy or escaping the heat or rain in the basement of the house playing school or acting out plays—we are all in. No complaining, no do-overs, no crybabies.
As the day draws to a close the group disperses and heads to their respective homes and dinner. The girl walks her bike up the hill with the white-haired girl whose house is in the middle of the incline. Bikes dropping on the sidewalk, the two run up the driveway to the back yard, through a hole in the fence, across the neighbor’s yard into the dainty garden next door.
Crouching, crawling across still hot paving stones to the mounds of variegated, scalloped leaves with fingers gingerly reaching trying to grasp the small, sweet, dark red strawberries. Popping as many in their mouths as possible, they stuff pockets while always looking and watching for the old woman. One day, a few summers later, the girls were caught but the old woman invited them to take as many strawberries as they wanted. That was last summer of sneaking the berries. Now mouths and pockets full, the girls race back across the neighbor’s lawn with hearts pounding, down the driveway back to their tangle of bikes.
Waving goodbye to the friend, the girl pushes her bike up the steep hill past the house where she picked out her kitten-now-cat—a bribe from her parents to go to first grade without a fuss. To her right the narrow island of grass and trees calls to her to step inside its secrets. The woods with so many lost balls and the old woman who kept them.
The gray clapboard house peeks over the hill and the girl picks up speed ready for dinner and questions about the day. The father stands in the garden—a small plot of land carved from the lawn—amidst the asparagus going to seed and squash and tomatoes. The girl joins him half-listening to the lessons of gardening and mulching, skimming her hands over the tops of the riotous zinnias.
Armed with their bounty, the girl and her father enter the kitchen to smells of chicken and rice and butter beans cooking. With the tomatoes sliced and the table set, the girl, her parents and brother settle in for the meal and talk. Later, plates cleared, the girl and her father load the dishwasher. Again the lessons half-heard on the proper way to rinse and load.
After the bath, the girl pulls a clean cotton gown over her head. Hair still wet and feet clean and prunish, the girl follows the voices of her parents out into the side yard. Fireflies flicker across the grass. Chasing a few, the girl finds herself at the hammock—the one purchased two summers ago on the island in South Carolina white ropes crisscrossing. Climbing in she pushes off from the ground gliding slowly back and forth, back and forth. Arms supporting her head, the girl looks into the dark sky that peeks between the two huge oak trees counting the stars. A breeze rustles the cotton gown body underneath all clean and scrubbed. Parents’ voices trail off, the girl closes her eyes.
Photographs by Amy Watson Smith, 2013 and 2014
This was originally posted in May 2013 as Summer 1974-Parkville.
With the school year almost over, it is an ideal time to thank the teachers who have guided our children for the last nine months. The parents’ association of many schools celebrate the faculty and staff throughout the year while in some schools they are honored during a specific “teacher appreciation” week.
We have done a variety of things at my daughter’s school during her twelve years there. It depended on the age division, parent involvement and leadership. Since she has been in high school, we have supplied the faculty and staff lounge with beverages and snacks each month and hosted a nice luncheon near the end of the school year. I have been responsible for the luncheon for the last few years.
My daughter attends Ashley Hall—an independent, girls’ school in Charleston, South Carolina. There is a lovely campus with a beautiful lawn and hundreds year old live oak trees. Given the setting, a luncheon on the lawn is a must (as well as lots of prayers for good weather).
I chose a travel/bon voyage theme this year knowing that everyone was ready to get away from it all in some way or another. The food table was decorated with antique [looking] luggage, globes and atlases.
The beverage and dessert tables were decorated in a more whimsical par avion (blue and red) theme with colorful, vintage [-like] suitcases and paper banners made from road maps.
Each table had a living centerpiece (taken from my front porch container garden).
Each place was set with a merci treat bag.
The favorite part of the luncheon is always the “giveaways.” I found lots of great ideas that fit our travel theme at TJ Maxx and Marshalls.
Parents donated lots of great items to give away too.
We held the drawing for prizes after lunch.
The prizes are always a hit with the teachers. These two had trouble deciding what to pick. This year we had so many prizes that every teacher was able to select two.
The key to the success of this luncheon–as always–was the great parent volunteers who helped decorate and who donated or made food.
The “Ashley Hall Upper School Faculty and Staff Luncheon on the Lawn” is a wonderful tradition and is just a small way of showing appreciation to the incredible individuals who guide and teach our daughters.
How does your school celebrate and thank its faculty and staff?
Maybe this has something to do with being artistic. Or perhaps it is because I’m an optimist. Yes these do have something to do with my attitude. But the real reason is because of my own history.
You see, over the years, I have made some pretty stupid, self-destructive choices. There are parts of my past that are pretty ugly. I spent many years pretending that the brokenness wasn’t there. I was very good at “fluffing the pillows” of my past so that no one saw it for what it really was–not even me.
I had an encounter that changed all of that. Not right away in my case, but little by little over time. I began to see that Jesus was not only able but willing to turn the broken, wobbly bits of me into something not only useful but beautiful.
Looking back over the last five years, my family has experienced some very traumatic events. Some of them I wondered whether we would make it through. But even in the midst of tragedy, I knew (and know) that God does not waste any opportunity for transformation. He will not leave something dark and dead and useless. He is the God of light and life and purpose.
“to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61: 3)
Be encouraged, my friends. He will not leave us in our brokenness, our ugliness, in the dark. He longs to take our sorrow and trade it for delight.
Open your eyes. Look around and see that everything has beauty once it has been transformed by Jesus. Once we have been transformed.