Paste Buckets and Sweet Peas

Daddy prided himself on his yearly garden.

No paste bucket that had been emptied at the floor covering shop went unused; many came home to be repurposed as part of the vegetable garden; the buckets enabled Daddy to stretch the garden area.  He planted pepper plants, some zucchini plants and even tried growing pole peas in them, allowing the vines to trail upward along the old lattice fence to reach the late afternoon sun.

Because we had only a limited amount of garden bed in the backyard, Daddy used the area well, packing enough tomato plants against the pink stucco wall (side garage wall belonging to next door) to feed the third world …we were constantly amazed at how many plants Daddy could pack into the seven by ten bed!  Radishes, Lettuce, parsley, thyme, some Swiss chard and even kohlrabi – this latter veggie had been introduced to us by our Czech neighbor.   Often, marigolds filled spots in between the edibles to fight the garden pests.

The next door neighbor would drive into his garage, hear my father cussing and look over the wall.  Daddy would be on his knees, pulling the tomato worms off his precious plants, cussing at them as though it would make them leave and never return. Return they did and I can still hear the Italian chuckling and shaking his head, then admonishing Daddy to be sure all the worms were off “his” plants.  A repeated scenario, his reminding Daddy that the property line reached 10 inches deep into our garden was an on-going joke; in our neighbor’s eyes, all the plants against the heat-holding stucco wall were technically his.

Hey, Brochier…make sure you water those plants really well when you get through cussing out the worms…I want to see a good crop this year…

I can’t write verbatim my father’s response as it actually had little to do with gardening.  Suffice it to say that the two bantered on like this for years, one cajoling the other and the other never failing to come back with his best retort.

Daddy wasted nothing.  He kept old coffee cans and other trays and containers from any nurseries to plant garden seeds ahead, so he often dried seeds from his own beefsteak tomatoes and green bell peppers.  He and his buddies even exchanged seeds from year to year, comparing the easiest to grow, the sweetest varieties, and so forth.

One particular year, our cousin dropped off some seeds in an envelope; he told Daddy that they were among the sweetest peas he’d ever grown, so Daddy was really excited to have some of such high quality hybrid peas.  He put them away until sowing time, and then made sure he gave them lots of room to grow in his limited garden bed.  He staked the seedlings and had cross bars he’d made from salvaged wood strips.  Daddy was determined to have some very sweet peas to enjoy this season.

The plants had just the right amount of sunshine; the stucco wall helped bounce back some of the afternoon sun, so the tendrils began climbing up the makeshift lattice in no time!  Daddy was really happy with the progress until the small little pods didn’t grow any longer; instead, the little pods began to open.

Standing tall, smack in the middle of tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard and crawling squash plants fighting for room with the herbs and marigolds were multi-colored blooms of pastel pinks, lavender-blues and creamy white.   What the—! He called my mother out to the back to see; she confirmed what he already suspected:  those very sweet peas that Daddy had imagined he’d soon be harvesting for dinners were indeed sweet peas.

Sweet peas in all their beautiful, delicate glory!!!  Mom was absolutely delighted, as the blooms’ scent perfumed the entire back yard.  Some were even tall enough to cut and take inside to enjoy!

Down at the coffee shop, the guys had been counting the days until Daddy realized this garden “discovery”; you can bet they knew the minute their ears began burning!   My father resigned himself to being the butt of one very clever joke, but remained a good sport always. Obviously, Daddy became especially careful when accepting any future envelopes of “specially” dried seeds from this gang!

DOG GONE!

Unlike our neighbors who installed electric fencing, My Rogue had neither the desire nor the intent of doing any such thing; in fact, our yard did not support any size of man’s best friend with its sloping downgrade to an ever-evolving creek or mud hole, depending on the debris that gathered each season.

No, we are not getting a dog.

I was disappointed at first; I thought for sure we should at least have something akin to a Great Dane or Greyhound type such as the one Cinderella had loved and nurtured long after her father’s death.  He was a faithful soul, continuing his allegiance to her even after she’d moved upstairs to the attic.  So, in my strong-willed, Disney-tainted mindset, I set about looking for a low maintenance breed, ideally with some stature for the size of our retirement dream home, FrogHaven.

I said no, absolutely not!

 My Rogue repeated this enough that his message was clear.  But I continued to search and – equally clearly but creatively – avoided the notion that any restriction existed…there must certainly be a way, I surmised.

When I first came across Bernie, it was love at first sight!  I had admired him for what seemed like several months; but he was forever young and retained his slightly golden aura; if not definitely a pedigree, almost certain he was a well-planned breeding between a retriever and an everyman’s hound.  No mutt was he!  Bernie’s regal carriage was solid. Legs perfectly shaped, his back at attention yet his jaw line strong but friendly… I continued my vigil-like visits, even saddling up to him enough to know that we were indeed a very good match: he seemed content with my constant attention and I was spell-bound by that “je ne sais quoi” bearing.

Because I was now the Lady of FrogHaven (again, a bit too much unbridled Disney imagination over the years), Bernie seemed absolutely the perfect choice!  I’d visit him from time to time, strolling past his place in the entry, quietly standing at attention with his sign between his teeth, bidding “WELCOME” to all who entered in.  Perhaps it was my imagination, but he seemed to catch my attention and speak to me every time I attempted to pass him by without stopping. He was the loving, warm and welcoming “big dog” contender, the one that my imaginary manor called for. What was not to love?

Absolutely nothing except his price tag, which was deemed hefty for this conservative home maker.  I had to be pragmatic.  Some months did not offer the imaginary kingdom budget that I’d dreamed of, not even here in the Midwest.  I’d have to trust that whatever home Bernie eventually guarded would be the chosen residence by the Architect whose reasoning would be far superior to my own child-like notions.

Okay, so I didn’t rescue him from a shelter. But the day came when I did indeed rescue him from the sales table of that local merchant.  So excited was I that my niece helped me load him into the passenger side of my small car; we seat-belted him in so that his ride home would give everyone a second take; a chance to smile at my statuesque golden pup!  Once home, Bernie even won over my nay saying Rogue!

For nearly eight years, Bernie stood at attention, welcoming all to FrogHaven, while ever so gracefully aging into a soft, matte gray.  At the golden age of fifty (in dog years), Bernie lost his grip and dropped his sign from his jaws; the sign landed softly on the earth but, before I could rescue it and seek repair, My Rogue tossed it away, rusted chain and all.  My Rogue believed enough was enough; Bernie had served us well…he deserved to retire there in familiar surroundings, among the Knockout Roses and the wind-swept reeds, surveying the uphill climb and the neighborhood children’s antics.

Recently, Bernie disappeared.  There were no signs of foul play or vandalism: no broken branches or disturbed planter bed; no candy wrappers or soda cans to imply that any children had absconded with him.  Nothing.   In fact, his leaving was so very quiet that we didn’t even notice he was gone until several days later, when a neighbor inquired about him.  I thought it strange, but continued toward my driveway entrance and cast my glance to where Bernie had last welcomed me home.  Alas, there stood only an empty spot midst the garden plantings.

In retrospect, it was just like Bernie; he’d never caused us any added grief or unexpected vet bills.  His nature was simply to withstand the gusts and thunderstorms that our Midwest climate offered…in addition to a few outbursts from My Rogue on occasion!   My Rogue’s behavior had prompted me to suggest I should change Bernie’s welcome sign to read,

Beware of Mr. Grumpy

But faithful Bernie would never have agreed to that, so I abandoned the project.  Certainly the children on the block would have delighted in it…

Nurturing Garden Blues

Mom would have loved my back yard garden once it had developed after the first few seasons.  She would have enjoyed the maturity of the trees and the scattered perennial shrubs.  Blue was her favorite color, so the lobelia that I’d dappled here and there to offset the varied pinks and orange hues would have pleased her very much, as it well should since I’d planted it especially with her in mind.

So, too, the Star of Israel blooms that appeared just in time for the Fourth of July every year.  It was no coincidence that all of my plants yielded blue flowers.  Agapanthus plants, the correct name for the Star of Israel, were indeed survivors; the blossomed “star” bursts of white or blue were used frequently in California as commercial landscaping flora and in highway dividers.  They were my kind of plant; nearly indestructible!

I can’t tell you how often over the years I had read “easy to grow” and believed it!  Perhaps it was because Mom could always keep things growing, no matter how delicate the plant; she could revive any greenery in her keeping.  She had houseplants that were older than some of her grandchildren!  Each plant had a story and held a memory of someone or someplace.

On the other hand, delicate looking vines didn’t grow very well under my care. An “easy to grow” clematis struggled for its survival and, much to my chagrin, the vine very soon after planting looked like it needed a transfusion.  I decided after a few months’ efforts that it was really begging for mercy, so I dug it up and disposed of it.

One of my favorite sayings among garden prose is the one that reads,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

than anywhere else on earth

Nurturing an appreciation for flowers and gardens was one of the pleasures Mom and I shared.  Refilling our vessels as we did our favorite vases, His grace seemed to quell our anxious souls on many occasions, allowing us just to be.  Within the presence of God’s mixed bouquets, my mother remains joyfully alongside me.

 

A Magical Space

Geranium Place seemed a magical space

To this little girl who frequently guested there

A horse collection on shelves and three little elves

Were the daughters who daily did dwell in a home where

 

Their mother could drive and toMAHtoes did thrive

In a kitchen which served Yorkshire pudding with beef!

Trail mix treats-raisins, chips semi-sweet

Why, a beagle named Snoopy dwelled there, too – Good Grief!

 

I witnessed one day (in an odd sort of way)

That the mom let her girls have their own space

She picked up knitting half-done, did the normal vacuum run

Then let gravity lay needles and yarn back in place!

 

Wow! Geranium Place was indeed a magical space!

How I envied those elves in a home that encouraged their crafts and their friends

Who after climbing some stairs could dine sitting on Windsor Chairs!

Eat Dad’s barbecue, stay up late and then crash into sleeping bags laid end to end.

 

Accents, cocktails and a bit of au jus were all things from a home that I already knew

But a father who worked in a suit and tie? was something quite strange, even queer!

So I tiptoed around this tall CPA; and noticed how different he was in his way

From my overalls dad…until, that is, his wife served him a beer!

 

Whew! I sighed with relief…

Only I in my family could tell, brag and boast

Of spending good times at their table, not mine

Eating homemade shortbread, Yorkshire pudding and roast!

 

 

This was written as a tribute to all the good men and providers, past and present, who come in every shape and size, and who watch over all of us in their roles as dads, uncles, neighbors and sometimes even adopted grandpas!   No one else can fill your shoes, so remember the role your actions play in creating memories … Have a blessed, Happy Father’s Day!

The Final Round

I grew up and shared Mom’s fascination with the return of the swallows to Capistrano each St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th.  Their consistency heralded that spring was once again on the horizon and we’d share another season of God’s timely gifts.

Like the swallows, I’d too returned back home – and actually had a second chance “to go back” this particular New Year, and follow in the same footsteps I had when growing up on the avenue; this visit, my more mature eye recognized that the old times were fast disappearing.

I couldn’t imagine what home would be like without the neighbors.  Watching Daddy and The Mechanic walk down the street for coffee (twenty years before it would have been for a shot of whiskey at the corner bar) was an experience to cherish.  Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello paled in comparison to the Dumb Frenchman and the Stupid Dago, their slightly subtle but no less endearing nicknames for each other, specifically during twice weekly political discussions.

These two antagonists had verbally fought a forty year battle, taking turns at each other’s kitchen tables and backyards, changing the political battles little, just kicking up enough manure to keep the opponent still interested.  Neither seemed to tire of this charade, but it was inconceivable to imagine what would become of the last warrior when death had taken his combatant.  For now, they still sparred, each as quick and as sharp mentally as in years before; the only tell tale signs of age were the physically slowed mannerisms, particularly in light of the Mechanic’s increasingly poor health.

For a man who could not react fast enough to cover his mouth when he coughed, Daddy had an uncanny ability to react to his fellow man’s needs.  I’d watched this with his only son and his younger brother; Daddy had been available for each during some very dark days.  Five years later, I was once again witnessing Daddy’s M.O. with our neighbor, a good-hearted friend and definitely a mentor in whom we had found a second father when we needed one to confide in.

Dad had taken on his next crusade: keeping the Mechanic’s spirits up in the face of his impending weakness and encroaching limitations from the heart disease.  Daddy’s preoccupation with the Mechanic’s health and well-being negated any other task or person in Daddy’s immediate schedule; he planned his day around the Mechanic’s medical appointments, errands needed, or the evening mealtimes.

We all understood.  No explanation was offered and none of us who watched and recognized “his crusade mode” even asked for one. In turn, Mom’s example of following Daddy’s footsteps was understood as well.  Mom’s ministering filled in whatever gaps were left and she, like Daddy, could be infectious.  The two had always worked as a team.  I watched what I understood to be a given in a good marriage.  I realized I had yet to reach that partnering tempo in my own home.

Never thought I’d see the Mechanic at anything less than at a capable level.  He was reduced now to a doctor’s prescribed handful of medications each morning and evening; obviously worn and tired, his overall countenance this visit was still rather shocking.  Nonetheless, his smile was still there for me as was the kiss and bear hug greeting when I entered his backdoor and joined the two men at the kitchen table.

Daddy was never as spellbinding as the Mechanic, whose handsome, silver-haired, cowboy build spoke for itself. He had been the one with the eye for life!  And a Democrat! How gutsy compared to Daddy’s common sense, Republican views, all of which I knew by heart.  The Mechanic stood for everything Daddy didn’t, and with weaker breath, continued to spar with that Dumb Frenchman…

Fees, Foes and Fumbles

Summer of 1980; it had been a roller coaster ride thus far that year for many of our immediate family.  Continuing health issues were taking their toll on my brother; those of us close enough to be affected were emotionally drained.

My Only was now four years old, at the perfect age when dreams and places like Disneyland were beckoning!  Since my folks had never experienced a trip to Disneyland, we came up with the idea of renting a travel trailer and making our summer vacation a three generation trip.  I reasoned that getting away would be good for the folks and we believed we could pull it off this year as business was steady, and we were financially able to help make it happen.  In my fairytale-like, happy ending, creative reasoning, I envisioned  My Only seeing Disneyland with her Funny Grandma and Funny Grandpa to be a memory that they could all share for years forward.

This was a getaway that few men would have had the courage to take on!  A ten day trip with his mother-in-law…  My Only’s Father would need as much support as he could round up; a few lit candles wouldn’t hurt either.

Only Bro couldn’t believe how gutsy his brother-in-law had proven himself even SUGGESTING a 24/7 trip with Mom.  The woman we all knew and loved,  who never stopped talking and never found a topic, flower, or American Flag that she didn’t think was worth noting….yep, this was going to be interesting.  Bro started the betting; he gave Mom seven days MAX before either 1) she couldn’t handle being away from home so long or, 2) her son-in-law would cry Uncle and change direction for home!

Big Sis thought Mom would make it, if only because Mom was determined to prove her children wrong; she would get through a ten day adventure if it killed her.  For myself, I planned to pack lots of vitamins, plenty of spirits, and as many comfort foods as I could slam into the trailer’s kitchen.   So, I went into high gear.

Planning a menu around Daddy’s expectations of what constituted a meal even on vacation meant that we’d be bringing the microwave, the toaster oven, a full packed ice chest with casseroles already assembled for speedy cooking and  serving, and as many comforts of home as we could fit.  I planned each day’s menu, down to and including when we would eat on the road, what restaurants we’d choose at the parks (we would include Knott’s Berry Farm, too), and the how, what and when we’d barbeque when we stayed at KOA camp grounds.

For everyone to be comfortable on this trip, we knew that the size of the rented travel trailer should at least meet a minimum living space and require as few change-overs as needed for sleeping arrangements.  We were somewhat familiar with the layout options that existed.  We couldn’t squeeze Daddy in just any space, so the floor plan had to be correct for everyone’s sizes and abilities.

Because my folks had never spent time in a travel trailer, it was up to me to persuade them both of the wonders of trailer camping.  Daddy “got it”; actually, he thought it sounded fun and was a willing participant.  Persuading Mom that the trip was doable was another task.  Describing a travel trailer vacation to Mom conjured up something less than anything familiar she had ever known.  My description notwithstanding, I believe she pictured more of a modern day Conestoga Wagon; and this was the woman who wondered why we babies grew up believing she had been with the original Donner Party???  Yep, the entire undertaking would be a memory alright, as long as we were still able to keep our brain cells in tact through the planning and prepping stages.

This was supposed to be quality time for My Only and her grandparents.  Quality Time was the current expression for describing what generations previously had taken for granted in multi-generational homes.  These ten days would have to suffice. We were finally off and all things considered, the trip began and ended extremely well. We had a fantastic time! Not that we didn’t experience a few fees, foes and fumbles along the way!

Unfortunately, we thought it smart to combine a business stop along the route.  The stop was a success; we were happy to meet one of our suppliers in person.  Picking up what we needed would save us some shipping this time around.  Until we drove off; then ever so slowly, we heard a noise that could only come from the trailer having brushed against a tree limb.  We got out and inspected the damage.   A six to eight inch gash along the trailer’s right side panel told us the limb had won.  Insurance would cover it, so we continued on, certainly a bit more carefully when parking under shade trees.

Then there was the first morning we’d awakened in the trailer, and Daddy wanted to get dressed.  He couldn’t find his pants and asked Mom where she’d put them.

“They are in the suitcase, Honey.”

“Where’s the suitcase?”

“It’s right there, at your feet.”

Surprise!  Son-in-law had placed it back into the trunk of the Chrysler Newport to save some floor space…Mom and I broke into giggles at Daddy’s reaction. He was furious for her having placed the pants back inside the suitcase! My Only’s Father saved the day by going outside in his trunks and retrieving Daddy’s pants.  What a guy!

I’d paid all the fees ahead and, for the most part, the camping sites were nice and convenient.  But when we arrived at one of our spots and realized just how desolate it really was, we left our reservation money behind and found a place with a little more civilization.  We settled in for the evening and endeavored to barbeque some steaks.  The desert winds were strong enough that they actually lifted a couple of the steaks right off the grill and literally tossed them to the winds!  My Only’s Father managed to salvage them, sand and all.  Being the good sports that they were, Mom and Daddy suggested we just rinse them off and finish cooking them; we did, managed to enjoy our dinner, and spend a quiet evening, exhausted from the day’s events.

One of my most cherished memories on that trip involved Daddy and My Only.   I suggested to my daughter that she take one of her favorite books over to Funny Grandpa, who was sitting in one of our lawn chairs, enjoying the outdoors.  Of course, this suggestion didn’t need repeating.  She loved books and dutifully walked over to her grandpa, climbed up in his lap and asked him to read one of her favorite stories.  She handed him Jack and the Beanstalk.

Being the good sport that he was, Daddy began to read.  Mom and I marveled at this, as both of us knew that when Daddy normally read aloud, he didn’t apply much emphasis or inflections that a story would call for.  From what we could tell, he seemed to be handling both the book and the granddaughter fairly well.

That was until the Giant came onto the scene.  Daddy continued reading and, thinking it wouldn’t matter, began skipping over a few words here and there. Mom and I were chuckling softly,  watching the two from the inside of the trailer, listening and picking up what we could through the screened view; My Only’s facial expression was one of absolute disgust as she waited for him to get through another page; then we heard her admonish him:

“Grandpa, you forgot the Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum again!”

Even quality time had its limits…

The Back Room at 3671

My father’s idea of maintenance was to ignore any and all upgrades.  He was not one to pre-plan or estimate the improvements a home might need over a period of years.  Thus, nothing was ever updated until it had completely broken and there was no choice but to fix it.  Like the cobbler’s children, we didn’t get new floor coverings or carpet until the old was absolutely worn and used up.

The back bedroom had been added on with Daddy’s and Mom’s compliance; her aunt, Tante, needed a home and culture dictated that my folks provide at least the ground.  Tante had the money to build to her taste.  Unfortunately, she was scared of the gas heaters that were then available (she had survived the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake) so she waived any heat or suggested extension of heating in her “wing” of the house.

Thus, the backroom was always colder than the rest of the home and we used to joke how we could properly keep meat back there without a freezer.  When Uncle moved in, he accepted the circumstances and made the best of it, but not without turning the reality of his ice box quarters into a comic routine.

That room could be absolutely freezing in the winter time, dropping to the low 40’s.  Uncle would rise, warm his arthritic hands under the hot water faucet of the small half bath, then dress and come into the kitchen.  He always had a smile and witty remark to begin another day:

Rudolph sends his best! or

I just saw Santa fly by…

Mom couldn’t help but giggle.    When her only brother lived with us, even I understood my mother was more relaxed and less worried about him and we all benefited from her peace of mind.   What I perceived in child like terms was that his living with us meant he would eat regularly; the folks mentioned something about his drinking too much; this would come up now and then, even though they tried to keep it from us little ones.  I soon heard them describe my uncle as an alcoholic, whatever that meant.

All I knew was that I loved my Uncle Johnny dearly.  I would sit next to him on our sofa each evening.  He’d let me hold his warm pipe in my hands after he was through with that evening’s smoking.  I can still smell the Half and Half that was his favorite tobacco.  He’d sit and tell stories in funny voices, mimicking the radio programs of the past, reminding all in the room that “The Shadow Knows”… never once failing to fascinate this little girl.

At an early age, I was drawn to him.  He was one of the many mentors who treated me as a very special person.  Uncle Johnny would walk with me down the street to the store and always make sure I was on the inside of the sidewalk, away from the road.  He would explain:

Ladies always walk on the inside, Annette.  The gentleman walks on the outside to protect the lady from the dangers of the traffic.

From the time I was old enough to remember, I was one of his “ladies”.  Until his death, he carried my first grade photo in his wallet with the inscription “my sister’s angel” written in his hand on the back.

By the time Uncle had moved on and I inherited the back room as my own, the only items that kept me warm were the electric blanket and incandescent bulbs in the nightstand and desk lamps!  I told myself that my freeze-dried skin would keep me looking young for decades to come.

Of course, Daddy’s response to any of our complaints about the cold was that

It’s good for you!  …makes you strong!

Several years later, I’d drop by and see Daddy working over the morning figures from the stock market page, computing with pen and paper what his holdings totaled that day.  Any suggestion to him about remodeling the main bath for his and Mom’s comfort was met with the same indifference.  It wasn’t necessary; as he reiterated many times,

You’ll be happy one day; one quarter of this house will be yours.

Good. Then I want my old room back.

Hopefully, the termites would still be holding hands when that day came…