Chapter 36: Shirley and Lucille

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–Please help us to not be mean.–
(Hannah-3 to God.)

Lucille, in her 80s, still lived in the tiny clapboard shack in which she had birthed her children, surrounded by her family’s historic grain fields, next to the small brick house in which she herself had been born.  The shack’s “facilities” were to be found in a one-seater outhouse 30 feet behind the house.  One very cold morning after an even colder night, a neighbor found her sprawled on the icy ground, her body frozen.  She must have slipped or tripped returning from the outhouse, was unable to get herself up from the ground, and slowly went to sleep as the overpowering cold seeped into her warm body.  Her sister, Shirley, wastes away in a nearby rest home with rheumatoid arthritis.  I wrote this poem to honor their humble yet meaningful lives.

SUNFLOWERS FOR SHIRLEY

I have brought you sunflowers,
those that grow small and many
on tall and tangled plants.
“You’ll want your vase back, surely,”
you mutter, looking elsewhere, while
the others all watch the glowing screen.
I whisper close to your old ear,
“I’ll collect the vase when these have wilted
and I’ve brought you fresh blooms.”
You stare at the linoleum.

In your room one month before
I sat on your bed and we spoke
of the house where you live, the same house
where you were born, where you
fry your eggs on an iron stove
burning sticks in its belly,
where you snuff out the lamp at sundown.
You asked me then, “I’ll be home next week.
Might I pay you to cut the grass?
Once the summer heat settles in,
the grass won’t do much; but
it grows long in springtime. Only,
don’t mow on the mound back of the house—
the cesspool. It’s only old planks,
and I’m in no condition to pull you out
if you fall through!”

Your brother and his son still farm the old farm
around your house, and will keep farming, you said,
until they can’t make a living at it anymore.
“The town is changing, changing so fast now,”
you reflected. “New subdivisions popping up,
spreading like weeds, plowing under
fertile farms and pastures.
England and Norris have sold their farms
for houses. So have Gordon and Blake.
The buyers care only for profit.
They know not nor care
about the apple trees and the plum trees
or the English black currant bushes
or the hollyhocks or Concord grapes
or the ever-bearing raspberries
we coaxed from the clay 60 years ago.
Beyond them
are the generations
of planters and harvesters
of oats and wheat and barley and alfalfa,
and our backbreak and heartache,
and the life we gave the land,
and the life the land gave us in return.
Dear Lord, how everything has changed.”

But today, you stare at the linoleum,
gnarled feet nudging your chair
toward room #5,
clutching your sunflowers with twisted clumpy hands.
“I’ll come again, Shirley, to collect the vase.”

[The next post to this blog will tell in more detail about my encounters with Lucille before her death.]

* * *

Virginia Creeper vines climb through the Russian Olive trees, scarlet serrated leaves mixing with powdery olive-white.  In late Autumn, the red leaves fall to line the weed-choked ditch, like red confetti in the gutter the morning after a parade.

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In a wildflower field guide I found instructions for making a flower press.  The press looked so simple that the children and I decided to try making one.  First we cut two 12×12-inch squares from some old press-board shelving.  Next we clamped the wood together and drilled a ¼-inch hole in each corner.  (I suggest numbering the corners so that you can match up the holes later.)  We found four bolts and wing nuts in the bolt box to tighten down the press.  Erin had some leftover sheets of watercolor parchment, which would absorb the moisture from the fresh flower petals and leaves.  Any absorbent paper will work, even newspaper.  The parchment was fairly rough, so we slipped a sheet of regular copy paper between the rough paper and the specimens.  All we needed now was our specimens, and we struck out for Rabbit Lane to gather them.

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It was too late in the season to press Bitter Nightshade blossoms.  The purple flowers with yellow centers had turned to toxic red fruits too lumpy for a leaf press.  But the scarlet Virginia Creeper leaves were perfect for pressing.  Some were still transitioning from Summer’s mid-green, deepening to a green-black before shedding this morose color to burst into sunset scarlet.

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The Russian Olive trees still bore their stiff, powdery green leaves.  We left the thick Milkweed leaves alone because of the white sticky sap that drips from the base of the plucked leaves.  We would come back next Summer for pink Milkweed blooms, yellow Russian Olive blossoms, Bitter Nightshade flowers, and deep yellow Sunflower petals.

At home with our leaves, the children carefully positioned them on the clean paper one layer at a time until the paper and specimens rose to over an inch thick between the boards.  Each of the children took turns arranging their specimens on a sheet of paper.  I clamped the boards down on the leaves and flowers, making a couple of turns on each corner wing nut so that the boards would be pulled evenly together.  With the leaves and petals tightly clamped, the children looked to me for an answer to their unvocalized question: What next?

“Now,” I said, “we wait for a month for the leaves to fully dry.”

The process felt anti-climactic to the children—a month!—similar to planting rows of corn seeds and then waiting weeks for the shoots to finally poke through the soil.  But after a quick month I brought out the press to unveil the children’s pressings.  The children eagerly unwound the wing nuts, pulled off the top board, and carefully peeled away the sheets of paper.  The dried Virginia Creeper leaves were stiff and dry but brilliantly red.

“Those are mine!” one child would call, then another, each proud of the beauty they had so crisply preserved.

The next Summer we took the press on a mountain campout and gathered a single specimen of every species of wildflower we could find.  I had to gently discourage the younger children from picking armfuls of wildflowers.

“Leave them,” I encouraged, “for the bees and hummingbirds to harvest and drink from; leave them where they clothe the mountain with breathtaking beauty for all to see.  Except for the few we press, they lose their life’s beauty soon after we pick them.”

At the insistence of the youngest, I allowed them to pick a small bouquet for their mother.

In the Fall, a year after first making the press, we gathered all the dried specimens from their temporary shoe box and glued them to white paper with spots of rubber cement.  We researched the name of each flower and leaf in the field guides and wrote the names on the paper under the specimens.  With the glue fully dried and each specimen labeled, we slipped the sheets into plastic sheet protectors.  We placed each page in a binder, which we occasionally pull off the shelf and browse through, admiring the unique color, shape, and beauty of each leaf and flower.

For decades my grandmother Dorothy pressed leaves and flower petals between the pages of her encyclopedias and other heavy books, using the pressings to make homemade cards.  On my visits to her brick bungalow, built in 1935 by my grandfather Wallace as a wedding gift, I always saw stacks of heavy books in the corners of the rooms.  The book at the bottom of each stack contained flower petals and leaves between its pages.  Our scrapbooks are filled with Grandma’s homemade birthday cards sent over the course of several decades.  She carefully arranged the leaves and petals, and the occasional butterfly wing found in the yard, to make beautiful cards.  I asked her to teach me her art years ago, and I taught my own children.  Laura particularly enjoys making cards like her great-grandmother’s.

Begin card making by cutting a piece of wax paper that when folded will fit into the envelope of your choosing.  (If you don’t want to be so precise at this stage, you can use any size of wax paper.  Be careful, however, to position the petals and leaves so that they will fit in the envelope when you cut the wax paper down to size.)  Cut writing paper to a matching size for your message insert, and set it aside.  Water down white glue 1:1 and brush it on the wax paper.  Position your petals and leaves as you wish on only one-half of the wax paper (i.e., the right side, which becomes the front of the card when folded), then dab additional glue to wet the petals and leaves.  Top your creation with a single layer of tissue paper, white or colored depending on the effect you want.  Because the watery glue likes to puddle on the wax paper, you may need to dab additional glue on dry areas of the tissue.  Be careful, though, because the wet tissue easily tears (if it does, mush it back or patch it).  You can use your fingers to gently press out air bubbles.  When the cards are completely dry, slip one card inside a folded paper grocery sac, place it on an ironing board, and pass a hot iron over the sac a few times.  The heat melts the wax into the dried tissue paper around the petals and leaves.  Cut the wax paper to the size of the envelope, if needed.  Insert your message paper; you can tape it in if you want.  Then fold and insert your card into its envelope.  (Grandma discovered that she loved the effect of glitter amply sprinkled onto the wet tissue paper.  I recommend against this because the glitter breaks loose inside the envelope and makes a mess at the recipient’s house.)

Both the flower press and the homemade flower cards are easy to make.  Each activity is educational, brings contact with nature, provides a conversation piece, and makes for individual and family fun.

On numerous occasions I have taken troops of Boys Scouts walking on Rabbit Lane to fulfill their First Class rank requirement to identify 10 plants native to their communities (whether endemic or exotic).  It takes only minutes of walking to find: Virginia Creeper, Bitter Nightshade, Russian Olive, Cottonwood, Sunflower, Parsnip, Milkweed, Watercress, Willow, Poplar, Alfalfa, various grasses, Evening Primrose, and many other plant species.

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