In my last post, I wrote about the industrious squirrels that have planted a lovely crop of sunflowers in our back yard. Unfortunately, most of the other plants that pop up, unbidden, untouched by human hands, are not as welcome. As the typical suburbanite knows, a dizzying number and variety of weeds grow smarter and more determined with every passing year. My husband, for example, is currently waging war against his leggy green nemesis, stiltgrass, which seeks to take over the lawn.
But there is one self-seeding flower that I’m always happy to see: the petunia.
I’ve known a few rather snooty gardeners who look down their noses at the petunia. They consider the flower to be too compliant, and therefore expected and ordinary. I’ve never felt that way. In the deep shade of old oaks and tulip poplars surrounding my childhood home in Atlanta, no sun-loving flowers ever lasted long. We tried repeatedly, but without success. I was elated to be able to grow mounds of bright, hearty petunias here in Virginia, on and around our sun-drenched back patio. They’re perfect in the big pots atop the brick pillars along the fence line. They bloom quickly and continuously, well into the fall, needing only light and fairly regular watering. I especially love this Queen of Hearts variety, above. With its red hearts separated by yellow ribbons, it pairs beautifully with a smaller red variety.
The petunias have been busy this season. They tend to choose appropriate and charming spots for self-planting. Last year I’d positioned a large clay bowl of the flowers atop the stepping stone by a gate. I used it for other plants this year, in a different location. But by June, petunias began sprouting up around the stone, never mind the thin, mulched soil. The seeds from the previous year’s spent flowers simply plant themselves, I’ve learned. And now, without any planning or care on my part, they’re flourishing.
And yes, the squirrels planted two sunflowers among the petunias. (Trying to emulate the practice of our small furry friends, I buried a number of sunflower seeds in July. None of those sprouted.)
If there’s a little room to spare, a petunia or two may move in. Easy-going, if uninvited guests, they’ll adapt to most any accommodation. This bright red petunia made herself at home with a spiky-stemmed Crown of Thorns plant, which bears small, similarly colored blooms.
Petunias are well-equipped for a challenge. Deep within each flower are those tiny seeds, seeds of hope. They’re the promise of new life that lies ahead, even when all might seem lost. The little plant above sprouted from seeds that searched out a smidgen of soil in the grout of our bluestone patio. It’s been sending forth a regular succession of fuchsia and white blossoms since July. When I’m tempted to see the world as a swirling mess of meanness, chaos and confusion, I try to think of this humble yet persistent patio petunia. Even in an inhospitable environment akin to bare, unyielding stone, seeds of hope are constantly being planted. I’ll try to look for the seeds, recognize the sprouts, and do my best to nourish them. Pay attention to the petunia. Like the sunflower, it offers powerful life lessons!
If I had no other demands on my time, I could spend an hour or so every day weeding the mulched beds in our back yard around the roses and nandina. Removing the countless maple seedlings alone would keep me occupied. A few years ago, I began noticing some small green shoots that I hadn’t seen before. At first I uprooted them. When one escaped my eye and quickly threw forth lush, fuzzy green leaves, I let it grow. Before long, an interesting bud had formed.
Cradled snugly in the center of a group of emphatically veined leaves, it looked like a small, spiky star.
The bud grew larger, a beautiful thing in itself. Covered by bristly, sharply pointed mini-leaves, it resembled a small artichoke.
Soon, the spiky leaves opened to reveal a sphere covered by yellow petals, their ends gently tucked together at the center. And then I realized: this was a sunflower.
Of course. We’ve made our yard into a haven for birds and squirrels, with multiple feeders, water sources and plenty of scattered seed. We often watch as a squirrel takes a single sunflower seed and buries it, using pointy little fingers to pat down the earth, carefully and thoroughly. According to my husband, this behavior is definitive evidence that I’m providing too much seed. Maybe. But maybe the squirrels simply take pleasure in gardening. They’ve planted pumpkins and acorn squash for us in the past, as well as a flourishing pin oak tree.
Over the past several years, the squirrel-planted sunflowers have become more plentiful, and larger. Each day brings new developments. The bright yellow petals unfold in sections, so that the flower calls to mind a child playing peek-a-boo. The stalks grow taller, thicker and stronger, the leaves bigger.
Apparently I had never examined a live sunflower. I worked from photos when I painted a field of sunflowers not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the late winter of 2022. I hadn’t noticed the distinctive spiral design at the flower’s center. How had I managed to live this long and yet miss such intricate floral majesty? The awesomeness of life’s little miracles continues to amaze me. (And, in a related note–that old Spirograph set I enjoyed as a kid–is it still on the basement shelves among the games? )
I wanted to learn more about these botanical beauties gifted to us by generous squirrel farmers. A sunflower, I know now, is a well-organized community of hundreds of smaller flowers, or florets. What I’ve always thought of as petals are, in fact, individual flowers, or ray florets. Their sunny flamboyance serves to attract pollinators to the many tiny disc florets that compose the center. The disc florets begin opening around the outer periphery, so that the inner spiral is surrounded by a shaggy, deep golden fringe. Each of these florets is a perfect, five-lobed tubular bloom, rather like a lily, sized for a fairy. They will, in time, grow into seeds.
It’s rare to find a sunflower not hosting a pollinator, or two. They’re favorites of these elegant swallow-tail butterflies. In the photo above, I see two friends deep in conversation, as the flower bows its head slightly to greet and accommodate the butterfly.
Carpenter and bumble bees are never far away. They often nestle in and immerse themselves in the luxurious pollen offered by the rounds of disc florets.
Sunflowers are heliotropic: they orient their faces toward the sun. The flowers turn subtly from east to west with the motion of the sun across the sky, and back to the east in the evening to await the coming dawn. Greater sun exposure yields better growth. The sun-following motion occurs in younger flowers. Older ones, heavy-laden with incipient seed, remain east-facing in order to attract more pollinators. In the photo above, the three flowers remind me of medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting the Three Ages of Man. There’s an early bloom, the small child, bursting with pent-up potential. There’s a fully developed blossom, the young adult in her golden, cheerful prime. And then there’s the older flower, an expression of seasoned maturity and a life well-lived. Its large brown seed head teems with successfully pollinated disc florets. Its yellow ray florets may be bedraggled, but that just means they’ve served their purpose.
I’m glad the sunflowers caught my attention and gave me pause. Nature’s everyday masterpieces rarely fail to brighten my day. But that’s not all. When I take the time to look, and to listen, they speak to me of something far greater. Of the marvel of ongoing creation, powered by an all-encompassing presence. A benevolent presence, both immanent and transcendent, defying words and pushing the limits of thought. If I’m quiet, I might sense the whisper of the breath of God that inhabits and flows through everything. Through the sunflower, from squirrel-planted seed, to shoot, to stalk, to flower, and back to seed. Through me. And through you.
We humans could do worse than follow the example of the sunflower. If we seek the light, we’ll have life, and have it more abundantly.
May the promise of Easter give you strength and courage to face the trials of this world. May it bring you inner assurance even during difficult times. May it inspire you to treat your neighbors (even the difficult ones) with kindness and love. May it guide you to find glimmers of light in the darkness, and beauty in the everyday. And may it give you a deep and abiding hope for the life to come, when trials, difficulties and darkness will be no more.
Christ is risen, Christ is living, dry your tears, be unafraid!
Death and darkness could not hold him, nor the tomb in which he lay.
Do not look among the dead for one who lives for evermore;
tell the world that Christ is risen, make it known he goes before.
If the Lord had never risen, we’d have nothing to believe;
but his promise can be trusted: “You will live, because I live.”
As we share the death of Adam, so in Christ we live again;
death has lost its sting and terror, Christ the Lord has come to reign.
Death has lost its old dominion, let the world rejoice and shout!
Christ, the firstborn of the living, gives us life and leads us out.
Let us thank our God, who causes hope to spring up from the ground.
Christ is risen, Christ is giving life eternal, life profound.
Words: Nicolas Martinez, 1960; trans. by Fred Kaan, 1972
It’s a chilly but beautiful Palm Sunday today here in Northern Virginia, a perfect day for observing the swirl of activity that surrounds our side yard bird feeders. In the bright sunshine, the male cardinals glow brilliantly red, and the subtle shading in the feathers of their female counterparts is particularly apparent. Their beaks are as orange as ripe clementines. A pair of goldfinches, recent arrivals, adds to the palette. The male wears a patchwork of flamboyant, purest yellow and the drab olive green of his mate. The light accentuates the rusty red cap of a tiny, ground-feeding chipping sparrow. The swoop of scarlet on the head of a robust red-bellied woodpecker gleams with near-iridescence. An aptly named golden-crowned kinglet put in a rare, brief appearance, hanging upside down from the new buds on a Japanese maple. Each small, feathered creature is a masterpiece of aesthetics and engineering. To watch their fleeting comings and goings on this dazzling day is to catch a breath full of spring’s celebratory essence. To be reminded that in our flawed and frightening world, filled with wars, guns and discord, it is still possible to savor a sip of joy. And of hope.
Such a reminder is especially appropriate on this first day of Holy Week. Christians across the globe look forward to the triumph of Easter. But first there is this roller-coaster ride of a week, one that begins on Palm Sunday’s jubilant note and plunges to the painful depths of despair on Good Friday. To jump from the high point of Palm Sunday to that of Easter is to miss the point. To do so is to ignore much of what it means to be human, and to be miss out on the marvelous magnitude of grace that is the Easter promise.
Over the past eleven years of Wild Trumpet Vine, I’ve written numerous times about the days of Holy Week. See here for last year’s Palm Sunday post.
Ash Wednesday is, indeed, about ashes. But it’s also about what lies beyond the ashes. On this day of the Christian calendar, we’re encouraged to confront and contemplate our mortality, our weakness, our tendency to get things wrong. But we’re not to stop there, wallowing in pity and self-loathing. Because we’re not left in the ashes, abandoned, alone and forlorn. Help is at hand, if we choose to accept it. God, our loving parent, our good shepherd, seeks us out. He calls us, his children, his lost lambs, by name. If we let him, he walks with us through debris and decay into a place where there are no ashes. We can’t imagine such a destination, or such a state of being. We certainly don’t deserve it. But that’s the magic and the beauty of the promise of grace.
This time last year, the darkness of Ash Wednesday felt especially pervasive, oppressive and heavy. Putin had just begun his attempted takeover of Ukraine. While the future was uncertain, it was clear that the situation would get worse before it began to improve. And the terrifying consequences would extend far beyond the boundaries of the Ukrainian state. The good news, so far, is that Russia’s tyrant didn’t get the quick victory that he had expected. The Ukrainians, defying all odds, have shown amazing grit and courage, forming an impressively effective ragtag force of small Davids battling the Russian Goliath. The bad news, of course, is that the destructive, deadly struggle continues, despite the fortitude of Ukraine and the support of the United States and many other countries.
In last year’s Ash Wednesday post, I wrote about a Ukrainian woman who was interviewed as she sheltered with her children and others in a ravaged space in downtown Kyiv. As she spoke, her infant daughter slept soundly in her arms. The baby, she said, was a vital source of hope to her and to those around her. The child offered living, breathing proof of ongoing goodness in the evils of a war-torn world. I think of that child and her family now. Have they survived? Is that baby a chattering toddler now, walking boldly with her mother and siblings through the rubble? I pray that she is, and that she continues to be a bright light in the shadows of the ruins.
The promise of Ash Wednesday is like the promise of a new baby. It reminds us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love. Let’s reach out for the hand that leads us through the ashes toward a renewal beyond the reach of death. And toward that unimaginable, but glorious, other side.
Until today, the homemade clothespin nativity that shelters beneath our little alpine trees in the dining room has included only Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and one shepherd. (Sparkly arctic critters happen to fit in with the high-tech “white sheet as snow” decor.)
The three wise men from the East, along with their flamboyantly curly-haired camel, have been waiting patiently in the background since Advent began in early December.
And now, on the sixth of January, known in the Christian calendar as Epiphany, the long journey of the Magi is complete. They join the Holy Family and pay their tribute to the infant messiah. Their participation in the Biblical nativity narrative is indicative of this important message: God sent his son to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all the nations. For all of us. For all God’s children.
So in our house, we don’t take the Christmas decorations down until well after January 6th. To do so, it seems, would represent an attempt to symbolically stifle the powerful message of God’s love for all. (It also happens that I’m never ready at this point to begin the laborious process of un-decorating. And it would be inhospitable to kick the Magi out immediately after their arrival.)
On this last day of Christmas, I’ll continue to enjoy the look and lights of the season. They’ll be no boxing up for a while yet.
May the spirit of Christmas sustain, strengthen and bless us all year long. And may it remind us to treat our brothers and sisters near and far, like the family they are.
I hadn’t planned to dwell on the theme of saying goodbye. But life, and death, rarely go according to our plans.
My husband’s father left this world on September 21. We gathered with family and friends in Rochester for his memorial service last weekend, on the day before his eighty-third birthday.
I wrote about H’s dad ten years ago, in a series of Father’s Day posts. (See here.) I referred to him then as Grandpa, because that was who he was to my daughter. As a grandfather, and as a person, he was kind, caring, and fun-loving. Till the very end, he carried with him a jumbo-sized cache of jokes, puns and silly remarks. Many were eye-rolling bad, but some were hilarious, and all of them were offered with the best of intentions. Grandpa understood the value of humor, of never taking oneself too seriously, and he loved laughter.
My husband delivered a tribute to his dad at Saturday’s service, on behalf of himself and his siblings. He wasn’t sure he could get through the talk without breaking down. Our daughter was on point to take over, should he find himself choked with tears. He made it through, with a few pauses to collect himself. He touched on several key aspects that made his father unique. He spoke of how his dad’s interest in science (including his obsessive talent for electrical wiring), his love of animals and music, his devotion to his family and to God, were manifested in unusual and unexpected ways. These were the qualities that made all those who knew him well nod their heads and smile: Yes, that was Dad. That was Grandpa. That was Jim.
My husband spoke of one particularly admirable attribute his father possessed. This was his gift for discovering something good about nearly every person he met. He always claimed to be shy, but he seemed to love nothing better than striking up a conversation with a complete stranger. Wherever he went, no matter the circumstances, he tended to run into “the most wonderful people.” The doctors, nurses and medical staff who treated him (quite successfully) for two types of cancer about ten years ago–they were all “wonderful people.” As were the car salesmen, the repair guys, and the elderly couple behind him in line at Tops Market.
Grandpa treated those around him with kindness and compassion. He sought out and encouraged those qualities in others. When he recognized that goodness within, as he so often did, we were sure to hear about it. Grandpa took to heart, and put into practice, Jesus’s advice to “love one another.” My husband concluded his talk with this question: What would Jim say about me? Am I living as one of those “wonderful people” he valued so highly?
To honor Grandpa’s memory, we’ll try to do just that.
Every year as summer deepens and July 4th comes and goes, my mind drifts back to some of my earliest memories. Over the Independence Day weekend in the early to mid-60s, my parents and I would join my mother’s side of the family in central Kentucky. July 4th would find us, not at my grandparents’ house in town, but, as we said, “up to the river.”
My maternal grandmother Nora spent her girlhood years, as well as much of her married life, on a rise overlooking the Rolling Fork River. Portions of the original log cabin on the site remained and had been incorporated into the white frame structure likely built in the mid-nineteenth century. Dates and details are lacking; my family tends to pass along the stories of the past haphazardly and in shattered, scattered fragments, so that the puzzle always remains incomplete. The photographic record is even more insubstantial. A couple of photos, above, from the 70s, show the farm, with its buildings, at a distance. I took some pictures of the house in 1986 (below) when it was in sad disrepair, after years of sitting vacant, shortly before demolition. I’ve been able to find no images that show it as the center of a thriving farm, and a happy, busy family home.
But I have memories of a time when it was exactly that. In those childhood days, my mother’s oldest brother Leland farmed the land by the river. By then, my grandparents had moved into the Queen Anne farmhouse on the Springfield Road in Lebanon that I remember with great fondness. Leland was the only one of my mother’s four siblings to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a farmer. He raised tobacco and Black Angus cattle. There were pigs, some sheep, and chickens, as well. When Leland and his wife Dessie moved into the old house in the 1940s, it lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The structure was unassuming but relatively spacious. There was a wide staircase off the front entrance that led to several sizable bedrooms on the second floor. My grandmother and her two sisters, Alpha and Maude, had shared one room as little girls. Another was for her three brothers, Thomas, Clarence and George. My aunt and uncle, in the later years that I look back on, lived primarily on the first floor, using the upper rooms for storage. I vaguely remember, in one cozy downstairs space, an enormous brick or stone fireplace. It was suitable for a pioneer cabin, large enough to roast an entire side of beef. In a first floor bedroom, there was a narrow cupboard that could be locked with a heavy wooden bolt. It opened to reveal a slim staircase winding up to a single chamber, separate from the other bedrooms on the second floor. According to my mother, this was a feature common to rural homes of the time. An itinerant worker, or any stranger passing through, could be given a bed for the night, safely shut away from the rest of the family. A practical solution for extending hospitality to those we don’t know well enough to trust completely.
In my memories, certainly the farm at the river was nothing if not hospitable. While I can no longer picture the house and its grounds clearly in my mind, those fuzzy images nevertheless conjure a powerful sense of belonging. I’m not sure if I ever spent a night in that old house, but I passed enough time inside and around it, in the company of loved ones, to recognize it as a place that breathed the breath of home. It was our place. Not in the sense of ownership, but of affinity, of kinship.
And in this sense, the river was our river, a well-loved member of the family. The highlight of July 4th, for that young me, was the time we spent splashing in the water and wandering the banks. From the house, it was a pleasant walk, down the hill, across the road, and through part of a field. Geodes and arrowheads were there among the smooth stones of the banks, for those with the patience to look. I loved the tiny gray-green frogs that hopped about among the rocks. For the most part, the river near the farm was fairly shallow, but there were deeper spots suitable for swimming, and for the thrill of plunging into the water from a rope swing. Rumors of blue holes of unfathomable depths abounded. I was probably in second or third grade before I saw the ocean. “Going to the beach” was a foreign concept to me until I was a teenager. Our family had no need for the ocean. We were river people.
After an afternoon at the river in those old days, we’d head back up the hill for one of my aunt’s delicious meals. Now we’d refer to all the ingredients as locally sourced. Back then we just said home grown. There would be country ham or fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes, sweet onion slices, probably potato salad. Cornbread, always. My favorite dish was what we referred to as fried corn, which is fresh corn, straight from the field, cut from the cob and cooked on the stove in bacon grease or butter with a little milk and a bit of flour. It’s the luscious essence of summer on a plate.
Seems like we’d savor these festive summer meals outside, where we could gaze down on the river. We typically gathered in the front yard, seated in an assortment of metal garden chairs and webbed lawn chairs. The entire farm was a land of enchantment for me as a kid. In addition to the river, there was so much to explore and experience: my aunt’s extensive vegetable and flower gardens, an ancient grape arbor, a number of outbuildings, including the big barn, several ramshackle sheds, and a spring house cut into the side of a hill, still an effective outdoor source of refrigeration. There was the wildly overgrown remains of a one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather had built so his children could be taught year-round. Of course there was a privy, still in use after a bathroom was added to the house in the 50s. The ever-present threat of snakes added an element of the exotic.
The significance of our annual “4th up to the River” celebration is suggested by the existence of the photo above. It’s the extremely rare, posed family picture, and it’s nearly complete. Taken at the farm on July 4th, 1964, it includes my mother, her parents, her sister and three brothers, as well as four of the five siblings’ spouses. Only my Uncle Edwin’s wife, Betsy, is missing; she must have been the photographer. I’m in front with my parents, and my cousin, the son of my mother’s sister Jessie, stands in the center back. He is twelve years my senior. I don’t remember ever paying much attention to the absence of cousins about my age. I do remember enjoying the company, and the unique personalities, of everyone in this photo. As I recall, they did their best to keep me amused. Maybe I was akin to the dog who appears to consider itself a human; maybe I didn’t notice that I was the odd one out. I only know that despite my small size, I was never made to feel lesser. I was not talked down to or treated like a precious princess, it seems, but more or less as an equal. I learned to take humorous, good-hearted teasing as a compliment.
The older I get, the more I treasure my memories of those golden days with dear family up at the river. As I look back on that part of my childhood, glimpsed through the haze of decades, I feel again the abiding solace of knowing that I’m loved, knowing I belong, knowing I’m not alone. May the sacred ties of family, of friendship, and of place, beautifully entwined together to create the idea of home–may they never break, but stretch and expand. My daughter is another only child who was often surrounded by adults during her formative years. I pray that she carries with her a cache of cherished recollections that provide her with a similar sense of contentment and assurance.
Fifty-eight years after that family photo was taken, only my mother, my cousin and I remain here on earth. I pray that our future holds for us a reunion on the banks of another river, one glorious beyond imagination, in our true home.
Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.
–Shall We Gather at the River
words and music by Robert Lowry, 1864
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.