Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Photo by Dyan Millsaps Shirley. All rights reserved. 

In July, Karen, my aunt and godmother, died.

The cemetery in July is blindingly hot and bright, with sunshine reflecting off white curtains of swift wind-driven clouds, and off Missouri farm hillsides so rustling and vibrant with growth they sigh and gleam like the flanks of living animals.

The day we laid her to rest was just like that. The heat and light were brutal, especially when grief-- the collective grief of husband and daughters and grandchildren, sisters and cousins, friends and townspeople-- made us all wan and weak in the face of our loss.

Even so I could not think, if such a cruel thing had to be endured, that it could happen at any other time of the year. Karen was a farmer and the wife of a farmer. She loved the land and all good green growing things. She was at her happiest then, it always seemed, and it was then that she was in her element. In that sense it was a blessing we were able to say our goodbyes to her with that high and handsome land all around, in the fullness of the summer season.

She had two daughters and eight nieces and nephews, and she had a heart big enough to mother us all. She spent so much of her life in July and other months too, welcoming us up the gravel driveway to the farm, cooking and baking for us, sending us to the hen house, helping us find the new kittens, picking hay out of our hair, making us wash our dirty bare feet at the back door hose, scolding us, patting our backs, making dresses for our dances and quilts for our beds. It was only right that we all made it back for her one more time, and we did. I wish we'd done it more often in recent years, but we made the big mistake of growing up, and the intricacies of our own adult lives carried us down that gravel road, but not back. I suppose this is what grief is mostly made up of. Regret.

She had the elegant shoulders of a slender 1930s movie star, but she wore plaid short-sleeved shirts and jeans and sneakers and perpetually carried enamel pans, full of vegetables for dinner that night or cherries for canning or kitchen scraps for the hogs. Her garden was eternally enormous, and with every passing year more and more flowers--cleome and cosmos and sunflowers--budged in with the asparagus and tomatoes and beans. It grew a little wilder too, with the neat rows of the past run a little ragged and butterflies, barn swallows, and martins skimming the air. It wasn't a competition in her mind, though. Earthy potatoes and full-blown roses both held equal glory in her worldview.

Because Aunt Karen never passed up a moment to notice. Beauty. Creation. Good things. She pointed out bluebird nests, or strawberry blossoms, or wildflowers under the oak trees in the pasture, or a new baby calf, or the dark gloss of healthy midsummer corn. "Just look at that. Look at that. Isn't that pretty?" Being with her was a near constant invitation to notice the fine things contained in the everyday. It didn't ever occur to me that my whole life she was gently teaching me the most important lesson of all. Not that tired concept of "gratitude", which speaks so much of obligation; but the vocabulary of an open heart, words that we could all use more of in our increasingly cynical world. Wonder. Fascination. Joy.

I have always loved gardening--thanks, of course, to her-- and now it has become my solace in grieving her. I feel near her there, digging in the dirt. I thought of her days after her death, when my dirty fingers patted neatly-petaled globes of zinnias. I thought of her weeks later, when I filled up the bird bath. I thought of her in August, when I was stooped head and shoulders into the tomato patch, filling the giant stainless steel mixing bowl with them. I think of her every time a hummingbird flits too close, bravery inversely proportional to emerald size. Now bees and butterflies swarm the asters in October, and still I'm thinking of her.

But thinking of my aunt only carries me so far. Even the stories I could tell others, and I could tell plenty, will bear fainter and fainter witness as the years pass from this sad July. In the end, I think the only way to really honor the aunt I miss so much is to absorb parts of her, sink the good I knew of her into the marrow of my bones, so that those things I loved about her become an actual part of me. And for her, to honor her, I'm going to touch the shoulder of the person next to me when I see a pink sunset, a fat bumblebee, a sparkly stream, and invite them the way Aunt Karen did, to see with an open heart. Just look. Look at that. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Return to April

I'm going to take liberties with the timeline, and toss the blog back to April. You can do that in blogger world. I wish you could do that in real life, too. Just a little, now and then.

I've had a lot of emotional adjustments to make this summer. Some were very good, and some were bad, and some were in between. But while I'm trying to make sense of them enough to write about them (and I need to write about them), I felt like April was a good, safe place on the calendar to visit.

In April, Tom and I went to Missouri to see my Dad. My sister Dyan came up from Atlanta, and we made a long weekend of it in the Ozarks.

This is the view from my Dad's place, which we call "The Hill." I wish this was a painting.

The Ozark hills in April are made up of tree bark and green mists and blue sky, mostly. But it also has dozens of tiny wonders you'll miss if you fail to pay attention. You need to get up close and personal with an Ozark spring to really know it like you should.

New oak leaves are as rosy and beautiful as any spring flower.

And mayflower is hidden under its own great green silk umbrella:

Blue-eyed grass. It should be the name of an Emmylou Harris album, shouldn't it? 

We visited Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. Ancestors fought in this battle (you can learn more here). We keep returning, partly because my Dad's a military history buff, partly because we ran a race as a family here (read about it here), and partly because it's just one of the most indescribably pretty pieces of land in southern Missouri--rolling hills and winding creek, oak savannah and tallgrass prairie. Below is the Ray farmstead. It is sobering to realize so many men sacrificed their lives in a place so beautiful, on a hot day in August 1861. 

Dad and Tom are in the photo, two of the men I love the most in this world. They met for the first time that weekend. They got on well. (Whew.) Then again, I sensed they would. Some things fall into place like they were meant to happen all along. 

I have a fascination for stone fireplaces. I'm not sure why, but I always come home with photos of them. 

The furnishings in the Ray farmstead museum are so simple it feels serene. 

Local volunteers and museum docents are dedicated to bringing history to life here. This gentleman told us about life on the battlefield for a Union soldier. 

I was fascinated by the design, angles, light and shadow of this split rail fence.

And the bark of this chestnut tree:

And sunlight filtered through sassafras leaves.

Sassafras light. Those are two words I've been playing with since I took that picture, bouncing around in my head. What do they mean? I don't know. Still, I like the sound of them, paired with the memory of that April weekend. It's a good alternative title for spring in the Ozarks. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Fear, Remorse, and Home Repair (is that all?)

I have not been a responsible homeowner.

There. I said it.

Now that I've confessed, let me go back a bit, and explain.

On the same day I was shooting and then posting this deceptively calm and composed photo:

A crew of men were in my basement cutting steel i-beams, welding, and generally making an earth-shattering noise in my basement. 

So much so that the dining room post published that day was an act of clinging to sanity more than anything else. I needed to focus (pun intended) on an accomplishment rather than the chaos going on literally under my feet. I could barely write a coherent sentence. I'm still a little at a loss for words. 

It all started back in the summer of 2012, the year after I bought my house. My basement was a mildewed and funky 1970s dark paneling fright of a black hole. It looked like this: 

It smelled. It was ugly. It was......hard to know where to start. And I didn't know where I wanted to end up. My first act was to send samples of the ceiling tiles off to be tested for asbestos. The test came back negative, so we could start demolition safely. I think that was the last good decision I made about this space. 

My son tugged and yanked and pried and swore at that paneling for a whole summer in his spare time between his paying jobs. I really appreciated the help. And then we discovered this: 

Not a good-quality photo, but you get the drift. A crack. A horizontal one running at ground level and right under the windows, with a rather significant stair-step gap almost down to the floor. It had all been hidden behind the paneling in the basement, wasn't noticeable to the eye from the outside, and wasn't obviously out-of-square in the upstairs living area of the house. The inspection at sale had entirely missed this rather significant flaw in the structural integrity of the house. 

The consensus was that it had been there awhile, and had in fact, happened mostly all at once, when someone did a really shitty job pouring the driveway down the south side of my property in the 1980s. It butted right up against the foundation, and the initial pressure, followed by the settling and shifting of the concrete over the years, caused the damage. 

It wasn't progressing, but the very sight of it overwhelmed me to the point of not progressing, either. Typical of my over-thinking nature I researched the problem a lot, assembled a list of contractors and then.... couldn't move forward. And every few months a more immediately urgent problem and financial issue would come up, like a water heater splitting open, and it would move to the back of my mind again. 

This was the house ownership version of being so afraid of a lump under the skin that you don't go to the doctor to get it investigated. It never goes away. Neither does the worry. It had been nagging me forever. But still I was afraid of finding out the answers. 

As it turned out, the research I did over the last four years (Seriously. Somebody slap me.) made initiating the repairs easy. 

However, making the first phone calls was the only easy part. There was a reason I was afraid to face this, and the collecting of bids, horrific expense, weeks-long lending rodeo with my bank, and scheduling issues meant I was right, even if I was stupid. If that makes any sense. It was almost exactly as bad as I'd feared. 

Except that it was fixable. And now it's fixed. The contractor reinforced the wall with steel beams so the crack can no longer progress, and the system includes a way to tighten the braces twice a year, so that the wall comes back towards true gradually over time (though it won't ever be 100% again). 

I don't really have any excuse for how I handled this whole thing, except that I was feeling overwhelmed. I've been overwhelmed since I bought this place, and how badly I don't think I realized until recently. And though the check I wrote was huge, so is my relief. 

My advice? Don't be me, an anxiety-ridden home-owning deer in the headlights. Secondly, old home ownership is not for sissies. I didn't think I was one, but this pretty well beat the snot out of me. 

It has given me perspective, though. I don't think I'll complain about painting woodwork trim. Not for at least a little while. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June in the Garden, 2016

I've decided that perennial borders aren't for people who can't appreciate subtlety. Because mine looks pretty green from the sidewalk in front of my house, even at peak growing season. 

But that's okay. My favorite color is green, and if you care to take a closer look, there's a lot of other colors going on....

It seems to change every minute too, so I'm often grabbing my camera and making quick shots right after I come home from work, instead of doing proper camera settings. 

There's also plenty of weeds, too, and that's a job that's never done. Can you believe that I don't mind weeding so much? I can't say I love to do it, but it's work that seems satisfying to me, and you can let your mind crash its gears on something else entirely. Gardening must be the philosopher's hobby. 

The froggy is from a ceramic birdbath. Mostly birds don't bathe in it, but lots of pollinators come to have a drink. There seems to be more bees this summer, and I'm happy for that. 

This May Night Salvia is a true, vibrant blue, but it always photographs rather more like grape-soda purple. I'm not sure it's the limitations of my camera lens or the limitations of the photographer. 

What's gorgeous in your garden this summer?