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Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind


It's one of those fall days that, thanks to climate change, come too rarely these days, even in the mountains. The air is crisp. The sky's a brilliant, almost piercing blue. The clouds are not only puffy, but actually white. The still-copious leaves on the copper beeches at the top of the ridge glow in the sun like points of flame. It's the kind of day that makes it hard to go inside to the office and write. It's especially the kind of day when it seems particularly cruel to think of death.


Her name was Jeri, and she was my mother's first cousin. We never met, so I did not know her in the way one knows those encountered face to face. From phone conversations, however, it was clear she was a woman of grace, courage, and strong opinions. Now, months after the event, I have discovered that she died. I knew she'd been ill with one thing or another for years, but the news was still a shock. 


Both my maternal grandparents had several siblings, so there were many cousins, some of whom lived nowhere near, several of whom were the offspring of much older or younger siblings with whom my grandparents were not especially close. Jeri fell into both those categories. In fact, I'd never even heard of her until long after my mother's death, when another cousin, met through Ancestry, mentioned her and provided a phone number. When I called, Jeri was appropriately cautious, but we discovered shared interests - family history, politics, and (most importantly) food.


All the cousins in Mother's generation seem to have shared two traits: beauty and cookery skills, and Jeri was no exception. The beauty part was clear from photographs we exchanged. As for the cookery? When she learned Robert and I enjoy afternoon tea on special occasions, Jeri began to send us sizable boxes of homemade treats. Poppy-seed cakes. Cookies of various kinds. Chocolate-covered cherries. Each box would hold enough for several teas, and everything she sent was fresh and of professional quality. Over time, I learned that Jeri loved to bake, in fact viewed it as one of her life's most important missions to share her kitchen's output. Like many prolific bakers, she had more than one stove, each serving the needs of different types of food. From her crowded kitchen she supplied food to the Scout troops of her children as they grew up, the various women's committees of her church, her husband's business entertainments, political fundraisers, and fellow volunteers with whom she worked on community projects. Sitting here, thinking about it, it seems to me that, over the decades, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people ate Jeri's cakes, pies, cookies, candies. Her talents touched many people, and she never stopped using her abilities to benefit others, even when she had to nurse two of her adult children who, one after the other, suffered lengthy, ultimately fatal illnesses, even when her body at last began to give way to a combination of ailments.


Now, her warm heart is stopped, and the hands that measured, kneaded, sliced, chopped, mixed, shaped, and performed all the other tasks necessary to make the unending parade of food that she produced are stilled. 


That loss of individual capabilties has always seemed to me the biggest waste represented by death. Each of us not only has unique skills but performs them in unique ways to produce unique results. No one else has ever shaped a pie crust's lattice in just that way, or peeled an apple so carefully that light can be seen through the skin.


Now, Jeri's skills are gone too, dust to dust, as they say. There will be no more of the special chocolate-covered cherries, for no one else will ever again be able to do exactly what she did. Given the limitations of our acquaintanceship, that disturbs me to a surprising degree.




Webster defines  "green thumb" as possessing superior plant-handling skills. That's a prosaic definition for a capability that can bring abundance from nothing, resurrect the dying, and achieve maximum results from the healthy. Still, even a dictionary has to start somewhere.

Both my grandmothers had green thumbs, albeit of a very different sort. Ethel's plants marched in precise rows, regimented as to species, size, and color alongside paths of the tiniest, neatly swept pea gravel in off-white. Maggie's, on the other hand, poured in wild profusion over stone walls, around trellises, and across rocks. In Ethel's garden, perennial never touched biennial, much less annual, while in Maggie's Peace roses intertwined comfortably with clematis and four o'clocks jostled with zinnias for prime space.

My mother's plant of choice was succulents, which grew for her like weeds on unlikely window shelves, while my father could grow anything. Give him a seed, a cutting, or a bare-roots plant, and he seemed to know exactly what to do without thinking. He'd grown up on or around farms and had always had a garden. By the time I came along, this was located in the extra lot attached to our house in the suburbs, and one of my earlier memories is watching him prepare and plant it each spring. I hung around, of course, because I was crazy about him and grabbed every opportunity to be part of whatever he was doing, but he must have assumed my persistent presence was proof of a wish to have a garden. This was perhaps why he also assumed that I, his eldest child, would be as natural a gardener as he was.

When I was eight, he decided I was old enough to start my own gardening tradition, which in a way I did. He dug and planted a roughly eight-by-ten plot that would allow me to harvest my own small crop of carrots, radishes, and potatoes. He showed me how to weed and water, and identified insects to watch out for. Then, a believer in allowing children to do things for themselves, he went back to his garden and left me to my own devices. I did exactly what he told me to do, but nothing seemed to thrive as expected. My potatoes were mottled with some sort of virus he said he'd never seen before. The radishes were just about nonexistent. As for the carrots, they were the size of the bright yellow pencils in my book bag − and just about as hard.

Daddy was almost as disappointed as I was, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt and the next spring set me up with another garden. The results were almost the same. The third year he moved the garden, thinking perhaps a different location would help. It didn't, and the year I was eleven, he decided that perhaps my talents lay in a different direction.

That has been pretty much the story of my gardening ever since. Some well-meaning friend or mentor has given me some plant that "anyone can grow" and I've promptly proven them wrong. What's so frustrating is that both my sisters have exhibited truly superior capabilities with both house plants and gardens, systematically producing specimens that could feature in any seed company's catalog. One even devised a complex scheme whereby various daylilies bloomed in her yard in continuous succession from April to October.

Some of my ongoing lack of success has been particularly unfortunate. A monastery east of Atlanta carefully nurtured bonsai trees which it sold to the public. I loved their elegance and the symbolism attached to so much thought and effort. Over a decade I was given, or bought, four different plants, each of which survived just long enough to make me think I'd broken the curse. The last one, which was rapidly transitioning from sickly to sick, I gave away in the nick of time to a friend whose thumb was practically chartreuse. That was two decades ago, and it's still thriving.


What prompts this rather masochistic survey is the fact that this year, for the first time in recent memory, I tried again and I think my luck may be turning. Wanting a type of giant coleus I'd had trouble finding at garden centers and commercial greenhouses, I bought a Gro-Light kit and ordered the precise seeds guaranteed to produce what I was looking for. The result was gratifying. The coleus responded in a predictable, trouble-free manner as I planted, watered, adjusted the lights, and then moved them into pots. They were, in fact, spectacular, exceeding even the showy images in the catalog. It's true that things didn't work out exactly as I'd hoped - plants that were supposed to be 36" high never made it past 28" - but this time I know why. I was late starting the seeds. In 2020 those seeds will be in the grow medium no later than mid-January and I'm anticipating maximum size as well as terrific appearance by mid-summer.


What I'm wondering now is if my thumbs are at last acquiring some of the familial green or if seeds have become so reliable that the color of one's thumbs doesn't matter any more. I'll take the result either way.

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