All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.

MOONFLOWER

If I have failed as a tomato farmer, I have excelled in the realm of night bloomers, more specifically, I have excelled in the growing and tending of the moonflower.

Before I started running the roads with my pal, Alice, I was unfamiliar with moonflowers.  I had spent an evening years ago in my old boss’s backyard waiting for a similarly named plant to pop with blooms—also called moonflower—but this is not the same moonflower of which I now speak. 

That was a shrub covered with trumpety looking blooms that dangled down and were supposed to give off a lemony fragrance at the exact moment of eruption.  Everyone ooh’ed and ah’ed and I kept missing it, missed it even as I moved my lawn chair closer and closer to the action.   I finally ooh’ed and ah’ed, too, just to fit in, but I never managed to share the experience.

But driving around with Alice one spring, she insisted we stop by this nursery and that one, in search of moonflower vines.  We found them, scraggly-looking things, and then we plonked down an unbelievable amount of money for each, and took them home, and with the slimmest of instructions from Alice, I stuck mine in the ground.

For the longest time nothing happened.

There was a shoot—a long tendril that crept along at a pace so slow I thought surely I had chosen a sick plant.  It was tough that first summer remembering which was the moon vine and which was that invasive weed vine that shows up and takes over, especially after a rain—the weed with the large heart-shaped leaf, not the variated green and pointy weed vine.

Patience, however, is rewarded.

Sometime in late July, the moon vine just takes off, climbs the pillars of the porch, overtakes the trellis, wraps around the downspout and reaches toward the roof line, and SNAP!  just like that, the flowers come along.

At first they look like tiny soft-serve ice cream cones, all tightly twisted, a soft pale cream, tinged with the faintest of lime green.  Then, about dusk, they loosen up, work to open, and they do, but still a little sad looking, like a crumpled tissue.

Peek again just as night falls completely and you will be rewarded with a delicate flower, the size of a dessert plate, no wrinkles now, but a perfect bloom adorned with a spiral center, the pale tracing of green even fainter now, and it is a thing so beautiful it stops the heart and arrests the breathing for a moment or two.

And this delicate, perfect moonflower is not alone.  She has her friends with her, some evenings two friends, , some evenings, a dozen. There in the dark, they glow, or we think they do, because they should, really, they should.

They last the night, that is all.   New flowers set and spiral, destined to bloom when the sun goes down, only to fold up and fall from the vine with the first rays of morning sun.

And so it continues until late in the summer, until autumn arrives.

Ipomoea alba—moonflower or moon vine —shares its lineage with the morning glory, and is native to the New World—therefore, completely our own.  No cultivar this, no coveted and pirated plant brought in a ship’s hold to recreate the gardens of Europe, the exoticism of Asia.   Just a joyous little flower with a night owl’s sensibility, brightening up little corners of darkness here and there.

Much later, when the blooms are spent and there is nothing more to see here, the seed pods will be ready for harvest.  The seeds are poisonous but then, what is beauty without a little danger?  Research tells me moonflowers are easy to grow from seed, and this will be my late spring project.  If I fail—and it is a possibility for which I am prepared—I know where to purchase new plants.

But for now, I visit my moonflowers from dusk until dark, counting the blooms, admiring them against the dark foliage, against the black night. I talk to them, toss compliments their way.

I do it every night. 

Because in the morning, they will be gone. moonflower

Reunion

I really didn’t want to go.  Or more accurately, I was ambivalent about going.  I keep up with the old friends I most want to see, a habit helped by the annual girls’ trip in spring.  It seems enough for me.  I get to see Ruth Ann, Janet, Nancy, Linda, Julie  on a regular basis.

But my childhood friend, Margaret, is an organizer, and a bit of a pesterer, and she kept bringing it up.  She’s always nice about it, not manipulative really,  just a bit insistent that everyone know the dates, suggesting that it might be fun, using certain ploys to hit the right notes of enticement, each one tailored to whomever she is speaking to at the time.

And of course, I received urgent messages from the event organizers to RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL IMMEDIATELY and to GET MY MONEY IN NOW.  It was all too much.  But then two things happened that tipped the scales.  First, about a week out, three good friends from out of town let us know they were coming, and I received an email from someone I hadn’t seen in decades, and she was coming for our high school reunion, too. 

Good old Ritter. 

She has a first name, one of those mid-century names that every fourth girl child owned, so, to distinguish her from the others,  she was simply Ritter.  And I am happy to report, she still is.  She moved to Texas not long after graduation and once her dad moved to Texas, too, I don’t suppose she ever came back, or at least not much.

We had drifted away in high school, any way.  Our class was huge and the baby boom was at its height. In  our senior year we were on double sessions—splitting the school day between four grades to accommodate a classroom crunch.

It made for a sad sack kind of senior year, with a fractured schedule and many of us dreaming of life after graduation and just getting on with it.  I was one of those.

But Ritter showed up early the week of the reunion, came in from in Texas and hosted a gathering of old friends, some from our class, others whom she knew as a kid.  It was great seeing them, seeing her.  She is a grandmother now, has lived in Texas and Singapore, manages a hotel, has almost a half-century of living away from Owensboro, and she hasn’t changed a bit.

But of course, she has. 

But not to me. 

She looks the same, sounds the same, has the same sense of humor, and we might as easily have been eleven and circling the food table like we did at slumber parties.  She looks like her mother now.  Many of us look like our mothers, we decided.  But what I saw, saw it all night long, was the little girl who could climb trees like a monkey, the child I went to Girl Scouts with, the friend who was always up for a laugh and an escapade.

It was a quieter reunion than others, although the music was better, thanks to our classmate, John Laswell, and his band.  When I say quiet, I mean, we sat around and talked more, caught up.  It was endearing to hear grown, mature men who live out of town talk about going home to sleep in their old rooms, in a twin bed, in a house kept too hot by their parents.  We commiserate with them, thinking of our own parents’ homes. Those of us whose parents are gone, may wistfully have wished for one more night in our old beds.

If this reunion were a person, it would be decidedly middle-aged.  We are that, and then some. It was a sweet evening, low key, but connected.  There were hugs, real ones, from girls we’ve known since grade school, from boys we had crushes on.  Hugs that were affectionate and warm, uncomplicated now in a way that high school never was.

We are less our old selves and more our old selves, and it works somehow.  We had a hand in shaping each other, whether we knew it at the time, or not.  That is worth considering, although it requires nothing of us now.  But to spend an evening remembering and reconnecting was nice.  I am glad I went.

Here is where I thank Margaret for getting me there. I might have one more reunion in me.  But that’s a maybe, with the final decision reserved for the eleventh hour.

Back to School Blues

Back to School BluesAugust arrived, often with some of the hottest days of summer, but nights were cool, just in time to leave us dripping and shivering on the edge of the SportCenter pool, where our mother had signed us up for late summer swimming lessons.

We whined in the back seat to stop for ice cream, but our hearts weren’t in it. It was, well, it was just old hat, summer was old hat, and we mostly just liked to whine in a mindless, directionless way.   There might be some watermelon at home, but by now it was less sweet, more pithy, less lovely than the first one of summer. 

We had gathered around our mother wielding a carving knife then, overly excited and hopping up and down, peering into the deep gash she created as we listened for the crack of the rind parting from the wound, and the innards ruby red and thrilling. I thought maybe lungs looked like that.  But only for a moment.  Otherwise the image might have kept me from fighting over the largest slice, kept me from the bliss of it, the sticky juice running down my chin, the pink chunks falling on my shirt, which I picked off and ate.

School didn’t start until after Labor Day, a nice, long August to grow mind-numbingly bored, so bored that the idea of school was a welcome relief.  There were no more Nancy Drews to read, no more dusty games of baseball.  Cleaning our rooms to get ready for fall was the stupidest thing I had ever heard my mother utter.  She made me dust the baseboards, then, all of them, but I showed her.  I started in the living room—the one room in the house she kept nice for “company”—where I crawled behind the sofa as if to dust, and promptly fell asleep.

But school was still far away, or felt as if it was, and the last days were spent in idle anticipation, a little like being packed for a trip a week early, and all you do is sit around and check  your watch, look at your luggage, wander to the window and wonder when the cab will come.

There was an orientation day, as I remember, when kids met their new teachers and parents received the supply list.  Everyone headed to the Ben Franklin, ON THAT DAY, to pick up cellophane-wrapped packages of paper, pencils and crayons, notebooks and fancy binders.  I always required a new pencil box, with a compass and protractor, the latter a tool I had no idea how to use or what it was for.  (Determining angles, it turns out,  a skill I have never required in all my years of living.)

It never rained on the first day of school, which seems extraordinary to me. We have years of pictures my dad took of us standing in the alley and squinting at the camera, with new book satchels and new shoes, just before we walked the five blocks to school.  In a few feet from the picture-taking spot, my older brother will peel off from the group and act like he doesn’t know us.  A middle child will exert authority, or try to, over a younger child, by grabbing his hand, which will be wrenched away.  Words will ensue.

That’s about all I remember.  Walking to school on the first day, then a week later and it was if I had never left, so quickly does a new routine become, well, routine.

I will pass a high school on my way to work this morning.  The parking lot will be full, and the halls will be loud, crackling with “first day back” jitters, kids in wrong rooms, lost freshmen, faculty plastering on happy, friendly faces.  I wish them all well, and also the other students returning to classes all over town.

But, even more,  I wish for them a few more weeks of freedom, a September start to the school year.  It’s an old-fashioned notion, I know, and one that doesn’t have much relevance to the way we live and work now.  But give me a cool morning in early September, new shoes and  sharp crayons, and everything, all of it, right there, in front of me.  I can work with that.  Make something of it. A clear ending and new beginning that the weather and calendar reinforces. 

None of this mid-month, still summer business.  But September, finally, and fall.

Sanctuary

On a hot afternoon in Olomouc, CZ, I was wandering around the city centre, overly warm, and as I passed the doors of St. Moritz Church, I heard strains from its famous organ spilling out onto the sidewalk, inviting me, after a fashion, to enter.

I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 13th century—would offer some relief from the heat, with its thick walls and dark interior.  And it was cool in there, with only the faintest shafts of sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.  I sat in the quiet, punctuated only here and there by the organist’s practicing.

I wasn’t alone.

From my place in the back I saw an elderly man with two laden plastic bags swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door.  He sat for a moment, then  gathered his things and left through the side door opposite, as if this were a regular stop on his rounds, a  throughway or a place to take a breath before home and evening and obligations crowded in on him.

A young mother, much harried, jiggling the stroller to calm the fretful infant, rushed by me, settled on a pew some distance ahead, her hand slowly quieting on the stroller as her child quieted within it.  She slumped, just a little, a silhouette of care and exhaustion. 

Minutes passed, I lost track of time.  From the shadows a tear-streaked woman emerged, anguish etched in every angle of her face.   Some deep trouble has come to her, and it was unresolved and ongoing. Her despair was raw and exposed. She has risen from the kneeler and walked by me quite quickly, passed by without seeing me, or seeing anyone, so singular was her pain and her purpose for being in this place.  Perhaps I should have looked away for decency’s sake, but I did not.

In that moment— a twinkling, really — I knew I was meant to bear witness, to care for this stranger, and be moved by her and thus connected to her, connected even now, years later as I tell this to you.

I sat for a half hour, maybe more, quietly thinking my own thoughts, taking in eight centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace. 

I remembered all this again, this afternoon, as I read in the UK “Daily Telegraph”  that British millennials  are returning to church in larger numbers than you might think, even those who identify as nonbelievers.  They are coming for peace and quiet, for a place without texts or tweets or a thousand other things that distract and disconnect them.  They seek the sacred. 

According to the  article, young people are  filling the pews for events like choral evensong and stopping by  churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have someplace quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.

A monk from St. Meinrad once told me they have special instructions for the new young brothers,  should they see someone weeping in the great cathedral.  It attracts visitors all the time, and often when people sit in silence in such a place, they are overcome with emotion.  Cathedrals are designed, very specifically, to act as a conduit for the sacred and the divine.  Sitting still with oneself  can provide a similar conduit.  Sitting still with oneself in a such a place with a troubled heart or a worried mind is that, and then some.

The young brothers were instructed to honor the space and the visitors by allowing them to have their feelings in peace, that people don’t need to be rescued from their emotions. Walk quietly, they are told, and be available if someone seeks you out, but in no other way interfere.

In the Middle Ages and during wars and social unrest, churches have offered safe haven to those in need of it.  Walk through any medieval town or village and notice the prominence of the church. Try the heavy wooden doors. Or seek out any heavy wooden door on any place of sanctuary.  Find one unlocked.

Go in.

Summer Tomato

I saw the most amazing thing last week, amazing and delightful, and even now, I am not convinced what I saw and experienced actually occurred..think it may have been a phantasm or a hallucination, or at the very least overactive wishful thinking.

I saw a tomato.

A ruby ripe tomato, slightly smaller than a softball, the top neatly sliced off and reminding me of my grandmother’s kitchen in summer, where she prepared such tomatoes for our lunch.

But I wasn’t in my grandmother’s kitchen, wasn’t standing in the middle of a Kentucky summer, but rather, passing by the lunch table in our break room at work.
My colleague, Matt, was sitting there, enjoying his lunch—he eats well—entire meals left over from Sunday dinners—and at his elbow was the tomato. He had been delicately slicing himself pieces, one at a time, as he ate his lunch.

Stopped me in my tracks, did that tomato. Stopped my buddy, Al, too, and we gathered around the tomato, and Matt, with reverence and awe. Someone might have knelt. I’m not sure.

Matt is a wonderful fellow, and generous, and he offered us some, carved off two slices with a beatific glow, for he knew what he possessed was not of this wintry world, knew it was to be shared, knew other, more ethereal forces were at work here.

We took our offerings in trembling hands, sat down, eyes closed, and took our time—no greedy slurping and inattention, but rather a savoring, and when we were done, Al and I wore beatific smiles, too.

Because this was a summer tomato. A perfectly formed, low acidic, delicious orb of a fruit, as authentic as any of its summer brethren, worthy of a place in a roadside stand, nestled under a handwritten cardboard sign reading “home grown.”

Where, or where, did he get it?

His father gave it to him.

Now here, as in most miracle stories, the details get sketchy but I will do my best to recreate it for you. Matt’s dad lives in Union County, of this much I am sure, and he purchased the tomatoes from the Amish, or the Mennonites—of this I am less sure—somewhere in the countryside, Matt wasn’t clear.

I remember him saying something about a fund-raiser, but that doesn’t exactly square up when you think about it, and he said they were expensive. For some reason the figure of twelve tomatoes for thirty dollars sticks in my mind—quick math and that brings us to $2.50 a piece.

I envisioned the tomatoes snug in heavy cardboard boxes, some wrapped in tissue paper, some wrapped in thin gold foil, like those specialty pears we send at Christmas. I envisioned a rendezvous under the cloak of darkness, a buggy on some overgrown backroad, a kerosene lantern blinking out code, and tomato hunters inching their cars—lights off—toward the golden glow, dodging muddy potholes and low-hanging branches.

I envisioned a small child appearing from the shadows, dressed in somber clothing, a poke in one hand, the other an outstretched palm, reaching to receive the cash, horses whinnying and pawing the damp earth. I envisioned a hot house—say it isn’t so!—a hot house, where a sea of tomatoes are chugging along, under water or manure, ripening and ripening, and ripening all winter.

This is what I thought about as I ate my tomato, I don’t know about the others. Each of us sat in communal silence, thinking our own thoughts, contemplating the miracles of the universe, perhaps, and what forces of nature or fate or simple good luck brought us to this tomato.

Matt offered us more—there was still half a tomato left—but Al and I demurred, knowing, I think, that we had been given a rare and precious gift, and it doesn’t do to be greedy.

There is a poem, one I admire but can’t find, that speaks of eating fruit in its season. That there is no better joy. The poem is a cautionary tale reminding us to do things in their proper time, reminds us of the value of waiting, the wisdom of patience.

I embrace the sentiment of that and work to be patient and wise and proportional in my life, living the seasons as they present themselves to us, standing still in the moment, with joy and faith.

But oh, my, that tomato. Summer in a twinkling, and just like that, gone.

Pure rapture.

February Blues

 

Ah, the end of February, the drowned rat of the calendar year.  We have just about floated away, with endless rain for days upon days.  But we might just have easily had snow and sleet for the month, or days as gray as dishwater for weeks on end, all likely possibilities for this, the shortest month, and thank goodness that it is only twenty-eight days long.

It’s sad, really, how tough this month is on most of us.  We even have two holidays, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, and you think this would ease the pain, but no. When

I was a child, we had three holidays, because Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Washington each had their own special day, although everyone worked and went to school, and mail was delivered.

There were stories of log cabins and splitting wood, and that other axe, the one that cut down the cherry tree, even though, honestly, no child ever believed deep-down that little George ever uttered the phrase, “I cannot tell a lie.”

  A very small child might confess, all sobbing and hiccuppy at getting caught, but no child big enough to wield an axe and do that kiind of damage would ever cop to it, no child you would want to be friends with, at any rate. To support my point, an example.

To this day no one has confessed to eating the last piece of pumpkin pie at my house, the Thanksgiving I was eight.  Even though the culprit left behind irrefutable evidence in the pie—a perfectly formed and precise impression of the culprit’s teeth.  The culprit must have been disturbed during the event, had heard someone coming and scampered down from the chair that allowed him or her to reach the pie in the first place, up there on top of the refrigerator. 

No one confessed, even when the father lined all the children up and placed the half-eaten piece up to four innocent mouths and one guilty one, even when the culprit was thus discovered. 

The mouth that held the teeth that matched the pie twisted in a grimace of indignation, and through protestations,  he or she wept in a slobbering fit of uncontrollable rage at the audacity and injustice of not being believed. Stomped around the house, escalating, until the rest of the family grew bored of laughing at him or her and ignored the culprit completely.

So, no, I don’t believe George Washington confessed, and, in fact, I came to doubt the whole cherry tree story in its totality.

We put up with this Washington silliness at Longfellow Elementary because there were cupcakes the last half hour of school and some sort of cherry cobbler in the school cafeteria for lunch.

February tries us, but it does some things for us, too. It brings us slowly lengthening days, seed catalogs, stacks of rakes in the racks that once held snow shovels, and gas grills and lawn mowers making their slow march from storeroom to showroom.

February gives us a reason to binge-watch TV, read big books, work complicated jigsaw puzzles, or do nothing much at all.  February helps us get ambitious in spring by making us good and bored in late winter. February teases us, or reassures us, with a few warm days here and there, spring-like afternoons with showers and puddles and gusts of wind.  February reminds us there are only a few more weeks when we might reasonably expect snow.

Then March, the lion or the lamb, bringing us crocus, daffodils, hyacinth, the first curled fingers of hostas breaking the ground.  The buzz of activity in greenhouses, and we stop by, even though the geraniums and herbs aren’t ready yet, stop by just to smell the loamy, peaty composty aroma that signifies new life about to burst from jute pods the size of Dixie cups.

February, we love to hate ya, but you do serve a purpose.  We will try to remember that, a year from now, when you roll back in.

 

Decorum

My pal, Alice, was rummaging through some boxes, or drawers, or scrapbooks, and came across her wedding announcement, which she promptly shared with us in a text. The announcement looks like it was set in Times New Roman typeface and spanned three columns.

We now know that the wedding “took place at the Fordsville Christian Church, at 4 o’clock, Saturday, November 19.”

And this:
“Given in marriage by her father, the bride wore a floor length gown of satin fashioned with a scooped neckline, a fitted bodice and a soft pleated skirt. Lace flower appliqués of roses encircled the neck and adorned the skirt’s hemline and long pointed sleeves.”

We are a writerly bunch, and one of our pals  was particularly struck by this little detail: “The candlelighted altar was embanked with white gladioli.”

He admires the imagery and the writing—which is lovely—but he admires something else. The decorum on display.

Decorum.

Remember that? 
 Invitations arriving by post, timely RSVP’s and regrets, handwritten thank yous on thick cream paper. Phone manners,—the “McDonough residence,” “may I take a message?” and the “whom may I say is calling?”– these relics from a distant past.

A while back I dined with these same friends at an old established restaurant in Lexington, where we had gathered to celebrate one among us. The lighting was subdued and the carpet plush. Our waiter greeted each of us formally and shook hands.

No chatty prattle, no overfamiliar joshing, just quiet, competent, attentive service. The food was exceptional, but was not the main event.

Our entrees were presented attractively and well, but nothing was set afire at table, there was no convoluted stacking of food to create an irksome game of Jenga just to get at a piece of shrimp. Wine lists were discreetly placed at our elbows, not flourished in front of our faces like a matador’s cape.

We were the main event. The candles, the flowers, the wine, the quiet attention of the staff enhanced our experience, made pleasant our time together, but never once competed with it.

The restaurant, then, had decorum in spades.

Dictionaries define decorum as behaviors in keeping with good taste or propriety.

I think decorum is taking serious things seriously.

Take the wedding or party invitation, fun events for most people. Yet, consider the issues involved —whom to invite, what to serve to eat and drink, seating, expenses, the weather, what is our own heart’s desire for the day.

So, treat that invitation with respect, and the RSVP, too. Someone wants you with them at this thing they are about to spend a great deal of effort and money on. Let them know early if you will be attending. In my callow youth, I wasn’t always so good about this. I am ashamed of myself now, when I think of it.

Wedding announcements from decades ago took themselves seriously—perhaps because weddings were taken so seriously—and as such, the events were lovingly recorded. It may be quaint to read that Alice’s mother wore a blue suit with matching hat and accessories, but everyone knows that the choice of the mother of the bride outfit is fraught with peril and has a protocol all its own.

An aunt sewed the wedding dress with its fitted bodice and appliquéd roses at neck and hem. Imagine the selection of fabric, the fittings, the stress of all that. The ballerina length veil of illusion was fretted over and carefully chosen, as was this, my favorite example of decorum in the announcement — that the bride’s “only ornament was a strand of pearls and she carried a rosebud bouquet.”

We know who ushered, who stood up with the couple, the location of the reception — the bride’s parents’ home—and the names of the young cousins who “assisted with the hospitalities.”

Guests, you must know, attended from Louisville, Owensboro, Lexington, Murray, Glasgow, Hartford, Beaver Dam and McHenry.

Decorum is such a fusty old word, but now reminded of it, I can’t get it out of my head.
I despair of the coarseness of the world, and I fear I have grown coarser, too. I don’t even recognize myself sometimes. I think I will try returning, every chance I get, to the rules of decorum I grew up with. Thank you notes and RSVP’s. Phone manners. Party manners. Good manners. To be, in a jumble of gaudy costume jewelry, a single strand of pearls.