December

It is the opening day of December and it feels like I’ve stepped into a distilled version of the world. Nothing is left of the trees in the pasture but their bare bones. The light melts away at the end of the day, closing me in tighter and tighter. The slanting sunlight runs up the bark of the walnut tree in long stripes just before leaving for good.

 

The distilled bony forest is the best for exploring. Hidden treasures appear, mostly in the form of lichens, peculiarly twisted limbs, earthbound leaves that look like wood carvings of themselves. Just before January breaks them down to dust, I gather them up and bring them in to lay on the branches of the Christmas tree.

I’ve brought in the fragrant greens, lit the many lights, brought out the several small blankets— one for each of the places I roost. Last night as I walked around snapping on the lamps I saw the cerulean day sky hiding behind the darkening evening clouds as if to say I’m not ready to go yet. I’m still catching the sun. And as the evening progressed, the nearly full moon moved from one side of the house, until, in the early morning hours, it appeared on the other.

This season sharpens the memory. So many snapshots cluster around this time of year— snapshots especially of my father, whom I only had for 23 of my Decembers before he departed the earth for some other place. He left a letter in his safe that said to tell his best friend Tommy he’d meet him at the Great White Oak Tree. So now, as in those 23 years, I expect he is walking over some leafy path on his way to this tree, where someday I hope he will also meet me.

In those 23 years he would take us to the woods before Christmas to look for the perfect mature, lacy cedar tree. Driving home we would pass the town water tower, with its big blue illuminated star on top. Some town officials had erected it, and couldn’t figure out how to extinguish it. So year round our little town was marked by a star that guided us home.

I read somewhere that children remember best the lessons they are taught by their fathers. I know it is the truth for me. My mother was with me for sixty years and her lessons could fill a library. My father’s instructions were few, but are carved into my bones. Fifty years after he reluctantly taught me to drive, when I run off the road I hear him clear as day telling me to stay off the road and plan my reentry instead of panicking and jerking the car back into its lane. His lessons are his barrel-chested, grumpy, powerful protections following me everywhere I go.

Mama taught us Beauty in a thousand ways. Daddy taught us Nature. They both taught us Reverence. In December we feast in the short dark days on Beauty, Nature and Reverence and I think my parents both come in close and all the Decembers become one December.

Our Angel

 

In my mind, bringing my second baby home from the hospital and meeting Ophelia for the first time have merged into the same event.  Thirty one years ago Mrs. Ophelia Alexander entered my life when I called her about helping me with my children.   But really,  I have the odd sense that she was sent to us by some act of divine intervention.   My son, the baby thirty one years ago, said it was as though “we won some cosmic lottery”.

Ophelia Lytle Alexander died this past week, on the same day that my baby granddaughter took her first step.  I was on vacation with my family on a sun struck beach when I got the message.  I cried from self-pity, knowing we’d shared our last laugh, our last story.  And I’d lost the best source I’d ever known of unconditional, unwavering love.  If Ophelia loved you, there was nothing you could do to make her un-love you. Every time my mind returned to her that day  my heart sank.  The sky was deeply blue and there were enormous white clouds like mountains.  I painted the clouds, telling myself Ophelia was there.

My tears were only for me, because Ophelia was a person of such deep and constant faith that she most likely had no fear or despair over leaving us.  Over the course of thirty one years I had watched her lose her husband, and then her son, and then her young grandson.  She had borne things that would have crushed my spirit to dust.  Through inexpressible grief she had kept her heart busy loving those of us who remained.

Ophelia had grown up in my then rural community.  She had distinguished ancestors who had accomplished much.  She had attended a Rosenwald school less than a mile from my house.  She was keenly intelligent, and graduated from Torrence Lytle High School in 1953.  She had shopped, as a young girl, in my grandpa’s general store, and she knew all the folk of our community, living and dead.  She had an easy way of talking about race, and told me many stories about the way life had been in the 40’s and 50’s.  I got to hear the histories of the African American families from Ophelia, to balance the stories I knew about the white families.  Somehow she was able to cut through the eternal awkwardness of our racial divide.

Because she was so completely disarming and also shrewd, she knew how to corral us into her church upon occasion.  In her mind I think we were always inadequately churched, so to save our souls she would have us join her at her favorite place.   I don’t remember the messages, but the music was always breathtaking.  Because of that, when I attended her funeral, her church was not an  unfamiliar place.

I am a grudging church goer.  Impatient, uneasy, going in and out of consciousness during the service.  But I went to Ophelia’s funeral as though I were climbing onto a life raft.  I didn’t want the service to end.  After a lifetime of avoiding open caskets I truly wanted to look at her face one more time.  I wanted to know how this saint’s passage would be acknowledged by her community, her family, her church.  I wanted to be in the company of others who loved her.  I felt orphaned and that sanctuary felt like a sanctuary.

The music was inspired.  There was piano and a subtle trumpet.  A  powerful singer sang a solo.  People moved in time with the music and I was so glad I could too.  The message was not about humanity, but about Ophelia’s communion with divinity.  The final song was “I’ll fly away” delivered with the power of a rock anthem.  I entered the church crying.  I left the church smiling, my heart having flown away with her.

A man sitting on the end of a pew reached out to me and handed me this picture he had made of Ophelia.  It was so perfect.  Ophelia and her strong mind, her huge heart, and her sassy ways, with the pair of wings that had always been invisible, suddenly visible.  And behind her those clouds– just like I figured.

 

Reentry

I  just woke up in my own bed for the first time in a month . Yesterday morning, up at 3 a.m., I drove through the French countryside, village after village, on the slowest route I could find to the airport. The spectacular full moon hovered all the way.  I noticed a while back that if I drove in the country with my windows down I could hear cricket sounds the whole time.

This morning in North Carolina, I drove to the grocery near dawn so I could have milk for my coffee.  Over and over I have forgotten I’m not driving a manual transmission, romping the brake like it might be the clutch.  My Honda seems so doleful  after the fun of rolling over hills in a  peppy little rented five speed.  Leaving the grocery store, I  saw a clerk arriving for work. Without thinking, I lapsed into appropriate behavior for France, where one never encounters anyone in public without acknowledging them with a greeting.  “Good morning” I said.    She smiled, I think with a little touch of surprise, and said the same to me.

In the night I woke up  and the moonlight filtering through the trees cast patches of glow on the floor and walls, and half asleep, it registered on me as beautiful– as the moonlight I’d left.

The yard is green from the rains I missed.  The roses  are in full bloom from the fertilizer I said goodybye with.  Today there’s the gentle cloudy light that comes before a rain.

I walked over to Grier and Kim’s farm to say hello, and they gave me a dozen eggs from their hens, and sent me to pick all the fresh asparagus I wanted from their beds, just  like an early  morning trip to a French farmer’s market.

All morning there have been a brood of wild turkeys grazing in the pasture, right under my nose. And I set the fountains to bubbling next to the outdoor table.  It’s every bit as magical as the view I left behind.

 

Among the piles of bills and letters I came home to, there was a postcard from a dear friend.  It said “She dreams in perfect French”.  I do, sometimes, when I’m around it all day, but it is far from perfect.  Sometimes it’s just a voice speaking nonsense sounds that echo the intonations and rhythms of French speech.  Sometimes it is the odd word or phrase, for no particular reason, like an echo in my dreams, ringing over and over in a kind of random rhythm.

It was a rough ride home, hauling six new paintings, and all my tools and the treasures I found, down concourses, across parking lots, through long lines.  But the actual soul transition  from countryside paradise to countryside paradise is not so radical.  In both places there are thorns attached to every single rose.  In both places there’s  beauty enough to break your heart.

 

The Big Barn

It is time to turn my attention to my 1949 barn or watch it crumble to dust. I’m starting with a new roof. The last one was installed 67 years ago. It doesn’t leak yet, but, it soon will, and I have an itch to set things right.

The barn has called me down into the pasture many times in the last few weeks. There was junk to be discarded and damage to be assessed. I drove five truckloads to the recycling center, and uncovered some buried treasure… well, my idea of buried treasure: a door to replace an ill-fitting one in my house, rescued by my dad in the 60’s from a home being torn down in Myers Park. I tried to move it. It must weigh 100 pounds. Above it, in the loft, are the parts of a grand staircase he also retrieved, its ornate bits and pieces curled up in a corner. Someday I’m certain I will find the perfect place to use it.

There’s my great-grandfather’s farm wagon to dodge. Lumber rescued from around the farm lies racked up on the sides of the barn, some of the boards very old, from trees cut manually with a two man cross cut saw and then milled here on the farm. The loose knit loft floor is pine boards, most of them over a foot in width. Old handmade ladder back chairs hang from ledges, and bits of straw and dust get stirred up with every step. There’s an octagonal oak hardware bin in the loft that used to be a working member of the general store. It held thousands of bolts and screws so nearby farmers could find that odd bit they needed. All that mingles and communes with saddles, a watering trough and other reminders that animals once lived here.

Charles is a builder of barns and everything else besides. We are old friends and while he is still in the barn business I want his to be the hands that set my barn right. Charles knows barns. He spent all his younger years being a champion bronc rider, and now, in his middle years he looks unchanged and moves around the roof like a young man, tirelessly, day after day, with relentless energy. Charles could convince me that some things don’t change.

I paint in the studio at the top of the hill while the men remove the rusted tin from the barn roof and store it for another project. A brilliant shiny new shell takes its place. The barn sits deep in the bowl of the pasture. When I step down to speak to the men, I feel the change in altitude in the air and the sounds shift from highway noise to thousands of frogs croaking in the little wetland below. The March light is bright without leaves on the trees to soften it, and it’s immersive— the light, the frog calls, the damper, cooler air. The late afternoon light comes through the stripped rafters and casts a mesh of shadow pattern.

Any day that sets something right in a sacred place is a good day. Any day that ends in the pasture with the sun raking through the trees ends right. I add this day to my large and growing collection of very fine days.

The Bradford Store

For ten years I have lived my idea of a fairy tale existence. It ignored the obvious— the world spinning by at 60 miles an hour, and focused instead on life turned inward on our family farm. The Farm is a term that can refer to my old homestead, or to the working farm and home that belongs to my brother and sister-in-law, Grier and Kim, or to the historic totality.

Our little compound is bisected by a busy highway that was a dirt road before the Depression. As most of the farmland around us has been ceded to other uses, The Farm has become, every year, a greater anomaly. I loved, always, that we ignored the obvious.

Ten years ago, Kim and Grier had the Bradford Store moved off its original foundation, back onto higher ground in the middle of a field and turned their hobby of growing massive vegetable gardens into a business.

The old counters were freshly painted, the ancient floor cleaned and polished, the wood stove put back into commission and the Bradford Store started the business of dispensing love and good food, in that order.

Some businesses really do run on love. It could be a hot dog stand or a repair shop or, in this case, a local foods store, with the common thread that all decisions flow through a filter of love. The driving force is not profit—instead everything every day is done in the name of love of one’s fellow man. And that’s how it was with the Bradford Store.

My witty former husband coined a southern phrase we all use with regularity about all enterprises— “can’t nuthin be easy”. It’s not a question. It’s a statement. Even if it looks as easy as falling off a log, it will not be. And the Bradford Store, standing tall in a vast garden of flowers, pouring love into every transaction, selling the very best food the earth has to offer was, behind the scenes, a tough job. Kim worked six days a week for ten years, and often checked in on the seventh day. Every year nature provided a new pestilence to make harvesting crops difficult to impossible. It could be hail, a late frost, or a deadening drought that lasted the whole summer. They endured them all.

Meanwhile I was one of the many beneficiaries. Kim and Grier’s love and hard work showed up on my table day after day. I could step across the road and find food that had been growing 15 minutes earlier, take it home and shock myself with the intensity of my own dinner. Kim, the brilliant cook and food curator, taught me more about food in ten years than I had learned in the previous fifty. The milk she drove four hours a week to bring to the store literally had the flavor of sweet pasture grass. The eggs came in a dozen colors and have spoiled me for anything less.

Kelly, Kim’s right hand, brought in fresh made breads daily from her farm. The corn meal came from a historic grist mill. And when combined—these ingredients from other businesses that were also run on love— the result was food nirvana.

Kim surrounded the store with acres of flowers, the soil so rich some grew as tall as me. My mama, in the early years, living at The Pines retirement community, would come out, sit on the store’s front porch and create unique fresh flower arrangements, sold in Mason jars. She loved working with flowers, and the store and Kim and Grier, were her lifeline to the larger community, to family, to companionship. My son Stewart had the privilege of working at the store as a teenager and came away with many important life lessons in horticulture, customer service, salesmanship and hard work as did many other local teenagers.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather operated the Bradford Store. It ran on love when he was alive too. It served as a kind of community center for neighboring farmers.

The store was home to one of the few telephones in the community. A family friend told us how she would come to the store to talk to her fiancé who was off serving in WWII. Papa had a roll top desk full of receipts and ledgers listing items sold on credit. He also had a “pet” blacksnake that lived under the store to keep it pest-free. When holes in the old floors appeared he would patch them with a piece of advertising tin.

On the front of the building my dad, as a boy, painted the words “Free Air” beside the pump for filling tires. When I was young that always cracked me up, because, back then, air was always free. The ground outside the store was literally paved with multicolored bottle caps from sodas, and a life-size cardboard Santa drinking a Coke was the primary Christmas decoration. There was a bench out front where Papa would sit at day’s end, the sun setting behind the store.  And on one afternoon, back in the 30’s, my great-grandfather Will, the store’s founder, died peacefully inside its walls while reading Zane Grey.

Kim and Grier, from love, knowledge, courage, imagination and boundless enthusiasm, have built something that will always live in memory for hundreds if not thousands of people. I think of all the little children I have seen come in the store, or sit on the porch with an ice cream, and wonder if their memories will be as sweet as mine are— if 50 years from now they’ll talk about what it was like.

Seeing this era come to a close makes me so glad for my tired family who have given so much to so many. And glad for the thousand images in my head of bounty and beauty, kindness and community that came from running on love.

 

 

The Mattress

 

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Four months ago I set out to clear my house of clutter. For forty years I have lived in the same place, with barns and chicken coops and rooms aplenty for collecting stuff, so this is no mean task. My sage son Gordon suggested I start with duplicates.

As I gathered up my duplicates/triplicates/quadruplicates I began to see myself and my fears and sadness, cloaked in crazy, from some distance. I had three garlic presses, two blenders, three rasps, four sewing machines, two coffee grinders, four curling irons, five wire whisks, seven t-squares, and three rabbit puppets for starters. Against some projected future shortage I was holding onto dozens of sheets and blankets. I had an addiction to containers for storing things. Lots of them were empty and taking up space in the dusty and cluttered attic. Every time I opened the broom closet two or three of my six yardsticks would tumble out onto the floor.

 

 

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A lover of history, I’d become the repository for lots of artifacts from our family’s past. There was a totally unorthodox baroque clock in the attic that my father, the GI, had “liberated” from a bombed-out German apartment building at the end of WWII. In my father’s eyes, the clock was magnificent, but it was actually a crazy pastiche of little portraits painted on porcelain sandwiched between furbelows of brass. It was an object that was hard to love. But it spoke of a moment in time— the end of a horrible war and my dad as a very young man. It conjured up the image of a devastated country. It no longer works as a clock. But it serves as a link to 1945 and my father, and his quirky idea of what was desirable.

 

 

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There was an afghan in the attic made by my maternal great-grandmother, Granny Gordon. She knitted and crocheted miles and miles of yarn and thread into useful household objects, but this afghan is probably the ugliest thing she ever made. Chocolate brown, grass green and pale yellow, no one has ever used it or displayed it, but I have stored it since I first became its guardian. It has lived in a cedar chest in the attic where it has not seen the light of day for 40 years.

 

 

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I rediscovered a box of textbooks and notebooks owned by my great uncles and my grandfather, from the early 20th century. They grew up in this house sharing the upstairs bedrooms. Two of them went off to medical school and the attic holds their chemistry notes and their drawings of microorganisms. Two of them studied agriculture and I have their drawings of plants. One studied business, and the only daughter studied to be a teacher.  I’ve come to know them by examining their notes, their handwriting, the things they studied. My grandpa, Hurd Bradford, Sr. served in the Navy in WWI and there were homesick letters to his mother in a tin box. There was a naval uniform that belonged to my father-in-law, an intrepid submariner in WWII, and a painting by a great aunt who studied art in New York around the turn of the century, technically proficient but lacking any sense of the life she lived, and riddled with holes.

 

 

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My mother, always a respecter of history and the bearer of many family tales, years ago handed off a goose feather mattress made by my paternal great-grandmother, Mattie Dora Worsley Staton. Grandmother Staton, as we called her, had raised the geese, killed the geese, plucked the geese and sewn this mattress. And it lay in my attic for 40 years. Mama and I both respected the hard work it had taken to make this mattress. Among my papers there is the last will and testament of another ancestor who bequeathed her feather mattress to one of her children as if it might have been a house or a car. It was, in its time, an object of great value. I asked my son, my clearing mentor, what to do with this mattress. His response was “let me think about that one”.

I told the story of the mattress to my dear friend Suzy, who also loves history and collecting, and she set me free, assuring me that the mattress was by now alive with mites and other invisible creepy things. That was all I needed to bag it up and haul it away. She suggested that I take a scrap of the ticking that contained it, and save it as a memento. I decided instead to remember Grandmother Staton by saving the mattress in prose—in digital format.

The attic holds so many stories I will never have time enough to tell them all to my sons. On some day in the future I imagine them up there, sneezing, cursing and tossing. They are, to a man, minimalists. I am, as they say, a maximalist. Never have I felt my role so powerfully as connector between the world as it has been for generations and the world as it now suddenly is. I write to lock some of it down.

Slowly, open spaces are appearing. I have driven truckloads to the dump, and station wagon loads to the Habitat store. Every week on pick-up day, my trash can is full. Freeing myself from attending hundreds of objects is a thrill. I revisit each thing. I decide what will happen to it in the Digital Age and if it’s worthy I find it a new and awkward home, or I write to lock it down.

Miss Janie’s Green Tomato Pickles

 

green tomato pickles

I found the yellowed half envelope in Mama’s green cloth-covered recipe book . Mama hated to cook, so I presumed the book was nothing of importance to her. When she died, I took the book home with me— it had outlived both my parents and was one of the few things that remained unchanged from childhood.

For four years it sat on the bookshelf in my house with the other cookbooks. Then, one day I took it down to study. I discovered that it was, in fact, both a treasure and a time capsule.

They say men marry women who remind them of their mothers. Perhaps they do— all men except my dad. My father’s mother, “Miss Janie” as Mama called her, was the consummate great cook. Actually, I would call her a chef. She died in the late 60’s and yet, whenever we gather, the topic of her cooking always comes up. Anyone who ever sat at her table has never forgotten it.

Mama Janie

Some of my earliest memories are of the tastes, textures and look of the things that came from her kitchen. She was a brilliant woman and a perfectionist. And she had an appreciation for beauty and order that was apparent in every aspect of her life, from the handmade starched organdy curtains in the windows to the white gloves on her hands when she drove her blue and white ’57 Chevy.

Nothing went to waste. A pan of used dishwater became food for the houseplants, the soapiness a deterrent to insects. The exquisite scraps from every meal, every homegrown tomato peeling, every crumb of leftover homemade biscuit or cornbread, became food for the fat pig.

Everything was flawless and serene. When you climbed into bed at night, scrubbed down to new skin, the sheets were sweet with the fresh air they’d dried in, and ironed to perfect smoothness. To be in her home was to be perpetually aware of the righteousness of the simple things in life.

Janie Staton's Class092

A graduate of East Carolina she came to Huntersville from her home in the eastern part of North Carolina by train to take her first job as a school teacher. She met my very handsome grandpa, and married him in the parlor of the Teacherage, as they called the house the teachers all lived in, because the journey back home was too daunting to marry there.

Mama Janie and Papa

Early childhood educators make great mamas. And grandmamas. Mama Janie knew how to stimulate us, how to spark our imaginations and enchant us. Most of the memories I have of my early childhood are memories of being in her house.

Somehow, when Janie Bradford died, there were no recipes left behind. Only my Aunt Carol, also a wonderful cook, had one: Devil’s Food Cake. All her life Aunt Carol kept that recipe a secret, refusing to give it to anyone. When she finally shared it with me I knew it was a passing of the baton. I made it, with all its many complicated steps, and watched it vanish immediately.

Upon opening Mama’s green cloth cookbook I discovered that it had been a wedding present from Great Aunt Mary and it contained recipes from most all seven of my great aunts, and Mama, the dutiful 21 year old bride, had acted as scribe to Miss Janie and had recorded three recipes of hers. I immediately shared the recipes with Mama Janie’s descendants, and my brother and I launched into preparing her green tomato pickles… without doubt the weirdest pickle recipe I have ever seen.

Among its FIFTEEN ingredients are flour, and eight sour pickles. So you have to put pickles in these pickles. It took three trips to the grocery… one to the Bradford Store, to get the fresh ingredients, taken from the same soil Janie’s would have come from. Then to a second store for jar lids, salt and sour pickles, then to a third store that has wonderful fresh herbs and spices because Mama Janie specified that white mustard seeds were preferred. I was not able to find, in any of the stores, white mustard seeds so I winged it with yellow and black ones. Then, of course, I forgot a few things and had to make a night raid on the garden to bump up the red pepper count.

It took three days. One day you chop. And chop. And chop. The second you sterilize and pack jars and can. The third you finish up all the loose ends if you are me. And clean all that gear. But after hours on my feet it occurred to me that 60 years ago in this very kitchen, Janie would have been busy making these pickles. I think it would please her, as it does me, to think that we carry on, with huge love and respect for the talents and hard work of our amazing predecessors. We still treasure what they treasured. And if we are very lucky, we eat as well as they did.

Green Pastures

pasture 3

“Pasture” is a wonderful word. It conjures up so many pleasant connotations. I grew up in a part of a small southern town that was called “the pasture” because that is what it had been before WWII. My favorite part of Psalm 23 is the image of God having his sheep lie down in green pastures.

My kitchen sink overlooks a green pasture where I have often laid down. To watch clouds, to feel the sun, to soak up the beginnings of spring, or the endings of summer.

Yesterday morning, as I was washing dishes and watching my pasture a pair of wood ducks startled me by flying in and landing on the fat limbs of an old pecan tree. Just behind them I noticed a pair of deer grazing. And at that moment a pair of goldfinches, male and female, flew up to perch nearby.

On this morning there is a ruby throated hummingbird, drawn to the flame columbine patch at the top of the pasture. I watch him feed and then perch on the Carolina jasmine that sprawls nearby.In recent months I have seen a flock of fourteen wild turkeys pecking away in the pasture, a mighty hawk, and a large owl. I feel like Noah and the pasture is the ark.

In my French class whenever I use the word “pâturage” to talk about my pasture I am always corrected. They recommend the word “champ” or “field” because, I guess, there are no grazing cows or sheep here. Like my childhood neighborhood, it is only a former pasture, in the most literal sense. I continue to inspire correction by using this word I love both in French and in English. There may be no cows, but there are countless creatures who pasture there, including me. I’m just at a loss as to how to explain that in French.

Absorbing the Sea

santorini sunset

For the weeks arching from summer into fall I have watched the sea all day long. And at night the doors were always open to the sound of it. By day the sea was the view from the studio, or from whatever restaurant I chose, or from the windows of the car.  I have looked so long, unable to look away, that it has been fully absorbed.

Two nights ago, in the rain, through the murky window of a ferry close to land, I saw birds as they flew nearby, their wide breasts like the bodies of ducks. In my sleep I dreamed I was working on an enormous painting of great importance.  The subject  was the exposed breasts of thousands of ducks, identical, laid out in a pattern, all painted silver.  All around me the blue and silver sea extended in every direction.  A man was charged with carrying me across the sea using a gigantic crane.  But first my shoes had to be coated in tar and dipped in sea sand.

With my exploring coming to a close I’ve been looking for words to frame this experience.  As I begin the distancing the details will fade and only the skeleton of this journey and the paintings will remain.  The paintings began in a state of concreteness– observation and analysis.  Gradually they moved toward greater mystery.  In just such a way the white light, the ribboned sea, the sunrise and high noons, sunsets and moon rises take on their own poetic order in memory, punctuated by thrashing wind, heavy clouds, knotted roads and pebbled sand.

I woke this morning disoriented, on the farm, thinking I was across the sea.  My first thought was of the fragility of that place and all places.  The sweet earth, glowing in the brilliant daylight, or entombed in concrete, is like a feral street cat.  It is either nourished by the leftovers we think to share from our plate, or  it is ignored,  and survives on the sparest of rations.  It is the palm tree whose trunk fills the hole in the sidewalk, and one wonders how it finds water.  Or it is stroked lovingly by generations of cultivating hands.

On the farm the leaves have not fallen yet, but have shrunken in warning that they are about to go away and join the soil.  The trucks roll by on the highway and in the pasture the birds sing.  I happily return to apply my loving hands to cultivate this place, with mindfulness of  both the bounty and the fragility.

Grier

 

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Sixty years ago today my oldest friend was born.  Hurd Grier Bradford, III.  I was little and don’t remember much beyond slipping into my parents’ bedroom to sneak a peak at the baby and being scolded for waking him.  We were both curly tow-heads and at first we were each other’s only playmates.  I remember when we had matching seersucker shorts, and we both stood in the middle of the bench seat of the Chevy, side by side and I claimed we were twins.  I really wanted us to be twins.

Even as a baby Grier was independent, self-determined and utterly fearless.  Before he was old enough to talk  Mama dropped him off at the church nursery one Sunday morning.  Grier decided he’d rather be at home, so he slipped out of the nursery and started the half mile walk down the street back to our house.   Along the way a man saw him and took his hand, and Grier led him home.

We had big walk-in closets in our new house, with deep shelves up close to the ceiling.  Grier and I made them our hideout.  We’d climb onto the top shelves and talk by the hour.  We made up songs and had a kind of language that was our own.  Were I to tell the story of my childhood it would be a rather boring account of a usually  well-behaved southern girl with a wild, exploring, adventuring brother who lived vividly every day.  When we visited the state capitol Grier used the 19th century tricks our Great Uncle Pelham taught him to catch a pigeon on the lawn.  He imported the pigeon to Huntersville where it escaped to the roof.  Somehow Grier got up there to retrieve him.  I have  this crazy memory of my little brother on the ridge line three stories up chasing a pigeon.

Grier grew up, schooled in the outdoors, in hunting and fishing, in working on the farm.  He loved animals and  over the course of our childhoods, he had many.  I remember an alligator, a couple of dogs, and a hamster to which he was particularly devoted.  There was a parakeet, ducklings, a rabbit and a horse.  He learned this love of animals from our mother who had a streak of St Francis in her.  Once in college I came home for the holidays and Grier had rescued a little owl, and Mama had rescued a one-eyed flying squirrel.  That Christmas the owl sat all day long on the top corner of the bookcase in the den while the flying squirrel darted frenetically around his cage on the hearth.

Like the kind of kid you read about in a book Grier wanted to grab the attention of his pretty third grade teacher, so he retrieved a dead mouse from the trap my dad had set and placed it in his teacher’s top desk drawer.  As a teacher I often thanked my lucky stars that after Grier was created, they broke the mold.

When I left for college Grier also left for military school.  He marked our separation by writing me dozens of letters.  To each and every one he taped a penny, with a quote  we often heard from our parents  “here’s a little piece of money.  Don’t spend it all in one place”.    When our father became ill and died, we both left school to come home and attempt to run his business.  We were green as grass, but our grief for our father took the form of picking up his baton and going forward.  We encountered some dark machinations, immediately, as two twenty-somethings attempting to play corporate ball with a bunch of hardened old businessmen.  But Grier used his gifts for building a powerful network to connect us to people who showed us how to navigate.  I call that experience getting my MBA.  And Grier was the professor.

For a time we shared our grandparents’ farmhouse, along with a pig named Benny, a goat, some ducks and chickens, an orphaned fox and a horse Grier hand-raised.  Then Grier moved across the road, and for the 39 years since we have lived a half mile apart.    I won’t say we live a half mile apart because we can’t bear to be separated, but because we were both drawn like magnets to the mythic farm that evoked for us our father and grandparents.    You can often find us standing somewhere under some big oak  or pecan tree talking about the ancestors, the grandparents, the lost father, tied as we are by our heartstrings to something bigger than a house, bigger than a piece of land.

All around the farm things are constantly changing.  The neighboring farms have become whole villages.  The perfect Post Oak was cut down to make the road wider.  The forest pines blew over in a hurricane.  All the property for miles and miles to the east is being zoned commercial.  At one point I despaired and began to daydream about leaving for some quiet place in the mountains.  Grier did not.  He and his amazing wife, Kim, instead, reimagined their farm, restored a number of derelict farm buildings to new usefulness and asserted the rural beauty of our home in the face of urbanization.  It is now more  a farm than it has been in a half century.   Their courage and imagination  has quieted my sense of dread.  Their courage and imagination has created a community center  at their restored general store, where neighbors stand by the woodstove, just like they did 100 years ago and the latest news, good and bad, is passed through the community.   And Grier stands at the center of a vast network of friends.   He knows everyone, high and low, rich and poor, saint and scoundrel.  Everybody has a Grier story.  Most of them unprintable.

So here’s to the 60th anniversary of my lucky day.  Here’s to my hero–my brilliant, courageous,creative, curious, funny, tender -hearted bedrock of a brother.  What an honor it has been to share this time and this place on earth with you.  The ancestors are beaming, I promise.