A path lit by words

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Waiting for tulips


I grew up in Pennsylvania, where spring bulbs not only thrive, but multiply, exploding each spring in waves of brilliant color. For twenty years, I’ve lived in the South, where daffodils and tulips have to be coaxed into half-hearted bloom and even then, they’re only good for one season. Despite mixed results, I keep planting them, but not without an argument. I stand over the bed, a spade in my hand, while a little voice whispers, “Remember Atlanta? You’re wasting your time.” Then a louder voice argues, “Give them a chance. Maybe they’ll grow.”

That voice is my mother. When I was a child, her kitchen garden spanned half an acre, with six-by-eight plots for my sister and me. Mom grew root crops and beans, lettuce and tomatoes, sweet corn and English peas. Her seasonal border charmed passing motorists, beginning with daffodils, tulips, and iris, and giving way, through the summer, to daylilies, gladiolus, and dahlias.

Her gardening impulse spilled over to the weird and wonderful hybrids advertised in the Sunday supplements and the back of Woman’s Day. Every few weeks, the mailman would beep and Mom would hurry outside, returning with a ventilated cardboard box from Gurney Brothers or Burpee. Inside would be a tomato plant that promised a three-bushel yield, a vine guaranteed to cover a twenty-foot fence in a single season, or a shrub that dared to flower half-pink and half-blue. Each one arrived as a humble three-inch stem with two leaves, its immature roots enclosed in a plastic bag of potting mix and straw. Mom nurtured them all, rejoicing when they thrived and shrugging—unconvincingly—when they didn’t. She played the game with vigor and she won more often than she lost.

One October, after a long time away, I went home for a visit. The first thing I  noticed was the dooryard garden, weed-choked and dry. There were no fading marigolds, no pungent chrysanthemums filling in until snow. My indefatigable mom, who  hand-mowed a half acre into her sixties, was slowing down. Our relationship had had its bumps, but gardening always brought us together, so I changed into jeans, armed myself with Mom’s shovel, and prepared to attack the neglected bed.

Mom stood by, wringing her hands. “Be careful,” she said. “There might be some bulbs.”

Might be some bulbs? Each thrust of the shovel brought out a clump of five, or ten, or even twenty. There were hundreds of bulbs. There were more bulbs than soil, and pretty soon we were giggling. While I dug out the weeds and amended the soil with compost and bone meal, Mom separated the daffodils from the tulips and the crocus from the grape hyacinths. Many were shriveled; others were beginning to rot. I would have thrown them out and started over, but that wasn’t Mom’s way. We planted every one, the last of them by the light from the porch.

That winter was hard and by January, Mom had grown weary of the cold. “Spring’s coming,” I’d say, and she’d answer, “I know, and I’m waiting for tulips.” I had my doubts that those bulbs would bloom, but I didn’t let on, and it’s a good thing: Those old bulbs put on a show that truly amazed me. Mom was ecstatic and I learned my lesson.

Now when the dreary months get me down, I remind myself spring’s coming. And thanks to my mom, I’m waiting for tulips.

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Ready for change

beach sign

On Sunday we went for a walk on the beach. Because both Sea Pines beach clubs are undergoing renovation, we parked in a temporary lot—and used a different access  than we usually do. This path ends with a sign that outlines rules for beach goers. Similar signs appear at intervals on the beach. They’ve been there forever, so I was shocked to see the sign had changed.

Gone was the word “NO” in red capital letters, eight inches high. You could see it a hundred yards away, and what followed was a list of prohibitions: No glass or alcoholic beverages; no horseback riding, shark fishing, or littering; no nudity, disorderly conduct, or sleeping on the beach between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The sign’s final line always made me shiver: Caution! Extreme currents and shifting sands. Swim at your own risk.

That sign held special significance for me. Shifting Sands is the title of my as-yet unpublished novel, and the words on that sign were burned into my protagonist’s brain. He saw them as he came out of a faint, yards away from the peaceful beach where his father had just died in a bizarre accident. The words became a metaphor that ruled his entire fearful life.

Imagine my chagrin when, instead of high drama, the new beach sign proclaimed, “Welcome to our beach. Enjoy your visit and please follow our beach rules.” Welcome? There’s nothing ominous about that! What happened to the danger? This sign is muted and tactful. The third bullet under “For your information,” says, “Use caution—strong currents, jellyfish, stingrays, etc. may be present.”

May be! Huh. I’m not much of a swimmer, so the old beach sign suited me. Now the Town of Hilton Head is nudging me toward a new way of thinking—from panicky vigilance to awareness of my surroundings, approached with caution, not fear.

What intrigues me most is the timing of the change, or at least my noticing it. Like the beach signs, I’m due for a change, having spent a couple of years writing my book. I’ve had a great run: I’ve recharged, built creative muscle, improved my writing skills, and met a vibrant, generous community of writers who have helped me reconnect, re-prioritize, and put my goals in perspective.

For a while, writing has been my exclusive occupation, but it can’t always be like that. We writers have jobs and friends and well-rounded lives. We meet new people and experience new things, and that’s where our ideas come from.

I can’t say I’m unafraid, but I’m ‘raring to go,” eyes open, alert, and ready for change.