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The Volunteer

Blog Post #41

mojave desert

Mojave Desert

This year, our otherwise fruitful garden looks more like the Mojave Desert. After much deliberating, my husband, Brad, chose not to plant his favored vegetable garden because of the amount of water it would require during a time of serious drought. Reluctantly, he sacrificed his annual indulgence of thick, red, juicy slices of homegrown garden tomatoes to go on his homemade bread spread with a generous layer of homemade basil pesto. We still have the bread and pesto, but let’s face it—eating a grocery store tomato is like biting into a bar of soap. I was sad when he told me his plans, because I know how he looks forward to this summer delicacy each year, often eating his healthy, tomato-y treat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all in the same day!

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A few months ago, our grandson, Max, came to do some yardwork and weed the neglected garden plot. As I was showing him what he needed to pull-up, we found a small tomato plant had pushed its way up through the soil and was competing with the weeds for sun and for the gentle showers that were the gift of Kind Providence throughout the winter and spring. I put a stake in the ground next to the little volunteer tomato plant to identify it, and told Max to pull up everything but the tomato. I was excited to show it to Brad when he got home from work!  However, it’s hard to beat “Nature’s Son” when it comes to anything having to do with the natural world. He had spotted it long before I did.

Hobble Creek

Hobble Creek Canyon, Springville, Utah

I’m not sure why I thought I could see it first. Eons ago, when we were dating, Brad would be driving up Hobble Creek Canyon in Utah at forty miles per hour, and would point to a mountainside from here to the North Pole, exclaiming, “See those deer on the side hill?” I’d strain my eyes in the general direction he pointed. I saw the mountain all right; I saw trees in abundance, but no deer. Squinting like an utterly bewildered four-year-old intently focused on the night sky at the end of her dad’s pointed finger as she tried to locate Cassiopeia, I’d say with frustration, “WHERE?”  To which he’d once again point in the general direction of Lake Erie and cry, “Those little white things—on the side hill!” “NO! I don’t see them!” I’d cry, desperate, now.  “There!” he’d announce with greater intensity and heightened pitch. Again, I’d stare wild-eyed at the mountain looking for the white things, with one eye wandering (like ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody) toward the road—since someone needed to look at it. Finally, after whizzing by that blur of mountainside, he’d back up the Ford Bronco and pull to the side of the road.

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Old Ford Bronco similar to the one Brad drove

After ten more minutes of straining, at last, I could see the teeny-tiny, spots that were deer way off in the distance, their little white tails sticking up in alarm—as if they knew Mr. Telescope Eyes had caught them in the act of bathing. I marveled each time this happened. (I came to realize his eyes were sharp enough and trained enough to spy those bitty camouflaged specks of deer on the mountain while watching the road at the same time. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it dozens and dozens of times.)

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Lone mule deer on side hill. Imagine trying to locate this deer with the state of Vermont between you and the mountainside.

And I thought he hadn’t seen the little tomato plant….

The Volunteer

 

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The Volunteer

 

As I washed dishes, I watched the little tomato plant from the kitchen window. Moved by its courageous efforts, I went out to admire its deepening red fruit. It stood there, alone, but triumphant in that deserted garden—a monument to the strength and tenacity of a lone, little seed. The thing that most touched me was that this little plant had volunteered. It hadn’t been carefully coddled as a seedling, nor had it been transplanted like a start from a nursery. Someone else had not made the decision. It had sprung up of its own accord, against the odds, amidst neglect, and among weeds that were strangers and competitors of all it required to thrive. Not only did the little tomato plant forge onward and upward, alone in the world, it spread its leaves out and gathered in the rays of the sun, amassing strength and power to benefit its fledgling roots, asking nothing of anyone, and defying naysayers. That would be enough to admire, but that’s not all. This little volunteer is producing fruit. I counted twenty-eight tomatoes in various stages of development on its branches last evening. It volunteered in order to bless others—in a sense, the ultimate sacrifice: to give its life for its friends.

 

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A second volunteer

As I walked back toward the house with my camera in hand, pondering the little tomato plant, I noticed another volunteer. Bedecked in brightly colored regalia, it called to me to notice its offering—that of beauty and cheer. I smiled as I crouched down to take its picture. Living up to its name, little Johnny Jump-up had done just that. I realize some consider this little viola a weed because it springs up readily all over the place and with very little assistance. I see it as one of those volunteers who, tiny as it is, spreads its exuberance and optimism in the least likely places—growing just as well in topsoil as in cracks in the cement. I welcome its offering and praise its purple badge of courage for forging ahead –smiling in the face of the danger presented by its location in the sidewalk.

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I walked through the rest of the yard and was surprised to discover other characters who had long been there, but whose alter egos I hadn’t discovered before.

The Encroacher

 

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The Encroacher

All along the walls of our backyard are encroachers—vines that began growing in someone else’s yard, then gradually, stealthily, snuck-up on ours. They have now climbed and spread their leafy tentacles over the wall. Repeatedly we’ve cut them back, but without regard for our wishes, they continue to march over the wall like another wave of infantry ready for combat on the field of battle. They are determined, and ruthless, weakening the fence on the east until it has taken to leaning, and creeping onto and over the ground on the south. They care not for what we think, or what we want. I resent their pushiness. It’s not as if they’re volunteers—springing up from the ground from a forgotten seed like our little tomato.  No, they’re well-established old-timers—“The Good Ol’ Boys” of the plant world—who, with their cronies, push their network of intolerant “plantism” into our yard where they’re completely unwanted.

The Fighters

 

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The Fighters

In the yard, there’s an old, cement fountain bowl that my father made four decades ago, but cast aside because it wasn’t perfectly round in shape. (I say cast aside, not threw away. There’s a difference. My parents were of the depression era mindset that you don’t throw things away.) In time, my mother filled that old fountain with dirt and planted it with succulent plants and cacti. It sat for years in the corner of the yard on the kitchen side.

When Brad and I moved home a decade after my mother’s passing, I relegated the failing fountain succulent planter to the opposite end of the yard, filled it with fresh dirt and planted it with a variety of pretty flowers and greenery. It looked beautiful that first season, but the drought and heat took their toll and all of the plants died. I thought.

I found that each spring, drought or not, up pop these lovely little purple dwarf flowers  (Nierembergia Caerula) in a corner of the ring. They pay no heed to their location on the nether side of the yard, near the basketball court where they’re bound to get pounded at times, and where water comes in small increments—especially in that old cement bowl. They stand up shouting for respect—respect for their resilience, for their determination to survive, and for their beauty. And deservedly so. They’ve fought root and stem for their right to survive and I applaud their perseverance and admire their beauty!

The Pleasers

 

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The Pleaser

My artichoke plants have really worked hard to please. It isn’t their fault that they were planted in the middle of an ant metropolis, or that they were planted just when we were learning how expensive water is in our community, or how serious the drought had become. And it certainly isn’t their fault that their husbandmen were inexperienced with artichokes and did not know how to take better care of them so their fruit would be moist and tender. They have given their all to produce. They’ve grown to enormous proportions, producing more than twenty artichokes on a single plant. They are amazing! Unfortunately, they are tough to eat, even when picked young. Artichokes can be a labor-intensive dish to prepare (the way my mother taught me is labor intensive, but delicious). After trying to cultivate, harvest and prepare them several years in a row, I have now retired our artichoke plants.

But they are Pleasers. Brad cuts them down to the ground, and they immediately begin growing back with large and flourishing leaves. Soon more artichokes appear. I look at them and sigh. Right now, with the dynamics of our lives, I don’t have the time, energy or patience to wrestle with those tough, spiky, ant-beridden buds only to be disappointed by their toughness. Being the pleasers they are, they don’t give up there. No! After growing to the size of softballs, the buds open up their pointed petals, and begin to produce the most beautiful, soft to the touch, lavender flowers related to the thistle family. Showy? Yes! Worth the wait? Absolutely! They found a way to please—if not epicuriously, then by appealing to one’s sense of mystery, beauty and art.

The Old Stalwart

 

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The Old Stalwart

Walking back toward the house, I stopped and contemplated the great, old Peruvian Peppertree casting its cooling shade umbrella-like over the patio. For close to fifty years it has stood firm and immovable, enduring years of plenty, and years of neglect (during which time my elderly father mourned the loss of my mother), as well as undergoing hefty pruning over the decades. The Old Stalwart created a beautiful canopy for our eldest daughter’s wedding reception twenty years ago, and now, protects my father’s great-grandchildren who play under its branches from the searing rays of the sun. With quiet dignity, it stands apart, a giant beacon of hope, strength, and endurance.  It is both mighty, and serene. It is friend, and grandfather, and it is beautiful to me—like an old friend.

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Each time I walk through the yard—even though relentlessly affected by drought, or maybe because of it—I see our garden in a new way. Mother Nature’s creations are not wimpy, or cowering, but endure with a strength and resilience that demand respect and inspire awe.

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Stopping once more to gaze with admiration at The Volunteer, I am flooded with gratitude to that little tomato plant. I wonder if the seedlings from which it sprang have infused within their DNA the hours of tender-loving nurturing and care Brad gave their parent plants, and are returning the favor in kind. I think Brad will relish every single bite of those precious few tomatoes this year, and they will be the sweetest, most precious ever because they were freely offered!

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“Freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

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Einstein Quote

The True Measure of a Man

End Piece

© June 3, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.

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Would You Like Your Snails Salted?

Blog Post #39

escargot-on-a-plate

Escargot or Babbaluci

My nine-year-old grandson recently told me he couldn’t wait until he could try pouring salt on a snail. I fear I’m to blame for this reckless desire. I once told him how, as children, my sister and I had explored the chemical reaction and scientific wonder of salting live snails. We did it in the name of Science, for isn’t the spirit of inquiry—isn’t downright curiosity—the basis of all science? A child’s mind is curiosity itself. We had heard an intriguing hypothesis about the effect of salt on a snail, and we performed the experiment to prove or disprove it. So fascinating was it, we experimented more than once, just to see the foaming, frothy miracle occur.

snail-trail

A Snail’s Trails

Snails were in abundance in our area when I was a child, leaving their slimy little trails all over the sidewalks and lawn around our home. We stepped with caution across the dichondra that was our lawn, maneuvering as through an arcade game avoiding all the little round spiral hazards. If by accident, the sole of one’s avatar foot came in contact with these hazards, the result would be a terrible crunching sound, and goosh splattering all over said avatar.

La Puente House Jan 1956 b

The ivy was newly planted around the border of the lawn in this photo taken in 1956. After it filled in it became inundated with snails.

Even before the salt experiments, Karen and I were harbingers of destruction to the poor snails inhabiting the ivy in our yard. Shod with flip-flops we tramped through the ivy just to hear that crunching sound so reminiscent of the satisfying snap of crisp fall leaves. I don’t know what we imagined made that sound, but it never occurred to us that each crunch was a tiny life, crushed away by five- and seven-year-old giants. One day our mother saw us and put a stop to it. She told us what was hidden beneath the ivy, and didn’t want the slime tracked through the  house, or her ivy smashed. (No doubt the hearty ivy better survived our stomping than those poor, unsuspecting snails.)

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It’s been decades since I’ve seen a snail traversing our yard. I don’t know where they all went. They seem to have packed up their tiny camper shells and moved on to greener pastures.  Or the real story may hearken back to those experimental days when we came in to grab a salt shaker from the kitchen and our mother wanted to know what we were going to do with it. We dragged her out to the sidewalk to show her, expecting her to be “wowed” just as we were. But she wasn’t wowed. She showed sympathy for those poor little creatures in the face of our rank brutality, convincing me I shouldn’t do such a thing like that again. Sometime after this speech, she went to the garage, got the snail bait, and scattered  it all over the yard. Like them or not, snails are notorious for eating and destroying garden flowers and crops (things immensely valued by my mother). They are, in most cases, considered pests, and though my mother had a tender heart for all living creatures, she did not welcome them, favoring the lives of her garden plants more.

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This leads to other scientific questions: Which would a snail consider to be worse? Salting—a rapid death by osmosis and dehydration? Or a slow demise by poisoning? Science will never be able to accurately answer this question, since it requires interviewing a snail.

Even though she thought salting them was inhumane, my mother really wasn’t crazy about snails. Once, when I was five or six, my grandparents (both of whom were born and reared in Sicily, and could barely speak English) came to visit our Southern California home from Detroit, where they lived out their later years.  Apparently, my grandmother thought to do a great favor for my mother. Wandering in the garden for some time, she at last returned through the back door of the kitchen. Though I was quite young, I will never forget the expression on my mother’s face when she saw her best Wearever pot in my Grandmother’s hand, filled to the brim with mucus-y, tentacled snails slowly slithering over the rim, and leaving disgusting trails of slime crisscrossing every square inch of the pot . (It was a sight I have never forgotten!) Grandmother was going to cook them for dinner. My poor mother. It was clear that repulsion followed hot on the heels of shock. In addition to accosting her delicate senses, how could my mother, (though 100% Sicilian, yet unable to utter a single word of Italian herself ) nicely tell her non-English-speaking mother-in-law, that Escargot (Babbaluci in Sicilian) was NOT happening in her kitchen using these revolting snails and her best cooking pot?

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The snails in my mother’s pot looked something like this.

 

I think my father was there and handled that uncomfortable conversation, explaining that snail bait had been spread throughout the yard in an attempt to eradicate these little calcium carbonate delicacies, and it wouldn’t be safe to eat them. It seems those garden variety snails (Helix aspersa) might have been first class for cooking had they not been exposed to poison.

The looming question became who would clean the pot? Certainly not my mother! (Thankfully, I was too little.) After some unlucky person (who, in fact, probably was my mother) did the initial cleaning and escorting of escargot from the pot, I suspect my mother put said pot through a rigorous disinfecting.

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Fast forward four decades or more. I am sitting in an elementary school classroom in Colorado. Teachers had ordered, through a science catalog or some such, some long awaited specimens for the children to study. I happened to be acting as an aid in the classroom the day the surprise specimens arrived.  I watched with rapt attention as the children’s excitement increased. Would it be some rare butterfly or chrysalis? An ant farm? I was completely surprised when, placed on the tables in front of the children, (with strict instructions as to how to handle—or not handle—them) were none other than humble garden snails (Helix aspersa), just like the ones we had so conscientiously exterminated from two of our home gardens.

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Helix aspersa

(Suddenly, I thought I could account for the exodus of a multitude of snails from our neighborhood. Perhaps some enterprising person gathered them up and sold them as scientific specimens, and perhaps as food stuff, gleaning sheer profit for his efforts.)

The children did not experiment with the effect of salt on live snails, although in the interest of science, I thought the children might find it extremely intriguing and informative. I thought about mentioning it, but, first of all, it was not my place, and secondly, I knew it would have the same effect as it did on me, my sister, and my nine-year-old grandson. It would create an intense desire to perform a scientific experiment and observe the results. I didn’t want to be responsible for the destruction of those expensive specimens, even in the name of science, so I kept quiet.

(I did find myself asking the air, “You paid for these?”) Maybe when all scientific observation was over, the teachers were planning an extraordinary feast.

I have never salted a snail since my mother encouraged me against it. While I recognize that many a gourmet (or Italian grandmother) relishes snails (Escargot or Babbaluci) as a delicacy, I sincerely hope I don’t meet them in my garden or on my plate from this time henceforward.

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My First Blog Post EVER!

End Piece

© May 19, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.

 


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The Garden of Remembrance

Blog Post #20

“Summer Flowers” by John William Godward


In the Garden of Remembrance
Time stands still
While one leisurely
Strolls and Reflects
Upon each
Intimate Blossom


“The Shrine” by John William Waterhouse

“The Flower Picker” by John William Waterhouse

“Gather Ye Rosebuds” by Waterhouse

“Among the Ruins” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

“Spring” by Alma-Tadema

Public domain images of some of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite Artists
©October 10, 2014


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"As You Sow…"

Blog Post #17

Jean-François Millet, The Sower
My mother-in-law had her own twist on the old proverb “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,” (Galatians 6:7). With delight, she often showed me pieces of fabric she planned to use for new dresses. One fabric she particularly liked had a small print of little cowboy boots, horses, and spurs on a navy blue field. She liked this fabric because it suggested something dear to her—her late husband, who had passed away a year or two earlier.  Horses and cowboy boots were synonymous with Dad.

The cowboy print looked something like this

Dad with his horse Smokey
She used the same dress pattern many times, changing the print of the fabric for variety.  Soon after she showed me the cowboy print, it became a dress much like the one she’s wearing in the picture below.
My mother-in-law wearing a
typical dress of her own making

One day, not long after my husband and I had married, his mom emerged from her sewing room and laughingly shared with me the truism she had just thought of as she began to repair a mistake in her sewing: 

Whatsoever a woman seweth, that shall she also rip!” 


This became shortened  to, “As you sew, so shall you rip,” which is how I always think of it. Her witticism seemed to make up for any error in sewing she had made. She knew she had struck on a profound play on words. Always chuckling at her wit, she repeated this phrase to me whenever I found her sewing.


The notorious seam ripper

It was simply brilliant. And so true. I have thought of it plenty of times since as I’ve sat at my own sewing machine frantically rushing to repair a mistake by wielding my trusty seam ripper. I have never been a patient seamstress. I like sewing. I do. But mostly the thing I like about sewing is being done. I like the finished product—wearing, displaying, or using it. Sewing is a means to an end.


My daughter Caity sews for a living. Her business keeps her extremely busy, with deadlines that often require additional help, (which I am pleased to provide). We sit together sewing for hours at a time, or I do odd jobs to expedite the orders she has to fill.
“Young Mother Sewing” by Mary Cassatt

Caity does impeccable work. Running her business online via an *Etsy shop means her clients must take their own measurements. This can create problems if done incorrectly. Sometimes, items are returned for adjustments. Fortunately, this is the exception, not the rule. Making adjustments is time-consuming and generally without remuneration.

At times, she asks me to remove a bodice (the top portion of a dress) from the skirt. Recently, I had two such dresses to take apart. On one of the dresses, the length of both sleeves and skirt had been miss-measured by the customer, and the dress returned for adjustments. The fully lined mutton sleeves—having two parts—also needed to be dissected and refinished.

Dresses with mutton sleeves.
Not the dresses Caity makes.

Looking at one of the sleeves, I saw a possible shortcut to repairing the hem of the lower sleeve without having to rip the sleeve apart. But I was strictly instructed that no shortcuts were allowed. Caity, having already attempted a shortcut in refinishing the sleeve at the proper length in a thoroughly acceptable way, received word from the customer that she preferred the sleeves refinished the original way.  The fabric would need re-cutting, and the sleeve, re-made from scratch. It had to measure up to a high level of quality and workmanship, and it did. Her customers are happy, and she feels peace and confidence in her product, and, truthfully, in herself. 

I balked at the thought of this, knowing the extra time and effort it would take. But Caity was adamant. I tore out the stitches, while reciting to myself the slightly altered form of the already misrepresented adage, “As you sew, so shall I rip.” True. So true. We reaped as she sowed (and as she sewed).



I’ve watched Caity in her preparations to sew her custom designs. Because she does work with a handicap—the customer’s measurements—she takes precautions to help insure a perfect fit (and achieves this feat at least 95 % of the time). I’ve watched her measure, and re-measure, two and three times before cutting.  She carefully lays-out, and pins pieces together, instead of doing it her mother’s less exacting and speedier way. In doing so, she saves the time I waste picking out mistakes. Because she makes costumes that multiple people may wear, she allows for discrepancies and variances in size by including an expandable panel in her designs. I’ve watched the great care she takes in her craft and marvel at how few mistakes she makes. It is truly remarkable, considering the queen of “just get it done as fast as possible” was her first (and only) sewing instructor. (Yes, I speak of myself. I grimace as I admit this. But it is true.)

“…Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” True of everything, not just sewing. This summer is full of illustrations: I neglected to deadhead my roses, and have had few to any blooms. The basil, too, I’ve neglected, and have nothing but sad and scraggly plants gone to seed with which not to make pesto. I have giant “thistles” instead of artichokes, because I failed to harvest. We have a sad little avocado tree that was sown in what must be a cursed bit of soil, for the tree, (and its earlier counterpart, which we uprooted because it also fared poorly) has turned into a skinny, leafless stem. I have reaped as I have sown. No doubt about it.


There are many ways to sow. Sowing faithful and true relationships is paramount if you wish to reap a harvest of love and harmony. Sowing good works brings joy and fulfillment. Sowing things of the spirit brings a harvest of knowledge, truth, and peace. Of course, it’s possible to sow things that reap a poor harvest. Sowing seeds of laziness, self-indulgence, pride, and deceit all reap thriving harvests, but who wants grubs and sewage in their horn of plenty?  


For me, it was a particularly hot and humid summer—a particularly busy one, as well. We were busy sowing other than in our vegetable garden. One of our daughters and her family came to stay after being pruned and uprooted from the bit of soil where they had been planted for several years. Their former house sold, they stayed with us during the summer until they found a fruitful spot of ground in a happy situation less than an hour away. Transplanted and thriving–is this not a worthwhile harvest?


Add to that, the sowing and the reaping (or more apropos, the sewing and the ripping) with Caity, we’ve had a fruitful summer.
In sowing and reaping, time does not allow for shortcuts. It just doesn’t. If you plant a seed, it doesn’t matter how much you water it, or expose it to the proper sunlight and nourishment, it will always take a certain amount of time before it will produce. A mighty oak isn’t grown in a day. You cannot rush the harvest. You might be able to encourage it, to make it more plentiful. You might even discourage it, and never reap at all.


Our daughter’s family reaped a nice, quiet, home in exactly the area they had hoped to live, but there were no shortcuts getting there. They reaped as they sowed. They might have settled for something less adequate, but there would have been a price to pay. The safe environment they were seeking, the proximity to schools, work, church, family, and access to the community would have, to a degree, been sacrificed, and with that a certain measure of peace and comfort. Patience in sowing reaps added benefits during harvest.



Brad planted tomatoes. With great care, he watched over them. He nourished and cared for them because he wanted that plentiful harvest. He reaped a lot of tomatoes—many beautiful, red, ripe and delicious. Enough to bottle and to share. He thought he might be able to extend the season further into fall by pruning back the old plants, and planting a couple new plants mid-summer. He was disappointed that his efforts really didn’t produce the desired effect. The season has run its course. The tomatoes have run their cycle—all ending at about the same time. There are things we can change, and things we cannot. I suppose he could build a greenhouse, and have tomatoes year-round, but he hasn’t chosen to do that. Everything comes with a price. Shortcuts must follow the law of the harvest. No matter what, you always reap what you sow.  
 

Jean-François Millet – “Gleaners”


Looking back on the summer, it is evident that I did not sow some of the things that I might have sown. I didn’t even sew things that I planned to sew. I’ve been talking about making a new dress since March. I still haven’t done it. It doesn’t matter. The old ones are still wearable as they hang, limp and lifeless in my closet, like vintage remnants from a garage sale. Instead, I sowed a summer with my daughter, sewing and talking, and being together. It was, and continues to be, worth the harvest, for she is precious to me.



I spent the summer with my other daughter’s family, with treasured grandchildren, laughing, talking, playing games, and building relationships that reek with happiness.
Surely these, and other important things sown over the course of the summer, were worth any displaced activities I might have harvested. Instead of basil, what have I gleaned? Much, much more—and of greater worth. An eternal harvest.

One of our daughters, and some of our grandchildren on a summer outing

One of my grandsons with me

There’s always next year for basil and artichokes. But some things you may only sow once in a lifetime. They are worth every part of the time invested, and the harvest reaped is eternal.
  

*Caity’s Etsy shop is called Cait’s Boutique.  You might find it fun to take a look!

© September 6, 2014