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Sunday, July 29, 2012

America's Sunflower



The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas. And driving through Kansas in summertime, you can see how this flower has become a mainstay of this area’s farmers.

First domesticated  in Mesoamerica (present day Mexico) by at least 2600 BC, sunflowers are an annual plant native to the Americas. They’re named after its huge, fiery blooms, whose shape and image is often used to depict the sun.

Many indigenous American peoples used the sunflower as the symbol of their solar diety, including the Aztecs and the Otomi of Mexico and the Incas in South America. Several Native American groups planted sunflowers on the north edges of their gardens as a "fourth sister" to the better known three sisters combination of corn, beans and squash.

Sunflower seeds were brought to Europe in the 16th century, where, along with sunflower oil, they became a widespread cooking ingredient. Leaves of the sunflower can be used as cattle feed, while the stems contain a fibre which may be used in paper production.In the mid-western US, wild (perennial) species often found in corn and soybean fields are considered a weed.

Sunflowers fascinated Van Gogh who painted a series of this flower. The photo accompanying this article epitomizes his most familiar painting of the series.   

My favorite story about sunflowers is contained in this quote from My Antonia by Willa Cather.

“Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow.

I believe that botanists do not confirm Fuchs’s story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.”  

Only a legend, but the sunflower has established its place in mid-American history. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Coat Rack or Clothes Tree


Thomas Jefferson is believed to be the inventor of the first coat hanger, the precursor of the ubiquitous coat rack. They take up very minimal space and can be moved anywhere within the home. From holding coats to holding other types of things to free up space, a coat rack is most definitely a very handy piece of furniture.

I discovered the one pictured above many years ago while browsing a junk store outside of Fayetteville, AR. At first my husband objected to its purchase, saying we wouldn’t be able to get it inside the car for the drive home. But everyone knows a determined woman will always find a way. It has proved extremely useful in our small house. Our bedroom has only one closet, a bare four-feet square. Predictably, my husband claimed it which led to the purchase of an inexpensive free-standing storage unit for my hanging clothes.

Because they need very minimal space, they can be easily place in the corner of the home that would most times be unused space. My clothes hanger stands in my bedroom corner where it is in daily use for sleepwear and other clothes.

Wikipedia has given the term coatrack a whole new meaning. Just as the coats hanging from the rack hide the rack—in a Wikipedia coatrack article, the subject gets hidden behind the sheer volume words relating to a biased point of view. If interested, you can read more details by going to:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Coatrack#History

But back to the focus of my piece. Because of their ease of use and versatility, coat racks are making a comeback. They are ideal for small spaces, such as the studio apartment, and are much more versatile than built-in closets. Freestanding coat racks offer the option of inexpensive storage with easy mobility, and you can change locations as often as you need to.

When I went online to search for the history of this item, a passel of websites that sold this item popped up. From traditional to contemporary, for children and adults, you can find a style to suit your tastes. Search out a local flea market, junk store, and even an upscale home boutique to find one to suit your home’s style.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Monument to Past Glory


Drive west on Interstate 20 about seventy miles from Ft. Worth's city limits and you might be distracted by the sudden appearance of a brick smokestack jutting 126 feet above a few crumbling foundations. This is all that remains of a once-thriving community called Thurber.

Thurber, Texas once claimed to be the largest town between Fort Worth and El Paso. It began in 1886 with a coal mine started by the Johnson brothers, Harvey and William. Workers were recruited from eighteen nations, including Italy, Poland, Britain and Ireland. The whole town’s existence was devoted to the mining of coal and, to a lesser degree, the manufacture of brick.  Manufacture of brick began in 1897 and eventually the plant was making 80,000 bricks daily.

The Texas & Pacific Coal Company owned the resulting town; it is believed to be the first city with totally unionized industries. The Opera House was the center of the city's cultural life. Audiences of up to 655 would enjoy traveling plays and operas. The 9.1 acre cemetery has three distinct sections; the African-American, the Catholic, and the White Protestant.

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, railroads changed from coal to oil as fuel, diminishing the markets for coal. When the company moved its corporate location to Fort Worth in the thirties, that spelled the demise of Thurber and it became little more than a ghost town. When Thurber was torn down in the early 1930s, Miners’ Houses sold for $50, New York Hill Houses $250.

 Atop New York Hill, a large brass plaque shows location of structures from when Thurber thrived.  The restored 100-year-old St. Barbara's Church, Thurber Cemetery, a furnished miner's house, and an authentic Italian bocci ball court give a glimpse into the town's past. In 1995, eight State Historical Plaques were dedicated to mark significant sites in Thurber.

Beside that smokestack visible from the highway, only a handful of buildings mark the site where once 10,000 residents claimed Thurber 'home'. Historical markers and deeply-planted memories are all that remains of the once-bustling town of Thurber but every Fourth of July since 1907, a large number of former residents return for a reunion. Thurber was their home town. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Mother Wore Blue Velevet


We were cleaning out the family home--dismantling it in preparation for sale. Now I found myself in my father’s bedroom, dreading the task at hand. I sat at my mother’s dressing table with its double set of large drawers connected by a low shelf that supported a broad, round mirror, its forties styling dating the piece. Upon opening one of the pair of drawers, I began placing items on the nearby shelf. My fingers reached into its depth and curled about a swatch of fabric. When I drew it out, I recognized what it was--a fragment of my mother’s wedding gown of blue velvet.
The feel of that smooth piece of material brought a black-and-white photograph to mind. Myself as a four-year-old, standing on our home’s front stoop. My over-large eyeglasses dominated a narrow face which was framed with shoulder-length brown hair. I looked into the camera, my hand reaching up to touch my face as I ducked my head to one side. The photograph was taken to commemorate the special dress I wore--short puffed sleeves and gathered skit that ended at my knees--made of dark blue velvet. I recall my mother’s explanation of having made matching dresses for my sister and I from her wedding gown.
Which brought a second photo to mind--my parents’ wedding picture. A not-so-young couple that stood side-by-side, solemn expressions on both their faces. They stood midway on a flight of concrete steps leading to a church’s pair of carved wooden doors. He stood ram-rod in a severely-cut black suit with she stood close but not touching, wearing a long-sleeved blue gown whose hem swept the ground. That picture was taken November 25th, 1936.
Over the years, each time I came across that photo, I had questions. How did they meet? Where was the picture taken? Why were they the only people in the wedding party picture?
Thinking about the wedding picture, I wonder again why did they stand beside each other as strangers and why such solemn expressions on their faces. From that seemingly distant relationship came a family of eight living children and a marriage that lasted over fifty years.
Although I am the oldest living sibling, there was a daughter born before me who lived but a few days. In years past, I’ve flipped the pages of the baby book my mother made of her first child’s short existence. I look for answers to questions I cannot ask. 
As I grew older, I especially wondered if there was significance in my mother’s choice of color for her wedding dress. Why blue velvet rather than the traditional white. Growing up I sensed my parents felt trapped in their relationship yet we children were nurtured in an atmosphere of commitment, mutual respect and a kind of love that grew with the years.
I finger the scrap of blue velvet and can’t help wondering why my mother kept it all these years.So many questions I never dared to ask went unanswered. And now there is no one to supply the answers--I can only speculate. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fragments of Lost Memories

I came across these battered, sepia-toned photographs some time after my father died. We were cleaning out the family home in preparation for its sale.

I know they pertain to my father because I found them nestled at the bottom of a bedroom bureau drawer he used. But that is all I know about them; and there is no one alive I can ask for identification or information.

 These people, probably related in some way, had meaning for my father. I'm especially intrigued by  a missing piece from the one showing an elderly gentleman holding a new-born baby, the jagged edges indicate it was torn apart. As if, my imagination prompts, another individual's image had been deleted at some time. My guess is that the child is the newest member of the family, possibly a first grand-child.

There are other clues hidden in the pictures. I know my father grew up in Quebec, Canada and from the heavy outerwear, my guess is the group picture was taken there. From the formal attire the people are wearing, I surmise the occasion was an auspicious day. The preponderance of black-colored clothing leads me to believe they may have gathered for a funeral, but perhaps not.

I met my father's father and his third wife only one time. I was a child of about eight at the time, so wasn't old enough to make definitive connections of all the family members I met at the time. My recollection of that meeting is vivid. I recall my mother taking my hand to lead to where my grandfather and his wife sat in straight-back kitchen chairs before a wall in some large room. There were other people seated.around the edge of the room. I don't remember what was said; I imagine my mother introduced me as her first-born child. Shortly afterward, I was allowed to join my siblings where they were playing in another area.

I hold onto these two pictures as a reminder of the fragility of memories and as a reminder to take the time to write down my memories for those who will come along after I'm no longer here to supply answers to questions.

Friday, July 13, 2012

One Seed's Potential

Rummaging about in the barn’s upper level, I came across a forgotten picnic basket. Inside were several dried gourds, leftover from a long-ago crafting project. When I shook one, I heard the rattle of seeds inside.

Seeds! A promise of life! Can’t resist the urge to plant.
I center a four-foot circular wire cage in an open garden bed and nestle seeds, two by two, around its circumference.

Within weeks, tender plants are extending leaves and long tendrils, reaching and clinging to the supporting wire frame. In no time at all it seems, I need to add a second cage as the plants spurt for the sky.

Six weeks later, the vines have obliterated any sign of its wire tower. And still, it continues to grow. One day, I find a vine stretching across open space, reaching for a nearby tree branch. Another time, the vines are creeping across the stump left behind when a tree was cut down.

I peek beneath the leafy foliage and am delighted to spot several gourds in various stages of growth. I look forward to a plentiful harvest—all from a handful of seeds.

As I go about my daily life, I think about all this. I, too, should remember to plant seeds—seeds of kindness and of hope; seeds of acceptance and of encouragement. I don’t have to question the harvest…only remember to do the planting.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Puzzle Tree


Across the road from my home’s driveway stands this aged tree. It’s been there since long before we moved here over thirty years ago. In this picture, it gives the impression of solid growth and stability.

Circle around to its back side and this is what you will see. Only three sections of outer tree trunk now supply life to itsspread of healthy  branches and leaves.
  
Over the years, the center of the tree has eroded and all that now remains is a shell of a tree, its inner substance confined to just a suggestion of what it once was.

This tree constantly reminds me of something. I need to remember this tree each time I look at people, be they strangers I pass or friends I meet. I need to remind myself not to be influenced by what is visible to my eye. Time may have eroded the perfection of their outer image, but it is the inner core, strong and vital, that really defines who they are.

All over the sixteen acres of our property, mature trees have been stripped of their leaves and green growth by last year’s severe drought. They now stand as skeletons etched against the sky. With every strong wind, more and more of their dead branches break and drop to the ground.

Yet this shell of a tree remains green and growing. 

Why do you think that is so? What makes the difference between trees that have succumbed to stressful times and another that has maintained its vitality even when much of its original existence has been eaten away?

Friday, July 6, 2012

What's Your Style?


A relative posted this picture of a double rainbow on Facebook recently. What ignited my attention was the shape of the homes in her part of the country. She lives in Wisconsin and homes there, like all across the northern states, are square, upright and compact.

So different from southern states where older-built homes tend to sprawl and hug the ground. I’m certain architects could give me a practical explanation for this difference. When one begins to meditate on the different conformations a home can take, it boggles the mind.

In the writing of my novel, Twist of Fate, I found it necessary to research what resources were available to those hardy newcomers who first settled the western plains. They emigrated from the eastern part of our country where an abundance of building materials such as rocks and trees were readily available.

But on the grassy open plains, they found themselves at a loss as to what could be used to build a shelter. If fortunate enough to locate a rise in land sufficient, their first habitat usually was a dugout—they dug into the side of the hill and created a man-made cave. Most began their adventure in a sod house; it was the only material available in abundance to create a dwelling. Cutting blocks of sod and stacking them to build walls, it still took a few tree trunks to act as support for the sod blocks that became the roof.

How far we have come from those early days. Now, newer communities continue to sprout their  towering, space-eating buildings that nudge one another and have barely space to pass between. From one extreme to another, it seems to me. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ocean Beach Memories


Each time I travel back to my childhood environs, I promise myself a day at Ocean Beach Park. Even the name conjures up sun, sand and surf. In its heyday, the airwaves reverberated with the sound of abandoned fun. Now the carnival has moved to warmer climes, the carousel, its glitter tarnished, has been dismantled and the harsh buzzes and loud noises of mechanical games replace the penny arcade. Within the cool interior of its now-abandoned roller skating rink, my errant footsteps echo through the building’s emptiness.

Later as I step onto the boardwalk, I can see the distant shoreline lying calm and I’m greeted by the whisper of gentle waves. I seat myself on a nearby empty bench and settle down to indulge in my favorite pastime - people watching. The hat that shades my face from the dazzle of unaccustomed sunlight bestows anonymity.

I follow the path of a youngster as he churns the sand, his speedy steps taking him to a sleeping body  stretched out on a blanket. He stops to share his excitement, all the while his suit of water dripping on the unappreciative adult. Innocent act of annoyance completed, he turns and races back to the enticing water.

Close by, a group of young adults fling themselves into a vigorous game of volleyball, clinging wet sand glistening on lean, sun-bronzed bodies. With bare skin covered in the skinniest of bikinis, these young girls are aggressive in their enjoyment of the moment.

An older generation shares the boardwalk with me. They move at a slower pace, appreciative of the visual delights and solid platform for their walk. The couple stroll side by side, their aches of arthritic joints responding to the sun’s penetrating warmth. Another woman seated close by cautiously raises her skirt to the knees, exposing white shins.

Such are the images I impress on my memory. Later, in my land-locked home, though winter days of sun-less hours and frigid winds take away my breath, I will snuggle in my recliner and revisit these moments, returning once again to this pleasurable time.