Your violets, Son…
Friday, April 17, 2009
A huge red haw tree stood near the back door of the house where I grew up. Every spring, that big hawthorn turned white with fragrant blossoms—while the ground beneath the tree became a riot of purple violets. Violets of my effectuating, my personal doing—planted by my own grubby little hands at the blissful age of five. “Your violets, Son,“ Mom would often say, as we sat on the back porch enjoying spring’s warming sunlight. There were hundreds of them, a great circular patch thirty feet across with scarcely a blade of grass or a square inch of bare ground visible between the dense layered mat of round green leaves and purple blooms. Not that much else grew under the haw, anyway, though the ground was rich and dark. “Too much shade,” my father said. The saga of the haw-tree violets began one spring morning when my mother heard me stirring through the barrel of tin cans we kept near the bottom of the steps leading down into the basement. Unlike most of our neighbors, we didn’t burn our household trash. Peelings and scraps were put on the garden or into small holes dug around the yard. Cardboard and paper from packages (which seldom amounted to much) went into the coal furnace. Glass jars were washed and reused. While tins from what few canned-goods we used were collected in the basement barrel (to keep them from rusting) and when the barrel was full, Dad hauled them to the dump. I used old tin cans for lots of projects—everything from making drum sets which I hammered with nerve-shattering abandon, to fanciful body parts for “locomotives” and “airplanes.” The trouble was, I sometimes cut myself on the ragged edges, or got a bit of old tomato soup or chocolate syrup in my hair. This time, I informed my mother, I needed an empty container for some “purple flowers down by the ditch,” which I wanted to bring home. The “ditch” was a tiny seasonal creek which flowed past the far border of the neighbor’s yard. Four foot across at it’s widest, and rarely more than a foot deep, the ditch carried running water perhaps nine or ten months of the year—and often dried up, except for a few deeper pools, in July and August. Nevertheless, the ditch held crayfish, the occasional minnow, frogs, snakes and worlds of endless fascination along its muddy banks. It was also the bane of my mother’s efforts at keeping my clothes clean and dry. Ditches draw small boys the way a cow flop attracts flies. My mother, however—bless her heart!—also loved flowers, and understood the transplanter’s pull of heart. She washed out a couple of old peaches tins, handed me a small trowel, and begged me to try and not fall in more than once or twice. And so, thus equipped, at five years old I set off on my first plant-collecting expedition. I don’t know how many violets I dug up and brought back that morning, but I’d guess not more than a dozen. Doubtless more than a few succumbed to my rough and clumsy treatment—either during extraction or as they were replanted under the haw, where Mom says I insisted on putting them so I could keep an eye on their safety and give them water like I’d watched my grandfather do with his little tomato sets when he put out his garden. Surprisingly, a few violets managed to survive the relocation. In fact, they settled into their new home beneath the haw and thrived—multiplying and spreading exponentially with each and every spring; in time, practically taking over the entire back yard, the side yard, and by the time of my mother’s death a few years ago, a big portion of the front yard. “Those are your violets, Son,” Mom said once again the spring of the year she died. Mom was 94, and suffered from (among many ailments) glaucoma. Though almost blind, she could still see the purple evidence of my youthful escapade. "You planted them, Son," she repeated, and told me once more the oft-repeated story. When she'd finished, she looked out, smiled, and shook her head. "They are so, so beautiful." This morning, walking around the yard near the cottage, I found a small patch of common violets in bloom. Ohhhh… Sometimes all it takes to fill our day with beauty and solace and magic is one moment, a single sight or sound or smell. For me—today—it was these humble little violets. In much less time than it has taken me to tell you this tale, they carried me back all those years to the sweet soft security of home…to an April day of bright sunshine, when Mom and I sat for the last time on the warm porch, and saw a wealth of purple at our feet.