It was Beltane Eve, around 6 pm. Thanks to a cool front that blew through last night, the temperature never got above 76 deg F and once the last of the clouds faded around noon, the day was sunny and bright. I was collecting the washing from the clothesline when I felt a familiar tug. I glanced towards my meditation area and log altar. The evening sun had found a keyhole in the trees and was bathing the short native sedge and wildflowers in the tiny meadow garden with a golden light. I left the clothes for a bit to go and watch the sunlight play.
Tiny motes danced in the light. Some – the insects – zigged and zagged erratically about their business, while others – dust, fluff, pollen – wafted gently on currents in the air. Sunlight highlighted the edges of curved sedge blades and my eye followed appreciatively down to a spider web that seemed to be glowing. Nearby, the small purple stars of Venus’ Looking Glass (Triodanis perfoliata) peeked out of the grass. Light blue flowers of the native wild petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis) dotted the small meadow.
A sense of great peace and love flowed through me.
I felt as though I was being welcomed back.
In December, just after the winter solstice, my mother passed away. Her death was hardly a surprise. Mama was 89 years old. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure almost five years before, and three years ago had fallen and fractured her femur. It was a bad spiral break that never fully healed despite three separate surgeries to repair the damage. She never fully regained her mobility, although she never stopped working toward the goal she had set for herself – to walk with a cane. At the time, my sister was living with Mom so there was someone in the house to help her with her daily routine, and a series of home-health nurses and aides to help when Mary couldn’t. Then Mary’s breast cancer returned – metastatic, this time – and the nurses were there as much for her as for Mom. Mary passed away in January two years ago.
That’s how Mama and I came to live together once again. She wanted to try and live on her own for a while, but by the time the lease on my apartment in San Marcos was up it was obvious that she wasn’t able to fully manage. In February of this past year I quit my job and took a part-time temporary position with a local firm so that I could move back and care for her. The hours worked for both of us. I had already taken my eremitic vows, so moving in with Mom allowed me to pare my belongings and my outside life back still further. I expected that Mom would need help with many daily and personal tasks, and that I would be working at least as much at home as at my job. I hadn’t expected that living with Mom would be the source of joy it became. We had very different viewpoints on a lot of different subjects, but we were able to approach living together in a sort of balance, and I heard a lot of family stories that had never been told before in my presence.
We are a family of story-tellers, and stories about our ancestors are the stuff of long summer evenings and lazy holiday afternoons. We not only know who our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were, we know how they got where they ended up, and what they said when they got there. We remind each other often. At Mom’s funeral, my brother looked at me and said, “You’re the keeper of the family stories, now.” I hope I can do her proud.
Over the months living with her, I had come to notice how loosely my mother’s spirit was tethered to her body. At times in the months before her last illness she would fall asleep in her big armchair, her head would loll back, and I could see just how close she was to death. I began to check on her if I woke up in the morning before she did, or if I came home from work and found her napping, just to see if she was still breathing. Then she caught a cold just after Thanksgiving. Within a week, it had developed into a bout of pneumonia that just refused to clear up despite the doctors’ best efforts. So, no, her death was not a huge surprise for any of us, although we would have preferred to see her last many more years.
The days after her death were a whirlwind. My daughter and grandson had arrived from Hong Kong to be with her husband’s family during a different family emergency, and so they were able to come to be with us, as well. The funeral had to be planned, the guests seen to. And then it was over, the house was empty, and the grieving could begin.
The strangest aspect to my grieving has had to do with food. For the past few months, I haven’t been able to cook for myself consistently. You have to understand – I’ve always loved to cook. Before moving in with Mom, I made bone broths and breads, cakes and pastries, tapas and tapenade, everything from scratch. Cooking for Mom was more of a challenge – not because of the specialized diet for her heart condition, but because my mother was the product of an era of processed everything. Quite frankly, she didn’t like my cooking.
She wouldn’t outright say that, oh, no. What she’d say was, “That isn’t healthy for me.” If dinner didn’t come from a box or jar with a label that said Heart Healthy, she simply didn’t believe it could possibly be low in saturated fats and salt. (At the same time, anything on the IHOP menu was just fine.) It used to be said that the very elderly were in their second childhood, and in a lot of ways cooking for Mama was like cooking for a persnickety child. I had to learn to cook all over again. Eventually, we reached a sort of detente, with me finding a few basic recipes that she could enjoy even if they didn’t come from a box or can, as well as a few processed items that tasted okay to both of us.
I had thought that after Mama passed I’d simply revert to my preferred style of cookery. But, I couldn’t. For weeks, I couldn’t face the stove. The burnt matches from the last breakfast she had made for herself – the electronic ignition on the stove had given out years ago – lingered in the spoon rest for quite a while. I would buy the ingredients – eggs, mushrooms and cheese for omelettes and fritatta; beef broth, parmesan and arborio rice for risotto; whole wheat flours for bread – and they would sit in the cupboard. Fresh fruits and vegetables, so enticing in the store, sat forlornly in their bowl or refrigerator drawer until they were past their prime and had to be discarded into the compost heap. I found myself eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner instead because I simply couldn’t face that stove.
I took drastic measures: I replaced the stove. It needed replacing, after all. Aside from a few eggs and soups, the new stove sat empty and cold.
Then in April, the bottom fell out. My daughter and her family came for their annual visit and left again. I had scheduled an extra week off from work so I could jump into some of my projects around the Hermitage. I spent it barely getting out of bed long enough to get to the couch and Netflix binge for days at a time. I had stopped moving and the depression rolled over me like an overdue tide. I got absolutely nothing done – even my post here was delayed.
Or rather, I got nothing visible done. Internally, a lot was going on. At the end of the week, with the help of a lot of sleep and a daily dose of B12, the fog began to lift. I went back to work.
My current project is keeping me in the field and in fresh air and sunlight for much of the day. I’m hot, sweaty and exhausted when I arrive home, but my mood has been steadily improving. The menus around here are improving, too – hot work means that light dinners of veggies and a little hummus, or fruit, whole grain crackers and a bit of peanut butter are more enticing than more heavy fare. It’s slow going, but I’ll claim any improvement as a victory. I find myself wanting to cook again.
In a couple of weeks, my table for one here at the Hermitage will become a table for two. My eldest sister is moving down from Montana to live here with me. At 71, she’s edging into elderly herself. (I’ll be 50 this year, the “baby” of the family by more than a decade.) There are things I don’t like about the situation, but as the time grows closer, I’m starting to look forward to her arrival. My Patrons haven’t been wrong yet, although I’ve argued with Them about a few of the situations They’ve brought into my life.
In the Garden
The Hermitage came to me with a thick, lovely St. Augustine grass lawn. Others might find that appealing, but to me a thick lawn is a waste of good gardening space, time, and water. Yes, it’s soft underfoot and makes a nice surface to lay a quilt out over, but honestly, the best thing about St. Augustine is how easy it is to kill. Leaving its own clippings down for a few days is enough. This is where my small flock of Rhode Island Red hens comes into the picture.
Their coop is a bit small – it was graded as appropriate for eight to ten full-grown birds, but I’d hate to see that many packed into it – but it is exactly the right size for me to be able to move it rather easily by myself. Once the Girls are finished with an area, it has been largely picked clean of grass and thoroughly fertilized by several weeks of droppings, and is ready for a layer of newspaper and wood mulch.
The chicken coop has been moved along twice, now. Tomatoes, basil and bell peppers were planted in the first small section of bare soil, tucked into a bed of newspaper and cypress mulch. Now, the tomatoes are tall enough to need cages, and there are several bunches of flowers on each. I expanded from this area to include the passage between the bed and the garden shed, then moved the coop a second time and expanded into that space as well. In the space nearest the shed, I planted sunflower and okra seeds that were gifted to me by a work colleague. The new arm has been planted with two kinds of eggplant and two new Big Bertha bell pepper plants. These have been inter-planted with sweet basil, Italian parsley, English thyme.
Around the side of the house, two large blueberry bushes have been planted. They are a Southern Highbush variety called Legacy which will grow well in this area. I also planted a couple of strawberry plants between them. I’ll be expanding the bed around and between them over time, starting with a volunteer comfrey that came up in another area. The spot in the side yard has full sun in the morning but is more shaded in the afternoon, which will be good once the summer has arrived. A master gardener once told me that when a plant tag says full sun, it doesn’t mean in Texas. Here, if it says full sun, give it some shade in the afternoon.
Last year’s Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) announced itself this spring by sending flower stalks up through a large native lantana shrub and blooming above it. The genus Monarda is part of the mint family. Native to North America, Bee Balm is also called horsemint or Oswego tea. The dried leaves make a nice substitute for tea. Bee Balm has a long history of use by American aboriginal peoples and settlers alike as a medicinal herb. The active constituent, thymol, is an effective antiseptic for use in poultices. Infusions of the crushed leaves and flowers have been used to settle an upset stomach, or for relief from headaches and fevers. The crushed leaves have a pleasant, spicy scent. As the common name implies, it is also very popular with bees and other pollinators.
Below, I’ve added a few more photos of the garden, in no particular order. It has been an unusually mild spring, despite coming in a full two weeks early, so everything is looking particularly lush and happy.
Around the Hermitage:
Nothing much has happened inside the Hermitage since the last post, besides replacing the stove. Repainting the cabinets has been stalled by several wet weekends in a row, unfortunately. I have bold plans to repaint the exterior of the house, but those will have to wait until later in the year. Replacing the front door is a priority right now. My energy has mostly been focused on the garden – natural at this time of year – and on cleaning up and clearing out in preparation for my sister’s arrival.