Essays

How to Grow a $400 Squash * Swimming in the Deep End * Forget Me Not

How To Grow a $400 Squash

My husband said to the realtor, “we really want a house with an interesting back yard.” The back yard of the house we moved to in May has four crepe myrtles, five feet high, and a large cement patio. No overhang. No shade. No garden.

We lived in Oklahoma for thirty years before this move, twenty years in the same house. The back yard included a half dozen thirty-plus foot regal oaks and one native ash we planted in 1999. Two raised vegetable and flower beds and one strawberry bed claimed one side yard. Some years we had strawberry pie, strawberry jam, strawberry scones, and gallons of strawberries in the freezer all year. I also learned twenty-seven ways to use tomatoes. Friends and family clamored for their Christmas jar of salsa. There was a milkweed Monarch patch (I counted 18 caterpillars at one point last summer), roses (a gift from former coworkers), three althea (from one-gallon buckets, but eventually pruned each year to avoid scritch-scratching the eaves of the back porch roof), azaleas (only two of three left after one harsh winter). The back porch overhang was twenty feet wide and ten deep. My husband built a wood deck over remaining cement pad, and we had a red pavestone patio installed beyond the deck, with a bed for plumbago, bee balm, impatiens, and coral bells. The broad canopy of a lightening-stung grandfather oak with the trunk it took two to hug completely sheltered it all.

Beyond the fence, Haikey Creek trickled in dry weather and raged in wet; its associated flora and fauna attracted deer, coyotes, hawks, and owls. To the east, against another giant oak was the “treehouse” the grandkids helped construct and paint from found materials, with the wooden ladder and the slide that started it all. My husband found it dumped on an out-of-the-way roadside during his morning run the year after our first grandchild was born (he’s now thirteen). That home was the only one our grandchildren had visited us in until after we moved to Texas.

In Oklahoma, where we built deep friendships over those thirty years, I finished graduate school and had three careers: medical/research technologist, freelance writer, then teacher. My husband finished grad school, too. Then his telecom career fell victim to the WorldCom debacle, so he started a business, and fourteen years later sold it. We retired and moved to the house with the empty back yard, but near the granddaughter, who is eleven.

“I’d like two raised beds,” I said, after the boxes were unpacked, “but they can wait a while.” It was June.

Within days, my husband traipsed to Home Depot. Lumber, weed-block, and screws filled the back of his pickup. He borrowed the “son-of-a-bitch” breaker bar from my brother to bust up the limestone slabs lurking beneath the sod. Bam! Pry. Bam! Bam!

“The beds can wait until the weather’s cooler,” I said. My husband measured and cut, laid wood frames into different spots to gauge the angle and hours of direct sun. Temperatures topped 100 and sweat dripped from his chin.

“I think west side, away from the fence is best,” he said. I concurred. Digging and rock-busting and wedging frames into the slope of the yard followed. It was July.

“We don’t have to fill them yet,” I said.

“Maybe just one for now,” he said.

More trips to Home Depot, Wal Mart, and Lowes. He lugged ten bags of topsoil and eighteen of raised bed soil. Mulch and soaker hoses. Hose splitters.

“I’ll check out some books on fall gardening from the library,” I said, but it waited until we got the Texas car insurance, inspection, car tags and Texas driver’s license, as required to obtain a Texas library card. The welcome to Texas package. I selected recommended seeds and pinched them into seed starter soil. The August heat gave the seeds a jumpstart; they were six inches tall within a week.

 “Might as well see how it goes,” my husband said, meaning the veggies. He packed in the topsoil and topped that off with rich raised bed soil, smelling of decayed grass or hay. He wound soaker hose around the surface and I planted seedlings along and around the turns, a blanket of mulch against dry Texas wind. Sun blistered the grass.

“I’ll string up some shade fabric,” my husband said. He hammered tall metal stakes into rocky ground along one edge and draped fabric over ropes suspended from the fence and stakes. I turned the hose on every day, and water seeped out the lower edge of the bed, under the fence, into our neighbors’ flower bed on the other side.

The seedlings didn’t grow, and squash bugs nibbled leaves all the way back to the stem. I sprayed with insecticidal soap. No effect. I sprinkled with Sevin dust and seemed to gain ground. The September sun moved further south, providing shade in different areas, and earlier.

“I’ll take down the shade cloth,” my husband said, after a slightly cooler week.

We had a cedar pergola constructed over the cement pad for siting in elusive summer shade. We strung party lights from the massive beams overhead, and they cast a warm glow at dusk as the days cooled slightly. It was a start.

The seedlings didn’t grow an inch until the first real cooling rain in October. I walked out to check them twice a day, and I could see the squash and okra plants begin to take off.

Finally.

——————————–

“I have something to show you,” I tell my husband just before dinner. We traipse down the slope to find two large yellow squash blossoms inviting whatever flies by to pollinate. There are several more ready to pop open.

“We’ll have squash before long,” I say.

“That’ll be the most expensive squash ever grown,” he says with a smirk. “They’d better be pretty good, for $400.” This is my husband who doesn’t eat squash, not even the garlicky, cheesy squash casserole I love.

I shrug. We slog back up the incline to our beautiful new pergola, flip on the party lights, and settle down with our glasses of wine. From where we sit, we can see for miles.

“Look how pretty the sky is.” He points up to the streaks of orange and purple along the horizon above our fence. I have to admit there’s a certain charm to this open expanse of Texas sky.

“Mmm.” The sky is beautiful, out beyond the raised bed with the scrappy little plants burrowing their roots into the fresh, outrageously expensive soil. We forget about the money and energy we’ve poured into their survival; we relax and enjoy the darkening sky.

It isn’t about the squash.


Swimming in the Deep End

from Learning is the Reward

I like to conduct topic debates with my students from time to time.  In environmental science, I have assigned topics like the pros and cons of labeling genetically modified foods, or the merits of various alternative fuels.  I assign students to teams before I assign the topic, and they sometimes protest they prefer the other team, but I assure them it doesn’t matter what their personal views are.  What’s important is their ability to locate evidence to support their case and their skill in convincing the “jury” they have a solid argument. 

In my college Freshman Composition II class, where the textbook until recently was titled, Everything’s an Argument, the topic debate is simply an extension of their written argument assignments.  I usually find a current controversial topic and allow students an hour or so to do research and prepare their cases.   While their classmates are preparing for presentation, students on the jury team prepare a rubric to score their classmates’ debate. 

This is not a debate class, so the guidelines are pretty simple.  Each team has 10 minutes to present their case, then after a short break where teams discuss their opponents’ presentations, both teams are allowed a brief rebuttal period.  At that point, the jury decides who presented the best supported argument.  The students enjoy the process, and I find it a unique way for students to conduct goal-oriented research on a topic they don’t know much about.

After reading Daniel Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? and a couple of articles about the development of critical thinking skills, I’m rethinking the debate I have planned in a couple of weeks.  According to Willingham, in order for students to think deeply about a topic, they need to have a significant store of knowledge about it first, what Dillingham calls background knowledge.  Otherwise, students are simply wading in the shallow end of the pool, debating superficial facts, but believing they are thinking critically.  Students have learned to skim the surface and rarely dive deeply enough for more thorough discussions.

The good news is that there is something to be learned from the process of debate itself, and I think my students gain knowledge about the proposed topic from the research they conduct.  But I’m doing things a little differently this semester.  I’ve been assigning academic readings in my college class for several weeks about closely related topics, which we’ve discussed at length during class sessions and about which students have written several short response papers.  We’ve given a lot of thought to thinking and which college experiences expand our ability to do so.  In two weeks, when I assign the debate, students will have read and discussed aspects of the topic fairly thoroughly for several weeks.  They may not yet be experts, but they have more than superficial knowledge. 

I’m eager to see how this focused reading will affect the quality of this semester’s debate, and hope I’m not being overly optimistic.  As one student, who is a former coach and teacher, wrote in his last paper about classroom “flipping” as a teaching strategy, “I recognized the psychological idea of transference and wondered if teachers believe their students are learning a lot because they themselves are learning as they teach.”  It’s a great question.  My goal is always to learn better ways to teach, and I’m hoping this new strategy will help me teach students more effectively.  If not, at least I will have learned something.  


Forget Me Not

I don’t know where I am or what day it is. I’m conscious of lying on my back on a carpeted floor. When I open my eyes, I have a view of my bedroom ceiling, but from an odd angle. As I’ve grown older, my body’s begun to rebel at physical challenges more often than it used to, and my language center, once a source of pride, doesn’t cough up names or words as quickly.  My first thought is this: Is memory the next piece of ground I’ll be forced to give up? I’ve learned to accommodate loss, but I won’t give up memory without a fight.

Within seconds, I remember with great relief it’s Wednesday morning and my day off.  There’s a wet cloth in my right hand, and I raise it to press against my cheek, where its coolness sparks sensations in the side of my face and brings back the memory of the morning, of the aborted walk with our two dogs.  I remember the chocolate lab walking his owner at the end of our street, how our dogs pulled like crazy to meet him, how their combined eighty-pound weight dragged me off of slippery wet grass to the pavement, and how I saved a face-first plunge only with my hands and one knee.

The loops of the dogs’ leashes had been gripped so tightly in my left hand that there were four moon-slivers embedded in my palm where fingernails dug into skin.  A red scrape just below it stung from the cement burn, but at least I’d managed to keep the dogs tethered.  The right hand was worse, where a flap of skin was shaved from the heel up toward the palm, with black grit embedded in the flesh beneath.  Blood dripped from the scrape on my knee, and I felt a bit woozy, so we turned back for home.

A coworker of mine once told me a story about her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and lived in a nursing home.  “When Grandad died, Grandma’s disease was fairly well progressed,” Melinda said.  “We weren’t sure how she would take the news of his death.  She’d been forgetting things and didn’t always know who we were, but she always knew Grandad. When he died, we couldn’t bring her to his memorial service and tried to break the news to her without upsetting her too badly. She was heartbroken. 

            “The next day, though, she’d forgotten all about Grandad’s death,” Melinda said.  “When she asked about him, we told her again, as gently as we could, but she grieved like he’d just died.  This went on a couple of weeks, until we realized it was just cruel to break this news to her again and again.”  Melinda frowned and looked away.  “We started telling her that Grandad was on his way or that he’d gone fishing.  It was hard to say those things at first, because we knew they were lies, but it seemed kinder to let her forget that Grandad was dead.” 

            In third grade, my best friend Janet and I discovered a sure-fire way to cause a few moments of unconsciousness.  We were clever enough to engage in this play only at my house, where there was no mother, only my older sister Karen, who was weary of having charge over her baby sister and giggly friends. She mostly ignored us. For several afternoons, we locked ourselves into the bedroom Karen and I shared and literally knocked ourselves out.  We took turns: one of us was the fainter and one was the catcher.  The fainter stood with the backs of her legs brushing up against the bed, then slumped down to her haunches and counted to ten.  After the ten-count, she held her breath and jumped upright quickly, before her blood pressure had time to adjust.  The result was a sudden blackout.

            The catcher’s job was to stand in front of the fainter and keep her from falling forward.  It wasn’t needed most of the time, but we wanted to be cautious.  The fainter inevitably fell backwards onto the bed for a few seconds of unconsciousness, a sort of mini-nap.  The moments after waking were exhilarating. 

            When it was my turn at catching, I’d study Janet’s face and body.  Her facial features slackened as she fell back, signaling her loss of consciousness.  I leaned forward with my face over hers on the bed, watching her and waiting for her eyes to open, for her to remember where she was.  It wasn’t possible to take a breath in those few seconds of waiting.  My heartbeat and respiration instinctively recalled the sensations, and both functions seemed suspended as I plunged vicariously into brief, blessed unconsciousness with my best friend.

            Just as Janet’s eyes fluttered open, I glimpsed momentary disorientation before recognition prevailed.  We both gasped, then I fell back on the bed beside her while we giggled and reveled in the oddly refreshing sensation of remembering where we were. This was too much fun to keep to ourselves, so we invited a third friend to join us.

            “Come see how we make ourselves pass out!” But that afternoon our friend fell neither forward nor back and plunged to the floor between me and the bed, hitting her head on the edge of the bed on the way down. She wasn’t too keen on our pastime and sported a colorful bruise on her forehead for a while, just to emphasize her displeasure. At age eight, I didn’t have that much memory to lose, but the potential for injury seemed too risky. I didn’t yet know how thoroughly I would someday guard my memories and mine them for clues. Clues to who my mother was, and to who I was becoming.

            Many years later, when I awakened on my bedroom floor with momentary loss of consciousness and memory, my priorities had shifted. I eventually remembered standing up too quickly from the cedar chest at the foot of our bed to get a bandage from the bathroom for my bloody knee.  I was unconscious when I landed and when the side of my head bounced against the floor.

When my husband discovered I’d passed out and given myself a concussion, he turned me in to my doctor, and she insisted that I go to the emergency room.

“Someone told me you had a fall this morning,” her nurse said when she called.  “Dr. Willard thinks you should be seen in the emergency room.”

            “No, really,” I say.  “I’ve got a slight headache, but I’m fine.” I’d already begun writing the memories into essays, hoping to make greater sense of them in written form. I was at my computer when the nurse called and didn’t have time for hospital visits.

            “Just to be safe,” she said.

            In 1960, when Janet and I were in third grade and rushed back to my empty house from Oak Park Elementary to make ourselves pass out, my mother was already an old hand at blacking out.  For nearly eight years, she’d sampled insulin shock coma and electroshock, or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), more than a hundred times.  During one six-week period in 1953, shortly after her judicial commitment to Southeast Louisiana State Hospital for schizophrenia, she was given twenty-one ECT treatments.  In the three months immediately following this series, her physician administered insulin sixty times, with the hope of producing a coma each time.  Her hospital chart records dozens and dozens of hours of coma during this period. According to some, ECT’s effects on memory and brain function can be profound.  In 1958, neurologist Max Fink, who studied ECT extensively, likened the effects of ECT to those of severe head trauma.  In both, the alterations in brain-wave activity were the same, he said, as were biochemical changes in spinal fluid. In his opinion, ECT induced changes similar to concussive head injury.

            I have few memories of my mother from before I started school and not very many after. Many of them consist of watching her stare vapidly out the car windows as we drove to or from her Saturday ECT treatments at a local hospital while she lived at our home with us for a few months around my sixth birthday.  There were also episodes of violent outbursts in between her treatments, memories it pains me to hold on to. It might be kinder to forget, as my coworker Melinda discovered, but I won’t consciously give them up. Maybe it’s a function of this kindness that there are so few available to me; my forgetting must have begun early. I recall only a handful of words, looks, or touches directed at me. It was as though she didn’t know or didn’t remember that I was her daughter, as though I didn’t really exist. 

            My sister Karen learned how to forget some things, too. She told me that our mother once mixed bleach in our lemonade and made us drink it, that she left the lights on in our bedroom through the night sometimes as punishment when we were rowdy at night.  “I really don’t remember too much about those years, though,” Karen said.  “I hated feeling like I, like we, weren’t normal.”  

            I know what she means.  As soon as I entered school and became aware that other families weren’t like ours, that craziness was to be feared and the crazy to be ostracized, as though mental illness were either moral failure or a stubborn refusal to act normal, I felt something less than normal, too.  I couldn’t very well forget I had a mother who lived in an insane asylum, could I?  I couldn’t, but I could pretend she didn’t exist. Did that mean we were even?

            In 1982, my father gave me a black leather hatbox that once belonged to my mother, as well as a few pictures, papers, and books.  I was thirty years old, and the only keepsake I had of her at the time was a ring that Karen had passed on to me.  The ring isn’t valuable, with its tiny chunk of a diamond in the center.  It’s not pretentious either, with gently filigreed white gold domed up to a flattened center, in which the stone is lodged, almost level with the setting. It was a size or two too big for me, but I had it sized and still wear it occasionally before putting it back into my jewelry box, forgotten for another good while. 

            Aside from a ring that didn’t quite fit and a black leather scrapbook, the only tangible evidences I have of my mother’s existence are stored inside her hatbox. There’s an album with perhaps thirty or forty photos, dating from 1944, when my parents met, and a scrapbook of my mother’s high school memories.  There is one letter in her handwriting, addressed to my father a few days before she died in 1966. There’s a college typing textbook with her name and a few margin notes inscribed in it. The hospital records I obtained in 2005 from her sojourn at Southeastern State hospital records from 1953 – 1957, her first judicial commitment. A handful of black-and-white photos and a small collection of papers, mostly copies of vital documents. The guestbook from her funeral service. The hatbox was a gift from my grandmother before my mother’s marriage to my father, and bears her married initials, “BBH.”  Barbara Bloom Henke. 

            The photos in the high school scrapbook are of people I never met and whose relationships to my mother I can’t know.  A couple of them were identified by my Aunt Connie, but most questions remain unanswered. One thing I know: the girl who became my mother once cared deeply about preserving her memories.  Even if they only number enough to fill a hatbox, they’re the only physical remnants of her life before schizophrenia, and they are now mine for safekeeping.

            Before her death in 1966, it’s likely my mother had forgotten most of the people and places memorialized in the scrapbook photos.  She’d likely forgotten that she loved to ride horses and boats as a girl, that she played bridge with passion, and that she enjoyed winter trips to her parents’ beachside home in Ft. Myers, Florida as a young woman.  Unlike Melinda’s grandmother with Alzheimer’s, who forgot recent events and remembered only life long past, my mother had probably lost a good many of both.

A few weeks after my concussion, and after the emergency room bills stopped trickling in, I began to forget the ballyhoo that surrounded what was eventually diagnosed as vasovagal syncope, or simple fainting after sudden loss of blood pressure. It was embarrassing to admit that after twenty-five years as a medical technologist, up to my elbows in other people’s blood and body fluids, I’d fainted at the sight of my own blood. What lingers is the frightening uncertainty of not remembering where I was and why.  I wonder what it was like for my mother to awaken this way day after endless day.  She didn’t choose schizophrenia any more than I chose to give myself a concussion, didn’t deserve her disease any more than I deserve good health.

            At stake for me now are the decades of memories that make up my life story, which include people and experiences whose influences I couldn’t have imagined in third grade and didn’t recognize early enough. Some are still revealing their value. The thought of losing any memory, even ones whose only worth seem to be lessons learned, makes me want to gather them up and tuck them all away for safekeeping, somewhere safer than my mother’s hatbox. The problem with memories is that as soon as I pull them out to wonder at hidden significance, they become unyielding in my hands, the way Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back at her home in Sodom, presumably the place she’d lived and loved her whole life. Whether her instinct was born out of curiosity about what the future would hold or out of longing for what she was losing, I can relate.

Most of my life, I tried to coax a living, breathing mother and a new history of our lives out of a collection of random, mostly petrified artifacts and the stories I invented to explain who she was, who I was. Artifacts don’t give up truths easily, and there’s no one left to ask. Meanwhile, I accumulated memories of my own life in writing, which too often become frozen as the moments immortalized in snapshots but guarded with the persistent resolve of a daughter determined to remember and to tease out meaning.

            Because really, if I lost the memories and the stories, who would I be then?

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