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Happily Hibernating

Heavy gray clouds had hung low all day. I stared out the kitchen window. Although it looked unpleasant outside, I needed to get some fresh air. A chilled gust of wind tugged at my neck scarf when I stepped out the back door with a letter to mail. Snow-snake ice crystals slithered here and there across the driveway.

Snuggled comfortably inside two sweaters and my late husband’s large work coat, I decided to walk to the bridge after putting my letter in the roadside mailbox. Small pine trees bent beneath a blanket of snow. Tall weeds and grass in the ditch were covered with hoar frost. The river had one or two spots that hadn’t been frozen over before it snowed. Looking down from the bridge, I could see cold water flowing through the looking-glass ice patches.

Back inside the house, the bird-clock on the dining room wall began to sing the song of a little brown wren. It was only four in the afternoon. Surprised that it wasn’t later because of how dark it was, I double checked the time against my wrist watch. Wisconsin winter days are short, especially on the second of January.

Shivering, I poured myself a cup of hot tea. As I sat in my rocking chair wrapped in a blanket to sip my tea, I remembered one summer afternoon spent working in my greenhouse garden.

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Like a Tree

Reluctant to step out of the house, I scanned the dark, dreary backyard. Thick, gray clouds hung low in the sky. Pine trees along the backside of my yard were a dull, unremarkable green. In the flowerbed along the driveway, the recent frost damage was all too evident. The hydrangeas, once covered with pink blossoms, now had brown, frost damaged leaves.

Pulling on a jacket and zipping it halfway up, I stepped out on the back deck. A cold wind whipped around the corner of the house and tried to get inside my coat. The sudden chill was an unwelcome surprise. I zipped the jacket all the way up to my neck. Picking up a lawn rake, I walked around the corner of the house. The only deciduous tree in the center of the yard glowed like a huge, organic light bulb against the background of the drab yard. Half of the maple’s orange-yellow leaves littered the ground, the other half still clung to the branches.

Using the rake to clear a small area on the leaf-smothered lawn, I found what I expected. Close to the grass were red leaves that were the first to fall. The store had called this tree a sunset maple when purchased. But I have been disappointed almost every year since Arnie planted it. The sunset red leaves seldom light up its branches in autumn.

The tree is like a cantankerous person with a mind of its own. The leaves stubbornly don’t usually change colors until all other trees in the area have not only changed colors, but also dropped their leaves.

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Nighty-Night

The phone rang just as I had my hand on the door knob to step out of the house. A friend I seldom see anymore was on the line. We talked and caught up with each other’s lives.

As we got ready to say, ‘good-bye’, my friend asked, “What sort of plans do you have for the rest of today?”

I admitted, “I’m putting my garden to bed for the winter. If I get everything done that I want to, I’ll be a muddy mess by the time I come back into the house,”

 With the call over, I pulled on my gardening coat and wrapped a scarf around my neck. Picking up a pair of garden sheers, I left the house. Walking across the lawn towards the garden, I thought about the phrase, ‘putting my garden to bed’. It reminded me how I had I hated bedtime as a child, and how Mom had struggled to get me settled.

When my family started to pray our nightly rosary, I knew my evening was over. Immediately after, Mom insisted I put on my nighty, brush my teeth and use the bathroom to prevent a cold, middle of the night trip downstairs in the dark. As I unhappily trudged up the stairs, Daddy would cheerfully call out from his favorite chair in the living room, “Nighty-night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

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Armchair Gardener

Encouraged by the lovely fall afternoon weather, I wandered outside to inspect the flowerbed alongside the driveway. The first thing I saw was a small, innocent looking vine pushing up through the new layer of mulch. “Ack” I yelled into my silent, empty yard, and scolded, “You stupid, stupid weed! Don’t you know mulch is supposed to smother you?”

My body posture was tense as I leaned over to yank the little sucker out of the ground, root and all. A second later, I triumphantly held the weed up over my head. It had a five-inch white root and a twelve-inch vine. I loudly announced, “Ah-ha, that takes care of you!”

I had recently watched New Zealand’s All Blacks Rugby team do a goose-bump inducing Maori war cry, called haka before one of their games. Their yelling and intimidating posturing was impressive. In my mind, I was doing an American version of the haka to intimidate the nasty, unwelcome, but irrepressible bindweeds. Leaning over the flowerbed, I spotted dozens of other bindweeds that needed to be pulled up.

Bindweeds look cute when they’re small, but if they are not pulled up by the roots, they will take over the flowerbed. They wrap themselves around, through and over the top of any neighboring plants, strangling them with an abundance of triangular leaves and white flowers resembling small morning glory blossoms.

Leaning over, I began to pull the all the weeds within reach. I mumbled to myself, “One blessing is that they pull out easily because of the mulch.”

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Backyard Philosopher

Clumps of green blades dotted the flowerbed. Some of the leaves obviously belonged to crocus and hyacinths that were soon to blossom. Other clumps belonged to either daffodils or mystery lilies. I wouldn’t know for sure until the daffodils sent up stems and buds.

This flowerbed had looked completely dead when the winter snow melted. Then the first small green shoots pushed their way up through the cold, wet ground. I marveled at this miracle despite having seen it happen each spring of my life. How tenacious the small bulbs were! How badly they wanted to live! How inconceivable it was that they were able to wake up and start growing again after having been frozen solid for months on end!

Flower bulbs were not the only things growing in the yard. Swollen red buds tipped the maple tree branches. Despite a chilly spring, leaves were sure to follow soon. Blades of grass in the lawn were pushing up through last year’s brown thatch. The lawn mowing people were sure to follow soon, too.

I went to sit in a chair on the deck to muse the endlessness of household bills. My daughter Tammie was sitting at the table across from me. She looked up from her phone as I complained, “In the winter I pay for snow to be removed from the driveway and buy fuel for the furnace. In the summer I don’t pay for those things, but then I pay for someone to mow the lawn and have higher electric bills for using the air conditioner.”

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Jigsaw Puzzles

“Why is it so dark this morning?” I wondered, stopping at the stairway window to check out the back yard. Everything looked dismal, every color drab and uninspiring. Pine trees framing the lawn showed up as a deep green, nearly black. The lawn had various shades of brown and tan patches, depending on the weed makeup of each area. Gray, bare branches looked like lifeless claws. Overhead were low, dark, threatening storm clouds.

The air felt damp and chilly. Looking out the window over the kitchen sink while heating water for tea, I saw rain begin to fall. A low rumble of thunder growled and a short-spate of sleet tapped on the window glass as the tea leaves brewed. 

Shivering, I cupped my hands around the warm teacup and thought, “Today is a perfect day to work on a jigsaw puzzle.” Strolling into the living room where an unfinished puzzle lay on a folding table, I turned on a sunlight lamp to push back gloomy shadows and sat down. Before I knew it, hours had passed as I happily worked at finding the right place for each puzzle piece.

Completing the puzzle gave me a huge sense of satisfaction, but also regret because the scene was finished. Rummaging through my supply closet, I searched for a new jigsaw puzzle. What I found was a huge 1,500-piece picture of a very pretty lady surrounded by cherry blossoms and began to set it up on the table.

Sudden, radical weather changes are typical during spring in Wisconsin. A few days later, warm air and bright sunshine flooded my yard. Giving the unfinished cherry blossom lady’s face a wistful look, I explained, “I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. When there’s nice weather during spring, I must take advantage of it and do yard work.”

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The Mystery Grows

The sun felt warm, but the minute I stepped away from the house, a cold, wicked breeze stuck its icy fingernails down the warm nape of my neck. Playfully, it probed under my jacket to chill my midriff. It painfully clawed at my bare hands until I reached into my pocket and pulled on gloves. I refused to let the wind deter me, because I was on a mission. With the snow melted away, I was finally able to search the back yard for something I’d lost more than six months ago.  

Dismal, dead grass covered the lawn, squashed flat by the winter-long weight of snow drifts. With the snow gone the lawn suffered the additional indignity of being covered with a winter’s worth of the dust and grime.

Six months ago, I’d lost my garden plants and flowers. One day they were healthy and beautiful. But after one night of freezing temperatures, they were burnt to a crisp. I needed a sign that somehow, mysteriously, the perennial plants frozen solid in the ground the entire winter could come back to life! I missed them and longed to see a sign, no matter how small, that they were going to resurrect.

In the muddy soil of the flowerbed below the kitchen window, small green sprouts were bravely pushing up from their cold, dark underground bed into a bright but hostile Wisconsin spring day. I found what I was looking for! If these were coming up, there would be others. I recognized the brave greens as daffodils, planted there many years before. Ignoring the evil wind, I enthusiastically forged ahead to see if other plants I loved were showing a return to life.

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Leaf Drive

A cluster of crisp, pale-orange leaves twirled through the air and fluttered down to land with others I’d rounded up earlier. The leaves on the top of the growing mound impatiently twitched with each passing breeze. In my mind I played Frankie Laine singing the theme song of Rawhide. Using the leaf blower to herd another thick mat of leaves toward the pile, I gleefully sang along with my mind song, “Move ‘em on, head ‘em up. Rawhide! Keep movin’, movin’, movin’…”

Instead of accompanying cowboy shouts and snapping whips, the leaf blower purred as I rolled another batch of leaves to my leaf corral. “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’.” With the happy memories of a cattle-drive television show that I had loved during my childhood and a little imagination, I was turning a boring job into fun. I smiled to remember how I had a big crush on the show’s actors when I was fifteen-years-old. I never did figure out who I liked more, Gil Favor or Rowdy Yates.

Looking up, I eyed the leaves that still clung to the maple tree branches. They were stubborn like cattle that refused to cooperate. Why hadn’t they joined the other leaves several days ago in their great stampede? For one glorious, windy hour, leaves fell like heavy snow.

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Fall Colors

The leaves on the flowerbed apple tree were dull green. All leaves on the lilac bushes along the red barn were missing. A cool breeze gently tugged at the hem of my shirt as if to remind me of why I stood on the deck outside the backdoor. Fall was further along than I had thought.

In July and August, when everything was lushly green and growing, the summer’s heat and mosquitos had kept me indoors. I’d told my daughters, “Come September, the nights will be cooler and the days more pleasant. I’ll go outside more, then.”

The maple tree Arnie had planted along the road was still bright green. Through its branches, I spotted the red leaves of sumac growing on the lower end of my yard. I wanted a closer look. Walking toward them, I studied the grove, reflecting, “Sumac are slow to put on their leaves in the spring, but are the first to turn red in the fall.”

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Calling Elmer Fudd

Smiling as I stepped into my hoop-building garden, I took a deep breath and looked around. The smell of good soil and the sight of beautiful growing plants filled me with joy. I didn’t have time to weed, but did have time for making an inspection of the growing plants. I immediately spotted a problem. Something looked different.

There appeared to be fewer carrots than I remembered from the day before. Looking closer, I discovered a small carrot peeking out of the soil, its ferny carrot top missing as if someone had taken a scissor and lopped it off. Its developing greenery was nowhere to be seen.

In the row of peas, every single plant was either chewed down to a stub or entirely missing. Over half of the kale I’d planted was missing, too. I knew who the culprits were. Scanning my back yard, I spotted a small rabbit sitting next to a flowerbed. Another was fearlessly hopping across the lawn. Rabbit number three was nibbling on grass nearer to the river bank.

That evening when talking to my daughter Tammie, I complained, “Years ago when one of the mouse traps killed a rodent, a friend of mine claimed that for every mouse you catch in the house, there are ten more living in the walls. I suspect the same ratio exists for rabbits. For every rabbit you see out in the open, there are ten more hiding in the tall grass.”

My daughter exclaimed, “Ew! That means you have thirty rabbits in your yard!”

I answered with a sigh, “And there are probably also thirty deer who visit my yard every night. You should see what they’re doing to the flowerbed along the driveway.”

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