Mary Elizabeth Mountford Dickens, “Mame” to her friends and Grandmother Betty to my brothers and me, had a green thumb. She dearly loved flowers and raised and sold them to the public. I can see her now in her straw hat tending those big yellow-gold chrysanthemums. See, in the ’40s and ’50s, women wore mums to football games, so Mame supplied all of Roanoke Rapids with the favored flowers from her greenhouse in the backyard at 2009 Halifax Road. This would be the same backyard in which Benjamin Perkins Dickens, Grandaddy Dutch to us, taught Jimmy and me to dig to China, a path he started us on as a way to distract and entertain us the September weekend baby brother Don was being born.
We were staying with our grandparents while Mama was in the hospital, and I can remember missing my mother so much that weekend and asking, “Which way is the hospital, Grandmama?” I’d stand and stare out the north-facing window, knowing Mama was somewhere up that road. So I reckon Grandaddy had to come up with something else for my little four-year-old self to focus on, and something for my three-year-old brother to do. So off we went to the backyard, the first of our many efforts over the years to dig to China.
Truth is, we never got to China, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. According to Grandaddy, the preferred method of getting to the other side of the world was to pound a stob (a sorta clylindrical piece of wood) into the ground underneath the grapevine that was off to the right of Grandmama’s greenhouse. Jimmy and I pounded away that weekend, taking turns with the heavy hammer, both of us getting multiple chances to be the one to reach China first. Over time, the top of that old stob, so well-pounded by our carpenter-grandfather’s hammer, became flattened and flared at the top.
However, as I said, we just couldn’t get there. Oh, we were sure we were meant to arrive, but we had to keep stopping periodically to put a hand on top of the stob. See, that stob would get really hot on top after awhile, which was apparently the signal that we weren’t gonna get to China, not that day. “The devils’s got holt to it, chil’ren, better let ‘er go!” Dutch would exclaim. And boy howdy, we’d let go, dropping the hammer and squealing and screaming, running as far away as we could to another part of the yard. We waited. And we waited some more. It seemed an interminable amount of time waiting for the stob to cool down so we could have our second chance at it, but it was Grandaddy who was in charge of knowing when it was cool enough, not us. Finally, he’d tell us he was pretty sure the devil had let go our stob and had his hand somewhere else.
Grandaddy’s delight was in giving us those second chances, and in making us wait for them, even though Gradmama Betty would say, “Dutch, you’re gon’ give those babies nightmares.” He’d just grin his toothless grin. See, Grandaddy didn’t have any teeth, something that made him quite fascinating. I imagine we wondered when his baby teeth were gonna come in, especially since we’d had ours for awhile already. Or maybe he’d had them and was waiting for a second chance to grow some more. It was a mystery.
Second chances. Promises of getting something right; options for renewal and revival; greater possibilities. I’ve thought about all the above the past couple of weeks, even though I’d decided to not offer a second chance this winter, at least not consciously. What am I talking about? A Christmas cactus that my mother, Dutch and Mame’s little girl, gave to her little girl twenty or more years ago. See, the cactus quit being happy a long time ago. Shoot, it hasn’t bloomed in fifteen or more years. Last year its leaves got so wrinkled it may as well have been the elephant in the living room, albeit a pale green one. After online research, and finding a really nice man who told me what to do, I felt like all that work was more than I wanted to mess with and decided to put it on the compost pile. But then I figured I’d just stick it in the laundry room (well, “room” is a lie; it’s more of a closet with a window). “At least for now,” I told myself, “it’ll be more or less out of sight and I won’t feel so embarrassed by it when people are in the living room.” (What? You mean you don’t take care of your houseplants???) I water ’em, but I’ve never claimed to have Grandmama’s green thumb.
But once in the closet it was still on my mind. Sorta like Mama up the road giving birth to my new brother, I kept thinking about it. Sadly. And guiltily. Even though I hadn’t stopped giving it a little drink once a week, it was still gonna end up on the compost pile. Then, about two weeks ago, one afternoon late I went in the closet and something caught my eye. I turned on the light and found . . . Ta Da! Buds on leaftips and even some new leaves, all prettified, plumped up and screaming green. Dang. I mean, really! I could hardly believe my eyes. It was like I could hear that cactus talking to me. “Don’t give up on me yet! Please don’t throw me on that compost pile!”
Needless to say, Mr. Charlie Revival is now happily sitting in my office, the star of the show (in spite of some pale leaves), partaking of the same good light it had in the closet and raking in compliments from clients. In having his story told again and again, he’s exclaimed over, made an example of, and just plain welcomed. And he’s teaching us all about second chances. We need them; we all deserve them. And I’m thinking that with this one as a reminder, maybe, just maybe, I could head out to the backyard and make it all the way to China this time. And . . . if Mr. Charlie ends up on the compost pile, well, then you and I will know he went out in a really big way.
© Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.