Cornstalks, guests at my wedding
tassled hats and pouches of corn.
I have known my friends
since we were kangaroos.
They never ask
where I’ve been, who I am.
They don’t wonder why
They produced an Aquarius,
whose stone is amethyst
who plays the bassoon.
The Missouri River banked my first home in Onawa, Iowa, on one side. The Loess Hills bordered it on the other. Onawa flew as straight and flat as a runway. It was my runway, the place where I took off. As a girl, I spent my summers “walking beans” and detasseling corn in the blaze of the August heat in the fields. Me and my companions trooped through the soybeans each morning with machetes, feeling like warriors as we cut out the weeds row by row, taking care not to destroy the bean plants. On other days, we shook corn pollen from silken tassels into each corn plant’s green crevices so the cobs would develop. We told stories to lighten the work, challenged each other’s snapping points, and talked about our boyfriends who were also detasseling corn in a separate field. At day’s end, we roller- skated in the town rink, ate watermelon and sometimes climbed the watchtower behind our house to gaze out over the wide golden Iowa fields. The men built the tower during the Second World War as a watch tower, and there it remained.
No one ever knew what the Valley’s weather would bring. Sometimes it rained torrents, great arching thunderstorms, and the foremen called the crews out of the fields in midday. Other days, we froze in cold-morning pickup trucks and later stripped to swimsuits in the sweltering afternoons.
The Loess Hills Valley bears the name of its soil, wind-deposited residue of the last Ice Age. Loess soil is called “glacial flour.” It’s a fine silt, hard to stabilize or cultivate, but rich in nutrients. Our farm, twenty miles away, reaped the benefits of the soil. Our corn came up big and hearty every year, and our soybeans, too. We had plenty of food. We also had plenty of work to do, adults and children alike. The women kept busy all summer canning vegetables. My parents picked wild plums and strained them through cheese cloth.
Although my family and our neighbors in Iowa grew acres of corn and beans, nothing seemed as abundant to me as the place I loved most on earth, my Grandmother Stevens’ Nebraska garden, with its row on row of peony bushes and mass of blue iris. Grandmother taught me how to plant and cultivate vegetables.
“Always plant lettuce under the new moon, harvest under the old moon,” she’d tell me as she walked the ground with a willow stick.
“Use the willow to find the deposits of water. That way you’ll know where to plant.”
In memory of Grandmother, I’ve grown vegetables, flowers and trees in every place I settled. Every summer I fill her silver water pitcher with a vivid bouquet of zinnias. I pass that love for tending the earth on to my children and grandchildren. When we lived in Colombia, my oldest daughter Linda and son Erich wanted to grow vegetables from our finca in the back of their red wagon.
“Plant under the new moon and follow the moon’s phases.” I instructed. They nodded their heads, not caring why we were planting that day, just that they were getting their hands in dirt.
They grew big bouquets from my hibiscus blossoms. In a country like Colombia that depends on omens, this mantra of gardening never seemed crazy.
Perhaps my children inherited my love for flowers and homegrown food because I carried each of them in my body through long verdant summers in my grandmother’s garden.
Gardens heal me of life’s cuts, bruises and influenzas. When I was young, we lived too far from Nebraska for a regular diet of Grandmother’s homegrown produce and I caught every illness that came along. At my birth, the Sioux City doctor proclaimed, “Healthy lungs!” But these lauded lungs did not keep me from a parade of throat and ear infections as a little girl. Strep throat, colds, broken bones and fears of polio repeatedly landed me in the Sick Room.
This refuge was the most cheerful room in our first Onawa home. The Sick Room sheltered my earliest efforts at poetry. Iowa produced the meanest winters and the hottest summers. To protect us from this immoderate weather, Mother dosed us with a tablespoon of cod liver oil every day, and with Edgar Cayce’s vinegar cures. Both of our parents lectured us on steering clear of germs, but perhaps we were meant to catch things from one another-and not only illnesses but relayed stories and a constant flow of infectious fun.
I have a picture on my desk of my father holding me at my baptism. Mother said that as soon as the minister put water on my head, Dad took out his handkerchief and wiped my scalp clean. He wouldn't risk my catching cold, but I think the baptism still took.
My father was desperate to keep us alive, though I didn’t fully understand his fixation until years later. He brought home an eight-foot-tall apparatus that looked as if it could have come out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
“What’s that?” we asked.
“This is a sun lamp. It will keep you well. Doc says vitamin D will prevent infections.”
This sun lamp emitted a ghastly purple light, an ominous ticking noise, and a vile odor.
My brothers and sister and I covered our eyes with folded wash-cloths while we lay like lamb chops under the lamp. Because our exposure had to be brief to prevent sunburn, we could only begin telling our Sick Room stories, tales of ghosts lurking and ghouls dragging unearthed bodies through cemeteries. We finished our phantasmal tales at night, huddled together in the dark whenever one of us was confined to the Sick Room with a cold or broken arm.
We listened to grown-ups passing by.
“The Dionne quintuplets were born the same year as Glenna.”
“Madame Chiang Kai Shek insisted on fresh silk sheets every day.”
“FDR killed the baby pigs.”
“Their first child died in that house.”
“Her mother almost didn’t let her marry him.”
“That sickness runs in the family.”
Tad bits of conversation intrigued us.
Despite cod liver oil, Edgar Cayce and the sun lamp, someone in our family was always stuck in the Sick Room. I loved the cozy space, framed with large windows on two sides; the western exposure featured a window seat, where we gathered in the last warmth of the setting sun.
When my grandparents visited, we children piled onto the widow seat to hear Grandfather Stevens playing Appalachian folk tunes on his old mandolin. Decades earlier, he had strapped it to the bed of the prairie schooner that brought the Stevens family west to Nebraska. My mother, his daughter born a decade after that westward trek, inherited his musical gift. As a young woman, she played piano for silent movies in her hometown theater, including Rudolf Valentino’s romantic epics.
On the south side of the Sick Room by my bed, the windows opened onto the backyard. Staring out through those panes, I composed an early poem “Kangaroos on the Clothes Line”, a response to a fourth-grade assignment to describe an animal. I compared kangaroos to my grandfather’s long johns, which hung on the clothesline out back, flapping in the breeze. When I read the poem in school, some friends asked if they could hear it a second time. I remember that one of these, Margaret Ann, raised her hand timidly and asked if they could hear it for a third time. This threefold reading of my poem hooked me for life and made Margaret Ann my lifetime friend.
One blustery winter afternoon, I lay alone and bored, recovering from German measles. I lifted the blinds of the Sick Room (careful to protect my eyes-measles could cause blindness) and there were Grandfather and Grandmother Stevens, coming up the walk with my two favorite chickens. To speed my recovery they had brought the birds on the train, from high and dry Nebraska, where I always felt well, to our Iowa river bottom.
Grandmother knew it would cheer me to see the birds I’d watched peck their way out of their shells.
“Fresh eggs’ll do you good.” She was a natural healer. She smeared her poultice of mud on my bee stings after having waded in her lily pond. Her special homemade “snake oil” dried up our colds. Whenever I have an ear ache or sore throat, I put a clove of garlic in my ear like I used to do.
On my tenth birthday, I lay in the Sick Room, recovering from my tonsil operation. My parents brought in a heartening surprise. Dad had fashioned a wooden easel outside in the lumber yard. The easel was triangular, and with a place for canvas on each side. I spent hours painting still life bowls on that easel which I have kept all these years for my children and grandchildren.
The Sick Room, with its fevers, ancestral music and stories, created a chrysalis for me, a near-hallucinatory state of awareness that began to emerge in words. Physical illness still has the power to transform me. When I am very ill, I see and hear more acutely. I intuit what I need to keep or discard, in order to make a fresh start. Surrendering to sickness transcends my everyday distractions and worries in the same way that hallucinogenic drugs induce visions for others. I embrace the darkest nights the body is forced to endure, feeling I’ll achieve a metamorphosis of the soul and emerge stronger than when I succumbed initially to the process.
The Sick Room formed the story room in our home, the place of words and songs, where children snuggled together under grandmother’s quilts to listen to pioneering stories, and to parents and grandparents reciting anecdotes that seemed to arise from spectral worlds. The Sick Room was a shelter, where the dilemmas of the present were illuminated through lessons about past bravery; a place where our dreams for the future were seeded with knowledge of our roots. I planted my first garden of lettuce seeds, in a wooden box on the wide south-facing windowsill.
My work and passions-poetry, gardening, children by blood or art-sprang from seeds planted in that room. The native Loess soil still clings to my wandering feet.
If people ask what they can bring me from their travels, I always say, “Bring me seeds.”
Like my pioneer ancestors, I carry seeds from one place to another in my pocket, or sewn into the hem of my dress. You never know when you might want to plant a garden. A sower of seeds, born to tell stories, I survived the myriad illnesses of the Sick Room to make words burst into bloom.
"The Power of Prose"