Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Pretty little flowers all in a row.

Not that year.

That year a few scraggly weeds lived in the spots usually reserved for the pansies that thrived early in the Texas growing season. Normally, when the sun burned too hot, the pansies would be replaced with petunias, then later with periwinkles. Those hardy little flowers can thumb their noses at the worst heat thrown at them.

Attending to this ritual of planting has always been an important part of my existence. Some days I’d rather be out digging in the dirt than doing almost anything else. The process feeds me deep inside in a way that defies articulation. But those who share this passion understand.
When it was time to plant the pansies that year, I was in the hospital after a complicated kidney surgery. The weeks recuperating at home ate up the rest of early spring when cool nights and mild days nurtured the ‘people’ flowers and let them smile to greet a new day.

My heart ached when I was strong enough to walk out to the front porch and sit on the swing. The empty flower beds looked so lost and forgotten, and I yearned to dig my hands into the dirt. I thought of asking my husband to plant something, just a geranium or two for a splash of color, but resisted the urge on two counts. He had enough to do with taking care of the kids, the house, and his job. Plus, it wasn’t the flowers I missed so much as the process. I could wait a few more weeks and still have plenty of growing season left. It lasts forever in Texas.

Petunia season came and went, and still the flowerbeds stood empty.

I’d had a bit of a set-back in my recovery. Some nerves had been damaged during the hours-long surgery and the pain was still incredibly severe. That forced another trip to the hospital to see if anything could be done.

By the time I got home again, we were well into periwinkle season and my flowerbeds had grown lush with weeds. My instinct was to lean forward in the swing and pluck out a clump of clover, but the look from my husband, rich with unsaid words, stilled the impulse.

I’m sure he meant well. Like so many spouses standing on the outside he felt so helpless in the face of my pain and limitations. He only wanted to protect me. But my heart yearned to be digging in the dirt. It was a deep and powerful ache that wouldn’t go away.

During my next visit to the doctor, I asked if he thought it would be okay to do a bit of gardening. “I’ll be careful,” I said. “And I just feel this great need.”

The man could have posed for a Norman Rockwell painting as he sat on his little black stool with one finger tapping his cheek. Then he spoke. “Personally, I think there’s something very healing about dirt. Although I don’t recommend eating it.”

He paused to acknowledge the smile with timing so perfect he could’ve been on the comedy circuit. “But I do recommend filling your hands with it. Smell it. Work it. Let it fall through your fingers. It won’t cure you, but it won’t hurt, either. And maybe it will make you feel better where it matters.”

Several hours later I knelt on the grass. I ignored the pain that ran down my side and into my leg and leaned close to the dirt. The trowel felt good in my hand as I loosened a small section of the flowerbed. Then I picked up clumps of earth and crumbled them, letting the rich black dirt stream through my fingers. I reveled in the cool dampness; the pungent aroma. Then I dug a hole big enough to hold the single Marigold.

“Ah,” my heart said. “Just what you needed."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


My very first publishing success was a weekly column that I did for a local newspaper in a suburb of Dallas. It was a humorous look at family life and at the time I had plenty of family to draw material from; five kids, two dogs, a couple of hamsters, and a husband thrown into the mix somewhere.

When the original column started, the one thing I didn't expect was notoriety. I wasn't used to being recognized in the grocery store, unless it was by the cashier who remembered me coming through her line with two grocery carts full of baby food; and usually the only adult I talked to in the park was myself.

With the exception of a few close friends and neighbors, I also didn't expect to have many fans. (Is insecurity a prerequisite to being a writer?) So it was quite a pleasant surprise when people stopped me in the store, or came up to me at the soccer field to say how much they enjoyed reading the column. It would also prove to be embarrassing on the occasions I just ran out to get something at the last minute and wore my ten-year-old cutoffs and a stained tee-shirt. That was proper attire for a hard-working Mom, but hardly fit being a celebrity.

Family reactions to my new-found fame varied. I, of course, was thrilled. When the cover story and first column appeared I found it very difficult to bring myself to perform such mundane things as fixing supper, washing dishes, and bathing kids. I kept telling myself that certainly a 'famous writer' should not have to stoop so low, but alas, I couldn't get my kids to see the logic in my reasoning. For some strange reason they thought they still had to eat, so in the newspaper I was a 'famous writer' and in the kitchen, I was still the 'maid.'

Our two oldest kids seemed to be thrilled to see their names in the articles, unless I delved into something they weren't ready to share with the entire Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Then they'd run home from school and demand to know how I could be so cruel.

Our six-year-old seemed a little vague about the concept. How did what I typed in my study get into the paper? And why was the newspaper printing it? (I told him not to knock a good thing. At least I was getting paid.)

He also wanted to know what the title, IT'S NOT ALL GRAVY, meant. "We don't have gravy hardly ever."

"That's what I mean."

He still didn't get it.

My husband's reaction was a mixture of pride and endless teasing. He'd always supported my quest for publication and when the endless stream of rejection slips threatened to overcome me, he'd always tell me to hang in. Someday it would happen.

But he couldn't, and still can't, resist the occasional dig. Sometimes he comes into my office to inquire whether he can interrupt the famous author at work. Depending on what he wants, I might accept the interruption. Cooking dinner is not even on the list of things I'll stop for, but there are other offers well worth the break.