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Green memories

Food for Thought

For some reason, November almost always sends me off on a nostalgic journey to my husband’s hometown of Graettinger. That’s in the northwest corner of the state, not far from Spencer, Okoboji, and the Minnesota border. Maybe it’s because it was at this time of year that we became aware that winter was near at hand (and, believe me, winter in that part of the state is definitely a thing to remain aware of). Maybe it was the pheasant hunting that got us there every year, in the days before everybody farmed right out to the road. There were fence rows then, and cover for the birds. Today, the vast fields are farmed by a few farmers with huge machinery. Fences are practically non-existent. And so are the pheasants.
Maybe it was the sure knowledge that, once winter arrived in earnest, we wouldn’t want to travel that far, even for the holidays and joys of celebrating with close family. The snow seldom melts there until spring. It blows around a lot, and gets pretty dirty, but it doesn’t go away and get replaced with a fresh snowfall periodically as it does here.
About the only time of year that cousins and other relatives from out-of-town congregated were those two weekends that bookend summer– Memorial Day and Labor Day. In between, if the fishing was good, or the weather was perfect for a camping trip, we might haul the boat and other gear along and spend a long weekend or a whole week by one of the many nice little lakes in the area. We could have the lakes pretty much to ourselves as long as we avoided the ones that had become resort-oriented, such as Spirit Lake, Lost Island and Okoboji.
Labor Day was, for so many years, the time when all the cousins arrived. It has been a town tradition since even before Labor Day was declared a national holiday, to have a parade, school reunions, a carnival, church suppers, golf tournaments, tractor pulls, ball games, and other public and private events to celebrate the holiday– the oldest continuing celebration in the nation. And when the cousins return from California and Washington State, someone is sure to ask, “is Grandma’s vine still there?” Well, it is and it isn’t.
When the family came to Iowa from Oklahoma, my husband’s grandmother planted some aggressive vines, similar to Virginia creeper, which soon climbed the porch pillars and crept across the front of the porch to hang down and shield the west windows from glaring, late-afternoon sun.
The vines survived for two more generations, putting out insignificant tiny white flowers each spring and sheltering any number of sparrows and house finches who choose to nest in the tangle of vines and leaves. They also sheltered spiders and other creepy-crawlers and retained moisture which caused paint to peel and wood to rot across the front of the porch. In the interest of preserving the porch, I removed the vines one summer, hoping the cousins would forgive me. (After all, I was only a cousin by marriage, not a real cousin, I could have been in serious trouble).
On the enclosed back porch, was a small ceramic planter containing a cactus plant that my mother-in-law had had for many years. It resembled a clump of prickly, green bubbles, anywhere from a quarter inch to an inch in diameter. For at least twenty years, I noticed no significant change in that plant. It just sat there in its little ceramic tub, neither growing nor blooming. It could just as well have been an artificial plant. When both parents had died and the house was no longer lived in year-round, the plant was brought back here and planted in an outdoor cactus garden, where it thrived, spreading rapidly and growing much larger “bubbles” that put forth tiny yellow blooms later replaced by shiny red pods. Since that time, the plant has yielded several square yards of bubbles, and seems to exist on nothing but a small amount of sandy soil, a springtime drink of water enriched with plant food, and the ample sunlight and warmth of our greenhouse. One of the several specimens we keep has completely engulfed its shallow ceramic planter (which had lived a former life as one of those over-size coffee-table ashtrays.) A living memory, it has now seen six generations of Gilbaughs.
Grandma’s vine, incidentally, has not been destroyed after all. It somehow made its way across the front lawn and has taken up residence in a row of spirea bushes. So, if anybody asks, I can honestly say that, yes, Grandma’s vine is still alive and well.