An Open Field and a Workshop

When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.  ~Chinese Proverb

My grandpa wouldn’t spend $10 on a garden tool but he’d spend $12 on used parts to invent his own weeder. I spent my favorite summer with him and my grandma in Grantsburg, Wisconsin when I was a girl. They lived in a mobile home on acreage—half woods, half open field. And with a workshop for my grandpa.

Grandpa wore bib overalls and gardened big. He planted at least an acre of sweet corn and another half in beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkin, and cabbage. He planted by the phases of the moon and brewed a manure “tea” as his fertilizer. The soil on the little homestead he worked was a challenging sandy red but Grandpa used compost and straw mulch to get good harvests of fresh vegetables.

The gophers were crazy rampant on his land, though. One summer Grandpa bought me six gopher traps and gave me the project of trapping as many as I could. I set the traps and dug blind into gopher tunnels never fearing getting bit. It didn’t occur to me to be fearful. I’d go out first thing in the morning and check the traps. It’s a bit gross to think about now, but the carcasses of the gophers strangled in the metal traps never bothered me. But chopping the tails off to exchange for a $1 reward each at the local co-op unnerved me and I just couldn’t make myself do it.

Grandpa took the gophers I trapped to an old tree stump and cut the tails for me. Then he’d take me into his workshop with the radio tuned on loud to news and put my gopher tails in an old fridge to store until he went to town to trade them for my reward. He always gave me the full money even though he helped me with the tails.

I’d sit on a bench in his workshop and note the tails just added to storage in a column in my notebook. Grandpa would putter on one of his mechanical projects or work on a neighbor’s riding lawn mower and come to full life in his perfect world of fixing and inventing. I would write in my dirt stained journal. The smell of grease still reminds me of muggy summers in the midwest all bug bit and sunburnt and my hair untrimmed.

I earned enough money that summer to buy some paperback mysteries, a fishing rod, and a pair of boyish shoes I coveted. The limp and disembodied tails both a reminder of mortality and of gain.

The lily is the funeral flower—a simple, beautiful flower of mourning. It’s a reminder to the living of our own mortality and of gains that outweigh loss. To remember death—ours and others and loss and grief–awakens the zest that swirls around and in the daily act of living.

The lily keeps me centered on the human need to do and to be–on an open field and a workshop.


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