Monday, July 8, 2013

The Hired Man- A Prose Elegy

Ralph Nantel was what was once known as a "character".

He was the hired man at the Alfred Smith farm on the Unity Stage Road in North Charlestown, New Hampshire in the early sixties. He was in charge of that farm's herd of Guernsey cows, and he did all work around the farm that needed doing, for the Smiths were very old.

Ralph Nantel lived in a tiny white shack just up the road from the barn. It had a little black chimney for its wood stove,and though it was cramped there was always room for me and brother Frank to sit. Ralph would give us Wonderbread and margarine,and he let us read from his tall pile of "Grit" newspapers.

And he told stories and tall tales.

My brother and I lived through the Lost Golden Age of Free Children. We roamed. We visited. We swam in muddy farm ponds even after our mother told us not to. We went out at dawn and came home late, and no one worried or told us not to go.
And no one thought twice that we visited an old bachelor farm hand with a portly frame and a Kris Kringle beard. No one taught us to fear.

Ralph Nantel showed us how to hand milk a cow. He taught us that Guernsey cows were cow royalty, far above the common herd of Holsteins down at the Haynes Farm (though he did have kind words for Jersey cows).

He took us out to the apple trees in the pasture, and to one tree he particularly admired for its pink and green apples as big as an infant's head. It was the sweetest and best apple I ever tasted.

Once he let us bring home a stack of his tabloids and Grit papers. My mother was not pleased, for my brother and I were taken by the sensational stories that kept Mr Nantel entertained through his long ,solitary evenings . She did not think we should be reading stories titled "Murder by Screwdriver", and she told us so emphatically.This brought out the songster in my brother Frank, who on the spot composed a ditty called "Murder by Screwdriver Is So Good". He went around for an hour singing it. And laughing.

But our mother would never have told us not to visit Ralph Nantel, for she knew he was harmless. Imagine a contemporary American mother's view of children visiting an old bachelor man who lived in a farm shack.

Old ladies forget, but I remember two of the stories he told us.

The story of a river where the brook trout were two feet long, and where a fisherman could wade right in and scoop the trout up bare handed. As many as he wanted. This sounded marvelous to us, for we fished the Little Sugar near our house and found brook trout to be cagey and un-catchable. We settled for hatchery raised rainbow trout dumped into the river by the state trucks.

He also told me of a wildflower he had once come across. It had blue bell flowers and when the wind caught their stems, they made music like windchimes. Oh how I hoped to find that flower! I wondered if it was some kind of orchid-. But there is no such flower except in the imagination of an old man who spent more time with his cow herd than with people.

But we grew older, and for a year or so lived in Franconia. When we returned to North Charlestown ,I was a teenager. I never saw Ralph Nantel again, and then one day in passing heard that he had died.

I do not doubt that in the past fifty years his name and memory have disappeared. He lived a lonely and obscure life caring for a diminishing farm owned by the wraith-like Smiths. I do not know if that farm is still there, though I could ask my mother or even see it on Google Street View.

It might be better not to know. To just remember the sweet apples, and the sugar bush, and those happy days when we escaped up the Unity Stage Road to swim with the cows, to see the Bittern in the marsh, to visit with old Ralph Nantel in his little white shack.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Little More Southernese

I have been collecting more examples of words, phrases, and usages that I consider "Southernese". I wrote a post about this in the past, and a few people found it amusing. I wrote about the times I would slip into that unique language.

How I would use "Y'all" as a trump card when introducing myself to my patients' families during that difficult first encounter when the family has yet to decide if I am a real person or one of Satan's Spawn.

"Where Y'all from?", puts everyone's mind at ease.

I was thinking about this the other night while at work at the prison clinic on the overnight shift. One of the women I worked with asked me "where I stayed". She meant to ask where I lived. It was only the third time I had ever heard this phrase, and all three inquirers were black women.

A few weeks ago I was at the Home Depot in their garden department. Someone had just bought something heavy, and a lot of it. They needed it loaded. The cashier knew this was not a job for ladies.

"I need a may-on" she hollered over the loudspeaker.

People from here have a talent for turning one syllable words to two, and two to one.

A "flahr" is a colorful part of a plant that blooms.

Working twelve hour shifts makes anyone "tarred" and anxious to go home to "bay-ed".

When I came to the South thirty two years ago, I was accused of having a New England accent and using New Hampshire dialect. This was not true. I speak colorless, non-denominational American English. I could be from anywhere, though I do take pains to keep my speech precise and jargonless. No one could pin me to any map for I speak American Anonymous.

How good it is that some people do not-

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"The Expansive Dreams of Constricted Lives"

A great line from Auden's great poem "The Two".

Who among us does not daydream?

When I remember Auden's line I think of some of the sad dreamers I have known, and the fantasies that took over their lives.

The forty-ish single mother, a nursing tech, her son in and out of jail, her mien bitter. She is angry. She is hard to placate. The nursing supervisor, no stranger to lies herself, flatters this woman, calls her "Beyonce" hoping to improve her attitude. "Beyonce" orders red platform shoes on the Internet on company time. She uses her rent money. And when rent comes due she gets another paycheck loan, which her coworkers find out about when the Fast Cash calls them, since "Beyonce" has used their names as contacts.

She wears a "Titans" tee-shirt. She wears it to the bar where she meets the third men through the door behind the Titans players, where she hopes to be noticed and have her drinks payed for.

When the supervisor who shielded her is fired, the one who follows is no friend."Beyonce" leaves one night to go to the jail, where her son has landed again. She is fired, and how she fares now is not a fantasy.

A second woman, thin and tearful. Another nursing tech. Comes to work feeling sick. Leaves an hour into the shift, sick. Does not show up at all, and does not call to say why. I work with her twice before she fades back to the unemployed.

She has a son who is her dream. Out of her purse she pulls the letters. Her son is a high school football prodigy, and the scouts have seen him.

They made their reports.

Letters from Clemson, from UT-Knoxville, from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Not fantasies, but real. I read them.
The schools beg for consideration. Whether the son gave it, I never found out. Perhaps some ambitious high school coach helped, and perhaps this young man is out there now trying to navigate a life in New Haven.

His mother disappeared. She did not call, she did not show. This story just stops.

And years ago another woman, a registered nurse. Plain and fat and unkempt, she weaves illusion around herself at work. When the young nurse Belles around her become engaged, she conjures a boyfriend, a new life, a private plane she uses to fly to Saratoga to the horse races. The compassionate, the romantic among us want to believe her stories. To believe there is hope and love for everybody. We see her, groomed for once and wearing perfume, singing to herself, and telling everyone that she is going to see Frank when she finishes her shift, and they are going away for the weekend. A non-believer asks to see a photo of Frank. Later the dreamer brings a picture of a man in a park, feeding a squirrel and seen from a distance.

There are incidents. One night she does not come in. She calls to say she was mugged. Another night she runs her car into someone's front room window and cannot possibly come in. She says.

Then Frank proposes. There is no ring, only vague details of the wedding, which she tells everyone will be on the airstrip at Maryland Farms in Brentwood. Sceptics multiply, and people start to whisper. There is no airstip at Maryland Farms.

I still believed. I was going to buy her a wedding present. But on the Sunday before her wedding,my head nurse called to pass on some terrible news.

Frank had been in a plane crash in Chattanooga. He has been airlifted to Houston. No longer a believer, I started laughing. "She is crazy," I told my boss.

"Well we wondered about all this, but she seemed so convincing" she said.

The hospital called this nurse's mother, who confirmed a small life of no friends, no airplane, no boyfriends. Nothing.

The hospital called the nurse, to see if they could "help".

We did not see her again.

A decade after this there is a young man working at a hospital. He pushes a cart delivering supplies, an invisible job if there ever was one. He does not want to be invisible, and from time to time he stops, puts his delivery on hold, and talks and talks to any nurse who will listen.

For he is not just anyone. He is heir to a great Nashville family's fortune, made in the entertainment business. He is not really a cart pusher! His grandfather is making him work till he is thirty, so he will appreciate what he is inheriting. He is also flying to Boston in a few weeks to interview at an Ivy League medical School. He tells us about his stocks, bonds, and current yields. About his 10,000 square foot greenhouse for orchids.

Some listen. Most laugh behind his back. They know he lives in a working class suburb in a working class little brick house. There is a concrete Madonna in the front yard. His mother put it there. She owns the house.

"Days are where we live', wrote the poet Phillip Larkin.

And so are dreams.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tales of a Nashville Gardener-The Porterweeds

Perhaps it is our economy, perhaps a lack of audacity, but our Nashville garden centers seem tired. They sell the same old things. In other words they sell what sells, and they take no chances.

I am not talking of the box stores now, those plant crematorias with their"garden clubs" and their tasteful hanging plastic bags surrounded by chicken wire and stuffed with potting soil and annuals.

Why do none of the good garden centers sell White double Asteromea? Persicaria "Firetail"?

And here are two tender perennials to grow as annuals, available only by mail order where shipping costs often exceed the cost of the plants.

I grew both the pink and blue Porterweeds in my old Bellevue garden. I bought them as gallon plants at the old Moore and Moore on Harding, next to Richland Creek. They did not live through the winter, but it did not matter since they seeded about. I have never seen them for sale locally since, which is odd, since they are popular in butterfly gardens all over the country. Almost Eden, a Louisiana nursery, does sell them online.

Here is the Pink Porterweed, Stachytarpheta mutabilis. It will grow to 3 ft by the end of August in any sunny spot.

Here is the Blue Porterweed, Stachytarpheta jamaicensis, growing in a West Meade garden.

Alan Armitage calls these "obviously a plant only plant lovers can love".

Not true, and Armitage is wrong.

This is why I do not depend on experts alone, but on my own experience and that of other gardeners.

Here are two photos of the West Meade garden mentioned, photographed today.

And here is one of the Pack of Ten who keep the deer away-

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mighty Little Camera

I cannot post a picture of my new camera, a Canon Powershot,because cameras are not yet able to take pictures of themselves. My best friend found me this camera on Ebay, and gave it to me as a gift this morning. She loaned me a CD of directions to download.

My old camera was a Sony Mavica that Nancy Moore of Blue Basin Cove Bed and Breakfast gave me quite a few years ago.
It was a marvelous camera that even allowed a photography dunce such as me to take good pictures. Its drawbacks were that it was bulky, had an expensive battery that did not last long and needed recharging, and stored photos on a compact disc.

Then the disc driver went.

This afternoon I took a picture of my porcelain goose soup tureen. I turned on the "on" button. I hit the "take a picture" button. It clicked. I ignored the bells, whistles, menu, and buttons, and it still took a picture.

Now what? How to I get it into the computer? I plugged in the USB cable to the camera. So far so good. Now where do I plug it into the computer? There were four possible ports.

I chose one at random. Oh no. Now what impossible set of instructions was I going to have to follow, and what if my pictures went somewhere where I could never find them- What should I do now?


Both camera and computer knew I was a tech idiot. Up came the goose photo, ready to be imported.

The only thing cameras need people for(until evolution gives them legs) is to carry them around.

In the future when cameras gain the right to vote and to get married, we will see them holding hands and sauntering on their tiny prosthetic legs around the villas of Italy. They will wander around downtown Nashville, looking in vain for something worthy of their efforts.

Despite their features and their menus, added so we will not feel superfluous and to give us something to fiddle with, the truth about cameras is this.

They do not need us for anything but the heavy lifting-