Violets and stones

by Jennifer on March 11, 2008

violets.jpgIn our yard there were two patches of violets, neither of them bigger than an area rug in an average sized room. The green carpet of their leaves sent firm stems upward and out, and their blossoms reached just above the heart-shaped leaves.

I sat on my heels as I worked from one side of the violet patch and across to the other side of it, so that I wouldn’t crush the flowers. I tugged and bent each stem until it snapped, and then added it to the growing bunch of violets in my other hand. I left nothing behind but the leaves.

Away from me, the lawn mower droned and sputtered as my father made wide turns around the perimeter of the hill next to the house. I had time. But soon, he would head to this part of the yard that was sheltered by trees. The grass grew in thick patches in a few spots, but was spare across the rest of the yard in front of the house and along one side, defeated by the rocky Missouri soil and the shade of sassafras and oak trees.

Around me, the air held the hum and static of bees and mosquitoes and gnats. The sunlight reached down like an ellipsis, never a solid beam. Tentative, mild, filtered by the leaves, leaving enough shade for the violets to grow.

I worked quickly, first picking clean the patch at the edge of the yard, nearest the approaching mower, then moving on to the other patch near the red-handled water pump. I wanted them all. To leave even one or two blossoms behind to be mowed down and spit out of the side of the mower, ground into nothing, seemed unbearable to me.

It was a ritual, this. A mission of mercy and salvation for the violets. And for me, a small and declarative act of preservation.

If no one did this, if no one collected the violets, they were lost, their loveliness destroyed in less than a minute. I couldn’t stand it. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that many people consider them to be weeds, a nuisance to be eliminated from their yards.

We lived out in the country, on two acres that shouldered another two or so acres where my step-grandparents lived. Altogether, four acres of grass and garden and dozens and dozens of trees, all of it open to us. We had a tree house, for hiding. An oak tree at the bottom of the hill next to the garden, for climbing. I liked to climb that tree to the very top, and wedge my feet into the crooks of skinny branches. Fearless, I would hold on tight as the tree swayed back and forth. From there, I could see far, to the main road and across the fields that bordered our property, and all the way to the dairy farm. If we were expecting company, I could watch the main road and still have time to climb down and run inside the house to report the impending arrival. It was a good tree, and–as far as I know–it still stands.

All of this is to say that there were good things. Wholesome, rough (in the best way), elemental things that shaped me. Hours spent outside, where I was nearly as likely to trap and observe a spider as I am to kill one today. A tire swing for daydreaming or for making myself dizzy. The smell of soil. A clear view of an oncoming thunderstorm to the west. Coyotes that would run past, yelping and playing, in the middle of the night. And patches of violets, bold and unrepentant as they turned their nodding heads upward to the sky, accepting, inviting themselves to the world, saturated in their own vivid color.

Though I suppose four acres isn’t that much to tend to compared with, well, anything bigger, there was always a lot of work to do. I don’t bemoan all of it, and our share of it (my sister’s and mine) is a story for another time. Let’s just say it’s unexpected that I still long for a piece of soil for a garden, a place to grow zinnias and sweet peas, tomatoes and green onions, strawberries and raspberries (nothing tastes better than a raspberry plucked warm and eaten right off the cane). Not a big garden, mind you, just enough to supply the makings of a green salad or a fruit salad. Maybe some herbs.

In the fall, there were leaves to rake and collect and to haul on tarps down to the garden for mulch. In the summer, we all worked to cut and stack wood to burn in the winter. After a storm, we picked up the blown-down branches that littered the whole property.

And, there was the mowing. Ahead of that, there was work to get the yard ready for mowing.

A few times a year, my sister and I had the job of picking rock out of the yard, so that the mower blades wouldn’t hit the rock and throw it in every direction, or dull the blade. This job, I hated. That Missouri rock, I hated. My back ached, and my legs hurt. We filled wheelbarrows with the rocks and dumped them in a growing pile back in a wooded area. It was an exercise in futility, though, because after a few deep soaking rains, another crop would emerge, ripe for picking.

Sometimes, I would find a rock that appeared small, but when I tugged at it, I would discover that the part under my fingers was just the crest of much larger stone embedded in the ground. It was a challenge to remove those rocks, but it was one part of the job that I liked. Sometimes it would take all of a season, and patience, to remove one of them. And then, finally, enough soil would wash away, or the rocks around it would shift, and–if I used some leverage–the rock would give up and come out of the ground. In its place, over time, the soil would wash back in, soft and porous. I still might twist my ankle in the hole left behind, if I wasn’t careful, but I wouldn’t trip over that rock again, or have to exert another ounce of effort to remove it.

It’s a lifelong task, removing the stones in our way. Digging at the ones that are rooted and large, until at last they pull clear. But there’s satisfaction in that effort, maybe more so than in a wheelbarrow full of small rocks. It’s a necessary effort, if the alternative is to stumble over the same ones, season after season, cursing as we fall. How much better to be free of them.

That lesson is clear now, though it only became so in writing it, just now, as though I’ve carried the small pebble of it in my pocket all these years. That bit of truth could only have come from that yard, full of rocks.

Yet within the same patch of yard, the violets grew. For a few weeks every spring, they bloomed and I picked them. When I had collected them all, I carried them inside where I would lay them out on the counter, sort them into bunches and put them into an array of jelly jar glasses. I would deliver these simple bouquets throughout the house, leaving them on dressers and windowsills, end tables and desks. It made me happy, all of it, beginning to end. It was a job I loved. A duty, as I saw it, but with a beautiful reward that lasted for days.

Years, even. If you asked me right now, that’s what I’d say.

Violets and stones, from the same small piece of ground. If there are miracles in nature, that one is among them. The violets blooming in the shade. And the stones, holding them up.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

cce March 11, 2008 at 4:02 am

I love this post.!!!! Such a lovely read. I can remember gathering wild flowers for my mother in the field down the street. Spring, Summer, Fall there was always something blooming and beautiful offered there.

Now that I have my own yard, with its lawn and its rocks and its moss that grows beneath the tall maples, it feels like I am engaged in some sort of battle against the very things that used to give me joy: violets, grape hyacinth, leaves, wild mushrooms. I’ll remember this spring to stop and gather the wild purple friends that crop up in the lawn before I mow even a lick of that lawn. I promise.

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Kelley March 11, 2008 at 4:12 am

That’s so beautiful. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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Slow Panic March 11, 2008 at 4:31 am

beautiful.

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Ducky March 11, 2008 at 4:42 am

Sniff.

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Mrs. G. March 11, 2008 at 5:39 am

What a charming memory. I remember picking rocks out of the backyard.

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Autumn March 11, 2008 at 5:57 am

That is one of the best things I think I’ve ever read. Absolutely beautiful!

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Brenda March 11, 2008 at 6:18 am

It makes me happy that Sue didn’t have the energy to ruin every second of every day.

I will always hate picking rocks. I learned your rock lesson with the weeds in my own herb garden as an adult. (You know how the weeds grow like lightning in that land. Yes, you know.) It is cleansing to do that. I’m not sure I ever felt great about picking rocks, though! Glad it makes some sort of sense to you now.

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Coco March 11, 2008 at 6:47 am

This was beautiful, Jennifer. I can just see those lush violets as you picked your little bouquets. Little oases of something pretty to hold on to.

I’ll never be much of a green thumb myself, but I’m learning to appreciate having a little home garden.

I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate the rocks, because we, too, have more than our share out here.

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Mrs. Chili March 11, 2008 at 8:24 am

Isn’t it wonderful how we discover ourselves and our truths through writing?

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Minnesota Matron March 11, 2008 at 9:40 am

This is so pretty! Makes me yearn for spring, up here in the northland. I have a few stones of my own to move, metaphorically speaking. In what ways can I stretch myself, leave my comfort zone? Just in a yearning sort of moment and your words suited the mood.

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Julie Pippert March 11, 2008 at 10:03 am

What a lovely picture you painted, such a lovely mood and feeling, and then to wrap it all in your wonderful point about the stones…beautiful.

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flutter March 11, 2008 at 10:56 am

The beauty of this post is unmistakable, but the real beauty lies in your ability to learn the lesson

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Molly March 11, 2008 at 11:09 am

I love this. Beautifully written and a gentle reminder that we have to take the bad with the good.

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Mary Alice March 11, 2008 at 11:12 am

That was a beautiful post. It brought back memories of the simple joy of discovering the first violet in the spring and the little tiny bottles that held tiny violet bouquets on our kitchen window sill when I was little.

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Milena March 11, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Dear Jennifer: With all my heart, if I could give you the patch of soil you long for, I would. You made my eyes water with your heart memory. This post has been simply wonderful. Thank you for sharing the violets.. and the rocks. Milena

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Autumn March 11, 2008 at 4:59 pm

I gave you an award…

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Landon March 11, 2008 at 6:48 pm

I marvel at you and your talent. (Don’t you dare make some self-deprecating remark!)

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the mama bird diaries March 11, 2008 at 8:47 pm

so sweet, beautiful and lovely

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Kellan March 11, 2008 at 8:51 pm

I loved this Jennifer. I kept saying the word Violet over and over in my head as I read and loved the story from the moment I realized that the word itself was as poetic as your wonderful story. And your title and message was fabulous – truly a great piece of writing and a fabulous story. Thank you!

Kellan

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Tootsie Farklepants March 11, 2008 at 11:55 pm

I felt like I was there! Just beautiful.

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we_be_toys March 12, 2008 at 6:25 am

You know, when I was a kid I loved the violets too. I would raise such a fuss about them being mowed, that my dad wouldn’t mow the grass until they had all bloomed.

I want to live on four acres! My measley half acre doesn’t give us enough room to grow the garden we want to.

I like that you want to show the other side of your life. I feel like I should do the same, after this series I’m doing – my mother has ended up looking far worse than is fair, and she wasn’t all bad.

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Hatchet March 12, 2008 at 9:20 am

That was wonderful.

You’re absolutely right in the lesson to be learned is to remove the rocks in our way rather than to continue tripping over the same ones year after year. It’s a hard lesson to learn, too.

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JCK March 12, 2008 at 11:00 am

Stunning!

You brought back some of my own memories of my grandmother collecting a few violets and putting them throughout her house in small vases. And me, being in trees for hours!

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Arabellagl March 24, 2008 at 6:30 pm

nice work, guy

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Roberta February 18, 2009 at 5:46 pm

I just came across you today after stumbling upon today’s “Be careful” entry, and have been reading the “Best of” since. Your writing is beautiful and profound. I had a troubled childhood, and find my own thoughts and ways of remembering echoed in your words. I have worked hard to unearth some of my rocks, and let me tell you some of those roots ran deep. Anyway, wonderful writing, and I can’t wait to read more.

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