For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
I can’t assure you that the rains are past, and I’m not too sure I’ve ever heard a turtle’s voice, but these beautiful lines from Ecclesiastic’s “Song of Solomon” seem to me just the right note for this season in the garden. We’ve come through a long, difficult winter, and many of us have rushed early into our gardens to look and plan and dream of better seasons ahead.
We may have spent some of our daydreams imagining which bulbs will burst into bloom first and how lushly the camellia or the azalea’s blossoms will cover the bushes. But, let me turn your thoughts and imagination to an asset in your garden that may have been either overlooked or overused through the long winter past—your porch, deck, or patio. Perhaps now is the time to plan a few projects to freshen up that transitional space—half house, half garden. Through the winter months, you may have used your patio as a place to more safely meet friends or just breathe some fresh air. Or, maybe you preferred the cozy indoor spaces and left your deck chairs and tables covered and unused.
So, let me propose, first, we re-examine how you and your family and friends can comfortably enjoy your garden’s beauty from your porch, patio, or deck. Second, let’s consider ways to enhance your outdoor living areas. And finally, how can we bring our gardens into or nearer our porches and decks, bring Nature’s charms within easy reach.
Comfortable Outdoor Living
Depending on the style of your home, you may have a porch or porches and a deck. A patio is often part of a townhouse or condominium’s amenities. Sometimes, one or more of those structures, particularly a front porch, is overlooked and underutilized, its beauty and usefulness left untapped. So, looking first at a front porch, consider that it is more than a setting for the front door and steps. Think of your front porch as a gift box inviting guests into the beauty contained inside. The porch can set the tone for the residence—calm and sophisticated or casual and bustling. We’ve all read and seen videos on the importance of the front door, both for design and color. Perhaps what surrounds that front door can be equally inviting. The size of your front porch dictates your plans. The long porch facing the front yard and walkway flower beds is the perfect place for inviting neighbors and friends passing by to stop and chat. A few chairs and small table provide a conversation area and a great setting for a cascading fern or perky, pink begonia. For a comfy, old-fashioned look, install a porch swing suspended from the ceiling or on a glider-frame. A swing can be a handy way to turn away from the neighbor’s driveway and face the attractions of the front yard. Expand
If your front porch is little more than a stoop, don’t despair. Look at the porch as an architect might. The support for the roof—could there be columns rather than posts? Would adding a wrought iron railing add a touch of elegance? Here too, bring some of your garden’s beauty to that tiny porch. A tall urn filled with elegant plants or a low bowl overflowing with blooming flowers might sit invitingly beside the front door.
The back porch, patio, or deck will be much easier to update and freshen. Lighting is important, and easy string lights are great. But, you may want to consult an electrician about adding recessed lighting on the steps leading from the porch or deck. Seating is equally critical to a comfy outdoor area. Simple wood or vinyl chairs will work. You can choose cushions for added comfort. And, again, add some potted plants to your porch, patio, or deck. The porch has one important difference in that it’s usually roofed. So, if you’re choosing plants to bring on the porch, consider shade plants: coleus, sweet potato vine, vincas, hellebores, and impatiens. Lots of color there. And think about looking up! Hang some plants from the ceiling; bicycle hooks are sturdy and easy to install. Another option is to install a trellis on the porch or patio. Add rectangular pots beneath the trellis, and plant vines that will find their way up the trellis. This is great if you have some unsightly recycle cans or a neighbor’s garden shed to hide.
Expanding Your Outdoor Living Space
Even if your living space is interior, you might want to consider expanding out into lawn or garden. One simple way to do that is by creating a small seating area. This doesn’t have to be set up on a permanent slab or wooden platform. Your two chairs and small table might be placed, picturesquely, near the tall pine in your backyard, or next to a group of azaleas. If you wish, you could even pick up a few paving stones at the hardware store and put them under the chairs for stability. Or, why not have a small area set out with timber or brick borders and fill that square with gravel or crushed shell? This impromptu patio can be a charming gathering place. Expand
If you’re ready for a bigger project, why not consider screening-in your porch, patio, or deck? While the screens will lessen the breezes, they’ll also keep out the pesky mosquitoes, flies, and midges that plague us day-and-night. If you decide to go with screening the porch, add ceiling and pedestal fans to the area. They’ll keep the air moving.
Bringing the Garden onto the Porch, Patio, or Deck
In addition to the planters, trellises, and hanging pots we’ve already discussed, you can bring your garden onto the porch in other ways. It may be interesting to set up a little plant nursery on the porch. Start some seeds, they could be flowers or vegetables, even an avocado pit or pineapple top would be fun. As the weeks go by, you can enjoy watching the seedlings and shoots grow and strengthen. (And, if they don’t make it, just quietly dispose of them and start again.) You might want to frame a group of your garden photos to hang on the porch. You don’t need a wall, you could suspend them, one below the other, from the ceiling—a great conversation piece.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you’ll enjoy the voice of the turtles and the touch of the breezes in your garden, as I will in mine.
Wandering through three Annapolis gardens on a journey through time
Gardens are more than noble trees, graceful paths, and colorful flowers. Heart-wrenching tales of love, hate, suffering, and ultimately death lay beneath and even within a garden’s seemingly innocent beauty. Since its founding in 1649, Annapolis has served as much more than a bustling port; its attraction as a cultural and social hub became the backdrop for many of America’s most important political events that impacted this city down to its roots, which have grown deep and strong. Along our streets and past its gardens have strolled some of the great names in American history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Carroll, and Samuel Chase, among many others. Their homes in other parts of the country reflect a deep commitment to architectural style and impeccable gardening, and the places they and others lived while in Annapolis are no different.
Within its current boundaries, at least a hundred buildings dating back to the 1700s still stand, mostly on their original plots, surrounded by some of the same trees, boxwoods and rhododendrons that gave these structures their indelible character more than 300 years ago. History is not merely a chronology of brick-and-mortar-based events; the very soil, trees, and plants that have been nurtured and protected for decades—in some cases, centuries—have stories all their own. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than within the green leaves and above the deep roots of the Government House Gardens, the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, and the Charles Carroll House Gardens.
Like politics, horticulture has an extensive and fascinating history. Enclosed gardens have been uncovered dating back to approximately 10,000 BC. While many famously stood out as unique, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (900 BC)—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and Ptolemy II’s “Garden of Egypt,” cultivated on land reclaimed by draining Lake Moeris (300 BC) The Romans created garden-design manuals in order to replicate their rather sophisticated methods. Ever since the genesis of humans sculpting nature in order to impose a cultural stamp on their surroundings, ornamental gardens have generally exhibited four prevailing characteristics or themes: First, an expression of beauty; second, a display of a society’s taste and style; third, an expression of philosophy, such a Classicism or Romanticism; and fourth, a display of status. Expand
The Government House and Gardens are home to Maryland’s Governor and First Lady, and boast lush magnolias, willow oaks, yew, firs, boxwood hedges, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
Our first stop is the magnificent Government House and Gardens, the residence of Maryland’s governor since Oden Bowie in 1870, the year it was completed. Situated on land between Church Circle and State Circle—the location of the Maryland State House—Government House is graced by two acres of luxuriant gardens behind an elegantly wrought iron fence and several original gates surrounding the property; while inside, the wrought iron benches placed selectively throughout the grove date back to 1924.
The layout “creates a garden to be enjoyed by the passersby,” according to Jay Graham, the landscape architect. Lush magnolias, willow oaks, yew, firs, boxwood hedges, azaleas, and rhododendrons are visible along much of the perimeter; these specimens were carefully chosen to illustrate the plants most commonly found in Maryland. Three beehives maintained within the flowerbed garden produce the famous “Governor’s Gold” honey, a local delicacy.
From 1935–36, a major facelift of the building took place along with a final phase of additional construction in 1947 that gave the home its current appearance. In 1990, the century-old gardens underwent another restoration when Governor William Donald Schaeffer and his first lady, Hilda Mae Snoops, sought to remake the outdoor courtyard into the focal point of the mansion. Jay Graham worked with sculptor Lyle Beddes to design a Victorian-style “Annapolis Fountain” incorporating sculptures of animals and plants identified with the Chesapeake Bay, such as blue crabs and terrapins, and Maryland-specific references such as the Baltimore Orioles. The fountain was erected where it could be viewed from Church Circle, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, and the state legislative offices. In keeping with Maryland’s tireless efforts to be financially and ecologically efficient, the privately funded fountain recycles the water it uses. Within the garden, the original paths were reimagined using a butterfly pattern inspired by the walkways of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. These paths guide the visitor along the formal flowerbeds planted in cannas, salvia, vinca, and the ever-popular marigolds and petunias.
St. John’s College campus sits on 35 acres and played an important role during the Revolutionary War, as both a meeting site for the Sons of Liberty (at the Liberty Tree, which sadly fell in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd) and hospital encampment for thousands of French soldiers who fought for the American cause (a bas relief monument still stands on campus honoring the French who died on site).
Our second stop, the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, sits on 35 beautiful acres and is just a few blocks away from Government House. In 1696, the King William’s School was established where St. John’s College now stands. On the grounds stood the now-famous Annapolis Liberty Tree, a noble tulip poplar, and one of many Liberty Trees scattered throughout the 13 colonies that served as meeting sites for the “Sons of Liberty,” disgruntled colonists seeking redress, or “liberty,” from the injustices of English rule. Of particular concern to them was the Stamp Act of 1765 that taxed all printed material in the colonies. By 1766, two famous Annapolitans joined the ranks of the Sons of Liberty—Samuel Chase and William Paca, both of whom eventually joined Charles Carroll as signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. What treasonous conversations must have gone on beneath that 120-foot tall tree.
In 1781—five months after the Marquis de Lafayette encamped with American soldiers in Annapolis from March 12 to April 6—roughly 4,000 French soldiers fighting alongside the United States set up a military hospital on the school’s grounds, not far from the Liberty Tree. The French lost over a thousand men during America’s fight for independence, with dozens of them buried right under the campus ballfields between the main office buildings and College Creek. Little do today’s students know that when they spread out their spring blankets on the grass to catch up on their reading while soaking up the sun, they could be sitting above makeshift graves containing French soldiers who died so that America might be free. The hospital’s survivors soon marched on to Yorktown to fight with General George Washington’s Continental Army that forced the British to surrender on October 19, 1781.
Only two years later, in 1783, the Annapolis Liberty Tree again stood witness to history as George Washington resigned his military commission before Congress inside the Maryland State House. In 1911, the graves of the French soldiers were honored with a monument erected along the banks of College Creek. The bas relief of a mourning maiden stands on a plinth, nestled in a grotto of tall firs and redbuds, surrounded by honeysuckle and a bed of perennial flowers. While the monument still overlooks the sunny, campus meadow, the beloved Liberty Tree that stood sentinel over those unmarked graves for over 200 years, succumbed to Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
There is, however, a happy footnote to the Liberty Tree’s demise; in 1889, St. John’s College had arborists create a scion, a tiny grafted tree with identical DNA that was planted on the college’s grounds. Since then, over 200 seedlings grown from seeds taken from the 1889 scion have been planted throughout the state and, once flourishing, sold to the public so that Marylanders can own and replant a piece of American history right in their own gardens. This way, Annapolis’ Liberty Tree lives on, as does the nation it represented.
The Charles Carroll House Gardens (seen in the foreground with two distinctive chimneys) features vast, terraced gardens, hedges, and trees. The Colonial-era mansion now shares is location on the bank of Spa Creek with St. Mary’s Parish and schools (which also manages the property).
Our third and final stop is the Charles Carroll House Gardens, on the banks of Spa Creek. The plot of land on which today’s house and garden stand began as a modest farm with a small dwelling when purchased in 1687 by the first of four Charles Carrolls. He lived in three separate homes on the site, the last of which, constructed by combining the first two, contained 29 rooms and served as the birthplace, in 1737, for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and the grandson of Charles Carroll the Settler. The expansion of the house continued until 1790, at which time the imposing four-story brick structure now visible was completed.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence, became one of the richest landowners in the colonies. Even today, his home and gardens reflect his wealth, taste, and style. He confidently demonstrated the qualities of leadership both in life and on land, transforming his home into a palatial estate by his affluence and stature. Carroll’s grand design had two components: First, he wanted the view of Spa Creek and the waterfront below his house to appear closer to the mansion; second, he wanted the Carroll House to seem even bigger when looking toward it from the water. The scale was everything, so to achieve these goals, he enlisted optical illusions; geometric designs that fool the eye.
Over a thousand West African slaves owned by his family implemented Carroll’s architectural vision by carving five elegant, terraced gardens arranged in an abutting triangular design using the width of the grand, brick house as the base of the highest right triangle. The original, 400-foot-long stone seawall—still there today—supported the layered components. As a result, the terraced gardens cascade from the top level, bringing the Creek into view “closer” to the home; while, looking toward the estate from Spa Creek, the mansion appeared farther away and thus much larger than it was in reality.
Archeological digs in the gardens and the house’s foundations have revealed religious and social artifacts that once were cherished possessions of the enslaved laborers who brought Carroll’s dream to life. The beauty of the triangular terraces today remains, in many ways, a tribute to not only their unimaginable suffering as slaves but also to their impressive landscaping skills.
Carroll’s architectural sleight-of-hand served another purpose; it augmented the property’s strengths while disguising its deficiencies. According to the Architectural Institute of America, “The four decreasing widths of the terraces and the retaining wall hide the ground floor, the least attractive part of the house, and distort the distance to the house…From inside the gardens, foreshortening of the terraces and framing of the waterside…make the distant shore look closer, opening the views between the house and the far shore of Spa Creek.”
Today, while traveling by boat beneath the Eastport Bridge or by car over it, gaze to the west; the Carroll House stands shoulder to shoulder with St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Look carefully, and the illusions remain—the vast, terraced lawns draw the eye toward the distant mansion.
Charles Carroll’s home is one of only 15 owned by signers of the Declaration of Independence that still stand. Not only did the unique layout of the gardens reflect Carroll’s wealth and importance, the house and its gardens also symbolize how much he was willing to sacrifice for the cause of freedom, and by extension, how much he would not have accomplished had the British won. After the Revolutionary War ended, Carroll went on to serve simultaneously in both the Maryland legislature and the United States House of Representatives from 1789–92. He laid the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827. Finally, at 91 years of age, he was invited to attend the first Democratic Party convention that nominated Andrew Jackson for re-election. (Carroll didn’t attend and died shortly after that). In 1825, his son, Charles Carroll of Homewood, died. After the war, his remains were interred in the gardens, the only Carroll to be buried on the site.
The property was passed down from Charles Carroll of Homewood to his daughter and granddaughters until it was conveyed to the Redemptorists in 1852, after which it began a series of religious affiliations that continue to this day (the home has been managed since 2017 by the St. Mary’s Parish). During this time, the home lost the original frame house that dated back to 1687 and underwent a series of major exterior and interior renovations from 1983 to 2001 as well as another round of construction in recent years. The garden has similarly undergone a continuous transformation, but even today it continues to reflect the distinct personality of its original family.
Seldom does one encounter so much history and beauty in such a relatively short walk. How many times have you walked from Spa Creek to College Creek, right past the Carroll House, the Government House, and St. John’s College, without realizing what truly momentous events took place there? The next time you stroll this revolutionary path, pause for a moment and allow yourself to be mesmerized by the dazzling array of plants, trees, shrubs, and mosses lying in perfectly manicured gardens on the grounds of some of this city’s great historical properties, beckoning to residents and tourists alike.
You see, the compelling history of Annapolis does not exist solely in its physical structures—its churches, houses, inns, taverns, streets, schools, and parks. Often overlooked, but equally important, is the history on and in the land. While creating breathtaking gardens takes time and effort, these gardens remind us of the interdependence of humans and nature. Sometimes we learn a great deal from what is removed from the land, such as historical artifacts, while other times, the lessons of time are taught by what remains living on top of the property. It is up to all of us to continue to preserve the deep roots of our nation’s past, found not only in the history books but still growing in the soil.
Now that it’s beginning to look less like winter and more like spring, like me, you may be eager to get out in the garden and figure out what needs cleaning up and what needs settling down. You might even be putting together a list of gardening tasks—some tasks for you, some for other family members, and some for those folks who show up in their big truck with lots of powerful gardening tools and muscles, lots of muscles.
We’ve all been through a lot these last twelve months, and you’re probably waiting impatiently for changes, such as less time stuck indoors at home and more opportunities to get outside for exercise and fun. And, you may also be eager for some things to return to “normal.”
I’m going to try adding a new normal to my garden this year—vegetables. Maybe you’ll want to try that too. Yes, we’ve all grown a tomato plant in a pot on the patio. You may even have started an avocado plant from a pit or grown a tiny pineapple. But let’s get serious here. How about growing some crunchy vegetables in your garden? We’ve all learned how important self-reliance is, so why not feed yourself some crisp, sweet carrots and tangy radishes? I’m picturing myself wandering outdoors in June and August and even October to harvest my own pretty pea pods and an embarrassingly plump zucchini or two. Doesn’t that sound great?
So, if you’re willing to give this a go, let’s begin by figuring out location; where in our lovely flower beds can we make room for peppers, lettuce, and cabbage? (That’s right; I’m not suggesting we dig up our pretty hostas and lush roses. No need for long, tidy rows that break the symmetry of your garden’s design. We’ll plant veggies among and around the flowers and shrubs. We can even focus on planters and pots for our aspiring veggies.) Sunlight is the most important element if you want lush, juicy, plentiful vegetables. We’re going to have to carve out spots for planting vegetables or placing planters and pots in bright sunlight. Expand
Next, we’ll need to be sure those sunny locations we’ve identified have access to water, preferably easy access. Will the sprinklers reach the bean vines and carrots? Finally, will your vegetables be reasonably well protected? Growing vegetables are vulnerable to buffeting winds, careless footsteps, and curious dogs and cats, hungry rabbits, and deer. You’ll want to think about how you might protect your ripening vegetables from these dangers and marauders.
If you’re going to try containers for your vegetable garden, you’ll want to consider the same issues of location. But, you’ll have the advantage of portability. If the spots you choose seem not to work for your young plants, move the pots and planters. If you try vining vegetables, like beans and peas in hanging pots, you can even move them during the day to capture the best light. (A handy tip about those beautiful, big planters and urns: instead of filling them top-to-bottom with soil, fill the bottom third of the container with those Styrofoam peanuts and then pour the soil over them. The pot will be lighter and you’ll have better ventilation and drainage for your plants’ roots—particularly helpful if you’re growing root vegetables.)
Okay, now that we’ve figured out where we’re going to plant vegetables, we have to figure out when to plant them. Timing is, as usual, vital. Most vegetables are annuals; they will produce for only one growing season. New seeds and cuttings are necessary each spring. A few, however, are perennials; watercress, rhubarb, asparagus, and garlic will send up new growth each spring, as long as the winters are not too harsh. Herbs are also perennials. (Another handy hint: Herbs are enthusiastic members of the garden. They will usually take off, grow like weeds, and come back bigger, but not necessarily better, with each growing season. I recommend relegating your herbs, if you grow them, to pots and planters, where you can keep a close eye on them. If they get rangy or woody, cut them down-to-size; they’ll thank you for it with tastier leaves and buds.)
And looking deeper at timing, perennial vegetables fall into one of two varieties—“cool season” or “warm season” plants. This refers to when the seeds or starter plants are set in the soil. When the earth is still cool, not frozen or very cold, lettuce, spinach, carrot, and radishes can be planted. Tomatoes, peppers, melons, and cucumbers are warm season vegetables and do well when they are set into soil that has been warmed and quickened with awakening worms and root systems.
So, we have perennial and annual, warm and cool season plantings, and the third element of timing is maturation—of particular interest as you anticipate your lushes veggies on your table. You can look up the number of weeks or months it will take a given vegetable to ripen. Baby leaf lettuce and radishes will be ready to eat in approximately 25 days. Tomatoes, melons, and squash take 2 or 3 months before they can be harvested. When you know the maturation time for the vegetables you’re planting, you can plant in two-week intervals, so you’re not harvesting all the tomatoes or all the cabbage at the same time.
Now, I’m going to close this little pep talk on a fun note. Heirloom and unusual vegetable seeds and starter plants are now easily available. There’s a lovely Chinese Pink Celery that’s sweet and crunchy. Or, you might have fun planting chartreuse and purple striped Dragon Tongue Bush Beans. One of my favorites is Black Aztec corn, which has beautiful, blue kernels, and makes delicious cornmeal or a stunning decorative addition to your fall arrangements. And while we’re considering fun, edible plants, remember you can throw in some edible flowers to accent your garden and garnish your dinner plates. Marigolds, Calendula, Viola, and Nasturtiums are hardy, little ladies and easy to cultivate.
We’ll have to compare notes on the success of our vegetable-growing experiments. Our summer tables will be loaded with goodies; we’ll be “growing local” as well as “buying local” this year.
It sits on my hearth now, wearing a layer of rust and dust, three parts: two solid forms, 5 lbs. each, one upon the other, a team that’s served it’s mistress well and earned its rest. The two cast iron bases are shaped like plump, double-ender canoes. A clever metal handle grasps the top of a heated iron, and easily uncouples to take hold of the second base. A black, wooden dowel protects hand from the handle’s heat. This was the iron my grandmother used for most of her life; I remember seeing it heating on the cast iron stove when I was very small.
Like so much in Grandma’s kitchen, her iron fascinated me. With those heavy forms, she smoothed out the wrinkles in Grandpa’s freshly washed and starched, white shirts, set-in the pleats in her own voile and organdy bodices, ironed countless pinafores and shirts for four children, pressed the embroidered linen and lace table clothes and napkins used on Sundays. Dampen the garment; fold and roll it tightly; spread out the damp item on the padded board and begin pressing with one heated iron while the second iron heated on the stove. Fold, set aside, switch irons and begin again.
In Grandma’s immaculate kitchen, the table and pressed-wood-back chairs were the hub of family life on the farm. Usually, the table was covered with a cheery oil-cloth. In the center of the table, a white-enamel bowl sat, full of Saltine crackers for Grandpa. As he rushed out to the yard or sat down to read the paper, he’d always eat a few Saltines. And, if we grandchildren were very good, we’d get to take a few crackers from his dish for ourselves. Sometimes, Grandma sat out the butter dish and prepare buttered crackers for us. At that table we played Pick-Up-Sticks, Go-Fish, and Dominoes. Usually, we were three little cousins, two years apart, each seated on a few pillows or a dictionary. Grandma was fun, but she did not condone cheating, not even the slightest bumping of the table when that pesky Stick refused to slide off the pile for easy pick-up.
While we played, Grandma kept an eye on the pies or bread baking in the oven. Before she got the
fancy, gas, enameled stove on four slender legs, she had a fat, roaring, wood stove with two grand oven doors festooned with very practical, serpentine steel-wire handles that dissipated heat and helped reduce the chance of burning your hand opening the oven door. The stove top had these amazing holes with black lids. A long handle could be inserted to lift the lids – I suspect to drop in more coals, though I seem to remember the stove was fed coals at the front from a metal coal bucket sitting to the side. Grandma’s pots sat on top of the lids which glowed red with heat. And one of the four burners always held her red tea kettle with water hot for washing or making coffee or tea. There was a warming oven above the stove, though it was so far above my gaze, that I don’t remember much about it, except Grandma lifting down a bowl of beans or a pot roast that had been hiding there until dinner was served.
My favorite part of the kitchen were the pump and bucket that sat by the back door. The small pump sat in a wooden clapboard cupboard. The wooden bucket sat beneath the pump, and that bucket was kept full of fresh water with an enameled ladle hooked to the side. Being allowed to ladle out a drink of water was a great privilege for us cousins. A window above the pump looked out on the side porch and drive. Two windows across the kitchen faced out over the fields. Beneath those double windows were a kitchen counter and eventually a sink with running water. Grandma often stood at the sink, cleaning vegetables or washing up; she could look out over the fields of corn or wheat or potatoes, and she’d hold us up to look out as a pheasant or fox went ambling by.
All the windows were dressed in white curtains that were regularly washed, starched, ironed and rehung. There was linoleum on the floor, regularly scrubbed and waxed. A small pantry under the stairs next to the stove kept Grandma’s staples – flour, sugar, home-canned fruit and vegetables. With the items in her pantry, I believe Grandma could feed six people for a week without ever replenishing the larder. There was a lightbulb hanging from the angled ceiling of that little room, and I remember being amazed as fresh loaves of bread and jars of homemade jam were carried out by Grandma or her daughters and daughters-in-laws. Magic!
In my memory it was always summer in Grandma’s kitchen. Blowing curtains, the aroma of fresh-baked bread, and the squeak and gush of the pump splashing cold water into a wooden bucket.
Recently, my sister and I were laughing about Valentine’s Days of our childhood. Each year Mom would take us to the Kresge or Woolworth’s 5 & 10 to buy booklets of perforated Valentines. The large pages of the Valentines books each had 6 Valentines that we could very carefully punch out with the tips of the fingers. (Impatience would lead to one or two torn cards that had to be discarded.)
Nancy, my sister, and I would divide up the Valentines. Then began the tough job of choosing which card would go to which recipient. I seem to remember that in early February, our teacher sent home a list of the names of every student in our class. The purpose of the list was so we could be sure to have a Valentine for everyone. But, I hasten to note, not all Valentines were created equal – carried the same weight or emotional value. Giving a boy the doggie card (on the right above) would be embarrassingly forward. He would more likely receive a “Howdy, Pardner” card. While our best friend might get the little cocker spaniel with a special note in the red heart.
After addressing our cards on the back, “To Mary Alice, From Janice“, we began the really fun task of decorating shoeboxes to receive our Valentines. You see, on the day designated by our teachers for the Valentines party, we would bring in our Valentines for others AND a beautifully decorated, slotted shoebox as our personal mailbox. Before we commenced decorating, Mom would cut a slit into the top of the box – far too dangerous for us to undertake. Nancy and I would gather old wrapping paper, tissue paper, ribbons, buttons, lace, last year’s Valentines – anything we thought might be lovely as decorations. We would spend an entire Saturday before the party date preparing our Valentines Mailboxes. We had to carefully inscribe the boxes with our names prominently displayed so the correct Valentines would be secured in the right mailbox. Usually, we’d begin with swathing the cardboard box in pink or red tissue paper, carefully folding the ends and corners, gluing on the ribbons, lace, and buttons. We had to be careful not to glue down the box’s top, making it impossible to open the mailbox without destroying the decorations. That would never do! Even the inside of our Valentines mailboxes would be festooned with stickers, drawings, cutout pictures from magazines, whatever we fancied. (Of course, the boys’ Valentines boxes were never as pretty or interesting; sometimes they were even messy or unwrapped shoeboxes!)
At school, we would keep our Valentines mailboxes in our lockers until the end of the day, when they would be set out on our desks. (We sat at one desk all day and that same desk every day, so everyone knew where they could find us with notes, winks, or angry looks.) Finally, when the day’s work was completed, row-by-row, we would be allowed to walk around delivering our Valentines. BUT, we were not allowed to open our mailboxes until we got home from school. And so, we’d bundle up in our coats, mittens, hats, golashes, and, hugging our Valentines boxes close, trudge home through the snowbanks. Mom would have hot chocolate prepared, and we’d sit at the kitchen table and carefully open our boxes and spill the contents in a lovely, glowing pile of red and white onto the table. We’d read the names of each sender, just as though it was a huge surprise. And we would sigh and giggle at which Valentine each friend, or enemy, had chosen to send to us. (Of course, their parents had bought the same books of perforated Valentines at the 5& Dime.) When we’d looked at every one and weighed the significance of every message and picture choice, we’d put the Valentines back in the box and set them away… until some time when, alone, we would re-examine each card for any hidden message or meaning.
Ah, those were heady days, when all our hearts were so easily given and received.