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Sunday, May 11, 2008

How Iraq's Sand Is Like Iris--Mother's Day 2008

Below you will find the letter I sent to my grandson after receiving from him a bouquet of iris on Mother's Day. It seems very private but then it occurred to me that it is also very American, about generations and love and really, what our soldiers are doing over there or -- if that doesn't describe the way they're thinking about it now -- then it may be about what they thought they would be doing over there. He is serving in the tradition of his father, his grandfather, his Cousin Joe, his Great Uncle Bob, and Great Uncle Jim, and another Great Uncle he has never met, Doug. Veterans all.

Dear Travis:

How I loved the flowers on mother's day, though the sand you mentioned from Iraq's deserts--unblooming ones I must presume--would have been adequate. It's the thought.

As it turns out, the flowers were iris. So, if it's the thought that counts, they made me think.

Your great, great grandmother Ruth Howard (the one who is a main character in This is the Place) raised iris. Raising iris is different from planting iris or just having some in your yard. She had a patch of them just beyond the side yard where that huge Mormon family sat in Adirondack chairs. There were some 40s /50s style metal lawn chairs there, too, a tad rusted. And the clothesline. I think it was made so the ropes could be taken down during family parties but those ropes were supported by poles where wasps liked to build their nests. They were cozy homes for the wasps, hollow with nice little holes for them to ease into and out of. Good hiding places. One never saw the actual nests, only the comings and goings. Once I leaned against one of their entrances (or perhaps exits). Someone didn't like it much and he (or she) stung me in the armpit. That's the first time I noticed the holes were there. Before that they had just been good places to hang from your knees.

Anyway, beyond that yard, all nice and green and shaded by an apple tree that put out the bitterest, hardest, greenest apples of all time, was the iris patch. Beyond that the chicken coop. Chicken manure made very good fertilizer for the iris so it was nice and convenient. Grandmother putzed in that patch. She crossed iris with iris to see what she would get. A little pollen from this applied with her finger to the female organs of that. She also tried for size, I think, because her iris were huge, as big as the biggest California-grown grapefruit. And the colors. Some had mismatched petals, the top ones that curved up different from the ones that made a skirt. Some glittered in sun like mica. And not just the color of Van Gogh's irises. Oh, no. Much too plain. These came in pink and gold-orange, the color of sunsets. Blues and lavenders, the colors of Utah skies in summer.

Grandma liked to give tubers (for they are tubers, really, and not bulbs) to people who came to visit for she kept them nicely divided so they didn't lose any of their energy and life. By dividing them her iris she kept them forever young. It worked that way for Grandma, too. Because she was always busy and interested in something she remained feisty and fun until she died in her 90s. The olds woman in Hollday, Utah at the time.

Getting a tuber from Grandma was a treat. It was always a surprise the following spring to see what color would come of those roots that looked like giant rat turds. Grandma produced miracles with her iris.

You did, too. (-:

Grandma Carolyn

PS: You can see that iris have been influential in my life. The cover of one of my book's of poetry (co-authored by Magdalena Ball) is covered with iris, courtesy of an artist friend, Vicki Thomas.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson wrote the foreword for Eric Dinyer's book of patriotic quotations, Support Our Troops, published by Andrews McMeel. Part of the proceeds for the book benefit Fisher House. Her chapbook of poetry won the Military Writers Society of America's award of excellence.


Kristi Holl said...

I understand how thrilled you were to hear from Iraq. Oddly enough, just before I read this post, my daughter called from Baghdad to say Happy Mother's Day. I was so surprised to hear from her--it's the middle of the night over there. It took some finagling for her to figure out how to call--but OH it was good to hear her voice. We are blessed today!

Nicole said...

How sweet!

And speaking of angles, I think you really got me today. The grandmother in the garden with her iris...made me want to read your book (my list is sooooooo long right now!) because you writing of her reminded me of how I thought of my grandmother...and your memories brought back memories of my outdoor childhood...wonderfully fond memories.

Thank you, and Happy Mother's Day again! =)

Kathe Gogolewski said...

And our young men and women in Iraq each dserve their own bouquet of Irises!(Incidentally, I had to look up the plural of "iris," because I noticed you did not use "irises." Turns out they are both in use today: "Iris" is used for both single and multiple plants of iris, and "irises" is used for multiple blossoms. I also read that "iris" can mean one plant or a collection of individual plants, and "irises" means a collection of groups of iris. Sounds like the English language, eh? There can be more than one interpretation! Once again, Carolyn, you got me hoppin'!