The first day of summer vacation came early the year my son started school. A week before the last day of first grade, John David came home with chicken pox, bringing with them the calamine lotion, Benadryl, and Aveeno baths. He was miserable, and wanted stories, especially tales of my own chicken pox experiences. That took me back to Jernigan, almost forty years before.
Pink mimosa puffs and purple clusters of kudzu, delicate chinaberry blooms and heavy-hanging bunches of wisteria took their turns in a kaleidoscope of changing images and smells that marked the boundaries of our yard. Behind the house was the orchard of tall pecan trees, older than anybody living, and alive themselves with the movements of squirrels and the calls of crows. On one side of the house was a rye grass field; on the other was the garden plot that must have been somebody’s garbage dump years ago because it yielded an endless offering of shards of old, colored glass: medicine bottles, iridescent jars, pieces of carnival glass vases, mismatched shapes from broken pottery. These unearthed treasures, when polished by the imagination of a child, became gems and precious stones lost from exotic swords or the turbans of Arabian princes. There was no limit to the fantasies that were bought with sparkly fool’s gold
When I was six years old, an ancient soul named Easter Williams lived in a two-room weatherboard house in the trees behind our yard. She lived to be 103 years old. The year I had chicken pox, she was in her nineties. Easter took a special interest in my family. She had known my father since he was a baby. She had known his mother, who died at the age of nineteen, when he was only six weeks old. She and my great-grandmother rocked away the afternoons of their old age together. They fanned the heat and gnats with Jesus fans, rocked away boredom in wooden rocking chairs, placed strategically beneath the chinaberry trees, so they could see everyone who passed on the road while keeping as cool as the southern summer sun would allow.
Easter still called my daddy “Baby.” She called me “Little Miss.” “Baby,” she insisted, when I came down with chicken pox, “you get Little Miss up and bring her over to my hen house. We got to let a hen fly over her so she won’t be scarred.” When Daddy didn’t give in to her superstitions, she set in on Mama. Every day for a week, Easter banged on the backdoor with her walking cane until she finally convinced Mama that I’d be scarred for life if a hen didn’t fly over me while I still had the scabs. “That little face is too pretty to end up scarred,” she insisted.
Hemmed up in a tiny hen house. Chickens in panic, scurrying around to protect their biddies or their own necks. What if one pecks me? The sound of wings. A rushing mighty wind. A hen has flown over my head.
My great-grandmother died when I was twelve; Easter followed when I was fourteen. For years, her house stood empty, but was kept standing as a place for storage. Although the house was never painted, someone fixed the roof at some point and then sprayed it silver. I remember how the silver paint had gotten in the trees overhead, making their leaves look like coins jangling in the breeze. Even with Easter and the chickens gone, there seemed to be a life about the place. Years later, the house was torn down – or maybe just fell in – and only the chimney was left. Then the chimney went, too, probably the victim of the kudzu that had held the house together in the last years that it had stood. My childhood lingered a few more years, coming most alive in the summer.
Summer evenings brought out the lightning bugs with their magical sparks and the frogs that lived in the branch behind the house would start up their throaty chorus. Waves of fragrant gardenia so thick they were almost solid would float through the window screens. I’d sit up alone and watch the late late show – The Phantom of the Opera, The House on the Haunted Hill, The Curse of the Cat People – and then read Nancy Drew or Judy Bolton mysteries until the eerie crepuscular sounds – owls? mourning doves? – weighed my head down into the ticking of the thick feather pillows and spirited me off to dreamland.
The next morning would arrive for me around noon. Daddy would’ve been at the store for five or six hours already; Mama would have picked the garden and already be at the stove cooking tiny butterbeans or peas, corn, okra, and cornbread to be served with sliced tomatoes, curly hot peppers, and homemade pear relish. She would frown when I asked for a cup of coffee before I ate the feast she had worked on all morning while I dreamed.
Too soon, I’d be going to bed at seven-thirty, getting up at dawn to ride a cold, yellow school bus for nearly two hours down county road after county road into town to attend city school where chalkboards would replace orchards and facts memorized by rote would peck at the imagination like a jaybird after a butterfly. The tiny butterbeans and fresh corn I’d thrived on all summer would be replaced by huge canned English peas that smelled like earwax and chinaberries, puffed hominy grits, whole-kernel yellow corn so tough it would choke a horse, and other starchy, government surplus foods. No wonder so many first graders threw up their lunches. The spell of childhood broke with the beginning of school every year; the magic disappeared. And every year it was harder to recapture. Until finally, it was gone.
It didn’t come back until John David.
So my son wanted to let a hen fly over his head like I had done. He was beginning to feel better and the blisters had started to scab over. I argued that Easter’s story was just an old folk belief, that an Aveeno bath would do better.
“Where are your chicken pox scars then?” he wanted to know.
“I don’t have any,” I had to admit.
“See!” he grinned, knowing we would be going to Jernigan in search of a chicken house before the week was over.
My family’s house hadn’t changed too much over the years, but the sounds and smells of evening no longer drifted through windows permanently closed by burglar alarms and storm glasses, and central air didn’t carry the odor of gardenias. The pecan orchard still felt like a wise old soul, though.
While we were in Jernigan in search of a hen, John David played under the pecan trees the way I had done decades earlier. And he found a huge diamond – bigger than any Tiffany’s has to offer – where the old garden plot used to be. It was lying there, sparkling on the ground, refracting the noonday sun into a thousand rainbows. It was probably a piece of an old Avon bottle, but we felt the magic. It reaffirmed my belief that there is salvation in Imagination, a guardian spirit hiding in the fields beside the house, watching from the tall rye.
photo credit: Sincerely Media, Unsplash