Thursday, August 29, 2013

Echoes of My Grandmother's Garden

The sign said, "Please ring the bell." I reached for the cord and was seven again.

My two brothers and I had just escaped from the car where we had spent two days tormenting each other with words and looks. Six fugitive feet thumped the slate stones around our grandmother's porch and past the well to the dinner bell waiting on a metal pole next to her garden. We took turns pulling the thick wire and filling the garden with sound. We pulled to announce our arrival, we rang for the joyful noise of it, and we sounded a greeting to our cousins on the next farm.

My turn peeled across the wheat field, around the corner of the hen house, among the black walnuts in the woods, over the backs of the cows in the lane, and across the wooden bridge at the creek, which might have sheltered trolls. I let go of the wire and the tones slowed, softened to silence.

I hadn’t rung a dinner bell since that summer, when we spent six weeks on our grandmother’s farm while our dad went to summer school.

The bell that invited me to ring it this time perched on a wooden tower in a campground two thousand miles and many decades from my grandmother’s farm. I looked up at it through red geraniums, white alyssum, and blue trailing lobelia. U.S. and Washington state flags spread from opposite sides of the tower like wings.

This time, my peels disappeared into the s forest that threatened to swallow the campground. My hands itched to pull the cord again and again. I wanted to punch through the trees and bounce the sound off the trunks of the Doug fir and Sitka spruce, let it echo across hollow clear cuts, and send it cascading down the rocky gorge of the Little North River nearby. I overpowered the seven year old in me after two rings and forced my fingers to release the cord.

Long before I had an excuse to reach for the cord again, a woman in jeans a size I haven’t squeezed into since high school walked briskly around the corner of the bell tower. She wore a bucket around her neck made from a restaurant-sized tin can with holes in it for a string. Raspberries filled a third of the can and pulsed with sugar pumped into them by the summer sun.

"I’m glad you rang the bell," she said. "I was in the garden."

Ann introduced herself and opened the office. She told me that she and her husband shared the bounty of their large garden with guests. The blueberries weren’t quite ripe, but the raspberries were at their peak, and many kinds of greens were ready. Greens? I needed greens!

I had escaped Boise’s 100-degree bright summer for camping and hiking in the dripping moss and fairy tale fog of the Olympic Peninsula. Headed south on the coast highway, I struggled to keep my eyelids open against the pressure of a lumberjack-sized lunch. I squinted at the Washington atlas and saw an RV Park hugging the road in Artic, the town named through poor penmanship: the founder meant to name the place after his wife, "Arta," but a clerk misread his writing.

I sighed and heaved the atlas back onto the passenger seat. I’d been welcome in Olympic National Park, but private RV parks rarely allow tenters. The ones that do, banish fabric accommodations out of sight in the noisiest, muddiest/dustiest corner, closest to the highway or nestled in the corner where truckers unleash their Jake brakes. The manager of a park in Oregon told me why: "Our RVers don’t like tenters.”

I started camping when RVs were as rare as showers in a Forest Service campground. Our parents took us to Interstate State Park, near our home in Minneapolis. I was enchanted by the stiff, musty canvas pup tent our dad set up in the back yard for a trial run. Two end poles kept most of the heavy tent from collapsing, with the help of a tangle of oily jute ropes and muddy wooden stakes with flat mushroom tops.

As I ran on the trails and jumped in and out of the potholes at the state park, I dreamed about sleeping that night in the tent. I could hear the wind shaking the stiff canvas and smell the oily fabric. My first night outdoors! But our dad made up beds for my younger brother and me in the car. In the car? That wasn’t sleeping outside! I’d been in a car before. I salve that childhood disappointment every time I set up my tent or shake out my sleeping bag or on a sandy beach during a river trip.

I glanced halfheartedly at the Artic Park sign as I passed. So halfheartedly that I couldn’t read it all before it disappeared behind me. On my second pass, I read "Tenting" and "Bicyclers welcome" at the bottom. I pulled in and walked to the office. Next to the office was a bell tower.

As Ann told me about the park and garden, a grizzled Garrison Keillor lookalike came in. She introduced her husband, Roy, who seconded Ann’s welcome. I asked about the squirrel dashing up and down trees, slashing its tail and jabbering at me as if I’d parked in his spot. Roy said it was a Douglas squirrel; the two of them were on opposite sides of the War of the Bird Feeders.

Ann showed me the garden and invited me to pick a bowl of raspberries for my breakfast. She assured me she hadn’t gotten them all. “Everyone’s at a different height so they see different berries. But please leave the Cascade berries; we use them for wine.” I was welcome to Swiss chard, lettuce, and kale, plus oregano, fennel, and something lemony from the herb garden. "Anything but the foxglove," Ann summed up.

My grandmother’s garden stretched from the dinner bell to the field that was in wheat the year we stayed six weeks. My young eyes could hardly imagine an end to the garden. I wanted to dig my toes into the damp soil under the scratchy straw, but Grandmother kept the rows of tomatoes, green beans, carrots, lettuce, strawberries, and asparagus firmly mulched.

Gladiolas next to the fence by the hen house were the only nonedible crop. I can still see her walking into Quaker meeting, her determined stride, leaning forward slightly, with a slight hitch of age, carrying a sturdy blue vase of "glads.”

We kids didn’t know what good food was. Vegetables and greens were obstacles to consume so we could go back to playing with the toad in the back yard, messing around at the creek, or watching the hogs in the barn lot. Home-canned morels were weird looking and gross. Lucky for us, our dad didn’t trust his mother-in-law's skill at identifying ascomycetes: he didn’t want us eating those things. My mother and grandmother didn’t argue; they served themselves a few more.

In Ann and Roy’s garden, I picked a grocery bag full of greens and herbs, plus a bowl of raspberries for breakfast (berries consumed while picking not shown). A net bag made a great camp salad spinner. I added sliced baby carrots, olive oil, and lime juice for the perfect antidote to a lumberjack lunch. A beer catalyst brought complete recovery.

I was writing in my camp chair at dusk when a white truck pulled a trailer past my site and circled around to an empty spot. A man got out and walked to the office. A moment later, the dinner bell rang.

Roy walked over from the house to check the man in. In a splash of light near the bell tower, the men talked about traveling, trailers, and trucks. They talked so long that a girl, a little older than I was when I rang my grandmother’s bell, left the trailer and walked to the office.

She waited for a break in the conversation to ask, "Can I ring the bell?"

“Sure,” said Roy.

The sound spiraled up from the bell tower to the Douglas squirrel’s nest. He lifted his head, listened, then tucked his nose under his tail and went back to sleep. The sound bounced across the berry canes, the salad greens, and the herb garden to the forest. The trees didn’t notice the sound, but I did. She rang for both of us when she pulled the cord again and again.

As I got ready for bed, an invisible orchestra of crickets scratched away under a Milky Way I see so infrequently that it always astonishes me. I zipped into my sleeping bag and thought about the fresh raspberries waiting for me in the cooler.

I hope that girl has a grandmother with a dinner bell in her backyard and a farm with a creek beyond the garden. Or was that the first real bell she’d heard among the electronic beeps that crowd, fill, deafen, clang, bang, her life? Would she pick berries and greens in the garden the next day? Or does she only eat food from the grocery store?

I wonder if the girl longed to leave the trailer and sleep in a tent as much as I did on my first camping trip. Will she find the same magic in sleeping outdoors that I do? When I set up my tent for the last time, I hope she'll be doing the same thing somewhere, and thinking about her journey from joyous bell ringer to confident camper.


Note: In telling this story, I combined two conversations into one, to improve the flow.

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