This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills – Well, despite the date on the calendar it must be spring because the weather has been all over the place. Everything from tornadoes to daffodils, and we’re just turning the corner from February into March. By my count, spring is three weeks ahead of schedule, and I haven’t even ordered all my seeds yet. So I find myself saying a phrase that is no doubt being uttered right now by everybody in the Ozarks who grows a garden. “I’ve gotta get a move on.”
Easy to say. And the minute I said it this week, I went straight to some joke the old folks used to say about my get-up-and go having got up and gone, and that called into memory a poem that my Granny Gentry sent to my Aunt Juanita many years ago when Granny was in the Ozark hills of Missouri and her daughter Juanita was out in California working. Juanita found it so touching she copied it into the back of her cookbook for safekeeping. These many years later, when some folks look at my grey head and think I’m the old folks, the cookbook with the poem has come to me. You may also remember the poem. Granny’s version goes like this:
When I was young, my slippers were red.
and I could kick my heels up over my head.
When I grew older, my slippers were blue,
but I could still dance the whole night through.
Now I am old. My slippers are black.
I walk to the corner and puff my way back.
But in spite of all that, I’m able to grin
when I think of where all my “get-up” has been!
There are many versions, one even made into a song by Pete Seeger. All of them written by Anonymous. All of them referencing the dilemma of age, and how the older one gets, and the more one settles on the activities and interests that are the most, well, interesting to them, the less energy one can muster for the pursuit. Take gardening, for instance. This last week, in a bit of a dry spell, I had my garden worked up by a kind friend with a tiller, and over the weekend I turned it into a tidy little patch of raised beds. They’re not as wide as they used to be because I can’t reach as far as I used to, But they’ll do. And if I can get my back to bend a few more times, all those rocks I tossed to the grassy edges will go on my driveway where they belong.
Come summer, all that work will be done and it’ll just be the heat and the bugs and the heat and the watering and the heat to contend with. But not yet. Spring, on this warming planet, may be upon us ahead of time. But summer is still a ways off, and winter could return at any moment, or not. Meanwhile there is work to be done. Slow work for me. With rest stops. But good work, nonetheless, and welcome after a season of sloth. As I saw and hammer and nail together the rude boxes where soil will be sifted and amended and made friendly for carrots and other root veggies, my back kindly calls to my attention that the garden doesn’t have nearly enough benches. So while I hammer and saw and try to convince myself not to plant the beans yet because it’s too early, I’ll be looking for shady spots with the best view, just right for a bench. Most people would say, and some already have, that it’s too much work for a person of my years, that I should be taking it easy, and buy my beans at the store. But they evidently don’t remember the taste of beans, corn and potatoes fresh from the garden. There’s nothing that compares. I’m preparing for a season of gourmet fare, the kind the 99% can only afford if they grow it. We in the Ozarks have known this since way before anyone started counting the costs in percentages. And besides, this is the best of all times to be outdoors after the long dark days. The work, in fact, is merely the excuse to get out, and frankly, away from everything else that needs doing. Right now I’m in what might best be described as an ecstatic state, finding that particular joy that comes from escaping into my work, just as I do when I sing a song or write a line. And I relish being older. The truth is, I am finally old enough to recognize that life is not about recreation, but creation itself. Doing is sometimes the very best of being. Planting a row of peas is a splendid ritual. Hoeing corn and hilling up potatoes are meditations of the best sort.
Might I suggest, in fact, a short meditation on how it is that many so-called labor-saving devices advertised as being created to give us the gift of leisure only ended up serving to put somebody, sometimes us, out of a job.
So this is what it’s like getting old, at least today. So what if my hair has turned gray from all this thinking and doing. So what if my back requires both yoga and a pill or two to get all the way through the day in the garden. It’s a glorious day any day I can put my hands or my heart or my imagination to work, and best when it involves all three. This isn’t some kind of new-age practice or me going through a sudden manic phase. It’s merely that little smidge of wisdom as sometimes comes to us old hillbillies, if we live long enough. It’s not a new notion. Just an old one still worth celebrating by those of us who’ve survived long enough to appreciate it. As that wise hillbilly sage, Anonymous said in another poem from long ago:
My Grandmother on a winter’s day
Milked the cows and fed them hay
Slopped the hogs, saddled the mule
And got the children off to school;
Did a washing, mopped the floors
Washed the windows, and did some chores
Cooked a dish of home-dried fruit
Pressed her husband’s Sunday suit
Swept the parlor, made the bed
Baked a dozen loaves of bread,
Split some firewood, and lugged it in,
Enough to fill the kitchen bin
Cleaned the lamps and put in oil,
Stewed some apples she thought would spoil
Cooked a supper that was delicious
And afterwards, washed up all the dishes
Fed the cat and sprinkled the clothes
Mended a basketful of hose;
Then opened the organ and began to play
“When you come to the end of a perfect day”