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These Ozark Hills -the book
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This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. Since early spring, I’ve been spending lots of time out in the garden, and I thank you all for your patience while I’ve blabbed on about it. Every day amazes me, for I have actually managed to produce a patch about as big and as varied as I once could do, back before the twin gremlins of age and illness wrestled me to the ground and kept me there longer than I would have liked.
I learned a lot from that period of debility, not the least of which was that pride is a poor servant when it comes to attempting self-sufficiency without the means to accomplish it. Just that realization gave me a good many things to reflect on, such as the value of friends, the interrelationships of a community and extended family, and just that bedrock foundation of people who often don’t know you at all, but who are willing and able to take care of your needs – folks you may not even know about except at arm’s length, but they’re right by your side when you need them most.
Now I’m back on my feet, and can prove it by referring everyone to my little garden, which I’ve been doing shamelessly, even on-line. My reasoning, if pride needs a reason, is that I live some distance out in the country, and there’s just not all that many people who get to see it first hand. Shameless, I know. But how else am I gonna get to brag on my behemoth squash, that have now grown way past the good food and impressive vegetable categories and into those slightly menacing pale and misshapen orbs that lurk in the tall vine forest and give me odd dreams of how to process and store some 400 lbs. of Cushaws. An embarrassment of riches, indeed.
But now the summer’s in high swing so the garden work must be done before it just gets too darn hot, which leaves more time in the hot afternoons for some serious musing, planning the next morning’s chores, weighing what might be the best use of time, etc. And that’s what I was doing today, when I wandered off into thinking about the language we use, and how many meanings we can put into a single word.
Consider the word “Hand,” for instance. We can give or receive a helping hand or a handout, offer a hands-up, a handshake, or become the winner, hands down. It there’s a problem, we can handle it, sometimes singlehandedly. If it’s a skill, we can become handy at it, and if we’re working for someone, we hope they’ll consider us a good hand. If we don’t want to interfere, we can respect a hands-off policy. But if we’re sly, we might do something underhanded. If a cop asks for our ID, we’ll likely hand it over, whereas if we throw a baseball, we might want to do that overhand, In tennis, of course, we’re more likely to use the backhand. But in childhood, we try to avoid being backhanded, or given the back of the hand. it’s a questionable gift, as is the left-handed compliment. And isn’t the French word for coarseness or awkwardness, gauche, translated literally as left-handedness. I’ve always had a little trouble with that one, being a person of the left-handed persuasion.
At this point I must take a left turn and give a moment of thanks for the growing diversity that seems to be accompanying our increasingly complex global culture … a fact that can be demonstrated in the very nature of handedness. It used to be a given that right-handed was better, more correct. Tools like scissors were made specifically to be used with the right hand. When I was a child, my very knowledgable and well-meaning first-grade teacher was the Wanda Gray for whom a Springfield school was named. I knew even then she was going to be renowned, because on the last day of class I came back to the room to fetch some forgotten thing and found her crying at her desk because our little band of heathen children wouldn’t be coming back to her the next Monday. I never forgot that.
But I also never forgot that she was adamant, as was the custom of the day, that I learn to write with my right hand. And she would come around regularly and turn my paper the opposite way to encourage me. But I was firm in my conviction of handedness, and so now I write upside down with my paper turned the wrong way, and I like it just fine. Teachers, for the most part, don’t do that anymore. But I don’t fault Wanda Gray. Otherwise, as a teacher, I found her very even-handed in her judgments, and as was said of unfrivolous professional women in those days, she was to my child’s eyes quite handsome.
These days in the garden, of course, I take special pride in how much of the work has been done by hand, garden tools and the annual tiller notwithstanding. In the same way, I take pleasure in how many of the fruits of my labor are the creative kind, or as a craftsperson would say, they’re made out of hand.
But you know, of all these uses of that same small word, the one that makes me most uncomfortable, and the one I use least, is single-handed. While it’s true that what one makes of a life is through that one person’s choices, along with their skills and their smarts and if they’re lucky, their native Ozarks ingenuity. But not one of us does it alone. If you don’t believe that, wait until you’re older, and a little less handy, and find yourself in danger of becoming underfoot instead. There’s nothing like a little dip into frailty to recognize our human interdependency as well as our interconnectedness. That I am here at all is the result of countless hands, often the hands of strangers, who bore me up in my hour of need and brought me back to the garden. Before that journey into frailty, I’d have sworn I’d never need that kind of help. But that was hubris talking, that arrogant pride that makes us believe that if we don’t know a thing, then it is not worth knowing.
These days, I set my hands to brushing aside pesky pridefulness while my mind marvels at how small I am in the larger context, where each day I am privileged to have a small hand in the weaving of the single organism that is the garden and the gardener. This is Marideth Sisco, celebrating high summer in a life handmade, but far from singlehandedly, in these Ozarks Hills.