A row of giant sunflowers in my garden.

A row of giant sunflowers in my garden.

I planted giant sunflowers in my garden for the first time last year. Actually, that’s not completely true. Two years ago, I planted eight seeds, two in each of the corners of an eight-inch-high raised bed. When the giant stalks grew taller than me, I tied them to the vertical, mesh-covered frame that supports the sweet pea and string bean vines I grow in that planter each year. I only planted a few sunflowers at first because I didn’t know if they would grow for me. Plants teach me what to do and what not to do for them. They’re the best teachers and the only ones I’ve ever had. I learn the most from failure, but I relish the successes.

The Art of Gardening jumped a generation in my family, probably because Mom always worked forty-plus hours a week. On top of that, we moved every year, living in rental houses, which made having a garden of vegetables or even flowers an impossible dream. Not that it ever occurred to her to start a garden. The only thing I ever saw Mom grow was a split leaf philodendron. Every Saturday, she’d polish its leaves with a cotton cloth dipped in milk. She learned that by reading Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Mom was more an actress and entertainer than an outdoors type anyway. She could put on a great party but gardening was definitely not her thing.

I remember my Grandma on my dad’s side maintained a beautiful flower garden. I mostly remember the rose bushes. Every time we visited her Detroit brick home, she would be in the backyard pruning, weeding and deadheading, although I don’t remember her ever growing sunflowers. Her garden was more like a Monet painting than a Van Gogh. Our visits were usually too short for me to learn much from her about gardening, except that it required endless hours of work. I do remember on those occasional visits  learning how to bake cookies (Grandma let me pour the chocolate chips into the batter) and how to properly dust (she had me crawling beneath her dining room table with a damp cloth getting the bits from every crook and cranny).

Giant sunflowers

Living in rural Illinois for eighteen years has turned me into a huge bird lover. I mean, how could anyone resist falling in love with those colors: blue, yellow, orange and red and the striking combinations of black and white mixed sometimes with flashes of color. Growing my own seeds for the birds felt like a good idea. That and the fact that my husband loves to eat salted sunflower seeds spurred me to plant an entire package of giant sunflower seeds last year. I scattered the seeds along the northwest corner of the fence that we constructed to keep our German Shepherd from running off, chasing deer and turkeys and raccoons. Now he just barks at them.

Anyway, the entire garden did pretty well last year, except for the tomatoes. The individual spray heads on the rink-y-dinky irrigation system that we installed clogged instead of watering the seven brick circles that contained the tomato plants. The drought took them fast and I finally gave up, too busy picking strawberries and raspberries, peas and beans, broccoli and a whole slew of red peppers (my favorite for salads, sandwiches and veggie pizza).

Sunflowers taller than me.

Sunflowers taller than me.

The sunflowers did pretty well too except for when they drooped into some of my other beds. The weeds grew in and around the sunflowers because I didn’t mulching heavily enough. Both flowers and weeds grew taller than me and I’m 5’7″ (I use to be 5’8″ but old age made me shrink an inch). Horsetail weeds are famous for shooting up in one growing season as tall as the one-story buildings.

I never figured out just how or when to harvest the seeds. Plus, I was intimidated by the sunflowers’ thorny, thick stalks and their heavy root system anchoring them into the soil. A slew of them, maybe thirty or forty, had grown from seed with no help for me except for the moisture they received from the soaker hose. So I decided to just leave them for the birds. (That sounds like something my mom used to say!)

Seeds to be harvested.

Seeds to be harvested.

I did cut off two or three sunflower heads and stuck them inside to air dry. I was hoping Greg would help me shuck them (not sure if that’s the right term, but it works for corn and it’s the best I’ve got without taking the time to Google it). They sat there all winter. I never got around to dealing with them and neither did Greg. I guess he doesn’t like eating sunflower seeds as much as I thought.

When Spring came, the sunflower stalks were still standing tall in the garden. I waited until after a rainy day, then headed out to pull them up–roots and all. I broke off all the heads and threw the stalks in the burn pile. After I’d finished, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the heads. I couldn’t just toss them out with most of their seeds still attached. They made it through the entire winter. (I guess the birds weren’t that hungry either.) So I put them in a basket in the house. They ended up in a room that opens onto the back deck. The space serves as a pool room in the summer and a plant hothouse in the winter. Like most miscellaneous catch-all spaces, it tends to get cluttered.

Seeds remain Last week, with a few more days of Spring left to cram in a little more cleaning, I went to work moving and throwing out and organizing the stuff in that room to uncover the drafting board. I wanted to make a place to maybe do some art. I found a shelf space for the basket full of sunflower heads (still sitting there, untouched) thinking I might use them as a model for a still life drawing or watercolor. (We’ll see if that ever happens.)

While finishing the cleaning in that room today, I found a few handfuls of sunflower seeds in the bottom of a perfectly useful bucket. The black and tan striped slivers had dislodged from the heads when I moved them into the basket, along with the chafe that holds the seeds in place while they grow. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. I couldn’t just throw out perfectly viable seeds. But I needed to use the bucket elsewhere.

I didn’t need the seeds in the garden, because the ones that fell to the earth had already sprouted and I was transplanting them into buckets (one of the reasons I needed that bucket with the loose seeds in the bottom). Once the new sunflower plants were moved, I planned to whack away the weeds and mulch the bed before replanting the sunflowers.

Since I couldn’t decide what to do with the loose seeds, I set the bucket on the table until I finished cleaning.

After running around organizing for an hour or so, I needed some rest. So I sat down with a couple of bowls. The empty one was for the seeds. I dumped the contents of the bucket into the other bowl and, with a waste basket near by, went to work separating the seed from the chafe by hand, one seed at a time.

As I picked each seed out of the bowl, I wondered how this was done commercially. No one would ever make a penny selling sunflower seeds at the rate I was going. Probably some vibrating conveyor belt I decided. But how about in the ‘old days’ before machines and factories, when men hunted and women gardened, raising wheat and corn and veggies. Did some Native American or pioneer woman harvest seeds in the way that I was doing it right now sitting in my living room? I had to ask myself why I was taking the time to do it this way. Why couldn’t I just throw it all in the trash? I mean, I’m a conservationist, but isn’t this taking it to an extreme that is, well, quite frankly, ludicrous?

Dried Sunflowers Then I figured out why I was doing what I was doing–to keep my hands busy while I rested. I’m not very good at resting. Perpetual motion used to be the norm. But with aging and bad knees and too many pounds added a few every year over the last thirty years of marriage, I can no longer maintain a constant pace.

Doing something with my hands helps me sit still. When I crochet in the winter or pick these seeds out of the dried up plant material like I am now, my laser focus and my rhythmic hand-motions become an energy-renewing meditation for me. It’s almost a spiritual experience. I never would have thought when I first planted those sunflower seeds that they would become a lifesaver for me.

Now you may think I’m exaggerating by saying they save my life. I am known to fluff up a story from time to time. But not this time. You see, I’m just old enough to do stupid stuff when I’m tired–like fall and shatter my wrist or wreck the car when I’m driving. If I don’t take the time to rest every day–several times a day, in fact, I find some way to hurt myself. If I were tired enough, I might just do myself in, accidentally of course.

So, the birds may enjoy a few seeds, and Greg might eventually take the time to soak the seeds in salt water and put them in the dehydrator (I think that’s what needs done to them to make them edible, but again, I need to take the time to Google it) but in the end, the sunflowers are best used to put me into a restful meditation while shucking the seeds.

Ah, the joys of aging. What I do to get through each day amazes even me.

What’s your ritual when you need to take a break?

My Big Brother Mike

Mike at work in his studio

Mike at work in his studio

I always knew my oldest brother Mike was an artist, but I never imagined him as a soldier. Going to war seemed to conflict with his gentle nature.

Growing up in Michigan near the lakes 1955

Growing up in Michigan near the lakes 1955

The three of us grew up living in lake towns outside of Detroit. Dad worked as an auto engineer. Any time my brothers and I weren’t in school, we’d be in or near the water, swimming out to the raft, boating to the best fishing spot, skating with friends in winter or crammed into a tiny shack with three lines dropped through a hole in the ice.

We all had a flair for the dramatic, with Mike leading the way. He raced cars, even built a three-window coup and a dune buggy out of parts that looked like junk.  He played the drums in a boy-band in 1960 with hair like Ricky Nelson wearing a tailored gray silk suit and a smile that could melt any girls heart.


Mike & Sherry at Lake Mead 1961

Mike & Sherry at Lake Mead 1961

When we lived in Kingman, Arizona Mike purchased his first car, a powder blue clunker with a white rag top. When summer came, he would sometimes take me and our brother Chuck to Lake Mead for a day in the sun. As soon as we arrived, he’d drop us at the beach and disappear into a surge of adoring teenage girls.  Mike was tall, 6’3″ with blue eyes as deep as the Pacific Ocean. That summer, he started collecting a series of girlfriends named Sherry, charming them by calling each his Sherry Baby, singing Frankie Valli’s song to them like they were the one and only love of his life.

Ready to race!

Ready to race!

We moved back to Michigan during Mike’s senior year of high school. On weekends and during the summers, Mike worked at the local Chevy plant where both our parents worked. His job allowed Mike to take out a loan for his first, brand new car, a metallic red Riviera. Mom’s white Riviera and the matching silver blue one Dad brought home as a company car made our driveway look like a patriotic commercial for Chevy.

Mike heading to Army Reserve Basic Training 1964

Mike heading to Army Reserve Basic Training 1964

Mike graduated from high school in 1964 in Flushing, Michigan. The draft was still active and the war was heating up. Unwilling to go to college to avoid being drafted, he joined the Army Reserves and headed to Ft. Hood. After he completed his basic training, he came home to study art, playing soldier on weekends. He spent a year in LA, then came to Peoria, Illinois in 1967 where Dad was working for Caterpillar and I was finishing high school. Ready to settle down, Mike married a girl he’d only known a month.

"My Flac vest and M-60 machine gun"

“My Flac vest and M-60 machine gun”

Soon he learned his wife was cheating on him. Unable to face it, he ran away, signing on with the regular Army, volunteering to fight in Vietnam.  It was the first of three tours he would choose when his life became unbearable.

Mike never talked much about his time overseas but I know he built a strong bond with his fellow soldiers while terrible things were happening all around them. I could see it in the photos he sent home. Despite the sniper fire and napalm being dropped from helicopters, the boys had time to dance to the Beach Boys and surf at the beach, packing into his short life the best and worst experiences a young man could never imagine.

Our parents getting divorced in 1968 angered Mike, sending him back to Vietnam because it shattered a core belief. He finished his second tour in Fort Hood in the Military Police.  Determined to stay out of Vietnam, he became a civilian cop in Austin, married again and had two kids, a son and a few years later, a daughter. We lost touch with each other as our lives pulled us in different directions. So I have no idea what happened to send him back to Vietnam in 1974, first in the Air Force. In 1975 he joined the Marines, where he spent his last two years in the service.

My big brother and I reconnected in 1980 when I returned to LA after my divorce. Mike had found the love of his life, marrying for the third and final time. After living in the Valley for almost a decade, he and Judy adopted two babies from Honduras and moved to Tehachapi, CA. Although he worked during the day as an engineer building bombs for the war, he pursued his art on weekends, building an art studio. He spent hours in that attic above the garage throwing paint onto large canvases in homage to Jackson Pollock, showing his work in local galleries and museums.

What he went through in Vietnam would haunt my brother for the rest of his life. He survived the battle with those demons through his love of art and his love for his wife and four children–until he died in 2001 from cancer due to Agent Orange exposure overseas.

From the day my big brother first taught me how to draw a face when I was twelve, I wanted to be an artist like him. I followed in his footsteps, taking up a paint brush and going to art school. Eventually I moved into sculpting clay and working with fabric and threads. I ended up with more art education than Mike ever thought about getting–all because I wanted to be as good as he was, so he would be proud of me. I think in the end, I accomplished that goal, though I have many more I have yet to achieve for myself.

Mike, Chuck and I in 1990

Mike, Chuck and I in 1990

Mike also shared with me his joy of being a parent. I never had children of my own. Just before he died, he gave me his two twelve-year-old children to finish raising. They’d lost their mom only eight months before. I became a first time mom at the age of 51. Mike died when he was 56.

The kids interrupted my career in art, but changed me in ways I can’t yet measure, moving me into a life of writing, working to fulfill my need to get it down and figure it out. Now, with the kids off making their own lives, I work to merge my art, my horses and my writing. Some days I feel like I’m twenty-something, still trying to figure my life out.

Of the three things that most shaped my life, two came to me from my big brother Mike–art and kids. My love of horses is the one I claim as my own.

Mike’s been gone almost twelve years, but whenever I pick up a brush or see a painting, I feel his presence. I miss his jokes, his teasing and his laughter, and give thanks for all that my artist/soldier brother gave me.

Remembering my glamorous Mom on Mother’s Day

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom. Even in a kiddie pool, she was glamourous.

In response to Maria Shriver’s question, “What gift did your mom give you?” I must answer, INTUITION and EMPATHY.

I lost my mom six years ago, but since I’ve been working on my memoir over the last four years, we’ve had daily conversations with her (no, I’m not crazy. I talk with the mom who lives in my head, along with all my other characters, real or imagined).

In my everyday life, I find myself saying words in ways she had said them, her voice coming from my lips.  She’s an integral part of my life, existing in my head and my heart, as well as in all the things around me that once belonged to her. I especially feel her radiance when I do things that would have made her proud, like becoming a writer in order to share my family’s adventures.

In addition to empathy, she taught me grace under fire and a confidence to respond to change and tragedy.  We had plenty of both, first with moving, (20 times that I remember by the time I graduated from high school) and then when we lost both my brothers (at ages 49 and 56).  Mom was the last to leave this world, lingering for years after a massive bleeding brain hemorrhage.  Even in her disabled state, with difficulty walking and talking, she made sure the kitchen was clean and the laundry was done.  She was a perfectionist when it came to having a beautiful home and stayed in her home until her last breath.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18.  This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18. This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.

My mom exuded beauty. She was often asked to walk the runway for charity fashion events.  Heads would turn in any room she entered, not only from her looks, but from her zest for life, an enthusiasm that she radiated.

Mom loved people. She loved to hear their stories.  Strangers would reveal their deepest secrets and be healed by her empathy and compassion.  She never judged nor said an ill word about anyone in all of her days.

Mom knew how to laugh and when she laughed, we all laughed with her.  She’d be goofy, not worrying about how she appeared as long as it made people happy.  I learned late in life that she was smarter than she let on. She once explained that it helped the men in her life feel important. She never needed to compete, always turning any spotlight on her toward their talents and ideas.

“I don’t have to express my opinion,” she would say. “I know what I believe and that’s all I need.  I don’t need anyone to agree with me.  They can have their opinion and I have mine.”

Scan 12

Mom didn’t age. She just grew more vibrant. We were mistaken for sisters even after she turned fifty.

Her courage surprised me. Mom was in her late fifties when she managed a large apartment complex in LA. At the request of  the police, she helped capture drug dealers, nonchalantly handing over packages that had arrived in the mail and landed on her desk with detectives waiting in the next room to make the arrest. Mom was thrilled to help put away anyone who might involve her college-student residents in their illicit drug business.  She was telling me the story of her latest caper while the two of us were having dinner out one night. Afterward, she and I were walking from my car toward the elevator in the secure garage under her apartment building when she saw a shadow of a man lurking in the back.  Without a thought for her own safety, she pushed me behind her and charged forward, yelling, “You’d better get out of here before I call the police.  This is MY PLACE and I won’t let you harm anyone.” My mouth dropped open as I saw the figure disappear out a back exit. I’d never seen my mother so fierce.  She became a mother bear protecting her cub.

She was the ultimate mother, willing to help any needy person she came across. But she always put her children first, especially her only daughter–me.  I was her pride and joy, she would say. I was glad she was able to attend both my college graduations, first in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I received my BA when I was thirty-seven, then again at UCLA for my MFA three years later.  A college education was something she was never given the opportunity to earn, working from the day she graduated high school.

She’d wanted to be an actress, but having children kept her from having the chance to appear on Broadway.  She did garnish a leading role in several amateur productions, but for me, Mom was aways playing the role of a lifetime. Life was her stage, and she was always at her best, dressed to the nines, perfect hair and makeup, full of humor and wisdom.

I feel her with me everyday, especially when I toss back my head in laughter, like she used to do. When I’m unsure of where life might be leading me, I trust in myself and in all the wisdom she bestowed on me, confident that everything will work out somehow, just like she always said it would.